Craig J. Clark Watches a Lot of Movies
August 2010


Monday, August 2, 2010
You mustn't be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.

Finally got around to seeing Inception, which puts me three weekends behind the curve, but I was waiting until I was home on vacation so I could catch it with my friend Kevin since we've managed to see most of Christopher Nolan's films together. Chances are you don't need me to tell you how good it is because it's very likely you've already seen it for yourself, but if you haven't because you're wary of all the hype it's received, let me assure you that it more than lives up to its reputation.

Nolan's first completely original screenplay since his debut, 1998's Following (which I need to give another look in the near future), Inception posits a world where extractors engage in the highly illegal practice of entering people's dreams and stealing their ideas -- or implanting new ones. Leonardo DiCaprio plays one such extractor, who's haunted by the suicide of his wife (Marion Cotillard) and desperately wants to return to the States and his two children. To this end he makes a deal with a Japanese businessman (Ken Watanabe) to enter the mind of one of his rivals (Cillian Murphy) and convince him to break up his ailing father's vast energy company. In order to accomplish this, DiCaprio recruits a crack team that includes his trusted partner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a brilliant young architect (Ellen Page), a sardonic forger/impersonator (Tom Hardy) and a chemist (Dileep Rao) skilled in the art of putting people under. All of their talents come into play when the job is set into motion, but only Page knows the extent to which DiCaprio is putting the rest of the team in danger since his dead wife has a knack for forcing her way out of his subconscious at the most inopportune moments.

The film also features cameos (some brief, some more extended) by Pete Postlethwaite as Murphy's estranged father, Tom Berenger as his right-hand man (whose interest is in preserving the status quo), Michael Caine as DiCaprio's father-in-law, and Lukas Haas as the architect on the first job who turns out to be somewhat unreliable. As is frequently the case with Nolan's films, he throws us right into the middle of the action, expecting us to play catch-up and fill in the particulars as the film goes along. For this and many other reasons, I expect Inception will be highly rewarding to those who choose to see it more than once. You could say it's the seed that, once planted, can change everything.


Thursday, August 5, 2010
You gotta get used to my weird sense of humor.

Since it's stuck in a kind of "is it going to go wide or isn't it?" limbo, I made a point of catching the Duplass Brothers' Cyrus while I'm home and within driving distance of a theater where it's playing. Written and directed by Jay & Mark Duplass, Cyrus breaks the mumblecore mold of their previous efforts by being an (admittedly low-budget) indie with actual stars as opposed to a cast of unknowns. Heading up the cast is John C. Reilly as a middle-aged divorcé who's been in free fall ever since his wife left him. The fact that it's been seven years and he still hasn't gotten his shit together says a lot about his ability to move on, but things start to look up for him when he has a "meet drunk" with Marisa Tomei at a party and they somewhat improbably hook up. Then again, it turns out she has her reasons for not being too judgmental. Chief among them is her adult son Cyrus (Jonah Hill), who still lives at home with (and is extremely attached to) her.

To say that Hill and Tomei's closeness is less than healthy doesn't even begin to scratch the surface (for one thing, their hugs tend to last a beat or three too long). When Hill actively starts sabotaging her burgeoning relationship with Reilly, though, the interloper goes on the offensive to fight for the woman he loves. Along the way he pumps his ex-wife (the always-welcome Catherine Keener) for advice despite the fact that she's in the midst of planning her wedding (to Upright Citizens Brigade alum Matt Walsh, who's understandably less than pleased that Reilly's still a major part of her life). Naturally that turns out to be ground zero for Reilly and Hill's big confrontation, after which everybody has a little soul-searching to do. Suffice it to say, few of the characters wind up liking what they see.


Friday, August 6, 2010
When Orlando was born, it wasn't privilege he sought, but company.

