Craig J. Clark Watches a Lot of Movies
January 2008

Tuesday, January 1, 2008
Wheat, lots of wheat. Fields of wheat. A tremendous amount of wheat.

Woody Allen's 1975 film Love and Death has long been one of my favorites and it seemed a fitting choice for a snowy New Year's Day with its sprightly Prokofiev score and snowy landscapes. Out of all his films, it has some of the most deliriously quotable dialogue ("It is a greater honor for me.") and the one-liners come fast and furious. As fish out of water scenarios go, Woody Allen cavorting around czarist Russia is right up there with the best of them, and Diane Keaton has never been more radiant and funny than she was as his cousin Sonja, who stimulates him intellectually, emotionally and physically, but she's more interested in his brutish brother Ivan.

The supporting cast is mostly drawn from Budapest and Paris, where the film was shot, but Allen also brought some ringers with him, like Harold Gould as the jealous lover of the countess that Allen the inadvertent war hero beds one night. This leads to a duel for her honor, which Allen miraculously survives, but still comes out a little worse for wear. James Tolkan, who later played Mr. Strickland in the Back to the Future movies, appears as Napoleon in the subplot where Allen and Keaton scheme to try to assassinate him to prevent him from making war with Russia. Jessica Harper has a bit part as Keaton's cousin Natasha, with whom she recreates the pivotal image from Ingmar Bergman's Persona while they talk about wheat. And then of course there's Death himself from The Seventh Seal, who is first encountered by Allen's character when he's a boy. I guess Allen figured while he's parodying Russia literature, he might as well pop over and get some digs in at Swedish cinema as well.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008
It's funny how beautiful people look when they're walking out the door.

Nearly a decade before he fractured the life of Bob Dylan into the unconventional biopic I'm Not There, director Todd Haynes had a go at fictionalizing David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust period in 1998's Velvet Goldmine (the title of which is derived from a Ziggy B-side). The film is structured like Citizen Kane, with an investigative reporter (played by Christian Bale) charged with finding out what happened to enigmatic rock star Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) ten years after a failed publicity stunt forced him to retire from the music industry. Bale interviews Slade's former manager (Michael Feast) and ex-wife (Toni Collette), both of whom were pushed out of his life -- Feast by rival manager Eddie Izzard and Collette by Iggy Pop stand-in Ewan McGregor -- but finds himself no closer to the truth than when he started.

Where this film differs from Kane, however, is in the treatment of Bale's character. A former glam rock kid, it turns out he was actually present at some of Slade's defining moments, including the concert where his Maxwell Demon alter ego was shot and killed. (For his part, David Bowie merely retired Ziggy Stardust, choosing to move onto other personae.) The more he investigates, the more he becomes part of the story. Hey, whatever happened to journalistic objectivity? And what's the deal with the spaceship, Todd? I think you lost me there.

Thursday, January 3, 2008
Perhaps you're not so different after all, Mr. Newton.

Just as he did with Mick Jagger in Performance, director Nicolas Roeg gave David Bowie his first lead in a motion picture with 1976's The Man Who Fell to Earth, which was based on a 13-year-old novel by Walter Tevis but seemingly tailor-made for Bowie's persona. In broad strokes, it's the story of an alien who travels to Earth to find a way of bringing back enough water to save his dying planet and, by extension, his wife and children. All seems to go swimmingly at first. He engages patent attorney Buck Henry to exploit the alien technology he has brought with him, he captivates disillusioned scientist Rip Torn, who stops bedding college co-eds long enough to take a job at one of his companies, and he steals the heart of simple hotel maid Candy Clark. Of the three of them, Henry is the only one who never finds out the truth about him, having chosen not to look this particular gift horse in the mouth.

I've seen the film at least half a dozen times over the years and I've also read the book that it was based on. Some things that were borderline incomprehensible the first couple times through started to come into focus the more I watched it, but there are still plenty of things that go unexplained and gaps in the continuity that never get filled. Time is elastic, with some of the characters aging rapidly over the course of the film while others -- Bowie's otherworldly visitor, in particular -- are virtually ageless. It's impossible to tell whether it takes place over the course of a decade or two or more. One thing's certain: however long it takes for him to try to get back, the twin vices of alcohol and television -- aided and abetted by a well-timed hostile corporate takeover -- conspire to keep him grounded.

Friday, January 4, 2008
It's very rude to disappear like that. Where can he possibly be?

Many people have called 1971's Get Carter the greatest British gangster film ever made, so who am I to argue? Featuring a career-defining performance by Michael Caine as a vicious London gangster who goes home to Newcastle to investigate his brother's murder, the film also made the reputation of writer/director Mike Hodges, who was making his feature debut. On the train ride up Caine is seen reading Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely, foreshadowing the kind of detective work he'll have to do to get to the bottom of things. Of course, once he does it's not like he's the sort of person to turn the guilty parties over to the police.

