"Last I checked they were my films. I'm gonna work on my films," said Ted Turner near the beginning of These Amazing Shadows. He's referring his acquisition of the MGM film library in 1986 and his subsequent efforts to colorize black and white classics from King Kong to A Star is Born -- efforts that essentially gave rise to The National Film Registry.
These Amazing Shadows is the new, engaging documentary -- love letter, actually -- of the birth of the Registry and also the rise of American filmmaking; an empirical window into our history that the Registry was created (thanks, Ted!) to protect, study and preserve.
Turner's spoiled-brat, reckless handling of the uniquely crafted visions of artists who, in many cases, weren't alive to defend their cultural timepieces was a catalyst for the idea of the Registry, along with impassioned filmmakers going before Congress. Woody Allen, Sydney Pollack and even Jimmy Stewart, in a meta-Mr. Smith Goes to Washington moment, all pled for the integrity of American film history.
Piece It Together.
Established as an arm of the Library of Congress, under the National Film Preservation Act of 1988, The National Film Registry has inducted over 550 films based on the criteria that they are "culturally, historically or atheistically significant". A film's only other tenet for consideration is the "10 Year Rule", meaning the film in question has to be at least ten years old in order to prove what its impact on the culture might be.
This induction process is hammered out by a committee of what amounts to hardcore film historian nerds, a somewhat chaotic affair, that can ultimately insure a films place in history. Beyond that, the Registry has the facilities to restore and preserve those films for future generations.
These are all things I knew, but These Amazing Shadows strong suit is in getting anyone excited and aware of the symbiosis of film history and our national identity. Art is a reflection of life and film, whether entertainment or art, is often the most immediate and historically undervalued. And it's already been lost to a shocking degree.
Half of the American films made before 1950 no longer exist. The bulk of the silent era will never be seen by anyone again. That it took until 1988 for the Registry to come to be is almost absurd. The studios themselves were probably the biggest contributing factor to the death of cinematic history, either by improperly storing negatives (or just destroying them) to the censoring of the films themselves. Of course, film anthropology attracts a rarefied kind of geek.
And they work at the Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation, underneath the Library of Congress. Some of These Amazing Shadow's most illuminating moments are with the dedicated archivists who work to sort, identify and -- if it proves salvageable -- reclaim cinematictime capsules from the throes of decay.
George Willeman, the nitrate vault manager -- nitrate film preceded the celluloid and is highly flammable -- for the Registries Conservation arm takes the filmmakers down to the vaults, a temperature controlled bunker housing an irreplaceable wealth of sometimes incendiary history.
Directors Paul Mariano and Kurt Norton, manage to incorporate a fairly wide scope of film history and cultural analysis into a tightly-packed, economical bundle that won't bore the casual film fan and will likely keep film buffs enraptured. Culling from interviews with filmmakers as diverse as Chris Nolan, Pixar's John Lasseter and trash queen John Waters, critics like Leonard Maltin (ugh) and Mick LaSalle (yay); producers like Gale Ann Hurd (The Terminator) and a host of others, These Amazing Shadows gets right to the heart of the importance of the American cinematic tradition.
The mission of the Registry sometimes not only helps bring a film back from the dead, but sometimes in bringing an "entire" film back. A fine example is Babyface. Released in 1933 this story of a young, Depression era, hottie who uses her goods to get what she wants was edited to tone down the more sexual and exploitive themes.
Archivist Willeman, in going through the old reels, found a first reel for the film that was significantly longer. He had unknowingly discovered a nitrate copy of the film before it was chopped up by the studio, and reclaimed its original vision for audiences almost 80 years later.
But what about 500 years from now? The registry's formation was a response to the loss of so much of the birth of American cinema to the ravages of time (and the meddling of Ted Turner). But what about the new wave of films? Those that aren't shot on film at all (the Ten Year rule now makes room for plenty of digital filmmaking)? How does anyone guard against digital degradation? How does one "restore" ones and zeros? These Amazing Shadows doesn't shed much light on such questions.
But overall, it's a fine, revealing, and delightfully interesting documentary on a subject of great importance (especially if you're a film geek). But even for the average film goer, These Amazing Shadows exhibits some great scenes from movies in the Registry's collection. A collection which, thanks to the ten year wait, winds up being a closer measure of the greatest American films in history than the Academy Awards have ever proven to be.
Style over substance. That's always been a problem with Indian director Tarsem's work. The guy shoots sometimes crushingly gorgeous looking movies. But, if you've seen The Cell, you've seen exactly how the films arty, detailed and wonderfully alien design aesthetic can't make up for the inconsequential, narrative emptiness and silly stylistic posturing.
Immortals, Tarsem's new foray into the silly as hell, would be fun if it weren't so goddamn boring, tale of Greek legend is more of the same, though with the added bonuses of the awful miscasting of Stephen Dorff as a Grecian thief and Mickey Rourke wearing a death-metal bunny helmet and growling his way through his bad guy role like a drunken dock worker sleeping in a ships hold.
Rourke plays Hyperion, the King of Crete, who seeks to release the Titans and set them to War against the Gods -- you know Zeus, Poseidon and the rest -- and ultimately destroy all humanity (you can never think too big). To accomplish this, Hyperion must find the Epirus Bow which he can use to set the Titans free from their prison under Mount Tartarus. He pillages his way across Greece for fun while looking for an Oracle, Phaedra (Freida Pinto gets nekkid!) who can tell him the long hidden location of the powerful weapon, created by Ares himself. Hyperion will stop at nothing.
But, as is so often the case for raping, pillaging warlords, Hyperion becomes the architect of his own demise after he murders the mother of Theseus (Henry Cavill), thus creating a mortal enemy of someone who, it turns out, is "touched" by the Gods. Throwing the boy to his slaves, Hyperion doesn't see destiny coming -- they never do -- when Theseus escapes bondage with his new, wise cracking, thief-buddy (Dorff) and conveniently joins forces with the Oracle to find the Epirus Bow himself and thwart Hyperion's brutal onslaught.
And yes, that's boring.
The most fun to be had with Immortals is in the silliness of the casting. Dorff is truly a head scratcher, not even trying to look like he's taking any of this seriously (and good for him). Tarsem has said he wanted to do Greek myth in the anachronistic style of BazLuhrmann's Romeo + Juliet. When thought of that way in comparison to the finished film, it would seem the only things Tarsem forgot were the great story, smart writing and engaged actors.
Immortals is a beautifully shot mess, though the cheap costuming is made apparent under Tarsem's visual polish, which somehow amplifies the silliness of it all.
But it still can't overcome the rote, dull and slack scripting or the obvious narrative holes as some of the films connective tissue clearly hit the cutting room floor. Tarsem moves his paper-thin characters around on a chess board, based on seeming whim and the need for coincidence, with little regard for narrative flow, not unlike some mischievous Greek God. But the editing makes it feel as though whole sequences are missing. How did Theseus loose the Bow only to have it wind up in Hyperion's grimy mits? It just happens.
This would be fine if there was much action; or if what action exists were shot in such a way as to be remotely comprehensible. Aside from a few nice slow-mo shots and one great sequence that finds the Gods annihilating some bad guys by exploding their heads the bulk of Immortals is expository and dull, relying on its admittedly great art design and photography to make up for the feeling that there's nothing much going on here.
Cavill is a generic hero, Pinto is as emotive as wallpaper and Dorff can barely resist smirking at the film. Mickey Rourke underplays his scenery chewing. Either that or he's bored, too.
Exploding heads, though!
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