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|Friday, May 29th, 2015|
|We could be anywhere in the universe and at any time. Rather exciting, isn't it?
Since Hammer had snapped up Nigel Kneale's Quatermass
serials one decade earlier -- and were preparing their third big-screen adaptation, Quatermass and the Pit
-- rival production company Amicus jumped on the BBC's Doctor Who
, acquiring the rights to produce a pair of films based on the series. The first, scripted by producer Milton Subotsky, was 1965's Dr. Who and the Daleks
, which took its plot from the seven-part serial "The Dead Planet" by Terry Nation. If its most significant innovation was the introduction of the Doctor's most iconic foes, the belligerent, armor-clad Daleks, then the film's is that their protective suits come in an array of candy colors, which director Gordon Flemyng emphasizes by filming them almost exclusively on brightly lit sets. (No skulking around in the shadows for these genocidal genetic freaks.)
Speaking of the sets, their design the one aspect of the film I can point to that is unequivocally top-notch. The seemingly uninhabited city explored by the unaccountably human Dr. Who, his two granddaughters, and the older one's boyfriend when they wind up on an unknown planet both figuratively and literally dwarfs the actors, which is a feat considering one of them is Peter Cushing (who plays the title character like a dotty, absent-minded inventor). He's joined by his Dr. Terror's House of Horrors
co-star Roy Castle as Ian, the bumbling boyfriend of Barbara (Jennie Linden), whose main function in the plot is to be less useful than her younger sister Susan (Roberta Tovey). After all, if Susan and her grandfather hadn't conspired make sure they stayed long enough to look around, then none of what we see would have happened (although they might have succumbed to radiation sickness when they got home without knowing why, which is pretty dark when you think about it).
As for what happens in the film, it dramatizes the age-old conflict between a warrior race (in this case, the Daleks) and a group of pacifists (the elf-like Thal) that has to be convinced that it might be wise to fight back against the guys that want to wipe them off the planet. Before it can be introduced, though, Subotsky's script plays up the comedy, starting with a sly joke about how Susan is reading Physics for the Inquiring Mind
, Barbara's book of choice is The Science of Science
, and Dr. Who (who's literally called that, which is just wrong) is thumbing through a comic book. Also comical, although probably not intentionally so, is that the Daleks are so trigger-happy that it's insanely easy to trick them into shooting each other. Frankly, I'm amazed any of them survived to return for the sequel.
|Thursday, May 28th, 2015|
|Everything that's going on around here, it's gotta be for some reason.
Bowing on home video a year after its disastrous Cannes premiere -- and less than a month after the token theatrical release afforded it by U.S. distributor Warner Bros. -- Ryan Gosling's directorial debut Lost River
feels like it's been deliberately dumped, tossed aside like so much detritus. The recipient of scathing reviews (Variety
called it "a risible slab of Detroit gothic," and that's one of the kinder notices), Lost River
is the sort of film where one character will tell another, "The wolves, if they're not already at your door, they're gonna be there very fucking soon," and a minute later the soundtrack will feature the howling of a wolf. Whatever Gosling's strengths as a writer/director are, subtlety is surely not one of them.
In the 15 minutes leading up to that wolf howl, Gosling piles on the desperation for single mother Billy (his Drive
co-star Christina Hendricks), who's three months behind on her mortgage payments, and her son Bones (Iain De Caestecker), who's perpetually working on his car and spends his days stripping abandoned houses of their copper piping to trade for parts. His big problem is Bully (Doctor Who
's Matt Smith, wearing a glittery jacket), a local thug known for getting medieval on people's asses for encroaching on his turf, who steals a day's haul from him. Billy, meanwhile, goes to see unsympathetic bank manager Dave (Ben Mendelsohn, probably relieved to be playing someone with a normal name), who presents her with an unsavory job opportunity that could save her family from financial ruin, but at an exorbitant cost.
Also thrown into the mix are Saoirse Ronan as a girl nicknamed Rat (because of her pet rat) who lives nearby with her grandmother (played by a mute Barbara Steele), who obsessively watches home movies of her wedding day, and Eva Mendes as a woman named Cat (which may be short for Catherine, I don't know) who coordinates the talent at Dave's Big Bad Wolf Club, which puts on Grand Guignol-style performances. (The act we eventually see Billy do is inspired by Georges Franju's Eyes Without a Face
, which the audience eats up with a spoon.) It all looks very pretty thanks to the efforts of director of photography Benoît Debie (whose other work includes Gaspar Noe's Irreversible
, Enter the Void
, and his most recent provocation, Love
) and it comes equipped with haunting soundscapes by Johnny Jewel (who contributed two songs to the Drive
soundtrack), but eventually it becomes a lot of weirdness for its own sake. A room lit by a neon flamingo? Okay. A sunken dinosaur park? I guess. A secret sex room where the worker locks herself inside a plastic shell while her client is allowed to do anything outside it? Sure, why not? What business these all have being in the same movie is another story.
|Wednesday, May 27th, 2015|
|How long will that madman run free, killing other girls?