Saturday, January 5, 2008
Once you're in, there's no turning back.

Ang Lee's Lust, Caution finally made it to my area, so I have finally gotten to see it. I expect its NC-17 rating is the reason it never showed up at my local multiplex, but the Ryder Film Series had no qualms about bringing it to Bloomington. Set in Japanese-occupied Shanghai in 1942, Lust, Caution is an espionage thriller in the mold of Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious, with actress Wei Tang being employed by the Resistance to seduce high-ranking government official Tony Leung. (The film alludes to Notorious by including scenes from Intermezzo, starring Ingrid Bergman, and Penny Serenade, starring Cary Grant, as well as having Tang walk past a poster for Hitchcock's Suspicion, which also starred Grant.)

The story really begins in Hong Kong four years earlier, though, when Tang joins up with a radical student theater group organized by Lee-Hom Wang, who decides they need to graduate from producing nationalist propaganda to arranging a political assassination. They have to bide their time, though, sending Tang into the lion's den to play mahjong with Leung's wife (Joan Chen) while they wait for him to take the bait. Of course, once he does Tang gets much more than she bargained for when it turns out Leung likes it rough. Very rough. NC-17 rough. Tarzan couldn't take this kind of rough. The real question is whether audiences can take it or not. Either way, Ang Lee has taken his film to a place few mainstream directors dare, and I'm glad I was able to go with him.

Monday, January 7, 2008
If you don't fight, this job is not for you -- and it never will be.

On the eve of the New Hampshire primary, 1964's The Best Man -- a fictional account of the behind-the-scenes wrangling for votes at a political convention -- couldn't be more timely. Written by Gore Vidal and based on his play of the same name, the film was directed by Franklin J. Schaffner and starred Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson as the two frontrunners (in a field of five -- imagine that, a political convention where the nominee isn't a foregone conclusion). Fonda is the secretary of state, a decent man with marital problems and a history of mental instability that Robertson, a senator who portrays himself as a man of the people, threatens to expose. Both of them crave the endorsement of the ailing president (Lee Tracy), who tries to spur Fonda on to fight back against Robertson's smear tactics.

An opportunity to do just that arises in the form of Shelley Berman as a nervous businessman who knew Robertson in the Army and has some dirt on him. Fonda's campaign manager (Kevin McCarthy) urges him to use the information, leading to a face-to-face showdown between the adversaries far away from the convention floor. The film also stars Margaret Leighton as Fonda's wife, who calls a temporary truce so they can put forth a unified front, Edie Adams as Robertson's wife, who worries about the skeleton rattling around in his closet, and Ann Sothern as a pushy delegate who claims to speak for all women. It seems like everyone has advice for Fonda, though, which makes it difficult for him to stick to his guns. Whether he'll choose to fire them or not is the question.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008
If all young women rushed off to be married, the world would be a lonely place.

After a short break from Ozu, I have returned with 1958's Equinox Flower, which was his first film in color. This must have inspired him to lighten up on the story -- at least at the beginning. I counted three instances of bathroom humor, including a scene where a businessman is talking with a long-winded acquaintance and excuses himself to use the bathroom, but instead goes back to his office to catch up on some work. The businessman is played by Shin Saburi, who attends a wedding at the start of the film where the marriage is based on "infatuation," but refuses his consent when his own daughter (Ineko Arima) wants to marry for the same reason. Stuck in the middle is Saburi's wife (Kinuyo Tanaka), who has met the young man (Keiji Sada) and likes him very much, but Saburi is stubborn and unyielding.

Saburi's plight is mirrored by a couple of minor characters. One is a woman so obsessed with playing matchmaker for her daughter that she checks herself into the hospital for a treatment so the daughter can meet her doctor. The other is an old school friend played by Ozu regular Chishu Ryu, whose daughter has left home after a quarrel. Ryu asks Saburi to look up the daughter (Yoshiko Kuga) at the bar where she works and when he does he brings along an employee (Teiji Takahashi) who tries to hide the fact that he's a regular there. (This is one way that the film never loses its sense of humor, even as it focuses on the increasingly brusque and domineering Saburi.) Eventually, as he sees how similar situations play out for other people, Saburi comes to accept that his daughter's life is her own -- but that doesn't mean he has to be happy about it.

Why should they go to all this trouble to kidnap a harmless little governess?

One of the last films Hitchcock made before leaving England for the warmer climes of America was 1938's The Lady Vanishes, a film that deftly juggles light comedy, suspense and international intrigue. Like The Man Who Knew Too Much, it was later remade by Hollywood, but not by Hitchcock. He knew it couldn't be bettered.

The kind of film that defines "fast-paced" and "quick-witted," The Lady Vanishes stars Margaret Lockwood as a woman bound for home who suffers a blow to the head at the station and is helped onto the train by a kindly old lady, a governess by the name of Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty). After Lockwood dozes off, though, nobody on the train can remember the old lady and they pointedly deny that she was ever there. Lockwood gains an unlikely ally in Michael Redgrave, with whom she had an unpleasant run-in the night before, but even he doesn't quite believe her at first. And there also happens to be a brain specialist aboard (Paul Lukas) who is way too eager to explain Lockwood's concerns away.

