Interview: Peter Berg on The Kingdom

September 7, 2007

With the country now in its fifth year of a war against Iraq, filmgoers have shown more interest in documentaries about terrorism than features. Films like Syriana and United 93 received strong reviews, but failed to find an audience. The Kingdom, a Universal release directed by Peter Berg, approaches the subject from a more commercial angle. Scripted by Matthew Michael Carnahan, the story follows a team of FBI agents investigating the bombing of an American base in Saudi Arabia.

“We wanted it to be a different experience,” Berg says by phone from his office in Los Angeles. “We wanted to make a more accessible story about the Middle East, to not overly politicize or intellectualize the situation there. First and foremost, lead with strong action.”

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Hong Kong films at BAMCinématek

August 16, 2007

In its heyday, the Hong Kong film industry turned out over two hundred feature films a year, comedies, romances, musicals, and dramas as well as martial arts pictures. Last year, that number dropped below fifty. Former linchpins –stars like Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Maggie Cheung, as well as writers and directors like Wong Kar-wai and John Woo–have either moved to other countries for work or retired outright. The industry has been in a free-fall since the handover in 1997, in part due to doubts about mainland China’s demands. But even before the handover, triads infiltrated production companies, siphoning off profits while releasing inferior movies that infuriated audiences. Piracy was simply the last straw. Movies are routinely available for download or on bootleg DVDs before they open. Even the pornographic film market has suffered.

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Profile: Barbara Stanwyck Centenary

June 4, 2007

What made Barbara Stanwyck a star? Her looks helped, of course, but there were scores of beauties who never got out of the chorus line. She could sling it as well as any other sexpot, but even in her loosest roles she held something back from her costars, and from her customers. She tapped into the neuroses that helped define film noir, but she played her most famous femme fatale as an icy blonde who was as dismissive of her new lover as she was of the victim he was replacing.

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Interview: Johnnie To on Election and Exiled

June 1, 2007

Since the handover in 1997, no Hong Kong filmmaker has been as consistently successful and influential as Johnnie To. An increasingly prominent figure on the festival circuit, the fifty-three-year-old To has had trouble cracking the United States market. But the release this spring of his three most recent films, Election, Triad Election, and Exiled, may finally bring him the recognition he deserves.

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Interview: Luc Besson on Angel-A and Arthur

June 1, 2007

Luc Besson, one of the most powerful figures in French cinema, once told a reporter he would quit directing films after he completed ten features. Now, with the release of the animated Arthur and the Invisibles and the opening in the United States of Angel-A, the director has reached his limit. Picking at a plate of berries and crème fraîche in a hotel bar overlooking Battery Park in downtown Manhattan, Besson chooses his words carefully when talking about his future.

“I’m finished,” he starts. “I’m scared of saying the same things over and over, and at the same time I have less ambition or passion. Even athletes have to accept that one day they can’t keep beating their records.” Besson has worked almost non-stop for thirty years, and collapsed twice on the set of his previous directing effort, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc. He claims to be satisfied just writing and producing films for his EuropaCorp production company. Then he offers a qualified hedge: “If tomorrow I fall in love with a script, if I have a new purpose, if I have something fresh to say, if I can take on another three-year project, then maybe I will decide to direct again.”

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Interview: Jon Landau and James Cameron on Avatar

June 1, 2007

With the science fiction adventure Avatar, director James Cameron fulfills his promise to bring the 3D movie experience to a wide audience. The film marks the culmination of years of work with 3D, including developing the Fusion Camera System in order to film the large-screen documentaries Ghosts of the Abyss and Aliens of the Deep. Still, doubters outnumbered believers when Cameron announced in 2003 that his next fiction feature would be shot and released in 3D.
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Vitagraph Films at MoMA

November 2, 2006

Although New York City was the first center of the film industry, almost nothing survives from those early years. The Biograph studio on Manhattan’s Fourteenth Street, where D.W. Griffith perfected his craft, is long gone, as are studios erected in Westchester and Fort Lee. Surprisingly, one of the earliest studio complexes is not only still standing, but is still being used in part as a production facility. From November 9th to the 13th, the Museum of Modern Art celebrates the centennial of the Vitagraph Studio in Brooklyn with Vitagraph: The Big V on Avenue M, a series of representative films from the studio.

