Posts tagged ‘movies’

January 1, 2019

“Helena. Der Untergang Trojas” (1924)

Helena

Silent Movie
Directed by: Manfred Noa
Run Time: 219 minutes (Der Raub der Helena is 100 minutes and Die Zerstörung Trojas is 119 minutes)
Starring: Edy Darclea (Helen), Vladimir Gajdarov (Paris), Albert Steinrück (Priam)

Synopsis: Helena. Der Untergang Trojas – titled Helen of Troy in English although the German title translates to Helen: The Fall of Troy – is made up of two movies, originally released separately: Der Raub der Helena (The Abduction of Helen) and Die Zerstörung Trojas (The Destruction of Troy). As described on the DVD cover, the film is “an unjustly forgotten classic epic of the German silent cinema in a newly reconstructed and meticulously restored version. Shooting in Munich and its surroundings with an international cast, director Manfred Noa told the story of Helen of Troy and the decade-long war between the Greeks and the Trojans.”

My Thoughts: Finally, my silent movie obsession makes an appearance on this blog!

I get the impression that most people today have little experience with silent film beyond perhaps having watched one or two poorly preserved comedy shorts played at the wrong speed to mismatched music. Odds are those comedy shorts didn’t look or sound like that when they were originally released, and Helena. Der Untergang Trojas doesn’t look or sound like that either. It’s a big-budget, three-and-a-half hour serious epic with a cast of thousands. For some years, it was believed to be lost, as too many silent films have been, but I’m thrilled that it was found, reconstructed, restored, and provided with a new musical score. Since its 2016 DVD release, I’ve watched it four times.

My favourite thing about this movie is how it looks. Every costume, prop, and set is so detailed, and every frame makes such good use of foreground, midground, and background, that the resulting world feels populated and real. Although silent film is usually accompanied by music, it’s primarily a visual medium, and this movie demonstrates that extremely well. It’s full of gorgeous and moving shots like Hector approaching a hilltop altar against a background of decorated trees while Paris, who Hector thinks is dead, offers thanks to Aphrodite unseen on the other side, or Achilles praying desperately for Patroclus’s safety at a small shrine while women go about their daily chores behind him, or Priam ordering a huge crowd out of the throne room only to remain there alone, a small, helpless figure dwarfed by the room’s oversized architecture.

Helena also makes use of special effects to represent visions or nightmares. The bold use of light and shadow in the Judgement of Paris sequence or the scene where Helen and Paris first meet is reminiscent of more famous German Expressionist films. There are also some small moments taken straight from the Iliad, such as when Achilles pours dirt over his head at the news of Patroclus’s death. Viewers hoping for details accurate to the archaeological record may be disappointed – this movie moves both the Knossos throne and Mycenae’s Lion Gate to Troy – but I’m happy just enjoying the sheer visual richness on display. I suspect I could watch this movie twenty more times and still notice new things going on in the background.

Although Helena generally follows the usual story of the Trojan War, a decent amount of creative license is taken with the lead-up to the war and the relationships between the characters. I really enjoy the different dynamic that’s created by having Helen and Paris meet in a mysterious and isolated temple before either knows who the other is, and by having them arrive in Troy before Paris knows he’s a prince. I also think the way the Trojan royal family breaks apart as the end of the movie approaches is really interesting – Helen is torn between the Greeks and the Trojans, Paris is torn between Helen and Priam, and Priam loses his grip on his sanity as he’s forced to face the fact that his decisions have brought about the destruction of his city. The result is a series of dark and hopeless scenes that somehow makes the destruction of Troy feel even more final than usual.

The majority of the expected scenes are also executed well, but if I have one criticism of this movie it’s its portrayal of Achilles. Helena‘s Achilles constantly gets angry at the smallest insults. His motivations throughout the movie are his crush on Helen and the wreath he won in a chariot race that for some reason she still has eight years later. He agrees to return Hector’s body not because he and Priam reach a shared understanding, but because he wants to exchange it for the wreath. Achilles in this movie just comes off as so petty and petulant, which is not my preferred reading of the character.

The only other criticism I have is less a criticism and more a daydream. The musical accompaniment on the DVD is provided by a piano and a percussion section. This score is never bad or distracting, and in some places it’s quite good – I like the drums that accompany the Paris vs. Menelaus fight and the marimba (I think it’s a marimba?) that accompanies the more supernatural sequences like Priam’s nightmare. But surely an epic of this scale would be best accompanied by a full orchestral arrangement? I would absolutely love to see that someday.