One of the things I miss most about living next door to Philadelphia is the active repertory film scene and the ability to catch the occasional full-fledged re-release that comes through town. This is why I was so glad the last day of my trip home coincided with the re-release of Sally Potter's 1992 film Orlando, based on the novel by Virginia Woolf. The kind of film for which the word "sumptuous" was invented (it was nominated for its art direction and costume design at Oscar time and appears to have been shot entirely with available light), Orlando stars Tilda Swinton as the title character, whose life spans over 400 years and both sexes, which allows him/her to be on both sides of a great many climactic events, both personal and historical. It also gives Potter, who adapted the book for the screen, the freedom to go beyond the original story (which was first published in 1928) and take it right up through the present day.

As the film opens, in 1600, Orlando is a young nobleman who becomes the favorite of an aged Queen Elizabeth I (played by gay icon Quentin Crisp), who bequeaths him a large estate on the condition that he doesn't grow old. I'm not sure exactly how he accomplishes this -- it's not like he throws himself down a flight of stairs like the kid in The Tin Drum -- he just doesn't. Thus in a state of semi-permanent idyll, the young man falls in love with a Cossack princess (Charlotte Valandrey), whose rejection of his marriage proposal strikes him as unfathomable at the time, but the shoe is on the other foot a century and a half later when, now a female, she similarly deflects an amorous archduke (a blustery John Wood). In between he tries his hand at poetry and politics and, following his spontaneous sex change in the mid-18th century, entering society as a woman. Another century passes, though, before she finds a man (swarthy freedom fighter Billy Zane) that she wants to be on intimate terms with. Their love affair is necessarily brief, but it still provides her with a son who apparently shares her longevity. I guess that's one way to make immortality less lonesome.


Sunday, August 8, 2010
To know me is to fly with me.

For my day of decompression after a week of traveling home to New Jersey and back, last year's Up in the Air seemed to fit the bill just right. Co-written and directed by Jason Reitman, whose Thank You for Smoking I enjoyed but whose Juno I steadfastly avoided after being carpet-bombed by the overly precious trailer, Up in the Air is probably the last of the 2009 Best Picture nominees I'll be seeing (unless, of course, somebody straps me down and forces me to watch the others, Ludovico-style). A rather unlikely Best Picture candidate (if there had only been five nominees, I doubt it would have made the cut), it obviously struck a nerve with audiences and critics alike. In this economy, that's not bad for a film about a guy who flies around the country firing people for a living.

George Clooney is his usual, charming self as the full-time career transition counselor (who believes "moving is living") and part-time motivational speaker (whose seminar -- and self-help book in the making -- is entitled What's in Your Backpack?) who finds his jet-setting lifestyle is in jeopardy when his company begins making the transition to video conferencing thanks to the impetus of ambitious Cornell grad Anna Kendrick, who goes on the road with Clooney so he can show her the ropes. The film also stars Vera Farmiga as a fellow traveler with whom Clooney strikes up a casual relationship (which could turn into something more) and Jason Bateman as his boss, with supporting turns by Amy Morton and Melanie Lynskey as his somewhat distant sisters, Danny McBride as Lynskey's fiancé, Zach Galifianakis and J.K. Simmons as two of the many employees we see Clooney fire over the course of the film, and Sam Elliott as the pilot on the flight where he crosses the 10 million mile mark. As with a lot of achievements based solely on reaching a certain magic number, it seems kind of hollow when it finally happens.


Monday, August 9, 2010
There's a homicidal maniac loose somewhere in the vast honeycomb of London.

One year after she starred in The Dark Corner, Lucille Ball headlined another film noir, this time for director Douglas Sirk. Made in 1947, Lured was one of Sirk's early American films, following Hitler's Madman, Summer Storm and A Scandal in Paris, the last two starring George Sanders. Sanders also takes the lead in this film as a nightclub owner and "unmitigated cad" whose pursuit of dance hall girl Lucille Ball makes him a prime suspect in Scotland Yard's "Poet Killer" case. It seems there's a serial killer roaming the streets of London picking off young women and sending taunting poems to the police, who are seemingly powerless to stop him until inspector Charles Coburn convinces Ball to go undercover for them.

