Craig J. Clark Watches a Lot of Movies
August 2007

Wednesday, August 1st, 2007
The quick have their sleepwalkers, and so do the dead.

My last day in Jersey, so I made another trip to the Showcase at the Ritz Center, this time to see Werner Herzog's latest, Rescue Dawn, a film "inspired by true events in the life of Dieter Dengler." Herzog knows this story well since he's already made a documentary about Dengler, 1997's Little Dieter Needs to Fly, a film that I must now seek out. He's also known for going to extraordinary lengths to get his films made and Rescue Dawn, which was shot in the inhospitable jungles of Thailand, is no exception.

Christian Bale stars as Dengler, who was born in Germany, but moved to America and joined the Navy because he always wanted to fly. He's a victim of bad timing, though, entering the armed forces as the Vietnam War is heating up, and is shot down on his first mission over Laos in 1965. Thus begins his odyssey of survival against seemingly insurmountable odds. Once he's captured and interred at a remote prison camp, he meets fellow prisoners of war Steve Zahn (who's paranoid and resigned to his fate) and Jeremy Davies (a walking ribcage who's holding out hope for release), who are less than enthusiastic about his plans for escape.

Through it all, Herzog's camera observes everything, impassively recording the events as they unfold, and his stripped-down screenplay refuses to editorialize about the situation. I have no idea how far it deviated from Dengler's actual war-time experiences, but Herzog has a way of making documentaries that feel like they were scripted and narrative films that feel like a documentary. I don't think he even makes a distinction at this point -- he just makes films, and God bless him for that.

Sunday, August 5th, 2007
Of course, Dieter knew it was only a film, but all the old terror returned as if it were real.

As it turns out, when it came time to turn Dieter Dengler's life into a feature film, Werner Herzog didn't have to fictionalize a whole lot -- at least if his 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly is anything to go by. It even uses some of the same bombing footage and the same survival training film that was jeered by the pilots in Rescue Dawn. Made for German television, Little Dieter tells the story mostly in Dengler's own words, which occasionally share the soundtrack with Herzog's narration. Dengler describes his early life, seeing his first airplane when it bombed his hometown. From that point on, he knew he wanted to be a pilot and quickly realized that he wouldn't achieve his ambition if he stayed in Germany.

After a stint as a blacksmith's apprentice, he made his way to America, where he joined the Air Force and was disillusioned that he never even got near the cockpit of an airplane. By the time he did, several years later and as part of the Navy, he was shipped off to Vietnam and shot down over Laos, where he returned with Herzog 30 years later to recreate/relive some of his horrific experiences as a prisoner of war. Using an illustration of the camp he was kept in, he describes how he effected his escape, which Rescue Dawn staged pretty much verbatim. Interestingly enough, in light of Herzog's recent documentary Grizzly Man, Dengler was followed by a bear part of the way (a detail left out of the later film). "This bear meant death to me," he says, but he survived that and more. Upon his return to civilian life, he became a test pilot and survived four more plane crashes. No wonder Herzog wanted to make a film about him.

Monday, August 6th, 2007
We had to rely on witnesses. And this is what we did.

1988's The Thin Blue Line was Errol Morris's third documentary and the first to benefit from a Philip Glass score. (Glass also scored Morris's next doc, the Stephen Hawking profile A Brief History of Time, and his 2003 Oscar winner The Fog of War.) It was also the first to feature extensive reenactment footage as Morris replays the November 1976 shooting death of a Dallas cop from multiple angles and with small variations depending on who's recounting the events. Even a small detail like the disposal of a chocolate shake or when a drive-in double feature (The Student Body and The Swinging Cheerleaders) let out is carefully considered. It is this meticulous accumulation of detail -- as well as the in-depth interviews with many of the participants on both sides of the law -- that gives the film its strength.