I realize I'm hardly the first person to note that Mexican wrestling pictures can get pretty loopy, but by far the loopiest one I've seen to date is 1963's Doctor of Doom
, the K. Gordon Murray-fied version of Las luchadoras contra el médico asesino
. (Murray was also responsible for the English-language dub of The Brainiac
, so that makes two in one week for me.) Directed by René Cardona, Doctor of Doom
follows the exploits of a mad doctor obsessed with brain transplants who had some success with the hirsute Gomar, his "half-man and half-beast" who was the recipient of a gorilla's brain and is somehow undergoing a physical transformation as a result, but his attempts to replicate the experiment with a human female have all failed. That just creates more work for his henchmen, who seem to think nothing of the fact that their boss and his assistant address them while wearing white hoods, which is just one of the many ways Cardona obscures their faces so the viewer won't know right off the bat that the mad doctor is the frail, British-accented Professor Wright (Roberto Cañedo), whose claim in his very first scene that he abhors violence is a dead giveaway.
When the sister of national champion wrestler Gloria Venus (Lorena Velázquez) becomes the doctor's latest victim, she teams up with "the American cyclone" Golden Rubi (Elizabeth Campbell) to bring the fiend to justice. After the doctor's henchmen attempt to abduct them in the night and are successfully repelled, Gloria's love interest, police detective Mike Anderson (Armando Silvestre, from the previous year's Santo contra los zombies
), urges them to allow themselves to be caught next time so he and his diminutive partner Tommy (Chucho Salinas, the source of much of the film's comic relief) can tail the hoods back to their home base. This results in the capture of most of the gang and the unmasking of the doctor's assistant, but there's so much more to come, starting with the recruitment of a new group of heavies (who don black hoods when they're sent out to capture Mike and Tommy), the anticlimactic reveal of Prof. Wright beneath the white hood (which does little to protect him from the acid Gloria throws in his face when she and Rubi come to their men's aid), and his creation of the masked "Vendetta" (who's pitted against Gloria in a match that the champion doesn't realize is to the death) by transplanting Gomar's gorilla brain into the body of a female wrestler. Poor Gomar. He rescues his master when his laboratory goes up in flames and that's
the thanks he gets?
|Tuesday, May 26th, 2015|
|Among these chaotic wastes two miles or less is often a weary day's sledging.
One decade before teaming up with F.W. Murnau to make Tabu: A Story of the South Seas
, Robert J. Flaherty went in the other direction to write, direct, photograph, and edit 1922's Nanook of the North
, widely considered to be the first documentary feature. Set in northern Canada on Hudson Bay over the course of a hard winter, the film is an ethnographic portrait of "the most cheerful people in all the world -- the fearless, lovable, happy-go-lucky Eskimo," specifically a hunter named Nanook (which means "The Bear") and his tribe, of which he is the leader. Together, they visit a trading post, hunt walrus and seal, go fishing on moving ice floes, and build an igloo (probably the most educational segment of the whole film). How much of this was staged by Flaherty for the camera has long been a bone of contention, but that's really beside the point. What matters is that he got it on film in the first place, and that Criterion made it one of their first DVD releases (its spine number is 33) in an edition mastered at the correct speed. As signs of respect for our film heritage go, that one's unmistakable.
|Monday, May 25th, 2015|
|A maniac with a lot of knowledge is a threat.
The year is 1661, and a Tribunal of Holy Inquisition has been convened in Mexico City. The defiant defendant: Baron Vitelius d'Estera (Abel Salazar), who's on trial "for heresy and the instigation of heresy; for practicing dogmatism; for having used witchcraft, superstition, and conjurations for depraved and dishonest ends; for having employed the art of necromancy, invoking the dead, and trying to tell the future through the use of corpses; for having seduced married women and maidens." In other words, not your everyday apostate. As his death sentence is carried out and the Baron is being burned at the stake, a comet appears in the sky overhead and he vows to return in 300 years to kill the descendants of the black-hooded inquisitors that condemned him. So begins 1962's The Brainiac
, a.k.a. The Baron of Terror
. The latter title is self-explanatory. The former, less so.
See, when the Baron does return in 1961 -- having hitched a ride on the mysterious comet, a chunk of which breaks off and lands on Earth with a thud -- it is in the form of a hairy, demonic figure with a forked tongue and suckered pincers. His first victim is a passing motorist whose clothes are stolen (but not his modesty since the gentleman is left in his underwear) along with his brains since the Baron sucks them out of the man's cranium with his tongue. His second is a random pick-up in a bar who meets the same fate, but not before the Baron, who has the ability to take a more pleasing shape, also shows off his powers of invisibility and hypnotism. These come in handy when he pays a visit to the Inquisition's former crematorium and throws a party, inviting the descendants of his tormentors, all of whom begin dying in turn, just as he vowed they would three centuries earlier.
As realized by prolific director Chano Urueta, it's all rather rote and almost perfunctory once the killings start -- no matter how outlandish-looking the killer is or how bizarre his m.o. is. The grumpy detective in charge of the case (David Silva) is even saddled with a weak comic-relief partner whose sole function in the plot is to make me grit my teeth every time he appears. As for the victims, they run the gamut from a famous historian and his daughter to an industrialist (played by Santa Claus
director René Cardona) and his wife, all of whom get burned to a crisp after the brain-sucking to approximate what the Baron had to go through. He changes things up, though, for his next target, who's hung upside-down in the shower, his head submerged in the bathtub. (The modern equivalent of a dunking stool? I don't know if I want to give the filmmakers that much credit.)
