Wednesday, May 23, 2012

107. DARK SHADOWS (2012)

The first 10 minutes or so of Tim Burton's DARK SHADOWS (scripted by Seth Grahame-Smith, based on the Dan Curtis 1966-72 teleseries) may well go down in history -- my history, anyway -- as one of the movies' most regrettable broken promises. This brooding, opulent, genuinely operatic prologue, in which the adult voice of Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp, channeling Richard Burton) narrates the romantic missteps that led the jilted witch Angelique (whom we see first adoring him from afar in childhood, later played in two dimensions, hateful and haughty, by Eva Green) to cause the death of his true love Josette DuPrés (Bella Heathcote) and to not only damn him to loveless eternity as a vampire, but to ensure he won't enjoy a second of it by committing him to earth in a coffin swathed in silver chains. Then the film cuts, in an abrupt but brilliantly appropriate shift of time and mood, to 1972 as we join Maggie Evans (Heathcote, looking like love-at-first-sight-incarnate) aboard a train bound for Collinsport, Maine, as she adopts the new identity of Victoria Winters and heads toward a new life as a governess -- to the tune of The Moody Blues' "Nights In White Satin," a sensitively chosen counterpart to the earlier footage's oaths of deathless love and blown-scarf romanticism. The effect, as the understated credits roll, is disarmingly powerful.

What's especially wonderful about the prologue is that the original series, performed live on videotape, was always a rough draft of the story it told; it was a sketch that the viewing audience was invited to worry over, in their day-to-day viewing, until it achieved the full sail of its grandiosity. So, seeing the opening of DARK SHADOWS is like seeing the back story told by the original series in final draft for the first time -- and thus, at least for this DARK SHADOWS fan, tremendously moving. I suppose you could look at it now like nothing that Coppola's wrongly-named BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA didn't do before, but the original DARK SHADOWS started all that "Love Never Dies" jazz.
 
In retrospect, the prologue also contains the seeds of the film's unravelling, as it dispenses with the most compelling story it has to tell before the credits roll. Likewise, the entire film suffers from too much compression -- compression of story and character, and apparently also of score, since my standout recollections of the film's music have more to do with source music than any original compositions by Danny Elfman. (That said, I do recall various touches of hommage to Robert Cobert that brought a smile to my lips at some very apt moments.) At an ill-kept Collinwood, Victoria meets Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer, effusing middle-aged regality and ready to act but totally superfluous to anything going on), her 15 year-old proto goth daughter Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz, who is introduced listening to Iggy and the Stooges' "I'm Sick of You" -- granted, recorded sometime in 1972, but five years before it had any kind of release), her live-in alcoholic shrink Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter, blithely passing up a wonderful opportunity to send-up Grayson Hall), the scoundrel brother Roger Collins (Jonny Lee Miller, likewise re Louis Edmonds), and his young I-see-dead-people son David (Gulliver McGrath), whom we never see tutored. Victoria sees them too, quickly coming face-to-face with her historical twin, who informs her that Barnabas is coming... just before an excavation site unearths him. Barnabas feasts on the blood of his construction worker saviors, puts groundskeeper Willie Loomis (Jackie Earle Haley) under his spider-fingered control, and ingratiates himself to his penny-pinching modern-day family with revelations of treasures buried in secret rooms and compartments. It's clever, but much too hurried, much too scattered, and peppered with a lot of "stupid clever" gags clearly below the general level of the film's adaptation and language. In a montage set to Carpenters' "Top of the World" (poor choice), Barnabas lavishes his own wealth on the place, restoring its former lustre, and sets up a cheap joke by observing that families in his day announced their prosperity to neighbors by "having balls." This allows the film a much-too-short opportunity to include four of the original show's cast members (Jonathan Frid, Kathryn Leigh Scott, Lara Parker and David Selby -- onscreen for so short a time, if you look at one face you'll miss three) and a stage performance by Alice Cooper, who is lip-synching "The Ballad of Dwight Frye" when, in a short but again greatly affecting fusion of music and idea, we are let in on the fact that Victoria/Maggie is in fact an escapee from a mental hospital. Somewhere in there, Julia attempts to cure Barnabas' vampirism but is revealed to have other priorities in mind, but the real crux of the story is Barnabas' ongoing conflict with Angelique, now the svelte head of a Collinsport seafood cannery, who not only wants to destroy him but his family's competing factory. There's so much going on that Victoria -- the film's putative heroine -- vanishes for an extraordinary length of time. When the action finally takes us back to Collinwood for the climactic battle royale between the principals, a policeman addresses the crowd, telling the local rubberneckers to go back to their homes, there's nothing more to see... I'd like to think that's Burton's own embarrassment talking, about the pending CGI free-for-all that follows.

