Thursday, December 07, 2006

Movies for the week of 11/7-12/3/06

The more I see it, the more I'm convinced that Only Angels Have Wings (1939) is the pivotal movie that turned Howard Hawks into an auteur in the theoretical sense and turned Cary Grant into a star for all occasions. Grant here is dramatically different than the Grant in, say, Bringing Up Baby. He's an action hero here, with no whinnying and no ridiculous situations. There's a brooding, intense edge underneath the facade of polished movie star that points the way to the darkness teased out of the Grant persona by Hawks a couple of years later in His Girl Friday. Nothing Grant had done prior to this movie gave any hint that he was anything more than a handsome light comedian. But it's Hawks who, perhaps, makes the more startling transformation. Hawks made some great films prior to this one, but here all the trends percolating through his earlier films come to the fore. This is the template for what we can now recognize as Hawks's directorial signatures. Principal among the auteurial markers is the compositions of groups in the frame and how they form communities. Not only that, but these compositions frame specific types of communities that recur in Hawks's movies time and again, communities centered around professionals doing their jobs. The Jean Arthur character in Only Angels Have Wings starts on the outside of one such community--a tight-knit group of pilots--and her ignorance of the mores of this group isolate her. Consider the following pieces of this shot:









In this shot, Jean Arthur's character has gone to pieces after her new friend has died horribly in a plane crash. Her reaction is antithetical to the professional mores of all the pilots in the community and Hawks's screen composition slowly strips the community away from the un-professional Arthur, one character at a time. This is a stark contrast from the way her character is shot once she demonstrates her professional bona fides:





In the first of these two captures, Jean Arthur is at the center of the composition, but is not yet at the center of the community. Note the eyelines of the characters throughout the frame. They point in a number of directions, but generally don't point at Jean Arthur. Shortly after, her character demonstrates her professional specialty, and in the second capture, she's both at the center of the composition AND the attention of the community. As if to sign off on her acceptance into the community, Cary Grant's character greets her at the end of the shot with the line, "Hello, professional."

In general, the accumulation of auteurial tics transforms Only Angels Have Wings from a collection of odd plot contrivances into a superb movie. Hawks is already using pulp-fiction plot construction where the scene outranks the plot. Hawks would later formulate the theory that a good movie consists of at least three good scenes and no bad ones. This movie fulfills this requirement and then some. The movie even points the way to Hawks's signature work in the forties when Jean Arthur's character tells Cary Grant, "I'm not hard to get. All you have to do is ask," a line repeated verbatim in To Have and Have Not, a film that bears no small amount of resemblance to this one.

Hawks's examination of the professional as center of the community reaches its apotheosis in His Girl Friday (1940), but in spite of its central place in the director's work, it's more of a collaboration than one might expect. The movie simply wouldn't work without Cary Grant and his ceaseless tinkering with the Grant persona. For Hawks's part, the movie puts Rosalind Russell at the center of the community as the consummate professional who wants to chuck it all. The problem is, her job is central to who she is. Although it puts the thought into the mouth of her rat bastard editor, Walter Burns, the movie has a knowing insinuation that she'll be miserable as a housewife in Albany with milquetoast Bruce Baldwin for a husband ("He looks like that fella from the movies. Y'know, Ralph Bellamy"). Burns knows and we know that she'll be diminished if she abandons her job. In addition to all of this, Hawks also throws in one of his occasional examinations of gender roles. This is more than turning Hildy Johnson into a "Hawksian" woman (as opposed to the character one finds in The Front Page) to add romantic interest--though there is surely some of that in the relationship between Johnson and Burns--it represents a minor auteurial liet motif that runs through some of Hawks's other pictures (notably I Was a Male War Bride). One could surmise that Hawks's point of view is that gender roles are ridiculous on the surface--certainly, Hildy Johnson as a wifey in the sticks is ridiculous--and that one's professional demeanor is more central to defining one's personality and place in the community.

For Grant's part, well...there's no dancing around it. The Front Page flat out doesn't work without Grant. Walter Burns is such a colossal prick that unless he has the charisma and charm of Grant, there is no way Hildy Johnson succumbs to his ruses. None of the other actors who have played him on film have lent him the almost demonic glee that Grant plays, and none of them put the audience on the side of the profession of journalism in the way His Girl Friday does. Grant is well nigh irresistible. This is an interesting test of the Cary Grant persona, too, because it demonstrates that regardless of how evil the character is, it is sublimated by his charm. This is no small element of the persona, because it allows grant to be credible in Suspicion, Notorious, and even Charade.



While I was puttering around the house this weekend, trapped by the snowstorm, I put on Leone's Fistful of Dollars as background noise. This film--indeed, most spaghetti westerns--are perfect for this purpose because of those wonderful soundtracks. We should all be thankful for Ennio Morricone.




Michael Curtiz's "remake" in name only of The Sea Hawk (1940) showcases the director's principle gift: making the un-real estate of the movies something glamorous and exotic. Oddly enough, Curtiz works this trick using the same basic raw materials as he used in the stiff Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, though in his and Errol Flynn's defense, it was Bette Davis who was the killjoy in that project. Here, he's not saddled with serious intent (nor is he saddled with Technicolor) and the result is a rollicking entertainment. The supporting cast is rich with interesting faces, including the ubiquitous Alan Hale, Flora Robson, Claude Raines, and Henry Daniell (Daniell, fine though he is as the bad guy, is no substitute for Basil Rathbone when it comes to dueling with Flynn). Brenda Marshall is lovely as the Spanish Ambassador's niece, though she's no Olivia Da Havilland. I don't remember ever seeing the film with the amber tint that overlays the Panama sequence, but it works better than most tinting does. Great fun, though part of me kinda wants to see a new version, faithful to Raphael Sabatini, in which our hero skips out of European society to become an Islamic reaver on the Barbary Coast. I'm not holding my breath.

Monday, November 20, 2006

The Films of Archie Leach: Movies for the week of 11/13-11/19/06

Without quite intending to, I started collecting Cary Grant movies this month. I ordered the Columbia and Warner Boxes and backordered the new Universal one. This goes with the films I already have on hand, and lo and behold, Grant has become the most prominent star in my collection's firmament...

The Columbia box is the better package, though the packaging isn't as good (I hate those damned foldy things (I'm looking at you Looney Tunes)). The Warner box has the better extrees, if you're into that sort of thing. The Universal box looks to be a complete bust for quality, given Universal's holdings, but they are films I haven't seen, so there you go.

