Monday, February 18, 2008

Into the Archives

I’ve accumulated a LOT of movies on VHS over the years. I’ve been weeding out the pre-records for a while now through eBay and other means, replacing them as I can with DVDS (or laserdiscs), but that still leaves me with the vast archive of movies taped from cable and other sources. Couple this with the fact that VCRs aren’t as durable as they used to be and aren’t as easy to find for purchase as they used to be and one can see a serious problem looming ahead. Our main VCR turned itself into a brick late last year, so we splurged for a DVD-R/VCR combo player for Christmas. The idea is to archive the archive on the next generation of media. This dovetails nicely with my mission for the year of watching 366 movies. Movies that have no DVD editions are the first priority, which is reflected somewhat in my viewings this week.

39. I commemorated the passing of director Kon Ichikawa by watching the new Criterion edition of The Burmese Harp (1956), which is as warm and humane a film as I’ve ever seen that contains valleys of burned and dessicated corpses. The film follows a Japanese soldier who has learned to play a harp native to the Burmese, and his platoon, in the final days and aftermath of World War II. His Captain--a music teacher in civilian life--has taught the platoon to sing as a means of lifting their morale as they march to escape the Japanese defeat, but they are cornered in a village by the British, who return their song with a chorus “There’s No Place Like Home.” The war is over, and the reconciliation must begin. Our hero, Mizushima, is asked to help bring the surrender of an entrenched battalion, but after he fails, he is left for dead to wander the countryside, where he sees the horror left by the war and vows to stay to bury the dead. The overall tone is elegiac and Mizushima’s spiritual transformation is unutterably sad. This is par for the course for Japanese anti-war films, which reach depths of emotion that similar American films have never been able to touch. Defeat will do that to a nation, I guess. Ichikawa is among the finest Japanese directors when it comes to composing the film frame and this film reflects that. Music is extremely important to this film--hell, it’s practically a musical--so it doesn’t hurt that it’s provided by the great Akira Ifukube.

40. In a different vein entirely--a jugular vein, as it were--is Severance (2006, directed by Christopher Smith), a postmodernist mash-up of the rural massacre movie with “The Office,” in which a group of employees for an arms manufacturer are participating in a “team-building” exercise in the wilds of Eastern Europe. Little do they realize that they’ve stumbled into the hunting grounds of a group of psychopathic murderers. The film plays a little bit like Southern Comfort or Deliverance, with its occasional jibes at corporate culture leavening things, but once the bad guys are revealed, the whole thing becomes a chore to finish. Until that point, however, it’s a pretty creative bloodbath, with yet another candidate for the Madame Defarge Humanitarian Prize for Cinematic Decapitation, this time from the unusual point of view of the victim. Beyond that, it’s pretty easy to spot the Final Girl from the get-go, which is a bit of a disappointment. In spite of the tongue-in-cheek attitude, this is pretty rote.

41. Convicted (1950, directed by Henry Levin is another one of those socially conscious prison melodramas from the film noir era (this doesn’t quite qualify as noir, it should be noted). It follows poor schlub Glenn Ford as he’s railroaded for accidentally killing the son of a prominent politician in a bar brawl, in part from political pressure, in part from the incompetence of his attorney. The prosecutor on the case, played with bluster by Broderick Crawford, wants to help him out, but his hands are tied. Later, after he becomes the warden, Crawford is able to throw Ford a line. Meanwhile, Ford falls for Crawford’s daughter, played by Dorothy Malone. Neither as brutal as Brute Force, nor as deranged as Caged (which came out the same year), this wears its heart on its sleeve. Ford is particularly masochistic as the universe conspires against him; he gives a relatively passive performance that opens the door for Crawford to ride roughshod all over him. Convicted is made eminently watchable by the superb character actors populating the background, particularly Millard Mitchell as Ford’s cell-mate. It’s not bad, but it’s not in the first rank of prison dramas, either.

42. I’ve given up looking for plots among the features made by comedians who came out of Vaudeville, and that’s a wise approach to W. C. Fields’s The Bank Dick from 1940, directed, or, rather, wrangled by Edward F. Cline. And while the film may not have a plot--it follows Fields as Egbert Souse through careers as a movie director and a bank detective in the course of a single day--it does have a theme: no bad deed goes unrewarded. A liar, a cheat, a conman, a drunkard, and a sloth, Souse nevertheless finds riches at the end of the day. I like to think that the whole thing is an elaborate put-on, intended to tweak the censors without giving them anything concrete with which to object. This is certainly not a good movie in the way we normally understand movies, but of course that’s not the point even if it does provide an excellent climactic car-chase like a conventional movie might. The point is to provide a showcase for the persona of W. C. Fields, cinema’s own version of Falstaff.

