Monday, January 28, 2008

Movies for 1/21-1/27, 2008

19. Much as I love the Marx Brothers, no one in the world can convince me that they made more than two good movies. For the most part, the "good" movies are thought to be their early movies, but on the evidence of Animal Crackers (1930, directed by Victor Heerman), I must respectfully disagree. This sucker creaks. Oh, Groucho still gets in a few good ones as the redoubtable Captain Spaulding--and even he occasionally delivers his lines in a deadpan that suggests he'd rather be at the track--but the shenanigans surrounding the theft of a painting are woefully lame, and neither Chico or Harpo manages anything inspired. Was Zeppo even in this one? I guess he was, but he doesn't make an impression. On the plus side--or maybe the plus size--Margaret Dumont is at her most Margaret Dumontish.

20. Regarding Rambo (2008, directed by Sylvester Stallone), I have this to say: Red. Meat. City.

Sly has been looking at Eye-Talian cannibal movies, it seems.

I have a certain fondness for Rocky III. It's not the serious-minded film one finds in the first Rocky by any means, but when I saw it again for the first time in decades last year, I was struck by how absolutely perfect it was. In so far as it was calculated to manipulate the audience, it hits every calculated note. Stallone tried this out again with the sequel to First Blood, and lo and behold, it was a monster hit, too. Of course, this approach can only take you so far, and the blatant manipulation absent any artistic pretense of movies like Cobra and Rocky IV becomes risible over time. Stallone's career followed suit. Was Rocky III a fluke? As I was walking out of Stallone's first Rambo movie in twenty years, I came to the conclusion that I was looking at exactly the same kind of film. It's perfect of its type. It knows exactly what fans of the Rambo movies want in a movie and it provides it. All I could do was laugh at the audacity of it.

21. I fell asleep while I was watching Fred Niblo's silent Ben-Hur over the weekend, but when I woke up, the tape was queued up for The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921, directed by Rex Ingram). This was one of the first blockbusters, a World War I epic in which a family finds itself on both sides of the conflict. This was the star-making film for Rudolph Valentino, whose nonchalant libertine in this movie was a fantasy for both men and women. The highlight of the film is a literal presentation of the four horsemen of the film's title.

22. Wild Side (2004, directed by Sébastien Lifshitz) finds a transsexual prostitute returning home to care for her ailing mother. With her come her two lovers, Mikhail, a Russian immigrant who speaks no French, and Djamel, a street hustler. This is, to say the least, awkward. But the film doesn't make excuses for these characters, each of whom is presented as damaged. They don't fit into the traditional relationship structures, so they're building structures of their own. There's a calculated existential desolation and loneliness in this movie, but I'll say this for it: if I ever make a film in which the human body is an object of the camera's gaze, I want Agnes Godard to shoot it. No one captures light on skin the way she does. I'm more than a little bit disappointed to see yet another transsexual who makes her living as a prostitute, but at least actress Stéphanie Michelini is herself a transsexual.

23. Harold and Maude (1971, directed by Hal Ashby) is one of my SO's favorite movies, but to my eye, it hasn't aged well. I think it's all the Cat Stevens. I like Bud Cort in this, but I've never really warmed up to Ruth Gordon. I just keep recasting her in my mind as Minnie Castavets from Rosemary's Baby, which is death to sympathy, methinks. Mind you, that's my problem, not the movie's.

24. Seven Seas to Calais (1962, directed by Rudolph Mate and Primo Zeglio) is a pretty lame Euro production that attempts to make a swashbuckler out of the career of Sir Francis Drake. Drake's biography would lend itself to a crackerjack swashbuckler, actually, but this film isn't it. Rod Taylor is pretty good as Drake, as is Irene Worth as Queen Elizabeth, but the story is flat, the film was edited with a chainsaw, and the comedy relief sequences among the native Americans were cringe-worthy. And can one stage the defeat of the Spanish Armada in a swimming pool? This film makes the attempt.

