Monday, January 30, 2012

38. A SUMMER IN GENOA (2008)

College professor Joe (Colin Firth) decides to spend the summer in Genoa, Italy with his two daughters to help them cope with surviving an automobile accident in which their mother (Hope Davis) is killed. The youngest daughter, 11-year-old Mary (Perla Haney-Jardine), was responsible for the accident and is reacting to her festering guilt with nightmares and bed-wetting. Her 17-year-old sister Kelly (Willa Holland) expresses her anger toward Mary through passive aggression and verbal abuse. Unable to console one another and aware of the fragility of the parental bond, both girls seek to replace that love now absent in their lives in different ways; Kelly by exploring her sexuality with local jerks who own boats and motorbikes and teach her how to curse in Italian, and Mary by lighting candles and communicating with her mother's spirit. Meanwhile, Joe must navigate the murky waters of his own widowhood while dealing with the tension between his daughters and their self-protective remoteness from him, while fending off the advances of an old college friend who is now a colleague (Catherine Keener), and an obviously attracted young student (Margherita Romeo).

Directed by Michael Winterbottom, A SUMMER IN GENOA offers fine performances and lovely scenery, but it grates in its attempt to balance the magic realist angle of Mary's arc with too much visual "realism" -- incessantly unsteady camerawork and scenes that cut together jaggedly and elliptically, as if excerpted and slapped together from a larger story. All the main characters are in some kind of pain and avoiding the need to deal with it and each other, so no one is forthcoming enough to be likeable. The climax guides the family, as if by the intervention of a ghostly hand, to a final group hug, but it hardly solves their problems or even begins to. The film ends abruptly, with Joe escorting his girls to their first day of school in Genoa; it may be that a new phase of life and story begins for them here, but the film asks too much of us emotionally to abandon us with so little. Well-acted, believable, but to little apparent purpose. The interesting score includes such unexpected cues as Georges Delerue's main theme from Truffaut's DAY FOR NIGHT and "Lemon Incest," credited only to Serge Gainsbourg though what we hear of it was actually sung by his young daughter Charlotte.

Viewed on Showtime Women HD.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

37. PHANTOM OF THE RUE MORGUE (1954)

I'll always remember this movie, which I first discovered on local commercial television as a child, as the first horror film that disappointed me. Consequently I've always had a bias against it, as well as a quixotic hope that I'll revisit it someday and discover the worth in it.

Directed by Roy Del Ruth (who went from this to THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE at 20th Century Fox), PHANTOM OF THE RUE MORGUE was Warner Bros.'s 3-D follow-up to their successful HOUSE OF WAX (1953), but it lacks the senses of atmosphere and period menace of its predecessor. In its bold colors, its unconvincing sense of place (the Eiffel Tower is seen only in the stage décor at a Can-Can performance), its bland casting (Steve Forrest as Paul Dupin, here a doctor rather than the medical student and amateur detective of the original) and its overt tastelessness, it's so relentlessly wholesome that its mystery reeks of melodrama, its morbid suspense of robust adventure. Its idea of inspiring horror in its audience is to bring the camera as close as it can get to a pretty, screaming face. Karl Malden, his voice always booming like that of an evangelist or a carnival pitchman, is our villain Dr. Marais (one imagines he would have been Dr. Gabin, had the film been made a few years earlier), and there's nothing in his performance to evoke villainy other than his dialogue and misdeeds. Patricia Medina is the heroine, dark-haired, dark-eyed, and a blank slate.

The movie is not without its graces, though they are hardly enough to save it. Charlie Gemora, who played Erik the ape in the original MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1932) here plays the ape Sultan, and his performance and gorilla suit compare well with contemporary ape suits and acting almost 60 years later; his work is exceptional, and one wishes the film had the imagination to do more with him. The film also has a memorable highlight in Sultan's skylight-crashing attack on an artist's model (Viola Vonn), whose languorous portrait -- the kind typically seen hanging on the walls of saloons in westerns -- is suddenly, violently splashed with what appears to be her blood. It is a tremendously shocking moment for 1950s horror, albeit one that is immediately defused as the shot cuts to the model, still perfectly well and trying to escape the room, which exposes the red splash as red paint -- although why the artist stored it by the bucketload rather than in tubes goes conveniently unexplained. Also, much as HOUSE OF WAX played a role in jump-starting the Italian horror film in the mid-1950s, this film seems to have inspired one of Italian horror's basic tenets: the resemblance of the heroine to another woman long dead, her likeness immortalized in a portrait.

One imagines that Universal must have prevented Warners from using the title MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, because the resentment is palpable. Most unusually, a credit for Poe's story immediately follows the film's title, even before the names of the actors appear; the word "murder" is all but hammered into the viewer throughout the opening scene; and the film closes with know-nothing Inspector Bonnard (Claude Dauphin) filing away the last clue of the solved case in a drawer labelled "Murders in the Rue Morgue," upon which the camera lingers for an inordinately long time. The supporting cast -- fraught with such French faces as Anthony Caruso, Paul Richards, and Henry Kulky -- features a young Merv Griffin as an early victim's suitor, looking pleased as punch to have a part in a real movie.

Viewed on Turner Classic Movies.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

36. POSSESSION (1981)

Though I've seen this Andrzej Zulawski film numerous times, it continues to surprise me with scenes I don't quite remember seeing before (in this case, a later scene involving a drowned dog) and with disturbing shocks to the memory about where certain scenes occur in its continuity (I remembered Adjani's subway freak-out occurring earlier in the scenario, and not as a flashback, for some reason). This may have something to do with the fact that my first few viewings were of the abortive US release version, which not only removed roughly 40 minutes but rescored the film and added some psychedelic solarization effects to mask its butchery. It may also be due to the way the film denies the viewer any recourse to a conscious approach and directly occupies the subconscious side of the disintegrating relationship between Mark (Sam Neill, playing a spy who's coming in from the cold, so to speak) and his wife Anna (Isabelle Adjani), who has abandoned their marriage-with-child in his absence for an affair with new age guru Heinrich (Heinz Bennent) and subsequently moved beyond his enlightenment to nurture the godhead within herself... which takes the literal form of a monster.

Someone clever at Turner Classic Movies had the idea to show this film in tandem with Roman Polanski's REPULSION (1965); both films were made by Polish expatriates and are about psychotic French women who give vent to their madness in empty apartments and lure various curiosityseekers to their deaths. But POSSESSION is also indebted to David Cronenberg's THE BROOD (1979), in that it's about a woman who literally births a Monster of the Id -- and then quantum leaps beyond this idea by having her fuck the resulting Carlo Rambaldi-made octopus in a surreal moment that brings Hokusai's 1814 painting "The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife" to startlingly icky life. ("Anna" resonates with "Ama," the female component in the painting's Japanese title "Tako to Ama.") When her husband catches her en flagrante with this thing, Anna looks into his face and repeats the word "almost...", an incantation that ultimately permits it to assume his form. Meanwhile, Anna has her own physical surrogate in the form of their son's schoolteacher, whom Mark fucks into being in his own way.

In the past, I've been deliberately provocative in calling this one of the great films about marriage, but I've been married long enough to state this with some authority, and each new viewing assures me this is not really too extreme an exaggeration. Every marriage is challenged by the growth of the individuals within it, and any enduring marriage must learn to stretch, to accomodate, to forgive each partner's faults and needs and aspirations. The more passionate the marriage, the more screaming is likely ensue, and Mark and Anna's connection is so passionate that they can only end one argument by cutting themselves with an electric knife. (Possessed with restored calm, they agree it doesn't hurt as much as everything else they're feeling.) The goal is to survive the pain, the uncertainty and the horror of our humanity for the right to die as a spiritual couple, which Mark and Anna somehow do, miserably yet triumphantly, leaving their strange-eyed representatives behind them to withstand another apocalypse in the generational war between the sexes -- if they should ever dare to open the door that separates them. (The film is set in Berlin, and wall stands directly outside Anna's pièd-a-terreur on Sebastianstrasse.) Adjani is formidable, giving one of the genre's greatest female performances, and perhaps its most incendiary; Neill is fascinating, nearly as mad as she; and Bennent is strangely endearing, hatefully self-conscious in his artistry of eros and self-defense, but when he admits to being as lost in this firestorm of marriage as we are, we hug his repugnance to us like a life buoy.

Viewed on Turner Classic Movies (in its restored Euro version, again disappointingly missing the shot of two alien eyes staring up from the gooey palms of Adjani's hands, in the wake of her subway "miscarriage," so far included only in the original US release).

35. LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN (1948)

This Max Ophüls film, based on a 1922 novella by Stefan Zweig, recently aired on TCM as part of an evening-long Ophüls retrospective; I hadn't seen it since Criterion issued the film on laserdisc back in the 1990s. Even then, it impressed me as one of the most perfectly realized romantic tragedies I'd seen; seeing it again, with another 15 or so years of viewing experience under my belt -- not to mention some actual filmmaking experience -- I find myself still more impressed by it as an outstanding technical achievement.

