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|Friday, November 21st, 2014|
|I haven't got the words down yet, but I know what I want them to do.
Eight years after introducing the world to Anouk Aimée's Lola in the 1961 film that is named after her (and was his feature debut to boot), writer/director Jacques Demy brought her back in 1969's Model Shop
, which was also his first American film. Recently divorced and separated from her now-teenage son, who was sent home to Paris ahead of her, Lola works as a model at a studio where the customers (all male) pay for the privilege of photographing them. (The going rate is $12 for 15 minutes, which is exorbitant enough -- especially in 1969 dollars -- that it's easy to imagine more going on than just photography.) We don't know this about her until a half hour into the picture, though, because she's not even the main character.
That would be disillusioned 26-year-old unemployed architect George Matthews (Gary Lockwood, late of 2001
), who spends the early reels trying to scrape together the $100 he needs so his car won't get repossessed. It's while he's making his rounds that he first crosses paths with Lola and starts following her -- and not terribly inconspicuously, I might add. Eventually, she leads him to the studio where he buys 15 minutes of her time and then returns later that evening after getting into a fight with his live-in girlfriend Gloria (Alexandra Hay) about the resulting photos. In between, George also learns from his parents that he's received his draft notice, after which he develops something of a fatalistic attitude toward everything, which may be why he's so bold as to ask Lola out for a drink, at which point Demy has her fill us in on what she's been up at since we last saw her. Between his imminent induction into the army and her desire to return to France as soon as she possibly can, they're painfully aware that any connection they make is going to be temporary at best, but that's how things generally are in Demy's universe.
Apart from Aimée, Lockwood, and Hay, pretty much everyone else in the film -- including Severn Darden as a photo developer and an uncredited Fred Willard as a gas station attendant -- gets one scene and they're done, meaning few of them stick around long enough to make an impression. At least Demy had Carole Eastman (writer of The Shooting
and Five Easy Pieces
) around to help him with the English dialogue so it would sound more natural. Even so, there are multiple instances of people calling other people "beautiful" and other unmistakable signs of the times (like the scene where Gloria is so eager to go out to a Czech film, it doesn't matter which one it is). That makes it as much of a museum piece as all the draft talk, but Demy does his level best to make sure it's pretty to look at.
|Thursday, November 20th, 2014|
|Anything is possible with Dr. Mabuse.
In my haste to get to the remake of The Testament of Dr. Mabuse
-- the second film in the '60s revival featuring Gert Fröbe as Inspector Lohmann -- I actually skipped over an entire film (1962's The Invisible Dr. Mabuse
), but all one really needs to know is that it ends with Mabuse (Wolfgang Preiss) locked up in an insane asylum. That is where we find him at that start of this film, scribbling down the ingenious plans that his gang uses to steal gold shipments, rob diamond exchanges, and so forth. For all intents and purposes, though, they operate under the direction of the wry, cigar-smoking Mortimer (Charles Regnier), who carries out the orders given to him by a mystery man seated behind a screen in their secret headquarters, which is located in a vault below a mausoleum. (A fitting meeting place for a gang fulfilling the mission of a criminal mastermind once believed to be dead.)
It doesn't take long for Lohmann to make the connection between their precision-timed heists and Mabuse, but without any evidence he has a hard time convincing asylum head Prof. Pohland (Walter Rilla) that the doctor is responsible, and Lohmann's assistant Krüger (Harald Juhnke) is of little help since his head is filled the plots of all the murder mysteries he has read. Meanwhile, Mortimer and his sinister chauffeur Flocke (Leon Askin) arrange for up-and-coming boxer Johnny Briggs (Helmut Schmid) to lose a big fight so he can be brought into the fold, a prospect that initially pleases his girlfriend Nelly (second-billed Senta Berger), but she's left wondering why his company doesn't keep regular office hours. This, of course, is because his job involves going out at night and donning a see-through nylon stocking to be the muscle for the gang's counterfeiting operation. It's only when Mortimer orders him to shoot a suspected informer that Johnny has second thoughts about his new profession.
For director Werner Klingler, who was just coming off a Bryan Edgar Wallace adaptation (1962's The Secret of the Black Trunk
) and a Nazisploitation drama (1961's Lebensborn
, released in the U.S. as Ordered to Love
), remaking Testament
proved to be something of a challenge because it had a lot to live up to. The scenes that mirror Lang's original most closely can't help but pale in comparison since he wasn't given the same kinds of resources, meaning Mabuse's grand schemes don't have the same kind of luster this time around. Where it deviates is another story, though, as the film really gets juiced up when, say, Johnny and Nelly are trapped in a hall of mirrors which he tries to shoot his way out of or when Lohmann is placed at the mercy of Mabuse's successor, who straps him into a chair and administers a series of electric shocks. That's an indignity Otto Wernicke's inspector never had to suffer.
|Wednesday, November 19th, 2014|
|Whoever looks for me will find death.
Since Fritz Lang was courteous enough to revive one of his most famous characters with 1960's The 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse
, it's only natural that others would keep the ball rolling for the next few years, especially with the concurrent krimi cycle in full swing. The first direct sequel, appropriately enough, was 1961's The Return of Dr. Mabuse
, directed by Harald Reinl, late of The Fellowship of the Frog
and The Terrible People
. Co-written by Marc Behm (who later collaborated on the story for Charade
and co-wrote the Beatles' Help!
) and Ladislas Fodor (who worked on all of the subsequent Mabuse films as well as The Strangler of Blackmoor Castle
and The Phantom of Soho
), The Return of Dr. Mabuse
opens with the requisite murder (in this case of a government agent who gets pushed off a moving train by a man with a wooden leg) which puts the kibosh on Inspector Lohmann's planned fishing trip.
Previously played by Otto Wernicke (in 1933's The Testament of Dr. Mabuse
) and now embodied by Gert Fröbe (who played a different police detective in The 1000 Eyes
), Lohmann doggedly follows the baffling leads wherever they take him, even if it is to a criminal mastermind (again played by Wolfgang Preiss, returning from The 1000 Eyes
) who's supposed to be dead. And speaking of death, there are some particularly nasty ones in this film, including a woman getting burned to a crisp by a truck-mounted flamethrower, a man getting driven into a wall by a truck, a man getting blown up in his car, and one (who died by throwing himself out a window) whose corpse is dissolved in acid, leaving nothing but the skeleton behind. One thing that can definitely be said about Dr. Mabuse's criminal organization (which is attempting to align itself with a Chicago-based syndicate and seeks to impress them by using zombified prison inmates under the influence of a synthetic narcotic to blow up an atomic power plant): it's usually very thorough.
In addition to Inspector Lohmann's, there are parallel investigations being carried out by FBI man Joe Como (Lex Barker), who may actually be syndicate intermediary Nick Scappio (or maybe it's the other way around), and intrepid lady reporter (is there any other kind?) Maria Sabrehm (Daliah Lavi), whose chemist father (Rudolf Forster) was arrested years before on trumped-up espionage charges and has been in prison ever since. There's also a great deal of intrigue surrounding prison warden Wolf (Fausto Tozzi), whose office is lined with plaster casts of "the leading criminals of the century," and his untrustworthy underling Böhmler (krimi fixture Werner Peters), whose cell block has something of an open-door policy. Then there's the benign-seeming Pastor Briefenstein (Rudolf Fernau), who tells Lohmann, "Every soul is immortal, Inspector, and the name of Mabuse is just a personification of criminality," and whose church is the site of the film's first death trap. (The other one is a replay of the two-lovers-locked-in-a-room-that-gets-fl
ooded-with-water scenario that is one of Dr. Mabuse's standards, apparently.)
Of special interest to me is the fact that when he is shown (first on a television monitor, later in closer quarters), Dr. Mabuse is a blank whose face is hidden by deep shadows or otherwise obscured. And when he's finally confronted by Lohmann, not only is the lower half of his face covered up like he's some sort of a bandit, but it's further revealed that he's wearing a rubber mask and has been impersonating another character all along. More than anything, that reinforces the notion that Dr. Mabuse could be virtually anyone, which Behm and Fodor underline by having Lohmann openly wonder whether Mabuse is still out there somewhere, planning his next caper. Considering there were four more entries in the series to come, I'd say the answer to that question is a resounding yes.
|Tuesday, November 18th, 2014|
|It's ridiculous not to have a man along on a dangerous voyage.
The first phase of Roger Corman's directing career is definitive proof that he was up for literally anything. Westerns? Sure. Science fiction? Absolutely. Crime? As long as it pays. Past-life regression? Hey, everybody's doing it. Rock and roll? Now you're speaking my language. But Vikings? Specifically, Viking women? While it may sound risible on paper (and, indeed, was one of the half-dozen Corman films riffed on Mystery Science Theater 3000
), 1957's The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent
(typically shortened to Viking Women and the Sea Serpent
) is actually one of Corman's more entertaining films from this period.
Scripted by Lawrence Louis Goldman (a veteran TV writer who also penned War of the Satellites
for Corman the following year), Viking Women
is about a crew of Norsewomen led by the commanding Desir (Abby Dalton) that sets sail to find their menfolk, who left some time earlier in search of food and have been missing ever since. In spite of Goldman's best efforts, the women are largely interchangeable with the exception of the raven-haired Enger (frequent Corman MVP Susan Cabot), the "dark priestess" with designs on Desir's man Vedric (Brad Jackson), who has been captured along with the rest of his men by Grimault warrior king Great Stark (Richard Devon). Also on board is the impetuous Ottar (a bottle-blond Jonathan Haze), who stows away and does a great deal of leaping about during the infrequent fight scenes in an attempt to impress the imposing Thyra (Betsy Jones-Moreland, best known for playing the title character in Corman's Last Woman on Earth
). The one performance I couldn't get over, though, was Jay Sayer's turn as Stark's son Senya, a prince who displays all the hallmarks of being a closet queen. I have to wonder how blazingly obvious that was to audiences in 1957.
|Nothing can be learned in this place. There is nothing here to teach you.
When does the statute of limitations run out on films with twist endings? Is 56 years long enough? Well, it had better be because after watching Roger Corman's Teenage Caveman
, the thing I'm fixated on is the Twilight Zone
-like reveal that these aren't genuine cavemen we're following, but rather people who were bombed back into the Stone Age by nuclear war. To heighten the sense that it's all an elaborate post-nuclear parable, screenwriter R. Wright Campbell doesn't give any of the characters names. Instead, we meet the Son (Robert Vaughn) of the Symbol Maker (Leslie Bradley) who is on the verge of coming to manhood and spends far too much of his time questioning The Law and wondering what is Beyond the River and the Burning Plains. Most of all, he wants to know why everyone is so fearful of The God That Gives Death With Its Touch, which turns out to be a scientist in a blackened radiation suit that makes him look monstrous. (Also, the fact that he's radioactive is the reason why he has such a bad reputation.)