Before they turn their sights on Sanders, though, Ball leads them to cracked clothing designer Boris Karloff, whose star billing belies the fact that his part is essentially a glorified walk-on. Rather, the film spend much more time with Sir Cedric Hardwicke, who plays Sanders's tightly wound business partner, and noted screen heavy George Zucco, whose lighthearted turn as Ball's protector makes him out to be a rather unlikely source of comic relief. Then again, the film as a whole has a lighter touch than one would expect considering the subject matter. I wonder if that will also be the case with Sirk's subsequent film noir, 1949's Shockproof. Since I currently have that out from Netflix, I expect I'll have my answer soon enough.


Tuesday, August 10, 2010
The people on the outside aren't much interested in us on the inside, inmates or attendants.

While I'm in a noir mood, I thought I'd check out one of Budd Boetticher's early films, 1948's Behind Closed Doors, which was made when he was still going by his given name, Oscar. With a plot that prefigures Samuel Fuller's Shock Corridor by a decade and a half, the film stars Richard Carlson as a newly minted private investigator who is hired by newspaper reporter Lucille Bremer to have himself committed to a private sanitarium in order to find out whether a corrupt judge who's wanted by the police is hiding out there. While conducting his clandestine operation Carlson runs afoul of sadistic attendant Douglas Fowley and even finds himself in the locked ward (where the violent patients are kept) with a deranged boxer (an uncredited Tor Johnson) who mistakes his head for a punching bag. It's hard to pinpoint, but that may be the moment when Carlson starts having second thoughts about Bremer's plan.


Wednesday, August 11, 2010
You're setting up a situation full of hazards and temptations.

If Douglas Sirk's 1949 noir Shockproof has more of an edge to it than his previous entry in the genre, 1947's Lured, that's more than likely due to the contribution of Samuel Fuller, who co-wrote the screenplay. (Whether Fuller intended to direct it himself or not is academic since he wound up making his debut with I Shot Jesse James the same year anyway.) Shockproof stars Cornel Wilde as straight-arrow parole officer who falls for one of his charges, bleach-blond murderess Patricia Knight, who killed a man for her bad-news boyfriend John Baragrey, a well-heeled gambler Wilde takes an instant dislike to. It takes a while for him to tumble to the fact that he's fallen for Knight, though, even after he moves her in with his blind (and damn near saintly) Italian mother (Esther Minciotti). No points for guessing that domestic bliss doesn't come easy for this couple.


Friday, August 13, 2010
I don't think you fully understand, Bigelow. You've been murdered.

Finished out my week probing the dark side of Hollywood with the 1950 film noir classic D.O.A., which was directed by Rudolph Maté and stars Edmond O'Brien as an accountant who picks the wrong week to take a trip to San Francisco. While he's out on the town he's slipped a slow-acting poison and, once he finds out he has very little time to live, he goes frantic trying to find out who would want to kill him and why. All the while he puts off telling his secretary (and would-be fiancée) Pamela Britton about his predicament, figuring it wouldn't do her any good to know he's slowly dying. At any rate, he follows the trail to Los Angeles where he comes into contact with an assortment of characters, including a secretary played by Beverly Garland in her screen debut and Neville Brand as a psychotic henchman. Knowing he's literally on his last legs removes the need to be tactful with anybody, and after being threatened at one point he deadpans, "You know, you really frighten me." In a way, O'Brien's go-for-broke performance is a precursor to Ralph Meeker's surly turn as private detective Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly five years later. The difference is O'Brien's basically a decent guy who's a victim of circumstance whereas Meeker is a total bastard from beginning to end. Definitely makes it harder to sympathize with him.


What kind of stories are you spinning?

It's the final weekend for Neil Jordan's Ondine in the Ryder Film Series, so I made a point of catching it tonight. Filmed in Jordan's native Ireland, Ondine stars Colin Farrell as a hapless fisherman whose luck changes for the better one morning when he finds a beautiful young woman (Alicja Bachleda) in his fishing net. Bachleda wants to remain hidden for reasons she keeps to herself, but when she goes out fishing with him he finds his catch is much more robust than it usually is, which isn't the only reason why he wants her to stick around. There's also the matter of his daughter (Alison Barry), a dialysis patient in need of a kidney transplant who comes to believe, based on the stories Farrell tells her, that Bachleda is a selkie, i.e. a seal that can shed its skin and pass for human. As it turns out, the reality isn't quite so fanciful, but she's so evasive that it's enough to know there's something fishy going on.