As one would expect considering how much screen time they get, the last of the Baron's targets left standing are astronomers Vicky (Rosa María Gallardo) and Ronnie (Rubén Rojo), who's actually in the Baron's good graces since he's descended from the one man brave enough to stand up to the Inquisition in 1661, for which his ancestor got 200 lashes. When Ronnie stands in the Baron's way, though, all bets are off until the cops arrive on the scene armed with flamethrowers to torch the Baron. Who knows? Maybe the second time will be the charm.
|It's time for you to fight your own battles, and win them.
To date, there have been four screen adaptations of Thomas Hardy's 1874 novel Far from the Madding Crowd
. The first, a silent feature from 1915, was followed half a century later by John Schlesinger's 1967 adaptation, which runs close to three hours and has a built-in intermission. This was topped by a four-part miniseries from 1998, which comes in at around three and a half hours. In comparison, the latest big-screen version, made exactly one century after the first, is a lean two hours, but director Thomas Vinterberg doesn't skimp on the emotional journey of its heroine, the headstrong Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan), who inherits her uncle's farm in 19th-century Dorset and is determined to run it and her own life in her own way.
As far as the latter is concerned, this mostly involves deflecting marriage proposals, whether they be from humble shepherd Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts) or rich landowner William Boldwood (Michael Sheen). Bathsheba's just as surprised as anyone, though, when she's swept off her feet by sweet-talking soldier Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge) in spite of Gabriel's warnings that he'll ruin her. True to form, Troy's less-appealing attributes make themselves known as soon as they tie the knot, but Bathsheba stands by him -- and up to him when the occasion calls for it. For his part, Gabriel proves many times over that he's a good man to have around in a crisis, which makes one wonder why it takes Bathsheba so long to come around to the idea that she shouldn't let him go.
One area where this version could have easily been found wanting compared to the 1967 film was the cinematography since Schlesinger's cameraman was the great Nicolas Roeg. Vinterberg forestalled that, though, by bringing along Charlotte Bruus Christensen, who previously photographed The Hunt
for him. And the performances of the leads are also uniformly excellent, especially the trio of Mulligan, Schoenaerts, and Sheen, each of whom can pack a flood of emotions into a single glance. Sturridge, on the other hand, is playing a character that's all on the surface. Remove his dapper uniform and he can't help but recede from view.
|Saturday, May 23rd, 2015|
|I'd think you'd hate pastries after staring at them all day.
Having started with Suzanne's Career
, the second of Eric Rohmer's "Six Moral Tales," I have jumped back to partake of the first, 1963's The Bakery Girl of Monceau
. This one is centered on an unnamed law student (played by Rohmer's producer, Barbet Schroeder, who was soon to step behind the camera himself) who meets a girl named Sylvie (Michèle Girardon) that he's convinced is The One, but when he doesn't see her again after their first awkward conversation, he starts haunting her neighborhood in the hopes of accidentally running into her again on purpose. (This was, of course, in the days before Facebook made stalking that much easier.)
As part of his routine, the student begins frequenting a bakery where he casually flirts with Jacqueline (Claudine Soubrier), the girl that works there and begins anticipating his daily order of a single cookie, upping the ante in the process. (I'm sure Schroeder gained a few pounds over the course of the shoot.) Eventually, he pressures her into going on a date with him, but the eagerness with which he breaks it when Sylvie suddenly reappears says everything about how serious he was prepared to get with her. And that he considers it a moral decision says everything about how slippery one's sense of morality can be.
|Friday, May 22nd, 2015|
|I hope this will be good for us, but especially for me.
Since it's centered on a novelist who's rather full of himself, it's appropriate that 2014's Listen Up Philip
employs a self-consciously literary style. From its extensive use of voice-overs (delivered by Eric Bogosian) to the heightened dialogue to the sense that it's broken up into chapters -- each one focused on a different character -- the film plays like an adaptation of a novel that hasn't been written. Or maybe it will be by "the great Philip Lewis Friedman," as he's called by a former college roommate who can't be bothered to disguise his bitterness. That the roommate is ultimately revealed to be confined to a wheelchair is but one of the many darkly comic notes writer/director Alex Ross Perry sounds over the course of the film.
As the "great" Philip, Jason Schwartzman is allowed to be as arrogant, selfish, and patently unlikeable as he wants to be, which is why it's difficult to sympathize when he -- an author waiting on the publication of his second novel -- complains that he has no money. What he does have is an unappreciated girlfriend, art photographer Ashley (Elisabeth Moss), and an admirer in his literary idol, Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), who loved his book so much he offers to help Philip out by inviting him to stay at his country house for a spell (which means abandoning Ashley in the city) and recommending him for a teaching position at a college upstate (ditto). The problem is the former inconveniences Ike's daughter Melanie (Krysten Ritter), who thought she was going to have the house to herself, and the latter rankles fellow teacher Yvette (Joséphine de La Baume), formerly the youngest member of the faculty before the underqualified Philip came along.