Besides those in on the conspiracy, the train is stocked with characters who have their own reasons for keeping mum, including an adulterous couple (Cecil Parker and Linden Travers) trying to avoid exposure, and a pair of English gentlemen (Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford) whose only concern is getting home in time for the test match. In a way, they're like a cross-section of British society, blundering about the Continent in the lead-up to war. (It hadn't been declared yet, but Hitchcock and his writers clearly knew there was something in the air.) Not only do you eventually have to take a side, but you also have to recognize that there is a side to take.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008
The more I think about it, the more I know I asked for a reckless evening.

Gus Van Sant's debut feature, 1985's Mala Noche, was almost impossible to see before Criterion released it last fall. Now those with the ability to forgive its technical shortcomings (night scenes are lit very haphazardly and acting is far from polished) can experience it in all its ragged glory. Based on the novel by Walt Curtis and set in a perpetually rainy Portland, Oregon, the film was written, produced, edited and directed by Van Sant, who clearly made it as a labor of love, much like his protagonist, who clumsily pursues a Mexican street kid with whom he has fallen in love.

Tim Streeter plays Walt, who works at a convenience store and pines for the aloof Johnny (Doug Cooeyate), an illegal who doesn't speak any English but still recognizes -- and rejects -- his advances. Walt eventually settles for Johnny's friend Roberto (Ray Monge, who later played small roles in Drugstore Cowboy and Elephant), who accepts his love-by-proxy grudgingly, but Johnny is the one Walt really wants. He even fantasizes about how he would completely debase himself to show Johnny exactly how he feels. It would be difficult to find a more abject depiction of unrequited love -- gay or straight.

Thursday, January 10, 2008
I am a kind of a jerk-off poet therapist. That's what I do.

One of the supplements on Criterion's Mala Noche release is Walt Curtis: The Peckerneck Poet, a documentary produced by animator Bill Plympton and directed by Plympton and Curtis. They started the film in 1995, but didn't finish it until 1998 -- and even then it received scant distribution. That might have as much to do with its content as it does its length. Essentially, the camera follows Curtis around his home state of Oregon for 63 minutes, stopping periodically so he can recite his provocative poems and show off his explicit paintings and drawings, all of which are homoerotic in nature. It's doubtful anybody picking up Mala Noche would be shocked, but those disturbed by male nudity should be forewarned: this doc is packed with peckers.

It's your mug in the lineup, not ours, if you get caught.

One of the police procedurals that followed in the wake of Dragnet was The Lineup, which ran for six seasons from 1954-1960. Don Siegel directed the pilot episode and was brought back four years later to make the feature film version, from a script by Stirling Silliphant. Set in San Francisco, the film follows two police detectives played by Warner Anderson (reprising his role from the series) and Emile Meyer as they investigate a drug smuggling ring that uses unsuspecting tourists as their couriers. On the other side of the law, top-billed Eli Wallach plays Dancer, a psychopathic bag man and the protégé of Robert Keith, who has a macabre interest in people's last words. Suffice it to say, once he and Wallach start calling on the hapless tourists, he collects plenty.

Saturday, January 12, 2008
This is the second bunch of brains to come out here. What happened to the first?

I'm not sure why Turner Classic Movies decided to get into the business of showing Roger Corman movies, but I'm very glad they did. Their most recent presentation was 1957's Attack of the Crab Monsters, one of the nine films he directed that was released that year. Clocking in at just over an hour, Crab Monsters was written by regular Corman scribe Charles B. Griffith, who wastes no time in stranding a group of scientists on a remote island in the South Pacific with no way off and no means of communication. They're actually the second such expedition studying the effects of radioactive fallout on the island, the first having disappeared without a trace.

It's not much of a spoiler to reveal that they were eaten by giant crab monsters, but what to make of the explanation that the crabs received "an overdose of radiation poisoning"? Is there a recommended dose of radiation poisoning? Also, the business of the crabs eating their victims' brains and acquiring their knowledge (as well as the ability to broadcast their voices through any metal object) raises this above the level of a mere cult curiosity. ("Preservation of the species. Once they were men. Now they are land crabs.") Then, of course, there are the giant crabs themselves, which don't look half bad considering they were made on a shoestring budget.