Monday, January 21, 2008


13. Yasuzo Masumura's Black Test Car (1962) is an indictment of capitalist backstabbing among industrial spies, and if it's less outrageous a film than Masumura's earlier Giants and Toys, it's certainly as scathing a criticism. The montage of the burning wreckage of the test car of the title is a neat summary of the movie as a whole.

14. Johnnie To's Exiled (2006) is more or less a remake of the director's The Mission, but where The Mission turned its back on the gonzo filmmaking of the Hong Kong new wave, this film embraces it fully. A quartet of gangland assassins duel over their intended victim, only to abandon their hit over dinner when the victim's new wife and child intercede. Unfortunately, the boss who hired them is none too happy about it. The opening movement of the film seems like To's ode to the opening of Once Upon a Time in the West, while there are two apocalyptic gunfights later in the film that see the director interpreting the gunfights of John Woo or Ringo Lam in his own idiom. To loves to stage his mayhem in master shots where the combatants are close in on each other. A marvel of bullets and bodies in motion.

15. Big Trouble in Little China (1986, directed by John Carpenter) is one of those mid-eighties films where Hollywood tried (and failed) to catch the zeitgeist of the Hong Kong action films. My SO put this in the machine and immediately noted: "When I first saw this, I didn't know what 'wire fu' was." Kurt Russell is a picture of an incompetent hero, whose only real heroic act is to put an end to the big bad guy. It's been a while since I've watched this all the way through. This is the first time I realized that the "Masters of Death" were swiped from the second Lone Wolf and Cub film. This film was made at about the time that Carpenter's muse was beginning to leave him.

16. Cloverfield (2008, directed by Matt Reeves) doesn't have an original thought in its head, but damned if it doesn't work in spite of all of that. This film takes the classic mistake of Kaiju movies--emphasis on the human cast--and turns it into a razor sharp narrative gimmick. It's hard to believe that it's taken nearly ten years for someone to find the perfect use for The Blair Witch Project's technique of putting the camera in the hands of its characters. We still don't care all that much about the film's shallow, yuppie characters--which is good, otherwise their various deaths might overwhelm the movie--but seeing things from their ground-level point of view has a startling immediacy that I've never seen in this genre before, and that immediacy returns the giant monster movie resolutely into the realm of the horror movie. The film's best set-piece (involving a perilously leaning skyscraper) doesn't even depend on the monster. That all said, Cloverfield's most generous gift to the viewer is Michael Giacchino's faux Akira Ifukube "Overture" over the end credits.

17. Much as I like Hitchcock's original version of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), I understand implicitly why Hitch decided to remake it. He grasped that this original version ends at the wrong point. Instead of the vivid climax at the Royal Albert Hall, the bare outlines of which are present here, it ends with a big gunfight. It's kind of an anti-climax. Still, Peter Lorre is a superb bad guy even if Leslie Banks is a stiff as the lead.

18. I've sometimes expounded my theory about what I call "The Catherine Deneuve Problem." Essentially: if you have Catherine Deneuve in your movie, you have a problem because the actress is so inhumanly lovely that she can potentially ride roughshod over whatever your movie is about. There are, it seems to me, two solutions to this problem. The first is to submit to it and turn your picture into an adoration. This is how Jacques Demy approached it, for instance. The other solution is to defile her. This is the solution that Polanski used in Repulsion, but Luis Bunuel beat him to it in Belle de Jour, and repeated the experiment in Tristana in 1970. There was something about Deneuve that brought out the director's sadomasochism, and in this movie, he constructs a rigorous examinations of sexual power games, in which Deneuve's character submits to the older Don Lupe (Fernando Rey), only to turn the tables on him once she loses her leg to a tumor. This film is Bunuel at his most brutal, and the imagery is particularly grotesque.