First up from my new fiefdom: another look at Bringing Up Baby (1938, directed by Howard Hawks). About halfway through the film, it dawned on me that Cary Grant was doing Harold Lloyd. Sure enough, a check of the IMDB trivia page for the film shows that Grant did, indeed, model his character on Lloyd. The last time I saw the film, I wasn't sufficiently familiar with Lloyd to make the connection. The amazing thing isn't that Grant does a good Lloyd--he doesn't, really--so much that the Lloyd "glasses" persona overlays the Cary Grant persona, and is subsumed by it, so effortlessly. No one else but Grant could be Grant, but the Grant persona itself is surprisingly chameleonic. Grant, it seems, could be anybody. Oddly enough, I can now picture the Lloyd/Grant persona resurfacing in my memory of some of Grant's other movies (notably, Hawks's Monkey Business). The rest of the movie is nonsense, of course, but it's nonsense in the same way that Lewis Carroll is nonsense, and just as pleasurable if you're into that. This kinda sorta prefigures the film noir plot construction Hawks would later borrow from Raymond Chandler, the one commonly called "One Damned Thing After Another." I'm not a fan of Kate Hepburn in this movie--I think she's abrasive here--but she looks somehow "right" next to Grant, moreso than most of his other leading ladies. I think it's the angularity of her features and the rough edges of the version of femininity she constructs in contrast with the smooth polish of Grant's masculinity. Howard Hawks liked to undercut that masculinity, by the way. Here, he puts Grant into a maribou-trimmed dressing gown. A decade later, he would put him into full drag in I Was a Male War Bride. Neither gag works particularly well, though it's more successful in Bringing Up Baby.

Destination Tokyo (1943, directed by Delmer Daves) is a case in point when it comes to the chameleonic nature of the Cary Grant persona. There is a wide gulf between Grant's submarine commander in this film and the Lloyd/Grant comedian of Bringing Up Baby, but not only are they recognizable as aspects of the same persona, they fade completely into the imperatives of their disparate scenarios with startling ease. This kind of movie--the submarine on a mission movie--is hard to screw up, and this one hits all the notes in spite of the propaganda that underlines the film. The propaganda aspect contributes to the film's most glaring flaw: the lack of dark shadows in the characters of our sailors. They're all a loveable bunch of ordinary joes, with nary a personality defect among them. Even the atheist in the crew sees the light at the end of the movie in a scene that can't help but remind me of the end of Frances, with Jessica Lange's Frances Farmer repenting her atheism after a trans-orbital lobotomy. That said, Alan Hale IS particularly likable as the sub's cook, and John Garfield is fine as the lovable, streetwise womanizer cut-off from his natural habitat. The shots of Grant in an open shirt, all sweaty, is enough to set hearts aflutter. The man was simply gorgeous, and even in a state of dishabille, he's unflappable, the modern man perfected.



Hideo Gosha's Goyokin (1969) is the living end of the samurai movie. Filmed in a harsh, de-saturated winter landscape, Gosha's opinions of Japan's samurai (film) tradition is memorably encapsulated in the murder of crows picking over the remains of a village put to the sword by a samurai clan clinging to their power. Placed in historical context--the film is set at the end of the Tokugawa shogunate--the crow motif takes on an even broader meaning. The landscape mirrors the crows. This is not a pleasing pageant of color and action; it's a harsh, brutal deconstruction. Its portrait of samurai as state-sanctioned mass murderers points the way to Japan's entree into the modern world. It's a disturbing implication, though not entirely unprecedented in Gosha's films. It's a logical extension of the disillusion one finds in Three Outlaw Samurai and Sword of the Beast. Tatsuya Nakadai is superb in the lead as a disillusioned samurai who walks away from the bushido only to be sucked back in. Unusual for a samurai movie of this vintage, the performances by the two female leads, Yoko Tsukasa and Ruriko Asaoka, are richly nuanced.

Monday, September 18, 2006

The Pain in Spain: Movies for the Week Ending September 17, 2006

After watching two films by Spanish director Agustí Villaronga this weekend (with a third on hand), I’m not entirely sure I would want to have dinner with the man. I’m sure that, like David Cronenberg, the man himself is probably a charming gentleman with a mundane life. But you’d never know it from the films. These suckers are hurtful.

In a Glass Cage, from 1987, is cruder than El Mar (2000), but it makes up for it with sheer perversity. The story of the mutually parasitic relationship between an ex-Nazi doctor with an appetite for sadomasochistic sex with young boys and a boy with a mysterious past seems exploitative enough, until you fill in the details. The good doctor is in an iron lung--his glass cage, as it were--after a vaguely suicidal plunge from a high building, while the boy wants to be just like his friend and reads to the doctor from his papers chronicling his exploits at the concentration camp. Sometimes he even masturbates to them. I’ve never contemplated the sexual possibilities of an iron lung before, but this movie does. This is the movie that Bryan Singer’s Apt Pupil wants and fails to be. Not for the easily squigged, and definitely not for anyone with an aversion to seeing children come to harm.

That same caveat applies to El Mar, too. We see children murder children in the early goings. Like In a Glass Cage, this film is haunted by Spain’s fascist past. Set before and after the Spanish Civil War, this concerns a trio of friends who witness a firing squad run by the father of one of their classmates. They take it upon themselves to exact revenge by killing him, an act that marks them for life. One kills himself. The other two wind up in a sanitarium for tuberculosis patients after the war, where they are inexorably drawn to each other. Less perverse than In a Glass Cage this is. Less hurtful it is not. There are deep scars on display in this movie, and characters so deeply shattered that all the kings horses and all the kings men will never put them together again. For all that, though, there are moments of lyricism here, too, such as the path a body takes from death in the ominous Room 13 to the morgue. This film is what you might get if you were to cross The Devil’s Backbone with Bad Education, if that means anything to you...

By a strange quirk of shipping, I got the fourth Female Convict Scorpion movie before I got the third. The first three films in this series were directed by a guy named Shunya Ito, whose aesthetic sensibility created what you might get if you crossed Caged Heat with Noh theater. The first three films are ambitious, manufacturing legitimate art from the despised women in prison sub-genre. The fourth film, Female Prisoner #701: Grudge Song (1973), directed by exploitation genre veteran Yasuhara Hasebe, not only has no aspirations beyond exploitation thrills, it doesn't have even the slightest understanding of what made the first three films tick. In the Ito movie, our heroine--the wrongly imprisoned Matsu, or "Scorpion"--is transformed into an avenging angel. Actress Meiko Kaji cuts an imposing figure as the black-clad Matsu, speaking barely a word in each movie. Hasebe "gets" this, and contrives a number of set-pieces in which Kaji gets to glare menacingly at the camera, as she does in the other three movies. But context is everything. In the previous movies, Matsu bears the weight of a whole slate of wrongs done to her and to women in general. She's a vaguely messianic figure, whose vengeance is fully justified. Hasebe hasn't grasped this. His idea of Matsu is as a kind of distaff Man With No Name, and he blunders badly by making Matsu complicit in crimes that have no legitimate rationale as justified vengeance. Because of these crimes, Matsu is transformed from an exterminating angel into a something evil, and a banal kind of evil to boot.

