Monday, January 26, 2009

Three Dimensional

For the Vincent Price Challenge:

The Oblong Box (1969, directed by Gordon Hessler) teams Vincent Price with Christopher Lee in a film that was supposed to be directed by Michael Reeves before his untimely death. Pity. Maybe he could have made more of the film's ridiculous plot, involving disfigured noblemen, body snatchers, and voodoo. As it is, it looks a lot like a television film. Not the best work of anyone involved.

The touchstone film to see for the 3-D process has always been Andre de Toth's House of Wax (1953), which, coincidentally, more or less turned Vincent Price into the next generation's Boris Karloff. This was a prestige production and it shows, not only in its production values, but in the lush Technicolor photography. It's more or less a remake of The Mystery of the Wax Museum--also a pioneering Technicolor film in its day--minus the Glenda Farrell reporter and the snappy dialogue. It's probably better for the focus on the main plot, in which disfigured sculptor creates disturbingly realistic wax sculptures from the bodies of his victims. There's a hint of the moral universe of the slasher film here, as good-time girl on the make Carolyn Jones (later Morticia Addams) is a victim while her virginal friend, Phyllis Kirk is the final girl. I've always been amazed that the most impressive display of 3-D was made by a director who only had one eye. Go figure.

The modern 3-D process is marginally more sophisticated, but the effects committed to celluloid are more of the same. Long things (sticks, guns, pointy tools) stick out of the screen at the audience. One hopes that more talented directors than Patrick Lussier will make better use of the process. All told, Lussier's remake of My Bloody Valentine (2009) is competent and agreeably mean-spirited. The 3-D got me into the theater, so in that way, it's a success. I might have seen it anyway, since it has Tom Atkins in it in a Tom Atkins-y role. Plus he gets a memorable and thorougly revolting death scene. I think it's also interesting for taking the convention of having 30 year old actors playing teenagers and advancing the plot until they're the right age for their characters. It also gets points for knowing what the audience for its sub-genre wants: gore and nudity. True, there's only one nude scene in the movie, and it's NOT starring scorching hot Megan Boone, but kudos to Betsy Rue for playing an extended scene completely starkers, full frontal. It's a doozy. Unfortunately, the movie plays its hand too early, and if anyone doesn't catch on to who the killer really is before the 40 minute mark, they just aren't paying attention. Plus, all of the really "good" stuff is frontloaded, and I spent the last 30 minutes of the movie waiting for it all to play out. The 3-D itself seemed more like a distraction than anything--I think they really needed to keep a deep-focus composition through out (they didn't)--and I wonder how the movie plays without it. I'm not going to pay to find out, though.

The Silent Partner (1978, directed by Daryl Duke) is one of those films that used to show up late at night on cable in the early 1980s along with stuff like Guyana: Cult of the Damned or The Evictors. It's always been hard to find on video, though it was in print on at least two separate VHS labels. It finally made it to DVD last year, and there was much rejoicing. This is a razor sharp thriller, in which nebbish bank teller Elliot Gould foxes vicious bank robber Christopher Plummer. Unfortunately, Plummer KNOWS he's been had, and a game of cat and mouse ensues. This film originally stuck in my mind for two scenes. The first, Plummer making dire, reasoned threats at Gould through a mail slot. The second, one of the nastiest decapitation scenes in film. I can only imagine how that last scene must have shocked an audience expecting a more genteel film based on its cast. Credit where credit is due: screenwriter Curtis Hanson gives a masterclass in suspense clockwork (Hanson later made L. A. Confidential) and Plummer and Gould make it tick. I need to apologize to Elliot Gould, too. I've never liked Gould, and I've said bad things about his performance in this film, too. But it was unwarranted. He's nearly perfect. I also didn't realize it back when I first saw it, but this film LOOKS Canadian. It never dawned on me how much this film looks like Cronenberg or any miscellaneous slasher film from the same era. Maybe it's the light. In any event, this comes highly recommended.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Poe, Gangsters, Bogart

For the Vincent Price Challenge:

The Haunted Palace (1963, directed by Roger Corman). Long review here.