Apart from Symbol-Making contingent, the only other members of the clan that get enough screen time to distinguish themselves are the Black-Bearded One (Frank DeKova), who encourages Vaughn's rebellious streak in order to usurp his father's position, and the Blond Maiden (Darah Marshall), who talks Vaughn into make a Sleeping Place for them and frets about his safety when he announces his intention to go Beyond the River and kill The God That Gives Death With Its Touch once and for all. Corman regular Jonathan Haze also appears as the resident Curly-Haired Boy, who goes along with Vaughn on one of his earlier forays Beyond the River, an ill-fated expedition that one of their number doesn't come back from, after which Vaughn gets the silent treatment. All this does, though, is give him time to practice his music, which he invents along with the bow and arrow, although I should say he re-invents them since, as the closing explanatory voice over spells out, this has all happened before, and if we're not careful, it will all happen again.
|Monday, November 17th, 2014|
|Upon my soul, this is more than flesh and blood should stand.
I guess with a name like Tod Slaughter, he just had to play mad killers. (He even came by his gruesome surname honestly, although he was born Norman Carter Slaughter.) Two years after essaying the role of The Snake in The Hooded Terror
-- and four years after playing Sweeney Todd in the 1936 version of The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
-- Slaughter teamed up with director George King for the sixth and final time to make 1940's Crimes at the Dark House
. In it, he plays an unnamed madman who murders a total stranger in Australia in 1850 (his method: driving a stake into the man's skull) and takes his place when he learns the man stands to inherit his deceased father's London estate. This is the cheerful-sounding Blackwater Park, but it turns out Sir Percival Glyde has mountains of debt coming to him and not the windfall his imposter was expecting.
Upon his arrival at Blackwater Park, the False Sir Percival (hereafter, just Sir Percival) finds it staffed with servants who haven't worked there long enough to know he's totally duping them. (As it turns out, the Real Sir Percival has spent a couple decades amassing a fortune in Australia's gold fields.) Even busybody housekeeper Mrs. Bullen (Margaret Yarde) can't see through his charade, although she is dismayed by the way he chases after chambermaid Jessica (Rita Grant), who shamelessly plays up to him. Meanwhile, Sir Percival finds out he's betrothed to Laura Fairlie (Sylvia Marriott), who's inherited a sizable sum of money from her
father, making her a most attractive catch (especially since he's expected to pay off his father's creditors). Meanwhile, Sir Percival is being squeezed by the shady Dr. Fosco (Hay Petrie) on behalf of a lady (Elsie Wagstaff) who claims to have had a child by the Actual Sir Percival before he left for Australia. The apparent product of their union is Anne Catherick (Sylvia Marriott in a dual role), who escapes from Fosco's asylum and haunts Blackwater Park as "The Woman in White," also the title of the film's Wilkie Collins source novel (which is surprising in light of how overtly theatrical the proceedings are, although that may just be due to how broadly Slaughter plays his mustache-twirling villain).
Out of all the supporting characters, the least tolerable is Laura's hypochondriac uncle (David Horne) and the blandest is her drawing master, Mr. Hartwright (Geoffrey Wardwell, who plays the bland hero very blandly). That just leaves her sister Marian (Hilary Eaves), who insists on moving in with the married couple when the wedding goes forward (after Sir Percival takes the precaution of strangling Jessica in the old boathouse by the lake when she reveals to him that she's pregnant) and fails to prevent Sir Percival from drunkenly forcing himself on Laura. (Suffice it to say, there are a few things in Crimes at the Dark House
that wouldn't have gotten past the Production Code had it been made in Hollywood.) With so many people out to expose him, though, it's really only a matter of time before his scheme goes up in flames.
|Sunday, November 16th, 2014|
|Your size doesn't have to drag you down, it can build you up.
Overnight, TCM Underground aired 1950's It's a Small World
, one of the many programmers William Castle directed before he struck out on his own with Macabre
in 1958. Also written by Castle (with Otto Schreiber), It's a Small World
tells the compact story of a midget named Harry (Paul Dale) who has a dickens of a time figuring out where he fits in. Beginning when he's 12, having stopped growing at half that age, the film finds him ostracized by his peers, spurring his farmer father (sensitively played by Will Geer) to take him out of school and keep him home. ("It's best that nobody sees you, son," his father sadly tells him.) He's even browbeaten by his own shadow, which is probably worse than the licks he receives from the bigger boys.
Resented by his younger sister, who soon towers over him, and abandoned by the nice girl who befriended him and used to read to him (in one scene, her choice of reading material is Gulliver's Travels
, which strikes me as a mite insensitive), Harry strikes out on his own at the age of 21, writing to a crass carnival owner who only seeks to exploit him. Ditching the carny, Harry hitches a lift to Los Angeles where he hooks up with a shoe-shining veteran named Sam (Todd Karns) who shows him how to make an honest living, but he's lured into a pickpocket ring by his voluptuous neighbor Buttons (Lorraine Miller), who is what you would call a two-timing floozy. Her accomplices -- the rotund Rose (Nina Koshetz) and conniving Charlie (Steve Brodie) -- show him the tricks of the trade and soon enough he's rolling in dough, but after Buttons breaks his heart he dimes them out of the police, which is why the court shows leniency and sends him to Miami to the winter quarters of the Cole Brothers Circus.
Understandably, Harry is a little wary about this state of affairs, but he quickly comes around when he's introduced to the diminutive Dolly (Anne Sholter), the circus's pony trainer and an ideal match for him. She even inspires him to write and sing the title song (not the one you're thinking of), the first indication that he does have a talent that he could share with the world. He just needed to find a place where he was comfortable in his own skin.
|Saturday, November 15th, 2014|
|You're a lot of bunglers, all of you. And it's always I who have to get you out of your troubles.
Quick, name a famous London private detective who resides on Baker Street, has an opinionated housekeeper and an eager assistant, and tackles cases that are beyond the ability of Scotland Yard to solve. Okay, now name another one. Can't do it, can you? This is why when 1938's Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror
was repackaged for television, its title lost the Sexton Blake and
. This is just as well since as far as I'm concerned the focus should
be on The Hooded Terror
, a.k.a. The Snake, the "master brain" behind the Black Quorum, described by one character as "the greatest crime organization of the century." They're certainly the crime organization with the best sartorial sense since they all wear black robes with snakes on the front and removable hoods to their secret meetings. (The hoods are a formality since they all know each other, but I appreciate the gesture.)