In one of the great triumphs of narrated cinema, Joan Fontaine complements her own central performance in voice-over, woven into the soundtrack as a kind of solo instrument, as a former piano star (Louis Jourdan) receives a letter that sidetracks him from his own planned escape from a duel challenge that awaits him at 6:00am. He reads the unsigned document -- which begins "Dear Stefan, By the time you read this, I may be dead..." all night long, but the tale it tells condemns him to accept death, should it come, as his just reward; it documents his narcissistic obliviousness to the woman his own empty life consciously awaited, and how his negligence ruined her life.

It no longer carries a Universal-International logo, but LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN was filmed on the Universal lot, and so cleverly that some of its most famous landmarks -- the PHANTOM OF THE OPERA's Paris Opera House, and the HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME cathedral, for example -- are all but unrecognizable in context, and the Old World streets usually called into service to stand in for London, Berlin or "Visaria" are beautifully shuffled into a plausible dream of Vienna. There are also scenes shot on the open air streets of these standing sets which Ophüls managed to shoot with live sound-- with people talking, as soldiers and horse-drawn carriages passed by -- without a single boom shadow in view. Add to this the sublimely sensual cinematography of Franz/Frank Planer (THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK, THE 5000 FINGERS OF DR. T and the film noir classic CRISS CROSS), with its wonderland of shadow and detail, and you have a setting so ornate that it makes any performance stand out like a jewel. There are negligible areas wherein the film doesn't quite reach its mark, such as Jourdan's middle-aged makeup, but it's a masterpiece nonetheless, the finest of Ophüls' American films, and one of the cinema's most poignant illustrations of the impact any one of us might unknowingly have on the life of another person.

Viewed on Turner Classic Movies.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

34. THE PARTY'S OVER (1964)

The more I discover of Oliver Reed's early work, the more consecrated I become to the view that he was one of the most compelling screen actors we will ever see. Though third-billed in this film, he owns it nonetheless, and nearly everyone else pales in terms of the commitment they bring to their performances. This isn't to say that the other roles are badly acted; on the contrary, I find this film not only remarkably well-cast but pleasingly stocked with fascinating characters -- a painter who drums, a lesbian couple, a German expatriate maimed during the war -- just the sort of arty, liberated crowd I'd be tempted to fall in with, even if they did turn out to be bad news just the same. But whenever Reed is onscreen, he dominates everything else that's going on, and his sheer force of presence, personality and psychology eclipses the story's dramatic obligations, which include sussing out the truth in a possible murder investigation.

Reed plays the ringleader of a group of partying beatniks, to whom most of the girls (including second-billed Amy Lynn) have been drawn at one point or another, who becomes hung up on the one girl who's refused him sexually -- Melina (Louise Sorel), an engaged American heiress from Missouri who's fled to London to get away from the pressures personified by her crew-cutted father (Eddie Albert) and the fiancé who's being groomed to take over his industrial throne. The fiancé, Carson (Clifford David), tracks down her group and they send him off to different dead ends that eventually persuade him that his intended doesn't wish to see him. Their engagement broken, he finds himself attracted to Nina (Katherine Woodville), one of the beatnik girls who, like him, is looking for a reason to break free of her social circle and "grow up." In the wake of Melina's disappearance and the suicide of one of her group, her father arrives to do what Carson has failed to do, and finds his daughter in the morgue, the supposed victim of a hit-and-run accident that Carson knows did not happen.

Directed and apparently disowned by an uncredited Guy Hamilton, the same year his career was raised to a different category by directing GOLDFINGER, this film has a vital jazz score by John Barry, and Annie Ross sings one of the numbers. The familiar rising and falling notes of Barry's world-famous Bond theme can be heard here in rudimentary form in one of the cues. Annette Robertson, later Reed's co-star in two BBC films directed by Ken Russell, is one of the more intriguing girls in Reed's circle, though not given much to do. Not a great film, but a reasonably gripping one, restored after many years of unavailability by the British Film Institute.

Viewed on BFI Flipside Blu-ray and DVD.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

33. COOGAN'S BLUFF (1968)

This was the first of several collaborations between actor Clint Eastwood and director Don Siegel, and it's not hard to imagine how it came about. After making his three epic westerns for Sergio Leone, Eastwood was clearly homecoming star material, and here was a role that would not only gentrify and Americanize his Italian Western image, but poise him so that he might literally straddle the generation gap.

It's the story of Walt Coogan, a thirtyish Arizona deputy sheriff who travels to New York City to bring a fugitive back to justice, only to discover they do things a bit differently there; it quickly turns into a none-too-subtle confrontation between righteous Old Western ways and eastern Big City ways (personified by flint-nosed, MADIGAN-hatted desk detective Lee J. Cobb). The latter are less conservative, slyer and ultimately less honest... but Tex (as he's disparagingly called down several noses) makes some slips along the way himself, so by the final reel both sides learn some common courtesy from the other. Because this movie was made in 1968, it also embodies the cultural tension between the younger and the older guard, with Coogan representing the straight and narrow in a clash with the psychedelic crowd. (As part of a nightclub's light show, the Universal release interjects -- between a bunch of kaleidoscopes and painted nipples -- some stock footage of the title creature from 1955's TARANTULA!, which a young unbilled Eastwood was responsible for napalming to death.) The man Coogan is supposed to bring back to Arizona, played by Don Stroud, is stuck in a mental hospital for some LSD-fuelled hijinx, until he bluffs him out (hence the title) and loses custody of him during a surprise attack -- led by, of all possible hooligans, David Doyle. To get his hands on him once again, Coogan romances a parole officer (Susan Clark) and actually sleeps with Stroud's main squeeze (Tish Sterling), who earlier encouraged Stroud to murder him when he regained the upper hand.

I enjoy a good Siegel film as much as anyone -- INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, THE VERDICT, THE LINEUP, THE KILLERS, FLAMING STAR, DIRTY HARRY of course, THE BEGUILED -- but I tend to find him less focused and hard-hitting than unsubtle and broad-firing, overrated by fans who attribute auteur status to him simply because he made crime pictures more violent and socially conscious. This film illustrates his tendencies toward blatancy and overstatement, and when the story devolves into action (as in a protracted motorcycle chase), there are points when the camera seems to give up following the action -- actually flailing skyward and cutting away to passing roadside. One thing that's intriguing about COOGAN'S BLUFF, which was produced when the MPAA ratings system was still new, is that it's unusually lascivious for an Eastwood picture; he usually got seduced in the Harry Callahan pictures ("What does a girl have to do to sleep with you?" asked a neighbor in MAGNUM FORCE; "Try knocking on the door," he winked), but here he actively pursues, leers at, and toys with women -- while being bathed by one in an early scene, he tries to fire a slippery bar of soap into her inviting cleavage. Generally speaking, all of the film's women are treated as playthings, art objects, molls or whores. Coogan seriously betrays Clark's character, a professional woman with whom he seemed to be courting a serious relationship -- and, presumably to give her prominent-but-shafted character some entitled closure, she arrives at the heliport atop the PanAm Building to say -- in longshot -- that all is forgiven, and to blow kisses to camera as he flies away and the end credits roll.

Worth seeing as a coltish prelude to an important screen partnership, but not too impressive on its own merits.

Viewed on Encore Westerns. 

32. COUNT DRACULA'S GREAT LOVE (EL GRAN AMOR DEL CONDE DRACULA, 1972)

For my money, this is Paul Naschy's most hypnotic horror movie and one of the most dreamlike pictures to be found in the last 60-70 years of the horror genre. Under the direction of Javier Aguirre, who subsequently directed Naschy in the outstanding horror pulp pastiche THE HUNCHBACK OF THE MORGUE (made the same year), COUNT DRACULA'S GREAT LOVE is an excitingly feral, brazenly sexy but none-too-cohesive amalgam of highlights reprised from various Hammer Dracula movies. We get the resurrection of a vampire by slashing the throat of someone suspended above their casketed ashes (DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS), Dracula flogging a victim (SCARS OF DRACULA), Dracula appearing to halt an underling's attack on a reserved blood source (HORROR OF DRACULA), while Naschy's original script attempts to innovate an original story that -- in the English-dubbed version, anyway -- not only doesn't make any sense, but sometimes appears to contradict its own imperatives.

