Friday, August 31, 2012

147. WHAT'S EATING GILBERT GRAPE? (1993)

This is one of Lasse Hallström's most beloved films, I find from talking to people, and it is a remarkable study of the solidarity that can be found even in dysfunctional families which individual members are desperate to escape or transcend.

Scripted by Peter Hedges from his own novel, it's set in the fictional small town of Endora and documents the internal struggle of Gilbert Grape (Johnny Depp), the eldest child of a working class family dealing with the additional stress of a mischievous, mentally disabled brother named Arnie (Leonardo di Caprio, giving what may still be the performance of his career) and a morbidly obese mother (Darlene Cates) who has not left their glorified shack of a home in more than a decade. Gilbert, already responsible for too much, works at a second-rank food market and medicates his self-loathing and familial shame in an affair with the married-with-children Betty Carver (Mary Steenburgen), but a new and more honest relationship with temporarily stranded traveller Vicky (Juliette Lewis) presents him with an opportunity to live a more honest, less shameful life.

I can see how this film could have meant considerably more to me, had I seen it earlier in life, especially if I had seen it when I was similarly trapped or planning my own escape from unhappy circumstances; it would have made the younger me feel less alone and given me hope. Seeing it from my present vantage, I have a lot of respect for it but only as a film, not as the personal exorcism or life lesson that holds some younger friends and acquaintences in thrall whenever they surf across it during its cable playdates. Those people will disagree, but I think the film would have been stronger and more powerful with an actor other than Johnny Depp in the lead; he looks too handsome, too styled, too worldly and too impassive to give this insecure, untravelled, emotional role its full due. But everything else this film needs is present and plentiful.

This film predates THE CIDER HOUSE RULES and SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN but intriguingly shares the plot point of a protagonist, quietly suffering in a static and hopeless existence, who eventually avails himself of the opportunity to escape into a larger experience of the world, and of women.   

Viewed on Netflix.


Thursday, August 30, 2012

146. SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN (2011)

Based on a novel by Paul Torday, this most recent of Lasse Hallström's films shares some narrative touchstones in common with THE CIDER HOUSE RULES: a somewhat innocent hero is tempted out of his sheltered life and ventures to a paradisical setting, where he falls in love with a woman whose soldier boyfriend is called to service, leaving her temporarily available. Otherwise, and quite apart from the protagonist's Scottish accent, there's a pleasant LOCAL HERO aspect to this story -- about fisheries expert Dr. Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor) who, when a UK political publicist (Kristin Scott Thomas) decides a positive story about the Middle East is needed, is recruited to help a wealthy sheik (Amr Waked) bring the sport of fly-fishing to an artificial lake being constructed in the middle of the desert. The love interest is provided by Emily Blunt, cast as McGregor's supervisor, Harriet. Here the promise of paradise is threatened by a militant group of the sheik's fellow countrymen, who believe the fulfillment of his idle fishing fantasy will lay a red carpet of Western corruption through their homeland.

To look at these two films side-by-side is to witness an obvious shift in storytelling that was more likely imposed on Hallström than naturally evolved over time. While the actors are all extremely well-cast, competent and attractive, McGregor's Dr. Jones borders on caricature while the female principles celebrate the little triumphs of life by swaggering about like dizzy geese -- behavior clearly pitched at baiting audience approval rather than remaining honestly sublimated within the story. Kristin Scott Thomas is particularly grating in this regard, and a recurring joke of her email correspondence with the British prime minister falls repeatedly flat. The sidebar story of Alfred's failing marriage to Mary (Rachael Stirling, the daughter of Diana Rigg) is likewise broadened by making Mary and Harriet look like they came from different generations when the two actresses are only six years apart, thus giving the cheap and false impression that Alfred is falling for a younger, prettier face when the disconnections in his marriage are more deeply rooted. There are some lovely moments, but they are not the ones that linger.

Viewed via Amazon Instant Video.    

145. THE CIDER HOUSE RULES (1999)

As you will see from this and the next couple of titles, I recently undertook a small, get-better-acquainted tour of the work of Swedish director Lasse Hallström, perhaps best known for his films MY LIFE AS A DOG (1985) and CHOCOLAT (2000). Though I found both those films to be of high quality, I liked this adaptation of John Irving's novel better than either of them, and better than the other two I watched subsequently. I haven't read the source novel, but years ago, I did read all of Irving's fiction up to, and including, THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP -- somehow failing to continue beyond THE HOTEL NEW HAMPSHIRE -- and this film feels closely, warmly allied to all the feelings I derived from reading him, which are very specific qualities to his universe, so it must be a very good adaptation.

Tobey Maguire stars as Homer Wells, a foundling raised in an orphanage who, never adopted, is trained to assist the resident doctor, the kindly but ether-addicted Wilbur Larch (Michael Caine), in his duties, which extend in this wartime story to performing safe abortions and saving the lives of young unwed women who have gone to less qualified practitioners or tried to do the job themselves. When a young lieutenant (Paul Rudd) arrives with his pregnant girlfriend Candy (Charlize Theron) in tow, Homer -- now an adult -- asks them for a lift when they leave, recognizing his opportunity to see a bit of the larger world outside the orphanage. They take him to the lieutenant's family's apple orchard in Massachusetts, where he becomes the only white, college-level-educated member in a team of apple pickers. He finds happiness there, as well as love, once the lieutenant is recalled and Candy finds her unoccupied way into his awkward, receptive arms. Naturally, life in the apple garden doesn't last forever.