In the end, drifter Randall Adams was tried and convicted of the crime and sentenced to death, almost entirely on the basis of unreliable eyewitnesses. One of them, 16-year-old runaway David Harris, who had picked Adams up on the side of the road earlier that day, even turned out to be on probation with a long criminal record. And furthermore, he bragged about killing the cop to his friends back home. Why the Dallas Department of Justice went after Adams instead of Harris is frankly beyond me, but after the release of the film, the case was reopened and Adams was exonerated and released. Meanwhile, Harris was executed in 2004 for an unrelated murder he committed in 1985 -- a crime that never would have happened if he had been prosecuted in the first place. Apart from the miscarriage of justice that kept an innocent man in jail for over a decade, that is the real outrage here.

Wednesday, August 8th, 2007
You have two faults, Frank. You drink too much and you talk too much.

Three years after the seminal Two-Lane Blacktop, Monte Hellman made another film about taciturn men driven to compete. The difference, of course, is that Blacktop was about souped-up cars and Cockfighter is about game cocks. (Say what you will about the legality of street races, but at least you don't wind up with a pile of dead chickens at the end of them.) And, in counterpoint to his garrulous character in the earlier film, the trainer played by Warren Oates in this one has taken a vow of silence until he wins the Cockfighter of the Year medal.

The film follows Oates throughout the course of the season leading up to the Southern Conference Tournament. Along the way he partners up with Richard B. Shull, fuels a longstanding rivalry with Harry Dean Stanton (to whom he loses fed-up girlfriend Laurie Bird), goes up against gangly upstarts Ed Begley Jr. and Steve Railsback, attempts a reconciliation with impatient fiancée Patricia Pearcy, and sells the family home out from under his siblings Troy Donahue and Millie Perkins to fund his obsession. Apart from the occasional voice over, the only time we hear Oates speak is in the flashback where he talked himself into an ill-advised standoff with one of Stanton's fighters that cost him one of his champions -- and his shot at the title.

The film was produced for New World Pictures by Roger Corman, who was probably expecting something more sensational considering the subject matter, but Hellman's goal was making a character study of a marginalized individual. Sure, there are plenty of cockfighting scenes and some of them are fairly gruesome (and they were real, which can't have pleased the ASPCA), but Hellman chooses not to linger on them too much (save for a handful of slow motion shots). He'd rather spend time on other things, like a holdup at one of the events that takes a turn for the absurd, or a scene of Oates writing a letter to his fiancée, hoping she'll come out to the championship so she can see him in his element. I don't know what he thought she was going to see, though, or why it would attract her.

Thursday, August 9th, 2007
A legend is entitled to be beyond time and place.

Two decades after The Blood of a Poet (and a scant four years after his groundbreaking Beauty and the Beast), Jean Cocteau made the middle part of his Orphic Trilogy, 1950's Orpheus, transporting the story to modern Paris, where the title character (Jean Marais) is a renowned poet who is out of step with the youth of the day. While attempting to make the scene at the Poet's Cafe (described by one patron as "the center of the universe"), Orpheus witnesses a brash young poet (Edouard Dermithe, who looks very much like his double) being run over by a motorcycle and goes along as a witness to the villa of the Princess (María Casares), who refuses to give him any explanations. That's up to her chauffeur (François Périer), who eventually returns him to his pregnant wife Eurydice (Marie Déa), who had been beside herself with worry.

By necessity, Orpheus is a much more straightforward film than its predecessor, but it contains its share of arresting images, most of them in the second half of the film, when Orpheus descends into Cocteau's version of the underworld, not only to bring back his Eurydice, but also to see the princess, with whom he has fallen madly in love. That she turns out to be one of death's agents is no matter to him. Cocteau runs some shots backwards to create an eerie effect and reuses some of the techniques (many of them involving mirrors and tilted sets) that made The Blood of a Poet so dreamlike. I expect he did so again when he completed the trilogy with The Testament of Orpheus ten years on.

Well, it looks cursed. I'll give it that.