The most recognizable face in the cast is Russell Johnson, playing a technician who is not only handy with electronics, but also exposition. In a single scene he not only explains what they're doing there, but also identifies all of the major characters, including biologist couple Richard Garland and Pamela Duncan, nuclear physicist Leslie Bradley (who struggles with his German accent), botanist Mel Welles (who went on to play Mushnik in Little Shop of Horrors), and geologist Richard H. Cutting (who must have gotten the degree so he could study the rocks in his head). Johnson doesn't bother introducing any of the Navy seamen who bring them to the island, though, because one of them has his head taken clean off at the beginning of the picture and most of the others get blown up on takeoff. Hey, the crab monsters seem to be handy with dynamite (somehow -- the movie never explains how -- they're using it to systematically destroy the island). Maybe they also planted a bomb on the plane! (Okay, maybe not.)

Monday, January 14, 2008
These are very dangerous waters you are attempting to navigate.

When I first saw Good Night, and Good Luck. in the fall of 2005, I wasn't in the habit of posting movie reviews, but I took the time to write a brief entry about it because I thought it was worthy of the attention. Tonight I gave it another look and I still think it's a fine motion picture that serves as an example of how a film can be both intelligent and entertaining in equal measure. And if there is one thing that I am thankful for, it is that unlike some directors, George Clooney does not equate length with importance. (Most would-be prestige films run well over two hours, but this one clocks in at just 93 minutes -- and that's with credits.)

Written by Clooney and his producing partner Grant Heslov, the film covers the period between October 1953, when Edward R. Murrow (a perfectly-cast David Strathairn) began testing the waters for an attack on the methods of an as-yet unchecked Senator Joe McCarthy (playing himself in archival footage), and the following spring, when Murrow's CBS program See It Now took McCarthy on directly. In between, Murrow and his producer Fred Friendly (played by Clooney) weather criticism from within the company (from executives Jeff Daniels and Frank Langella) and without. Meanwhile, two members of the show's staff, played by Patricia Clarkson and Robert Downey Jr., are trying to keep their marriage a secret, and one of Murrow's colleagues, a newscaster played by Ray Wise, is having to contend with being labeled a "pinko" and accusations of slanting the news. Standing up to demagoguery, while an inherently noble cause, clearly had its pitfalls.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008
I tell them not to, but they go next door to watch TV anyway.

Toward the end of his career Yasujiro Ozu turned his hand to remaking some of his early films. The first was 1959's Good Morning, an update of the 1932 silent I Was Born, But... A high-spirited comedy of manners (and the lack of them), Good Morning is unique in Ozu's oeuvre in that it is mostly seen from the point of view of the children in the story and it is a positively rife with fart jokes. (There's even a running gag about how one of the boys soils himself daily trying to force one out.)

The two main children are Minoru and his younger brother Isamu (Koji Shitara and Masahiko Shimazu), who wear matching outfits and frequently skip their English lessons to watch sumo wrestling on television at a neighbor's house. (Minoru is the one taking lessons; the only English phrase Isamu seems to know is "I love you.") Soon enough they're pestering their parents (Chishu Ryu and Kuniko Miyake) for a set of their own and eventually resort to taking a vow of silence until they acquiesce, which has unforeseen complications.

Even before then there's unrest amongst the neighbors since it is believed that Women's Association group head Haruko Sugimura (the mother of the boy who soils his pants) has spent their dues on a washing machine for herself. This turns out not to be the case, but later on Sugimura believes she's being snubbed by the two boys, leading to more misunderstandings. Rounding out the cast are Keiji Sada as the English teacher/translator who helps look for the boys when they go missing and won't admit that he's in love with their aunt, the equally reserved Yoshiko Kuga. The small talk they engage in may indeed be a "social lubricant," but it's not helping them express their feelings. At least the children know that the squeaky wheel gets the grease (or in this case, the television set).

Wednesday, January 16, 2008
If that isn't the look of a guilty man, I'll take the rap myself.

The earliest entry in the Fox Film Noir series is 1941's I Wake Up Screaming, which came out a mere month after The Maltese Falcon. Like that film, it's more of a mystery than later films in the embryonic genre would be, but the visual signifiers are already present and accounted for. It also has a complicated structure, with an opening comprised of a series of flashbacks related by characters being interrogated by the police. The film settles down after that, but each time a new piece of evidence is revealed it forces the audience to reevaluate what they know about the story and which of the characters they're sympathetic with.

Directed by Bruce Humberstone, a veteran of Charlie Chan pictures, the film stars Betty Grable as the sister of an up-and-coming starlet who was murdered and Victor Mature as the sports promoter who is the main suspect. Carole Landis plays the starlet who was plucked out of obscurity by Mature but left him flat when Hollywood came calling, Laird Cregar is the cop who's bent on putting him away, and Elisha Cook Jr. has a small part as the creepy switchboard operator at her building. (Between this film and Falcon, he established a firm foothold in the genre that he would return to frequently over the next two decades.) Cook is ruled out as a suspect early on, though, which gives Cregar plenty of room to hound Mature -- on his own time, no less. I've heard of being dedicated to your job, but that's going overboard.

Thursday, January 17, 2008
No more dead bodies for Daddy tonight.