The Pit and the Pendulum (1961, directed by Roger Corman). I used to think all of the Roger Corman Poe films were all alike. In terms of their subtexts, almost all of them ARE alike, but visually, they each have a unique identity. This one is very much the drabbest of them, a production heavy on the neutral colors and overall murk. It also has the most shocking ending of the Poe films, eschewing Corman's usual pyrotechnic displays in favor of a final shot worthy of E. C. Comics. Oh, Vincent Price essentially reprises his role as Roderick Usher for most of the film, before rampaging off into a more homicidal turn later. Les Baxter's score is suitably off-kilter, especially when it is first heard over the psychedelic colors of the pre-credit sequence. Not the best of the Poe films, I think, but the most fun of them.

The rest of the week:

It's no use for me to debate where GoodFellas (1990, directed by Martin Scorsese) ranks in the pantheon of Scorsese movies. It's not one of my favorites, but that's no big thing, because it doesn't need MY approval. For better or for worse, it's Scorsese's masterpiece, a film that distills everything Scorsese had learned about film to that point into 146 minutes of the director demonstrating what a motherfucker he is. As pure cinema, it's a joy to watch--no small feat for a film that relies heavily on a voice-over narration. It's so slick that it kind of mitigates it's aim of de-romanticizing the gangster archetype because the violence, when it comes, escalates over time into the operatic. The sequence late in the movie when we are given a tour of Jimmy the Gent's massacre of his collaborators is every bit the set-piece that the baptism sequence in The Godfather is.

Across the Pacific (1942, directed by John Huston) is kind of an anti-auteur movie, a gun-for-hire piecework that shows its director at his most anonymous, which is interesting given that the film re-unites three of the principles from Huston's version of The Maltese Falcon (Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet, and Mary Astor). The story follows disgraced soldier/intelligence operative Bogart as he uncovers a plot to sabotage the Panama Canal on the eve of Pearl Harbor. It's propaganda, no doubt, and it shows how ugly propaganda can be: this is VERY racist, indulging in every negative stereotype of the Japanese one can imagine, while ALSO calling for the round-up of the Nisei because, of course, they can't be trusted, either. Ugly film, one that Huston himself had enough contempt for that he left it unfinished and insoluble for other hands to finish (in this case, the unfortunate Vincent Sherman, speaking of whom...).

All Through the Night (1941, directed by Vincent Sherman) is altogether more palatable, though no less propagandist. Made before America's entry into the war, this already warns of Nazi fifth columnists with villains Conrad Veidt and Peter Lorre. Bogart is still in his gangster persona here, over-layered with a Runyon-esque veneer of all American tough guy. The character cast is deep, including Jackie Gleason, William Demarest, Phil Silvers, and Wallace Ford. Whatever else may be wrong with the film, it's fun to look at the faces on screen, and listen to that hard-boiled dialogue the Warner script department could churn out in their sleep. It's fun watching Bogart begin to turn the gangster persona into something else, a transformation he would complete in The Maltese Falcon.

Rome, Season 1

Episode 3: An Owl in a Thornbush
Episode 4: Stealing from Saturn

Things start to get fun--not that they weren't fun before--as Caesar crosses the Rubicon, Pompey retreats, Atia plots, and Pullo swipes the stolen treasury from Pompey's agents. I'm really digging Ciarán Hinds as Caesar--possibly the best Caesar I've ever seen (with the possible exception of Roddy McDowell in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes), and I'm really starting to like Ray Stevenson as Pullo. Polly Walker continues to steal the series, though. This is a serious porn-gasm for a history geek like me.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Into 2009.

This blog was never actually intended as a "blog" per se. I originally started it as a means of archiving the writing I've done on message boards (particularly at the IMDB). Somewhere along the line, it took on a life of its own. Right now, though, I'm pressed for time, so this week's posting is just a listing of what I've watched since the beginning of the year. I'll come back to all of this--perhaps even in this blog entry--and write something. I've already written about The Tomb of Ligeia and Laura on my stand-alone web site, and I don't really have much to say beyond what I originally wrote. I've included links. The rest? Maybe later in the week.

I'm not counting the movies I watch this year. I think I'll get more enjoyment out of them if I just watch them without worrying about making a quota. Anyway...

For the Vincent Price challenge on the IMDB Horror Boards:

The Tomb of Ligeia (1964, directed by Roger Corman)
Leave Her to Heaven (1945, directed by John M. Stahl)
Laura (1945, directed by Otto Preminger)
Vincent (1982, directed by Tim Burton)
While the City Sleeps (1955, directed by Fritz Lang)

Just for the fun of it:

The Last Life in the Universe (2003, directed by Pen-Ek Ratanaruang)

After Hours (1985, directed by Martin Scorsese)

Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008, directed by Nicholas Stoller) Yay! Penis shots! Woo hoo!