Wow, talk about your classic bait-and-switch. The movie I rented to watch tonight was Edgar Allan Poe's The Haunted Palace, which was directed by Roger Corman in 1963, but it is actually an adaptation of the H.P. Lovecraft story "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" with a few lines of Poe thrown in at the beginning and end to justify AIP's name change. No matter, as the first Lovecraft story to make it to the big screen (preceding Die, Monster, Die! -- also made by AIP -- by two years), it does an admirable job of conveying the creeping dread that pervades his work, even if its depiction of the dark forces is decidedly lacking. (Then again, I don't think anybody's been able to manage that with any kind of success, no matter what their budget was.)

Vincent Price plays Ward, who journeys to Arkham with his wife Debra Paget to claim his family's estate, 110 years and one Poe stanza after his great-great-grandfather was tied to a tree and burned as a warlock. Upon their arrival in the perpetually fog-enshrouded town they ask for directions at the Burning Man Tavern, where they get a decidedly chilly reception from the townsfolk, led by Leo Gordon (in a scene that surely inspired the one at the Slaughtered Lamb in An American Werewolf in London). Finally, helpful doctor Frank Maxwell points them in the right direction and they show up at the house, which has been prepared for them by creepy caretaker Lon Chaney Jr., and where the front door inexplicably has a bolt on the outside. (Not sure why that detail sticks out for me.)

The cast also includes nervous shopkeeper Elisha Cook Jr., descendant of one of those responsible for the lynching, and Corman regular Bruno VeSota as Bruno, the bartender. The screenplay was by Charles Beaumont, with an uncredited assist by dialogue director Francis Ford Coppola (who did the same job on Tower of London the year before). This, by the way, wasn't Corman's only venture into Lovecraft territory. He also produced 1970's The Dunwich Horror, which was the last official Lovecraft adaptation until a certain film called Re-Animator came along and opened the floodgates.

Sunday, August 12th, 2007
Naturally, works of art create themselves and dream of killing their creators.

In 1959, at the age of 70, Jean Cocteau embarked upon his farewell film, The Testament of Orpheus, or Do Not Ask Me Why, the final part of his Orphic Trilogy. This time Cocteau himself took the lead role of a poet looking back over his life's work, aided by friends and actors from previous films (with Edouard Dermithe, María Casares and François Périer all reprising their roles from Orpheus). Other notables in the cast include Jean-Pierre Léaud (who made quite an impression that same year as François Truffaut's alter ego in The 400 Blows), Yul Brynner (as a playful court usher), Jean Marais (the star of Orpheus, this time playing Oedipus) and Pablo Picasso (as himself).

As he did with the first two films in the trilogy, Cocteau loads Testament up with camera tricks, most of which involve little more than running film backwards to achieve poetic effects (a smoke bubble being unpopped, a shredded flower being put back together). He also engages in some anthropomorphic imagery, with not one, but two man-horses running about and two young men playing at being a dog. Some of it can be fairly obscure to one not familiar with Cocteau's previous work, but as one man's testament to the endurance of art and the artists who create it, it's profoundly exhilarating.

Wednesday, August 15th, 2007
Stephen always had a complicated mind.

The idea of basing a film on Stephen Hawking's 1988 bestseller A Brief History of Time may have been daunting to some, but in 1991 Errol Morris proved that he was more than up to the task. As much a profile of the author as it's a presentation of his ideas, the film follows Hawking's life from his birth in 1942 through his time at Oxford and Cambridge, where he studied cosmology, to his diagnosis with ALS at age 21, at which point he was given 2 1/2 years to live. The fact that he was around 28 years later to be the subject of a documentary -- and is still alive today -- shows how little his doctors knew.

Interviews with family, friends and colleagues from his youth have a way of coming back to the physical activities he engaged in, including climbing, dancing, boating and skating. There's also a harrowing description of a fall he took down some stairs when he was at school, after which it took about an hour for him to regain his memory. If he hadn't, the scientific community would have suffered a great loss. After thoroughly exploring Einstein's Theory of General Relativity -- and coauthoring a book on it -- Hawking turned his attention to quantum mechanics and how it relates to black holes and radiation. (This gives Morris an opportunity to slip in some footage of Disney's The Black Hole amongst all the talking heads.) At best, the film can only give the briefest overview of these and other ideas, but as a portrait of a man whose mind continues to scale dizzying intellectual heights even as his body fails him, it can't help but be fascinating.