The company was formed in 1896 as American Vitagraph by British immigrants J. Stuart Blackton and Albert E. Smith. Its first successes were largely faked documentaries and travelogues, such as a view of Niagara Falls that was actually shot in New Jersey. Blackton directed one of the earliest fiction films, The Burglar on the Roof, in 1897, but for the next ten years the studio struggled to survive while fending off a series of lawsuits from rivals like Thomas A. Edison. At first Vitagraph sold its films outright to exhibitors, but in 1905 Blackton and Smith realized that they could earn more money by renting their films to “exchanges” that would take over the tasks of delivering and picking up individual films.

The producers’ decision to concentrate on making films instead of distributing them happily coincided with a boom in nickelodeons, which grew from a handful to thousands within two years. Since programs changed twice a week, theater owners were desperate for product. That August, Vitagraph started work on a new studio in what was then a largely rural area of Flatbush. When it opened over a year later, the Vitagraph Studio spread between East 14th and East 15th Street and between Avenue M and Locust Avenue in what is now called Midwood. It was a state of the art facility that offered glass-enclosed stages, a tank for water scenes, a self-contained laboratory for processing film, and areas devoted to editing, props, and costumes.

The building gave Vitagraph an edge over rival studios, one that it exploited with high quality films. Vitagraph appealed to upscale viewers with films based on literary heroes like Raffles and Sherlock Holmes, but also delivered crowd-pleasing car chases, trick films, and slapstick. With their large sets and lavish production design, Vitagraph films looked better than those from other studios. Blackton experimented with animation and stop-motion photography, and was one of the forces behind Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo (1911), one of the landmark early cartoons.

With The Life of Moses (1909), the studio may have released the world’s first feature film, although it was originally shown in five separate parts. There’s no disputing that Vitagraph was one of the key players in developing the “star” system. Florence Turner, better known to filmgoers as “The Vitagraph Girl,” is just one of many performers the studio nurtured. Others who started out at Vitagraph include Norma Talmadge, Rudolph Valentino, Adolphe Menjou, and John Bunny.

Spotlighted in a half-dozen films in the series, Bunny grew up in Brooklyn before touring the country in a minstrel show. Over the years he became an actor and director in legitimate theater, working with stars like Maude Adams. In 1910 he left the stage for Vitagraph, and within the year became a sensation in a series of comedies. Over a five-year period Bunny made almost two hundred shorts, predominately comedies but some dramatic works as well. Weighing close to three hundred pounds, and with a florid, expressive face, he was an expert mime and an even greater judge of comic timing. Dressed in a suit and vest, he is like a Tenniel drawing brought to life, and wearing a straw hat, drink in hand, he is a clear inspiration for W.C. Fields. In films like Stenographer Wanted (1912), Bunny is a revelation, playing with a restraint and intuition rare for his time. He was often paired with the gaunt, shrewish Flora Finch in domestic slapstick like Bunny Backslides (1914), which features an extended visit to the old Washington Park baseball field, home of the future Brooklyn Dodgers. Since dialogue didn’t have to be dubbed or subtitled, the actor was especially popular overseas, but sadly succumbed to Bright’s disease in 1915.

After writing and directing The Battle Cry of Peace, which imagined New York City invaded by foreign terrorists, Blackton withdrew from day-to-day operations at Vitagraph. The executives who replaced him made a crucial miscalculation by failing to establish a chain of theaters to show the studio’s films. Apart from comedies starring Sidney Drew and Larry Semon, Vitagraph floundered in the 1920s. Warner Bros. bought the company in 1926, and used the Flatbush complex to film many of its Vitaphone sound shorts. The original building eventually became the site of Warners’ Ace Film Laboratory before being sold to Yeshiva University High School in the 1960s. It is now being used as the Shulamith School for Girls.

Warners built a studio across the street from the Vitagraph complex at the end of the 1920s. NBC bought this building in 1952. It was used for everything from Mary Martin’s version of Peter Pan to The Cosby Show and Another World. Since 2000, it has been the site of JC Studios. Currently the space is being used to shoot As the World Turns, a soap opera that is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary.