Every month, Establishing Shot brings you a selection of films from our group of regular bloggers. Even though these films aren’t currently being screened at the IU Cinema, this series reflects the varied programming that can be found at the Cinema and demonstrates the eclectic tastes of the bloggers. Each contributor has picked one film that they saw this month that they couldn’t wait to share with others. Keep reading to find out what discoveries these cinephiles have made, as well as some of the old friends they’ve revisited.
Jesse Pasternack, contributor | Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)
One of my favorite directors from the first half of the twentieth century is Rouben Mamoulian. He had a brilliant eye for creating visually dynamic images that always furthered the stories he was telling as opposed to overwhelming them. One such film which shows off his gift for creating fascinating works of cinematic art is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), which is full of exquisite shots and great performances.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous novella Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It tells the story of Dr. Henry Jekyll (Fredric March) and his potion-based transformations into the amoral and lascivious Edward Hyde (also March). Hyde indulges his monstrous appetites by engaging in an abusive relationship with singer Ivy Pierson (Miriam Hopkins). Eventually, Dr. Jekyll will be forced to reckon with the crimes Hyde has committed, with tragic results.
Mamoulian shows off his innovative eye for cinema from the beginning. Instead of the objective and static shots which were very common for that time period, Mamoulian starts this film with a series of shots from Dr. Jekyll’s point-of-view, several of which are mobile tracking shots. He goes on to continue to develop this film’s visual style in intriguing ways which range from impeccably framed extreme close-ups (two of which he brilliantly cuts together to convey the intense connection that Dr. Jekyll shares with his fiancée) to early versions of split-screens which draw parallels between characters who are acting similarly. This film isn’t very visually inventive for every second of its running time — there are still a lot of shots which last for a long length of time before a cut, like in conventional films from that time period — but it does have more than enough scenes which demonstrate Mamoulian’s inventive imagination as a director.
In addition to its visually dazzling sequences, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde boasts fantastic performances from its talented cast. March is superb as both Dr. Jekyll and Hyde, and his take on Hyde’s lively approach to being evil is especially memorable. Hopkins is devastating as Pierson, and the scenes she shares with Mr. Hyde are as fierce and terrifying as they were when this film was first released. There are certain moments of Hopkins’ performance — particularly a reprise of a song she used to sing — that left me astonished.
I’ve loved all of Mamoulian’s films that I’ve seen, especially his musicals Love Me Tonight (1932) and Silk Stockings (1957). I adore his great ability to craft innovative shots and make films which remain visually dynamic decades after being released. He brings his considerable skill to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to make it a cinematic delight that is full of excellent performances which still have the power to shock and scare. It remains worth watching over 90 years after its release.
Note: a trailer couldn’t be found, so here is a clip from the film.
Jack Miller, contributor | The Wind (1928)
This month, thanks to the terrific programming being done by Chicago Film Society, I was fortunate to see a 35mm print of Victor Sjöström’s The Wind (1928), one of the greatest silent films, with live pipe-organ accompaniment by Dennis Scott at the Music Box Theater. The film, like Roberto Rossellini’s much later Stromboli (1950), sees a woman leaving her home to go live in a harsh, rural environment, wherein she encounters a kind of interior desolation, a gradual degradation of spirit which matches the severity of her new surroundings. In this case, the woman is played by the legendary Lillian Gish, one of the sublime faces of cinema, and the environment is the expansive desert of West Texas, with its unceasing and maddening winds. Just the sight of Lillian Gish in a movie can make me emotional, and here she gives one of her finest and most emotionally subtle performances.
The Swedish auteur Sjöström (who made The Wind at MGM during a brief stint working in the United States) is known as an early master of the landscape film, with a reputation for using natural environments as physical reflections of the human mind. For me, though, the spaces of The Wind become more complex and mysterious than mere reflections of individual personhood — they remain disquieting and unknowable, imbued with the scars of settler colonialism. (The untamable “north wind” becomes symbolized here in the image of a wild, spectral, white horse, superimposed across the desert sky.) In his capsule review of The Wind, Kyle Westphal calls the film “a monument in spite of itself — not a work of pure form, but an intemperate physical artifact, an unyielding ruin.” Part of the strangeness of the work emerges from Sjöström’s decision to film something that’s inherently undramatic — the wind and dust itself — and to do so with obsessive frequency and attentiveness over the course of the film, gesturing the work toward a kind of uncommercial experimentalism. The savage poetry of the film bears resemblance to the great tradition of nineteenth-century American literature, though this is also an uncompromising and demanding work of total cinema.