While I disagree vehemently with the decision to release the two halves of Grindhouse separately on DVD, I still picked up both movies over the holidays when I was able to get them for a steal. If I wanted to, I suppose I could watch them back-to-back, but without the trailers that went in the middle the experience would be somewhat wanting, so tonight I went with Planet Terror by itself. It holds up pretty well the second time around, but the extended cut doesn't really add much apart from length. Scenes that used to clip along now have a little air in them and some dialogue that didn't make the theatrical cut has been restored -- that's about the extent of it. If I had a choice between this version and the one I saw on the big screen last Easter weekend, I would go with the shorter cut, but until that choice is given to me, this one will have to do.

Friday, January 18, 2008
We lost a lot of good boys in that war. And we kept some we should have lost.

Filmed in 1972, but not released until 1974, Bob Clark's Deathdream (also known as Dead of Night) is an allegorical zombie film about a soldier who dies in Vietnam, but comes back as one of the undead, apparently because his mother wishes it so. A variation on "The Monkey's Paw," the film was written by Alan Ormsby (who also did the makeup effects, assisted by a young Tom Savini, himself a Vietnam veteran) and starred John Marley and Lynn Carlin as the parents who take the news of their son's death very differently. Carlin, in particular, refuses to believe that it's true and is overjoyed when Andy (Richard Backus) arrives on their doorstep in the middle of the night. Marley, on the other hand, is able to pick up on the fact that there's something not quite right with the boy. Maybe it's the way he strangles the family dog to death in front of the neighbor's kids.

Saturday, January 19, 2008
You want to make a bet? This is the last fight.

In 1960, Roger Corman traveled to Puerto Rico to make a trio of movies. (Actually, he only planned on making two, but the script for Creature from the Haunted Sea was hastily thrown together to make the most of the location shoot.) First out of the gate was Last Woman on Earth, a post-apocalyptic adventure story which Corman had enough faith in that he put up the extra money to shoot it in color. Written by first-time scripter Robert Towne, it stars Betsy Jones-Moreland as the neglected wife of unscrupulous businessman Antony Carbone, who is vacationing in Puerto Rico (and gambling on everything in sight, including the cockfights) while the U.S. government is investigating him. Also along for the trip is Carbone's lawyer (played by Towne under the pseudonym Edward Wain), who wants to talk business but gets roped into a scuba diving expedition. It's a good thing he is, too, because it's while the three of them are underwater that the world goes kablooey.

After they surface and discover that they're the only humans left, our three heroes make for shore and begin building a new life -- one that is immediately beset by conflict. Carbone becomes bossy and possessive, Towne proves to be a defeatist wiseacre, and Jones-Moreland finds that she prefers the company of the latter to the former, which doesn't sit well with Carbone at all. Things come to a head when Carbone and Towne enact the Fish Slapping Dance (12 years before Monty Python), which leads to Carbone exiling Towne. What he doesn't count on is that Towne isn't planning on leaving alone.

A few years back, Last Woman on Earth was released as part of the "Roger Corman Puerto Rico Trilogy," along with Creature from the Haunted Sea and Battle of Blood Island (which was directed by Joel M. Rapp). If you happen to get hold of that, you might want to skip Corman's intro until after you've seen the film since he offhandedly spoils the ending. (Oops.) The DVD also includes eight minutes of TV scenes that were shot by Monte Hellman three years later. They weren't there to add anything to the story or the characters, but rather to augment the skimpy 64-minute running time.

The question is not when he's gonna stop, but who's gonna stop him?

The characters in the second half of Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof wax endlessly about the super-charged 1970 white Dodge Challenger from 1971's Vanishing Point and having seen it in action I can understand why. In many ways it's the most important character in the film -- with Barry Newman's enigmatic Kowalski coming a close second. A speed freak in both senses of the word, Kowalski is a former road racer and current car delivery driver whose backstory gets filled in one piece at a time. A Vietnam vet and former cop, he's also a conscientious speeder, always stopping to make sure the accident victims left in his wake are all right before continuing on.

The film starts out with the California police setting up an impassable roadblock, which Newman finds there's no way around, and then jumps back two days to when he first picked up the Charger in Denver, Colorado. From there, he leads the highway patrols of three states on a wild chase as he attempts to deliver the car to its destination in San Francisco one day ahead of schedule. Along the way he's aided by blind DJ Super Soul (Cleavon Little), who keeps him abreast of what the Blue Meanies are up to, an old prospector (Dean Jagger) gathering snakes for faith healer Severn Darden, who leads him out of the desert, and a hippie and a naked motorcycle-riding chick who help him cross the state line into California. There's also a small role for Charlotte Rampling as a hitchhiker he picks up the second night. She's second-billed in the version that was shown in the U.K., but was cut out of the U.S. print entirely. I guess the American distributor was anxious to cut to the chase.