In addition to making the film on his home turf, Jordan also employed some of his regular collaborators like editor Tony Lawson, who has cut all of his films since 1996's Michael Collins, and actor Stephen Rea, who has been with him from the start and adds a note of levity to the proceedings as Farrell's long-suffering priest. One technician who was completely new to Jordan, though, was director of photography Christopher Doyle, who contributes some fine work here. I can't imagine why they wouldn't want to work together again at some point in the future. And the same probably goes for Farrell, who must have been relieved not to have to bury his Irish accent for once.


Saturday, August 14, 2010
There is a pestilence upon this land. Nothing is sacred.

As of this writing, I am -- like Dennis, the uppity peasant played by Michael Palin in Monty Python and the Holy Grail -- 37 years old. And much as each birthday reminds me that I'm not getting any younger, I am heartened by Dennis's assertion, when confronted by his king (who unthinkingly thought he looked like an old woman from behind) that "I'm 37, I'm not old." And, in many ways, neither is Holy Grail, which was released in Australia on my second birthday, having previously made the rounds of Great Britain and the United States. I say that because it's just as fresh and funny as it was when it was unleashed upon the English-speaking world in 1975. (With the lone exception of France, where it came out in December of that year, other countries had to wait a little longer for it.)

It would be impossible for me to enumerate how many times I've watched Holy Grail over the years (it's in the double digits, easily), but I can say with some authority just how many times I've paid money for it. First there was the rental from my local Mom-and-Pop video store. That was followed by the purchase of the pan-and-scan videocassette, which was supplanted by the letterboxed version (which I found to be too dark in many spots) when that became available. Then came the theatrical re-release in the summer of 2001, which I attended with my brother Jason and his then-girlfriend Rochelle. (It was her first time.) Finally, I picked up the two-disc Special Edition DVD that came out that fall -- and have thus far managed to avoid getting suckered into purchasing any of the subsequent ones. (No matter how cool the Collector's and the Extraordinarily Deluxe editions look, their main selling points -- the screenplay book and soundtrack CD, respectively -- are things I already own.) As for related products, I have the aforementioned book and CD, plus a Killer Rabbit stapler (a gift from Jason and Rochelle) with a warning on the box that it "may contain Pointy Teeth." Duly noted.

Well, here I am three paragraphs into my write-up and I have yet to say a word about the plot or the characters, but with a film like Holy Grail is that strictly necessary? It's Holy Grail, for W.G. Grace's sake! I will, however, share a nice detail or two that I picked up on this go-around: While I had previously recognized that Sir Robin's shield has a chicken on it, this afternoon I noticed for the first time how much larger his is compared to the other knights' shields. Also, the reason Sir Galahad is all alone when he seeks shelter in Castle Anthrax is because it's his squire that is crushed by the Trojan Rabbit (which is not to be confused with the Killer Rabbit). And here I thought there was nothing new for me to see. That'll show me.

For my second feature today, I went with Terry Gilliam's first solo directing effort, 1977's Jabberwocky, which saw him exploring (along with co-writer Charles Alverson) more aspects of life in the Middle Ages, in particular those pertaining to the peasant and working classes. What this means, of course, is that there's more mud, more filth, more piss, more excrement, and more of everything that made life back then extremely unpleasant. Little surprise, then, that it was less successful than its predecessor, but it served notice that Gilliam wouldn't be constrained by the expectations people brought into his films. (No wonder he was pissed off when the American distributor advertised it as Monty Python's Jabberwocky.)