43. Speaking of car chases, the one that concludes Don Siegel’s mostly unseen The Lineup (1958) is a corker, flying through San Francisco ten years before Bullitt and coming to an abrupt end on an unfinished freeway long before The Blues Brothers or Speed encountered the same hazard. It’s a hyperkinetic ending for a movie that starts slow and builds. Siegel, a classical director if ever there was one, understood the concept of rising action better than most. The film follows a trio of criminals as they retrieve a shipment of heroin from a number of unknowing mules, leaving a trail of bodies in their wake. Dancer, the triggerman, is trying to improve himself, and bows to Julian, the brains, who in addition to correcting Dancer’s grammar, also records the last words of their victims in a little black book. Their driver is Sandy, a kid with a taste for the juice. All of this is mainly an excuse to wander through a variety of locations in San Francisco, a city Siegel would revisit several times. The locations are evocative. An unjustly neglected film, and at a terse 86 minutes, one that doesn’t overstay its welcome.

44. Richard Fleischer’s Violent Saturday (1955) is what you might get if you crossed Peyton Place with one of Fleischer’s own heist movies from his early career. It’s an uneasy blend, and the first 50 minutes or so can be trying. The last 30 minutes, though, more than justify the title of the film, featuring a brutal bank robbery, followed by the equally brutal siege of an Amish farm. Afterwards, the Sirkian melodrama from the first two acts is dramatically changed. It’s a nice trick. On the whole, the film is a discordant mix of elements, and I can’t help but wonder what the Amish think of Hollywood’s occasional depiction of them as “straw dogs,” if you know what I mean. But then, I guess they don’t see much of it. I don’t know what it is about Ernest Borgnine that makes casting directors think “Amish,” but he played a pseudo-Amish character in Wes Craven’s Deadly Blessing, too. Terrific character work from a pretty good cast, especially Borgnine, Lee Marvin, and Sylvia Sydney, and lavished with that mid-Fifties Technicolor look.

45. David Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly (1986) finds the director summarizing the themes and images of his early films before turning to more esoteric idioms in his subsequent career. Cronenberg has always been a capable director of actors, but this is the first of his films where that element moves into the forefront. Sure, there’s all the gore and weird science that fans of his early films could ever want, but all of that takes a backseat to the melodrama and tragedy of the character arcs. This is possibly a function of quality actors finally becoming available to him. For that matter, the framing of the story is ideal for actors. You have what is essentially a chamber piece, with three significant characters. You could stage it for the theater on one set (and, as I write this, Cronenberg is directing an opera based on the film). This is, famously, a “re-imagining” of the original 1958 film, though that has been overstated over the years. The seeds of this film’s narrative can be found in the little-seen Curse of the Fly (1965), in which the teleportation gimmick is used to create host of deformities. Here, it’s given the sheen of twenty-odd years of biotechnological advances. But where that film--and the original 1958 film--are specifically about the gimmicks (characters are incidental), Cronenberg flips things around. This could be about any transforming disease. The director himself says it’s about aging, but you could just as easily view it from the perspective of a cancer patient or a man with Lou Gherig’s disease. Fortunately for the audience, Cronenberg isn’t interested in the usual emotional landscape of the disease of the week film. He’s more interested in examining the disease itself. It’s a “disease with a purpose,” he proposes, and it has a transformative effect on the afflicted. The changes themselves are interesting, and because his hero is a scientist, he catalogues the changes like a scientist, fascinated by the novelty of it all.

Jeff Goldblum has always received the lion’s share of the acclaim for his performance as Seth Brundle, our not so mad scientist, which is proper, I suppose. He’s good in a difficult role that requires him to emote through layers of prosthesis. But the spotlight on Goldblum has tended to obscure Geena Davis’s contribution to the film, which is considerable. The movie is ostensibly told from her point of view (Cronenberg is not particularly disciplined about this here, but as a general rule this is true). While we are certainly privy to Brundle’s transformation out of her sight, it’s worth keeping in mind that hers is the only character with an interior life that is laid bare for the audience. We see the point of view of her dreams late in the film. We don’t get that from Brundle. The story is a two-pronged tragedy: there’s the tragedy of Brundle’s disintegration as the fly takes over, and there’s the tragedy of Veronica Quaife, watching her lover deteriorate until she has to euthanize him herself. All love stories are tragic, Cronenberg once said of this film: one lover dies in the end, or they drift out of love.

