Sunday, May 31, 2009


I haven't done one of these before, but I'm a sucker for Japanese film and there are a couple of Seijun Suzuki movies out on DVD this month that I haven't seen, so I think there's a certain amount of serendipity going on.

Also, my series on Robert Aldrich will resume in a couple of days, probably featuring Vera Cruz, although I've watched several other films that I could plug in. This project doesn't have a timetable, so I'm fine with occasional long layoffs. I just didn't expect one so soon after I started.

Finally, I'd like to give a shout out to The Horror of It All, which is new to my blogroll. I never intended to stick exclusively to movies, and here's an awesome comics site that features wonderfully salacious pre-Comics Code horror comics that have fallen into the public domain. Comics and horror were my first love when it comes to pop culture, so I'll probably feature more of this stuff as time goes on. In any case, I'm reminded of what Berni Wrightson said to me when I met him at a comics convention many years ago and presented him with a copy of Swamp Thing #6 to sign for me. With a twinkle in his eye, he said, "You know, this stuff will rot your brain." I'll pass that thought on in regards to The Horror of It All, which is high praise, sez I.

Friday, May 29, 2009

The Inevitable List

Just before I went on vacation, I got an email from Iain Stott at The One-Line Review inviting me to participate in one of those periodic "best of" lists. He asked for a list of fifty films, but allowed that that might be too few, and suggested a range of fifty to a hundred films. List making isn't really in my constitution--any list I might construct is subject to change at a whim--so I provided him with a mid-range list in alphabetical order. Listing is one thing. Ranking is another thing all together. THAT, I cannot do. In any event, here's the list I provided, arranged alphabetically:

  • Ace in the Hole (1951, directed by Billy Wilder)
  • All About My Mother (1999, directed by Pedro Almodovar)
  • Attack! (1956, directed by Robert Aldrich
  • Awaara (1951, directed by Raj Kapoor)
  • Begone Dull Care (1949, directed by Evelyn Lambart and Norman McLaren)
  • The Big Sleep (1946, directed by Howard Hawks)
  • Black Narcissus (1947, directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger)
  • Black Rain (1989, directed by Shohei Imamura)
  • Casque d'Or (1952, directed by Jacques Becker)
  • Cat People (1942, directed by Jacques Tourneur)
  • Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974, directed by Jacques Rivette)
  • Chimes at Midnight (1965, directed by Orson Welles)
  • Closely Watched Trains (1966, directed by Jirí Menzel)
  • The Conformist (1970, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci)
  • The Conversation (1974, directed by Francis Ford Coppola)
  • Cries and Whispers (1972, directed by Ingmar Bergman)
  • Dead Ringers (1988, directed by David Cronenberg)
  • Duck Amuck (1953, directed by Chuck Jones)
  • Duck Soup (1933, directed by Leo McCarey)
  • Eyes Without a Face (1960, directed by Georges Franju)
  • Fires on the Plain (1959, directed by Kon Ichikawa)
  • Forbidden Games (1952, directed by Rene Clement)
  • Frankenstein (1931, directed by James Whale)
  • Girl Shy (1924, directed by Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor)
  • The Gleaners and I (2000, directed by Agnes Varda)
  • The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966, directed by Sergio Leone)
  • The Grave of the Fireflies (1988, directed by Isao Takahata)
  • Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001, directed by John Cameron Mitchell)
  • High Sierra (1940, directed by Raoul Walsh)
  • The Human Condition (1959-1961, directed by Masaki Kobayashi)
  • In a Glass Cage (1987, directed by Agustí Villaronga)
  • In the Mood for Love (2000, directed by Wong Kar Wai)
  • The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, directed by Don Siegel)
  • The Invisible Man (1933, directed by James Whale)
  • Jackie Brown (1997, directed by Quentin Tarantino)
  • King Kong (1933, directed by Ernest Shoedsak and Merian C. Cooper)
  • The Land of Silence and Darkness (1971, directed by Werner Herzog)
  • The Last Life in the Universe (2003, directed by Pen-Ek Ratanaruang)
  • Leave Her to Heaven (1945, directed by John M. Stahl)
  • The Leopard (1963, directed by Luchino Visconti)
  • M (1931, directed by Fritz Lang)
  • The Man in the White Suit (1951, directed by Alexander Mackendrick)
  • Man of the West (1958, directed by Anthony Mann)
  • Manji (1964, directed by Yasuzo Masumura)
  • Meshes of the Afternoon (1943, directed by Maya Deren)
  • My Brilliant Career (1979, directed by Gillian Armstrong)
  • The Night of the Hunter (1955, directed by Charles Laughton)
  • Night of the Living Dead (1968, directed by George A. Romero)
  • Only Angels Have Wings (1939, directed by Howard Hawks)
  • Out of the Past (1948, directed by Jacques Tourneur)
  • Pandora's Box (1929, directed by G. W. Pabst)
  • Pinocchio (1940, directed by Hamilton Luske and Ben Sharpsteen)
  • Rififi (1955, directed by Jules Dassin)
  • Rocco and his Brothers (1960, directed by Luchino Visconti)
  • Running Fence (1978, directed by Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin)
  • The Searchers (1958, directed by John Ford)
  • Seven Samurai (1955, directed by Akira Kurosawa)
  • Seventh Heaven (1928, directed by Frank Borzage)
  • Singin' in the Rain (1953, directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen)
  • Some Like it Hot (1958, directed by Billy Wilder)
  • The Spirit of the Beehive (1974, directed by Victor Erice)
  • Stagecoach (1939, directed by John Ford)
  • Sunrise (1928, directed by F. W. Murnau)
  • Sweet Smell of Success (1957, directed by Alexander Mackendrick)
  • Take Care of My Cat (2001, directed by Jae-eun Jeong)
  • The Terrorist (1999, directed by Santosh Sivan)
  • The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974, directed by Tobe Hooper)
  • To Be or Not To Be (1942, directed by Ernst Lubitsch)
  • Touch of Evil (1958, directed by Orson Welles)
  • A Touch of Zen (1969, directed by King Hu)
  • Unforgiven (1992, directed by Clint Eastwood)
  • The Unknown (1927, directed by Tod Browning)
  • Videodrome (1981, directed by David Cronenberg)
  • Viridiana (1961, directed by Luis Bunuel)
  • The Wild Bunch (1969, directed by Sam Peckinpah)
Obviously, there are some old chestnuts in there that make most of these kinds of lists, while there are also some films that are idiosyncratic choices. I had a couple of things in mind while I was constructing this. One: I wanted to include animation. Two: I wanted to have at least a few short films. Three: I wanted to list favorites rather than movies that I merely esteem as "great." Which isn't to say that I don't think my choices ARE great--I think that they are--but I wasn't going to arbitrarily list Citizen Kane when there are two other movies by Orson Welles that I enjoy watching more (and I LOVE Citizen Kane, don't get me wrong). And, clearly, the seventy-five films I've listed above are insufficient. I could provide such a list without straying outside the confines of the horror movie (I've resisted that impulse, but it might have been fun). In general, these kinds of lists say more about the list-maker than they do about the films themselves. For my part, a couple of entries reflect the fact that I've seen them recently. Out of sight, out of mind, after all.

In any event, Iain will publish his compendium sometime in July or August. I'll be interested to see what other lists look like (I've already seen a couple of them).

Monday, May 25, 2009

Vacations from Hell

My spring vacation turned out to be one of the most intense movie-watching periods I've had in a while. This was planned--the friend I was visiting is as much of a horror movie nut as I am AND she has an absolutely GI-normous television AND she has some interesting foreign editions of movies that I've been salivating over from afar for quite some time. A number of these are rewatchings, so I'll be cannibalizing old material here. My apologies.

The week didn't start on a good note. My friend's partner likes big stupid movies, so we wound up watching Michael Bay's 1998 insult to everyone's intelligence, Armageddon, a film I hated on its first release and one that I still hate now. This film is loud, stupid, maudlin, incoherent, and just plain painful to watch. It's so hopped up on testosterone that you can smell the reek of it coming off the screen. When it was first released, I wrote of it:

The only time the visual pace slows down is for character development that is so broadly drawn, so cliched, so maudlin, that one prays for the asteroid to strike and wipe everything out so the Earth can start over. In Armageddon's defense, it isn't boring--which is a step up from Deep Impact--but getting roughed up by a mugger isn't boring either. And after two and a half hours of this, the audience starts to show bruises.

