Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Films of Robert Aldrich: Vera Cruz

Vera Cruz was the second film Robert Aldrich made for the producing team of Burt Lancaster and Harold Hecht. It's also the second of four films Aldrich made with Lancaster. This establishes a pattern of relationships with actors. Aldrich frequently made films with collaborators with whom he was familiar and comfortable. Also in this film are Ernest Borgnine (later to appear in The Dirty Dozen) and Morris Ankrum (a holdover from Apache).

Made the same year as Apache, it shows the director growing in skill and confidence with leaps and bounds. This growth was undoubtedly aided by a much larger budget and by the visual opportunities afforded by filming in Mexico. The Mexicans, for their part, weren't too happy with the finished film, a fact that dogged later productions by other directors (notably Sam Peckinpah). This dislike might have been misplaced, as we shall see.

At its core, Vera Cruz is a buddy movie, the buddies in question being Ben Trane and Joe Errin, played by Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster, respectively. Trane, our nominal hero, is a former Confederate officer trying to rebuild his fortunes in Mexico, while Errin is an amoral mercenary. The two have a grudging respect for each other, but no trust. This relationship, like many other elements of this film, prefigures the cynicism of the revisionist Westerns of the sixties and seventies, particularly the spaghetti westerns, most of which appear to have used this film as a blueprint.

Aldrich continues to expand on his examination of the outsider, and, as in Apache, provided lead characters who in their essential actions, are terrorists. This time, there is no vague moral justification. Joe Errin is motivated by greed. What are we to make of him? He's charming. I mean, look at this smile:

But he's willing to kill his friends, hold children as hostages, and in all other respects behave like a complete heel. Ben Trane, for his part, allows all this to happen until the end of the movie, when he has a (half-hearted) change of heart.

Aldrich again indulges in a critique of America from the left, slanting the film as an indictment of American interventionism in Latin America. The film notably sides with the Juaristas in their fight against the Emperor Maximillian and his lackey, the Marquis Henri de Labordere (played with a robust charm by Caesar Romero), even while our American "heroes" side with Maximillian and money. This is all fairly unheard of in the films of the time, let alone the Westerns. Film noir not withstanding, this level of moral ambivalence was very atypical of American cinema at the time, though, as it turns out, it's not atypical of Aldrich. This is, again, an example of the director sneaking leftist values into a right wing kind of entertainment and making it go down smooth. This is considerably more refined a job of smuggling than what he accomplished in Apache. This is also why the Mexican resistance to this movie might be misplaced. They took it as a slight that so few actual Mexicans had any part of this movie's on-camera world--the exception was Sara Montiel, whose character in this film was not one that the Mexican public admired--while overlooking the fact that the film was reflexively criticizing American exploitation. In other words, their concerns were the same as those of the film itself. Go figure.

Still and all, it's not a perfect film. While Alrdich was refining his themes and his techniques, there are still odd bits of editing that suggest that Aldrich didn't have his camera in the right place (again!) or that he neglected to film coverage. This is especially true in the final gunfight between Trane and Joe Errin. The film also suffers a bit from the casting of Gary Cooper, whose screen persona resists the moral ambiguity built into the screenplay. I've always thought it might have been interesting to swap Lancaster and Cooper. Aldrich could have built in the kind of surprise with Cooper that Leone later pulled with Henry Fonda in Once Upon A Time in the West. But it was not to be. Lancaster himself was a perfect fit, and this film is one of many in which Lancaster shows no fear for his screen image in choosing his parts. Set this one next to his performances in Seven Days in May, Elmer Gantry and Sweet Smell of Success.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Kurosawa's The Quiet Duel

The Quiet Duel, 1949. Directed by Akira Kurosawa. Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Miki Sanjo, Kenjiro Uemura, Noriko Sengoko.

Synopsis: In the closing days of WW II, Doctor Koji Fujisaka contracts syphillis while operating on a wounded soldier. When he returns home, he finds that he must reject the woman he was planning to marry and treat his illness in secret while working in his father's charity clinic. His outward demeanor is of a paragon of virtue, but one of the nurses discovers his illness and shames him without knowing the details. When the man who infected him surfaces with a pregnant wife, Dr. Fujisaka's quiet duel with his own conscience comes to a head.

While The Quiet Duel isn't an apprentice work--Kurosawa had already made Drunken Angel by the time he tackled this story--it has never enjoyed the attention paid to the director's other works from the same period. Rarely screened, it appeared for the first time on home video at the end of 2006, a relatively late date for one of the world's greatest directors. And even this appearance was short lived--BCI, the label that put it out, has since folded up shop. This film can't buy a break.