The symbolism may be obvious, but it's applicable to a wide array of interpretations; it occurred to me afterwards that Homer's arc could be read as metaphorical of a man's extramarital affair. Whether taken at face value or on a deeper level, the story is given the narrative weight and gravity we associate with the great standards of literature. Strong performances abound, particularly those of Caine (his eyes like wet bags filled with decades of pain), Theron (world-wise and seductive) and Delroy Lindo as an orchard picker whose avuncular character takes a turn when he's discovered to have gotten his daughter (Erykah Badu, also good) pregnant. Maguire exudes his usual amiably gooey brand of innocence that's ripe for testing, and there is perfectly cast support at the orphanage from Jane Alexander and Kathy Baker. One of the most charming scenes shows the orphans gazing wide-eyed at the projection of an orphanage-owned 16mm print of KING KONG (complete with the "peeling" scene that was long lost and only restored to the film sometime circa 1973-74, probably thanks to the discovery of an old print like this), followed up by Homer's admission to the worldly Candy that he loves movies but that KING KONG is the only movie he's ever seen. Thankfully, Beauty doesn't quite kill the Beast in this story, but she takes a fair enough shot at it.

Viewed via Netflix

Friday, August 24, 2012

144. CARTES SUR TABLE (1965)

Critics, at least those who can be bothered to notice that Jean-Claude Carrière collaborated with Jess Franco on two produced screenplays, usually do so to introduce a note of shock. In fact, while it's true that Carrière had written THE DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID (1964) for Luís Buñuel, he was also at this time dashing off a series of Frankenstein pulp novels for Fleuve Noir, à la Don Glut, under the name Benôit Becker -- a side career that Franco only pretended to have under the alias David Khunne. In other words, their alliance was not so extraordinary, least of all to Buñuel's producer Serge Silberman, who put them together in the first place. The script for this Eddie Constantine sci-fi actioner -- known in the US as ATTACK OF THE ROBOTS -- was their second project, preceded by THE DIABOLICAL DR. Z (MISS MUERTE), which was ultimately filmed first in the same year.

In this film, which riffs with true film-lovers' admiration on Godard's recently released ALPHAVILLE (which featured Franco's frequent collaborator Howard Vernon) and its themes of mind control and technology gone mad, Constantine plays retired agent Al Pereira, one of the most recurring protagonists in Franco's filmography. (Vernon and Franco himself have played the part in subsequent films.) When a series of political assassinations around the world are carried out by brown-skinned men wearing dark eyeglasses, Pereira -- now hustling as a free agent private eye -- is approached by the jovially evil Lee Wee (Vicente Roca) who offers him $100,000 to destroy an apparent pretender to his criminal empire; however, when Interpol approaches him with a more insulting offer, that's the deal he takes -- because Al is the kind of hero who drinks only Coca-Cola, never smokes, and never spends the night in a pretty lady's hotel room, a total piss-take on Constantine's established screen image. He soon learns that the eyeglasses house a disguised electronic mind-control device that activates something in Rhesus O blood that darkens skin pigmentation and programs people to kill. Fernando Rey (the husband of THE DIABOLICAL DR. Z's Mabel Karr) and L'IMMORTELLE's Françoise Brion are featured as the pair bent on world domination, and Sophie Hardy plays a fellow Interpol agent posing as -- what else? -- an exotic dancer.

Coming after THE DIABOLICAL DR. Z, which boldly advanced Franco as a stylist in a brave new realm of dark adult fantasy, this film (which, um, shares a title with a French edition Agatha Christie novel) proposes a well-produced, no-less-witty but comfortable return to the sorts of B-crime pictures he had been cranking out earlier in his career. That said, it is a minefield of cinematic reference points (one year after GOLDFINGER, Al's cover name is Frank Fröbe), it perpetuates the mind control themes that preoccupied Franco long before Godard, and it heralds his imminent move toward the sorts of ironic, Pop Art-influenced caper pictures he would make over the next few years -- and, indeed, intermittently for the rest of his fecund career.

Gaumont's DVD is the only source for the uncut film, about six minutes longer than the US version, but it doesn't offer an English track or subtitles. I haven't yet compared the two versions.

Viewed on Gaumont import DVD.

143. PRIVATE HELL 36 (1954)

At the time Ida Lupino co-wrote this Don Siegel thriller with her ex-husband Collier Young, she was 22 years into her acting career, a film producer (as part of "The Filmakers" with Young) for a few years, and had already directed five feature films (and assisted on a couple more), a feat unequalled by any other woman of her time -- but her vast talent, in its demand to be reckoned with, had forced her to work on the level of B-pictures by the time she reached her 30s.

Here Lupino uses her professional disappointments and steely self-respect to breathe life into Lilli Marlowe (she admits the name sounds made-up, and is), a cocktail lounge singer, questioned in a robbery case, who becomes involved with one of the two assigned detectives, Cal Bruner (Steve Cochran). Lilli's hunger for the good things of life which have passed her by spurs the lovestruck Cal, for the first time, to reach beyond his meager cop's weekly paycheck; when he and his earnest partner Jack Farnham (Howard Duff, then Lupino's current husband) chase their to a fatal crash at his drop point, Cal pockets a healthy helping of untraceable stolen cash, forcing Jack to share it with him without discussion. While Cal continues to run high on the fumes of Lilli's shopworn glamor, biding his time until he can get the cash laundered to present to her as a nest egg, Jack begins to fracture, drinking and darkening an otherwise bright and cozy homelife with wife Francey (Dorothy Malone in her prime) and their two kids. In a twist of "Gift of the Magi" irony, the more involved Lilli gets with Cal, the more she realizes she doesn't really need more than an honest, hard-working man, but once his imperative to provide gets mixed-up in it, their equation is doomed.

Siegel had an unhappy time making this film, citing a volatile mix of too much alcohol and divided authority on the set, and it does feel generally more attuned to Lupino's noir filmography than his own, but it's nevertheless a very satisfying, multi-angled story with well-crafted, natural dialogue that allows several of its characters to shine. The finale is also surprisingly downbeat for its time, but perfectly so for this genre; whether or not Lupino and Young were responsible for writing it, it's here -- and in the scenes of rocky domesticity -- that we can best feel Siegel was behind the camera. The supporting cast includes the always-reliable Dean Jagger as the police captain, the ubiquitous Dabbs Greer as a bartender, and future TV teenager Jimmy Hawkins (in the '40s, one of the kids in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE) as a delivery boy.