My opinion hasn't changed in the intervening decade. The only thing that amuses me about this movie is that it provides Monsters, Inc. with one of its slyest jokes, when it it swipes the famous slow astronaut walk and places Steve Buscemi's villainous Randall in the same spot Buscemi occupied in the shot in Armageddon. But that's no reason to see the movie.


The real fun began with a triple feature of tourists-in-peril movies, starting with Stuart Gordon's Dagon (2001), which I haven't seen in a while, either. The only other time I watched it, it was on a considerably smaller screen and I missed some of the details of the production. I also missed the content of the chant of the Dagon cultists, which should bring a smile to the face of most Lovecraftians. As a fish out of water story (if you'll pardon the pun), this is most satisfying. I still think parts of it resemble Visconti's La Terra Trema as re-imagined by a lunatic. Heh.

We followed that with another re-watch, this time the director's cut of Carter Smith's The Ruins (2008), which I also like quite a bit. Last year, I wrote:

It's not ambitious. It doesn't want to overreach its modest premise, nor does it pretend to deep philosophical underpinnings, and its lack of ambition will keep it out of the bright circle of horror's best movies. But for what it DOES want to do, it excels. This is a brutal little movie that distills horror down to a simple survival narrative. It doesn't pull its punches at all, either. The story finds a group of vacationing college kids trapped on an uncharted Mayan pyramid by hostile natives. Are they sacrifices? Is there some more sinister purpose? It all clocks in at about an hour and a half, which is exactly as long as B-Movies oughta run. While there is gore aplenty for those that want it, the most disturbing things in the movie to my mind are the flowers. This movie has the scariest inflorescent landscape this side of Oz.

We had an interesting discussion of the alternate ending on the director's cut, as well as the Little Shop of Horror-ish ending that was discarded from both versions. My friend doesn't like the darker ending, and I can't say I fault her reasons. There's no precedent for it in the mythology established within the movie. But, on the other hand, it does lend the film a certain apocalyptic aspect that I kinda like. Either way works. I suppose which works best is a matter of individual tastes.

Finally, there was Rogue (2007, directed by Greg McLean), a leaner, more effective killer crocodile movie than I ever expected. This is a classic b-movie, one that you might have expected to see from New World Pictures in the 1970s. The premise is brutally simple: a tourist boat is marooned by a killer croc on a tidal island in a river through Australia's Northwest Territory. As the tourists try to figure out a way out of their dilemma, the croc picks them off one by one. The real surprise here isn't how effective the movie is--director Greg McLean already demonstrated an instinct for the jugular with Wolf Creek--but rather, how beautiful it is. There are a couple of shots in this movie that remind me of something Howard Hawks once said: "John Ford could command the skies; the rest of us have to use soundstages." After we finished this, I was struck by how similar the narrative is to The Ruins, though I think Rogue is a slightly better movie. I was also struck by how both films re-enact the Beowulf narrative. This is especially true in Rogue, which has a climax in which, having escaped the croc, our hero (Michael Vartan) ends up in the beast's lair. This lends the film a certain atavistic mythological element that lifts it over, say, Lake Placid or Alligator. Good film.


The Korean DVD box of The Host (2006, directed by Bong Joon-Ho) is mighty spiffy. I'm hard pressed to think of a North American package that I would envy more. The Koreans know how to do right by their movies. The movie remains a favorite, too, and once again, it's fun watching it demolish the monster movie playbook point by point, all the while providing all the monster movie mayhem anyone could ever want. I'm still amazed at how chameleonic lead actor Kang-ho Song is. When I realized that he was the same actor who played the rich man in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, I was blown away. I can't wait to see him in Thirst.


The rest of the week looked like this:

The Water Margin (1972, directed by Chang Cheh), in which the Shaws empty their casting department. This was introducing characters with on-screen text a full half hour into the movie. Confusing but fun, and lots of director Cheh's characteristic gore. I'm partial to the guy who gets a huge ax in the abdomen and still attempts to soldier on.