Then again, it's hard to fault anybody who goes into Jabberwocky expecting it to be another Pythonic romp through medieval England. After all, it stars Michael Palin (as the totally naïve Dennis Cooper, who has to make his way in the world when his dying father disowns him) and features supporting turns by Terry Jones (as a poacher who becomes the title creature's first victim), Gilliam himself (as a deranged man who believes that ordinary rocks are diamonds) and auxiliary Python Neil Innes (as an overzealous drummer). The film also presents a cross-section of society from royalty (represented by Max Wall's ineffectual King Bruno the Questionable and Deborah Fallender as his idealistic daughter) on down to the lowliest peasant. In between there are characters like Harry H. Corbett's lustful squire, John Le Mesurier as Wall's faithful advisor, and Warren Mitchell as an opportunistic merchant whose morbidly obese daughter (Annette Badland) serves as Palin's unattainable (and, quite frankly, uninterested) object of desire. And I would be remiss if I didn't mention David Prowse, who plays dual roles as the valiant Red Herring Knight, who sets out to kill the Jabberwock at the king's behest, and the evil Black Knight, who is hired to stop him.

In many ways, Jabberwocky is a film divided against itself. There are moments that are completely cartoonish (the film periodically ignores the laws of physics for the sake of a slapstick gag) and others where it attempts to paint a fairly realistic portrait of life in a bustling medieval city. The main thing that one takes away from it, though, is Gilliam's complete disdain for conformity and those who aspire to it (which is a theme that threads through all of his films to the present day). Dennis Cooper may be our protagonist, but he's too unimaginative to be a true Gilliam hero.


Sunday, August 15, 2010
Any time you ever see people closed in like that, you'd better watch them, close.

The Kryptic Army mission for August is all about slasher films, which is far from my favorite horror subgenre, but as there a few on my Mill Creek sets that I haven't gotten to yet I figured I'd slash two birds with one machete. My first victim was the "Chilling Classic" Haunts from 1977, which was co-written, co-produced and directed by Herb Freed, who went on to make Graduation Day, another slasher "classic," four years later. I don't know how that one turned out, but this one has a certain amount of narrative ambition which is largely squandered by Freed's flat direction and the intrusive flashbacks he foists upon the film roughly once a reel. (The first one occurs during a goat-milking scene, which would have been plenty disturbing without it, thank you.)

The story revolves around a sexually repressed woman (Swedish actress May Britt, ex-wife of Sammy Davis Jr.) who lives on an isolated farm outside a small town where a madman in a ski mask is raping and murdering young women. The film gives us no shortage of suspects, including a leering butcher (William Gray Espy), the most recent addition to the church choir (Robert Hippard), and even Britt's helpful Uncle Carl (Cameron Mitchell), who's visiting for a spell. The local sheriff (Aldo Ray) seems more interested in getting to the bottom of a bottle than solving the case, though, which spells bad news for Britt when she's attacked while walking home from choir practice one night. She manages to fight off her assailant, but the same can't be said for the town tramp (Susan Nohr), who is killed when she gets behind the wheel drunk. Curiously enough, the murderer actually waits for her to start driving before he pops up in the backseat and starts strangling her. Not very smart, Mr. Serial Rapist.

Eventually things take a turn for the bizarre when Britt begins hallucinating blood and is attacked in her own home (in the shower, no less), but everything gets sorted out in the end. If only it didn't take so long for the film to get there. Incidentally, the score for this film was composed by Pino Donaggio, who worked on it right after Carrie (and right before Piranha). Kind of makes me wish it had actually been memorable.

Next on the chopping block was the "Drive-In Movie Classic" Savage Weekend, which was made in 1976 but sat on a shelf until 1979, when distributors were digging up anything that even remotely resembled Halloween. Written, produced and directed by David Paulsen (wow, two triple threats in one day), the film follows five city slickers (two hetero couples and one flaming homosexual) up to the woods where one of them has a weekend place. They're all so obnoxious, though, that I'm not even going to bother listing the actors who played them. I will, however, mention William Sanderson, who plays a local yokel who splits his time between railing against them and talking to his father's grave, and David Gale, who plays a woodsman who tells a pretty mean story about Sanderson. Sanderson stays on the sidelines for the most part, but Gale also has a pass clumsily thrown at him by one of the women, tries to put the moves on her after a suggestive cow-milking scene, and borrows their car -- so they can be stranded the night a mysterious individual dons a set of work gloves and a Halloween mask that conveniently happen to be lying around and starts whittling down the cast -- and then takes his sweet time returning it.