PS: Ida Lupino was 36 years of age at the time of filming.

Viewed via Olive Films' DVD.

142. HARRY BROWN (2009)

Daniel Barber acquits himself well in this feature directorial debut, which stars Michael Caine as an aging, recently widowed ex-Marine who, after a lifetime of refusing to look back on his wartime violence, is prompted to take justice into his own hands when a local street gang murders his best friend (David Bradley).

Scripted by Gary Young, whose previous screenplays (THE LAST DROP, THE TOURNAMENT) share this film's taste for challenge, violence and competition, this is essentially Michael Winner's DEATH WISH rewritten for a new generation, different fashions and worse times, with a focus on drug-ridden UK housing projects that recalls, within my own limited viewing experience in this area, PRIME SUSPECT 5: ERRORS OF JUDGMENT (1996) but without the commanding central focus of a community gang leader like The Street (Steven Mackintosh) to fully demonize it. What it has, though, is a tunnel, a forbidding ONIBABA-like hole in the ground placed in a park for the convenience of locals to more easily communicate with a shopping district, which has been taken over by thugs with cans of spray paint and pockets full of powders. This is the story of how an elderly man, with increasingly less to lose in life, reclaims that tunnel for his good neighbors in a career-closing burst of muted glory.

This film won the Empire Award as the Best British Film of 2010, but while it's well-made, it doesn't really offer much we haven't seen before. By naming the film after Caine's character, we are promised an outstanding performance but Caine nearly always delivers that; here he is his usual poker-faced, courtly self, his stoicism a sauntering souvenir of Britain's eroded stiff-upper-lip heritage, with moments where he alternately succumbs to teary sorrow or incendiary anger. Nevertheless, he provides the alchemical ingredient that makes this frankly commonplace project border at times on importance. Emily Mortimer, one of the best English actresses of her younger generation, is effective as a plain, thirtyish D.I. in whose earnest face and sensitivity to Harry's losses we intuit the working class child she was, the leaps of courage she's taking by coming to work every day, and the way she's daily crunched between righteousness and protocol.

Viewed via Netflix.

141. FOOTPRINTS (2009)

This digitally shot feature marks the directorial debut of award-winning writer Steven Peros (THE CAT'S MEOW) and its packaging is covered with attention-grabbing exclamations of favor from various critics. (Armond White called it one of the year's ten best films, and Donna Walker of KPFX hailed it as "A Great Film!") I admit it's admirable in certain ways, but rather than a solid piece of storytelling in its own right, it feels more like the fleshed-out shadow cast by a sincerely-felt, mid-level short story.

Sybil Temtchine stars as a nameless young woman who awakes lying prostrate across the movie star footprints outside the old Grauman's Chinese Theater (strangely void of tourists) and, somehow attracts the attention of a series of well-meaning, helpful folks on the streets of modern day Los Angeles. Burly, menacing men turn out to be friendly, she meets a distinguished old gentleman named Victor (H.M. Wynant) who takes a paternal interest in guiding her back to her identity, and she joins forces with an out-of-work actress (Catherine Bruhier) who dresses as the Halle Berry Catwoman to poses for tourist pictures, suiting up as Wonder Woman. She loses track of Victor, who turns out to have been an actor in his younger days, but throughout her foggy afternoon, she is drawn to a repertory theater where an old serial is due to be screened.

What I find admirable about FOOTPRINTS is that it uses digital technology and the internet to produce an original, only marginally arty piece of adult storytelling; it doesn't try to imitate or emulate what the bigger, more commercial teams are doing, and I believe meaningful films produced at this level are our only hope of saving the American cinema from its escalating cannibalistic tendencies. Also admirable is that its story provides opportunities for some seasoned, proven and sadly underused talent like H.M. Wynant and Pippa Scott (as Genevieve, the former star of the aforementioned serial) to practice their craft in a truly foregrounded manner with important roles. If the film's fault can be narrowed down to any one thing, aside from Peros' difficulties with aligning his somewhat ethereal story with visual storytelling of a complementary greater gravity, it's the central casting of Temtchine, who, more as a result of miscasting than inability, fails to command our attention to the necessary extent of carrying the film. And does the payoff live up to all the fuss it makes over its mystery? I really can't say -- there's no there here.

Viewed on footprintsthemovie.com DVD-R.   

140. JOHNNY GUITAR (1954)

I haven't a lot to say about this Nicholas Ray western that hasn't been said before. Influenced by the postwar moodiness of film noir, it pushed its genre into bold, new, abstract terrain -- more shadow than sun, baroque, symbolic, sociological, psychological, even psychosexual -- while also making veiled remarks about the political realities of its day. (This is a fact that becomes more compelling, given the central presence of Sterling Hayden, one of those actors who cooperated with the HUAC "Hollywood blacklist" investigations, who looks only slightly less haunted here than he did in screen appearances after he named names.) It's also poetical, but westerns have always had something poetical about them if you know where to look. All this substance helps a great deal to obscure the fact that, at least to my ears, it's one of the few great westerns that lacks the great score it deserves.

Watching JOHNNY GUITAR again, for the first time in many years, I found myself wishing it was just a little different, modified just enough so that Johnny could be seen as a returning Cheyenne and Vienna could be seen as Jill in a before-the-fact sequel to ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, both a bit older and more disappointed by life (and each other), and still waiting for those rails out of town that will make all the difference to their lives. But even without that, the spirit of these characters are somehow manifest in the Leone principals. Jam-packed with the good stuff: Ernest Borgnine, John Carradine, Ward Bond, Mercedes McCambridge seething with hatred and perhaps lesbian jealousy. Oh, and Scott Brady was never better.