Wednesday, August 22nd, 2007
What are you waiting for, Bob? There's my back.

Just when I thought I was never going to see Samuel Fuller's early work, the Criterion Collection goes and puts out The First Films of Samuel Fuller -- one of which is his very first film as writer/director, 1949's I Shot Jesse James. A fairly perfunctory affair (it clocks in at 81 minutes), it tells the story of Bob Ford (John Ireland), member of the notorious James Gang and the closest friend of Jesse James (Reed Hadley) until the day he shoots James in order to get amnesty and claim the $10,000 reward he needs to marry his girl Cynthy (Barbara Britton). Things don't quite work out the way he planned, though. Not only does he not get the reward, but he is publicly reviled for being a traitor and becomes the target for anybody with an itchy trigger finger looking to gun down Jesse James's killer and become "the biggest gunman in the country."

Things aren't much better for Ford on the home front when Cynthy rejects his marriage proposal and he mistakenly believes that she has fallen for Colorado prospector John Kelley (Preston Foster). After a failed attempt at recreating his assassination of James on the stage, Ford lights out for Colorado himself to try to strike it rich in the silver boom. He thinks he's going to win Cynthy's love back, but little does he know a revenge-minded Frank James (Tom Tyler) is on his trail. Fuller covers a lot of ground in a short period, using newspaper headlines for transitions and stringing scenes together to show Ford's descent from wanted desperado with self-respect to unwanted pariah who has minstrel songs written about his cowardice. That'll happen when you're known for shooting your best friend in the back.

Thursday, August 23rd, 2007
Nothing is sufficient for anyone who can change geography.

Samuel Fuller's second film as writer/director was 1950's The Baron of Arizona, which continued his newsman's penchant for ferreting out fascinating stories from the pages of history. The film stars Vincent Price as a government clerk who schemes to defraud the United States out of the entire state of Arizona by forging a Spanish land grant. He goes to great lengths to do so, even spending three years at a Spanish monastery in order to gain access to the appropriate historic documents. When he returns to the States on the arm of the supposed Baroness (Ellen Drew), whose lineage he fabricated out of thin air, he raises the ire of the populace, who don't take too kindly to being told to clear off land they thought was theirs.

Enter Reed Hadley as Department of Interior investigator John Griff (one of many Griffs who appear throughout Fuller's oeuvre), author of the book Historical Handwriting and Crime of Forgery, who sets out to prove that Price is a fraud and a swindler. This is no easy task considering Price learned all of his tricks from Griff's own book. Compared to I Shot Jesse James, it's evident that Fuller was working with a much larger canvas here, and he was aided in maximizing this by ace cinematographer James Wong Howe. It's a shame this was their only collaboration.

Monday, August 27th, 2007
Just what I thought. You're completely normal.

The above is very rarely said of David Lynch or the majority of his output. Case in point: Dumbland, which Lynch wrote, directed, animated in Flash and did the sound for (including providing all the voices) in 2002. Previously available only online (on and other sites), the eight-episode mini-series (and by that I mean the episodes are all incredibly short) was released on DVD in 2006 courtesy of Subversive Cinema. I lucked into getting a copy for $5 when Tower was selling off its defects and other previously-viewed product and that's about the right price for what is essentially 33 minutes of fart jokes and random violence. (At the very least, there are more fart jokes than one normally associates with a filmmaker like Lynch.)

The main character, if you will, is a wife beater-wearing mouth breather who drops profanities left and right and throttles people with little or no provocation. In the first episode he confronts a neighbor who has a wooden shed and unnatural relations with a duck. In the next he confronts an out-of-control treadmill and a traveling salesman. In the next he confronts a broken lamp and a quack doctor when his attempt to fix the lamp lands him in the hospital. In the next he confronts his shrieking wife's new clothesline and jaws about the joys of killing with a friend. In the next he confronts a man with a stick in his mouth, egged on by his hyperactive son. In the next he confronts the hell that his life is. In the next he confronts his hideously old Uncle Bob, who hacks up internal organs at an alarming rate, and his burly mother-in-law. And in the last he confronts a colony of ants, a confrontation that the ants win handily. They also get a lively song-and-dance number in which they tell him exactly what they think of him.