Have Sword, Will Travel (1969, directed by Chang Cheh), in which the weird buddy movie formula favored by Chang Cheh is enacted by Ti Lung (looking very young and very yummy) and David Chiang, complete with noble sacrifice and lots of arterial blood spray. The climax of this film finds the dual heroes fighting their way to the top of a tower in a sequence that bears a suspicious resemblance to the end of Bruce Lee's Game of Death, though this predates that film and doesn't have Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in it. Alas.

When we got to the end of Hayao Miyazaki's Castle in the Sky (1986), my main response was, "is that it?" Slight, though filled with the same enthusiasm for steampunk gadgets and the giddy rush of flight as most Miyazaki movies. In its defense, there IS some spiffy robot mayhem.

Finally, there's Frank Borzage's silent melodrama, Seventh Heaven (1928), which I've only ever seen in really crappy editions (longtime movie fans may recognize the words "Video Yesteryear" and grimace a bit). The new transfer for Fox's Murnau and Borzage box isn't pristine, but it's a quantum leap forward compared to what was previously available. This is one of my very favorite films, one that not only demonstrates the technical virtuosity achieved by the late silents, but one that demonstrates the high state of accomplishment of the great silent actors, as well. Janet Gaynor won an Oscar for this film and for Sunrise (made the same year, and a film I forever associate with this one), and never was the award more deserved. She gives a tour de force performance. Borzage's direction is always imaginative, even if his choice of symbols is a bit heavy-handed sometimes, but the movie carries such an emotional punch that it's hard to argue with it.

Oh, and I did fall asleep half way through Re-Animator, but that's no reflection on the movie--which I love--so much as it's a reflection of the fact that I was wiped out when we started it. Travel does that. As does sleep deprivation. My apologies to my hostess.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Lost Opportunites

Most of the people I've seen get all orgasmic over the new Star Trek movie (2009, no subtitle on this one) are mainly the same people that got all orgasmic over director J. J. Abrams's last movie, Mission Impossible III. Well, I detested Mission Impossible III, so I expected to be irritated with the new Trek. And for the most part, I wasn't, really, but I was never really sucked into it, either. I must be getting old. I'm getting tired of special effects movies. Of what use are really cool special effects when EVERY film has really cool special effects. I saw a film last year made by a friend of mine on her computer and the effects were almost as jaw-dropping as what I saw here (though, I should note, that she's a computer animator by trade). I shouldn't grouse, though. Special effects were always a part of movie-making dominated by people that first took it up as a hobby. Harryhausen worked in his garage for a while. I get more out of looking at the art on these days than I do looking at the results on a movie screen.

Look at that! I haven't even started to deal with the movie itself and I'm already off on a wild digression. Ah, well.

So. Star Trek. Rebooted with new actors as the characters from the original series. Things change in the history of these characters. This departs from the canonical history of Star Trek, though that's not a bad thing, and the various series themselves often did the same things. We have a parallel universe Trek here, which is a convenient excuse to rampage off into a different idiom, even though the familiarity of the concept remains. For the most part, I like the new actors, Karl Urban(!?!?) and Simon Pegg, in particular. Zoe Saldana's character, Uhura, gets more character development in the span of 20 minutes than she got in the entirety of the original series and six feature films. Good for her. There are some nice set-pieces: the poor slob sucked into the vacuum, where the sound vanishes from the soundtrack and the skydiving scene with Sulu being a badass are fun to watch, and the Enterprise emerging from the atmosphere of Titan with the rings of Saturn behind it is a cool, possibly iconic shot. But I found myself having to turn off my brain for this movie. This is, bar none, the SLOPPIEST screenplay this series has ever produced, one that would have been laughed out of the story meetings even on ST: Voyager (which had some doozies). Once the film relocates to the planet Delta Vega, hereafter known as Planet Coincidence, where Kirk just happens to run into the Old Spock (hereafter known as Mr. Exposition), the movie jumps the rails.


I think the worst thing about this movie is that it's not really about anything except sound and fury. Even the most ridiculous of the Star Trek films and series intended to say something, even when they fell flat on their faces. This film, on the other hand, is about sensation, and while there's nothing wrong with that if it's done well, it's an approach that feels completely wrong for Star Trek.