Viewed via Olive Films' DVD, also available on Blu-ray.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

139. JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (1959)

I don't seem able to get review copies from them, so I have only seen two of Twilight Time's much-praised limited edition Blu-rays thus far, the ones I was willing to pay their somewhat steep asking price for: Cy Endfield's MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (1961) and this new presentation of Henry Levin's JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH. In both cases, the lustre of the image and the razor pitch of the music and effects tracks (presented on an isolated track) were disarming in the best way possible; it's a cliché, but watching them is like being transported directly back to the kiddie matinees of my youth, when I first felt those larger-than-life emotions that goaded me into committing the name of Bernard Herrmann to memory. This is arguably Herrmann's greatest score, and it's a worthy experience in its own right to strip the film of its dialogue and let its imagery wash over you as epic accompaniment to its concert.

This is a film I've seen on many different video media over the decades, from Beta to LaserDisc to DVD and now Blu-ray, and I can only say it has never played better at home than it does now, unless it was on the big screen as a first-run release. But the clarity of the CinemaScope image is often breathtaking, and even those elements that one might look upon as cheap in a lesser media are somehow inflated with a kind of pulp majesty. Made at 20th Century Fox during his years of reign there, it's like an Irwin Allen production, but made with genuine intelligence and wit. The iguana dimetrodons feel large and lethal via this technological underpinning, and there's a feeling of depth and magic to the brilliant art direction. Most importantly, though, there is Levin's own storytelling sense (felt just as well in his THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF THE BROTHERS GRIMM some years after this), the authoritative glory of James Mason's performance (he doesn't hit a false note, nor an uncommanding one, in the entire picture), and also the sweet sincerity of Pat Boone's juvenile lead. Arlene Dahl, whom I remember looking matronly when I first saw this, now strikes me as deliciously seasoned in her sex appeal and a delightful foil for Mason. Future DARK SHADOWS villain Thayer David provides a stately sense of menace and earns his deserved comeuppance after committing an unforgivable transgression. He's not often discussed, but I also find Peter Ronson, as the Icelandic guide, an indispensible part of the film's charm.

Viewed via Twilight Time Blu-ray, limited to 3000 copies (now OOP).

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

138. LES VAMPIRES (1915-16)

Louis Feuillade's 6.5-hour, 10 chapter serial delightfully chronicles the sometimes lethal tug-of-war between crusading Mondial reporter Philippe Guérande (Édouard Mathé) and the diabolic band of masked criminals (a secret society, really) collectively known as The Vampires. What the stoic Guérande may lack in personality is more than compensated by the winning ways of his irresistible, fourth-wall-breaking, comedy relief sidekick Oscar-Claude Mazamette (Marcel Lévesque), who starts out as a misguided member of the crime ring who wants only to provide for his three motherless sons but is redeemed and later liberated from all responsibility by a cash reward, which allows him to become a full-time, crime-fighting philanthropist and ladies' man. One of his kids, Eustache (played by the irrepressible child star Bout-de-Zan), also later joins the fight. Lending character to The Vampires are the Grand Vampire (a master of disguise and numerous established identities), the evil chemist Vénénos, and of course, the original femme fatale Irma Vep (the magnificent Musidora), a hatpin-wielding stage entertainer who proves herself resourceful enough to be running The Vampires herself, but instead clings companionably to whomever so happens to ascend to its throne, whenever its vacated.

This and other Feuillade serials, including FANTOMAS and JUDEX, are often cited as providing the blueprints from which the contemporary action cinema was spawned, and the films do continue to feel timely if not quite contemporary, and their sense of humor has as much to do with it as their sense of adventure. It's also remarkable to be reminded of how much of today's entertainment, and the classics we most often call to mind, sprang from a fertile germ thriving here. Fritz Lang would never have found his way to Dr. Mabuse or SPIES without this example; the anagrammatic "Irma Vep" (rearrange the letters, it spells "vampire") inspired Universal's Count Alucard in SON OF DRACULA (1943); the scene of ballerina Marfa Koutiloff (Stacia Napierkowska) fainting while standing on point during a stage performance of "Les Vampires" is not only an early instance of metafiction but inspired a key moment in Argento's SUSPIRIA (1977); Olivier Assayas made an interesting film titled IRMA VEP in 1996, starring Maggie Cheung, and chronicling an ill-fated attempt to direct a contemporary remake of LES VAMPIRES, which it wrongly describes as "a museum piece"; and The Vampires boast a Grand Inquisitor, a figure later summoned back into vampire mythology by HBO's TRUE BLOOD.

Previously available on DVD from Image Entertainment here in the States, this silent gem is now available from Kino Classics in its Cinémathèque Française restoration, supervised by Feuillade's grandson (also JUDEX screenwriter and SHADOWMAN star) Jacques Champreux. The new presentation does away with some of the fussier, showier, needlessly aging sepia tinting of the previous issue and refreshes the clarity of the images with straightforward monochrome. This is the first time I've seen the freckles on some actors' faces and, once or twice, a wobbling struck wall that reveals it as stretched canvas. The climax of the penultimate, ninth chapter "The Poison Man" -- which includes all manner of dazzling rope-trick escapes, automobile chases and train jumps -- still makes the heart leap nearly a century later.  

Viewed via Kino Classics' Blu-ray disc, which will street August 14, 2012. Also available on DVD.



    

Friday, August 3, 2012

137. CAPTAIN AMERICA, THE FIRST AVENGER (2011)

This was my second viewing of director Joe Johnston's attempt to bring one of Marvel Comics' Golden Age superheroes to the screen, after numerous failed attempts. Though the film has its champions, I find it fails in nearly every respect and can only reiterate them.

This is a film about World War II that refuses to engage with it, proposing (instead of real Nazi opposition) the pre-existence of Marvel's Silver Age, post-SMERSH invention of HYDRA, and sidestepping the historical need for clunkier defense vehicles and weaponry by making HYDRA so far ahead of its time that not even Tony Stark's father (Dominic Cooper) can get a handle on it. HYDRA is now run by the disfigured Johann Schmidt, whom the film strangely refuses to call The Red Skull (Hugo Weaving). Because every Marvel hero seems doomed in their movies to confront a dark aspect of themselves, here the Red Skull is a creation of the same scientist responsible for accentuating the good in 4F Army reject Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and giving it an über-boost that transforms him into the ultra-1A Brooklyn mensch, Captain America.