The drawings are crude and the animation cruder, but for someone who appreciates the work of Bill Plympton these are not obstacles to enjoying the work. In fact, there were a couple times that I was reminded of Plympton's 1988 short film One of Those Days, in particular the part where the character in that film comes to after being overcome while trying to fix a gas leak in his stove and then attempts to light a match so he can have a cigarette -- with the stove still pumping out gas. The first two times he's unable to get the match to light, which means he has that much more time to realize what a stupid thing he's doing. The main character in Dumbland similarly lacks the presence of mind to recognize potentially hazardous situations. All the better for the viewer, who by the end comes to see things from the ants' point of view.

Tuesday, August 28th, 2007
This is something a smart person wouldn't do.

Ten years ago I saw Greg Mottola's The Daytrippers as part of a filmmaking class I was taking. It was a modest indie comedy and I enjoyed it a lot. I lost track of Mottola after that, though, which is hardly surprising since he spent the ensuing decade directing a lot of television, including episodes of Undeclared and Arrested Development. Now at last comes his second feature, the superior high school comedy Superbad, which comes with the Judd Apatow seal of approval and a screenplay by Knocked Up star Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg.

It almost seems silly to go into the plot since the plot of a film like Superbad is almost beside the point, but I'll try to cover it in the broadest strokes possible. It's two weeks until high school graduation for best friends Seth and Evan (Jonah Hill and Michael Cera) when they get an unprecedented opportunity to impress the girls they're hot for (Emma Stone and Martha MacIsaac, respectively) by agreeing to procure the alcohol for a house party Stone is throwing. To accomplish this they enlist geeky associate Christopher Mintz-Plasse and his newly-minted fake I.D., on which he decided to use the unlikely moniker "McLovin." It doesn't take long for plans to go awry, though, especially when the liquor store is robbed and officers Bill Hader and Seth Rogen arrive on the scene. To say that the boys get sidetracked on the way to the party with the liquor would be a gross understatement.

Like Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Superbad is extremely frank about sex and the way the average American male gets hung up on it. How it differs from those films, though, is the fact that it's also about the enduring friendship between Hill and Cera, which is in jeopardy since they'll be going their separate ways at the end of the summer. (Cera got accepted to Dartmouth while Hill... didn't.) Their bond is strong, though, and the way their relationship plays out is quite touching -- but not the kind of touching that turns sappy and maudlin. (And not the kind of touching that went on in Brokeback Mountain, either. For a movie about testing the bounds of male friendship, there is a refreshing dearth of gay panic jokes.)

Thursday, August 30th, 2007
Some people might not exactly call it kosher.

During the cold war the film industries of different countries dealt with the threat of nuclear annihilation in different ways. In 1954 Japan produced Gojira, about as apt a metaphor for atom bomb tests biting humanity in the ass as you can find. The same year the U.S. produced Hell and High Water, Samuel Fuller's first film in Cinemascope as well as his first in Technicolor. Unfortunately I saw it on AMC, which means it wasn't letterboxed and it was chock full of commercials, but at least it was still in color.

The film, which Fuller co-wrote with Jesse L. Lasky Jr., starred Richard Widmark as a former submarine captain hired by a consortium of scientists to pilot a refitted Japanese sub to some islands in the North Pacific where it is believed the rotten, stinking Commies are stockpiling nuclear weapons. Initially he only does it for the sizable payoff -- much like his mercenary character in Fuller's previous film, the late-period noir Pickup on South Street -- but eventually his latent patriotic side wins out. Accompanying his hand-picked crew on this "scientific expedition" are esteemed nuclear physicist Victor Francen and his assistant, Bella Darvi, who has to overcome the crew's fear of having a woman on board and whose ability to understand several languages comes in handy. The film also features Cameron Mitchell as the sonar operator who becomes enamored of Darvi and is quite eager to show her his tattoo collection. (I guess they're etchings of a sort.) Of course, it isn't long before Widmark is marking moves on her himself.