46. Howard Hawks once said that no one should remake a good movie, but they should by all means remake bad ones. That principle is at work in Cronenberg’s The Fly. It is doubly at work in Chuck Russell’s sly remake of The Blob (1988). The original film isn’t very good. Let’s get that out of the way first. I’m not going to claim that the remake is a masterpiece, by any means, but not only is it a better film than its source, it’s a very interesting movie in its own right. , It’s an odd amalgam of several strains of 1980s horror, encompassing the teen horror comedy and the slasher movie (both of which it pokes with gentle and not-so-gentle parody), the techno-horror film, the government paranoia film, the fifties-era monster movie, and, finally, the apocalyptic horror film. On the surface, it’s the same damned film as the original film: the Blob falls from the sky and a group of teens have to rouse the adults and the authorities before it’s too late. But from there, it departs dramatically. The authorities are not to be trusted. Additionally, the mantle of hero is shorn from the big man on campus, and even from the rebellious troubled teen, and bestowed on the wholesome cheerleading girl next door, who goes from daddy’s princess to raging Rambette in the span of 85 minutes. It’s a pretty entertaining character arc, not just be cause it’s ridiculous, but because it’s unexpected. This is all well and good--kudos to director Russell and his writing partner, Frank Darabont for subverting expectation--but when you get right down to it, the audience for this movie wants special effects and gore. And here, it delivers in spades. This movie presents all the angry red slime anyone could ever want and serves it up in one ghastly set-piece after another. Particularly horrific is the fate awaiting Candy Clark’s restaurant owner, whose demise in a telephone booth is the film’s highlight. And then, after all is said and done, when the Blob and the evil government agents have been thwarted, The Blob gives a subtle flick of the tentacle at the end, becoming darker than a fun teen horror movie has any right to be.

47. I don’t really have anything to add to the dialogue about Casablanca (1942, directed by Michael Curtiz). I mean, this is ground that’s been plowed repeatedly by much more learned viewers than myself. My own experience with it is not even particularly unique. I put this movie on as a kind of comfort food at the end of the weekend. The only real thought I had while I was watching it was that the characters in Casablanca are all mysterious, but not enigmas. Why can’t Rick return to America? What’s Renault’s story, and who are the contacts that he claims at the end of the movie? What is the story behind Rick and Sam’s friendship? And, really, none of that matters. The audience isn’t asked to probe these questions because in the broad scheme of the movie, they don’t matter. They shade the characters, but they don’t define them. In any event, nothing that I can say about the movie amounts to a hill of beans in this crazy, mixed-up world.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Oil and Water

31. Though it was made in Mexico, Luis Bunuel's The Young One (1960) was the director's second and last English language movie. He would shortly return to Europe for his glory years, but you can see the director more or less in full command of his craft here. The story follows a black jazz musician on the run from a lynch mob after being wrongly accused of raping a white woman. He ends up on an island off the coast of North Carolina, where he meets with the caretaker of a game preserve (who instantly hates him with vivid racist zeal) and the girl in his care (who the caretaker is putting the moves on). The whole thing plays a bit like one of those Stanley Kramer pleas for racial tolerance from the period crossed with Tennessee Williams, and mixed with Bunuel's own cinematic fetishes. It's a combustible mix. Shot by the great cinematographer, Gabriel Figeroa, this looks better than similar Hollywood films, and being made in Mexico gives the filmmakers license to intimate more tawdry undercurrents in the relations between the characters. Bunuel, ever the mocking doubter, gets his digs in against religion, too.

32. Gran Casino (1947, directed by Luis Bunuel) finds the director returning to film from metaphorical exile. His first film in Mexico, it's a work-for-hire job and it shows. Still and all, there's an undercurrent of leftist rage in the film, and the musical form would seem to be the ideal vehicle for a surrealist artist.

33. The Orphanage (2007, directed by Juan Antonio Bayona) is a classical ghost story, so a certain amount of ritual can be seen in the film's construction. For the most part, it hews to the notion that haunted house stories are more about haunted people than ghosts, though there are certainly ghosts in this film. The story follows Laura, a woman who, with her husband and adopted son renovate the orphanage where she grew up with the aim of taking in special-needs children. Her son has multiple "imaginary" friends, who Laura comes to fear after her son disappears into the house without a clue. One "friend" in particular, a little boy with a burlap mask, terrorizes her. And what does the mysterious social worker who inquires after her boy want? There is nothing new under the sun in this movie (I think there needs to be a moratorium on children who make creepy drawings in horror movies), but that's to be expected in a subgenre as ritualized as the ghost story. It's executed to perfection, though, providing mood and atmosphere aplenty and at least one utterly horrifying shock to the system before settling down for a climax more filled with sorrow than with shudders.

34. Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932, directed by Robert Florey) is one of the more salacious pre-Code horror movies, in which mad evolutionist Professor Mirakle (Bela Lugosi) attempts to mix the blood of humans with that of his ape. The imagery is particularly strong, especially the torture of the streetwalker Mirakle abducts in the early part of the film. For a film made so close to the end of the silent era, in which cameras became rooted to the spot to accomodate bulky sound equipment, this film shows a fair degree of visual imagination. Certainly, cinematographer Karl Freund stamps his genius all over this film, creating an unreal Paris of the imagination. The most striking shot in the film mounts a camera on a swing. The story? It's pretty silly, and shows evidence of being shuffled by the studio. It's amazing how anti-science the Universal horrors could be. This one is pretty lunk-headed about Darwinism, and even sets the film prior to Darwin's work. I guess Professor Mirakle was farther ahead of the curve than it seems.

35. The Black Cat (1934, directed by Edgar Ulmer) is the best of the Karloff/Lugosi teamings (the two appear together in The Body Snatcher, too, but that film is hardly an equal pairing). It's one of the few horror films from America to show the trauma of World War I so prominently. Lugosi is the nominal "good guy," though he's clearly insane and clearly ruthless. But not without cause, because Karloff, in a remarkably still and creepy performance, is even worse, an unreconstructed monster in modernist surroundings. There's an interesting suggestion that the sleek, art-deco world of the years between the wars are built on the bones of The Great War's victims: Karloff's character has built his Bauhaus temple on the ruins of a notorious prison camp, where Lugosi's character was once interred. Supposedly, this was made while the studio heads were in Europe, which explains the sheer lunacy of the proceedings.

36. Transfixed (2001, directed by Francis Girod) plays a little bit like a Brian De Palma film with the roles reversed. Its hero(ine) is Bo, a transsexual prostitute who is testifying against her father, who has been accused of child-molestation. She's reluctant to help the police because she still bears the scars of being ignored by them as a child. Unfortunately, there's a serial killer bumping off transsexuals, and her closeness to the victims draws her into the investigation. Further confounding things is her erotic obsession with Johnny, a thuggish gigolo who lives across the way from her. It's all very muddled, especially after the police decide that Bo is suspect number one. For all of that, one would hope for a more exciting film.

37. There Will Be Blood (2007, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson): short version, I didn't like this at all. Long version here:

38. In The Raven (1935, directed by Lew Landers), we have Karloff and Lugosi squaring off again, with Lugosi hogging the limelight this time as a Poe obsessed surgeon who builds a dungeon in his mansion complete with pit and pendulum. Karloff, for his part, is the hired help, a disfigured criminal doing Lugosi's bidding in the hopes that his maimed face can be repaired. The object of Lugosi's obsession is the beautiful daughter of a judge. The ensuing rigamarole is a variant on the old dark house movie. Minor, for the most part. It's hard to believe that Poe fared better with Roger Corman, but there you go. "Poe! You are avenged!" Goofy.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Movies for the week of 1/28-2/3

25. For a guy who didn't make any kind of name for himself in horror movies, Lambert Hillyer made a couple of interesting ones. The better of the two is The Invisible Ray (1936)--the other is Dracula's Daughter--in part because it has a terrific, subdued performance by Bela Lugosi as the good guy. Karloff, for his part, is off his rocker in this movie and it's not much different than his "off his rocker mad scientist" in The Man Who Changed His Mind, save for the bad perm he wears in this movie. Lugosi is a revelation. It's the sort of change-up that Peter Cushing was later able to accomplish fairly often. Diabolical in one role, radiating kindness and warmth in the next. Frankly, I never though Lugosi was capable of it, and yet, here's the proof. And through a sinister goatee, to boot. The story is a bunch of improvisations surrounding Karloff's discovery and poisoning by the mysterious Radium X, which makes his touch lethal. Lugosi is a colleague who formulates a medicine to keep Karloff from burning himself up. It's all very routine, actually, though I'm amused at the notion that Africa is the source of Radium X; in real life, Africa has the richest uranium resources in the world. In any event, one wishes that Lugosi had been offered this kind of role more often.