The wimpy form of Steve Rogers is just as much a CGI creation as Captain America's heroism, and the fabulously leaping, shield-hurling, fast-running hero appears so graphically disengaged from everything happening around him, the viewer never fears for his safety, reminding us that the real secret of making someone heroic in a movie is to demonstrate his vulnerability now and then. The film also goes out of its way to make this most American and isolationist/patriotic of subjects more worldly -- the heroine, Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter, is British (indeed, when the war is won, we don't see the usual US celebration but instead rejoicing on the streets of London) and Cap's creator Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) is a German emigré, proposing our hero as a kind of Jewish Superman countermeasure to the Hitlerjugend ideal, though he too is blonde and blue-eyed. This unification of nations was a step doubtless taken to better ensure the film's boxoffice success abroad, but this approach flies in the face of Captain America's own voiced resistance to the Red Skull's vision of "a world without flags." "Never!" he says. Well, he may want to check who owns his red, white and blue ass in 2012.

Shockingly, to me anyway, a whole segment of the film indulges in revisionist history wherein Captain America is prostituted as a US government public relations tool, making embarrassing public appearances while his fictional adventures are trotted out in comic books and movie serials. This, too, seems a concession to the film's reach for worldly acceptance, one admitting that the character was once no more than nationalist propaganda but, by implication, is now real and fighting for all our freedoms. In a film full of odd choices, the film builds to a limp finale telegraphed by the pre-credits sequence, that clearly aspires to the level of a PLANET OF THE APES-like shock, but dampens it with a closing line reference to a romance between Steve and Peggy that never rises to a more urgent occasion than a kiss for good luck.

None of this is to claim the film is unwatchable, just... unthinkable.

Viewed on Netflix.

136. DODSWORTH (1936)

Based on Sidney Howard's play of Sinclair Lewis' novel, this is a surprisingly direct and humanistic drama for its time about a middle-aged married couple who sell off their company, suddenly have time for leisure and each other, and find themselves growing apart. Walter Huston stars as retired motor magnate Sam Dodsworth, who decides to indulge his younger fortysomething wife Fran (Ruth Chatterton) -- who only admits to being 35 and is not yet ready to accept the fact that she's about to become a grandmother -- in a continental tour of Europe that takes them from London to Paris and parts of Italy. As Fran embraces a lifestyle of high socializing, nightclub dancing, and the extramarital fling to which she feels "entitled" with Arnold Iselin (Paul Lukas), Sam tries returning home alone, then begins knocking about international tours on his own, until fate brings him back into contact with lonely but responsible widow Mrs. Edith Cortright (Mary Astor, as good as I've ever seen her), who invites him to share her cheap seafront Italian villa on purely platonic terms.

I haven't read the novel, but the film is a frank depiction of the circumstances that sometime occur in life when divorce becomes a necessary step, not for the selfish reasons usually depicted in movies, but out of the necessity to protect one's own standards of morality. Fran starts out as a sympathetic character, someone suddenly liberated from a life of servitude and eager to taste life while she still can, and director William Wyler stages a wonderfully candid glimpse of their marriage in an extended take where they ready themselves for bed, the camera slyly weaving to and from them depending on their states of undress; but as the film goes on, the life she has chosen to embrace is shown to be nothing more than a lie, which comes into bold focus when she can't suppress her own affected, high-faluting accent in a reunion conversation with her estranged husband.

Well worth seeing, with a treasure trove of occasionally surprising support players, including David Niven in one of his earliest credited Hollywood roles; Mme. Maria Ouspenskaya (at age 60) playing a venerable old lady who reminds Fran of the dangers of becoming the older wife of a young husband; John Payne (in his John Howard Payne days); and Spring Byington as a doting sister-in-law who gives Sam a surprisingly touching kiss in farewell, as if she's apologizing to him on behalf of all the good people in her family.

Viewed on a DVD-R of a Turner Classic Movies broadcast.    

135. DRACULA, PRISONER OF FRANKENSTEIN (DRACULA CONTRA FRANKENSTEIN, 1972)

After asylum director Dr. Jonathan Seward (Alberto Dalbes) brings an end to Dracula's (Howard Vernon) reign of terror, Baron Rainer von Frankenstein (Dennis Price) revives him and his vampire bride (Britt Nichols) in the hope of using them to found a new super race more subservient to his will than his rampaging Monster (Ferdinando Bilbao) proved to be. His plans are thwarted when Seward joins forces with Almira (Geneviève Deloir), a beautiful young gypsy who uses her occult knowledge to materialize a werewolf (Brandy) to oppose them.

After making 1969's COUNT DRACULA with Christopher Lee -- flawed to be sure, but still closer than most films to Bram Stoker's novel -- Jess Franco made a series of semi-sequels, beginning with VAMPYROS LESBOS (1970, with a basis in Stoker's story "Dracula's Guest") and continuing with this hommage to the Universal "monster rallies" of the 1940s, like FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943), HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944) and HOUSE OF DRACULA (1946), which were so seminal to his imagination as a teenage film-goer. On initial exposure, and depending on the presentation, DRACULA, PRISONER OF FRANKENSTEIN (which had a VHS release as THE SCREAMING DEAD) can look painfully inadequate beside its inspirators, but the more one studies it, the more one appreciates that it gives us more time with the monsters than Universal ever did, and that Franco's imagination was equally fertilized by silent films (very few words are spoken), French horror comics, serials and particularly German expressionism.