Since Philip is so insufferable to be around (although Ike likes his company for reasons that are complicated), it comes as a relief when the film's focus shifts to Ashley about 40 minutes in, staying with her as she adjusts to life on her own. (One of her adjustments: adopting a cat she names Gadzookey.) Philip doesn't disappear entirely from it, though, since she is periodically reminded of key moments in their relationship. The more we see of it, though, the more we hope he's sincere when, returning for the express purpose of picking up some clothes, he tells her, "I'm afraid you've seen the last of me for a long, long time." As far as she's concerned, it can't be long enough.
|Thursday, May 21st, 2015|
|Was she the kind to act on a whim?
Receiving a belated Stateside release after the one-two punch of A Separation
and The Past
, Asghar Farhadi's 2009 film About Elly
evinces the same measure of control over the medium as those two films as its story unfurls. As one would reasonably expect, it revolves around a woman named Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti), a single schoolteacher who goes along with three married couples, their assorted children, and their one eligible bachelor friend on a vacation getaway. The organizer of the trip is Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani), the mother of one of her students, and the bachelor in question is Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini), who lives in Germany and is recently divorced, neither of which makes him out to be a great catch. Then again, what does he know about Elly -- and, for that matter, what does Sepideh?
Who knows what and when they choose to reveal it is the crux of the matter when the trip takes a dark turn, although there is foreboding aplenty leading up to that moment. For starters, the group is unable to stay in their usual villa and has to settle for one on the beach, which the old caretaker claims is unsafe. This leads to numerous instances of Shohreh (Merila Zare'i) and Peyman (Peyman Moaadi, the husband in A Separation
) admonishing their young son to stay away from the water. When this leads to the expected crisis, there are enough recriminations to go around -- with everybody repeatedly asking Sepideh why she invited the elusive Elly on the trip, even her husband Amir (Mani Haghighi) -- but Farhadi keeps the whole truth hidden until the time comes to deploy it. Until then, he continues tightening the screws, making sure the viewer doesn't miss a single twitch as his characters squirm.
|He's the guy who, when you're watching a movie and you see him, you say, "There's that guy!"
To date, I've contributed to exactly one Kickstarter, but it was definitely a worthy one going by the resulting film, That Guy Dick Miller
. "YOU KNOW THE FACE, BUT CAN YOU GIVE HIS NAME?" screams a newspaper headline shown early on in the film, which sums up the plight of one of the screen's most prolific and recognizable character actors. A mainstay of Roger Corman's films as a director and producer in the '50s, '60s, and '70s, and a fixture of all of Joe Dante's features (his latest role is as "Grumpy Cop" in Dante's Burying the Ex
), Miller was 83 when director Elijah Drenner (veteran of dozens of video documentary shorts included as DVD bonus features, as well as the 2010 feature documentary American Grindhouse
) went to Kickstarter in 2012 with the pitch that "The world deserves a proper Dick Miller documentary." The response from his ardent fans was so great that it takes two minutes for the "Special Thanks" section in the closing credits to scroll by -- and that's on top of the minute and a half spent listing all 83 of the films and TV shows Drenner includes clips from, which still only accounts for about half of Miller's screen credits.
Made with the full and enthusiastic cooperation of Miller and his wife Lainie (who produced alongside Drenner and is most famous for playing the stripper in The Graduate
, the clip of which must have set them back a pretty penny), That Guy
is stocked with interviews with people in the industry who worked with him at all stages of his career. Corman and Dante are the big ones, of course, but Drenner also corrals Jonathan Haze, Jackie Joseph, Julie Corman, John Sayles, Jon Davison, Allan Arkush, Mary Woronov, Belinda Balaski, Robert Forster, Robert Picardo, Corey Feldman, Zach Galligan, and many others. (Noticeably absent is Quentin Tarantino, who cast Miller as Monster Joe in Pulp Fiction
and then cut his scene out. This is why you're not an honorary alumni of the Roger Corman School of Filmmaking, Quentin. True alumni don't cut Dick Miller out of their movies.) Along the way, Drenner touches on his early ambitions to be a screenwriter (of all the scripts he's written, only three have been produced, and two were altered so much he only wound up with "story by" credits on them) and his idiosyncratic artwork, but the main focus remains on Dick Miller the actor and cult icon, which is as it should be. And now that this film is available on iTunes, VOD, and DVD (after premiering at South by Southwest over a year ago), that cult only stands to grow.
|Wednesday, May 20th, 2015|
|Was I blind? How could I trust that awful person?
Much like Hamlet uses a performance of The Murder of Gonzago
to expose the villainy of his uncle, King Claudius, a young actor (André Mattoni) shows his ailing grandfather (Hermann Picha) a film based on Molière's Tartuffe
to expose his housekeeper's (Rosa Valetti) hypocrisy. So goes the framing story of F.W. Murnau's 1925 film, which presents an extremely stripped-down version of Molière's play as its film-within-a-film. Furthermore, the poison-in-the-ear bit from Gonzago
is echoed by the revelation that the housekeeper has been slipping poison into her master's drinks to hasten his demise, but I suspect Murnau and his collaborator Carl Meyer (who previously wrote The Last Laugh
and provided the scenario for Sunrise
) were more concerned with drawing the more immediate parallels between their story and Molière's.
