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— [?] as some scientist, Face/Off

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Atomic Blonde

Atomic Blonde offers an excitingly fresh and strong female lead. —Matt Anderson (review...)

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Colorado Springs once had an opera house. For any up-and-coming Western American town, having your own opera house meant you had left the sketchy existence of a frontier settlement and become a real place on the map.  The Springs had to wait until 1911 before its opera house, the Burns Theater, was built whereas the mining towns of Central City and Leadville had built their opera houses decades earlier... well, better late than never.

But fashions change and The Burns eventually became the Chief Theater, dedicated to showing only movies. Its beautiful white marble facade was marred by a huge neon “Chief Theater” sign and that’s the way it spent the rest of it’s life. Inside it was still an opera house, though faded and shabby. It screened first-run films, but the “good stuff” was usually shown at the Ute Theater... a faux-Indian/Art Deco movie palace across the street. I once had the experience of seeing the Warner Bros. classic animated short What’s Opera Doc at the Chief and at the time, the irony of seeing the operatic cartoon in an opera house escaped me completely. Sadly, the Chief/Burns Theater was torn down in the early 1970s to make way for a bank drive-through... more of a parking lot really. And there the space remains to this day, a gap in the town’s smile.

I was reminded of the fate of the Chief Theater while watching The Champion. This is Milestone Film’s latest two-DVD set that adds to their impressive collection of and about silent films. Like the old Chief Theater, (spoiler alert!) the building that housed The Champion Film Company was also demolished when by all rights and common sense it should have been preserved as a cherished and historically significant artifact of its home town, Fort Lee N.J.; here described as “America’s first film town.”

I was surprised when at the end of the film, the Champion building came down because had this been a normal Hollywood storyline, the plucky Fort Lee Film Commission would have, against all odds, saved this plain and somewhat shabby former silent film studio-turned-printshop from being bulldozed. But Fort Lee isn’t Hollywood (in more ways than one) and real-world endings are not always happy. The fate of the Champion building parallels that of most silent era films and the Burns/Chief theater, all swept away by an ignorance of history masquerading as progress. “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?”

(As a Monday morning quarterback and armchair director, I’d have started with the destruction of the Champion building, then gone back and explained what had happened to make it historically important then work back up through time to an ending everybody sees coming. I’m just saying, is all.)

Still the doc itself is a solid and lively telling of the filmmaking history of Fort Lee, New Jersey, a little town atop the Palisades and directly across the Hudson River from New York City. There, for a brief time at the beginning of the 20th Century, many of America’s first movies were made, film empires were started (and ended), movie stars were born... all of the things you thought could only happen in Hollywood.

For instance, the iconic silent film serial Perils of Pauline was filmed at Fort Lee and thus I learned that the ‘cliffs’ in ‘cliff hanger’ were the Palisades themselves! The past may be another country, but it still weaves its way into our lives. This is a story that needs telling and my guess is that The Champion is just the opening shot to later and fuller accounts of Fort Lee, Movie Capitol of America.

I think that The Champion, though the main feature of the DVD set, is really only one of the extras in a two-disk set of nothing but extras about Fort Lee. Those extras include a strange 1930’s silent home-movie visit to Fort Lee (Ghost Town: The Story Of Fort Lee), a feature length silent film (The Danger Game) two medium length films (Robin Hood and A Grocery Clerk’s Romance) and 5 short one-reelers. All were shot in and around Fort Lee and nicely restored as best as the material available will allow. The new restoration of Ghost Town could be the hidden find in the set as it is an early attempt at establishing and dignifying film history.... film studies majors take note!

Accompanied with music by the very competent Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, Ben Model, and Donald Sosin, I found all of the films to be a treat to watch. The Danger Game’s screwball comedy still works with Madge Kennedy’s bouncy energy fresh as ever, the simple melodramas of Indian Land Grab and Marked Cards remain charming.

This is all good stuff and worth seeing as any film that has survived from those early years is rare and unusual. It’s quite possible that films made at Fort Lee were shown at the Burns Theater in a Colorado Springs now as lost as the silent films themselves... all ghosts from “the land of lost content... the happy highways where I went and can not go again.”