It doesn't help that Hasebe's idea of style is to ape Kinji Fukasaku's yakuza movies. Only once does he try to match Shinya Ito's theatrical sensibility, in a sequence that is so nonsensical and so badly edited that even an alert viewer will be scratching his head at what he or she just saw. This is the sort of thing that can't be laid at the feet of the writers, or the cinematographers, or even the editors. This is the director's fault. And all of the lacerating glances Meiko Kaji throws at the camera can't help it.

All of which made the third film, Female Prisoner #701: Beast Stable (also 1973), all the more remarkable. Nothing makes a movie seem more like a masterpiece than watching a pale imitation of the same film in close proximity. Even more striking is the difference between this film and its two predecessors. Ito had a fraction of the budget he had for the first two films, but retained a ferocity of imagination that enabled him to substitute startling location shots for the theatrical tableaux of the previous installments. The result is no more realistic than the first two films--it is, in fact, just as abstract--but it is markedly less theatrical. The story here finds Matsu trying to survive while on the run as a hunted fugitive. The movie opens with a bang, with Matsu severing the arm of the cop who has handcuffed her in a subway and running through the city with the arm dangling from hers. Once safely away from capture, she is plunged into the world of Japan’s poor women: sweatshop workers, prostitutes, abused wives. The movie makes a point of demonstrating that even without the walls of a prison, these women are all prisoners of one kind of male exploitation or other. As in the first two movies, Matsu becomes an avatar of female rage. Unlike the others, she actually forms friendship and seems to suffer emotional hurts from her actions. My favorite shot in the movie is also one of the most mundane, in which Matsu stands on a bridge over the railroad tracks sharing a drink with Yuki, the prostitute who has befriended her. There is a deep sadness in this shot that seems a tidy summary of the intended mood of the entire film. Like the previous installments, this film is some kind of masterpiece.

The general consensus on Brian De Palma’s The Black Dahlia (2006) is that it’s a mess. That may well be true, and if you want to point a finger, point it at James Ellroy’s source novel, which is just as ridiculous as the movie. Be that as it may, I had a great time at this film, not because the movie is good--for me, the jury is out on that point--but because it represents an interesting collision of elements that should please any long-time follower of De Palma’s career. For example, I was pleased to see William Finley, the Phantom of the Paradise himself, playing yet another deformed lunatic here. I was tickled to see the movie use The Man Who Laughs as a plot point. I loved De Palma’s nod to Michael Powell in casting himself as an off-screen film director. And in a film that is only peripherally about the real Black Dahlia case, I love how the movie introduced the Dahlia as a seeming throwaway in a much longer master shot following a completely different plot point. There’s even a return of the jump at the end a la Carrie and Dressed to Kill. The screenplay, the director, and the actors all seem to be working on different films. The screenplay faithfully apes the novel, the actors look like they are playing dress-up (for the record: pretty as she is, Scarlett Johansson cannot act; the exception to all of this is Hillary Swank, who is changeable to a fault in this movie: she seems to know exactly what the various forces behind the production are up to and gives each of them what they want), and De Palma, realizing that he has no means of making a coherent whole out of the whole thing, is indulging in a summary of his career highlights. For all that, I found it compulsively watchable just the same.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Movies for the week ending 7/30

My review of The Set-Up (1949, directed by Robert Wise) is up at my web site. Here's the link: http://members.tranquility.net/~benedict/setup.html. A short abstract:



"The Set-up is a compact masterpiece, running some 72 minutes in real time. The real-time structure of the film is a virtuoso act that trumps similar gimmicks in High Noon or Rope by virtue of playing like a movie rather than as an experiment. Subtract the shots of clocks that remind the audience that the film is unfolding in the time it takes to watch it and the movie still works. Where the "gimmick" really comes into its own is during the boxing match. We get the whole match, rather than a match as edited for a movie a la Rocky. Sporting events--particularly fights--have their own drama to them and the movie seizes hold of that drama and milks it for all it's worth."



From the same boxed set: John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle (1950) is the talkiest damned film noir I've ever seen. Good performances, but low on cinematic style. Marilyn Monroe is sure easy on the eyes in this, though. Of the films in the first Warners film noir box, it's the one I like the least. Sterling Hayden fared better in Kubrick's similarly themed The Killing.

House of Strangers (1949, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz) is a film noir-ish reworking of King Lear with Edward G. Robinson as Lear and Richard Conte as Cordelia. Robinson is watchable in anything, as is Conte, and the movie is certainly attractive. This is noir as a generational family drama (a type that culminates in The Godfather). It's also a film where noir shows its roots in the Gothic traditions, mainly in its lush set design. Very entertaining.

The Spiral Staircase (1946, directed by Robert Siodmak). One of the most stylish of the old-style "old dark house" thrillers, this one shades into the modern serial killer genre, with mute Dorothy Maguire targeted by a murderer who kills women who are "imperfect." This sucker lays on the style--the shadows cast by the titular staircase puts a distinctive stamp on the proceedings--and turns the screws tight. One of my favorite movies from the 1940s.

Enjoy.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Movies for the week of 7/23

My week in a nutshell:

I took another stab at The Creeping Flesh (1973, directed by Freddie Francis). The last time through, I fell asleep at the halfway point--not a reflection on the movie, per se, so much as it was on the 2am hour at which I nodded off. I'm getting old, it seems. Excellent performances by Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee--every film in which they play scenes together is worth watching--but the absurdity of the thing undoes them. Freddie Francis's heart doesn't seem to be in it, either, which is nothing new (Francis was always uncomfortable as a horror director). Tigon ports over most of Hammer's mannerisms for this production, including the unfortunate equation of sexual awakening with evil. But what can you do?

Monster House (2006, directed by Gil Kenan) is the sort of kid-friendly horror movie that briefly surfaced in the 1980s (The Monster Squad, for one example). The movie concerns a trio of kids who must deal with the monstrous house across the street on Halloween, lest it devour trick or treaters like popcorn. Mostly harmless, and probably a good choice for the Goosebumps crowd, but I'd like to say a word about "performance capture" technology. There's something "off" about it. Capturing completely natural movement in animation is nothing new. Disney did it in the 1940s and backed away from it. He realized that animation needs to be slightly exaggerated to read as natural. This is something that eludes performance capture, because the technology itself is so literal-minded. The technology also gives the director license to move his camera around the scene at will, without worrying about re-blocking everything. The result is a film that is marginally lacking in actual direction and composition because no planning is necessary. I don't expect anyone to know what the hell I'm talking about.

Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950, directed by Otto Preminger) is film noir as Greek tragedy. Detective Dana Andrews has a bad temper fueled by a desire to divorce himself from his father's criminal past. This is his tragic flaw, and leads to him killing a suspect while roughing him up. Compounding things, he covers it up. Watching him manoeuver himself to his fall from grace--and a hint at redemption--is fraught with all kinds of Oedipal nuggets. The most interesting shot in the movie is the last shot, in which Andrews's catharsis is belied by the finality of a closing door. As Billy Budd learned, the law has an imperative all its own.


Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Man's Chest (2006, directed by Gore Verbinski) is exactly the same sort of film as Van Helsing. It's a relentless sequence of action scenes that are the equivalent of a ten-year-old on a sugar high racing about saying "and then this happened, and then this, and this!" Mind you, it's better than Van Helsing--basic film craft will do that--but it's also exhausting, especially at 2 and a half hours. Some sequences--I'm thinking specifically of the island cannibal sequence--could have been excised whole for a trimmer running time. In any event, the relentless pace is too much. I'm reminded of something that Clint Eastwood once said about the pace of his movies: "There's nothing wrong with MTV (style-editing)...well, actually, there is. If everything is flash images, you never have time to actually look at anything." That's certainly the case here. Johnny Depp, the main reason to see the first film, doesn't seem as daft in the second, largely because the movie never pauses to let him go nuts. There's too much plot. Alas...

In any event, Dead Man's Chest, like its predecessor, is an example of genre boundaries collapsing. It raids horror iconography wholesale for its imagery--what is Davy Jones but a piratical reimagining of the Great Cthulhu, after all?--without ever once treading on the horror genre's intention of sending a shudder down the spine. It does, however, occasionally touch on disgust, particularly if you have an allergy to shellfish.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Movies for the week of July 10-16

There was a certain amount of deja vu involved in watching Lady in a Cage (1964, directed by Walter Grauman) this week. On the surface, this seems like yet another rip-off of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, in which an aging actress from Hollywood's golden age is put into an exploitation story--in this case, Olivia Da Haviland. But there, the similarity ends. The Baby Janes, for all their grand guignol gestures, are essentially old-style gothics. Lady in a Cage is something else. It is a fore-runner of the exploitation films of the 1970s, in which the sixties youth revolution collides with the middle class. It's remarkably prescient. Consider the opening credits: We see a city in a heatwave. On the soundtrack, we hear the intimations of a world spinning well and truly into chaos. The arresting freeze-frame shots of the world at large recall the end of Night of the Living Dead, but the last image we see as these shots progress to the house of our heroine is the flyblown carcass of a dead dog in the street. Even before the story itself has begun, the movie has laid before the audience the technique used a decade later by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre AND anticipated one of its first images (Tobe Hooper's film was originally to open on a shot of a dead dog by the side of the road--which can be seen in the extras of some editions of the film--but opted instead for a dead armadillo instead).

The story itself, in which the crippled upper class woman played by Miss Da Haviland is trapped in an elevator by a power-outage, recalls Wes Craven's early films, in which the bourgeoisie are stripped of their priviledge and must compete with the savages for survival. James Caan plays the film's version of Krug, the David Hess character from Last House on the Left. But this film goes Craven one better. Craven suggests that even mild-mannered "civilized" people become monsters to fight monsters. This film suggests that those "civilized" people may already have been monsters to start with (Our heroine even articulates this thought at key points of the film's running time: once near the beginning when she speculates that it might be a good time to invest in armament stocks, then later when she specifically calls herself a monster. This film is surprising for a film made in 1964 for making the class warfare between the haves and the have-nots explicit. Even more surprising is the depiction of affluence as a suffocating burden on the young.

This is all so interesting that one can't help but be disappointed that the film isn't better than it is. Apart from the opening credit sequence (perhaps the best rip-off of Saul Bass that I've ever seen), the film is largely anonymous (as one could expect from a director who is a veteran of television), a fact that argues that the dominant creative hand behind the film is screenwriter Luther Davis, who later wrote Across 110th Street, one of the bleakest of the blaxploitation films of the 1970s. More than that, the villains of the piece seem unconvincing, whether because they are poorly conceived (likely) or poorly acted (also likely). In any event, what the film lacks in style, it more than makes up for in brutality and sheer nihilism, which is a recommendation of sorts, I guess.




Future biographers of the giallo mystery might do well to look at Michaelangelo Antonioni with an eye equal to the one they cast at Mario Bava. At least two of Antonioni's 1960s films point the way to the films that follow in the 1970s. Certainly, Blow-Up is a proto-giallo. So, too, is L'Avventura (1960). We have the story of a boat party where one of the members of the party vanishes on a deserted island. The rest of the partiers search for her, but she is never seen again. It's as if she has been swallowed by the landscape (the movie films the landscapes with a glacial coldness and an epic eye that often dwarfs the figures in the frame). The disappearance, though, is only one aspect of the film's portrait of alienation. None of the characters in this film is connected in any meaningfull way to any of the other characters. The Esmeralda Ruspoli character, Patrizia, comments early in the film that she "doesn't understand islands, surrounded by all that water;" Antonioni almost immediately cuts to shots of his partiers swimming, each an island unto themselves. "If one of them dissapears," his camera seems to be saying, "what of it?" The landscape doesn't care. When the second half of the film seems to forget about the disappearance entirely, the remaining characters continue to move through meaningless lives making no connections whatsoever. It's as if interpersonal relationships are a means of passing the time until the final exit, and nothing more.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Eros Plus Massacre (Movies for the week of 4/24-4/30)

The bloodiest day in American history is thought to be the New York Draft Riots in July of 1863 (memorably depicted on film in Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York). The "official" count of the dead was in the vicinity of 300 people, but that count only reflected "white Americans" as one might expect from a society in which the Know Nothings still held formidable sway. Based on conteporary accounts, the true number is nearer 7000, most of them black or Irish. What does this tell us about America? It tells us that, when it comes to the massacre, we are rank amateurs compared to the French.