Just as the housekeeper has convinced the grandfather to amend his will, disinheriting his grandson in favor of her for the crime of being an actor (gasp!), Tartuffe
turns on a wealthy man, Mr. Orgon (Werner Krauss), who is compelled by the super-pious title character (Emil Jannings) to give away all his earthly possessions -- preferably to Tartuffe. Orgon's wife Elmire (Lil Dagover) sees right through the "alarming looking" religious fanatic, and along with her maid Dorine (Lucie Höflich) works to relax his iron grip on her husband, but like the housekeeper has to be caught red-handed with her poison bottle before she's dismissed, Orgon has to see with his own eyes Tartuffe preparing to ravage Elmire before he'll believe her. True, she says she's willing to "risk all" to be rid of the pest, but in comparison, the grandson donning a disguise and posing as the proprietor of a "touring cinema" doesn't have the same kind of heft.
|Tuesday, May 19th, 2015|
|I knew you'd be back. They all come back for me.
After making his first sound feature for Paramount -- 1929's Thunderbolt
-- Josef von Sternberg decamped for Germany to direct one for producer Erich Pommer at UFA. This was 1930's The Blue Angel
, ostensibly a star vehicle for Emil Jannings that was stolen out from under the actor by second-billed Marlene Dietrich, whose turn as sultry cabaret singer Lola Lola is the sort of thing screen legends are made of. Lola Lola doesn't appear in the flesh until nearly 20 minutes in, though, as von Sternberg concentrates on Jannings's character, Prof. Immanuel Rath, going about his morning routine, which is juxtaposed with cutaways to his students crowding around one of their classmates flaunting his collection of Lola Lola postcards. Even then, von Sternberg avoids revealing them to us right away, and doesn't show them in close-up until after Prof. Rath has confiscated them and finds himself inexorably drawn to their photogenic subject.
Learning where his wayward students can be found ("Every night they're at The Blue Angel," says Angst, the class goody-goody, who redundantly adds, "There are women."), Prof. Rath goes there with the intention of reading Lola Lola the riot act ("I'm here on official business," he tells the bemused singer. "You're corrupting my pupils."), but winds up falling under her spell instead. Returning the next night, he defends her honor when he feels it has been besmirched by a lascivious ship's captain, buys champagne in the captain's stead, is made the cabaret's guest of honor for the night, and winds up spending the rest of it with the star attraction. The more time the professor spends in her presence, the more his actorly mannerisms and affectations fall away. He also bids farewell to his cushy job when he announces his intention to marry Lola Lola, but she laughs in his face when he proposes to her. Still, she marries the old fool anyway because why not? It's not as if she plans on being faithful to him.
The remainder of the film is spent on Rath's precipitous fall from grace, first as he's reduced to pathetically selling his own wife's postcards, then as he takes over the role of the troupe's clown and is made to perform for a sellout crowd in his hometown five years after leaving in disgrace. All the while, Lola Lola carries on with her latest conquest right in front of him, which would be enough to make anyone regret "Falling in Love Again." If he'd had the presence of mind, he would have done well to heed the advice of her other signature song, "Beware of Blonde Women."
|Sunday, May 17th, 2015|
|Queer things about this house.
As these things go, 1932's The Crooked Circle
is your average "old, dark house" mystery with a heavy emphasis on the comic-relief stylings of Zasu Pitts (a flesh-and-blood Olive Oyl, playing skittish maid Nora Rafferty) and James Gleason (as bumbling cop Arthur Crimmer). The actual plot revolves around the titular group of "counterfeiters and thieves deluxe," whose members wear black hoods to their meetings, and their plot against Col. Theodore Wolters (Berton Churchill), the "guiding spirit" of the Sphinx Club, a band of amateur criminologists which has managed to put one of the Crooked Circle behind bars. Marked for death for meddling in their affairs, the colonel is also due to move into Melody Manor, a supposedly haunted mansion that is chock full of trap doors, secret passages, and all the other trappings of the houses in these films.
Also thrown into the mix is Brand Osborne (Ben Lyon), the youngest member of the Sphinx Club who's all set to resign so he can marry accomplished violinist Thelma Parker (Irene Purcell), who urges him not to go to Melody Manor when Wolters receives a cryptic message from the Crooked Circle. This, incidentally, is translated by Brand's prospective successor, Indian mystic Yoganda (C. Henry Gordon), who's also seen to be in cahoots with Thelma, casting suspicion on both of them -- especially since the honor of offing Wolters has fallen to the Circle's only female member. So it is that all of these players -- under the direction of H. Bruce Humberstone -- converge on the mansion, where Pitts does her nervous-Nelly routine long before the clock strikes thirteen and Wolters disappears (as has something like ten minutes from the jumpy print currently available on YouTube).