Current tally: 18 movies, 9 horror movies.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Dark Pasts, Dark Futures

8. There is a certain shock of recognition found in watching Shinobi no mono (1962, directed by Satsuo Yamamoto), because many of its ninja set pieces were swiped wholesale by screenwriter Roald Dahl for You Only Live Twice. I found myself saying, "Hey, wait a minute..." quite often. The copious program notes confirm the influence (both films share the same advisor on all things ninja, too). Beyond that, this film is a labyrinthine historical piece in which two rival ninja clans are manipulated by their ruling masters against the rise of the warlord Oda Nobunaga. Caught in the middle is ninja prodigy Ishikawa Goemon, who, through his inability to keep it in his pants finds himself an outcast under the secret direction of the master of his clan. This film has tons of plot--too much plot for one movie, probably--perhaps because almost all of the principle characters are actual historical figures and perhaps because the screenwriter had all sorts of interesting extrapolations to the historical record. Goemon (historically a Robin Hood figure) is played by the excellent Raizo Ichikawa, a matinee idol who died much too young. Other familiar character actors litter the movie, including Yunosuke Ito playing yet another scowling old man and Tomisaburo Wakayama as Nobunaga. I hope Animeigo picks up the movies that follow this one in series.

9. and 10. Witchfinder General (1968, directed by Michael Reeves) is such a bitter little pill that it's no wonder that its director committed suicide shortly after it was made. The film finds Vincent Price as Matthew Hopkins, a self-styled witch hunter scouring the English countryside for witches with his not so faithful assistant, for a price. In opposition is soldier Ian Oglivy, who vows to kill Hopkins after Hopkins hangs his mentor and rapes his wife. The whole thing comes to a brutally nihilistic end. There's a strong theme of generational strife in this film--a product of its time, no doubt--and it would make an interesting double-bill with Blood on Satan's Claw (1971, directed by Piers Haggard), which is the opposite side of the same coin. That film posits its young people as truly in league with the devil, demonizes Britain's pre-Christian past, and impales Satan himself on the end of a holy avenger sword in the hands of its witch hunter. It's almost as if the makers of this film were pursuing a reactionary answer to Reeves's film. Both films make superb atmospheric use of the English countryside, keeping the eye entertained even when there's nothing important happening on screen.

11. Paul Verhoeven's RoboCop (1986) is awfully funny, but its humor is leavened with such strong graphic violence that audiences can be forgiven for not laughing at it, I guess. That was my experience when I first saw it back in the day. I was the only person in the theater laughing. Some of the people near me gave me funny looks. Part Kafka, part Philip K. Dick, and part Dirty Harry, this remains the director's most satisfying work in English. He's helped by a committed lead performance by Peter Weller, by stellar character work by Kurtwood Smith, Ronny Cox, Dan O'Herlihy, et al., by superb design work by make-up man Rob Bottin and stop-motion artist Phil Tippett, and by Basil Poledouris's riveting score.

12. I originally saw The Terminator (1984, directed by James Cameron) the night it opened. Jesus, that was 24 years ago. I saw it with some high school buddies, and none of us had high expectations. My buddies mainly wanted to see action, and I can't say that I didn't want the same, but I knew that this was made by the guy who made Piranha II: The Spawning, which I had endured a few months before on cable, so I just prayed that it wouldn't suck too much. I mean, really, a movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger (fresh from Conan the Destroyer) as a killer robot? I think that all of us came out of the movie looking like we had been hit in the forehead by a two by four. This is a movie that laid the lumber to the audience like no other film in the marketplace at the time. It was unrelenting. I can even pinpoint the spot where I knew the movie was going to kick my ass: the scene where the terminator pops his eyeball out with an X-acto knife, revealing the electronic eye behind it.

In any event, I hadn't seen the movie in over a decade. Some perspective creeps in with time. One thing that is immediately apparent in retrospect is how much the "look" of the film is in line with other sci fi exploitation films from the same period. It looks very similar to Escape from New York or Galaxy of Terror, and, of course, there's a reason for this. This look was more or less authored by Jim Cameron when he was working as a special effects man. The other thing that I noticed about the movie was how bad the performances by its principles are. Both Michael Biehn and Linda Hamilton are servicable and both of them are blown off the screen by Schwarzenegger, in spite of the fact that Arnold has a mere 16 lines of dialogue (the film is arguably stolen by two cameos: the redoubtable Dick Miller as a gun shop owner and Bill Paxton as a punk). It's also apparent that much of the film's forward motion is the result of creative editing, rather than elaborate set-pieces, a nod to the paucity of resources available to the filmmakers.