The Lost (2006, directed by Chris Sivertson), is another harsh film based on a novel by Jack Ketcham. I wonder what it is about Ketcham that compels filmmakers to make such unlikeable movies. They would seem to be a hard sell. Mind you, I love Ketcham to pieces. He writes spare, diamond hard horror stories that are untouched by either sentimentality or reticence in the face of the worst of human beings. These are aspects that usually frighten away producers and film studios. And yet, here's the first of several films based on Ketcham. Director Chris Siverston is clearly in awe of the book, and says so in the end credits. He translates it more or less intact. The Lost is a portrait of a sociopath. We get a front row seat as murderous douchebag Ray Pye flies off the hinges after his tidy little world comes apart. And it couldn't happen to a nicer guy. The film opens with a shocking crime, and ends with a shocking rampage. In between, we get the sordid lives of Pye and everyone he knows, and it's plain that he's a cancer on society. The film has a more arresting visual style than one usually sees in character studies, but it fits the jittery, coked up center of the film. Did I like this movie? Well, no. Not really. It doesn't want to be liked and it succeeds in not being likable. Am I impressed by it? Yeah. I kinda am.

Monday, May 04, 2009

The Coolest Thing on the Internet this Morning

That's Paul McCartney and Jack Kirby. That's your mid-century cultural nexus right there. Seriously. I found this via The Beat and then at The Cool Kid's Table. The latter offered Jack's daughter's recollection of the meeting.

Hugh Jackman's Magic Ass

Well, here's the thing about X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009, directed by Gavin Hood): it pretty much sucks as a movie, but it has lots of nekkid Hugh Jackman. I see that it opened huge, so one should never underestimate the power of Hugh Jackman's ass. Most of the story elements in this movie come from the period after I stopped reading the X-men, so I don't have anything invested in whether or not it's faithful to the comics. I do have some affection for the X-Men movies, so I am bothered by the gaping holes this movie pokes in the internal continuity of the series. I hated most of the action sequences here, especially the big fight at the end, which demonstrates just how boring it is watching indestructable antagonists duking it out, though it does improve on last year's Incredible Hulk insofar as there are actual actors duking it out rather than computer graphics. Feh. I will say this, though, Jackman, Liev Schreiber, and Danny Huston are all better than the material deserves. Honestly, I think Wolverine's origins were amply explained in X2, with a much greater narrative economy.

Past that, I watched a couple of films for my Robert Aldrich project:

Attack (1956), which covers a lot of the same thematic material as Paths of Glory. This takes Kubrick to school. A very pleasant surprise. Might be a masterpiece.

Vera Cruz (1954), which is agreeably cynical and totally subversive. Burt Lancaster oozes charisma in this, which tends to obscure the fact that his character is an evil m*f*. Essential to anyone who thinks the revisionist westerns started in Italy.

The Big Knife (1956) shows the director at his most pot-boilerish. A poison pen letter to Hollywood, this later had a deleterious effect on Aldrich's career. Aldrich never liked subtlety, and this film shows that in the scenery chewing of the actors, especially Rod Steiger (who was a world class scenery chewer).

I'll be doing more in-depth pieces on all three of these movies eventually.

Friday, May 01, 2009

The Films of Robert Aldrich: His early career and Apache

Robert Aldrich's career in Hollywood began in the early 1940s doing odd jobs for RKO as a production assistant, script clerk, and various other odd jobs. Eventually, Aldrich graduated to more substantial positions: assistant director to (among others) William Wellman (on The Story of G. I. Joe), Robert Rossen (on Body and Soul), Abraham Polonsky (on Force of Evil), and Charles Chaplin (on Limelight). A life-long liberal Democrat, Aldrich found himself associating with the Hollywood left during his early career. Although he was never a blacklistee himself, Aldrich would occasionally pay a professional price for this. Many of the themes that run through Aldrich's films as a director are informed by his politics, which is ironic given that many of his films are the kinds of films that Red-State viewers tend to like.

After cutting his directorial teeth in the very earliest days of television, Aldrich's first film as a director was Big Leaguer in 1953, a baseball drama starring Edward G. Robinson (which I haven't seen at this writing). His big break, however, came the following year, directing Apache for the production team of Burt Lancaster and Harold Hecht, with Lancaster in the lead. While there are great directors who are obviously great from the first frames of their first films, Aldrich is not among them. Apache is an ungainly film, and whatever craft Aldrich may have learned in television or on Big Leaguer isn't evident in Apache. The themes that carry through his work, however, are immediately apparent.