A coach transporting a man (Vic Winner as "Imre Foley") and four women (Rosanna Yanni as "Senta," Marta Miller as "Elke," Ingrid Garbo as "Marlene," and Haydee Politoff -- the star of Eric Rohmer's LA COLLECTIONEUSE -- as "Karen") from Biarritz to Transylvania loses a wheel not far from the former Castle Dracula, which -- according to legends known to Imre -- later became the sanitorium of a Dr. Kargos (note: cute mash-up of Karloff and Lugosi) who was hung by villagers for conducting cruel and unusual experiments. (Now there's a movie still waiting to be made!) The sanitorium was recently acquired by a Dr. Wendell Marlowe (Naschy), who keeps it available for spontaneous hospitality, because he -- like Kargos before him -- is in fact Count Dracula, patiently awaiting the fated arrival of a virgin who will love him enough to offer her blood for the resurrection of his daughter Rodna, Countess Dracula. Or something like that... because, in the dubbing (which extends to the Transylvanian peasantry voices like those of Mel Blanc and Slim Pickens), Biarritz is sometimes pronounced "Beat Street", "Fleet Street" and even "Bistro." Though the much-discussed Rodna is eventually resurrected according to plan, Dracula almost immediately reconsiders and has her body dumped in a nearby lake, coffin and all. He shows a similarly weird ambivalence about his great love Karen, freeing her from her obligations to his "existence of loneliness and horror" in one scene, then urging her to reconsider in the next, before finally suicidally staking himself to save her from making a choice. No properly subtitled version of the Spanish original exists, so it's impossible to tell to what extent the crude dubbing conveys Naschy's original narrative, or if the money ran out during production forcing some quick, unintelligible wrap-up of the proceedings.

One thing's for sure: the English dialogue is a hoot. "You haven't changed since college," Elke taunts Senta for being attracted to Wendell. "The only thing you can think of is men. You'd sleep with a broom if it had pants!" Praised for his scientific acument, Wendell casually replies, "The true man of science rarely confirms anything; I would say he doubts everything." After a romantic moonlight stroll with Wendell, Karen confesses "These have been the most terrible and happiest days of my life!" And as he prepares to revive Rodna, Dracula addresses Karen by saying (in a reverberating voice-over, Naschy's Dracula never speaks aloud): "You once belonged to Dracula and now you've returned to his side for the ceremony that signifies the rebirth of his origin."

Lines like these would stand out painfully in a more prosaic film, but COUNT DRACULA'S GREAT LOVE (partly filmed in and around the same villa where Mario Bava made LISA AND THE DEVIL) is like a fever dream awash in lush and creepy atmosphere, thanks to cameraman Raul Perez Cubero and a haunting score (sometimes played in reverse) by Carmelo Bernaola. Availing itself of the new freedoms then available to Spanish filmmaking, it revels in delirious, eroticized blood-letting in a manner that few other vampire films permit themselves to do. Its imagery of fog and negligéed vampire women, and its contrasting of blue night filters and brightly flowing blood, suggest Dan Curtis' HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS (1970) as one of Aguirre's stylistic influences. But there is nothing else in horror quite like the brilliant main titles sequence, which replays a murdered graverobber's tumble down a flight of stairs over and over, slowed for our savoring with each repetition. (For those of you who follow my fiction -- Yes, the name of my THROAT SPROCKETS character Sadilsa was lifted from the lighting credit on this picture, a name that evoked for me both the divine Marquis and the She-Wolf of the SS.)

This film was represented for many years by incomplete prints censored for television, but the anamorphic version released as CEMETERY GIRLS (one of its US drive-in reissue titles) as part of a BCI Entertainment Exploitation Cinema Double Feature (now OOP) appears to be complete, if assembled from more than one print, resulting in some scenes looking brighter than others. It was a thrill for me to finally see the film intact, even if having the whole picture makes it seem farther than ever from making sense.

Viewed on BCI Entertainment DVD

Monday, January 23, 2012

31. ED WOOD (1994)

The more you know about this subject, the more reasons you may have to resent this picture, but few films do a better job than Tim Burton's biopic of writer-director-producer-actor Edward D. Wood, Jr. of showing that art is a lie which tells the truth. The script by Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander follows a loose general outline of the facts, while coloring (in luscious black-and-white) wildly outside those lines, but their exaggerations and sheer inventions serve to say something, more assertively than facts ever could, about the romance of Old Hollywood and the bitterness experienced by anyone who loses something or someone in their blind pursuit of a personal vision.

For once in his career, Burton mostly leaves his own overbearing sense of design out of it, bringing only a love for the subject matter and a steady sense of craft to a film that's otherwise truer to Wood's own sensibilities. Johnny Depp isn't anything like the Ed Wood known to purists from his own work, and one supposes he's there to connect Burton himself to the material, but Martin Landau succeeds grandly in capturing the essence of Bela Lugosi -- and in a larger sense, the indignities that sometimes befall any actor intent upon working -- despite being apparently untrue to the Lugosi who really was. Other performances are no less truthful if somewhat left of on-target: Jeffrey Jones as Criswell, Patricia Arquette as Kathy O'Hara (so touching when she presents Ed with a pair of black booties for recovering drug addict Bela "to go with his cape"), Bill Murray as Bunny Breckinridge, Max Casella as Paul "Kelton the Cop" Marco, Juliette Landau as Loretta King (setting off all manner of hilariously ignored alarms as she stresses her allergies to all liquids), Vincent D'Onofrio in an unlikely cameo as Orson Welles, and particularly Lisa Marie as Vampira, whose flatline delivery and ostentatious outward image aren't quite Maila Nurmi but say something profound about a type of young woman unique to Los Angeles today and yet virtually alien in 1955. It's unfortunate that this fine actress (so gloriously pantomimic in MARS ATTACKS!) has disappeared from films since her break-up with Burton about a decade ago. No other film paints such an amusingly varied landscape of the kinds of people you'd want to work with, be crazy to work with, and have to work with to make your cockeyed dreams come even halfway true.

General audiences may find a lot to laugh about (or at) in ED WOOD, but the more experience one has of the real Hollywood, of its hopefuls and its hangers-on, and the more friends one has lost after a period of shared dreams, only to see them live on in bit parts on THE LATE LATE SHOW, this movie says something about the beauty and squalor of the film industry that not even SUNSET BLVD. quite gets its ironic fist around. And when the final words "THE END - FILMED IN HOLLYWOOD U.S.A." fill the screen, the heart simultaneously swells with pride and flinches from the sting.

Viewed on Showtime HD.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

30. ISADORA DUNCAN, THE BIGGEST DANCER IN THE WORLD (1966)

Though barely feature-length (67 minutes, sped to 63m in the 25 f.p.s. DVD transfer), this presentation of BBC's MONITOR series marked Ken Russell's nearly complete advancement into historical drama within its format. It is reined within the realm of documentary, to the extent it is, by a foreword delivered on-camera by Isadora Duncan's friend and biographer Sewell Stokes, who co-wrote the teleplay with Russell. His friendship with Isadora results in a far more down-to-earth and candid overview of her life and career than was managed by Karel Reisz's 1968 film THE LOVES OF ISADORA, and Russell certified its candor by casting in the title role Vivian Pickles (a trained dancer previously cast in his 1964 TV-film THE DIARY OF A NOBODY), who was more solidly-built and thus physically consistent with Duncan than Reisz's choice, the more attractive and rail-thin Vanessa Redgrave.

Russell later said in a press interview that Isadora Duncan was one of his favorite artists, but this film (egged on by Stokes' insights) tends to underscore her personal vulgarity, her romantic obliviousness to what really made the world turn, and her pushy sense of snobbery and entitlement. At the same time it celebrates the extreme degree to which she devoted her life to an art largely of her own conception, that had much more to do with instinctive self-expression than actual dance. ("I am not a dancer," she declares, "I am an expressionist of beauty!" She also says, "As a dancer, I'm really a great orator.") The script enjoys a few laughs at the expense of the prominent men who became her lovers -- like multi-millionaire Paris Singer (Peter Bowles) and the Soviet poet/provocateur Sergei Yessenin (Alexei Jawdokimov) -- and, without drawing too much attention to it, it points out enough macabre coincidences of Isadora's bedevilment by machines, including the Singer Sewing Machine, to suggest her as a silly free-spirited fly in the face of her era's real revolution, namely the Industrial Revolution. (Indeed, she eventually dies in a machine, the victim of one last vain, theatrical flourish.) In a Greek fantasia sequence, Russell also borrows images from some of Leni Riefenstahl's work, conveying the valid observation that there was something proto-fascistic in the idealized body language of Duncan's art and in the way she gathered young and malleable minds around her central pole of narcissism.

Pickles (later chosen by Hal Ashby to play the doting mother in HAROLD AND MAUDE) very capably embodies the various extremes of Isadora Duncan -- the bolshevik, the water sprite and the schoolmarm, as it were -- and her performance is said to have provoked a 20-minute ovation when the film was given a public screening in Monte Carlo. If ISADORA DUNCAN as a whole feels somewhat less extraordinary than Russell's previous groundbreaking MONITOR successes, it nevertheless marks the source of a deep vein of dance and theatricality running through his subsequent work and marks the first of Russell's many wonderful collaborations with director of photography Dick Bush, editor Michael Bradsell, and that most singular of British supporting players, Murray Melvin (who appears as a photographer).

Viewed on DVD (KEN RUSSELL AT THE BBC).