DARK SHADOWS has all the signs of having had too many "notes", too many cooks in the kitchen. Its tone of voice changes all the time, and it seems to be playing to different age grouped audiences almost by the reel. There is much here that is worth seeing, including a fine Johnny Depp portrayal (seriously!) that plays, to some extent, off his earlier role in EDWARD SCISSORHANDS and is brought into finest relief in a scene where he gets to measure his own classy vampire act against the master, Christopher Lee, playing a grizzled seaman at the Blue Whale tavern. There is also a good deal one regrets seeing, or that feels like something we've seen before (in forgettable movies like Robert Zemeckis' DEATH BECOMES HER). But when DARK SHADOWS is at its best, it attains a level of excellence we haven't seen from Tim Burton's erratic filmography since ED WOOD (1994) and proves him now capable of playing deeper, more complex chords than he's had to attempt before. Sadly, this is the project that needed his fullest virtuosity and tenacity as an artist, and he opted for shallow flippancy and another spin on his "everybody's weird" carousel. Maybe that's the concession that got the film made.
     
In theaters now.


106. SUMMER WITH MONIKA (SOMMAREN MED MONIKA, 1953)

Ingmar Bergman's twelfth film, made when he was 35, married with child, and falling in love with its 20 year-old lead Harriet Andersson, SUMMER WITH MONIKA is one of his warmest and most approachable works, stocked with characters who spring from life rather than from the foreheads of myth, psychology or the theater, and more interested in intimacy and spontaneity than in firm dramatic situations -- and yet it somehow all flows within a preconceived circle, ending on the same shot with which its story begins.

Based on a novel by Per Anders Fogelstrom, it stars Lars Ekborg (who reminded me of a more handsome Skelton Knaggs) as Harry Lund, a teenage grunt-worker in a glassware factory, who is one day approached in the commissary by Monika (Andersson) -- younger, ebullient, full of warm familiarity -- who works for a nearby grocer. Right off the bat, she warms up to him and playfully suggests they trash their responsibilities and run away together for the summer. In his loneliness, made worse by his father's physical complaints and the housekeeping of a maiden aunt, the vitality of this fantasy preys on Harry's mind. It is especially aggravated when Monika runs away from home, to get away from an argument with her father, and is given shelter aboard Harry's father's boat. At nearly the first sign of tyranny on the job, he quits and motors Monika away to an isolated archipelago where they spend the long Swedish summer virtually like Adam and Eve, discovering one another and enjoying their private paradise, until certain realities begin to intrude -- like the jealousy of a rival from the city (John Harryson), whom they discover setting up a nearby camp and sabotaging their boat, and also hunger once their provisions run out. Monika conceives during this adventure, which brings still more realities to the fore when they must inevitably return home to a teenage marriage.

When this film was released in the early 1950s, it was considered controversial for addressing matters of  teenage sexuality as human sexuality, in a non-judgmental way, and it was also reviled in some quarters for seeming to endorse youthful flights of irresponsibility -- though, like many Bergman films, it is really about the tensions between fantasy and reality, in this case the fantasy and reality of being an adult. It illustrates, as well as any film, that we are all presented with a bill at the end of our party. Like the earlier Swedish export, Arne Mattsson's OUR SUMMER OF HAPPINESS (1951), it was also considered ground-breaking as an erotic film; it included a sustained shot of Andersson in the nude, stepping over her restive boyfriend and dancing away to bathe, and another of her coyly stepping behind a tree to pee. What remains especially tantalizing about this film is its uncomplicated celebration of sexual nature and communion, which Andersson embodies with childlike expressions of joy (did Juliette Lewis study her work or did she come by similar expressions naturally?) and a dusky, honeyed complexion that looks like baby food tastes. But the caramel apple Harry finds in his archipelago Eden becomes the snake he takes back to the city and its responsibility. Leaving their child to the care of Harry's aunt, Monika complains of her hard-working husband's negligence and pursues adoration elsewhere, turning her eyes to the camera -- in what was then a revolutionary, confrontational shot -- to flaunt the absolute vacuum at her core.