Much of the film, particularly its arresting opening minutes (which Franco has reckoned among his best work in interviews), is shot in a cheap but expressionistic style that's more Danish than German, evoking Dreyer's VAMPYR in particular; at the same time, it features some startling, progressive touches, like showing Dracula's face for the first time at the victim's window in an almost proto-Friedkin subliminal flash. Vernon makes an odd, pasty-green Dracula, lacking in the personality then associated with the role but more bat-like than usual; his casting acts as a tacit acknowledgement of the film's placement in the Franco universe. Bilbao's Frankenstein Monster has some striking visual moments despite a somewhat slapdash makeup, but Brandy's werewolf -- though energetic -- fails to convince, which brings the film's conclusion to a kind of Monster Kid Home Movie level. Luís Barboo appears as Morpho, Franco's all-purpose hulking monster minion (first introduced in THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF), and can be seen furiously articulating the wings of a fake bat as it allegedly bites him to death. Geneviève Deloir (aka Geneviève Robert, the wife of Ivan Reitman, and mother of Jason Reitman), who worked only once more with Franco (on THE LOVERS OF DEVIL'S ISLAND), gives the film's best performance and her scenes with Dalbés are among the film's best. There is also an interesting if underbaked sidebar story involving Maria (Mary Francis, aka Paca Gabaldón), an inmate of Seward's asylum, who seems to find an annex to Dracula's influence through her work as an abstract artist -- a character resonating with others in Franco's filmography, such as Heidrun Kussin in VAMPYROS LESBOS.   


This film is tough to find in a decent official presentation, as none of the extant releases are anamorphic and they are all derived from the censored Spanish release. Some unclothed shots in a German stills set indicate that an alternative, more adult version was lensed for France and other countries.

Viewed via Image Entertainment DVD.

134. CHARADE (1963)

In an interesting way, this tongue-in-cheek romantic thriller, directed by Stanley Donen from a script by Peter Stone, forms a bridge between Cary Grant's work in Hitchcock's NORTH BY NORTHWEST and co-star Audrey Hepburn's subsequent work in the Broadway-spawned success WAIT UNTIL DARK. In a manner not yet much explored by Hollywood, but recently done by Mario Bava in THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (LA RAGAZZA CHE SAPEVA TROPPO, 1962), the film dabbles in international murder and danger, but always dances one step ahead of seriousness.

Hepburn is the widow of a man involved with others in the theft of $250,000 who, after his dead body is discovered thrown from a train, is expected by the others (including James Coburn, George Kennedy and Ned Glass) to know the whereabouts of the missing quarter-million. Walter Matthau is a CIA man equally insistent about the return of the stolen money, and Grant is a greying, doting acquaintence, accidentally met at a Swiss ski lodge, who reconnects with Hepburn in the wake of her husband's murder and determines to help and protect her, though his assortment of aliases suggest he may have other goals in mind. Who is he really, and is he truly her friend, or is he allied with the fortune-hunters? -- a question that only increases in urgency as she finds herself falling in love with him.

Attractively lensed on mostly French locations by Charles Lang (whose roster of credits ranges from PETER IBBETSON to SOME LIKE IT HOT and beyond) and lavished with one of Henry Mancini's most lavish and complementary scores, CHARADE is a shade too bubbly and spontaneous to be Hitchcockian (when Hepburn asks Grant "How do you shave in there?" while peering into his chin cleft, it feels ad-libbed) and it appeared early enough to avoid the trap of seeming Bondian. It's a charming diversion in its own right.


Viewed via Criterion DVD.

   

133. THE DIABOLICAL DR. Z (MISS MUERTE, 1965)

Jess Franco's finest horror film of the 1960s -- co-written with Jean-Claude Carrière -- is a pulp rewrite of Cornell Woolrich's 1940 noir classic THE BRIDE WORE BLACK, given a mind control twist and accessorized with outrageous fetish costumery. Mabel Karr stars as Irma Zimmer, the daughter of a scientist literally ridiculed to death while defending his experiments in behavioral control before a board of colleagues at the International Neurological Congress. These three colleagues -- Vicas (Howard Vernon), Moroni (Marcelo Arroita-Jáuregui) and Kallman (Cris Huerta) -- are subsequently marked for death by the vengeful Irma, who fakes her own death and, working with a neurotically-rewired Death Row inmate known as "The Sadistic Strangler," recruits an exotic dancer known as Miss Death (Estella Blain) to serve as her seductive, poison-taloned messenger of death.

With the exception of bland hero Fernando Montés, the entire cast is formidable but the film is nevertheless stolen by Blain, in her only performance for Franco, as the first of his many fantastical femmes fatales. Miss Death, introduced in an exotic dance performed while lying on her back on a floor painted in a German Expressionist likeness of a Black Widow's web, is an extraordinary character; she is Franco's Alraune, but she is also sympathetic as a puppet of the film's real villainess, and something about the transparent flimsiness of her spider-crotched danceskin accentuates her emotional vulnerability, as we see her naked flesh sigh and tremble through its netting.  The character was never used again, in a career built on repetition, but echoes of Miss Death can be seen in Melissa, the blind vulture-woman in THE EROTIC RITES OF FRANKENSTEIN, and in the twisted brides of AL OTRO LADO DEL ESPEJO and BAHIA BLANCA. This is also one of the very few Franco films that look carefully storyboarded, and in their only collaboration, cameraman Alejandro Ulloa gives Franco possibly the most lustrous visual support he ever had.

I watched this film again several times in preparation for an audio commentary track that is forthcoming as part of a two-disc release from Subkultur Entertainment in Germany.

Viewed via Mondo Macabro DVD.

132. CELESTINE... BONNE A TOUT FAIRE (1974)

Though it was released only in Germany, this light-hearted sex comedy was the film chosen to become the first Jess Franco Blu-ray disc. I think it was a fortuitous choice. Its very character is bright; it is that rare Franco film which whistles a happy tune and ventures down no dark corridors of the soul. Scripted by Franco's first wife and longtime script girl Nicole Guettard (who wrote quite a few of his best films of this period, including LORNA THE EXORCIST), it's a spicy co-option of the principal character of Octave Mirbeau's THE DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID, twice filmed previously, once in 1964 by Franco's fellow Spanish expatriat Luís Buñuel, who worked from a moderately darker script by Jean-Claude Carrière, subsequently Franco's co-writer on THE DIABOLICAL DR. Z and ATTACK OF THE ROBOTS (both 1965).