In lieu of a trailer, here’s a fantastic clip of Lillian Gish introducing The Wind, filmed in the ‘80s to accompany the laserdisc release of the film:
Michaela Owens, Editor | Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (2022)
When Knives Out was released in 2019, I was immediately obsessed. Every single element struck the right chord for me, as if writer/director Rian Johnson had looked inside my brain and knew exactly what I would love. The idea of Knives Out becoming a franchise — especially one handled by Netflix — made me a little reticent, but I also knew that I needed infinitely more Benoit Blanc in my life, so I’ve been holding my breath these past few years, anxious for the arrival of the sequel to one of my favorite films… and, friends, it was worth it.
Glass Onion is exactly what I wanted: hilarious, sharp, gorgeous to look at, witty, surprising — a near-perfect follow-up to its predecessor and a clever subversion of the whodunnit in ways I should’ve seen coming but still didn’t. The cast is phenomenal; the sets and costumes are fantastic (Blanc’s swim outfit — not swimsuit, swim outfit — is everything); the celebrity cameos are almost too much but I also can’t stop thinking about two of them because they’re just so delightful; and the mystery is, of course, brilliant.
I cannot wait for this film to drop on Netflix on December 23, the timing truly befitting what a holiday gift it will be for all of us.
Laura Ivins, contributor | My Own Private Idaho (1991)
The ’90s (and early 2000s) loved Shakespeare: wide-release, commercial productions featured major stars performing the Bard’s original verse (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet); a reimagining of Shakespeare’s romantic life won an Oscar (Shakespeare in Love); and several directors moved these classic stories out of 16th/17th-century Europe and into American high schools and small towns (10 Things I Hate About You; Scotland, PA).
Gus Van Sant’s 1991 My Own Private Idaho is an early example of this cycle of interest in Shakespearean source material. Van Sant fused the Henry IV & V plays with a 1960s novel about male sex workers. Keanu Reeves plays Scott Favor (based on “Prince Hal”), a trust fund kid slumming it on the streets while he waits for his inheritance. His best friend Mikey (based on “Ned” and played by River Phoenix) has narcolepsy and hustles because he needs to. In Henry IV, Prince Hal is a major character and Ned is secondary, but in Van Sant’s film, Mikey/Ned is the protagonist. We follow him through love and rejection, hope and exploitation.
Van Sant modernized the language and setting, but the performances are highly theatrical. The actors overenunciate and sometimes speak directly to the camera in asides. William Richert’s interpretation of Bob Pigeon (based on “Falstaff”) is particularly stylized to feel like a stage play. In addition to crisp enunciation, he gestures broadly and fills the set with his presence.
Not all critics appreciated Van Sant’s approach when the film was initially released, but it has stood the test of time as a classic example of New Queer Cinema and is a standout in River Phoenix’s sadly brief filmography.
Noni Ford, contributor | Another Round (2020)
The Danish film Another Round sounds like a comedy based on its description alone: four schoolteachers make a pact to drink copious amounts of alcohol each day in order to test if it will improve their lives. While each friend is living a relatively comfortable existence, there are components in each of their professional and personal lives that have been less than ideal. Although they decide to make it somewhat scientific by setting parameters and basing this initial idea on a study they read, it also seems wildly fun and at first they all revel in the illicit nature of drinking at work and sneaking alcohol into various places. Soon enough, though, they actually begin to see improvements in their lives and, happy with the success of their experiment, they continue to increase the limits of their alcohol consumption. The first half of the film is a more lighthearted comedy, but the second half in contrast is a sobering drama as we see the friends deal with both the fallout from their alcoholism at work and the effects their drinking has on their families.
One of the things I appreciated about the film was how it framed alcohol in the story. It would have been simple to just see alcohol as the main culprit or problem, but ultimately the problems each man faced before they began their pact were somewhat self-created and could have been solved without alcohol. Instead of investing in more measured improvement plans to their problems, they went for the easiest fix: alcohol. They used it as an escape, a refuge that they could all share. Even while all the men could be considered middle-aged, at its heart this story is about self-discovery. This isn’t a film solely about alcohol dependency, it’s much more about moderation in life, emotional honesty, and complacency. I appreciated the performances, especially that of the main lead, Mads Mikkelsen, and the capacity for each character to deliver moments of levity and dramatic impact throughout the story. The ending is somewhat open but I think instead of leaving viewers frustrated, it will seem a fitting end to this group’s journey.