Many filmmakers have skeletons in their closets, and many more have films in their portfolios that simply fall through the cracks. This film is certainly not a skeleton. It is, however, an awkward sell. Watching the film on DVD, I was continually struck by the reason it has remained unseen for so long. There was no way this film was going to be screened in America during the 1950s, Kurosawa's golden decade. The profession of Takashi Shimura's elder doctor alone would prevent that (he's a gynecologist), to say nothing of the frank depiction of syphillis, and the repeated use of the word "spirochete." That was never going to fly while the production code was in effect. By the time standards had loosened, the film had been forgotten.

It's not a great movie. One can occasionally see the constraints of the budget assert themselves in ways the director is unable to overcome. But it's pretty good, in spite of that. It's not a film that can be easily dismissed. Talent will out, and it certainly bears the stamp of its creator, however embryonic his cinematic anima may have been at the time. It's an easy film to place in the context of Kurosawa's career. With Drunken Angel and Red Beard, it forms a kind of "doctor's trilogy." The persistent use of rain, the way the camera moves to confront its characters (particularly when Dr. Fujisaka confronts a drunken Nakata when he demands to see his stillborn child), the presence of Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura, everything about the film is pure Kurosawa. Like Stray Dog, made the same year, it's a fascinating portrait of post-war Japan. As in The Lower Depths, it's interesting to watch the director work out the conversion of a play to film. And yet, The Quiet Duel is an anomaly in Kurosawa's work, too. Rarely, if ever, interested in his female characters, this film is arguably told from the point of view of Nurse Minegishi, played by the superb Noriko Sengoko as a fallen woman trying to make good. More than that, the film hinges on as many of the problems faced by women as it does on the plight of men. That so much of the movie is centered around birth and diseases of the reproductive organs almost forces the director to examine both sides of the gender divide. Also unusual for Kurosawa, he lets Sengoko steal the movie from Mifune, though it's possible that he didn't have any choice in the matter. Her performance is a force of nature.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Some Favorite Japanese Films

Everyone has their favorites and these are some of mine. I don't do rankings, and this is subject to change at a whim. Freely associated and in no particular order, starting with the directors who are the three 800 lb. gorillas of Japanese cinema:

Seven Samurai (1955, directed by Akira Kurosawa). This was my gateway into Japanese film beyond the Godzilla movies of my youth (and, hey look! It's from Toho, too!). There are Kurosawa films that I like more than this, actually, but there aren't any to which I return more often. It's a big box with everything in it, a film that's actually too short at three hours long.

Ugetsu (1953, directed by Kenji Mizoguchi). Ordinarily, I don't care for Mizoguchi. I find him to be the most manipulative of any legitimately great director. You can generally see the wheels of the plot turning as you watch. And yet, I can't take my eyes off of Ugetsu. Because it's a ghost story, there's a certain formalism to the manipulation that makes it rather more palatable to me, and lends it the power to break my heart.

I Was Born, But...(1932, directed by Yasujiro Ozu). Later Ozu is too rigidly formal for my tastes (although, not so formal that he's above fart jokes in Good Morning, which, coincidentally, is a remake of this film). Early Ozu, on the other hand, seems positively antic in comparison. This is my favorite of his early films, in part because I was raised on the best of the Little Rascals shorts, and this film is like one of those shorts writ large. It's funny and touching at the same time.

Stepping away from the shadow of the Kurosawa/Mizoguchi/Ozu axis, here are some of my other favorites:

Onibaba (1964, directed by Kaneto Shindo), which strikes me as some kind of missing link between I Walked With a Zombie and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Desperation and survival set against a vast sea of grass. A hole. A demon mask. A weird erotic charge. Some days, this is my favorite Japanese film.

Black Rain (1989, directed by Shohei Imamura) depicts the bombing of Hiroshima in one of the most harrowing sequences in any film about the war that I can remember. But Imamura frontloads the film with that imagery in order to get it out of the way (and to influence) the more subdued horrors that awaited the survivors. I'm not talking about the immediate aftermath, but rather the long term effects. In this respect it becomes one of the director's more subtle examinations of class and women in post-war Japan.

The Human Condition (1959-1961, directed by Masaki Kobayashi). Another war film, this time a three part epic about the war in Manchuria, and a complete and utter rejection of Japan's militaristic past. One can sense a deep personal investment in this movie from Kobayashi, who really hit his stride with this movie.