Helena. Der Untergang Trojas is a fascinating, visually stunning adaptation of the Trojan War story and I absolutely recommend it. While of course I would love to see it grow in popularity among fans of Greek mythology on film, I especially hope that, now that it’s easily available, it will grow in popularity among silent film fans. I would love to one day hear it mentioned in the same breath as more famous German silent films like Metropolis (1927) and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). I may be biased, since Helena is a retelling of my favourite story, but I daresay it can stand alongside them.

Watch it: At the time of this posting, Helena can be watched in full on YouTube, although with no subtitles available for the German intertitles.

Buy it: Helena is available on a two-disc DVD set from Edition Filmmuseum Shop or Amazon.de. The intertitles are in German; subtitles are available in English and French. This is one of the best physical releases I’ve seen for a silent film outside of the Criterion Collection – it comes with a 20-page booklet (only a few pages of which are in English, but you can still enjoy the pictures), digital images of pamphlets from the 1920s when the film was released throughout Europe, and over an hour of alternate takes and different cuts of the same scenes. It seems Helena followed the silent film trend in that different versions of the movie were released in different international markets – and some of the versions are really different! I really enjoyed checking out all of these DVD extras.

Please note that the DVDs, although region-free, are PAL format. I couldn’t get them to work in my North American DVD player, but I was able to watch them on my North American laptop with VLC Media Player.

Screencaps: Below are five screencaps from the movie that I took to give you a small taste of what it looks like.

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April 15, 2018

“Troy: Fall of a City” (2018)

Troy: Fall of a City

Miniseries
Run Time: Eight one-hour episodes
Starring: Louis Hunter (Paris), Bella Dayne (Helen), Jonas Armstrong (Menelaus), Joseph Mawle (Odysseus)

Watch: the trailer
Watch it on: Netflix, BBC iPlayer (region-locked and for a limited time)

Synopsis: Searching for the woman promised to him by Aphrodite, herdsman Paris learns his true identity and falls for Helen of Sparta, igniting the Trojan War. (Source: Netflix)

My Spoiler-Free Thoughts: It has been pointed out that movies about the ancient world tend to be released in batches following some kind of change or technological innovation in the movie industry. Trojan War screen adaptations fit quite neatly into this pattern, and the adaptation for the current age of big-budget, on-demand TV shows is Netflix and the BBC’s Troy: Fall of a City. The series’ eight-hour run time allows for the inclusion of characters and events that are often cut from Trojan War movies, but don’t look here for a straight adaptation of the mythology. The show provides a fresh look at several characters, a new take on some of the main events, and an entirely new subplot. All this — plus the show’s focus on the characters instead of the battles — makes Troy: Fall of a City feel very different from previous Trojan War screen versions, and I absolutely loved it. It’s not perfect — sometimes plot elements are forgotten about from one episode to the next, the story stumbles a bit near the end, and I’m a little iffy on the new subplot — but the music is great, the acting is solid, the sets and locations and costumes are beautiful, the last episode holds nothing back, and overall I just really enjoyed seeing such a fresh take on my favourite story and the characters who inhabit it. It’s been fourteen years since the last big-budget Trojan War screen adaptation, and, for me at least, Troy: Fall of a City was worth the wait.

My Thoughts WITH SPOILERS!: Apparently this is the year I learn to love Paris because, as with Shin Toroia Monogatari, my favourite thing about Troy: Fall of a City is its Paris.

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November 5, 2017

Mario Camerini: “Ulysses”

Ulysses

Movie
First Released: 1954
Run Time: 115 minutes
Starring: Kirk Douglas (Ulysses), Silvana Mangano (Penelope, Circe), Anthony Quinn (Antinous), Rossana Podestà (Nausicaa)

Synopsis: This lush adaptation of Homer’s grand epic the Odyssey stars Kirk Douglas as the hero Ulysses. After victory in the Trojan War, Ulysses embarks on a ten-year journey back to his kingdom. But before he can reunite with his beloved wife (Silvana Mangano), he must defeat the brutal Cyclops, escape the spell of Circe who turns his crew into swine, and outwit the Sirens who lure sailors to their death. Peril is everywhere — even at home, where the arrogant Antinous (Anthony Quinn) plots to steal Ulysses’ wife before he can complete his final quest in this powerful tale of heroism.