29. ALWAYS ON SUNDAY (1965)

Ken Russell followed his feature-length THE DEBUSSY FILM with this half-length MONITOR profile of the 19th-20th century primitive painter Henri Rousseau. In one of the ingenuities forced upon him by keeping his mandate with the BBC programme to avoid overt drama, Russell had taken to illustrating his research with amateur actors who were sympathetically and vocationally predisposed to the historical figures they were representing (if not "portraying").

For this film, Russell cast contemporary Scottish primitivist painter James Lloyd -- himself the subject of his earlier MONITOR profile THE DOTTY WORLD OF JAMES LLOYD (1964) -- to not only portray Rousseau but to work out a way of repainting Rousseau's work in a manner that his process could be recreated onscreen. Though it loses far more than Russell's composer-based programmes for its lack of color, it's remarkably concentrated for such a short work; it feels longer than it is, not because it's slow but because it encompasses so much detail and covers so much emotional ground in its telling.

The story is handsomely narrated by Oliver Reed, who shows a real knack for this side art that was rarely exploited elsewhere (his recounting of Athos' past history with Milady in THE FOUR MUSKETEERS being a notable exception), with Russell and Melvyn Bragg providing the scoffing blather of the philistine vox populi, not yet ready to recognize Rousseau's uniquely personal brand of genius. In one of its most surprising twists, THE DEBUSSY FILM's gamine Annette Robertson shows up in drag to portray Alfred Jarry, "the first beatnik", and we get to attend the first staging of Jarry's surrealist play UBU ROI. (The film could fairly be accused of overstating the boorishness of Parisian society at the time, but the manner in which it does so is perfectly in keeping with the satiric pitch of Jarry's play.) There is also a blithely ignored appearance by a nude model reclining on a sofa as reference for Rousseau's final masterpiece "The Dream," who appears frontally nude one or two years prior to Antonioni's BLOWUP presenting a frontally nude woman (briefly) for what is commonly cited as the first time onscreen. But it's elsewhere that the film scores its two most striking scenes: when the self-described "Sunday painter" reduces the neighbor woman he loves to fits of cruel laughter by showing off his paintings and offering her the gift of whichever one she might choose, and in a courtroom where a lawyer defends him against culpability in a charge of fraud by pointing out that he describes his own manner of painting as "realist."

Viewed on DVD (KEN RUSSELL AT THE BBC).  

28. THE DEBUSSY FILM (1965)

After the celebrated ELGAR (1962), this is the earliest eample of Ken Russell's work for the BBC series MONITOR to be released on DVD, but so far only in the United States. It remains commercially unavailable to the very people who financed it, and there is a movement afoot to persuade the BBC to release all 35 of the works Russell produced for the network.

THE DEBUSSY FILM was made the year after his first theatrical feature FRENCH DRESSING (1964) and shows his appetite for drama merging with his more restricting imperatives for MONITOR. Though it is hard to tell how much of an advance it represented in the scheme of his MONITOR work without his half-dozen intermediary works for that series available, there is no question it represents a quantum leap in the complexity available to the cinematic essay form.

His hands tied by the tradition behind the biweekly series, Russell was forbidden to use actors to portray historical figures, so he and screenwriter Melvyn Bragg conceived a clever way of sneaking drama into their proposed essay about the 19th century composer Claude Debussy by framing their "documentary" scenes as part of a story about a British film company producing a film about Debussy. It is one thing that Russell's film ISADORA DUNCAN THE BIGGEST DANCER IN THE WORLD (1966) beat Karel Reisz's film ISADORA (with Vanessa Redgrave) into public view by a short time, but it is quite a different victory that THE DEBUSSY FILM appeared roughly 15 years before Reisz's THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT'S WOMAN, for which Harold Pinter advanced the same solution for translating John Fowles' THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT'S WOMAN into cinematic terms.

This was Russell's first collaboration with Oliver Reed (who plays Debussy and the actor portraying him), whose promising career was briefly sidelined by a deep facial scar hidden here by a Van Dyke beard. It was also his first collaboration with actor Vladek Sheybal (who plays the director as well as Debussy's pornographing mentor Pierre Louÿs), and there's some particularly wonderful work in it by one Annette Robertson, one of Reed's co-stars in THE PARTY'S OVER (made the same year) who introduces into Russell's oeuvre a particular brand of anima -- ambiguous, contrary, perverse, acidic, taunting yet somehow incessantly erotic -- that would run throughout it in the ever-morphing forms of Glenda Jackson, Georgina Hale, Twiggy, Imogen Millais-Scott and others. The production has some rough edges but vastly transcends its economy; it also contains scenes of such entrancing, visionary beauty they would not be out of place in any montage of Russell's most beautiful work.

Viewed on DVD (KEN RUSSELL AT THE BBC). 

Saturday, January 21, 2012

27. THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN (1976)

A peculiar example of the true crime film, this Samuel Z. Arkoff presentation -- a surprise box office hit in its day -- was shot on location in the cities of Texarkana, Texas and Arkansas, and documents a series of unsolved attacks and murders which took place there in 1946.

What makes it peculiar is that the horrific and suspenseful scenes are staged and filmed fairly effectively but, for some inane reason, director Charles B. Pierce (THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK) chose to depict the scenes of the police investigation (headed by Ben Johnson as a fictitious Texas Ranger, and Andrew Prine as a local deputy) in largely comic fashion, a misstep epitomized by the preposterous amount of time he spends milking his own supporting role as a patrolman (nicknamed "Sparkplug") for laffs.

Flying in the face of its labored comedy, the film is schizophrenically framed with sobriety, being underscored by earnest narration (so earnest that the film has the absurd reputation in some quarters for being a "semi-documentary") and with each murder preceded by an historic date which grimly fills the screen like a portent that something bad is going to happen. (The titles employ the same old-fashioned font used by New World's BIG BAD MAMA, another rollicking rural crime picture made around the same time.) A blog exists where the interested can read the true details concerning this reign of terror, which were changed in this telling (along with the names of the victims) by screenwriter Earl E. Smith (who plays the role of Dr. Kress, a consulted psychologist) to eliminate the rape aspect common to the actual crimes. In a scene that was doubtless conceived to generate word-of-mouth (that, or just plain incredulity), Smith was inspired to have the Phantom Killer claim one of his victims -- a member of the local high school band -- with her own trombone, cruelly customized with a pocket knife. (Though one of the murder victims was a band member, she was a saxophonist and her instrument played no role in her demise.) GILLIGAN'S ISLAND's Dawn Wells has a small but prominently billed role as the Phantom's final victim, whose attack represents a startling shift in his modus operandi from Lovers' Lane parked car attacks to actual home invasions.

To see the film now, it becomes obvious that the sack-hooded Phantom Killer (played by Bud Davis, whom we never see unmasked) is the real antecedent for the Jason character in the FRIDAY THE 13TH sequels, though they had their roots as creative body count pictures in Mario Bava's BAY OF BLOOD. Like Jason, the Phantom Killer never dies, he just fades into the wilderness where he endures to this day in the repeated whispers of urban legends. In the film's most amusing and sardonic twist, Pierce ends the picture by showing the Phantom's shoes standing outside a theater in a queue to see THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN, thereby accusing his own paying audience of harboring the murderer.

Viewed on Turner Classic Movies.

Friday, January 20, 2012

26. THE IDES OF MARCH (2011)

This film -- which was directed, co-written by, and stars George Clooney -- has received a lot of attention here in Cincinnati for being largely filmed in and around Cincinnati (as well as Northern Kentucky, though the end credits mention only Ohio and Michigan). Though based on a stage play, it's been well opened-up and the story proceeds from scene to scene with a sense of directorial gravity that the performances curiously never quite earn, which is strange considering this film attracted one of the most impressive casts of recent years: Ryan Gosling, Clooney, Paul Giamatti, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood, Max Minghella, to name just the cream off the top.

Part of the problem may be that we've seen similar stories before -- a Presidential candidate (Clooney), who sincerely says and stands for all the right things, is compromised by a single extramarital sexual encounter that makes him blackmailable and subject to the compromises that make the political world go 'round. The story gives us glimpses of all the characters (either humanly flawed, like Gosling's ambitious young political advisor, or flawed by brand, like Tomei's anything-for-a-scoop reporter) jockeying for position, but the game is so thick we don't get very close to any of them, which hobbles their stakes and obscures their motivations. (When one character commits suicide, we are presented with a choice of reasons why it may have happened, which takes the edge off the pivotal event in the picture.) It's a cast of public images and stereotypes and, even when their clothes come off for a brief respite from the rat race, they remain cloaked, culpable and held to a higher standard that pretends to exist to keep the game honorable. Which, this film needlessly points out, it isn't.

As a local, I commend the film for making excellent use of its locations; as a critic, I commend Mr. Clooney -- a fine actor and legitimate movie star, and a good director as well -- on his varied abilities but find this damning political drama on an almost remedial level after the intriguing complexities of an earlier triumph like MICHAEL CLAYTON.