The film's central mystery -- the identity of The Snake -- is easy to guess the moment the eccentrically bearded Tod Slaughter makes his first non-hooded appearance at an auction of rare stamps as reclusive multimillionaire stamp collector Michael Larron. (The perfect cover!) In fact, the stamp auction is where we meet most of our principals since Sexton Blake (being played by George Curzon for the third and final time) is an avid collector himself and recognizes Madamoiselle Julie (Greta Gynt), a French secret agent on the arm of shady gent Max Fleming (Charles Oliver), who of course turns out to be a member of the Black Quorum. Their first meeting is called to order about 30 minutes into the film and is almost worth waiting through the interminable comic-relief scenes with Sexton's assistant Tinker (Tony Sympson) and housekeeper Mrs. Bardell (Marie Wright). In addition to getting status updates from his hooded partners in crime, Larron is also eager to show off their secret gambling den's newfangled video-surveillance system, which prefigures Fritz Lang's The 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse
by a couple decades. (In fact, there are quite a few things in The Hooded Terror
that are reminiscent of Lang's Mabuse films, including Larron's penchant for disguises and the Death Chamber he has at his disposal. Suffice it to say, though, producer/director George King is no Fritz Lang.)
After The Hooded Terror
, I doubt I'll be going back for Curzon's first two at-bats, 1935's Sexton Blake and the Bearded Doctor
(not played by Tod Slaughter) and Sexton Blake and the Mademoiselle
(not Mademoiselle Julie, though). I do find it interesting, though, that David Farrar, who plays the minor role of Granite Grant (he's in and out in a matter of minutes, which is a terrible waste of a character with a name like that), picked up where Curzon left off in a pair of Sexton Blake mysteries made at the end of the war. I won't be seeking those out, either.
|Show me your rudiments.
Damien Chazelle's Whiplash
asks two related questions: How far would you be willing to push somebody to be the best at what they're doing? And how far would you be willing to be pushed by such a person? For Terence Fletcher, the tyrannical jazz music instructor played with maximum intensity by J.K. Simmons, there's no such thing as too much as long as his motives are pure. And the same goes for Andrew, the first-year conservatory student hungrily played by Miles Teller that he taps to be the new alternate drummer for his studio band, the school's top jazz ensemble. (Naturally, the piece Fletcher uses to whip his charges into shape is Hank Levy's "Whiplash.") So strong is Andrew's passion for the drums and his desire to be one of the greats (like his idol, Buddy Rich) that he's willing to endure Fletcher's abuse if that's what it takes to get moved into the core ensemble.
Just as you can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, you apparently can't devote your life to jazz without hurting a few people's feelings. While this is undeniable true of Fletcher and his students, who can barely muster up the courage to make eye contact with him, it's also the case with Andrew, who makes no effort to hide his contempt for his extended family (his father, played by Paul Reiser, mostly gets a pass) and callously preemptively breaks up with his girlfriend (Melissa Benoist) so she won't be a distraction to him. For every step forward he takes, though, Fletcher is ready to knock him right back, which can be nerve-wracking since he's never allowed to forget that there's somebody sitting two feet away ready to take his place at a moment's notice. Then again, if you can't stand the beat, stay out of the bloody drum kit.
|Friday, November 14th, 2014|
|Could you really spend your life with me?
Between The Grand Budapest Hotel
and Venus in Fur
(not to mention narrating Bird People
), French actor Mathieu Amalric has already had a profile-raising year as far as I'm concerned. Now I can add to the roll call The Blue Room
, based on a novel by Georges Simenon which he co-adapted and directed. A taut, economical tale of obsessive love and the desperate acts it can drive people to, The Blue Room
jumps back and forth between the passionate affair being carried out by married businessman Julien (Amalric) and wealthy pharmacist's wife Esther (Stéphanie Cléau, who co-wrote the screenplay with him) and various parties grilling Julien about it after the fact. Since they're policemen, a psychologist, and a magistrate, it soon becomes apparent that Julien is implicated in some sort of crime, the severity of which is hinted at when he makes reference to the press calling him "a monster." But what kind of monstrous act does he stand accused of, and where does his wife Delphine (Léa Drucker) and Esther's husband fit in?
Brief enough that it doesn't have time to get bogged down in plot mechanics -- the film barely tops an hour and a quarter -- The Blue Room
methodically accumulates details about Julien and Esther's not-so-secret trysts and his graceless attempts to extricate himself from the situation. As the case is built against him -- largely circumstantial, but the circumstances are plenty damning -- it slowly becomes clear how little control he has over his destiny. Behind the camera, though, Amalric is in full command, dealing with what could have been a moribund courtroom sequence by fragmenting it and leaving us with impressions of the hopelessness of Julien's defense. After a while, it's hard to blame him for growing weary with fighting back.
|Thursday, November 13th, 2014|
|Maintaining a non-judgmental attitude is harder than you think.
Ten years ago, when Bill Condon's Kinsey
was first released, it reminded people of an era (specifically, the '40s and '50s) far removed from the one in which they were living. Until Alfred Kinsey opened up a dialogue about it -- first in a marriage course he lobbied to teach at Indiana University and later in the books he published as a result of the sex research he spearheaded -- the subject of sex was one that simply wasn't discussed, at least not in public. Long before there was such a thing as Rule 37, the thousands upon thousands of case studies that he and his colleagues collected proved that if you could think of it, there was somebody out there who had done it and was willing to talk about it. All you had to do was listen. (Unless, of course, you sided with his detractors who claimed "Nobody wants to know about these things.")