Synopsis: After the surrender of Geronimo, the young warrior, Massai, escapes from the prison train transporting the Apaches who followed Geronimo to internment in Florida. He journey's across the country, seeing the world of the white man, as well as seeing how another tribe, the Cherokee, have made their peace with the white man. A Cherokee farmer in the Oklahoma territory gives Massai a bag of seed corn and advises him to take up the plow rather than the tomahawk and rifle. Once back in the midst of what remains of his own tribe, Massai is appalled at what he sees. The remaining Apache men are being mercilessly exploited by the white business man, Weddle, and Nalinle, the woman Massai loved is being courted by the treacherous Hondo, who collaborates with the whites. Betrayed to the whites by the father of his lover, Massai escapes again and vows vengeance, only by himself, not on behalf of the Apache nation. But the calming influence of Nalinle urges him to try the Cherokee way with his bag of seed corn. Unfortunately, he's a hunted man, and the hunters find him eventually...

This is a fairly early film in the cycle of revisionist Westerns that re-examine the place of Native Americans in the mythology of the West, so it comes as a bit of a surprise that it's as subversive as it is. Massai, let's face it, is a terrorist. Add to that the depiction of American capitalism, incarnated in the weaselly Mr. Weddle (John Dehner), and you have a film that is questioning the very underpinnings of the Western film. This is not a film with clear-cut white hats and black hats. Also present in this film are the characteristic presentations of the protagonist as anti-hero and loner, contending against an indifferent system that is utterly corrupt. Unlike most of Aldrich's later films, this is largely free of the Gothic tinge of madness.

What really sets this apart from some of the subsequent films dealing with the sympathetic Native American is that this one still functions as an adventure. Aldrich never, ever lost sight of the fact that his films were first and foremost entertainment, and he was one of the most adept directors ever at smuggling subversive meanings into popular filmmaking. The revenge drama element drives the film forward, and it's compulsive. It almost rescues the film from its many faults. And it's faults are prominent and right in view for most of the film. Its most damning fault is no fault of the director's. Burt Lancaster's production company built the movie around Lancaster himself--in particular Lancaster's athleticism (see also, The Crimson Pirate), so this starts out as a vanity project. Unfortunately for Aldrich, this saddles him with a lead actor who is never really convincing as an Indian. Lancaster's Nordic features and blazing blue eyes are completely unconvincing:

Co-star Jean Peters suffers a similar fate. Combine this with the weird diction in all the dialogue the Native American characters speak--perfect English, but completely stilted--and you have a recipe for disaster. Massai's weird tendency to speak of himself in the third person becomes comedy gold after a while. One cannot look at the film from a 21st Century vantage and sidestep the essential racism in this depiction, but, on the other hand, I doubt Aldrich would have cared. He made what he made with the materials available and within the cultural imperatives of his time. One of the film's other problems stems from Aldrich's status as a novice director. The original script called for a much bleaker ending to the film, and you can see the first two acts setting up that ending, in which Massai must fight to the death with Hondo (Charles Bronson). Aldrich even filmed this ending, and one wishes it were still extant. The executives at United Artists asked Aldrich and Lancaster to film an alternate, more up-beat ending, and lacking his later clout to do what he wanted, Aldrich complied. This was the ending that the studio used, much to the director's chagrin. Aldrich later said: "(If) you shoot two endings, they will always use the other one, never yours". In a lot of ways the film was a learning process for the director, and there are a lot of puzzling editing choices and very often, the camera is just flat out in the wrong place. This is particularly evident in this shot:

This is the cornfield where Massai flees at the end of the film, hiding from his enemies. I mean, really? Aldrich couldn't have chosen a better vantage point to hide the fact that there's no way Massai would have been able to hide in that field?

In any event, the film is entertaining in spite of all of this--and occasionally because of it--so it's not a total loss. It's an interesting film even if it's not very good. There's a steep learning curve evident between Apache and Vera Cruz, which Aldrich directed the very same year, again for Lancaster and Hecht. I'll get to that film in my next installment.