Mark Twain, in comparing whether the French or the Comanche were more "civilized," notes that the massacre is the French national pastime (he decided that the Comanche were more civilized, if you must know). From the Paris Commune, to the Terror, to Vichy, the French have developed the massacre to a fine art. The piece de resistance of that art is The St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre in August of 1572, in which Catholic France set upon their Protestant dissidents, the Hugeunots, and murdered practically all of them. Some 70,000 people in two days, by most accounts. This history is recounted in Patrice Chéreau's 1994 film, Queen Margot, which should be of interest to any fan of horror films. This is a film drenched in blood. Two things triggered the massacre: first, the attempted assassination of Admiral Coligny, a Protestant advisor to the King. Second: the presence of most of the leaders of the Hugeunots at the politically motivated marriage of Queen Marguerite (Margot), daughter of Catherine De Medici, and Henri de Navarre, also a Protestant. The marriage was intended to quell the unrest between religious factions, but the assassination of Coligny was like throwing a match into a powerkeg. With all of the Hugeunot leaders conveniently in one place, it was easy to destroy them all. Cut off the head and kill the body, as they say. The massacre occurs in the first half of the film. The remainder deals with the fallout, and as the film is about the political machinations of a late medieval, early renaissance aristocracy, the fallout is also drenched in blood. Forget any romantic notions that these people resolved their differences with duels--as they do in the book by Alexandre Dumas upon which the film is nominally based--they were murderers and libertines to a one. Their weapons were sex, poison, a dagger in the back or across the throat. One of the late images tells the story of the film: Isabelle Adjani as Margot, clad in a blindingly white dress now stained with the blood of her poisoned brother, stands between the coffins of two dead men, one of them her lover. Neither man has a head. The heads are on the shelf in front of her.

I describe this film as being of interest to fans of horror movies not only for its violence, but also because it points out the essential timidity of historically themed horror films produced within the genre itself. There is nothing...nothing at all...in Hammer's recounting of the Elizabeth Bathory story in Countess Dracula (to pick one example) the equal of the violence and horror in Queen Margot. But don't approach it lightly. This is a film that can be profoundly confusing to a viewer with no prior knowledge of the story. There are dozens of characters in the film, most played by terrific actors, but there isn't anything like a scorecard. The story begins in thick of the plot, so the viewer is left to fend for himself. The sexual relationships may be as confusing as the politics, too, because everyone, it seems, is sleeping with everyone else. The filmmakers have taken the folk songs depicting Queen Margot's promiscuity and translated them literally to the screen. The resulting film is a bit of a hothouse, which would be a fault if most of it weren't true.




The title of this post is "Eros Plus Massacre," which is the title of a Japanese film from 1969. I haven't seen it, but I like the title, which fits the films I saw this week. Not just for the sex and violence, but also because some of them are Japanese.

Donald Ritchie notes in One Hundred Years of Japanese Cinema that the failing studio system in Japan attempted to prop itself up by "modularizing" their genre films. In assembling them from prefabricated elements, they kept costs down, but wound up with a cinema that began to show the uniformity of an assembly line product. This can be seen in striking fashion among Panik House's recent releases of "pinky violence" films. These films, mainly from Toei Studios, are a patchwork of revenge themes, yakuza bravado, pink film soft core, and bad girl fetishism. There turns out to be some room for a competent director to separate himself from an incompetent director, but I'll get to that in a moment.

Both Criminal Woman: Killing Melody (1973, directed by Atsushi Mihori) and Female Yakuza Tale (1973, directed by Teruo Ishii) are more or less the same movie. Both feature the formation of girl gangs that pit rival yakuza factions against each other. Both star Reiko Ike. Both feature a measure of female empowerment through revenge and crime. Virtually every trope found in these films is borrowed from another, better film. The card game that opens Shinoda's Pale Flower, for example, shows up here in a debased form, as does the pitting of both sides against each other plot of Yojimbo, and even the bold contrast of criminal women against an ash wasteland in Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41. These are all proven commercial elements that Toei has distilled into "modules" with which to build their productions. Given that the mix of elements used to construct the basic outlines of the films are identical, there is no reason for one film to be better than the other, but Criminal Woman: Killing Melody is a better film than Female Yakuza Tale, mainly because it contains fewer "modules" leeching its vitality. It's a more linear film with a tighter focus on where it wants to end up, which reflects the fact that Atsushi Mihori is a more competent director than Teruo Ishii. It is also unencumbered by a predecessor--Female Yakuza Tale is a sequel to Sex and Fury, so it doesn't carry with it an expectation of elements from a preceding film. But this is all splitting hairs. Neither film is really very good. They traffic in gratuitous sex and violence for their own sakes. The most interesting thing about these films--to me anyway--is the way Toei bites the hand that feeds it. In both films, the yakuza is depicted as bumbling, stupid, and venal, easily deceived by a woman willing to bare her breasts and completely ruled by their genitals. Toei was carried through the collapse of the studio system in part because of the yakuza film, but also because they were in bed with REAL yakuza.




The Uninvited (1944, directed by Lewis Allen) is an elegant ghost story that's something of an anomaly among Hollywood ghost stories of the period. Ghosts were rarely played straight in classic Hollywood. They tended to be the fodder for comedies or charming fantasies--they were Cary Grant and Constance Bennett in Topper or Lou Costello and Marjorie Allen in The Time of Their Lives--but this film plays it straight. Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey play a brother and sister who buy a house on the coast of England only to discover that there's something wrong about the place. The center of the house's "wrongness" seems to be Gail Russell, whose family sold the house to our heroes. Without giving too much away, this film plays out like a supernatural version of Rebecca. What is immediately evident about the film is the influence of the Val Lewton films. The film makes good use of its deep shadows and oblique approach. It hasn't fully assimilated the Lewton formula--it had the budget to show its ghost--but there's enough of it. Though the film plays the supernatural straight, there is a comedic element between hauntings that goes down pretty easy. I never think of Ray Milland as a comic actor, but between this and It Happens Every Spring, he's pretty good. This was one of my mother's favorite movies. She had good taste.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Movie Week for 4/24/06

Here's my movie week in a nutshell:

The movies from the DDD sales are starting to trickle in. I'm happiest to have replaced my "grey market" dupes of Homicidal and Mr. Sardonicus with good DVD editions. But that's not everything I watched. To wit:

Three...Extremes (2005, directed by Fruit Chan, Chan Wookpark, and Takashi Miike) poses this question: "What does it say about an anthology movie when the most sedate, austere, and tasteful entry is directed by Japanese madman Takashi Miike?" Quite a lot. This is a sequel, of sorts, to the pan-Asian Three. Like that film, it presents filmmakers from three nationalities (Japan, Korea, and Hong Kong). The results are all over the map. "Box," Miike's entry is tonally cold and elegant--to its detriment--though the "extreme" elements can be found in both the hints of incest and in the nature of the crime that drives the plot. The circus setting reminds me of Tod Browning in the twenties, which is probably not an accident. Having built up a tremendous head of steam, the story ends with an un-earned non-sequitur. "Cut," Chanwook Park's entry, seems like an offshoot of his vengeance trilogy. In purely formal visual terms, it's a dazzler. As a story, it reeks of contrivance. Still, it makes an impression. The crown jewel, though, is Fruit Chan's "Dumplings," the short version of the feature of the same name. The short is better. The feature has a different ending, and takes much longer to rachet up the dread. At short length, though, it is unforgettably nasty. As I was watching, I kept asking myself "How the hell did this get made?" It certainly couldn't be made in North America. Part Sweeney Todd, part Dorian Gray, this film trades on incendiary imagery and ideas. This may well be the sickest horror movie of the century, made poisonously appealing by Christopher Doyle's impeccably framed cinematography. But it's the sound design of the film that really turns the screws. The "crunch, crunch" of Bai Ling's dumplings as Miriam Cheung eats them puts the film well and truly over the line. Extreme, indeed.