Goyokin (1969, directed by Hideo Gosha) is an anti-samurai movie. Oh, it's got enough action and enough "cool" to satisfy the most jaded chambara fan, but it's a negation of the Bushido code and the corrupt social structures it gave rise to. If Kurosawa was the John Ford of the samurai film, Gosha was the Robert Aldrich.

The Story of a Prostitute (1965, directed by Seijun Suzuki) was made for a pittance compared with the commercial films Suzuki was making at the time, shot on standing sets with very little budget. But this is my favorite of Suzuki's movies, one where, for a change, the director seems personally invested in the story, without throwing out his restless experimentation with film as an abstraction. Another film set in Manchuria during the war. It haunts a lot of the Japanese movies from this period.

Cure (1997, directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa) is one of the creepiest movies I can remember seeing. For some reason, this film always strikes me as a way of processing the sarin nerve gas attacks in the Tokyo subway by Aum Shinrikyo, even though it really has absolutely nothing to do with it. A serial killer/police procedural, this veers off into Kurosawa's now-trademarked horror of ambiguous alienation in its second half. The creepiest of the new wave of Japanese horror movies.

A Snake of June (2002, directed by Shinya Tsukamoto) is a combination of pink film and film noir, filtered through director Tsukamoto's freak-out sensibility. This is comparatively restrained for him after the fireworks of Tetsuo, but I like that about it. An amazing addition to the cinema of voyeurism and sadomasochism, all filmed with a persistent veneer of oceanic dread. Yet surprisingly optimistic in the end.

Giants and Toys (1958, directed by Yasuzo Masumura) is a candy colored dismantling of Japanese corporate culture that seduces with the visuals before sticking the knife in. At its core, this is as nasty a film as American films like The Apartment or Sweet Smell of Success, but it goes them one further by radically breaking with the "rules" of Japanese cinema. This is edited fast, with its beats coming almost syllable for syllable sometimes. Nagisha Oshima exempted Masumura from his blanket condemnation of traditional Japanese film. This movie is one of the reasons why.

Odd Obsession (1959, directed by Kon Ichikawa) is my favorite of Ichikawa's many films, mainly because it demonstrates that even in 1959, the Japanese had a more incisive insight into the sexual relationships between men and women than could be found in any other national cinema. Nobody does weird psychodrama like them. This makes a great double feature with Masumura's Manji, which also adapts a novel by Junichiro Tanizaki.

Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (1972, directed by Shinya Ito) is the masterpiece of Japanese exploitation cinema. What you might get if you hired Mario Bava to remake Caged Heat. It doesn't "transcend" it's generic roots, so much as it sinks into them so deeply that they become a kind of abstract art. Meiko Kaji cemented her place as the queen of Japanese cult cinema in this series (of which, this is the second and weirdest). She doesn't speak much, but her lacerating stares speak volumes.

Pale Flower (1964, directed by Masahiro Shinoda), which finds the innovations of the Japanese new wave finding their way into genre films. This is an austere, chilly fall from grace in the tradition of the bleakest of film noir, laid bare with a staccato editing scheme. Shinoda later turned into kind of a mannerist, but in this film, he shows an instinct for the jugular.

And two animated movies:

Grave of the Fireflies (1988, directed by Isao Takahata), which is, bar none, the saddest film ever made. Reduces me to a puddle every time I see it, which isn't often because I don't think I could take it.

Steamboy (2004, directed by Katsuhiro Otomo) has all the eyedrugging destruction you could ask for in a steampunk epic, while never losing sight of the "fun" quotient. I like this a lot more than Otomo's groundbreaking Akira, but I'm generally not an enthusiast for Japanese animation, so take that however you like.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Opening Gambits: Suzuki's Kanto Wanderer and Detective Bureau 2-3: Go To Hell Bastards

Both Kanto Wanderer and Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards were made in 1963, during director Seijun Suzuki's most prolific period. It's well known that he was getting bored with making stock yakuza films, and that he was beginning to dismantle the yakuza film's visual and generic conventions. This would find its fullest flowering a couple of years later, but these two films are an interesting example of the director beginning to chafe at the bit. The difference in these films is immediately apparent from their opening scenes, which are what concern me here.