Casablanca (1943, directed by Michael Curtiz)

Rome, Season One (2005)
Episode 1: "The Stolen Eagle (directed by Michael Apted)
Episode 2: "How Titus Pullo Brought Down the Republic" (directed by Michael Apted)

Agreeably violent, agreeably sexy, and loaded with the kind of palace intrigue that made I, Claudius so much fun to watch. This series rocks so far. Ciarán Hinds, they guy they got to play Caesar, is superb, but Polly Walker is in the process of stealing the show. Not hard to do when one gets that many nude scenes. Nice.


Saturday, January 03, 2009

All Done for 2008. Happy New Year.

Wow. My last batch of films for 2008 certainly had a queer slant to them.

342. Gilda (1946, directed by Charles Vidor). The first hydrogen bomb was named "Gilda. " This movie is why. Rita Hayworth is the bombshell of all bombshells in this movie. The movie poster for this movie paints the dress she wears in "Put the Blame on Mame" as green, but in black and white, it becomes whatever color you like, so long as it's the color of sex. Incredibly, the two men in the story, Glenn Ford and George MacReady, seem to have eyes only for each other. This is just about the queerest movie the golden age of Hollywood ever produced.

343. Excalibur (1981, directed by John Boorman) is full of such obvious symbolism that it sometimes surprises me with how subtle it is. I mean, the interesting twinning effect that goes on at the marriage of Arthur and Guinevere never dawned on me before, as the camera follows Merlin and Morgana rather than the ceremony itself. Or maybe John Boorman realized that Nicol Williamson and Helen Mirren were the two most interesting members of his cast, and decided that this was one of the best opportunities to take advantage. Nigel Terry and Nicholas Clay are pretty stiff as Arthur and Launcelot, though I took more notice of Cheri Lunghi this time round. Still, Boorman occasionally lets his half-assed mysticism get the better of him, even though the movie always looks fabulous.

344. All About My Mother (1999, directed by Pedro Almodovar) is the director's most heartfelt hymn to her, whether they be Madonnas or whores or both (Penelope Cruz play's a pregnant nun--you do the math). This is my favorite of Almodovar's movies, in part because it manages the not-inconsiderable feat of taking a character who starts as a cliche--Antonia San Juan's transsexual prostitute (sheesh, again?)--and gives her her dignity as just another woman. Oh, and Cecilia Roth is my favorite of Pedro's leading ladies.

345. Milk (2008, directed by Gus Van Sant) is a film that packs so much shock of recognition into its moral arc that it's hard not to see it through the lens of contemporary GLBT politics. The events of Harvey Milk's life seem to have replayed themselves writ large in 2008. One could very well mistake this as a VERY IMPORTANT MOVIE, but for the fact that it's too damned much fun as a movie. It would have been easy for Gus Van Sant, the commercial filmmaker, to phone this in. Instead, we get Gus Van Sant the eccentric filmmaker instead. Parts of this are playful. Parts of it are lovely. All of it is acted to the hilt. Sean Penn gets a new lease on relevence with this film. It's his most approachable role in years--if you don't mind watching guys kissing, that is. Pity that element alone will keep some audiences away. Alas. In any event, it strikes me that Milk's revolution is similar to the one kinda sorta going today, in which GLBT youth aren't satisfied with the status quo of either their place in the world or their place in the GLBT establishment and are taking to the streets to take what they want. More power too 'em. The change is coming.

346. A Christmas Story (1983, directed by Bob Clark). Y'know, this perennial chestnut isn't that great for great whacks of its running time, but when it clicks, it really clicks. My favorite episode? Ralphie's relationship with the "ef" word, and its consequences. I sometimes wonder about the deal with the devil Bob Clark made. It came partly due shortly after this movie hit theaters--Clark never made anything even remotely worth a damn afterwards.