My Thoughts: The eight-episode miniseries Troy: Fall of a City is due to hit the BBC and Netflix next year and I am pretty ridiculously excited. Thinking that I should stop wasting that excitement on constantly refreshing the series’ IMDb page, I decided instead to watch some of the older Trojan War-related movies that I hadn’t seen. First up, Kirk Douglas makes his second appearance on this blog (following his role as Peter in Mourning Becomes Electra), this time as the star of the 1954 peplum Ulysses.

Douglas’s Ulysses is hard to get a handle on. We first see him for just a split second during a flashback to the fall of Troy. Then we see his meeting with Nausicaa, where he has lost his memory. (I’m not sure why the filmmakers introduced this idea and I’m not even sure what the in-story reason for it is supposed to be. His memory returns with equally little reason.) After a bit of that, we get a flashback to Ulysses and his men as they almost humourously stumble upon the cave of the Cyclops. This movie gives us three different introductions to its main character and he acts differently in each one. This is a problem that continues throughout the movie — sometimes Ulysses wants to go home, sometimes he wants to go on an adventure, sometimes he’s desperate to keep moving, sometimes he’s content to stay in the same room for months. Not to say that you can’t have a Ulysses with contradictions — of course you can — but this movie feels like a highlight reel of the Odyssey, jumping from scene to scene with little care taken to ensure that they fit together as a whole. Ulysses doesn’t seem to change because of his personality or his experiences; he changes to suit the filmmakers’ plans for whatever scene is up next. The editing is abrupt, Greek names are mixed with Roman names (Zeus and Athena but Ulysses and Neptune), and the Cyclops scene doesn’t even include the “Nobody” ruse, which was an odd surprise.

Another thing that stood out to me is how much in this movie happens offscreen. It’s true that I don’t really need to see the Cyclops’ eye being stabbed, but when Ulysses shows up in Ithaca talking about how he just spoke with Athena? That feels like an odd scene to leave out. Definitely the biggest offender comes in the very last moment of the movie, when Ulysses is about to finally embrace the wife he hasn’t seen in twenty years, and — he steps offscreen. End movie. Roll credits.

What kind of movie gives the hero his happy ending but doesn’t let you see it?

Thinking about this scene made me curious, so I went back and rewatched the two scenes where Ulysses and Penelope converse, and I discovered that the two characters are only in the same frame for a grand total of about eight seconds. And it happens at the end of the scene where she doesn’t even know it’s him! I don’t know if this has something to do with the fact that this movie was filmed with Douglas (and Quinn) saying his lines in English and everyone else saying their lines in Italian, but it’s baffling! We don’t even get one nice shot of the reunion to cheer us up after the bloody homecoming scene.

Perhaps I shouldn’t rag on this movie so much when almost everything above is something I thought of after I finished it. I enjoyed it while I was watching it! The story moves quickly and the sets and costumes are well done; I especially liked Circe’s sparkling outfits. The effects used to make the Cyclops are also pretty good, if a little uncanny valley at times. Silvana Mangano plays both Penelope and Circe, which is an interesting idea. I thought the Siren scene was surprisingly good — just one long take of Ulysses as he panics because he believes he’s sailing away from Ithaca — and Ulysses’ reunion with Telemachus was as moving as his reunion with Penelope should have been. Rossana Podestà, who would play the title role in Helen of Troy two years later, brings a calm but youthful energy to Nausicaa that I really liked, although the English language version of this movie can’t decide how to pronounce her name. I also liked Anthony Quinn’s scheming Antinous and wouldn’t have minded seeing a little more of him.

So that’s Ulysses. Pretty uneven, but not awful. Although to be honest, I think it’s the type of mindless movie where, if I hadn’t watched it with the intention of reviewing it, I already would’ve forgotten about it.

Buy it at: Amazon.com, Amazon.ca

November 22, 2014

Mini-Reviews #2

In Search of the Trojan WarMichael Wood: In Search of the Trojan War

Documentary Series
First Released: 1985
Run Time: Six 60-minute episodes.