The film was directed by Richard C. Sarafian, whose career before and after Vanishing Point was somewhat undistinguished, and written by G. Cabrera Infante (using the pseudonym Guillermo Cain), whose only previous credit was 1968's Wonderwall, which was most notable for spawning George Harrison's first and only motion picture score. As for its stars, Barry Newman has worked steadily and popped up alongside counterculture icon Peter Fonda in The Limey, and Cleavon Little achieved pop culture immortality playing Sheriff Bart in Blazing Saddles. And Vanishing Point was remade as a 1997 TV movie starring Viggo Mortensen, but the less said about that, the better.

Monday, January 21, 2008
I wanted it to be impressive, and scary tends to impress.

Of the two Grindhouse films, Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof is the one that actually benefits from being expanded from its theatrical cut. I've read the published screenplay, so the new scenes weren't a surprise to me, particularly the lap dance sequence that fell prey to the "missing reel" gag in the theatrical version. That one I can take or leave, and the extended scene with lawman Earl McGraw at the hospital goes into a bit more detail about Stuntman Mike's m.o., but the major addition is the reinstated opening of the second half of the film.

Tarantino chooses to draw attention to the new material by jarringly cutting to black and white, a stylistic choice redolent of the treatment of the extra-violent shots in Kill Bill. The difference is that was done to pass the censors, whereas the scene in Death Proof is all about set-up, showing us the moment when Stuntman Mike happens upon the second group of women he chooses to victimize. That's a connection that was sorely lacking in the theatrical cut and I'm glad it's restored here.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008
I don't want correspondence. I want news.

Upon his arrival in the States, Alfred Hitchcock needed to prove that he was a filmmaker to be reckoned with and he accomplished that by having his first two American films nominated for Best Picture in the same year. The first, 1940's Rebecca, was the film that won that year, but the second, Foreign Correspondent, was much more up his alley. It was also the result of a loan-out from David O. Selznick's company to producer Walter Wanger, who gave Hitchcock more autonomy than he had under Selznick -- and ever would have.

Joel McCrea may not have been Hitchcock's first choice of star, but he handles the role of the crime reporter sent to Europe on the eve of war with aplomb. His first stop is London, where he meets up his veteran correspondent Robert Benchley (who also had a hand in the script) and attends a banquet given by the Universal Peace Party, which is headed by Herbert Marshall, and manages to stick his foot in it with Marshall's daughter, Laraine Day, with whom he immediately falls helplessly in love. From there he goes to Holland where he witnesses the assassination of an important foreign diplomat and gets involved in international intrigue -- all in the line of duty, of course. The film also features George Sanders, returning from Rebecca, as McCrea's British counterpart, and Edmund Gwenn, a supporting player in numerous Hitchcock films, as a most genial assassin. This was the only film Hitchcock made with Walter Wanger, though. Selznick didn't want him getting too chummy with any other producers.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008
I could handle losing if he would just compete with me.

When I first saw the trailer for The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters six months ago, I immediately knew that it was a film I had to see. What I didn't count on was it taking that long to be screened in my area. At the outset, Seth Gordon's film seems like it's going to be a frivolous document of a competitive video gaming rivalry, but it quickly becomes a real David vs. Goliath story, with the underdog facing seemingly insurmountable odds to even reach the point where he can legitimately challenge the world's champion Donkey Kong player.

Billy Mitchell's record stood since 1982 and he built his reputation on it -- as well as many other video game records over the years. A legend in certain circles, Mitchell not only has the recognition of his peers, but also a thriving hot sauce company. Steve Wiebe, on the other hand, is presented as a perpetual also-ran who installed a Donkey Kong game in his garage after being laid off from his job. When Wiebe submits a record-beating tape to Twin Galaxies, the official video game record keepers, Mitchell springs into action, working behind the scenes to discredit him. It's when Wiebe takes the next logical step -- challenging Mitchell to defend his title in public -- that things get interesting. As one interview subject says, "It's all about head-to-head competition," but that sentiment doesn't hold when one head refuses to show up.

Thursday, January 24, 2008
It's good when it's good, but when we get stranded it's a terrible profession.

Yasujiro Ozu's second film of 1959, Floating Weeds was another remake of one of his early silents -- in this case 1934's A Story of Floating Weeds, released in a dual package with it by the Criterion Collection. Criterion's Eclipse imprint is putting out a trio of silent Ozu comedies in April, so I'll wait on the latter until I can watch it in context. As for Floating Weeds, it tells the story of a kabuki troupe led by Ganjiro Nakamura that comes to a small fishing village and plays to ever-dwindling audiences until the show closes, leaving them stranded until another booking comes up.

Nakamura isn't too troubled by this turn of events since it means he can spend more time with an old flame (Haruko Sugimura) and their adult son (Hiroshi Kawaguchi), who has been led to believe that the actor is merely his uncle. This, however, doesn't sit too well with Nakamura's current leading lady (Machiko Kyô), who is quite the jealous type and convinces ingenue Ayako Wakao to seduce the young man. As often happens in cases like these, though, Wakao actually falls for him herself, leading to more than one confrontation with the volatile Nakamura. Chishu Ryu rounds out the cast as the impresario who brings the troupe to town and ends up taking a bath. Considering how hot it's supposed to be, I'm surprised we don't see more people doing just that.