Mr. Sardonicus (1961, directed by William Castle) was a great favorite of mine when I was younger, but revisiting it anew was a bit of a shock. Back then, I had no idea of just how thoroughly the film was plagiarized from other sources: notably from Cornell Woolrich's "Post Mortem" (in which a man is buried with his winning lottery ticket), from The Man Who Laughs, and from Les Yeux Sans Visage. The film hasn't got an original thought in its head. The film also features one of director Castle's most annoying cinematic mannerisms: do you remember the scene in Amadeus when Salieri tells Mozart that he hasn't given the audience cues for when to applaud? Castle learned that lesson early. Every time there's a "shocker," he has conveniently placed a woman in the scene who screams her head off as a cue to the audience. In any event, it's annoying. Maybe it's true: you can't go home again.

The screaming woman cue returns in Castle's Homicidal (1961), too. A shameless--and I mean SHAMELESS--rip-off of Psycho, the film further enhances Castle's reputation as a cut-rate Hitchcock. Homicidal is more violent than Psycho, and throws in an extra twist to Psycho's transgendered shenannigans, but so many scenes and elements are transparently lifted from Hitchcock that it's cold comfort. Castle wouldn't come anywhere near Hitchcock until he hired Robert Bloch to write Strait-Jacket for him, or, arguably, until he hired somebody else to direct Rosemary's Baby. Not content to rip-off just ONE source, Castle has also borrowed elements from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, too. Still and all, there is something appealing about such brazen larceny.

Blake Edwards's Experiment in Terror (1962) is the real deal. A film noir from the very end of the cycle, this film turns the screws tight. Edwards is best known for comedies, but he demonstrates a gift for the thriller in this film. The opening conversation between Ross Martin's asthmatic psycho and Lee Remick's woman in peril is as tautly written and performed as they come, and the cat and mouse game that plays out over the rest the film never degenerates into people doing stupid things to advance the plot. Also of note is the nocturne that plays out over the film's opening credits, as a we get a nighttime tour of San Francisco to Henry Mancini's evocative and menacing jazz underscore.

Finally, there's Spike Lee's Inside Man (2005), which has been touted as a departure for the director, a rare dip into commercial filmmaking. The movie surrounds a heist that may not be a heist, and while Lee is perfectly adept at depicting this, it's a hook on which to hang a parable about multi-culturalism in New York. The song, "Chaiyya Chaiyya," announces this pretty definitively as it plays over the opening credits, but the flourishes to the plot--from the broad demographic of the hostages to the scene when the cops play a recording from the bank to see if anyone in the crowd recognizes the language--are singular instances of the director's anima. It's almost disappointing that Jodie Foster gets an ill-conceived character meant to represent "The Man." She's visibly uncomfortable in the role, which is a shame, because the rest of the cast is game. It's hard to resist a film where part of the plot turns on the size of a woman's breasts. Russ Meyer would have approved.

Cheers.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Movie Week for 3/13/06

I got a huge shipment of Asian films this week. My review of Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is up on my web site. A bunch of Johnny To movies are in the stack too, including two recent offerings.

Rumor has it that Johnnie To’s Election (2005) was cut down from a three hour running length and that it is the first installment of a trilogy. One can feel a more expansive narrative in the negative spaces of the movie and I can’t help but wonder what To might have had in mind for a longer film. The movie seems like it was made on a bet: “Can you make a triad movie without any guns?” The answer is yes, of course. Don’t be deceived by the lack of firepower, though. There’s plenty of violence in this movie. What we have here is a study in power politics among the underworld, centered around the election of a new triad chairman. The obvious comparison is The Godfather (or The Godfather Part II, given a final scene that recalls the murder of Fredo). Like those movies, Election presents a conflict between the traditional, highly ritualized (and highly self-deceiving) ways of organized crime, and the new, more impersonal, ruthless, corporate style of crime. Beyond that, though, I don’t think the analogy holds up. The Godfather movies don’t necessarily distance themselves from the gangsters they depict. They like them just a little too much. To doesn’t like ANY of his gangsters. A closer analogue would be Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honor and Humanity films, which Election also resembles. This is a generally somber movie, filmed in deeply shadowed spaces even during daylight hours, but in spite of that, To’s own playful cinematic anima comes to the fore. There is a long chase at the center of the movie, in which the baton that symbolizes the power of office is sought by both sides of the conflict. During this chase, the allegiances of the players change, then change again. It culminates in one of the director’s drollest set pieces, in which both combatants are interrupted by cell phone calls from their respective controllers. To loves cell phones, and this scene compares favorable with the cell phone scene in PTU. The ending of the film annihilates this (much like the ending of Running on Karma turns THAT movie into something much darker than its playful nature suggests). There is no “play” in the final sequence of the movie. It plays for keeps. To sets up some expectations with Simon Yam’s character, who is exactly the sort of charismatic criminal that might be an anti-hero in another movie. The ending obliterates this notion. This is To at his most black-hearted.

Like any self-respecting auteur, Johnnie To never throws anything away. There are echoes of To’s other movies in each subsequent offerring. Running on Karma, for instance, takes the absurd sight of Andy Lau in a muscle suit from the equally absurd sight of Lau in a fat suit in Love on a Diet. In Yesterday Once More (2004), we see the influence of To’s crime films on his romantic comedies. (Note: interested parties are advised to read no further). The film has Andy Lau and Sammi Cheung playing husband and wife jewel thieves. Like all international jewel thieves, they live a life of luxury, treating their careers as an elaborate game. The game becomes even more elaborate after they divorce each other over the split of a diamond robbery. A year later, when Cheung’s character threatens to remarry, Lau, in the best tradition of Cary Grant, re-enters her life to disrupt everything. Confounding everything is the ambition of Cheung’s would-be husband (the Ralph Bellamy character, if that means anything to you) and his meddling mother, who, it seems, is herself a thief. This sets up a curious echoing effect in the plot as scenes double each other, then double each other again. On the surface, this film is a frothy, caper film a la To Catch A Thief crossed with My Favorite Wife, but underneath, we have a variant on Running Out of Time. The final montage includes the unexpected lowering of a casket into a grave, a sight that turns the frothy comedy into a darker, more bittersweet movie.

Monday, February 13, 2006

My Movie Week (2/13/06)


I saw two Christian-themed movies this week. One made with the intent to blaspheme, the other with an evangelical purpose. Neither of them is going to further the reputation of Jesus Christ or his teachings...