Go to Hell Bastards is the more conventional of the two, but it has interesting characteristics. Suzuki tends to avoid close-ups in his opening. Most of it is master shots. But not all. The first shot is a medium two-shot of an American soldier:

Then cut to a few master shots:

The first real close-up of the movie. Note, that it's not a close up of a human being:

Cut to a couple of medium two-shots:

Then back to master shots for the mayhem that opens the movie:

Most of the interiors of the remainder of the movie are filmed from a dramatic distance, like this shot:

Even the close-ups start from a distance. This medium two-shot dollies in close for a striking face-off:

But a lot of the film is at arms length. These two shots are typical:

Well, so what? Let's compare this opening with the opening of Kanto Wanderer, which starts with a close-up:

And then another:

And then another:

And then another:

And then another:

And then another:

And so on, with the duration of each shot getting shorter and shorter. This is a mildly disorienting sequence for two reasons: one, we have no context for these characters. These are the VERY first shots of the movie. Second, Suzuki has unhitched them from their environments. We are looking so closely at these faces, we don't have any idea of where they are and why they are there.

What I think is going on in these movies is this: Detective Bureau 2-3: Go To Hell Bastards is exactly the kind of movie Suzuki was beginning to get bored with, and, as a result, he has adopted a cinematic idiom of distance. He doesn't really care about his characters, so he puts them at arm's length. He's deadpanning. In Kanto Wanderer, he's beginning to see the expressive potential of cinema, and he starts to experiment--not too much yet, but enough. I don't think the similarity between the title of Kanto Wanderer and Suzuki's later Tokyo Drifter is an accident. They explore the same kinds of existential anomie, but they ALSO share an exploration of cinema as abstraction. In any event, watching these two movies back to back is like watching the light bulb go off in the director's head.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Two By Yoshitaro Nomura

It's Japan week here in my corner of the blogosphere. I thought I'd kick it off with a look at two movies from director Yoshitaro Nomura. This has been reworked slightly from a review I wrote on the occasion of Nomura's death in 2005.

Zero Focus
(Zero no shoten), 1963. Directed by Yoshitaro Nomura. Yoshiko Kuga, Hizuru Takachiro, Ineko Arima, Koji Nambara.

The Demon (Kichiku), 1978. Directed by Yoshitaro Nomura. Ken Ogata, Shima Iwashita, Mayumi Ogawa, Hiroki Iwase.

It's a cruel twist of fate that the generation of Japanese filmmakers who survived World War II are dying off just as they are finally beginning to step out of the shadows of the titans of Japanese cinema. For decades, directors like Kihachi Okamoto, Hideo Gosha, Seijun Suzuki, Kenji Misumi, Kinji Fukasaku, and Yasuzo Masamura have been all but eclipsed by the all consuming shadows cast by Kurosawa, Ozu, and Mizoguchi. Masamura didn't live to see a stirring of interest in his films; Giants and Toys, Manji, and Blind Beast are all gaining in stature in the West. Fukasaku got to enjoy a measure of success at the end of his life with the mammoth popularity of Battle Royale, which in turn has sparked a renewed interest in his great yakuza movies from the 1970s. Two years after his death, Fukasaku probably has more of his films available world-wide than any other Japanese director. Others have not been so lucky. Both Okamoto and Gosha are known primarily to a cult audience, though Okamoto's Sword of Doom has become a minor classic. Only Seijun Suzuki has been able to really enjoy the revival of his reputation and the global dissemination of his films. Both Okamoto and Yoshitaro Nomura died in early 2005. Nomura was just beginning to find an audience in the West. Home Vision put two of his films out in solid DVD editions at roughly the hour of his death. Many of these directors were genre specialists; Nomura's forte was film noir.

Zero Focus from 1963 could teach a lot of filmmakers something about economy of editing. A mystery in the mode of Hitchcock, this is a film that doesn't waste time on bullshit. Every shot counts. Every scene fits like the gears in a clockwork. Every edit moves the narrative forward. At first, this seems like it is wound almost too tight, but as the film unspools during its second half, as the mystery is played out against the spectacular landscapes of northern Japan, the film finds time to breathe. This is kinda sorta the same technique that Kurosawa used in High and Low (in which the strictly formal interior shots of the first half give way to the sprawl of Tokyo), but it works just as well here. This film was written by Shinobu Hashimoto and Yoji Yamada, so Zero Focus has a superb writing pedigree. The cinematography by Takashi Kawamata is austere and gorgeous.