As written by Condon and embodied by Liam Neeson (backed up by a first-rate cast that includes Laura Linney, Peter Sarsgaard, Timothy Hutton, Chris O'Donnell, John Lithgow, Veronica Cartwright, Oliver Platt, Tim Curry, Dylan Baker, and Lynn Redgrave), Kinsey was a driven man who brought society kicking and screaming into the modern age with his surveys of the sexual behavior of males and females (one of which upset the status quo much more than the other). One of the great things about living in Bloomington and spending time on the IU campus is the fact that the Kinsey Institute is right here and is still doing invaluable research into what makes human beings of all stripes tick. If all Kinsey
did was raise awareness of where and how it all began, that would be enough. That it does so much more is why it's worth revisiting today and will continue to be for a long time to come.
|Wednesday, November 12th, 2014|
|I'll just have to shoot at anything green, or anybody.
In 1961, four films (and one-and-a-half years) into its cycle of Edgar Wallace adaptations, Rialto took aim at The Green Archer
, which had previously been adapted in 1925 as a 10-part silent serial and then again in 1940 as a 15-parter. Directed by Jürgen Roland, who made his feature debut with 1960's The Red Circle
and then bowed out after this entry, The Green Archer
stars Gert Fröbe not as the title character -- the supposed ghost of a 14th-century Robin Hood type with a fondness for green garb -- but as Abel Bellamy, the owner of the castle haunted by him. A Chicago-style gang boss, Bellamy is out of town for the film's opening sequence (which foregrounds its jokey tone by having Eddi Arent break the fourth wall not once, but twice) in which his secretary Savini (Harry Wüstenhagen) conducts an unauthorized tour of the castle that ends with one of the sightseers getting an arrow in the back. And with the obligatory murder out of the way (as noted by Arent's pesky TV news reporter), we're off and running.
In short order we're introduced to spunky female lead Karin Dor (returning from The Terrible People
) as Valerie Howett, who moves into the estate next door with her adoptive father (Hans Epskamp) and is caught up in the search for her real mother (Hela Gruel), who turns out to be locked away in Bellamy's secret dungeon for reasons he keeps to himself until the very end. Thanks to the first murder and a second (of somebody who had some dirt on Bellamy) where Arent is again at the scene, Scotland Yard gets involved in the guises of Inspector Featherstone (top-billed Klausjürgen Wussow, returning from The Red Circle
, in which I hope he made a deeper impression) and Sgt. Higgins (Wolfgang Völz), with the latter being impersonated by one of Bellamy's goons when he wants to have the snooping Valerie abducted. By far, the most vile of them is the bald, sunglasses-sporting Coldharbour Smith (Stanislav Ledinek), who appears to have modeled himself after Peter Lorre in Mad Love
. His motives are blindingly transparent, especially when he gets drunk and forces himself on Valerie, thus earning him the Green Archer's third arrow in the back. For his part, the Green Arrow cosplay enthusiast's motivations are less easy to parse, largely because it turns out there's more than one of him and they're not working toward the same end.
Even with multiple Green Archers running around, the glimpses we get of him are far too fleeting -- we see his shadow more than we see him directly -- and for the most part we're expected to make do with close-ups of his leather-gloved hands or nighttime shots of him peeking through cracked doorways and concealed in the underbrush. The emphasis on the comedy is also a little too much at times, particularly during the criminals' climactic shootout with the police, which gives Arent his most sustained opportunity to get in the way and be an incomparable nuisance. (The one time one of his bits lands is when he has a close encounter with the Green Archer -- or a
Green Archer, at least.) As for the inevitable unmasking scene, this is even more arbitrary than usual, but at least in the last 15 minutes or so we get to see the various Green Archers for longer than a half-second at a time. It's just too bad this wasn't shot in color. As it stands, we have to take the film's word for it that the tights match the cape.
|Tuesday, November 11th, 2014|
|We're not meant to save the world. We're meant to leave it.
It's strange that Christopher Nolan's Interstellar
has only been out for a week, but it already feels like everything that could possibly be said about it has been said already. At least, that's how it feels to me. An event movie by design (then again, the last Nolan film that wasn't was arguably The Prestige
), it's the kind of film that isn't watched so much as experienced, especially if one sees it in IMAX. Unfortunately, my experience with it was less than stellar since I paid $16 to see it in IMAX on 70mm film and there were lots of scenes that were distractingly out of focus, plus a fair bit of dialogue that was unintelligible, which smacks of a bad sound mix. If I go back and see it while it's still in theaters, it will be projected digitally and probably cost about a third as much. Sorry, Chris, but that's how it's going to be.
As for the film itself, I feel like I would
have to see it again to be able to evaluate it properly. In lieu of a straightforward plot summary, then, I'll just go ahead and list some of the things that I liked about it. First up, Hans Zimmer's score. I've heard it compared (sometimes favorable, sometimes pointedly) to Philip Glass, and I can totally see that. I'll definitely be picking that up on CD. I also enjoyed the characterization and "performance" of TARS, who's voiced by Bill Irwin. I don't know how realistic such a blocky robot design is and frankly, I don't care. TARS is terrific. (And people who pick apart the science in a film like Interstellar
are really holding the wrong end of the stick.) And not to take away from the leads (Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain), but the most effective human performances come courtesy of supporting players John Lithgow, Michael Caine, David Gyasi, Ellen Burstyn, and especially Mackenzie Foy (as the 10-year-old version of Chastain's character).