My Thoughts: In In Search of the Trojan War, historian Michael Wood travels through Europe and Asia in an attempt to answer the question of whether or not the Trojan War really happened. I really have nothing to say about this documentary except that it is absolutely the best documentary I have seen on the subject of the Trojan War and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in anything related to Greek mythology or archaeology. I’ve seen it enough times that I’m sure I could sing you the synthariffic theme song and I still find it a great watch. The series is almost thirty years old and its age does show (I especially love the parts where Wood has to push several buttons AND A LEVER in order to change the picture on a computer screen), but it still has a ton of great information presented in an interesting and enthusiastic way. In an interview filmed for the DVD, Wood talks about how he didn’t want to just tell viewers his conclusions – the series really is set up like a search, and one of my favourite things about it is how Wood shows how details that seem not to be related at all can sometimes turn out to be a major source of information.

Of course I also enjoy all the shots of the archaeological sites, and I especially love the parts where Wood isn’t afraid to use his basic Greek on camera!

Also, at one point there’s a shot of our young host lying shirtless in bed, and it makes me laugh every single time I see it because yes, this is a documentary with fanservice.

Buy it at: Amazon.com, Amazon.ca

~*~

Mourning Becomes ElectraDudley Nichols: Mourning Becomes Electra

Movie
First Released: 1947
Run Time: The full cut seems to have been 175 minutes; I watched the 159-minute version released on DVD.
Starring: Rosalind Russell (Lavinia), Michael Redgrave (Orin), Katina Paxinou (Christine), Kirk Douglas (Peter)

My Thoughts: I loved Rosalind Russell in The Women and His Girl Friday and I loved Michael Redgrave in Dead of Night, so when I learned that they had starred together in the film version of the Eugene O’Neill play based on Aeschylus’ Oresteia I immediately had huge expectations. The first time I watched the movie, it didn’t live up to those expectations at all. The main thing that bothered me is that there is so much talking. I’d probably have an easier time accepting this from a stage production, but in a movie I guess I expect more showing and less telling, and it certainly didn’t help that a lot of this dialogue is delivered in the most overdramatic fashion possible. Luckily, I rewatched the movie about a month later, and enjoyed it rather more than I had the first time. The overdramatic dialogue was much easier to accept when I knew it was coming, although I still wish the movie had taken better advantage of being a movie. To me, one of the most effective sequences is the nearly silent stretch at the beginning when Lavinia is spying on Christine.

Like the Oresteia, Mourning Becomes Electra is made up of three parts, in this case titled “Homecoming,” “The Hunted” and “The Haunted.” Easily my favourite of the three is “The Haunted,” in which Lavinia and Orin attempt to move on from all that has happened. Although there are no Furies to torment this version of Orestes, it’s hinted quite strongly that Orin, who has just returned home from fighting in the Civil War, is suffering from PTSD; I really like the early scene in which he talks about his belief that war involves killing the same man over and over again. Later in the movie, the portraits of Orin and Lavinia’s ancestors take on the role of the Furies, and even the house itself seems to become a source of danger and evil. I loved all of this; it allows the events of the movie to remain realistic while preserving the supernatural spirit of the story it’s based on.

In the end, I like this movie all right, and it was interesting to see how O’Neill played with the story, but I remain hopeful that one day a really great movie version of the Oresteia will be released. I would also like to gain access to the parallel universe where I can watch the version of Mourning Becomes Electra that stars Olivia de Havilland as Lavinia. I wonder which of these wishes is the more realistic.

Watch: the first forty minutes, two minutes from “The Haunted”

August 2, 2014

Three Movies I Wish I Could See

1) Elektra (2010) (video link)

Based on the Electra of mythology as well as the Eugene O’Neill adaptation “Mourning Becomes Electra,” this is an Indian movie in the Malayalam language that has yet to be released due to a dispute over its distribution. I was a little disappointed by the 1947 film version of Mourning Becomes Electra and would love to see a different director take on the story, so hopefully we’ll be able to watch this sooner rather than later! Above is the trailer; also on YouTube are “Arikil Varu,” “Ekakiyaayi” and “Let’s Dance,” the three songs on the film’s soundtrack. More information can be found on Wikipedia.