The story itself is worthy of Cornell Woolrich. A woman's fiancée leaves Tokyo to tie up some loose business interests for his job in the north of Japan, where he promptly vanishes. No one knows where he went. No one remembers seeing him. His fiance` combs the countryside for a clue to his whereabouts. She is aided by her fiancée's employer and by his brother. When her fiancée's brother turns up dead, and when the police rule her fiancée's death a suicide, she heads back to Tokyo, but a year later, with time to work things out, she heads back North to verify her suspicions...

Crime fiction is often sociological fiction. In Zero Focus, Nomura is confronting certain societal roles for Japanese women and certain cultural weaknesses in Japanese men. Because of the nature of the mystery, I have to describe this in an eliptical fashion, because those roles for women and weaknesses of men are at the very heart of the mystery on display. I'm loathe to give this away, because it's best that the viewer approach the film knowing absolutely nothing.

Some of the same thematic concerns lie behind The Demon, from 1978, and it is perhaps best to discuss them in conjunction with that film instead. The Demon lays everything on the line at the outset, so it's less prone to being spoilt by indiscreet writers on the internet. Although the plots of these two movies are very different, in a lot of respects, they are the same movie. A critic with an auteurist bent could go to town on these two films.

The Demon isn't technically a horror movie, but it's plenty horrifying none the less. There are no actual supernatural shenanigans in the movie (the title is a misnomer of sorts). The film begins like a film by Mizoguchi or Naruse, then transforms into a Hitchcockian thriller: A woman burdened by her three children dumps them on her shirking lover (who is married to another woman). Their father is weak. His wife is incensed that he would cheat on her to the tune of three children. Their mother vanishes into the night. For the rest of the movie, the father and his wife contrive to rid themselves of the children.

I'm not entirely sure what it is about the Japanese that gives rise to this sort of psychodrama, but they do it better than anyone. Ken Ogata is superb in the lead role (I guess he's the demon of the title, but a more pathetic demon you will not find); his performance here reminds me a lot of the serial killer he played in Vengeance is Mine. Shima Iwashita is astounding as his wife--she's a fairly major actress, but I can't imagine any actress playing so cold-hearted and unsympathetic a role. As wicked stepmothers go, Cinderella's stepmom ain't got nothing on Iwashita. The two major set pieces in the movie consist of Ogata taking his daughter (the middle child) to the top of the Tokyo tower, and abandoning her there, and taking his son (the oldest) to the north of Japan with the intention of throwing him off a cliff into the sea. The trip to the north is excruciating, because we can see the father and son begin to form the bonds one expects of a father and son. Will he do it? This is the basis of the suspense. For anyone with children, or for anyone who remembers being a child, this film is a mine field. Anyone who feels uncomfortable watching children in danger or watching children (seemingly) harmed should stay far, far away from this movie.

The weakness of men and the vulnerability of women to exploitation by that weakness is the dominant theme in The Demon. It's possible that this is a theme that becomes prevalent in Japanese cinema at large because of the lingering defeat in World War II, but Nomura doesn't frame it that way. In both films, weak men are salarimen, not ex-soldiers. These films seem deeply suspicious of the men in charge of Japan's "economic miracle" in the sixties and seventies. The desperation of the women in these films in the face of that weakness is palpable.

I'll say this for Yoshitaro Nomura: he sure knows how to pick his writers. Masato Ide, his screenwriter for The Demon, wrote Kurosawa's Red Beard, Kagemusha, and Ran. Nomura also seems drawn to the cliffs in the north of Japan--Zero Focus, makes use of the same locations. The Demon does something interesting, though. Where Zero Focus presented the location in a stark black and white, The Demon drenches the sea in red light. A sea of blood? In the context of the film, oh yeah....

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


I'm late to the party on Superman: Doomsday (2007, directed by Bruce Timm, Lauren Montgomery, and Brandon Vietti). In truth, I didn't want to rent it and I didn't want to buy it. I had something of the same reaction to the comic book upon which the movie is based back in 1993. I was reading Superman at the time, but for some reason, I skipped the whole "Death of Superman" story. It remains a gap in the Superman section of my longboxes to this very day. The story that followed it was pretty spiffy. It was titled "The Reign of the Supermen" and it even had a cinematic legacy in so far as it introduced Steel, later to be portrayed on screen by Shaquille O'Neal. Regardless, this cover does not occur in my vast archive of comics:

I was pretty disenchanted with superheroes at the time. Still am, actually. And Superman: Doomsday is a good reason why. The original story was basically a punching match, and while Dan Jurgens was certainly an expert cartoonist when it came to all things pugilistic, I just didn't care. There wasn't really any suspense, there wasn't any sense of something at stake. You could tell that the character--and I use the word loosely--of Doomsday was intended specifically for one plot purpose and one plot purpose only. To beat Superman to death.