The School of the Holy Beast (1974, directed by Norifumi Suzuki) is the more palatable of the two, in spite of the film's clear intention to ridicule and debase organized Christianity, especially Catholicism. It's a nunspoitation movie, sure, but a more artful nunsploitation movie than what usually oozes out of Catholic countries. Like many Japanese exploitation films, this one is defensible only on the grounds of its form. Director Suzuki aestheticizes his film for all it's worth. Unlike similar films from Europe, one is never discomforted with the squishier nastiness of the genre. The scene where our heroine is bound with rose briers and whipped with longstem roses is typical of the film's approach: What is happening on screen is base titilation, but it's beautiful to watch if you can divorce the content from the form. Yumi Takagawa is the perfect actress for this--gorgeous, but with a hint of steel in her demeanor, at home as a good-time girl out on the town before her confinement at the convent or as the severe avenging nun/angel at the end. That all said, the movie is an uneasy conflation of nunsploitation tropes, Hammer horror, and Japanese roman-porno that doesn't quite work, though it is artful (as opposed to "arty") enough to command some interest.

Art has no accquaintance with director Ron Ormond, or his hysterical Christian scare film, If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? (1971). Ormond is perhaps best known for his wretched Mesa of Lost Women, a constant occupant of "worst films ever made" lists. In the 1970s, Ormond turned his...um...unique talents to Christ, and in partnership with Mississippi evangelist Estus W. Pirkle (a name on which I can hardly improve) created this...thing. God is going to turn away from America, the movie tells us, unless a revival happens in the next 24 months. The "or else" part of the equation is the instantaneous Communist take-over of the United States. What's to blame for the declining morals of America? Poverty? War? Drugs? Not at all...it's Saturday morning cartoons, dancing, and "the liberal media." To what kind of life can we look forward under our coming Communist masters? 16 hour work days all year round, the taking of our Christian women to satify the lusts of Communist officers, and endless stacks of bloodstained bodies in the streets. Our children will have sharpened bamboo sticks shoved into their ears in order to prevent them from hearing the word of God. Children will be decaptitated if they honor their mother and father. Children will be encouraged to pray to Fidel Castro for candy as part of the diabolical Communist brainwashing.

No, really. I'm not making this up. For that matter, the good Reverend Pirkle claims that HE isn't making it up, either. Clearly, he's deluded. The whole production is deluded. This artifact (I can't really call it a film) fills me with a black misanthropy towards my fellow Americans. Surely evangelical Christians aren't so blindly naive. Surely they aren't so pigheadedly stupid? When I'm in a blacker mood, this film rather explains some things to me about the current politics of the United States, which tempers the pleasures so outrageously bad a film occasionally offers.



Katsuhiro Otomo's Steamboy (2004) took me by surprise. I didn't like Otomo's Akira. I don't much care for Japanese animation in general. But I liked this. As pure kinetic art, this is amazing. Every minor detail the film puts in motion is a drug to the eyes. I like the alternate history of steam technology this film posits. I like the ethical questions the film asks, and I like the fact that it doesn't come down with a heavy hand on either side of its ethical dilemma. I LOVE the fact that the film works as a coherent narrative. In my experience, this is a rare occurrence in Japanese cartoons. And despite the fact that most of the film is an excuse to stage a steampunk apocalypse, there's an appealing optimism at the end of the movie that hit the right nerve. Mostly, though, I like the fun of the movie. This is a fun movie, which is a rarity in the world these days.

Monday, January 30, 2006

My Movie week for January 22-29

Well, here's what I saw last week. Busy week. I've got some non-review work to do on my web site this week, so don't expect any new material.

Viy
(1967, directed by Georgi Kropachyov and Konstantin Yershov): Visually inventive fairy-tale horror movie from Russia, concerning a seminary student tasked with praying over the body of a witch for three nights. Every night at midnight, she gets up from her coffin to play. Think of what a movie directed by the love child of Tsui Hark and Mario Bava would look like and you have the gist of it. Great fun, though it goes overboard near the end.

The Queen of Spades (fragment) (1916, directed by Yakov Protazanov)
The Portrait (fragment) (1916, )
Satan Exhultant (fragment) (1917)

These are exerpts from the roots of Russian horror movies, included on Russico’s disc for Viy. Each of them is a fascinating artifact. The Queen of Spades is in the worst shape, but seems the most engaging of the three, telling the story of a gambler’s descent into madness. The Portrait provides a powerful shock of recognition as an early manifestation of the ghost that comes out of a picture (think a version of The Ring, ninety years early). There’s a reason I put tape on my full length mirrors, lest I accidentally walk into a parallel universe. Satan Exhultant seems like it would be the most interesting of these films, telling the story of how Satan invades the lives of a parson and his family. A cross, if you will, between Dreyer and Benjamin Christiansen.

Trouble Every Day (2001, directed by Claire Denis). I suppose I could accept a sallow-faced Vincent Gallo as a sort of vampire--though not as a scientist of any stripe--and Beatrice Dalle sure looks the part, but director Claire Denis has stripped the film of the thrills of a horror movie in the mistaken assumption that they do not serve the subtext. I suspect she doesn’t recognize the subtext, either, or the fact that the central “gimmick” of her cannibals is the same as the one found in Cat People or Shivers, though without either Cat People’s poetry of image or Shivers’s intellectual inquiry. The photography is nice, but the movie on the whole is a disagreeable and largely meaningless drone.

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Where is the Friend’s Home? (1987, directed by Abbas Kairostami). I am beginning to suspect that Kairostami is not for me. While this film ends on a nice note of grace, it’s too goddamn long by half, and it’s only an hour and seventeen minutes. There is a nice short film to be seen in this story of a boy who has mistakenly taken his friends notebook and who must return it lest that friend be expelled from school. The execution bungles everything, though. Here’s an example: early in the film, our young protagonist is trying to tell his mother why he needs to go out:

Ahmed: I have to take Mohamed his notebook.
His mother: Nonsense. Do your homework then do your chores.
Long pause.
Ahmed: I have to take Mohamed his notebook.
His mother: Nonsense. Do your homework, then do your chores. Are you lazy?
Repeat.

In two minutes, this scene could have established that Ahmed’s mother is protective and will punish Ahmed if he does the right thing. At NINE minutes, this scene plays like what it is: padding; and Ahmed’s mother is revealed as what she is: a contrived and deliberate obstruction. Most of Ahmed’s encounters with adults are similarly contrived as obstructions. Given the monotony of these encounters, this begins to suffer the time-dilation effect I usually associate with bad movies. Not for me, thanks.