Criterion's DVD and Blu-ray of this title will street on May 29. The B&W 1.77:1 (1080p) presentation is fresh and lovely, so enriched with myriad textures that it immerses us in nature without the benefit of color, and makes this story feel not so dissociated from our own time. The mono soundtrack is uncompressed on the BR pressing. The extras include an introduction by Bergman, an exclusive 2012 interview with Andersson (a very youthful 80 in her fashion eyewear, bluejeans and attitude) by Peter Cowie, a 30m documentary including some behind the scenes footage and additional commentary, and a look at Kroger Babb's exploitative English-dubbed version (MONIKA - THE STORY OF A BAD GIRL! - so much for non-judgemental!) with commentary by exploitation historian Karl Schaefer. One wishes this alternate version, with English dialogue written and partly performed by actor Mickey Knox, had also been included; in one of the clips, a lovemaking scene continues for ten or more seconds past the fade-out in the director's cut, to suggest that Harry is pleasuring Monika orally, as she covers her bare breasts with her hands -- which consequently reflects poorly on the integrity of the main feature.

Viewed via Criterion Blu-ray disc.       




Saturday, May 19, 2012

105. THE MASK (1961)

This is a fascinating curio: the second and last film directed by Julian Rothman (who continued to work thereafter as a producer); it was the first Canadian horror film; and also the first Canadian film of any kind to contain anaglyphic 3D sequences.

Obviously made under the gimmick-laden influence of William Castle, it is the story of Dr. Allen Barnes (Paul Stevens), the psychiatrist treating Michael (Martin Lavut), a disturbed young man who believes he may have committed murder under the influence of an ancient Aztec mask he stole from a local museum, which has the power of taking the wearer to new depths of awareness while also bringing their propensities for evil to the surface. Just before committing suicide, Michael pays his landlady to mail the mask to Dr. Barnes, who naturally cannot resist putting it on... for the sake of research. It gives him an experience he cannot wait to repeat. When the voice in his head commands "PUT THE MASK ON!", members of the audience were cued to don their 3D glasses, at which point the normal black-and-white cinematography cut to the three-dimensional footage. In the case of this film, the 3D footage consists of surreal fantasy sequences designed by Slavko Vorkapic, set in some kind of nightmare realm. These sequences, three in number, are hard to describe (Barnes becomes a kind of zombie figure moving through foggy, bare-branched dreamscapes, encountering cloaked figures and apparitions of the mask firing fireballs from the palms of its hands) but they are beautifully executed and the 3D quality is surprisingly good, even in a so-so, dumbed-down copy like the one I consulted. The film (later reissued as THE EYES OF HELL, which is how I first saw it at a midnight show in the early 1970s) was originally distributed to US theaters by Warner Bros., whose rights have since lapsed, but the film is certainly deserving of full restoration and a proper DVD/Blu-ray release.

Unlike the Castle films that inspired it, THE MASK has a lot more going for it conceptually than its bag of dimensional tricks. The direction feels a bit lopsided, but the rough edges somehow make the scenes that work, that seem visionary, all the more admirable. The film has a mildly claustrophobic, academic, and appropriately semi-British feel about it, reminiscent of two films actually made later: Sidney Hayers' BURN, WITCH, BURN (NIGHT OF THE EAGLE, produced the same year but released in 1962) and John Krish's UNEARTHLY STRANGER (1964). The performances are good, if a bit arch at times, but the dialogue sometimes errs on the wrong side of agonizing when it imagines the way Barnes' romantically interested secretary (Anne Collings) speaks to him. The fourth and last film credited to cinematographer Herbert S. Alpert, THE MASK has terrific atmosphere and the opening scene, which plunges us right into the middle of an attack set in a wooded area, is atmospherically shot and immediately invigorates the film with a FRANKENSTEIN 1970-like charge of adrenalin. For whatever reason, not all of the scenes cut together smoothly, and the ever-adjusted height of the camera's eye line makes the film feel choppier than it might actually be.

Nevertheless, this is a remarkable starting point for Canadian horror cinema and part of the fun of watching it now stems from acknowledging how its imagery has resonated across time, particularly in the work of David Cronenberg. Paul Stevens bears a striking resemblance to Geza Kovacs, who played Martin Sheen's henchman Sonny in THE DEAD ZONE, and his Dr. Allen Barnes is very much in the mold of Cronenberg's later mad scientists, delving into his own internal mysteries for reasons more gratifying to his own narcissism and libido than to society, and Rothman and his screenwriters draw a direct correlative between his increasing dependency on the Mask to drug addiction, which relates the film not only to NAKED LUNCH but to the notion of addictive imagery that underlies VIDEODROME. The Accumicon Helmet worn by Max Renn (James Woods) in that film, which allows him to externalize his internal imagery, seems a direct descendant of the Mask.

Viewed via DVD-R, but a Cheezy Flicks DVD release (taken from the Rhino VHS release, which was cropped to 1.33:1 from the original 1.85:1 ratio) exists.  