In the interest of invoking a kind of realism not typical of Hollywood films of the era, Fuller has several scenes play out in a foreign language without subtitles. Francen and Darvi (the forerunners of SNL's Franken and Davis, perhaps?) have more than one conversation in French and there's a fairly important scene that is entirely in Japanese. It's the kind of thing that I'm sure the studio executives at Twentieth Century-Fox gave Fuller hell over, but it didn't stop him from making his next three films for them.

Friday, August 31st, 2007
Come on, babe. I wanna do it with the mask on.

Normally I abhor remakes, especially of horror films, and particularly of films by John Carpenter. I didn't bother with the recent versions of Assault of Precinct 13 and The Fog, and I was all ready to do the same with Rob Zombie's Halloween when I started seeing commercials for it (the curse of having television again) and, well, my curiosity got the better of me. What got me is it looked like it was going to be faithful to the original while giving Zombie the opportunity to craft his own vision of the night Michael Myers came home.

Eschewing the elegant, unbroken tracking shots that open the original, Zombie instead takes the time to paint a grim portrait of young Michael's (Daeg Faerch) home life. His mother (Sheri Moon Zombie) is a stripper, his stepfather (William Forsythe) is an abusive, crippled lout, and his older sister (Hanna Hall) is a little tramp. The only bright spot in his life is his baby sister Laurie, but he's already started down the path to being a psychopath, wearing a clown mask at the dinner table and killing small animals for pleasure. After taking out some aggression on a school bully (the first victim in a film with a body count far in excess of the original), Michael does in most of his horrid family (not just the slutty sister) and is sent to Smith's Grove Psychiatric Hospital under the supervision of Dr. Sam Loomis (Malcolm McDowell), who tries to reach him but finds it difficult once Michael starts donning homemade masks and refusing to speak.

Fast-forward 15 years. Loomis has given up on curing Michael and has written a book called The Devil's Eyes: The Story of Michael Myers. Myers (now a hulking beast of a man played by Tyler Mane) breaks out of the asylum and heads for Haddonfield, where his sister Laurie (Scout Taylor-Compton) is now a high school senior, completely unaware that she has a homicidal older brother. And I could describe how the rest of the film plays out, but it sticks close enough to the original that I doubt I need to. Some of the action has been moved around (a lot more scenes take place at the dilapidated Myers house) and the ending has been extended, but Zombie knows a good template when he sees one and that's what John Carpenter and Debra Hill gave him.

One of the major pleasures of Zombie's film is recognizing all of the genre veterans he got to be in it. You've got Brad Dourif as Sheriff Lee Brackett, Udo Kier and Clint Howard as two of the asylum's administrators, Danny Trejo as a guard who finds out the hard way that Myers doesn't care how nice you've been to him, Dee Wallace as Laurie's adoptive mother, Ken Foree as a trucker, Sybil Danning as a nurse, and Sid Haig as the cemetery manager who discovers that Michael's mother's headstone is missing on Halloween. And like in the original, Zombie has The Thing from Another World playing on television in a couple scenes (and throws in White Zombie, House on Haunted Hill and Forbidden Planet for good measure), and Blue Oyster Cult's "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" also puts in a few appearances (along with other classic rock staples like "Love Hurts" and "Tom Sawyer").

When it gets right down to it, I don't regret going to see this (and paying $8.50 for the privilege), but it has in no way, shape or form replaced the original in my estimation. The most damaging embellishment is probably Zombie's need to give Myers a backstory -- a gambit that I didn't see the need for in the odious Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, either. We don't need to know what makes characters like Michael Myers and Leatherface tick. Not knowing why they do what they do is what makes them scary. "Was that the boogeyman?" Laurie asks near the end of the film (a line that got a bad laugh at the screening I saw). I'd say Michael Myers was better off when one could imagine that he really was.

Back to July 2007 -- Onward to September 2007

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