If Haunts is an example of overreaching ambition, then Savage Weekend is a case of overwhelming ineptitude. I counted five scenes with boom mikes in them and two more with obvious boom shadows. (After a while I found myself scanning the top of the frame instead of focusing on the actors.) There's also plenty of gratuitous nudity on display, which is par for the course for this sort of film, I guess, but it comes off as perfunctory at best. (At one point one of the actresses takes off all of her clothes to sunbathe and one of the actors randomly wanders by, strips in long-shot, and casually mounts her. How very romantic, dude.) Frankly, by the time they start getting picked off it's almost a relief. Also, I find it amusing that Mill Creek's print picks random moments (mostly shots featuring close-ups of the killer's mask) to be letterboxed. I'm sure that could have come in handy during the scenes with boom problems as well.


Monday, August 16, 2010
Every generation needs a war. Otherwise all human values go to the dogs.

Since I polished off the BRD Trilogy back in April, it may seem like I've forgotten all about Reiner Werner Fassbinder, but in actual fact I've spent the past few months engrossed in his 14-part, 15 1/2-hour television film Berlin Alexanderplatz. (It's such a massive undertaking that I broke it up into one- or two-episode chunks, and only just got to the two-hour-long epilogue last night.) With that under my belt, I feel I can now jump back into his features, and the one I'm doing it with is 1979's The Third Generation, which the opening title card describes as "a comedy in six parts full of excitement, suspense, logic, cruelty and madness, like the fairytales we tell children to help them through life until death." It's also a film that is "Dedicated to someone who truly loves. So to no one -- probably." Sounds positively cheery, doesn't it?

Written, produced, directed and photographed by Fassbinder, the film follows the misadventures of a terrorist cell in Berlin whose members almost literally can't get their shit together. Operating under the direction of Volker Spengler, whose mania for dressing up prompts him to disguise himself as a woman on a number of occasions, thus bringing to mind his role in the previous year's In a Year with 13 Moons, the cell is mostly made up of amateurs, although there are a few ringers like ex-army man Günther Kaufmann, an explosives expert unable to find civilian work after his discharge. The cast also includes Fassbinder regulars Udo Kier and Hanna Schygulla as a married couple whose day jobs -- he's a composer, she's the secretary to businessman Eddie Constantine -- belie their devotion to the cause. Of course, it's quite telling that Fassbinder never lets us know exactly what their cause is. Then again, as one character tells another, "I recently had a dream that capitalism invented terrorism to force the state to protect it better." Do I detect a note of cynicism, perhaps?


Tuesday, August 17, 2010
Can man control his destiny? Can he change the shape of things to come?

Fifty years ago today, George Pal's adaptation of The Time Machine by H.G. Wells premiered. The first film version of Wells's novel, it was produced and directed by Pal, who had previously brought War of the Worlds to the screen along with a number of other special effects-laden science fiction epics throughout the '50s. This one was no different in that regard, using stop-motion effects, time-lapse photography and extensive model work to depict the passage of time whenever the titular contraption is in operation. (I've never seen the 2002 remake -- and I don't plan to, either -- but I'm sure it relies more on digital effects to its probable detriment.)

Set at the turn of the 20th century, just a few years after Wells's novel was published, the film stars Rod Taylor as a gentleman inventor who builds a time machine and uses it to travel into the future, with the goal of returning and convincing his skeptical friends (whose ranks include future Mister Ed star Alan Young and Whit Bissell) that it is possible to traverse the fourth dimension. After brief stops in 1917 and 1940, when Taylor is confronted by very different scenes of England during wartime, and 1966, when he witnesses nuclear destruction firsthand, he takes the machine far into the future, to the year 802,701, where he is little cheered by the way the human race has turned out.