Friday, May 18, 2012

104. WHIRLPOOL (1934)

When Buck Rankin's Carnival rolls into Danville in the year of 19 hundred and 10, Buck (Jack Holt) doesn't know that his carefree grifting days are numbered. He falls in love with local girl Helen (Lila Lee), insists on marrying her even after she initially refuses knowing that Buck's kind of spirit has to live free, and is later arrested and found guilty of manslaughter after intervening with his unlucky fists in an outburst of violence from cheated customers. Sentenced to twenty years in prison, he learns eight months later that Helen is with child, he advises her to seek a divorce, but she intends to wait for him. Unwilling to have her waste her life and condemn their child to a life of poverty, he selflessly (and cleverly) feigns his own death by stealing some of the warden's stationery and informing Helen by letter that he died while attempting an escape in the whirlpooling waters over the wall of the state penitentiary. In 1929, Buck is parolled and picked up by his faithful hypochrondriac sidekick Mac (Allen Jenkins), who drives him away from the prison as Buck informs him of his new, bigger way of looking at things. ("I've got idears, Mac... We're going places!") A year later, Buck is driving his own car, and a few years after that, in 1934, he's a big important man being driven through the streets of Los Angeles -- now known as Duke Sheldon, "connected" owner of the Paradise Club. He's due to offer a crucial alibi at the trial of a New York mob boss, which attracts the interest of young reporter Sandra Morrison (Jean Arthur), daughter of the judge hearing the case, but as soon as Sandy lays eyes on Duke, she recognizes her biological father. He's happy to be found, but to keep the secret of his second life from his remarried "widow," he must disappoint some very dangerous people...

This winning Columbia drama was directed by Roy William Neill, best-remembered for directing and producing most of Universal's Sherlock Holmes films with Basil Rathbone, but also responsible for such top-notch terror pictures as BLACK MOON, THE BLACK ROOM and the first of the "versus" pictures, FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN. Scripted by Ethel Hill (THE LITTLE PRINCESS) and graduating script girl Dorothy Howell, from a story by Howard Emmett Rogers (presumably too busy adapting TARZAN AND HIS MATE to do the job himself), WHIRLPOOL sounds awfully scatterbrained when reduced to a synopsis -- as the DVD notes acknowledge, it starts out as a carnival picture (DP Benjamin Kline, who sho James Whale's JOURNEY'S END, wins us over right away with a terrific crane/dolly shot), then becomes a love story, a prison yarn, a crime picture, a newspaper drama, only to turn into a sentimental story of family reunion. However, Neill's masterful eye for detail ensures that the mind never wanders or is tempted to condescend; there is always something, or someone fun, popping up to keep this hopped-up buggy turning corners with one leg out. Largely forgotten leading man Jack Holt has the same mix of brashness and tenderness that Robert Armstrong throws around in KING KONG, and his chemistry with the silk-voiced Arthur nearly tips over from the paternal to the romantic at times, which adds to the confusion for her fiancé Bob (Donald Cook), a young guy who rattles off his newspaper office dialogue so fast, you'd think the place was going to explode at any second. The montages illustrating the shared activities that estranged father and daughter cram into their few days together are almost hilariously eventful. (The film's uses of montage are quite interesting in themselves; stock footage from Lewis Milestone's ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT is incorporated, along with much newsreel material, into the time passing outside Buck's prison cell.) But the film also offers something deeper, under its forward-leaning bluster and twinkle, that assures us that Buck/Duke is really a decent person despite the path he's followed, and it builds to a finale that reminds us (and members of the press) that it's sometimes the nobler thing to do to keep a secret. I liked this one a lot.

Viewed via Sony/TCM's DVD, available only as part of THE JEAN ARTHUR DRAMA COLLECTION box set.
 

Thursday, May 17, 2012

103. STRAW DOGS (2011)

"Everyone Has A Breaking Point" read the tagline for this Americanized remake of Sam Peckinpah's classic 1971 suspense thriller. It may well embody mine. I saw this film several movies back but was apparently so underwhelmed that I forgot all about it, and even now, I'm not too keen on the idea of reviewing it. In the original, based on the novel THE SIEGE OF TRENCHER'S FARM by Gordon Williams, Dustin Hoffman played an American mathematician who returns with his wife (Susan George) to her hometown in rural England, where events conspire to goad this mild-mannered intellectual into manning-up to protect, respectively, his dignity (fail), his wife (fail), and then his home against a pack of alcohol-fuelled locals, the very men his wife used to sleep with. There's more to it than that, obviously, but that's all you need to know, other than that it's the version you need to see.