"This thing is turning into a mystery," says dimwitted motorcycle cop Crimmer, who arrives on the scene long before everything goes down and remains long after his uselessness is firmly established. "It's worse than that," come the reply. "It's a nightmare." If that's truly the case, then it's one I won't lose much sleep over.
|Friday, May 15th, 2015|
|I'll take my chances with Indians - not with Mormons.
Anyone who happens upon the 1917 silent drama A Mormon Maid
thinking it's going to be a love letter to the Church of the Latter-Day Saints will be disabused of that notion rather quickly when its "Avenging Angels" are introduced about four minutes in. Described as "400 oath-bound fanatics" who hold the Salt Lake Colony of the mid-19th century in "an iron ring," the Angels are clad in "hoods and gowns emblazoned with the 'All-Seeing Eye' of Mormonism" -- a "costume later adopted by the 'Ku-Klux-Klan'" according to one of the film's intertitles, but the implication is clear. The Klan may have run with the idea, but the Mormons got there first, and director Robert Z. Leonard wanted to show how unsettling it is to have a settlement policed by anonymous white guys in white sheets.
Following a historical prologue depicting the Mormons' move west, the story kicks into gear when a family of three -- father John (Hobart Bosworth), mother Nancy (Edythe Chapman), and feisty daughter Dora (star Mae Murray) -- is rescued from rampaging Indians ("The Menace of the Plains," per one of the intertitles) by a group of Mormons passing through. After two years of prosperity in Salt Lake, though, and Dora's impending betrothal to strapping young Mormon lad Tom (Frank Borzage, who found greater fame as a director), self-styled apostle Darius Burr (Noah Beery, brother of Wallace) makes his move. With the hooded Avenging Angels as his enforcers, Burr forces John to take a second wife, prompting Nancy to take her own life rather than share her home with another woman, and lays claim to Dora even though he has five wives already. (I suppose Dora is meant to take the place of the deceased one represented by a portrait on the wall -- which Leonard makes a point of highlighting during the camera move that introduces the Wives of Burr -- but still. Share the wealth, heinous bearded dude.)
Thanks to the ever-vigilant Angels, "The Flight to Freedom" of John, Tom, and Dora ends with John shot (and left for dead), Tom captured (and watched like a hawk), and Dora prepared for her wedding, which she gets out of by claiming not to be a virgin. This dismays Tom, who's forced to witness the ceremony much like Dora was forced to watch her father's, but she assures him when they meet up later that she's still marriage material. She doesn't want to be Burr's
property. (And who can blame her, really?)
|Thursday, May 14th, 2015|
|If you can't fix what's broken, you'll go insane.
Thirty years after he brought the original Mad Max
trilogy to a close with the frankly underwhelming Beyond Thunderdome
(co-directed with George Ogilve), George Miller returns with a new chapter, a new Max (Tom Hardy, taking over the role from some fellow whose name I can't recall at the moment), and a new-found facility for seamlessly meshing digital effects and practical stunts, which the 70-year-old (!) director continues to marshal with aplomb. Filmed with such verve and style that it makes two hours whiz by like a nitro-burning War Rig, Mad Max: Fury Road
finds the title character on the titular byway, haunted by visions of those he failed to protect in the years (decades?) since civilization fell. In this post-apocalyptic wasteland, water is even scarcer than petroleum, as are fertile women, which is why warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Bryne, who previously played the villainous Toecutter in the first Mad Max
) -- who's kept alive and ambulatory via an array of breathing apparatuses -- doesn't take too kindly to having five of his "breeders" liberated by one of his Imperators.
This is the well-named Furiosa, who's also well-played by Charlize Theron as a warrior woman on a mission, equipped with a sophisticated mechanical hand (one of those seamless digital effects I mentioned), a tricked-out tanker truck with some very precious cargo, and a survival instinct to die for. Fury Road
has gotten heat from certain quarters for pairing Max up with such a strong-willed, authoritative female character, but anybody whose masculinity can be threatened by the notion that women are capable of kicking just as much ass as men deserves to be made to feel like a lesser human being. And anybody who denies themselves the pleasure of seeing this film because of some asinine ideological stance is only shooting themselves in the foot. With its knowing nod to Peter Weir's The Cars That Ate Paris
(courtesy of the spiked vehicles encountered when Furiosa steers her raiding party into enemy territory) and non-stop, amped-up action, this is an instant classic, easily on par with Miller's best. Max himself gives it a thumbs up.
|Wednesday, May 13th, 2015|
|People don't just enter our lives randomly. We call them.
Like a lot of films set in Hollywood, David Cronenberg's Maps to the Stars
opens with someone getting off a bus, having traveled there from across the country. Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) is no wide-eyed innocent looking for her big break, though, nor is she a total stranger to the city of angels, even if she has been away for several years. An early clue as to her state of mind is provided by screenwriter Bruce Wagner when she tells her limo driver (Robert Pattinson, getting to see how the other half lives after being driven around in the back of a limousine throughout Cronenberg's last film, Cosmopolis
) that she's from Jupiter, leaving a long pause before adding "Florida." She also claims to have befriended Carrie Fisher on Twitter and that they're very close, which is just crazy enough to be true.