Viewed on DirecTV on Demand.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

25. SUCH A GORGEOUS KID LIKE ME (UNE BELLE FILLE COMME MOI, 1972)

Though Columbia released François Truffaut's SUCH A GORGEOUS KID LIKE ME in the United States, it was not well-received and has all but vanished from availability since the dawn of home video. It's a curious project for Truffaut, being based on a 1967 crime novel by American writer Henry Farrell, best-known for his "horror hag" scenarios WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?, HUSH HUSH... SWEET CHARLOTTE and WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH HELEN (respectively directed by Robert Aldrich and Curtis Harrington, who also directed another film based on a Farrell novel, HOW AWFUL ABOUT ALLAN), but manages to fit, if a bit awkwardly, in the same pigeonhole as SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER and CONFIDENTIALLY YOURS, as works of tongue-in-cheek noir.

The film begins with a young student visiting a bookstore in search of a sociology thesis entitled "Criminal Women," which was scheduled for publication a year before. The store's manager explains that the book was indeed announced but never published, and the story is then offered as an explanation for its withholding. In his screen debut, André Dussolier stars as sociologist Stanislas Previne who is preparing a thesis exploring the question of why women turn to crime. In search of answers, he meets with convicted murderess Camilla Bliss (THE MOTHER AND THE WHORE's Bernadette Lafont) for a series of interviews, during which she charms him and blinds him to her personal flaws, much to the annoyance of his girlfriend Hélène (Anne Kreis), who is transcribing his tapes into manuscript form. In time, Camilla provides Stan with enough information to help him establish her innocence, but by this time, she has been corrupted by the system as well as by life, and she teaches Stan the ultimate lesson that there is only one way he can begin to understand what he is writing about.

It's been said that this is Truffaut's worst film, that if you love Truffaut, you will hate this film, but I adore Truffaut despite occasional weaknesses (like his oft-times overpitched sentimentality) and enjoyed this one more than I was prepared to do. It has some rough edges (which caused me to reflect his satiric technique here is really not all that different from Jess Franco's, though he takes more time with it) but his affection for his characters shines through, and there are some surprising magic realist touches. Lafont is endearingly brassy as the sexy, amoral, schizophrenic manipulator Camilla. Her many lovers include Philippe Leotard as her hapless husband Clovis, Guy Marchand as nightclub singer Sam Golden (who accompanies his lovemaking with a record album of Indianapolis 500 races!), THE MAN WHO LOVED WOMEN's Charles Denner as a rat exterminator named Arthur (whom Camilla tries to seduce into exterminating some rats of her own), and SHIVER OF THE VAMPIRES' Michel Delahaye as her attorney.

Available as an Umbrella Entertainment Australian import called A GORGEOUS GIRL LIKE ME through Amazon.fr.

24. SUSPIRIA (1977)

I've seen this Dario Argento film many times, of course, and though I am always knocked for a loop by its stunning visual imagination, my feelings about it have been tempered over the years for two reasons. First of all, the storyline is seriously underbaked and derivative, with yet another protagonist struggling to remember some silly forgotten detail that is finally recalled by seeing something in plain view reflected in a mirror; and secondly, because it never fully recovers from the Technicolor shocks dealt out in its first ten minutes. There are reasons to continue watching, of course -- Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, Alida Valli are all wonderful, the images continually provoke a tantalizing atmosphere of sinister magic, and the dialogue has an acerbic wit not commonly found in Argento's work, which is why I believe Daria Nicolodi when she takes the lioness's share of the credit for the script, apart from the murder set-pieces which were Dario's specific contribution to story.

Watching the movie again, I noticed that this first film in Argento's "Three Mothers" trilogy makes no reference to the other two Mothers, nor even the Three Mothers as a unity, leading one to surmise that Argento and Nicolodi hastily wove this mythos together when SUSPIRIA became a surprise international hit. Also, though most commentators identify "Elena" Markos as Mater Suspiriorum, she is plainly called Helena Markos, her only given sobriquet is "The Black Queen," and true to the first syllable of her name, she is described as having perished long ago in a fire. This is made more confusing given the presence within the Tanz Akademie dancing school of its wheezy Headmistress, who is evidently Helena Markos herself. Joan Bennett's character invokes Helena's dead spirit as part of a hex spell sent out to snoopy "American bitch" ballet student Suzy Banyon (Harper), though the Headmistress is lying prone in the room next door in some sort of outlined astral form that casts shadows and becomes corporealized as Suzy stabs her with a piece of art sculpture... recalling THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE and also looking ahead to TENEBRAE.

Ultimately, I think SUSPIRIA is weakened by adhering more to sensation than to sense -- after all, even the mysterious requires a certain continuity -- but all these years later, it remains a singular experience. It's one of the few horror films powerful enough in its aura alone to solicit awe from its audience.

Viewed on DVD.

23. MONSTERS (2010)

Six years after a space probe collecting alien life forms crashes in Central America, producing a so-called "Infected Zone" between the United States and South America, an American magazine photographer Kaulter (Scoot McNairy) is ordered by his publisher to escort his daughter Sam (Whitney Able) back to safety in the newly-walled USA. Plans to achieve this the easy way, by ferry, are squelched by local corruption, forcing them to make their way toward safety through the Infected Zone.

An $800,000 feature, MONSTERS marked the writing-directing debut of visual effects designer Gareth Edwards, who allowed the storyline to develop organically between his two lead actors. (His writing credit, then, must stem from the movie's concept and the selective choices he made in editing the picture, rather than from actually being responsible for dialogue and character -- something which I, as a writer, would not wish to encourage as a trend.) Able and McNairy, reportedly involved at the time of filming, are photogenic and hold one's attention with their realistic quirks, patter and banter; their personal story is really the point here, rather than their nicely-staged, occasional encounters with the monsters (eg., the arrogant capitalist publisher, the corrupt Mexican officials, the passport-thieving whore whose face we never see, the Army who muscle in to tear the would-be lovers apart) and the floaty, fluorescent, squid-like aliens.

What unfolds between this couple isn't new or remarkable, but it's reasonably captivating -- in an almost nouvelle vague way -- set against this apocalyptic backdrop, which offers a nightmarish parallel to a real world without much hope of security or future. The film builds to a particularly close encounter at an abandoned convenience store in the southwestern United States, where I gathered the point was that Kaulter forgets to take photos because something in his life now means more to him than his work. What the interaction of the aliens suggests is to enjoy one another while you can, then move on, but the illustration arrives too late for our protagonists to benefit from their example. At only 94 minutes, it's reasonably diverting and doesn't overstay it's welcome, but I sense it won't stand up terribly well to repeat viewings.

Viewed on Magnolia Blu-ray disc.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

22. CIRCUS OF HORRORS (1960)

Cleverly pegged by writer David Pirie as part of Anglo-Amalgamated's "Sadean trilogy" (along with HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM and Michael Powell's PEEPING TOM), CIRCUS OF HORRORS is one of the most unabashedly sensationalistic examples of British horror.

It's a grisly showboat for actor Anton Diffring, who gives an outrageously narcissistic performance as Dr. Rossiter, a demented plastic surgeon whose failed attempt, in 1947 London, to restore the beauty of a politically well-connected woman drives her mad and causes him to flee England along with two associates, one of whom (THE MANSTER's Jane Hylton) loves him blindly. Driving "somewhere in France," they meet a disfigured little girl whose alcoholic father (Donald Pleasence) owns an impoverished circus. Rossiter, changing his name on the spot to Bernard Schuler (his new initials fortunately matching the monograms adorning the décor of Billy Smart's Circus), agrees to restore the girl's beauty in exchange for half interest in the circus -- which quickly becomes outright ownership when the father is killed while drunkenly attempting to dance with a trained bear. Ten years later, Schuler has turned the circus into one of Europe's top attractions by stocking it with buxom attractions he has exhumed from the ranks of thieves and prostitutes, all with fixed faces. When Schuler's lovers decide they want out, from the circus itself, or to marry into money, or just the get the hell out from under his lusty moves, they are killed mid-performance -- hence its growing notoreity as "The Jinxed Circus."

I've seen this film many times and, while it's no masterpiece, it always seems to improve and enrich with each viewing. It's pure pulp and full steam ahead, but it's the subtext that grows ever more intriguing. Being set in postwar Europe, where the characters can't walk ten steps without bumping into some new facial scar, the film ventures some early anti-war comment that primes us to see Diffring as a kind of renegade Nazi surgeon. He struts around his circus in black shirt and jodphurs, performing illicit surgeries that are connected to some psychosexual analogy of the Aryan ideal: Schuler's Temple of Beauty, wherein he collects still lives of plasticated physical perfection. And if Rossiter/Schuler himself is motivated by crazed sexual ambition -- creating perfection so that he can nail and enslave it -- so are the machinations of his downfall: the grown daughter of the circus owner (BRIDES OF DRACULA's Yvonne Monlaur) unwittingly offers incriminating details to the police while being romanced by an undercover cop (Conrad Phillips), and his final betrayal of the woman who has loved and protected him all along -- by cruelly announcing his plans to wed his "masterpiece" Milena (CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF's Yvonne Romain) -- directly leads to his being ripped apart by someone wearing the worst-looking ape suit ever put before a camera. Director Sidney Hayers went on to direct the still-better BURN, WITCH, BURN (1962, also known as NIGHT OF THE EAGLE), an adaptation of Fritz Leiber's CONJURE, WIFE scripted by Richard Matheson.