Today's version of a mathematician, a screenwriter (James Marsden), finds himself in the same situation after moving with his movie star wife (Kate Bosworth) -- do you hate them yet? -- back to her ancestral farmhouse in the wide open spaces of a small town in Mississippi, though the film was shot in Louisiana. (Same difference, from a Hollywood perspective.) The same situation is reprised, but to no avail; the screenwriter's male mettle is proved early on, when no one else is looking, when he manages to shoot a deer on his first hunting trip (indeed, for the scene to work as the practical joke it's supposed to be, the local jerks -- led by a slumming but damned fit Alexander Skarsgård -- had to know him capable of doing it); when the family pet is found hung in the closet, we are denied the startling visual reveal Peckinpah gave us; when the wife is raped, in a scene that compares particularly poorly with the original, she never discloses the attack (nor does anything to fight back afterwards, which seems at odds with Bosworth's confrontational portrayal); and when the climactic siege occurs, the person being protected from the town's mob violence (Dominic Purcell as the mentally challenged Jeremy) makes such a stiff non-impression that, factored with the hero's already proven capabilities and the heroine's still more extreme retreat into herself, there is nothing to feel about what happens except "When is that bear trap coming into play?" The final straw, fortunately reserved for the very end, is that the entire issue of protecting Jeremy from mob violence is overlooked at the end, which is so fragmented we're denied real confirmation of whether he's even survived.

In all fairness, writer-director Rod Lurie's Americanization of the script is well-thought-out in many ways, and he succeeds in finding apt parallels to many of the earlier film's characters, settings and situations. The film's direction, on the other hand, feels distracted and hopelessly overextended; it's well-shot by HBO veteran Alik Sakharov (THE SOPRANOS, GAME OF THRONES), but none of the character arcs feel particularly complete or satisfying. Also on the bright side: James Woods gives 100% to his supporting role as a short-wicked, apoplectic, retired high school coach whose mood swings have the local law cowering.

Available on Sony Pictures DVD and Blu-ray. Viewed via Starz cable broadcast.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

102. LA SPECCHIO DAL PIACERE (1973)

This is the Italian hardcore version of Jess Franco's Al otro lado del espejo ("The other side of the mirror," 1973) for which, unusually, he accepted credit under his true full name, Jésus Franco Manera. The original Spanish version is one of Franco's finest works of the 1970s, a balmy and poetic story about a young musician's psychological breakdown in the wake of her father's suicide. It has the particular distinction of spotlighting the only performance in Franco's sprawling filmography of actress Emma Cohen, the wife of his longtime friend and associate, director Fernando Fernán Gómez, who had not only acted in his earlier success Rififi en la ciudád (1963), but had directed his well-received performance in the film El extraño viaje (1964). Cohen -- sporting an ANNIE HALL-like tuxedo at one point -- gives one of the most fully-realized performances to be found in Franco's work, but they never worked together again. (She had previously played one of the vampire brides in his COUNT DRACULA of 1970, uncredited.) The reason for the parting of their ways might be found in this tasteless, XXX corruption of a film of which the entire cast and crew could be proud, which not only keeps Cohen's name in the credits but demotes her starring role a few levels below that of bit player Alice Arno.

In this variation, which renames Cohen's character of Ana Olivera to Annette Whitman, Franco tweaks the plot so that it is Annette's sister Marie (Lina Romay) who commits suicide rather than her father (Howard Vernon), and there are badly filmed inserts alluding to a past incestuous relationship between them. Images of Marie beckoning to her from the other sides of mirrors (always in the company of other lovers, including Romay's boyfriend of the time, Ramon Ardíd) unhinge Annette, who continues to develop a samba-like song that she was in the process of writing when she allowed the news of Marie's death to upset her plans to marry Arthur (Wal Davis). Arthur gets off safely, but anyone who professes their love to Annette thereafter finds themselves murdered with an ancient dagger that seems to magically appear somewhere she can grab it. For some reason, Alice Arno is seen on both sides of the mirror, playing Annette's friend Clara and also one of dead Marie's ghostly lesbian friends. Annette's male suitors are played by Robert Woods, Simón Andreu (THE BLOOD-SPATTERED BRIDE) and Philippe Lemaire, who plays half of a swinging couple with an unhealthy-looking Françoise Brion. Like FEMALE VAMPIRE (La comtesse noir, 1973), the story is set on the Portuguese island of Madeira, no doubt incorporating scenic footage acquired during the same trip.