Next, we have the dubious pleasure of meeting Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird), the abominably behaved 13-year-old star of the terrible-sounding hit movie Bad Babysitter
, who only recently got out of rehab and is in talks to be in its equally bad-looking sequel. Backed up by his fragile stage mother, Christina (Olivia Williams), and aloof father, psychotherapist-to-the-stars Stafford (John Cusack), Benjie shares an agent with insecure actress Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), who's introduced working through some deep-seated issues with Stafford during a therapy session that doesn't look terribly therapeutic. She's also lobbying hard for a role in the remake of Stolen Waters
, the film that earned her mother, dead cult figure Clarice Taggart (Sarah Gadon), an Academy Award nomination, which may explain why Havana has started receiving disturbing visitations from her ghost.
As it turns out, Havana and Benjie share more than just an agent since he, too, is being haunted, although in his case it's by people he barely knows. They're also connected by Agatha, who becomes Havana's personal assistant, making it possible for her to reach out to him to make amends for a past wrong (which, it must be said, she bears the scars of). Once she's driven to flush her meds, though, it's only a matter of time before she does even more damage.
|Tuesday, May 12th, 2015|
|There is no magic that will draw together the aged and the young.
It says a lot about Leo McCarey's skill as a director that he was able to make the screwball comedy The Awful Truth
and the unapologetic tearjerker Make Way for Tomorrow
in the same year and knock both out of the park. (In fact, it was The Awful Truth
that netted him Best Director at the Academy Awards.) Make Way
is the one that has arguably had the greater impact, though, since it inspired one of the Yasujiro Ozu's best-known films, 1953's Tokyo Story
, as well as last year's Love Is Strange
, which continues to rise in my estimation the more distance I get from it.
Working from a screenplay by Viña Delmar, who was also good at shifting gears since she also penned The Awful Truth
's Oscar-nominated script, McCarey digs into the emotional upheaval caused by the separation of a 70-something couple when their home is foreclosed on by the bank (a common occurrence during the Great Depression) and none of their five adult children are able to take them both in. So it is that dutiful son George Cooper (Thomas Mitchell) and his wife Anita (Fay Bainter) play host to his mother Lucy (Beulah Bondi) in their New York apartment, while out-of-work bookkeeper Barkley (Victor Moore) goes to stay with daughter Cora (Elisabeth Risdon) some 300 miles away. Neither living situation is ideal -- for example, Lucy is forced to share a bedroom with George and Anita's rebellious teenage daughter Rhoda (Barbara Read) -- but they continue to hold out hope that they'll "soon be together for always" until it becomes plain that it's not going to be.
Once it's decided that Father C. is to be packed off to California for his health, Mother C. makes the not unreasonable request that she be allowed to see her husband once more before he goes. This touches off the most affecting section of the film as the couple is temporarily reunited and spend what may very well be their last few hours together before his train leaves recalling details about their honeymoon half a century earlier and playfully disagreeing about which day of the week they did what, all while being treated with more respect and courtesy by total strangers than they have been by their own flesh and blood. Part they must, but at least they can do so with the knowledge that neither has any regrets about the life they've shared.
|Sunday, May 10th, 2015|
|The heat's on all over town.
The set-up of the 1954 film noir Crime Wave
is about as basic as you can get. (In fact, if the title hadn't already been used five years earlier, it could have easily been called "The Set-Up.") Ex-convict Steve Lacey (Gene Nelson) is woken up in the middle of the night by a former cellmate (Ned Young) who shows up his door with a slug in his gut, having been shot by a motorcycle cop during a routine gas-station robbery. His wife Ellen (Phyllis Kirk) urges him to call the police -- or at the very least his parole officer -- but he knows that's a slippery slope that could land him back in the slammer. For starters, the man expires before discredited doctor Otto Hessler (Jay Novello), now a veterinarian after serving time in the joint, can patch him up. Second, hardened homicide detective Lt. Sims (Sterling Hayden) leans on Steve, believing if he leans hard enough, the ex-con will crack. And finally, the dead man's partners, "Doc" Penny (Ted de Corsia) and Ben Hastings (Charles Bronson, still going by Buchinsky), put in a belated appearance since Doc has had the bright idea of using Steve as their wheel man for a daring daytime bank robbery and then getting him to fly them out of the country. It's so simple, how could it possibly fail?
This being film noir, there are any of a number of ways it can fail, and director André De Toth and screenwriter Crane Wilbur (who also wrote the previous year's House of Wax
for De Toth) explore most of them as they plunge Steve and Ellen deeper and deeper into trouble. "Once you've done a bit, nobody leaves you alone," Steve moans, a sentiment echoed by Lt. Sims, who stands by the adage "Once a crook, always a crook." Whether Steve truly fits that mold or not, it certainly applies to one of Doc's seedy associates, played by the always off-kilter Timothy Carey (who appears uncredited). It's easy to imagine Stanley Kubrick screening this film while thinking about casting Hayden in The Killing
and picking out the loose cannon who shows up in the last 20 minutes as well.
|Friday, May 8th, 2015|
|Transylvania has some pretty weird legends. A lot of people turn up here out of curiosity.