The slender story opens with Celestine (Lina Romay) eluding arrest with a friend as the police raid a brothel. While hiding out in the hayloft of the Count de la Braquette's estate, she meets the hayseed handyman Sébastien (Ramón Ardid, billed as Raymond Hardy) and the butler Malou (Bigottini, aka Rick De Conninck - a fine comic actor also seen in Louis Malle's ZAZIE DANS LE MÉTRO), who reward her favors with the offer of employment. In a manner recalling Terence Stamp's effect on the household in TEOREMA, Celestine's open and relaxed attitude toward sexuality has a transformative effect on the isolated, moribund inhabitants of the mansion, imbuing them with gift of renewed life for the men and women alike, that remains even after a third act twist that forces her to betray them.

This is Franco's most successful comedy, merrily buoyed by a lively score by Paul de Senneville and Olivier Toussaint, and it features what is very likely Lina Romay's warmest, funniest and most accessible performance. Anyone who sticks to an intensive study of Franco's work develops an intimate relationship with his repertory players and, after decades of seeing this and other films primarily via dupey VHS cassettes, I felt a bit overwhelmed to see the likes of Lina Romay, Pamela Stanford, Monica Swinn, Nadine Pascal and the lesser-known but formidably appealing Anne Garrec standing before me with such supernatural clarity and youth. I should equally congratulate the male cast members -- which includes Howard Vernon (as an impotent old roué to whom Celestine reads salacious passages from Sade) and Olivier Mathot -- all of whom prove themselves wonderfully adept at playing comedy; it's the only time I've seen Ramón Ardid called upon to give a real performance, and he's wonderful. Lina's final closeup in the film, in which she blows a solitary kiss to the sleeping inhabitants of the mansion before sneaking away to new adventures, is now formidably poignant in the wake of her death.   

Viewed via Edition Tonfilm import DVD (French and German audio only, no English subtitles).

131. A FACE IN THE CROWD (1957)

Seeing Elia Kazan's hard-hitting film of Budd Schulberg's cautionary drama about the responsibility and nature of celebrity once again, in the wake of Andy Griffith's death last month, I found myself thinking two things.

First of all, it made me think about Patricia Neal and how all of her great roles seem to cast her as a strong, independent, self-made woman who meets her match and suddenly curls up in the shadow of a towering, more imposing male personality: THE FOUNTAINHEAD, DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, HUD. And then there is Griffith himself, who wisely turned from this almost unbearably hateful, taunting and angry performance to a career in neutered homespun comedy, as if the anger that was his muse was too blinding to allow for a more balanced career. Has any other debut performance burned, and I do mean burned, so brightly or shown us so much of an actor's potential?

It's true what they say about this film, that it's a prophecy of NETWORK and what has actually become of television in the decades since, and it was probably true even then, but it was made at a time when it still seemed within our reach to exercise our moral prerogative, and to expose the monsters we breed by pooling our popular vote, whether it's in a booth in a church basement or via a Nielsen rating. Why this movie doesn't occur to me when I'm selecting titles for a Top Ten, I don't understand; I always reach to another hemisphere of achievement, perhaps an idealized one, but this one remains powerful and unbreakably true. When kids reach a certain age, they need to hear John Lennon's "Working Class Hero" and they need to see this movie, which furthermore should be shown on TCM every election year in November.


Viewed via Turner Classic Movies.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

130. BLOOD OF DRACULA'S CASTLE (1969)

Before the main titles, set to introductory music that seems to promise 1940s jungle thrills, director Al Adamson treats us to four minutes and change of Vicki Volante driving somewhere in a convertible as her car radio plays Gil Bernal's "The Next Train Out," edited to run at least twice as long as it should, making the viewer want to take the next train out himself. Our music-loving heroine gets out of her car, walks into a woods for no apparent reason, where she is attacked and abducted by a hunchbacked minion named Mango (!). Then, naturally, the movie cuts to Marineland (or a reasonable facsimile), where a photographer and his model exchange banal, cutesy banter that becomes all the more witless once they reveal themselves as an engaged couple -- and, again, the static scene, set to some kind of maddening sub-Herb Alpert pop, goes on for so long that the viewer begins to involuntarily narrate the film aloud, "Meanwhile, at Castle Dracula..." in the vain hope of urging the film on track. But once we get to "Falcon Rock," as it's called, it's not that much different... or better -- a disappointment considering that the screenwriter, Rex Carlton, also gave us the exquisite THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN'T DIE.
 
I was intrigued to revisit this movie, which I hadn't seen since it unfolded to general stupefaction on the screen of my local neighborhood theater in 1969, because it was recently made available on DVD for the first time in its rare, expanded television version. In this version, Robert Dix's character -- the son of Count (HORRORS OF SPIDER ISLAND's Alex D'Arcy) and Countess Dracula (Paula Raymond, whose real oral fixation appears to be cigarettes), posing as retired couple Mr. & Mrs. Charles Townsend -- is not only a sadistic killer, but a werewolf as well, thanks to the expedient deployment of a Don Post Studios whole-head mask. That doesn't make it better; during these 16mm inserts, the cinematography turns grainy and blown-out and looks nothing like the rest of the film, which was early Hollywood work by Laszlo Kovacs.

In all fairness, Robert Dix -- the son of actor Richard Dix -- is really pretty good, relishing his sadistic nonsense and throwing himself into some very physical situations during an extended prison break sequence that has him running through rivers and crawling through tunnels. But the rest is the old story of a couple inheriting the wrong castle, and sheer agony, but it's a delicious sort of agony if you're in the right mood or have the right crowd. Where else can you find John Carradine, playing a tuxedoed majordomo, suddenly accusing people halfway through his performance of being "like those fools who tried to hang me"?