Viewed on Netflix.

PS: The presence of a new Studio Canal logo gave me hopes the print used might reincorporate some of the alternative nude shots filmed with Vanda Hudson (pictured) for the "continental" release version, but no go. The otherwise fine quality source was cropped from 1.66:1 to 1.78 and there were some noticeable earmarks of a careless PAL conversion, including an uncorrected projection speed.
  

21. CAIRO TIME (2009)

This film by Canadian writer-director Ruba Nadda is synopsized everywhere as the story of a love affair that unexpectedly occurs in Cairo when the American wife (Patricia Clarkson) of a busy United Nations worker spends a little too much time with one of his Muslim co-workers (Alexander Siddig) who is asked to entertain her until the husband can join her. More accurately, it is the story of an attraction that occurs between two adults who show restraint and choose not to venture beyond one awkward, half-accidental kiss.

Clarkson is a wonderful actress, especially when the material she chooses stretches her in surprising directions -- I was especially fond of the aging, free-spirited hippie aunt she played on HBO's SIX FEET UNDER -- but this role doesn't require to do much more than wait, smile wanly, walk and preen. The Cairo scenery, of course, is spectacular but almost nothing dramatic happens within that scenery; we see the wife and her escort walk through bazaars, smoke hookahs, sail the Nile, sip what we're assured is the best coffee in Egypt, sit on the pyramids and attend a wedding. At times I felt I was watching a kind of middle-age version of LOST IN TRANSLATION set in Egypt, but in this case we hear what Bill Murray may have whispered to Scarlett Johansson: Clarkson tells Siddig she's going to miss him. This felt to me like a fantasy film for a certain kind of untravelled, untested woman who feels lonely and yearns to be noticed. CAIRO TIME may be a nice, wistful tonic for them, but it didn't do anything for me.

Viewed on The Movie Channel On Demand.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

20. ZOMBIE (ZOMBI 2, 1979)

I've always been lukewarm about Lucio Fulci's ZOMBIE, which -- in that wily way once exclusive to Italians -- was produced under a title misleadingly positioning it as a sequel to ZOMBI, Dario Argento's Italian recut of George A. Romero's DAWN OF THE DEAD. It's more closely allied to old-fashioned voodoo pictures like I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (note the hypnotic voodoo drums) and THE ZOMBIES OF MORA TAU (the Caribbean island here is called Matoul), and was actually shot in four different countries, something no Romero film can boast to this day; there are also specific shots in the Dominican Republic scenes that nearly serve as storyboards for the opening shots in Romero's DAY OF THE DEAD. I'll be writing more elsewhere about this title at greater length, but watching it again on this Blu-ray disc, I never enjoyed it nore and never had a better understanding of how, in spite of its shortcomings, it revitalized Italian film production at the point of its most severe crisis. I don't think all of the famous set pieces work as well as some people think, but they are fun and audacious and occasionally visionary; DP Sergio Salvati succeeds in capturing any number of classic horror images.

The supplements showed me that Fulci's leap of imagination here was rooted in a lucky misunderstanding: it was his intention to overstate the graphic horror to make it ludicrous and funny, but American audiences took it very seriously, seeing that it carried an uncommon X rating, raising the bar in regard to what was permissible with violence onscreen. Some of the shots in the climactic conflagration, with the zombies spinning around in response to headblows, show that Fulci was actually emulating Hong Kong martial arts cinema in his hyperbolic glee. In its own way, ZOMBIE ushered in a new era of madness to the fantastic cinema, much as Roger Corman's SHARKTOPUS films and its imitators are doing now.

Viewed on Blue Underground's two-disc Blu-ray set.
 

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

19. SAVAGE MESSIAH (1972)

An old favorite I've seen numerous times, this is Ken Russell's biography of French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, arguably the greatest sculptor France has produced, who died in World War I at the age of 23, focusing on his platonic love affair with the woman from whom he took his name, Sophie Brzeska, an aspiring novelist twice his age.

This was the last film Russell made in his contract with MGM/UA, which yielded most of his early classics: WOMEN IN LOVE, THE MUSIC LOVERS and THE BOYFRIEND, and it represents a deliberate downscaling in an effort to maintain artistic control. It was made for under a million dollars, featured actors known primarily for their stage work, and introduced a remarkable young lead, Scott Antony, whose charismatic, eruptive, ribald performance is perfectly complimented by that of Dorothy Tutin as Sophie, an impish schoolmarmish provocateuse whose aversion to physical love, the cause of their only unhappiness, lacks sufficient explanation (the script may here be cocking a snoot at her proposed novel about "Truth") but the chemistry they produce in their scenes together is such that we're swept off our feet by them anyway. Scripted by the poet Christopher Logue, a friend of Russell's who had portrayed Cardinal Richlieu in THE DEVILS, this is not only a winning love story, it is a moving ode to art and nature that ranks with Ptushko's THE STONE FLOWER and Tarkovsky's ANDREI RUBLEV as one of the most passionate and persuasive films ever made about what it means to be an artist. With Helen Mirren, who (to borrow a phrase from Michael Powell) strips off magnificently at one point in the film, revealing a body whose sculptural perfection at once mocks and rationalizes the impulse to capture such natural beauty in the permanence of stone.

Available online as a streaming download from different sources, but I recommend the Warner Archive DVD-R which is intact, anamorphic, and runs at the intended 24 f.p.s. speed, unlike the YouTube version (which carries a TCM bug, French subtitles, and runs fast at 25 f.p.s.).

Viewed on Warner Archive DVD-R.

18. THE HOURS (2002)

I'll be brief. This movie was an epiphany. As the main titles rolled, I told myself THE HOURS must have the best cast since IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD -- Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Nicole Kidman, Miranda Richardson, Claire Danes, Ed Harris, Allison Janney, Toni Collette, John C. Reilly, etc. -- and I braced myself for great performances. (The lesser-known Stephen Dillane, as Virginia Woolf's suffering husband, is especially good.) But what this film offers, above all, is great writing. David Hare's script, based on a novel by Michael Cunningham, is so brilliant on its own terms that everything else the production throws at it -- the exceptional actors, the splendid cinematography, Kidman's uncanny persona-dissolving makeup (which turns her into someone who looks slightly less like Virginia Woolf than Meryl Streep does without any makeup whatsoever), and especially the endlessly cycling, bicyling, tricycling, churning, twerning, exacerbating, lacerating, masturbating score of Philip Glass (I'm finally off the fence; he's a poseur) -- is powerless to do anything but vulgarize it. I'm not saying it's a bad movie; it's not -- but I believe the script would have gained much more in the auditorium of a reader's imagination. I haven't read the novel, so it's quite possible it's all in there.

Viewed on The Movie Channel.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

17. TEENAGE WOLFPACK (DIE HALBSTARKEN, 1956)

I first became aware of TEENAGE WOLFPACK some years ago, while revelling in a wonderful Something Weird compilation that collected, I swear, at least a full hour of trailers for films I'd never heard of, mostly imported Euro JD and crime pictures. The sheer onslaught of this unknown terrain became positively delirious, especially when the trailer for this early Horst Bucholz film introduced the future MAGNIFICENT SEVEN star as "Henry Bookholt"! But as this DVD proves, this really happened once upon a time, right here in our own backyard. The film (whose original title translates as "The Hooligans") appears to have been at least partly acted in English, at least in those scenes featuring Bucholz and Christian Doermer (who plays his brother) and was dubbed or post-synchronized into English at Film Sync, Inc. (a New York-based precursor of Titra - Peter Fernandez dubs the voice of the young barman, Klaus) and then distributed in 1957 by Distributors Corporation of America (DCA), the same outfit that issued a sexed-up version of Freda and Bava's I vampiri as THE DEVIL'S COMMANDMENT. Though a main titles card introduces the film as a true story set in Germany, DCA took great pains to disguise its origins, apparently concerned that anti-German biases were still running strong a full decade after the war's end.

Bucholz plays Freddy Borchert, a charismatic but tough teenager surviving on the streets of West Berlin after being thrown out of his home by his overly strict father (Paul Wagner). His brother John (Doermer, "Jan" in the original) is still living at home and has been forbidden to associate with his older brother, whom he admires - as do all the other local teens and kids. However, against the wishes of their mother, John informs Freddy of the family's terrible money troubles, which pressures the ambivalent teen -- responsible enough to hold down a job at a filling station that requires him to be courteous, but arrogant enough to indulge in pickpocketing and other forms of thievery --  into planning a bank truck heist. When things do not go entirely as planned, Freddy loses face among his followers with disastrous results.