26. Black Friday (1940, directed by Arthur Lubin), on the other hand, consigns Lugosi to a thankless supporting role, badly miscast as a gangster. Karloff is a scientist again (natch), this time with a radical brain transplantation technique which he uses to save the life of his best friend. To this end, he uses a gangster's brain, a gangster with the key to a half-million dollar stash of loot. Writer Curt Siodmak had a thing for brain stories. For the most part, both Karloff AND Lugosi are supporting players here, behind Stanley Ridges as the poor subject of Karloff's treatment. And that should tell you that the filmmakers were misapplying their resources wholesale.

27. Akira Kurosawa's Drunken Angel (1948) was described by the director himself as the film where he found his style. On the surface, that style seems to be a combination of American film noir and Italian neo-realism, which seems to me to be unsynthesized by the director at the time of making this film. It is, however, the first of Kurosawa's collaborations with Toshiro Mifune, and in this, it's important. Mifune was a force of nature in this film: raging, forlorn, and impossibly handsome as a yakuza underboss who discovers that he has tuberculosis. The doctor who diagnosis him is Kurosawa's other favorite, Takashi Shimura, and this is really his film. His alcoholic doctor, laboring in a slum next to an open sewer, is miles and miles away from his wise samurai in Seven Samurai or his wise scientist in Godzilla. He's his own worst enemy, a flawed doctor who manages to find some redemption for himself, even though he can't save Mifune's character. It's a pretty good movie. I would hesitate to call it a masterpiece, even if one is inclined toward the medieval definition of that word. Kurosawa would later re-frame elements of this film--particularly the climactic knife fight in which both antagonists become covered in paint--in Stray Dog, a film that probably IS a masterpiece.

28. Luis Bunuel is most associated with Salvador Dali when it comes to artists, mainly on the strength of their collaborations in the 1930s, but the more I watch his films, the more convinced I become that his more natural antecedant is actually Heironymous Bosch. Bosch was simultaneously an irreligious mocker and devoted interpeter of Catholicism, often in grotesque terms. Bunuel is much the same. Bunuel's The Milky Way (1968) is perhaps a shade less caustic than Viridiana, but by exposing the various catechisms and heresies of Catholicism to a blank-faced examination, he finds a level of absurdity that his earlier film never approached. And in spite of this, Bunuel's version of Jesus Christ remains the most humane depiction in film. We see Christ laugh. We see him shave. We see him out of breath. And we see, at the end of the film, that he's clearly deluded. The movie follows two pilgrims on the way to Santiago de Compestella, following the route of the so-called Milky Way. On the way, they encounter a series of unrelated scenes that enact various heresies against Catholicism, which causes them to examine their own understanding of Catholic dogma. They also seem to be travelling through time, encountering Biblical and medieval tableaux along with modern European ones. This is probably Bunuel's most overtly surreal film since his early career. The film's last image is the drollest joke in his filmography.

29. I was pleasantly surprised by Jason Reitman's Juno (2007). Behind its hipster dialogue, there's a closely observed humanity in this film that one rarely sees in comedies anymore. It's great fun seeing the film navigate its way away from expected stereotypes. While Ellen Page is terrific in the lead role, I'm pretty sure that I could watch J. K. Simmons read the phone book with some amount of pleasure and I seriously need to re-evaluate the talent of Jennifer Garner. Garner is NOT saddled with hip dialogue, it should be noted, and is set up as an object of ridicule in her early scenes. But damned if the movie doesn't detonate that expectation. I loved the end of this movie. Loved it.

30. As an example of meta-cinema, The Girl Hunters (1963, directed by Roy Rowland) is pretty weird. Adapted from one of Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer novels, the film casts the author himself as Hammer. But that's not all. One of the gripes that Spillane had with the film version of Kiss Me Deadly was that Hammer came off as kind of a douchebag. With the author himself in the role, Hammer comes off, again, as kind of a douchebag. Crazy. The politics Hammer and Spillane spew is hillariously over the top, with the author's right-wing paranoia given full reign. The story follows Hammer after a seven year bender, jumping on the wagon when word reaches him that his secretary, Velda, is alive. It's weird how this movie plays like a middle film in a series, but that's the way it goes. Spillane isn't completely awful as an actor, actually, though he is very, very limited. In Spillane's hatchet profile, one can see where Frank Miller got the design elements of his character, Marv, in Sin City. Even so, Shirley Eaton has no problem stealing the movie from him. But it's not much of a movie in any event. I like the score by Philip Green, and some of the photography is nice, but the story itself is one narrative blunder after another.