2) The Iliad With Zombies
Everything I know about this “low budget film project” I know from its TV Tropes page. Apparently it was on YouTube for a time but now it is not. The only other evidence I’ve been able to find of it ever existing is this text-only trailer and a recommendation for the fanfic that it may or may not have been based on, which is also unavailable. The amount that I want to see this movie is pretty ridiculous considering that all I really know about it is that it apparently contains super anachronistic lines like the following:

Patroclus: “Basically, this is turning out a lot like To Kill A Mockingbird … but with a lot less black people and a lot more spears.”
Odysseus: “Maybe you should have left a trail of breadcrumbs before starting off down that metaphor.”

I’m sold.

3) From the Word & Film article “8 Shakespeare Adaptations That Don’t Exist (And Their Directors)“:

Another atonal play, [“Troilus and Cressida”] vacillates between romance, sex comedy, and war play, mostly following the plots and hijinks of a few different characters without a unified plot.

Director: Sir Ridley Scott — the Trojan War represents a huge gap in Sir Ridley’s filmography. Hopefully he could flatten the play’s dissonance of tones, finding a balance between love, revenge, and madness the same way that he did in Gladiator (2000).

MAKE IT HAPPEN, HOLLYWOOD.

May 7, 2014

Jon Solomon: “The Ancient World in the Cinema”

The Ancient World in the Cinema

Non-fiction
Pages: 326
First Published: 2001 (revised and expanded edition)

Synopsis: This entertaining and useful book provides a comprehensive survey of films about the ancient world, from The Last Days of Pompeii to Gladiator. Jon Solomon catalogues, describes, and evaluates films set in ancient Greece and Rome, films about Greek and Roman history and mythology, films of the Old and New Testaments, films set in ancient Egypt, Babylon, and Persia, films of ancient tragedies, comic films set in the ancient world, and more. The book has been updated to include feature films and made-for-television movies produced in the past two decades. More than two hundred photographs illustrate both the films themselves and the ancient sources from which their imagery derives.

My Thoughts: As the synopsis says, this book sets out to catalogue, describe and evaluate every non-documentary film that fits into one of its chapters: Greek and Roman History; Greek and Roman Mythology; the Old Testament; the New Testament; Babylon, Egypt, Persia, and the Ancient Orient; Ancient Tragedy and The Satyricon; Ancient Comedy and Satirized Ancients; and the Muscleman Epics. This includes films silent and sound, American and overseas, Hollywood and made-for-TV. Although it’s a little out of date now (the most recent movie it mentions is 2000’s Gladiator), the book’s large scope ensures that it remains a fantastic resource for anyone interested in the genre.

I do want to mention that this is not a book I recommend reading cover-to-cover unless you feel particularly inclined to do so. Before I started reading it, I expected it to be a book of film analysis, but it really isn’t. The closest it comes to analysis is in the muscleman chapter, where Solomon attempts to describe the plot of every muscleman film in one go. The rest of the time, depending on how much he has to say about a particular film, he’ll introduce it, talk a bit about what went on behind the scenes, describe the plot and any scenes he finds especially important, comment on how the film compares with what we know of the history it’s based on, and then give his evaluation. (If you want to skip all that, you can flip to the list of film titles, ordered by subject, in the back of the book.) Absolutely this book is a great resource, but it makes for dry reading if you try to read it all the way through. I also think that the fact that Solomon started this book in the 1970s really shows in the way he describes the films. Now that it’s easy to watch movies at home, it isn’t necessary for an author to devote three pages to a thorough description of the chariot race from Ben-Hur. If Solomon decides to release a third edition, I think it would make sense to shorten the scene summaries for movies that are widely available.

One thing I do really like about this book, however, is Solomon’s stance that “historical accuracy and artistic necessity belong to different families.” He has no problem praising a historically inaccurate film if he feels it’s successful as a film – a breath of fresh air when so many people seem to believe that “this movie deviates from its source” is the exact same thing as “this is a bad movie.”

Since this is a Trojan War blog, I should perhaps mention that pages 103 to 111 and 263 to 268 are the pages to check out for movies about the Trojan War and its aftermath. I was surprised to learn that there are a few I haven’t seen yet! I’m really looking forward to watching them, as well as more than a few other movies introduced to me by this book, which I definitely recommend as a solid reference book for anyone interested in movies about the parts of the ancient world that it covers.

Buy it at: Amazon.com, Amazon.ca