To be fair, I have a few problems with the film that go beyond its presentation, but at the very moment you can't throw a rock on the Internet or social media without hitting somebody who's lodging their complaints about it. I'd rather just leave them to it.
|Monday, November 10th, 2014|
|Oh, my God. This war... This stupid killing!
One decade after Abel Gance's J'Accuse
came a response of sorts in the form of G.W. Pabst's Westfront 1918
, which showed what the Great War was like from the other side. Made in 1930, it was Pabst's first sound film and is one that plunges the viewer into the thick of battle and the lives of four infantrymen who want nothing more than to live to see the next one -- or the end of the war, if that's possible. The only one who's given a name is Karl (Gustav Diessl), who gets leave after a particularly harrowing offensive where their position is fired on by their own artillery. The situation is no better at home, though, as there are long lines for food and Karl catches his wife (Hanna Hoessrich) with another man. Not quite the homecoming he was expecting after being away for 18 months, I'm sure.
As for the other three, they're identified only by their birthplace, their occupation, or their rank. Thus, we get to know the barest essentials about the Bavarian (Fritz Kampers), the Student (Hans Moebus), and the Lieutenant (Claus Clausen), who's always on the lookout for volunteers for dangerous missions. The Student accepts the first one -- to get a message to headquarters so they'll stop being fired on -- largely so he can steal some time with his French girlfriend (Jackie Monnier). Then, following Karl's return from leave, he accepts one that involves going out into no man's land (along with the Bavarian and two others) to flank the French. The way Pabst films the battle scenes, though, it becomes increasingly difficult to tell which side is doing what to whom. There are also a few shots that he holds for quite a long time as explosions go off, showering dirt upon the soldiers, some of whom go down and never get back up again. He then goes a step further by taking us into a field hospital where the wounded are plentiful and the narcotics are in short supply. That's a side of warfare that hadn't been seen -- or heard -- much at the time.
|Sunday, November 9th, 2014|
|We have to finish this war. Be brave.
With Armistice Day right around the corner, and this year marking the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, the time seemed ripe to check out Abel Gance's epic 1919 silent, J'Accuse
, which TCM aired back in July. Filmed while the war was still raging (with the full cooperation of the French government, which didn't realize what kind of a film Gance was making) and released within six months of its end, J'Accuse
opens on the eve of war in the provincial town of Orneval, where sensitive poet Jean Diaz (Romuald Joubé), whose work is collected in a volume entitled "Les Pacifiques," moons over his lost love, Edith (Maryse Dauvray). She, in turn, is married to the boorish, abusive François Laurin (Séverin-Mars), whose jealousy knows no bounds, especially when war is declared and he receives his immediate mobilization orders while Jean gets to hang around for another month or so. Accordingly, he makes sure his father-in-law (Maxime Desjardins), a proud war veteran and member of the Legion of Honor, packs her off to live with his parents. This backfires, though, when word gets back to him that Edith has been brutally abducted and taken to Germany, whereupon Jean requests a transfer to active service and, after completing officer training, is put in charge of François's battalion. In an effort to earn his respect, Jean goes on a dangerous reconnaissance mission in François's place, leading them to bury the hatchet, but not for long because the film is only a third of the way in and there's still 110 minutes more of it to go after that.
Considering how intent he was on illustrating the futility of war, it's curious that Gance spends so much time on the Jean/Edith/François love triangle. Even when the film leaps forward four years and finds an ailing Jean being given leave so he can visit his gravely ill mother and recite her favorite poem one last time, this is mostly done so he can be home for Edith's return from Germany with a daughter, ironically named Angele (Angèle Guys) since she's the product of a gang rape at the hand of the enemy. Much more on-point are the scenes in the muddy trenches (including a rather memorable one where everybody is wearing gas masks) and the so-called "visionary" with his tall tales about "The Gaul" fighting alongside them. In the end, it's only natural that Jean is the one who's driven mad by the horrors of wars and conjures up an army of dead soldiers to scare the pants off the senior citizens, women, and children who stayed home in Orneval. This, by the way, was a device Gance thought so much of that he brought it back for an encore in J'Accuse
's 1938 sequel/remake of the same name, which was made on the cusp of another world war. Not that he, a mere film director, held any illusions about his ability to prevent it, but that must have felt too much like history repeating itself for his liking.
|Saturday, November 8th, 2014|
|The more you try to create a paradise, the more you will resent the prison.
It's never explicitly stated what year Space Station 76
takes place in, but it's definitely the future as it would have been envisioned in the mid-'70s. (I get the distinct impression Logan's Run
was a major touchstone for the film's production and costume designers.) In addition to providing a clue about its aesthetic choices, the "76" also indicates the humble refueling station's place in grand scheme of things. (When one couple announces they're transferring to Station 8, it's seen as a huge step up.) And it goes a long way toward explaining the outmoded "futuristic" technology and the fact that so many people on the station smoke. (There's even a push-in cigarette lighter on the main console on the bridge.)
Based on a play by Jennifer Elise Cox, Sam Pancake, Jack Plotnick, Kali Rocha, and Michael Stoyanov, and directed by Plotnick, there's also a way in which Space Station 76
harkens back to a different decade entirely. Putting aside its genre trappings, it has a great deal in common with the kinds of quirky dramedies in which the independent film scene was awash back in the '90s, only it's set on a second-string space station instead of in a quaint small town. The new eyes through which we see it belong to Liv Tyler's Jessica, the station's new lieutenant commander who has been sent to work under gruff Captain Glenn (Patrick Wilson). Bitter and resentful about his lack of promotion, and transparently closeted, Glenn is rather evasive when the subject turns to why Jessica's predecessor left, although it's possible to guess long before the film comes out and tells us.