The arc of the movie's plot has the most in common with slasher movies: we have an unstoppable killer rampaging through the cast until we are left with only the final girl to confront him. There's even a hint of the moral universe of the slasher movie when Sarah Connor's slutty roommate and her boyfriend are killed by the terminator. Thematically, however, the movie most resembles Frankenstein, which Isaac Asimov once described as the story of a robot that turns on its creator. From a purely cinematic point of view, the lumbering injured terminator at the end of the movie recalls the Monster from the old Universal Frankensteins (especially Son of Frankenstein), and the electrical effects throughout the movie should be a dead giveaway. To an extent, this is the living end of the Frankenstein story, in which our creation and our hubris brings about a heavy metal apocalypse. And this, more than any other element of the movie, is what strikes a chord.


Friday, January 11, 2008

A Year-long Movie Argosy

I've been lazy about writing about the movies I've seen in the past year, so I thought I'd try to jumpstart my interest in it by setting myself a goal for the new year. Thus, my current project is a variant of the October movie challenge. It is my intention to watch at least one movie for every day of the year (and it's a leap year, to boot). At least half of them--183 of them--must be horror movies. I can only count any individual movie once for the year, though I am free to watch movies multiple times if I like (subsequent viewings just won't be counted). This is my goal. We'll see if I can get there without becoming barking mad by mid-year. As a result, the number at the beginning of my reviews this year will designate where I am on this project.

To start the year:

1. The Face Of Another (1966), a weird, weird portrait of alienation and shifting identity by Japanese director Hiroshi Teshigahara. Slow, but visually arresting and creepy as all get-out.

2. MadHouse (1974, directed by Jim Clark), in which Vincent Price gives a committed performance beyond his usual hamming, in service to a screenplay that is entirely undeserving and to a director who is a clod. Still, it's nice to see Price share the screen with Peter Cushing.

3. A Bucket of Blood (1959), one of Roger Corman's three-day wonders, and better than any movie made in three days has any right being. Dick Miller is terrific as a hapless wanna-be hipster who finds his muse by encasing corpses in clay. Fun, and witty.

4. Bloody Mama (1970) isn't one of Corman's finer pictures. Shelly Winters is Ma Barker, and her brood of degenerates includes a very young Robert De Niro. Lots of sex and violence, but it suggests that Corman has looked hard at Bonnie and Clyde and seen only the exploitation potential without the rigor of the filmmaking. Corman was getting tired of directing by this point, and it shows.

5. Holiday (1938, directed by George Cukor) questions the pursuit of wealth. This film couldn't be made today--it's too openly critical of capitalism and class--but give it a couple of years. Cary Grant is superb as a young idealist marrying wealth, only to find the world of wealth to be stifling. Kate Hepburn is the free-spirited sister of his fiancee, who knows exactly what kind of gilded cage he's entering. This is sometimes billed as a comedy, but I can't for the life of me understand why. Good supporting parts from Henry Daniell and Edward Everett Horton (who always makes me think of Fractured Fairy Tales).

6. The Haunted Strangler (1958, directed by Robert Day). Interesting Karloff programmer in which Boris plays a writer obsessed with a strangler he believes to have been wrongly convicted. Unfortunately, Karloff himself--unbeknownst to his conscious mind--is the true murderer. Well mounted on a budget with relatively good performances from all involved. Karloff gets to screw up his face with aplomb when the strangler comes to the surface. Not great, but engaging at 80 minutes of length.

7. The Quiet Duel (1949, directed by Akira Kurosawa) follows a doctor who contracts syphillis while operating on a patient during WW II, and his life back home as he deals with the shame of it. In general, this is good, but not great. It plays like a first draft without the resources of, say, Red Beard. Still, there's a lot to admire. Kurosawa's regulars are fine, including an early performance from Toshiro Mifune and a fine appearance by Takashi Shimura, who I can always watch.

Current total: 7 movies. 4 horror movies.