First he encounters the Eloi, a race of blond-haired, lazy simpletons, then he meets their counterparts the Morlocks, who are white-maned, blue-skinned brutes with glowing eyes and a taste for Eloi flesh. Taylor's intrusion into their time upsets the natural balance of things, though, especially after he falls for a beautiful Eloi named Weena (which sounds dumb, I know, but it comes straight out of Wells's novel) played by Yvette Mimieux. Suffice it to say, Pal and screenwriter David Duncan (who wrote MST3K favorite The Leech Woman the same year) contrive a potentially happier ending for them than the one in the novel. H.G. Wells may have invented the concept of time travel, but love stories were clearly not his strong suit.


Wednesday, August 18, 2010
Dancing means everything to me. I've never cared about anything else.

My quest to see as many films reviewed in Danny Peary's Cult Movies book series continues apace with 1940's Dance, Girl, Dance, which TCM was kind enough to air yesterday morning. Produced for RKO by Erich Pommer (late of UFA) and directed by Dorothy Arzner, one of the few woman directors in the distinctly male-dominated world of Hollywood in the '20s and '30s (she stopped making features a few years after this film's release), Dance, Girl, Dance is one of the best films about the world of dance this side of Powell & Pressburger's The Red Shoes (another one of Peary's Cult Movies). It stars Maureen O'Hara as an aspiring ballet dancer trying to eke out a living as part of a dance troupe where she's constantly being upstaged by the much more vivacious Lucille Ball. O'Hara has the backing of the troupe's manager, a former Russian ballerina played by the great Maria Ouspenskaya (who was one year away from her signature role in The Wolf Man), but finds few others who are willing to take her as seriously as she takes dancing.

This is not to say that O'Hara isn't without her admirers. During an engagement in Akron that is cut short when the club where they're working is raided by the police, she catches the eye of playboy Louis Hayward, who is drunkenly celebrating his imminent divorce from wife Virginia Field, but Ball is the one who swoops in when she sees an opening. Meanwhile, back in New York, O'Hara is pursued by ballet impresario Ralph Bellamy, who can recognize raw talent but makes a poor first impression on her when she doesn't know who he is. She reaches her lowest ebb when she takes a job as Ball's stooge when Ball turns burlesque queen, but the exposure brings her back into the orbits of both Hayward and Bellamy, and she finally gets the break she's been waiting for. And for a girl who only wants to dance, that's the happiest ending imaginable.


Thursday, August 19, 2010
Bad luck either makes a man or destroys him.

While I was in the midst of my noir series last week, one film that came to mind was Akira Kurosawa's noir-tinged police procedural Stray Dog, which he made in 1949, just one year before Rashomon, his international breakthrough. It was his third film in a row with Toshiro Mifune, who plays a rookie homicide detective whose gun is stolen by a pickpocket and then used in a series of violent crimes, which provokes him to frantically try to track it down. This he does with the help of veteran detective Takashi Shimura, whose more relaxed attitude toward police work doesn't prevent him from getting results. Too bad he can't do anything about the heatwave which has descended upon the city and shows no sign of breaking.

Besides the heat, the thing about Stray Dog that registers the most is its vivid depiction of some of the seedier parts of Tokyo in the post-war era. As Mifune and Shimura follow their leads, methodically homing in on the identity of the suspect, the junior partner not only gets a crash course in detective work but also comes to understand the mentality of somebody who would be driven to such desperate acts. At the same time, he's on the receiving end of such pieces of advice as "Homicide detectives can't afford to be so sensitive," and "You can't be tense all the time if you want to be a cop." Of course, can you blame him for feeling somewhat responsible for losing his gun in the first place?


Saturday, August 21, 2010
What we're dealing with here is an aberration of the species.

Had myself a demonic double feature today (which could have easily turned into a triple feature, but I'm not prepared to tackle Bill Rebane's The Demons of Ludlow just yet). For starters I chose The Demon, a South African "Chilling Classic" from 1979 starring Cameron Mitchell (not again!) as a retired U.S. Marine who has been gifted with ESP and, it must be said, is rather smug about it. (As I watched him go about his ESPing I was reminded of an idea I had a long time ago called "The Insensitives," which was about people who read minds and are completely obnoxious about it. A rather limited idea, I admit, which is why I never pursued it.) Anyway, Mitchell is hired by a distraught couple (Peter J. Elliott and Moira Winslow) when their daughter is abducted by a faceless maniac and proves to be worse than useless, uttering inanities like "I see her. She's high. She's high up. She's floating, floating. And there's always... the wind." As for the perpetrator, Mitchell describes him thusly: "He's less than a man and more than a man. Much more." So, more or less, a man. Good work, Kreskin.