Viewed on Scorpion Entertainment DVD.

129. HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON (IL ROSSO SEGNO DELLA FOLLIA, 1969)

Mario Bava's most personal horror movie, in some ways, brought about by the need to quickly augment an existing script by Santiago Moncada to accommodate actress Laura Betti, who expressed an interest in working with the Maestro after winning the Volpi Cup for Best Actress for her performance in Pier Paolo Pasolini's TEOREMA (1968).

Canadian actor Stephen Forsyth plays John Harrington, the handsome head of a fashion house specializing in bridal gowns, who is secretly working through a couple of problems -- a) his unhappy marriage to the shrewish, sexually frustrated, and supernaturally preoccupied Mildred (Betti), and b) his desire to finally understand the circumstances behind his mother's death on the evening of her second marriage, a trauma he can only revisit by wielding a cleaver against women who are likewise wearing wedding gowns. What Moncada almost certainly wrote in a more serious vein became a wicked black comedy as rewritten by Bava and Betti, akin to Chaplin's MONSIEUR VERDOUX (which it visually quotes) and Buñuel's THE CRIMINAL LIFE OF ARCHIBALDO DE LA CRUZ. There is also the obvious influence of Hitchcock's PSYCHO (again, visually quoted) and subsequent Robert Bloch projects like THE COUCH, which also had a protagonist "working through" his own homicidal delusions to a point of truth about himself. Time has shown the film, initially misunderstood and considered one of Bava's lesser works, to be startlingly prescient, pointing the way for Mary Harron's film of Bret Easton Ellis' AMERICAN PSYCHO in particular.

Some prominently billed actors, like Alan Collins (Luciano Pigozzi, who had also been featured in Bava's earlier fashion house giallo BLOOD AND BLACK LACE) and Antonia Mas, are barely onscreen, their named-to-no-purpose characters evidently casualties of the rewrite.

For a fuller account, see my chapter on the film in my book MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK (Video Watchdog, 2007), or await my audio commentary in Redemption's forthcoming Blu-ray and DVD release.


Viewed on Image Entertainment DVD, for which I also provided liner notes.

128. GONE TO EARTH (1950)

For some reason, this offering from The Archers (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger) is not so well known or venerated as their other productions from this same period, and that reason is likely to do with the fact that co-producer David O. Selznick felt that Powell & Pressburger didn't deliver the script as written and agreed upon, and so exercised his right to post-produce a version of his own for the US release. That version, titled THE WILD HEART, was the more widely-seen cut until the film all but disappeared from circulation about 25 years ago. It's an unfortunate history for this film, a torrid story based on a Mary Webb novel, about Hazel (Jennifer Jones), a gypsy girl living with her widowed father, a harpist in the Scottish highlands, and a pet fox named Foxy, who is romantically pursued by a wealthy heathen landowner named Jack Reddin (BLACK NARCISSUS' David Farrar) despite her protective marriage to a Baptist minister, Edward Marston, whose respect for Hazel has extended to not insisting on his husbandly rights. As if sniffing out her unmet sexual needs on the wind, the way his hounds pursue foxes, Reddin tracks her down, claims his right to her, and rides off with her, emasculating Edward's reputation in their wake.

The film has aspects, as well as a brooding atmosphere, that relate it marginally to the horror genre, and there are things about it that would make it a worthwhile co-feature to Roger Corman's TOMB OF LIGEIA -- not least of all the fox-hunting aspect, its leaning on ravishing location imagery, and the characters' ties to arcane forms of superstition and religious worship. In this film, Hazel keeps a handwritten book passed down to her by her late mother, full of "castings" (spells) that empower her to chart her own destiny, a power she later has cause to regret. As with all Powell and Pressburger films, the performances and technical support are exemplary, though the Archers' usual cameraman, the great Jack Cardiff, was here replaced (in the first of three assignments) by a wondrously inspired Christopher Challis -- who died earlier this year, on May 31 -- on only his third feature assignment; he followed his work here with THE ELUSIVE PIMPERNEL (1950) and the extraordinary THE TALES OF HOFFMANN (1951). The romantic tragedy builds to a broadly telegraphed finale involving someone's unfortunate run-in with a deep gaping hole in the ground, encircled by boards and straw, which Powell's pagan eye cannot help but use to resonate with what James Joyce called "the grey sunken cunt of the world." A must-see.

Viewed via Sky Home Video Entertainment DVD.

 

127. THE THING (2011)

The feature directorial debut of Matthijs van Heijningen Jr., the son of an accomplished Dutch actor/producer, this is a prequel to John Carpenter's THE THING of 1982 -- itself a remake of Christian Nyby's Howard Hawks production of 1951, though more sedulously based on the original source story, John W. Campbell's "Who Goes There?", than its predecessor. It is also a remake, since what happens during this script by Eric Heisserer (FINAL DESTINATION 5, the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET remake) at the Arctic base of the Norwegians is pretty much what happened to Kurt Russell and crew once the adaptive, imitative alien presence got loose on their American Arctic base.

The main differences here are that the protagonist is female (DEATH PROOF's Mary Elizabeth Winstead) -- though there's so little sexual tension they might as well all be men -- and that the eye-popping physical special effects engineered for Carpenter's film by Rob Bottin are replaced here with much faster, more exaggerated CGI demonstrations (by... oh, various companies), which were either used to augment, overlay or replace various live, onset work supervised by Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr., all of which is impossible to judge given its final representation onscreen. The result is competent, I suppose, but so imitative (there's some unflattering subtext to be explored here) that it doesn't stimulate much interest and, in its desire to keep things moving, it doesn't court the exhilarating contrast of contemplative lull and sudden action as was so carefully cultivated by Carpenter. One of the criticisms frequently leveled at Carpenter's version upon its release -- that the male characters were ill-defined and easily confused with one another -- is much truer of this one.

All in all, there was no reason for this to have been made.

Viewed on Encore Suspense.