Whereas the editing of the Spanish version is credited to Mercedes Alonso, this variant is credited to filmmaker Gérard Kikoïne (EDGE OF SANITY), who had indeed edited another half-dozen Franco films during this period, including a real masterpiece, LORNA THE EXORCIST (Les possedées du diable, 1974). With the rewritten narrative forcing him to cycle certain footage and cut it together with material the original storyline struggles to reject, there is not much Kikoïne could do to save the day, and the result lacks the more assured cutting rhythms of the original. Making matters worse, the hardcore footage is generally uninspired and begs to be fast-forwarded through. This is a level or two above trash (if only for completists); the original is an important film and begs for a wider release.

Viewed via DVD-R.

101. MANON '70 (1968)

This film by writer-director Jean Aurel (better known in the States for his scripts for François Truffaut's last three pictures than for the 14 he directed himself) is supposedly a contemporary adaptation of the classic 1731 novel MANON LESCAUT by Abbé Prevost. The novel had previously been filmed numerous times since the silent days, most famously as Henri-Georges Clouzot's politicized adaptation of 1949, called simply MANON. Aurel's version somewhat anticipates what Clouzot might have done with a second stab at the material, as it incorporates various Op Art, haute couture and Jet Set touches, but Clouzot surely would have never signed off on a film so lacking in substance. MANON '70, made two years before its professed timeline, is reasonably diverting but almost defiantly "light," betraying the grand tragedy of the source material so completely, one wonders what it hoped to gain by wearing the mask of literary provenance. However, it seems to have inspired a more genuine tragedy in turn: Radley Metzger's similarly titled CAMILLE 2000 (1969), a likewise updated romantic tragedy based on THE LADY OF THE CAMELIAS (1848) by Alexandre Dumas fils, a book that contains direct references to the earlier novel and indeed seems to be patterned on it. Metzger's film aces this one in every department.

Catherine Deneuve plays Manon, a tall blonde ice princess, the sight of whom -- fondling a First Class air ticket to Paris in a Tokyo airport waiting area -- inspires fellow traveler Des Grieux (Sami Frey), a radio commentator, to upgrade his ticket. The six-hour flight is a tournament of stolen glances, denied, met and teasingly returned. Our hero notices that Manon is not flying alone, but this doesn't prevent him from whispering an invitation into her ear as her luggage is being loaded into her companion's town car. At the last minute, she grabs one of her bags and hops into Des Grieux's taxi, where the two spontaneous lovers neck their way to a quick eternal bond -- one that is almost immediately threatened by the subject of fidelity, which they discuss in a hotel bathtub. Manon promises Des Grieux her soul, but she cannot offer him carnal exclusivity because she is, in fact, a top line call girl, pimped by Jean-Paul (Jean-Claude Brialy), who claims to be her brother but is very free with overfamiliar kisses. Des Grieux promises that, if he ever discovers she has slept with another man, it will be over between them; but his lack of financial means, indicated by that earlier coach airline ticket, guarantees that Manon will stray, because she cannot resist the finer things in life -- clothes, travel, leisure, money -- or the men who can give them to her. Among the men lining up to please her are Simon (Paul Hubschmid) and an American named Ravaggi (Robert Webber), both of whom are actively deceived -- Ravaggi to the extent of being told that Des Grieux, a guest imposed on his hospitality, is Manon's brother. Rather than ending with Manon's famous death, the film permits Des Grieux to sabotage her profitable arrangement with Ravaggi instead, after the millionaire boasts of his intention to marry her. Elsa Martinelli appears briefly as another of Jean-Paul's call girls who offers him distraction from Manon's first disappearance, and Chris Avram (Bava's BAY OF BLOOD) is Deneuve's initial escort.

Aurel's film is essentially a protracted dance between Manon and Des Grieux as they war between themselves, their love and their earthly desires. One wonders what he was hoping to say, if anything, about the state of love in the more open, experimental relationships of this era. Deneuve (adorned in fabulous clothes throughout) and Frey lend the struggle some fascination, but Aurel seems incapable of turning up the heat to make the couple's dynamic feel much more than cerebral. Whenever the film leaves their metaphysics to nudge the story forward (as in the pathetic scenes of  Des Grieux at work), it becomes paper thin. Some musical interest is added by the participation of Serge Gainsbourg, who supplies some poppy, sitar-plucking tracks heard in nightclubs.

Viewed via Lionsgate DVD. In French (and partial English) with permanent English subtitles, it's available only as part of the box set titled CATHERINE DENEUVE 5-FILM COLLECTION.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

100. TOO LATE BLUES (1962)

This Paramount release was John Cassavetes' first experience of directing a major Hollywood release, following his initial independent success with SHADOWS in 1959. The script, co-written over a single weekend by Cassavetes with Richard Carr, a staff writer of his JOHNNY STACCATO teleseries, is a very loose account of a jazz combo headed by John "Ghost" Wakefield, played by Bobby Darin. Ghost and his band are interested only in following their muse, which has left them without representation and playing in children's homes and public parks. One night at a party, Ghost makes the acquaintance of Jessica Polanski (Stella Stevens), a beautiful honey-voiced blonde who is taking the abuse of her agent Benny Flowers (outstanding work by Everett Chambers), and manages to pick up the agent and the girl, whose melismatic style of "no-singing singing" redirects Ghost toward a record contract and a short-lived flirtation with actual professionalism.