Fun, eh?

Well, this purpose is carried over to the movie. I suppose I could live with that if it weren't for the fact that what turned me off of superhero comics in the first place was the sense that the creators of them were weaned on WWF Wrestling on Saturday afternoons. That's what these comics became. And like the WWF, comics completely marginalize women. Women are a pair of boobs. This is a problem with this movie in particular, because the story features a prominent role for Lois Lane. You could argue that she's co-equal with Superman in this, and there's a long precedence for this in Superman stories. For the most part, Superman: Doomsday actually does get Lois Lane right, even to the point of advancing her relationship with Superman in a logical way. But why, then, does it seem like she's always dressed like a hooker in this? Super-low-cut tanks and skin-tight leather miniskirts are her workaday attire. I mean, really? There's a serious disconnect between the character as written and the visual. And it's infuriating.

Also infuriating is the maturity of Jimmy Olsen, boy photographer. Well, he grows up a bit here. He turns paparazzi for the tabloids and behaves more or less like the worst douchebag you've ever met.


Jimmy Olsen is a douchebag.


That all said, the second half of the movie is interesting. They've scrapped the baroque "Reign of the Superman" story for a variant, in which Lex Luthor clones Superman to do his bidding. But the cloned Superman has an agenda all his own, one that mines the essential fascism of the superhero archetype for all it's worth. This part of the movie acts as an interesting exploration of the psyche of Lex Luthor, which is, frankly, the best part of the movie. Lex's plot to fill the sky with Superman clones under his command is one of the better evil plots. I also like the depiction of The Toyman, one of Superman's more ridiculous villains, here turned into a kind of deranged pederast. He's creepy as hell, but he also exists to demonstrate a point, and that point is very, very ugly. And then there's a big fight at the end. Yawn.

Thinking about the way this film resolves itself, I was struck by yet another thing that bothered the hell out of me about the reboot of Star Trek. Like this film, Star Trek's ending depends on the resolution of a fistfight. There are a LOT of movies where this is the gauntlet the hero has to run to save the day, in varying degrees of stupidity. Heroes never save the day through guile, cunning, or charm anymore. Fisticuffs it is. One longs for Dr. Doom as done by Lee and Kirby to show up and proclaim that "Doom does not engage in fisticuffs." Alas.

What really disappoints me about all of this is the fact that this is the work of Bruce Timm, whose earlier work with Superman (and Batman) was absolutely stellar. This is a sad come-down. The Superman Animated Series was easily as good as any depiction of the character and it's better than most. Best of all, that show didn't dress Lois Lane like a hooker.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Kind of a Drag...

Reprinted from my web site, my thoughts on Sam Raimi's return to horror:

Drag Me To Hell , 2009. Directed by Sam Raimi. Allison Lohman, Lorna Raver, Justin Long, David Paymer, Dileep Rao, Adriana Barraza, Reggie Lee.

Synopsis: Bank loan officer Christine Brown is feeling the her head bump against the glass ceiling at her bank. She's up for a promotion to assistant manager, if only she can demonstrate that she's tougher than her rival, Stu, who, though less experienced--Christine is still training him in some elements of the job--has ingratiated himself to her boss. Her boss tells her that she needs to develop a taste for the jugular, she needs to make the really tough decisions. Enter Mrs. Ganush, an elderly gypsy woman who is on the verge of losing her house because medical bills have caused her to get behind on her mortgage. Christine choses Mrs. Ganush as the recipient of her new-found ruthlessness. Bad move. Mrs. Ganush curses Christine and soon a demon is stalking her. That demon will drag her soul to hell in three days if she doesn't find a way to break the spell...

Commentary: Some years ago, a friend of mine observed that both of Sam Raimi's first two Evil Dead movies bore more than a passing resemblance to Robert Wise's The Haunting. True, Raimi added buckets of grue to the basic techniques, but in generaly, he's right. The Evil Dead movies get their most disorienting effects from booming noises on the soundtrack and distorted camera angles and movements. Clearly, then, Raimi had a respect for the classics.