347. "The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello" (2005, directed by Anthony Lucas) (via YouTube: uses the same animation technique that Lotte Reiniger used in The Adventures of Prince Achmed, but it mixes in nearly a century of other animation techniques, too. It's a steampunk bitches brew of Jules Verne and H. P. Lovecraft that shouldn't work, but does. It's kind of wonderful. But see for yourself:

348. The Magnificent Ambersons (1941, directed by Orson Welles) remains the cinema's most interesting murdered movie. It's been a while since I saw it last and in the interim, I've read Booth Tarkington's novel. Welles knew Tarkington as a boy, and always thought that George Amberson Minifer was based on himself. Of course, he has his revenge, given that Tarkington is today remembered mainly because Welles made this movie. Such are the vaguaries of literary reputations. In any event, it strikes me that the studio may have had a point in appending a "happy" ending. Their ending more closely resembles the book. Mind you, I'd LOVE to see Welles's cut (come on South America! Yield up Welles's print!), but I can live with the current film. It really is lovely. And brisk! It rampages through the story without a pause. It's obviously a movie that's a masterpiece in some form or other--but maybe not at it's current 88 minute form. Or even maybe in that form at that.

349. Quills (2000, directed by Philip Kaufman) is remarkably sympathetic to the Marquis De Sade. He's the voice of freedom in addition to being the raging id of the Enlightenment. This is, make no mistake, a literary horror movie, in which the subject is not de Sade, but books: what it takes to make them, what books work upon the world, and who, ultimately, profits by them. Oh, it's about a lot of other things, too--particularly the notion that one can enjoy erotica without actually wanting to wallow in what it depicts, which brings me to...

350. Crash (1996, directed by David Cronenberg), which is the director's most misunderstood movie. Who in their right minds gets off on car crashes? The smart-ass in me wants to direct anyone who asks that question to a demolition derby, but it's really a moot point. The movie isn't about this particular (fictional) fetish, so much as it's about fetish in general. Car crashes are a stand in for whatever perverse thing turns your crank. It could be high heeled shoes or tightlaced corsets or furry animal suits. It doesn't matter. The characters in this movie are ensnared by their sexual pecadilloes to the point where they cannot function, cannot feel pleasure, without them. The ending of this movie--in which James Spader and Deborah Unger search for the next crash/orgasm--is the best instance I know where a movie shows the sexual impulse and the death impulse side by side with a clear eye. I think this movie is a masterpiece.

Finally, finishing up with The Chronological Donald Duck:

351. "Working for Peanuts" (1953, directed by Jack Hannah)
352. "Canvas Back Duck" (1953, directed by Jack Hannah)
353. "Donald's Diary" (1954, directed by Jack Kinney)
354. "Dragon Around" (1954, directed by Jack Hannah)
355. "Grin and Bear It" (1954, directed by Jack Hannah)
356. "The Flying Squirrel" (1954, directed by Jack Hannah)
357. "Grand Canyonscope" (1954, directed by Charles Nichols)
358. "Spare the Rod" (1954, directed by Jack Hannah)
359. "Bearly Asleep" (1955, directed by Jack Hannah)
360. "Beezy Bear" (1955, directed by Jack Hannah)
361. "Up a Tree" (1955, directed by Jack Hannah)
362. "No Hunting" (1955, directed by Jack Hannah)
363. "Chips Ahoy" (1956, directed by Jack Kinney)
364. "How to Have An Accident in The Home" (1956, directed by Charles Nichols)
364. "How to Have An Accident At Work" (1959, directed by Charles Nichols)
365. "Donald and the Wheel" (1961, directed by Hamilton Luske)
366. "The Litterbug" (1961, directed by Hamilton Luske)

The interesting thing to me about this bunch of ducks isn't the way they interchange Donald and the Park Ranger from cartoon to cartoon, or the fact that these take such a dim view of romance ("Donald's Diary" and "How To Have An Accident in the Home"), nor even the sometimes over-looked fact that Donald appears to have actually married Daisy at some point and had a kid with her, but rather, the way that Disney, like every other American animation studio in the 1950s, moved away from lush, full animation to a flatter, more abstract style. They mostly did it with their backgrounds, and they mostly did it in a very intelectual way. I mean, consider this landscape from "How To Have An Accident in the Home":

It reads as a landscape, but it's no more "realistic" than a painting by Cezanne (with which it shares some characteristics). Or take this shot from "How To Have An Accident at Work":

This still-frame has no acquaintance with mathematical perspective. It's completely abstract. Almost cubist. And yet, it works. Even at this late date, Disney's animators were master-designers.

The last batch of these cartoons have an educational bent to them, before Donald bowed out as a movie star in 1961's "The Litterbug." He would return, eventually, in such later features as Fantasia 2000 and Mickey's Christmas Carol, but they weren't HIS movies. Alas.