TOO LATE BLUES reportedly went into production only two weeks after it was hastily written, and it has a first-draft feel about it. It's got a jazz combo (with Cassavetes regular Seymour Cassel making his screen debut on bass) but it's singularly unconvincing as a jazz picture, so much so that David Raksin's score ends up being called "blues" in the dialogue and in the title. Cassavetes himself later disowned the picture, which he wrote with his wife Gena Rowlands in mind for Jessica, claiming that it was not only "unfinished" but that Paramount monkeyed with it, and it's easy to see that some shots and scenes were cut-off at the knees. This is not to say there isn't some terrific filmmaking on display; the three-dimensional camera dollying through the early party scene is most impressive, and the scenes of volatile camaraderie in the pool room of Greek immigrant Nick Bobolenos (Nick Dennis, the "3-D Pow!" guy from KISS ME DEADLY) show us exactly where 75% of MEAN STREETS came from. The film also features what is likely Stella Stevens' finest performance, chronologically situated between the Paramount bookends of GIRLS! GIRLS! GIRLS! and THE NUTTY PROFESSOR. It's obvious that Jerry Lewis studied this film intently; Stella Purdy and Jessica Polanski are both dreamy, jukebox-leaning girls who can be found admiring the pianist prowess of their boyfriends in afterhours nightclubs while sucking on cigarettes, and there's even a proto-Alaskan Polar Bear Heater scene in which Bobby Darin seeks to impress her by concocting the cocktail to end all cocktails. But something about Stevens' performance here feels particularly candid, vulnerable and exposed; she gives the film something I think might have been beyond Gena Rowlands' grasp at that point in her filmography, though I'm sure she would have taken beautifully to Lionel Lindon's velvety monochrome photography. Darin feels miscast as the bandleader; he's a star, but he has the most passive personality onscreen and it's hard to figure why so many Alpha Male types are following him around. Vince Edwards, Val Avery, Ivan Dixon and June Wilkinson are among the supporting players.

I'll be writing about the film at greater length in a separate review for the July 2012 issue of SIGHT & SOUND.

Viewed via Olive Films' DVD (also available on Blu-ray), which streets on May 29. 

99. THE IMAGE (1975)

This film has the distinction of being the only hardcore film that director Radley Metzger signed with his own name after launching a parallel career in 1974 as XXX director "Henry Paris." It is based on L'IMAGE, a 1956 S&M novel credited to its protagonist Jean de Berg, which had the notoriety of featuring a Preface by THE STORY OF O author "Pauline Réage" (Dominique Oury) at a time when that book was her only available writing, which led to widespread speculation that she may have written it under another pseudonym. It's the story of a man, Jean, who is attracted to an aloof beauty named Anne at a party, an attraction which coerces him into a deeper relationship with Claire, an older woman who doesn't attract him but who has complete, even sexual, control over Anne and offers the same to him.

THE IMAGE (also known as THE PUNISHMENT OF ANNE) is one of Metzger's most important films, yet also one of the most frustrating to assess. Filmed on location in Paris, it's often ravishingly photographed but Metzger focuses, with almost militant insistence, on all the city's most phallic symbols. In an early scene, Claire forces Anne to urinate in Jean's presence; when he later reflects on his intimate moment, he does so while parked in front of the Trocadero Fountains opposite the Eiffel Tower! The novel wasn't written with this kind of indelicacy and such coarseness, added to an otherwise faithful adaption, feels a bit insulting. It's also an unfortunate post-production decision to have Jean dubbed, and the film itself narrated, by well-known voice actor Peter Fernandez, best-remembered as the voice of Speed Racer. His distinctive voice is a bad match for actor Carl Parker and bad casting for a Frenchman in such a location-specific story.

Despite these sometimes wince-inducing traits, the film has moments that are intensely erotic, and it has the sensitivity, even the cleverness, to see that Anne is a literary conduit between Jean and Claire, that the entire story could be boiled down to an inventive metaphor for that old-fashioned expression, "the courtship ritual" -- Anne has no real life outside their dynamic, and when she finally disappears, the real story between her punishers can commence. Carl Parker (Mike in Metzger's earlier film SCORE) seems a bit too handsome to need these sorts of machinations in his love life, but Marilyn Roberts is fascinatingly enigmatic as Claire, and Mary Mendum (who also worked in some of Joe Sarno's best films under the name "Rebecca Brooke") gives the courageous performance that engages our interest (and eye) throughout. Though technically hardcore, the film is graphically limited to oral sex; there are no penetration shots, unless you count the needles going into Ms. Mendum in the "Gothic Chamber" sequence.