Clearly made with the intention of duplicating the success of films like THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE and REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, this film was sold by DCA on the considerable strength of "Bookholt's" appeal. It may seem a strange thing to say about a film that's been forgotten in America, but here, in his fourth credited screen appearance, Bucholz actually pulls off something comparable to what John Travolta achieved in SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER. He is positively magnetic in his dramatic scenes, which lets us believe the power he exudes over his mates, but he explodes onscreen -- as they say -- when he jitterbugs with his girlfriend (future krimi queen Karin Baal) at a local bar (that German counterpart of our shake shoppe), and though this film is now nearly 60 years old (!), his sense of sartorial style -- black shirt with white buttons, black leather pants -- remains absolutely rock-star contemporary. Not only does he have the James Franco smile down, but to look at Bucholz and Baal in the film's promotional photos, one is struck by their similarity to the look credited to Astrid Kircherr in her early photographs of the young Beatles, with Bucholz showing a stupefying resemblance to Stuart Sutcliffe. This movie is now regarded as one of Germany's first postwar classic films (it was even remade as a TV movie in 1996) and it made Bucholz an overnight star in Germany; within a few years, he would break out into English-language productions like TIGER BAY. Though she rarely worked outside her home country, Karin Baal ("Karen" on the US posters) is no less impressive. Playing a 15 year old girl, she looks and acts sophisticated beyond her years, but was in fact only 15 in real life; never was she more photogenic or captivating than she is here. A soda-sucking Lolita who matures on our watch into a manipulative, trigger-pulling femme fatale, Baal's Sissy Bohl is an unforgettable character. The jazz swing music heard throughout the picture was the work of future krimi composer Martin Böttcher.

According to the IMDb, there is a 10-minute difference between the German and US running times, and Amazon.de sells the original version in a few different DVD configurations, including a deluxe two-disc set. I can see my fascination and curiosity leading me down a costly path.

Viewed on Alpha Video DVD, but also available as a free streaming download here.

Monday, January 9, 2012

16. HUD (1963)

Sometimes you have to stop and consciously fill in the gaps in your cinematic education. It becomes more difficult with age because, over the years, you hear a lot about some films you haven't seen and deceive yourself into believing you've heard so much about them, you don't really need to see them. HUD was one of those films for me, and yet seeing it was a surprising experience. Before the second hand had clocked a full minute, I was astounded to see that Peter Bogdanovich's THE LAST PICTURE SHOW owed this film everything, at least in terms of its look; they don't share the same main street location, but it's reasonably similar. When the credits told me that HUD was based on a novel by Larry McMurtry, as THE LAST PICTURE SHOW had been, things began to make sense and HUD is jam-packed with characters who also materialize in the later picture: Paul Newman is the rugged hard-on in a T-shirt, akin to both Clu Gulager's and, somewhat in embryo, Jeff Bridges' characters; Patricia Neal's haggardly beautiful housekeeper is somehow reflected in both Ellen Burstyn and Cloris Leachman's characters; Brandon de Wilde's bland young expression watches from the periphery, a little bit Timothy, a little bit Joseph Bottoms. Melvyn Douglas plays a last frontier of the frontiersman, whose death will represent the dawning of an end of times, like Ben Johnson. They all come from that McMurtry well. HUD becomes an immensely rich viewing experience on this level alone, giving another great picture not only a point of reference but a point of resonance.

It was also photographed in black-and-white scope by the great James Wong Howe, and it is packed with breathtaking shots of the great outdoors while making us conscious that all this beauty -- heightened in monochrome with the use of red- and ochre-colored filters -- carried an expiration date even then. What surprises and disappoints me in retrospect was all the talk I've heard over the years about what a good-lookin' man Paul Newman was, and how his performance here made so many women of my mother's generation wish he'd come knock on their screen doors sometime. Hud is a reprehensible character, so reprehensible he's not given an arc allowing to realize this; he is purely and simply so mean and selfish the movie can do nothing in the end but leave him alone. Anyone who sees this mean, womanizing drunk as desirable is shingling for punishment. (Parenthetical note: It sounds like Newman played this Texan by doing an Elvis Presley impression.) Patricia Neal is outstanding, her earthy, world-weary performance building slowly to the aftermath of Hud's interrupted attempted rape of her, when she can't bring herself to look at, or thank, the adoring boy who came to her rescue -- because she knows the little dream of Hud she's been fostering has lost its last chance, because she knows she'll now have to move on at her age to another slenderer hope, and because she half-wanted what happened. The whole bus stop sequence that follows, between her and de Wilde, and then between her and Newman, is agonizing. But as with Ben Johnson's performance in THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, it's Melvyn Douglas who really towers over everyone else in HUD, by showing a moral center as immovable as granite, a stoicism that makes it impossible for him to live in a world where encroaching laws are going to put down more fences than he can abide. And to think he was also the Leon whose pratfall made Garbo laugh in NINOTCHKA! I'm glad I finally caught up with this. Featuring Whit Bissell, John Ashley and Yvette Vickers.

Viewed on Netflix.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

15: CAMERAMAN: THE LIFE AND WORK OF JACK CARDIFF (2010)

Turner Classic Movies devoted an evening to the films of Jack Cardiff, the most painterly of all mainstream cinematographers, including this excellent documentary overview of his achievement by Craig McCall. Watching it made me wish I'd taken precautions to record some of the other films TCM had programmed to mark the occasion. As a cinematography buff, Cardiff had long been in my pantheon and I knew quite a bit of what the film discussed of his work once he became allied with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, but I didn't realize he was the first cameraman to shoot color travelogues in far-flung places like India, giving the entire world its first color images of these exotic places, nor that he was in fact the cameraman of the first feature-length documentary in color.

But of everything covered by this film, what struck me as most meaningful was Cardiff's confession of his penchant for taking still photographs of his leading ladies and his unveiling of literally dozens of never-before-seen, certifiably immortal images of Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren, Marilyn Monroe, Anita Ekberg, Janet Leigh, and so on, and so on. Watching this film -- with not only these images, but all the most exalting clips from A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, BLACK NARCISSUS, THE RED SHOES, PANDORA AND THE FLYING DUTCHMAN and more -- I was taken very close to a place I haven't felt much since the time I first saw PINOCCHIO in childhood, when I felt so overwhelmed by beauty on the screen, I almost wanted to hide my eyes. The clips from his home movies are illuminating, too; I especially liked the footage he captured of Kirk Douglas practicing his oar dance in THE VIKINGS and falling off once or twice. The interview bytes with Cardiff and a galaxy of stars are mostly terrific (Charlton Heston looks great, fit and poised, but hasn't much more to say than "film is the art form of the 20th century and you can't make a movie without a cameraman"); it's a testament to the duration of this film's long production that more than half the interviewees are now dead, Cardiff himself (who died in 2009) outlasting many of them.

When the climactic montage of Cardiff's directorial credits omitted any reference to THE MUTATIONS (1974), which would have looked like a bottoming-out in context, I couldn't help thinking of the extent to which Mario Bava's career paralleled that of Cardiff, except that Bava hid his immense light under a generic bushel and had no ambitions other than to keep working as far from the limelight as possible. With Donald Pleasence in the cast, THE MUTATIONS would have looked like a career highlight in Bava's filmography, and I'd wager it would have been a better film, as well.

Viewed on Turner Classic Movies.

14. MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (2011)

I found much to adore in this charming Woody Allen fantasy, because I have similar daydreams and yearnings, but I was continually annoyed they were put inside the head of such a lightweight, uninteresting and frankly unbelievable protagonist. Owen Wilson plays a young but spoiled Hollywood screenwriter -- the kind who can complain about picking up a handsome paycheck for crap rewrite jobs and seriously daydream about chucking it all to live in a garret, writing the great expatriate American novel... the kind who admits he isn't sure if he can even write a novel, yet has 400 pages ready to show Gertrude Stein when he finds himself magically transported back to the arts scene in 1920s Paris. Somehow, though we never see him pick up a pencil or peck at a laptop or learn more than a word or two of French, this epoch means everything to him. He's the trademark Woody Allen stand-in, a NEW YORKER sketch of writerly angst dashed off by a writer who has seldom dealt with anything but carte blanche, perhaps a bit wimpier in his anxiety and less biting in wit than those Allen actually played.

Aside from him, and the painfully obvious storyline about him being engaged to the wrong girl (Rachel McAdams), which permits some equally obvious jabs at the political right courtesy of her nouveau riche crypto-fascist parents, MIDNIGHT IN PARIS is a marvellously imagined fantasy -- and clearly a fantasy because this Californian time traveller wanders into a 1920s Paris sans cigarettes. But even the present tense views of the great city which open the film, photographed by Darius Khondji, are enchanting, rivalling the NYC montage that opened MANHATTAN. Inspired casting: Adrien Brody as Salvador Dali, Marcial Di Fonso Bo as Pablo Picasso, Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein, Corey Stoll as Ernest Hemingway, Alison Pill as Zelda Fitzgerald, and French First Lady Carla Bruni as a modern day museum guide, but the film is stolen by the enchanting Marion Cotillard as an imaginary muse to a series of 1920s painters, and by the equally charming Léa Seydoux as what might be called a French nostalgia store worker, the very sort of character Wilson is supposedly writing a novel about. The inspired moments include Wilson doing the Charleston with a woman later identified as Djuna Barnes, revealing his status as a man from the future to the only three souls in 1920s Paris who can understand (Dalí, Luís Buñuel and Man Ray), and later pitching a film story to Buñuel about a party that no one is able to leave, which only leaves the young Surrealist befuddled. I'm frankly skeptical that a character like Wilson's would be aware of THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL, but the joke is there for the few who are, and thus so rare it must be commended.