Fast forward twenty some years. Now we have Raimi's long-awaited return to the horror genre, and lo and behold, Raimi has given us another set of reference points to a classic horror movie. This time, it's Jacques Tourneur's Curse of the Demon. Oh, the details differ a little. The set-up may be lifted from Stephen King's Thinner, but its basic narrative structure is the same, as is its thematic pitting of reason against superstition. Christine even spends the last part of the film trying to pass her curse on to someone else, just as Dana Andrews tried to pass on the runes. In keeping with this particular influence, Drag Me To Hell actually doesn't really need the spew and grue of the Evil Dead movies. Raimi knows how to ratchet up the mood and the tension--he turns out to be pretty good at it--and in some ways, the spew that this film DOES include almost seems out of place. Still, Raimi has always been inventive with the gross-out, too, and he doesn't skimp on it here. How this film avoided an "R" rating, I can only guess. It might have been better off with one.

The most surprising thing about this film is that it more or less leaves behind Raimi's penchant for horror comedies. This is a determined and grim movie and what laughs there are are few and far between. Additionally, Raimi has provided us with a protagonist who is seriously flawed. She loses her moral compass repeatedly through the course of the film and does things that put her beyond the pale. She's almost the protagonist in an E. C. Comics vein, one who realizes her mistakes too late and gets everything that's coming to her. There's a certain amount of disconnect between the audience and Christine, which is pretty much deliberate on the part of the filmmakers. They've countered this portrayal a bit by casting cute-as-a-bug Allison Lohman in the lead. Cute aside, this IS a Raimi movie and Raimi loves to torment his protagonists. Christine, like Ash before her, is put through all kinds of hell.

Still and all, Raimi doesn't make deep movies, and this one is no different. What cultural subtext there is in this film is probably an accident (Raimi and his brother, Ivan, wrote the film in the 1990s). This is basically a funhouse ride, and on that count, it works wonderfully. It's also nice to see Raimi reasserting his own cinematic anima after sublimating so thoroughly for the Spider-Man films. And who am I to begrudge these things?

It's a fun movie.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

10 Favorite Characters (or, I'm Just Wild About Harry)

I don't remember where I saw this particular blogging meme--it's not my idea, and I apologize to its originator for not remembering who you are--but I thought I'd try my hand at it. Ten of my favorite characters in film. Oddly enough, several of them are named Harry. Starting with:

Reverend Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter, a man with love and hate tattooed on the knuckles of his hands (cue The Clash's "Death or Glory"). This is one of Robert Mitchum's best roles. Mitchum always seemed a flawed hero, but as a villain, he was second to no one. Harry Powell is every child's nightmare parent, and the film around him seizes this bete noir and amplifies it with a dark poetry of shadows. I confess, though, that he's not the only villainous Harry close to my heart. There's also:

Harry Lime in The Third Man, a character who's mostly a rumor through the majority of the film's running time, but that just makes his introduction into the film that much more striking. Like Harry Powell, Harry Lime is a creature of the shadows, a monster from the chthonian depths of the earth--in the film incarnated as Vienna's sewer system. When Lime ascends into the heavens on a ferris wheel, it's to regale Holly Martins with his toxic philosophy of life.

"Don't be so gloomy. After all it's not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."

There's a touch of Cesare Borgia in Harry Lime, which I presume that Orson Welles brought to the role from his work on The Prince of Foxes the same year. He's known to have written his own dialogue in this scene. Like all of the monsters of middle Europe, Harry Lime is hounded to death by angry villagers.

But for sheer screen menace, I turn to another Harry:

Mr. Harry Roat from Scarsdale in Wait Until Dark, as played by Alan Arkin. At first, he's innocuous. Almost a buffoon. But the movie peels away that veneer over its running time until you have raw, murderous, id raging on the screen. Again, Harry Roat is a creature of shadows. During the last act of the movie (the movie is very much a filmed play), this is literally true, as champion blind lady Audrey Hepburn has smashed all of the lights in her house to put herself on an even footing with Roat. But she forgot one. And he finds it. For sheer, white-knuckled terror, it's hard to top the end of Wait Until Dark, and as hard as I search, I can't think of a more terrifying villain.

In a somewhat less sinister vein:

We have J. J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success, who never the less may be more thoroughly destructive than any of my villainous Harrys. Hunsecker's sadomasochistic taunting of lickspittle Sydney Falco is the kind of part actors drool over, and Burt Lancaster sinks his fangs deep and thrashes around a bit with it. As he says to Falco: "I'd hate to take a bite outta you. You're a cookie full of arsenic." Hunsecker is a walking, talking metaphor for the corruption of big media, and he's as relevant today as he was then. And he's more credible than similar characters like Lonesome Rhodes in A Face in the Crowd or Howard Beale in Network. This is partly because the filmmakers have based Hunsecker on real life columnist Walter Winchell, but in his conception, he's the equivalent of the Marquise de Merteuil in Dangerous Liasons, all wrapped up in one bitter, brutal, queer package.