Friday, January 25, 2008
We can't start escaping at a time like this. What would future generations think of us?

Continuing the theme of traveling players stranded by circumstances beyond their control, Terry Gilliam's 1988 film The Adventures of Baron Munchausen features a troupe of actors led by Bill Paterson who have the misfortune to be playing a seaside town while it is besieged by a sultan's army. They also happen to be performing a play based on Baron Munchausen's unbelievable exploits when the real Baron (John Neville) shows up and attempts to set the record straight. The only person who believes he's the genuine article, however, is Paterson's daughter Sally, played by a precocious and very self-possessed Sarah Polley. Together the two of them set forth to find the Baron's extraordinary servants (including Gilliam's Python cohort Eric Idle and co-writer Charles McKeown) and raise the siege.

Thus begins one of the most lavish and imaginative fantasies ever committed to celluloid. Hard to believe this film is now 20 years old, but there it is. Maybe now that so much time has passed, it will be possible for audiences to see it as it's supposed to be instead of as the notorious money pit it became. I had long hoped that it would someday join Time Bandits, Brazil and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in the Criterion Collection, but the two-disc special edition that Sony is putting out in April will do just as well. And maybe -- just maybe -- we'll be graced with a commentary this time.

Saturday, January 26, 2008
It hurts to love a man that can be dead next week.

Three years before John Frankenheimer made Grand Prix, Roger Corman told a similar story about the melodramatic lives of race car drivers on and off the track -- and in about half the time. 1963's The Young Racers stars Mark Damon as a writer who sets out to do an exposé on philandering champion William Campbell, especially when Campbell sets his sights on Damon's secretary (and fiancée) Luana Anders. And he's not the only one has an axe to grind -- there's also Campbell's sourpuss brother Bob, played by his actual brother (and the movie's screenwriter) R. Wright Campbell, and self-proclaimed "critic of life" Patrick Magee, who has waited a long time to get his revenge (just as we have to wait a long time for him to even show up in the picture).

This was a major international production by Corman's standards with extensive location shooting and plenty of actual race footage. As a result he had plenty of help on hand, including Charles B. Griffith as assistant director, Robert Towne as second assistant director, a young Menahem Golan as production manager and assistant director, and an even younger Francis Ford Coppola as sound man and second unit director. Incidentally, it was during this production that Coppola convinced Corman to give him the money and three of his stars to shoot Dementia 13, the calling card he used to move on to bigger and better things. Sometimes the ones who learned the most from the Roger Corman School of Filmmaking were the ones who graduated the quickest.

Sunday, January 27, 2008
It's okay, man. If there's one thing I know, it's how to drive when I'm stoned.

It would be hard for me to forget my first exposure to the animated film Heavy Metal. It was back in the early '90s, when the film was bedeviled by legal issues and therefore out of general circulation. I was at my first Philcon -- a science fiction and fantasy convention that took place in Philadelphia every year -- and was thrilled to find out that it was being screened at the con. Since it was unavailable on video, it had to be projected on film, which made it all the more miraculous that the print -- which was at least a decade old at that point -- was in as good a shape as it was. The only drawback was that it was being shown to a somewhat rowdy crowd that was all too familiar with the film and picked it apart mercilessly. This diminished the experience somewhat, but I still came away from the screening feeling like I'd witnessed something special and rare.

Soon after, I got to re-watch the film on a video taped off cable that a college acquaintance had. This time I was with friends and we were the ones picking it apart, but not until after it was over. We all agreed that the segments that came off best were the ones that had the least to do with the wraparound story and we had a good time picking out the voices of various SCTV alumni (John Candy, Eugene Levy, Joe Flaherty and Harold Ramis all pop up in multiple roles). We also latched onto certain lines ("You die, she dies, everybody dies." -- "I got an angle.") that became in-jokes for our group.

In the years that followed I picked up the soundtrack -- and not just because of Devo's cover of "Working in the Coalmine" -- but held off on buying the film itself when it came out on video or on DVD (the latter mostly because it never came down in price -- and this was at a time when I got an amazing employee discount at Tower). One Amazon sale later, though, and I have finally made it mine. Seeing it again after a decade and a half, I find that its pluses continue to outweigh its minuses. At best, Heavy Metal is a vastly entertaining mix of sci-fi, fantasy and horror; at worst, it's simply masturbation fodder for hormonal teenagers. The difference is now teenagers have much easier access to it.

Monday, January 28, 2008
All things weird are normal in this whore of cities.