Being a Michael Reeves completist isn't hard since he only has three features to his name, but the shoddiness of his debut doesn't make it easy, either. Then again, The She Beast
may have made a better impression when it was released in 1966 since it was filmed in Eastmancolor and Scope, whereas the version that's most readily available for general consumption today is all washed out and cropped. (So much for hoping Netflix would send me the anamorphic widescreen restoration put out by Dark Sky Films in 2009.)
Set in modern-day Transylvania -- save for an extended flashback to 200 years earlier, when a condemned witch places a curse of the descendants of the villagers who have chosen to drown her in a lake before she can be exorcised -- The She Beast
prefigures Roman Polanski's The Fearless Vampire Killers
with its emphasis on the locals kvetching about the hardships of being under Communist rule. One of them is odious innkeeper Groper (one-time Corman cohort Mel Welles), who makes a poor impression on honeymooning Brits Philip and Veronica (Ian Ogilvy and Barbara Steele) by spying on them making love. When he's caught, Philip beats the tar out of him, and Groper retaliates by tampering with their car, which plunges into the lake when the couple tries to leave the following morning. While Philip makes it out of the wreck alive, Veronica does not, and is in fact replaced by the body of the witch, which has possessed her soul. At least, that's what Count Von Velsing (John Karlsen) -- referred to by Groper as his "ex-lordship" -- would have Philip believe.
Lumpy and misshapen, much like the prosthetic makeup on its title character, The She Beast
misses Steele dearly while she's out of the picture. (That she was only contracted to work on the production for one day makes it a miracle she's in it as much as she is.) Instead, a lot of time is wasted on Von Helsing trying to convince Philip he isn't crazy, as well as Groper's drunken antics, which extend to his attempt to force himself on his own niece. (Bad Groper!) No matter how it all turned out, though, Reeves got the clout he needed to go on and make his second feature, which is what's all about.
|Thursday, May 7th, 2015|
|You start messing with these people up here and they'll burn you out.
I generally don't do this sort of thing, but I feel compelled to share the copy on the back cover of the cheap-ass Miracle Pictures DVD of 1974's The Klansman
: "An FBI agent goes undercover in the Klu Klux Klan in a small southern town that has just been rocked by a tragedy: a young woman has been violently raped. The white town fathers immediately declare that the attacker had to be black, and place the blame on a young black man. Assuming that the men in white sheets are not intent on a fair and impartial trial, he takes to the woods as the Klansmen lynching party hunt him down."
Now, putting aside the simple fact that the name of the organization in question is the Ku
Klux Klan, there's very little about this description that holds water. True, part of the plot turns on the rape of a young woman (played by Linda Evans one year before she got pawed by Joe Don Baker in Mitchell
) at the hands of a black man, but there is no manhunt conducted by guys in white sheets, nor is there any undercover FBI agent in town. Instead, the main characters are Track Bascomb (a mustachioed Lee Marvin), the self-described "back-country sheriff" who has his hands full keeping the "good country people" of Atoka County, Alabama, in line, and Breck Stancill (Richard Burton), a bitter, crippled landowner with deep, tragic roots in the area whose attempts to "maintain a dignified neutrality" fall well short of the mark. The thing is, while Marvin does his best to underplay his role, the best Burton can manage is to try to remain conscious -- that is, when he isn't struggling with his accent.
As the billboard that director Terence Young (a decade removed from his James Bond hits) opens on announces, we are squarely in "Wallace Country" (as in George
), a place where people can be named Track Bascomb, Breck Stancill, Nancy Poteet (that's Evans's character), and Butt Cutt Cates (Cameron Mitchell), and no one bats an eye. Heck, even the mayor (played by David Huddleston the same year he was one of the racist residents of Rock Ridge in Blazing Saddles
) goes by Hardy Riddle, which sounds like a breakfast order at Denny's but is in actual fact "the damn Exalted Cyclops" of the local chapter of the KKK. With deputy Butt Cutt (seriously, that's his name, people) at his side, the mayor's main concern is the impending black-vote demonstration that some city folks have organized and which Chicago transplant Loretta Sykes (Lola Falana) returns home to participate in. Then comes the whole Nancy Poteet rape thing, which gets Butt Cutt and some of the boys riled up enough that they lynch an innocent man while his buddy, played by "O.J. Simpson as Garth" (party on), watches from the bushes and makes note of who's responsible so he can methodically gun them down.
Sounds like a powder keg just waiting to blow up, right? Well, screenwriters Millard Kaufman and Samuel Fuller (who was once slated to directed) thought so, too, since they put a line of dialogue to that effect right into the script. (Although, to be fair to Fuller, little of what wound up in the final film should be laid at his feet since he walked off the project early on when the studio demanded changes to the story that he couldn't abide.) By far, though, the best line in the film is when Stancill, having been pushed over the edge by the killing of his dog (which is mentioned for the first time a few scenes earlier just to establish that he has a dog to kill), tells Riddle that he's ready for the Klan to come at him. "If they're ashamed of their faces," he says, "they can wear their Halloween masks." Only in the South.