My Beautiful Girl Mari (2002 , directed by Seong-kang Lee). A lovely, lovely animated film. Very much influenced by the Ghibli studios, though without the painstaking animation. The animation style here is interesting to me though, because it was done with relatively low-tech means in Adobe Illustrator and Flash, two programs with which I am intimately familiar. There is an artistic (and possibly practical) choice in this movie to omit the pen-and-ink outlines we normally associate with animation, which results in a “look” that is pure color.



Galaxy Quest (1999, directed by Dean Parisot). Watched in a party atmosphere. Amazing what an audience will do for a comedy. Fun, and none too gentle with the satire of Star Trek and its cultural influence. Sam Rockwell has the funniest part. Heh.

Rich and Strange (1931, directed by Alfred Hitchcock). The movies were talking by the time this film was made, but apparently, Hitchcock didn’t get the memo. A silent movie in almost every respect, except for the fact that there’s sound. A bold experiment that suggests the wonders that exist in an alternate universe where Hitchcock didn’t get locked into his signature thrillers. The opening of this movie is a tour de force that might make King Vidor green with envy given that it neatly encapsulates all that was great in The Crowd into a two-minute montage. If only this were pure cinema, then it would be a masterpiece. But it’s not. It has the burden of telling the story of two wayward suburbanites who learn some hard lessons while on a round-the-world trip. The talking parts of the film just don’t work. The relationships just don’t ring true, and the performances are stiff in the way that only early-talkie performances are stiff. Every so often, though, the film shuts up long enough to come alive. Strange, strange film.

Ducks:
The Eyes Have It (1945, directed by Jack Hannah)
Donald’s Crime (1945, directed by Jack King)
Trombone Trouble (1944, directed by Jack King)
Duck Pimples (1945, directed by Jack Kinney)
Old Sequoia (1945, directed by Jack King)

It never occured to me before watching the latest Disney Treasures Donald Duck collection that the so-called “Good Duck Artist,” (aka: the great Carl Barks) was a force in the Donald Duck animated cartoons, but lo and behold, you can sense him. Just as he was as a cartoonist later on, he was largely anonymous in these shorts, but the jump in quality when he was behind a cartoon is visible. Among this group, the one that sticks out for me is Trombone Trouble, which seems like classic Barks. Mind you, the others here aren’t bad, but The Eyes Have It, a hypnotism gag, was done better at Warners, and Old Sequoia seems like a test reel for Chip and Dale. Donald’s Crime is a gem, though, as it casts Donald in one of his few sympathetic roles and reveals the influence of film noir even at Disney. Same goes for Duck Pimples, which introduces the world to Jessica Rabbit (I had always thought she came from Tex Avery, but here she is, big as life). Duck Pimples is as deranged a short as any Chuck Jones short, warping reality seemingly at a whim.

Speaking of Jones....

Duck Dodgers in the 24th and 1/2 Century (1953, directed by Chuck Jones) is grand retro-futurism, and Daffy Duck seems like he’s an ego just the right size for man’s conquest of space. But this isn’t the only game in town for retro-futurism, there’s also....

Our Friend the Atom (1958, directed by Hamilton Luske), which is unintentionally chilling as it details the uses to which radioactive isotopes can be put in agriculture. That’s not all it’s about, of course, but that sequence sent a chill through my spine. Personally, I like atomic science. I think it holds the promise to wean us from our petroleum habit (I love France’s approach to atomic power: “France has no coal, no oil, and no choice.”). But I’m not nearly so naive as to think the dangers aren’t profound. But then, I drive by a nuclear reactor on my way to work every day, so I’ve been living with it for a while. To its credit, this short isn’t so blind to the perils of atomic power either, and rightly compares it to a malign djinni. But it IS naive when it comes to radiation. Watching Heinz Haber repeatedly handle a chunk of uranium (possibly a prop, but still . . .) reminded me that the Curies died of cancer. In any event, a fascinating film.

Eyes in Outer Space (1959, directed by Ward Kimble) is less problematic in retrospect, given that much of the world of the future it projected is our everyday present. The subject is weather, and how man’s technology adapts to it. While we don’t have the weather control promised by this movie, we do have most everything else. Satellites have changed everything. Imagine, if you will, the horror that might have been wrought by Hurricane Katrina had remote sensing not predicted its likely path days ahead of schedule. In any event, the weather control stuff is fun, and the set they built for it is one of the coolest fifties sci-fi sets I can think of. This goes well with Bell Labs’ and Frank Capra’s Unchained Goddess, which as far back as the 1950s asked probing questions about how polution was changing our climate.

In any event, that’s enough pioneer spirit for one week...

Enjoy.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

My movie week: 1/16-1/22

I've posted a review of Flavia the Heretic over on my main site.

Beyond that, I watched Sergio Martino's All the Colors of the Dark (1972), yet another showcase for the giallo's golden couple of George Hilton and Edwige Fenech, who I last saw in The Case of the Bloody Iris. While this film has more style than that film, it's equally boring. The plot follows a woman who, seeking something to cling to after a car accident causes her to miscarry, is drawn into a circle of Satanists. There is an ulterior motive behind the events, and director Martino uses some "is it real?/is it a dream?" trickery to disguise the plot (a tendency compounded by the director's insistence on trading out blatantly absurd dreams with dreams that look like the mundane reality the movie presents as "reality"), but in the end, I thought to myself: "That's it? That's all there is? If that's all there is, then let's keep dancing, let's break out the booze and have a ball..." The more films from this tradition I see the more I appreciate Dario Argento. I had intended to review this for my site, too, but I just can't get enthused about it either way. It happens.

Much the same thing can be said of Larry Fessenden's Habit. (1997). I had seen and kinda sorta liked Fessenden's subsequent film, Wendigo. Like that film, Habit, is a fine character study that seems uncomfortable with its horror elements. It also labors under the "vampire" film as metaphor for some other contemporary problem" syndrome (addiction, in this case, as if the title of the film weren't a tip-off). I had intended to review this film for my site, too, but I nodded off at about the hour and ten minute mark. It had to be back at the video store the next day, so I didn't push myself to finish it. I may go back to it.

I had no problems at all with Hideo Gosha's Sword of the Beast from 1965, though. This is a cracking samurai film that inhabits its genre so completely, and executes its generic elements with an such expert hand that one barely notices that the film is completely disillusioned with the genre. Gosha, along with Kihachi Okamoto, was one of the principle "revisionist" samurai filmmakers, and in this film's dismantling of the notion of feudal honor, one can see the seeds of the total negation of the samurai film Gosha would later perpetrate in Goyokin. While I'm grateful to Criterion for putting this out, I wish that they had done right by the movie. Christ, there's not even a trailer on the disc. This is the most "bare bones" disc I've ever seen from Criterion, but I guess they have to do this stuff for themselves now that they don't have Home Vision to take on the second-tier releases. Alas...