Off the bridge, we're dropped into two interlaced dysfunctional families. In one, maintenance technician Ted (Matt Bomer) has a mechanical hand (which needs to be recharged periodically), a distant wife Misty (Marisa Coughlan), the ship's "food programmer," and a neglected daughter Sunshine (Kylie Rogers), who's the only child on the station and is very lonely as a result. And she's not the only one since Misty has thrown herself into an affair with Ted's supervisor Steve (Jerry O'Connell), whose social-climbing wife Donna (Kali Rocha) is more than ready to move them and their newborn baby up in the world, even if it means leaving his cryogenically frozen mother behind because she won't fit in their transport. And keeping with the theme of family members not connecting -- as well as providing a link to 2001: A Space Odyssey
-- when Jessica calls her father he's played by Keir Dullea and is more concerned with getting a handle on the video-phone technology than actually listening to her.
In spite of its attempts at injecting dramatic episodes into its fabric, Space Station 76
works best when it's most overtly comedic, as in the running gag about how the station's automated systems repeatedly foil Capt. Glenn's attempts to kill himself. And some of the best scenes involve therapist robot Dr. Bot (voiced by Michael Stoyanov), who frequently interrupts his patients in mid-sentence and seems to have a single fallback prescription for them. (Dr. Bot to one: "I'm going to up your dosage of -- Valium!
-- to: as much as you'd like.") It's clear Plotnick and his collaborators spent a lot of time building a world for their characters to live in. It's a shame they didn't build more conflict into it as well.
|Friday, November 7th, 2014|
|Even if it serves no strategic purpose, Paris must be flattened.
Outside of the films he made as part of the vanguard of the New German Cinema, the only other Volker Schlöndorff film I've seen is 1990's The Handmaid's Tale
. Now, thanks to the Ryder, I can add his latest, Diplomacy
, to the list. Much like Roman Polanski's recent Carnage
and Venus in Fur
is based on a play and doesn't do too much to hide its theatrical origins, which is appropriate since its action is mostly confined to a single hotel room where two men decide the fate of Paris, which is due to be razed on Hitler's orders so it can't be liberated by the Allies.
The opening of the film effectively lays out the stakes as General von Choltitz (Niels Arestrup), who's been in charge of the city for all of two weeks, is shown how all of the bridges in and out of Paris and most of its landmarks have been rigged with explosives. (This plan has clearly been in the works for some time.) Then, when he's been left alone, well-informed Swedish Consul Nordling (André Dussollier) sneaks in through a secret entrance (the existence of which is quite a surprise to the general) to convince him to spare the great city, the Führer be damned. All told, their debate takes up close to an hour of the film's lean 83-minute running time, which may seem a bit much considering we know the outcome (after all, Paris didn't
get leveled by the fleeing Nazis), but it's a pleasure to watch these two square off, knowing full well what rests in their hands.
Partnering with playwright Cyril Gely to adapt Gely's play, Schlöndorff opens it up just enough to get a sense of the inner workings of Choltitz's command center as it's in the process of being dismantled. They also convey how much Choltitz's duty weighs on him (he doesn't need Nordling to remind him how history will look upon him should he go ahead with the order to destroy the city) and how hard Nordling has to work to maintain his neutrality (not to mention preserve his life). The conclusion may be foregone, but under Schlöndorff's assured direction, the path the film takes to get there is still worth following.
|Thursday, November 6th, 2014|
|Wolves hunt by night, and once they get a taste of blood, they'll come back for more.
When approaching a film like Werewolf Rising
, the latest one that has crossed my path, it helps to know going in that it isn't going to make a lick of sense or add up to anything. Unfortunately, I went into it hoping it had been made by people who knew how to tell a coherent story and wouldn't deliberately waste 80 minutes of my time. At least I can take solace in the fact that I didn't buy it, I merely rented it On Demand. If I saw Werewolf Rising
on the shelf every time I looked at my collection of werewolf movies (which, to be fair, includes its share of stinkers), I would seriously rethink how I choose to spend my full moons from here on out.
Writer/director BC Furtney gets things off to a rousing start with a carjacking victim (Danielle Lozeau) who's about to get raped by an escaped convict who has "been upstate for a long time" (as if that's some kind of an excuse) when her assailant, Rhett (Bill Oberst, Jr.), is attacked by a red-tinted POV camera. Instead of sparing her, though, it takes her down when she tries to run while Rhett crawls away, having survived his mauling to rape another day. The scene then abruptly shifts to follow Emma (Melissa Carnell), a 20-something recovering alcoholic who's returning to her family's Arkansas home for the first time in 15 or 20 years depending on who you ask. Most of her backstory is dumped on us in a rambling voicemail message being left for her long-distance boyfriend, who should really know most of it already. And we shouldn't need to be told she's having nightmares when one of the first things she does on her arrival is curl up on the couch in front of the nice flatscreen TV (a sign somebody's
been using the place) and have one of those jarringly edited dreams (which incorporate Rhett for maximum skeeviness).
In quick succession, two men arrive on the scene: corpulent family friend Wayne (Brian Berry, whose halting line readings are a major distraction), who's been looking after the place, and his ne'er-do-well nephew Johnny Lee (Matt Copko), who engages in multiple weird, banter-heavy conversations with a constantly smiling Emma, who acts defensive after being warned about him by Wayne. Overriding her own common sense, she goes four-wheeling with Johnny Lee (who's always called that, by the way; never just "Johnny") and drops him off at the abandoned church where he's squatting. There he's attacked by a very hairy werewolf while Emma has Wayne over for a housewarming dinner and has to beat him off when he drunkenly comes on to her. That means absolutely none of the men in the film are upstanding in any way whatsoever, yet Emma still takes Johnny Lee in and patches him up when he refuses to be taken to the hospital. Sure enough, before long he's back on his feet and engaging in feral, Nicolas Cage-like behavior while Emma keeps senselessly running in and out of the house, with no clear goal other than to pad out the running time.