In a documentary on the Heavy Metal DVD, some of the film's makers and aficionados pointed out how the look of the "Harry Canyon" segment was reflected in such subsequent films as Blade Runner and The Fifth Element. While I was watching it, though, what it reminded me of was Jean-Luc Godard's 1965 science fiction film Alphaville. Like all low-budget Godard films, it was shot entirely on actual locations. Unlike any film he had made up to that point, though, he had to find locations that looked vaguely futuristic in order to suggest an entire city under the control of a supercomputer called Alpha 60.

Eddie Constantine stars as Lemmy Caution, a secret agent from the Outlands posting as a journalist who is on a mission to contact an important professor who just happens to be the father of Anna Karina, the young woman assigned to him during his stay. After visiting fellow agent Akim Tamiroff, who's been put up at a rooming house where the boarders are expected to off themselves, Constantine accompanies Karina to a public execution where people are killed for the crime of acting illogically. There he comes face to face with the professor, played by Howard Vernon, who not only used to be Professor Nosferatu before changing it to Von Braun, but also turns out to be the mastermind behind Alpha 60. Much like Skynet in the Terminator movies, though, Alpha 60 has since started programming itself.

The film is full of sly jokes, like the dictionaries that are replaced daily as more words disappear from them, or the machine that says, "Put in one token," and when you do all you get is a card that says, "Merci." An amusing detail is the way Constantine is constantly snapping photos with his flash camera -- an activity he engages in about as often as he shoots his gun (with the attendant flash of the muzzle). And then there's the way Karina shakes her head when she means yes and nods her head when she means no. Talk about mixed signals.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008
This sort of thing has cropped up before and it has always been due to human error.

One of the most intriguing extras on the Heavy Metal DVD is the deleted "Neverwhere Land" sequence. Originally meant to be the bridge between "Captain Sternn" and "B-17," it depicts the evolution of life on planet Earth, with the glowing green orb acting as the catalyst. Naturally, the orb encourages violent impulses in the creatures it influences, which strikes me as somewhat similar to the way mankind reacts when exposed to the monoliths in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. I'm not saying Heavy Metal would have been anywhere near as profound as 2001, but "Neverwhere Land" would have brought a whole level of meaning to the film had it been left in.

As for 2001 itself, I doubt I have anything to say about it that hasn't already been said countless times over -- and more eloquently to boot. And we may be hearing quite a bit about it in the upcoming months since April marks the 40th anniversary of its initial release. Who knows? It could even get a limited theatrical re-release. If there's any film that demands to be seen on a movie screen, it is this one.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008
I knew you'd escape. They haven't built a circuit that could hold you.

If Alphaville's Alpha 60 and 2001's HAL 9000 ever had a bastard lovechild, it would probably be the MCP (or Master Control Program) from Tron, a film I've long had a great fondness for despite its narrative shortcomings. There's a definite man vs. computer theme to all three films, but there are other connections. For example, when Jeff Bridges gets zapped into the computer world, there's an animated sequence that is highly reminiscent of Dave Bowman going through the Stargate in 2001. And the malevolent computer program that has broken the bounds of its original programming and has control of an entire society is a plot element in both Alphaville and Tron.

There's even a tenuous connection to Heavy Metal since both films include parts that were shot in black and white and then rotoscoped in post-production to achieve an otherworldly look. Also like Heavy Metal, this was another film that I missed when it first came out and didn't get to see until I was in college. Not that I would have expected my mother to take me to an R-rated movie when I was 8, but Tron is PG (and I wanted to see it desperately, but my mother took us to see Annie instead; I'm still scarred). Tune in tomorrow when I'll watch yet another film from my personal collection that has to do with computers, dual identities and/or innovative animation techniques.

Thursday, January 31, 2008
This is a world getting progressively worse. Can we not agree on that?

For his 2006 film version of Philip K. Dick's seminal novel A Scanner Darkly, Richard Linklater returned to the distinctive animation style that he first used on Waking Life, this time putting it in service of a linear story (albeit one with plenty of opportunities for creative visuals). Set in the near future, it tells the story of undercover narc Bob Arctor (played very effectively by Keanu Reeves), who has infiltrated a group of Substance D addicts in order to find out who their main supplier is. It's bad enough that he gets addicted to the drug, which causes mental instability, but when he's assigned by his superior to investigate himself, that's the cue for deep paranoia to set in.

Bob Arctor's circle of friends includes Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder and Rory Cochrane, all of whom give fully-committed, frequently hilarious performances. Cochrane kicks the film off with an alternately harrowing and hysterical hallucination scene, but nothing tops Downey and Harrelson spinning their convoluted conspiracy theories. (Downey in particular is in top form throughout.) And in a nice callback to Waking Life, Alex Jones, who played the Man in Car with P.A., shows up in this film as a Street Prophet haranguing passersby with his megaphone. Not surprisingly, it doesn't take long for the authorities to show up and silence him. In the nightmare world of A Scanner Darkly, the authorities are always watching.

Back to December 2007 -- Onward to February 2008

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