There is a moment late in the film when Cotillard's character has her own dreams come true, and she and Wilson are transported even further back to the Belle Époque period where they meet Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas and Gaughin -- and it was here that tears came into my eyes, from the sheer accumulation of so many great names concentrated in one place. It shook me with the importance of working hard in the present. I don't accept the film's great eureka, that the present is disappointing and the grass is always greener a step further back into the past, but I can accept that living in our own time deprives us of seeing it with historical clarity; we may be living among names equally great, but they are not for us to know as such. Also, even if the present is disappointing, that's no reason to build to an ending so contrived we can see it coming from 50 kilometers away.

PSS: Note to the poster designer: Van Gogh didn't paint his "Starry Night" in Paris.

Viewed on DirecTV On Demand.

Friday, January 6, 2012

13. DESIGN FOR LIVING (1964, TV)

Included as a supplement on Criterion's DVD and Blu-ray of Ernst Lubitsch's 1933 feature adaptation is this feature-length video performance of the original play, which is a necessary companion to appreciating just how different the two works are and how inspired Lubitsch's vision truly was.

Introduced by Noël Coward himself and broadcast as part of a Granada Television (UK) series called A CHOICE OF COWARD, this production stars Daniel Massey, Jill Bennett and John Wood. Here, the threesome are already cheating on one another as the play begins, and instead of seeing genuine attraction between the cast members, they each seem driven to some kind of giggly, exclusive-club mania by the presence of the other two. Coward's dialogue has wisdom in it, but the actors -- who don't bother to rein in their stage performances for TV-- rush through it, often underlining their witticisms with arch body language that could be read from the cheap seats. Wit becomes something else again when it's chronic, carbonated and incessant. Massey is fairly insufferable, Wood not much better, but Jill Bennett -- whom you may know from THE SKULL, THE NANNY or BRITANNIA HOSPITAL -- makes quite an interesting contrast to Miriam Hopkins, not unlike early Glenda Jackson in her elfin appeal, though each of the actors look just odd enough to make them seem less like adventurous, tradition-flaunting lovers than like a troika of gremlins hellbent on making a noisy spectacle of their viva'd difference. Future MONTY PYTHON bit player Carol Cleveland has a small part as half of an unhappy conventional marriage.

Viewed on Criterion Blu-ray disc.

12. DESIGN FOR LIVING (1933)

Ernst Lubitsch's pre-code film of Noël Coward's play (written for Lunt, Fontaine and himself) -- about an unconventional threesome flying in the face of the people they know and, in one case, marry -- brings Fredric March and Miriam Hopkins back together after their memorable collaboration in Rouben Mamoulian's DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1932, which won an Oscar for March), and adds a lanky, young, luminous-eyed Gary Cooper to the scorecard. They are all at their most attractive and alluring.

Scripted by Ben Hecht, DESIGN FOR LIVING is quite different from Coward's play, which it ingeniously opens up so that the once-British characters become Americans living and working abroad in France (where, Americans suppose, such things are more likely to occur) and the play's giddily recounted back stories of the unconventional threesome's meeting and early struggles can be enjoyed as they unfold. The three leads are all given earthier, less silly-assed names than in the stage version, and Hecht adds a strange stipulation to the triad's arrangement, considering this is a pre-code picture: they agree to live together not as mates but with Hopkins serving as a hybrid mother/muse/critic to the two artists (Cooper's a painter, March is a playwright) with an emphatically stated rule of "no sex." This is naturally presented as the woman's idea and it introduces a much-needed sworn oath to this union, comparable in its solemnity to a marriage vow, which causes terrible problems when it is broken, once by each of the men and twice by the woman.

The chemistry between March, Cooper and Hopkins sparkles and we easily accept what each finds attractive about the others. If the concept behind their "design for living" seems a bit random, selfish and frivolous, it's because the film, being a comedy, can't take the time to construct the arrangement more delicately and, being a kind of "white telephone" fantasy, can't be bothered to make things more realistic; that said, its cutting edges, when they come, are still reasonably felt nearly 80 years later. Beautifully photographed by Lubitsch's steadfast cameraman Victor Milner, who later shot many of Preston Sturges' comedies, with lavish sets describing bohemia and penthouses, it's a vibrant, sophisticated, three-layer-cake comedy that certainly isn't Coward's play (see my Number 13 film), but is all the more enduring as entertainment for the liberties taken. Also in the cast: Edward Everett Horton (in white tie and tails, of course), Franklin Pangborn and Jane Darwell.

Viewed on Criterion Blu-ray disc.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

11. SINNER (LE JOURNAL INTIME D'UN NYMPHOMANE, 1973)

Following the accidental death of his star discovery Soledad Miranda in 1970, writer-director Jess Franco floundered through a series of reckless, robotic productions made to fulfill his contract to German producer Artur Brauner. It was only after the fulfillment of that contract, when he began to make a new slate of pictures produced by himself (like A VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD, 1971) or for producer Robert de Nesle, that his creativity showed signs of recharging, though it was initially expressed in stories involving large, sprawling casts of characters, including a couple of literal monster rallies. His inability to focus on a single central character, as his films did with Miranda, suggested that his exploded muse had yet to reconsolidate in the form of a single face that could bear the brunt of his obsession.

This changed in 1972 when he was persuaded, by his production secretary and two members of his camera team, to meet their sister, a diminutive young actress with both stage and screen experience. Her name was Montserrat Prous. Between 1972 and 1973, Prous briefly inherited the "Dark Lady" mantle vacated by Miranda in Franco's filmography, appearing in a total of seven films, if one counts the unfinished El misterio de la castillo rojo ("The Mystery of the Red Castle"), yet she never took full possession of it. Her collaboration with Franco was doomed by the coincidental arrival on the scene of Rosa Maria Almirall, the student girlfriend of crew stills photographer Ramón Ardíd, who subsequently revealed herself as Franco's true muse and was recristened Lina Romay.
  
SINNER, which was made after THE SINISTER EYES OF DR. ORLOFF and in tandem with two other pictures (Les Enbranlées and Un Silencio de Tumba), finds Montserrat Prous inhabiting what would soon become the archetypal Lina Romay role, stripping off and hiding her audacity behind a little white lie of a screen name, "Mona Proust" -- much as Soledad Miranda did in her various "Susann Korda" roles. She is remarkably good in all of her films for Franco, especially so in this one, though she never really catches fire as Lina would in FEMALE VAMPIRE (1973). As sparks began to fly behind the scenes between Franco and the future Lina Romay, which would galvanize Franco to complete 10 features in 1973 alone, Prous found her subsequent roles diminishing in importance as Romay's grew, to the extent that her final character role for Franco -- the blind Atlantean in Les exploits érotiques de Maciste dans Atlantide -- is not even given a name. Prous reportedly abandoned the cinema to return to the theater, and when she accepted an invitation to star in an erotic film for director Carlos Aured in 1981, such was the irony of her fate that she found herself playing lesbian love scenes with none other than Lina Romay.

This film was obviously inspired by the then-current success of films like Max Pecas' Je suis un nymphomane and it is atypical of Franco in that it finds layers of lyrical romance beneath its surface crust of druggy, vice-ridden squalor. In essence, the character Prous plays -- Linda Vargas, whose name owes something to TOUCH OF EVIL, much as the story's investigation into who Linda was recalls the structure of CITIZEN KANE -- is a young woman who is raped, sinks into prostitution, and becomes a lesbian and nymphomaniac in her crazed appetite for love and fulfillment, who reinvents herself as a kind of earth angel who gives herself willingly to whoever may be in need to sexual healing. When she finds herself back in bed with the man who first defiled her, she commits suicide over his sleeping body to frame him for murder, and his conservative widow Rosa (LORNA THE EXORCIST's Jacqueline Laurent) investigates her husband's possible innocence by interviewing the undesirables who knew her, learning to look past her biases and make contact with her own secret desires in the process.

SINNER is also one of Franco's most attentively scripted projects, especially in the French version with its dialogue and narration written by the producer's wife, Elizabeth Ledu de Nesle. In the way it presents an emphatically divided binary account of sight and sound, image and narration, the film's schizophrenic technique closely parallels that of his earlier masterpiece EUGENIE DE SADE (1970). Not top shelf Franco perhaps, but among the top contenders, shall we say, of the second tier.

Viewed on Mondo Macabro DVD.