I can't fully explain how dumb this movie gets without revealing the ending, so skip down to the end of the review if you want to remain unspoiled. All right. While Emma is being freaked out by the creature growling and prowling around the house, Furtney throws in pointless cutaways to Wayne in a local bar getting soused and Johnny Lee walking into a laudromat stark naked and stealing some clothes. This sets up the long-awaited confrontation between uncle and nephew which ends with Wayne shooting Johnny Lee and then plugging Emma when she comes out to investigate the gunshot. Finally, Rhett shows up and gets shot as well, giving Wayne the perfect guy to pin both murders on, even if he has to strangle the life out of Emma to make it stick. Rhett turns the tables on Wayne by wolfing out, though, and chases Emma for a very long time until she runs into a woman in a red dress (Irena Murphy) standing by a bonfire who gets naked like she's in a '70s exploitation film and throws herself at the werewolf when it belatedly appears. Here's where it gets really stupid, though: There's no reason in the world why she would expect Rhett to be a werewolf.
She was looking forward to meeting the escaped convict she's been corresponding with, so why does she calmly stand there and let him pick her up and sink his fangs into her neck? Furthermore, when he turns his attention to Emma, does he really need to follow through on the sexual assault he promised in the opening scene? Somebody needs to tell Furtney that there's no such thing as Chekhov's Rape.
In conclusion, in my considered opinion, Werewolf Rising
should have stayed down.
|Wednesday, November 5th, 2014|
|With this gang, nowhere is safe.
After taking October off to revisit some classic Mario Bava giallo and horror films, I'm back in the krimi saddle with 1960's The Terrible People
, which was director Harald Reinl's follow-up to the previous year's The Fellowship of the Frog
. Released as part of the Edgar Wallace Collection, now on its third volume, the film is quite the convoluted affair, detailing an executed criminal's vendetta against those who condemned him, which finds the dead man reaching out from beyond the grave with his "gallows hand." He's even courteous enough to leave a note listing them in the order they are to be killed: the public prosecutor, the judge, the hangman, and so on down the line to Inspector Long (Joachim Fuchsberger), who's promoted to chief inspector upon the arrest of the notorious Sherman and holds off on resigning from Scotland Yard to go work for his father, at least until the fiend (or whoever's impersonating him) is caught.
Among the victims-to-be: Mr. Monkford (Karl-Georg Saebisch), whose bank was being held up at the time of Sherman's capture; Mr. Crayley (Dieter Eppler), a bystander who was in the wrong place at the wrong time; and Mrs. Revelstoke (Elisabeth Flickenschildt), who takes the threat to her life the least serious of all. She also employs Long's love interest Nora (Karin Dor) as her secretary, although it must be said that he has a few better-off rivals -- namely, Mr. Monkford, who drafts a new will making her his heir, and his lawyer Mr. Henry (Ulrich Beiger), who does himself no favors by throwing himself at her. Also thrown in the mix are Long's disapproving father (Fritz Rasp), who always wanted him to be a banker, his impatient boss Sir Archibald (Ernst Fritz Fürbringer), and the Cravels (Alf Marholm and Karin Kernke), whose hotel's reputation is shot when one of the murders takes place during Golf Week (although that's mostly on the victim, who told the killer right where to find him). And would it be a proper krimi without a comic-relief role for Eddi Arent? Yes, probably, but that doesn't prevent him from doing his schtick as a weak-stomached police photographer with a penchant for fainting at the sight of a dead body. It's a puzzle, then, why he doesn't pursue another line of work.
As for the film's jigsaw-like plot, it eventually comes together, although I may have to watch it again to see how all of the pieces fit together. It's a pity, then, that the print Retromedia got their hands on is so beat up. I don't think I missed anything important, but it's hard to ignore all the instances of missing frames. Hopefully The Inn on the River
-- the other movie on the disc -- is in better condition.
|Tuesday, November 4th, 2014|
|What are you taking today?
Before he teamed up with screenwriter Simon Barrett for 2010's A Horrible Way to Die
, Adam Wingard directed two other features that were produced a couple years apart but showed up on the festival circuit within a month of each other in 2007. The first to appear was Home Sick
and the second Pop Skull
, which is the one I was able to get from Netflix. In addition to directing, photographing, and editing the film, Wingard also co-wrote it with Home Sick
writer E.L. Katz and actor Lane Hughes (later to play one of the killers in You're Next
), who stars as morose pill-popper Daniel, who's hung up on his ex-girlfriend Natali (Maggie Henry) and is self-medicating in the most destructive way possible.
Still living in his parents' basement, having dropped out of school and in no hurry to return to it, Daniel spends most of his time chasing the next high -- that is, when he isn't getting roped into hanging out with his friend Jeff (Brandon Carroll) and Jeff's goth girlfriend Morgan (Hannah Hughes), who thinks nothing of coming on to him while Jeff is passed out drunk. (The fishing trip is probably their least likely outing.) No matter what he does, though, he can't put Natali out of his mind or forget she's dating local actor Matt Tepper (Jeff Dylan Graham). (In one scene, Daniel watches one of Matt's movies, derisively calling it "the worst vampire movie I've ever seen" and enjoying the sight of his hated rival getting a stake through the heart.)
Eventually, things take a turn for the eerie as Daniel becomes convinced he's seeing the ghosts of two brothers (played by Katz and L.C. Holt) who used to live in his house and the girl (Debbie Stefanov) they killed there. Then again, they may all just be figments of his imagination, side effects of the copious pharmaceuticals he's consumed. Whatever the case, his own actions are real -- and disturbing -- enough in their own right.