Viewed via Synapse Films' Blu-ray disc. A fuller review will be forthcoming in VIDEO WATCHDOG.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

98. THE SKIN I LIVE IN (LA PIEL QUE HABITO, 2011)

I'd heard Pedro Almodóvar's latest film described as everything from an hommage to a riff to a take on Georges Franju's EYES WITHOUT A FACE (LES YEUX SANS VISAGE, 1959), which made me feel less urgent about seeing it. I knew it would be a film of execeptional quality, but I didn't feel particularly eager to see the flamboyant Almodóvar taking on the horror genre in a genuflective stance -- and I say this as someone who holds Franju's work as sacred. (I suspect some others may have felt the same way, because the film is seriously underdiscussed on the various horror boards.) Having finally caught up with THE SKIN I LIVE IN on the right rainy afternoon, I can see these descriptions for the critical laziness they are, because it is a very pure Almodóvar film indeed -- wickedly perverse, full of bizarre understated humor, yet passionate and illuminating about people in the most unexpected ways.

The problem is that it's very difficult to discuss this film without spoiling the identity of the woman in this photograph, the patient of Antonio Banderas' Dr. Robert Ledgard, who is given the amusing name of Vera Cruz and is magnificently played by Elena Anaya. Suffice to say that Dr. Ledgard (who has developed a revolutionary kind of super-skin to help treat burn victims) keeps his patient at his home clinic, under lock and key and strict security camera observation; she might be his supposedly dead wife Vera, who was badly burned in an automobile crash; she might also be his daughter Norma, who was institutionalized after she was raped in the garden at a soirée, although we see Robert having sex with her (we presume he's crazy anyway); or she might be someone else entirely. The film is based on a novel by the late Thierry Jonquet, first published as MYGALE and now known in English as TARANTULA; Almodóvar, adapting it with his brother Augustín, evidently changed the character names and the story quite a bit. Based on what I've read about the novel, it was tricky in its own narrative way, in a way a cinematic rendering could not be, so the film offers an approximate, analogous structure of the novel's triple tier structure that finds the story's forward movement halting for a significant share of its running time so that Robert, and then Vera, sleeping together, can share the same extended flashback dream. Both dreamers are privy in their sleep to cutaways to other perspectives they couldn't have possibly experienced subjectively, but it's something we must forgive the film; it may not hold water, but it holds one's attention.

Banderas shows a valuable understanding of when to underplay, the better to let his co-star shine, and he handles the medical speak at his lectures with warmth and ease. Spanish films continue to offer some of the most dimensional portraits of older women characters in our contemporary cinema, and Marisa Paredes is intriguing as Ledgard's doting housekeeper (who has a secret identity of her own - in fact, just about everyone in this film does), and Roberto Alamo lends some contrasting ferocity to the overall clinical coolth as her tiger-suited prodigal son, Zeca. Jan Cornet also contributes a significant, sensitive performance as Vicente, the son of a dressmaker who is shown making a doomed play for her lesbian apprentice and a still more doomed play for a heterosexual member of the cast. Elena Anaya, with her large eyes, delicately chiseled features and yoga-slim body, accentuated in a supportive body stocking, is not a poetically fragile character like Édith Scob in the Franju film, but something more alien, unknowable, perhaps even artificial. The ambiguity of her performance allows the film to say something important about the necessity of finding trust over love, without which the final scene could not quite summon the power that it has. 

I have special affection for films that appear, in retrospect, to have been constructed as necessary reinforcement to a powerful final scene -- something I find equally true of films as different as Rouben Mamoulian's QUEEN CHRISTINA (1935), Ingmar Bergman's THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY (1961) or Sofia Coppola's LOST IN TRANSLATION (2003) -- and I find this particularly true of THE SKIN I LIVE IN. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the closing scene of this film made me feel -- as a straight viewer -- a more direct, intimate, in-the-skin sense of the nervousness, vulnerability and need for acceptance that gay men and women must experience when they come out to their friends and family, than I've felt from any other movie. It's this potent unifying metaphor, and all it's connected to, that makes THE SKIN I LIVE IN not only a stylish and surprising thriller, but one of the horror genre's most significant gay texts.   

Viewed via DirecTV View on Demand.