And since I seem to be attracted to rogues, let me offer one more before moving on to my favorite female characters:

Tuco in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. I'm not even sure Tuco is a villain, though he's certainly amoral and uncouth. But he's wise, too. Wiser than Angel Eyes, and possibly wiser than Blondie, who outwits him in the end. That's a matter of cunning, though. Not necessarily wisdom. In any event, Tuco's rule is something that all movie villains and some movie heroes should take to heart: "When you have to shoot, shoot, don't talk." Which explains, perhaps, why Eli Wallach never played a Bond villain.

Moving on to women...

Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley in the Alien movies is, of course, the great female action hero. She's a bit more than that, though, because, if she's an action hero, she's certainly not a typical action hero. I mean, in Hollywood parlance, action heroes are supposed to be loose cannons, who get their best results once they're off the reservations and the rules don't apply to them anymore (after they've turned in their badges, as it were). Ripley is the complete opposite. In the first film, she's the only character who demands that they run the ship by the book and she's completely right about it. This is positively unheard of. More than that, though, she's not weakened by her femininity, even though the first film would have you think that she is when she goes back for the stupid fucking cat. But her inherent femaleness is what really stands out, especially in the second movie, which is an ode to motherhood run amok. In Aliens, she comes into her own as a character that might have stepped out of a novel by Joanna Russ.

Still, I'm a sucker for villains:

Kathy Moffet in Out of the Past remains the gold standard for fatal femmes. You can have your Barbara Stanwycks and your Jeanne Moreaus, Jane Greer is a dame to kill for, and she devours Robert Mitchum AND Kirk Douglas. From the moment she appears, backlit by the Mexican sunlight, she's every promise ever made by duplicitous women. Men? They're pawns to her, and she plays them mercilessly. Here's the touchstone, though. One of my problems with Barbara Stanwyck's Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity is that I have a hard time believing that sad sack Fred MacMurray would kill for her. With Kathy Moffet, though, you believe it from the instant you see her. Kill, sell your soul, anything she asks.

I think I might actually kill for either Green Snake or White Snake in Tsui Hark's Green Snake. Maggie Cheung plays the title character, with Joey Wang as her sister. Both are snake spirits who have assumed human form as a leg up on their spiritual development. Green is still very much serpentine, and she's my favorite from this movie for two reasons: one, the Indian serpent dance that the newly human Green Snake performs, naked (though you never see anything) is just about the sexiest thing anyone has EVER put on film. Two, I'm totally infatuated with Maggie Cheung. It's fun watching her character try to be human. Every time she tries to emote, it fails, and it's fun to watch, until she actually does find emotions at the end of the movie. This has been set up with expert rhythms, and when it happens, it's a stunning development amid the sturm and drang of the special effects maelstrom around her. If I'm honest, I'll admit that this isn't one of her best performances (for that, I would direct you to Wong Kar Wai or to Clean). But this is about favorite characters, not performances, and this is one of mine.

Lulu in Pandora's Box is another kind of femme fatale, though of a more benign temperament than Kathy Moffet. She's equally destructive, I suppose, leaving a trail of broken men (and women!) in her wake. But she's liberated, and that's very appealing. Incarnated in the person of Louise Brooks, you have an actress who more or less WAS the character she played. Sexually profligate and not caring what men think of it, she was not the kind of girl you introduced to society, but she was the girl everyone was drawn to in spite of that. And, of course, she's punished for it. She has an appointment with a serial killer, making the film, perhaps, a prototype of the slasher film. Be that as it may...

Finally, we have the irrepressible Poppy, from Happy Go Lucky. She's the kind of Polyanna-ish character that would ordinarily send me screaming from the theater, but this is a Mike Leigh film, so it's NOT all sweetness and light, even if Poppy is. Sally Hawkins gives the character just enough of a twist that she doesn't come off as saccharine at all, even if her foolhardy optimism drives those around her insane. But then something odd happens. She overwhelms those around her, the audience, and even her normally dour director. Anyone that can corner Mike Leigh into making a genuinely happy movie has something on the ball.