Meanwhile, there's a subplot about a preschool teacher (Jennifer Holmes) who's apparently being stalked by the psycho -- who's able to appear and disappear at will for some reason -- and her younger sister's (Zoli Markey) heavy flirtation with a rich twit (Craig Gardner). But getting back to the psycho, he's the kind of guy who dons a rubber mask and black gloves (with razor-sharp claws) when he's on the job and, like the killer in Haunts, somehow thinks it's a good idea to attack the driver of a moving vehicle. (The other part of his m.o. is putting a plastic bag over people's heads, which makes me worry about the actors playing his victims more than their characters, to be perfectly honest.) Finally, there are times when writer-producer-director Percival Rubens (who also repeated that triple threat for 1983's post-apocalyptic stinker Survival Zone) goes to absurd lengths to obscure the maniac's face, and other times when he doesn't seem to care whether we can see it or not. I guess a little consistency is too much to ask.

Thankfully, The Demon has enough bizarre touches that it wasn't a complete waste of my time. For one thing, Mitchell overacts wildly when he goes into his trances, and he makes repeated, incongruous references to medicine men and witch doctors. Later on, his vague information leads the distraught father into a face-to-face confrontation with the killer, who quickly gets the upper hand and, in the funniest moment in the film, unceremoniously tosses him out a window. (His widow's reaction when Mitchell shows up to apologize is also priceless.) I also have to give it up for the plastic shower curtain that an otherwise topless Holmes dons at the climax of the film when the psycho attacks her in her home. And speaking of baring it all, there's a brief establishing shot about 23 minutes in of a club called, I shit you not, Boobs Disco. Hey, it was the '70s. The boobs had to go somewhere on weekends...

For my second feature, I left the realm of the slasher behind and stumbled into Donald Cammell's 1977 science fiction-horror opus Demon Seed, based on the novel by Dean Koontz. I've long been a fan of Cammell's Performance, so I relished the opportunity to finally see his belated follow-up. (Of course, all of his follow-ups were belated since he only managed to turn one out every decade or so until he took his own life -- apparently over the producer's meddling with his final film, Wild Side -- in 1996.) As for this film, it's rather infamous for being the one where Julie Christie is impregnated by a computer, but that's actually a fairly late development in the story. There's much more that happens before we get to that.

For starters, we're introduced to Proteus IV, a room-filling artificially intelligent computer (voiced by Robert Vaughn), and we're introduced to Proteus by its designer, scientist Fritz Weaver, who has literally brought his work home with him since everything in his house is wired to a mainframe which responds to voice commands. His marriage to child psychologist Harris is on the rocks, though, so Weaver moves out soon after Proteus goes online, leaving her vulnerable when Proteus embarks on an electronic home invasion and decides it doesn't want her to leave. The film also features the always-welcome Gerrit Graham as one of Weaver's workaholic colleagues, who pays a visit to his home when it appears that something is up and meets a rather gruesome end. For the most part, though, Cammell keeps the film's more transgressive moments off-screen. (The actual impregnation, for example, is suggested by a 2001-like "Star Gate" sequence.) As for the conclusion, well, the most I'll say about it is that it's decidedly ambiguous.


Lost River Lake: terror, horror, death. Film at eleven.

This weekend saw the release of Piranha 3D, a wholly unnecessary remake that I categorically refuse to have any part of, especially since it's yet another example of the studios ramming 3-D (and its inflated ticket price) down our throats. Then, of course, there's the matter of the ridiculously inflated budget. If the 1978 version (a belated Jaws knock-off from New World Pictures) could be brought in for a mere $600,000, there's no way to justify spending 40 times that on the remake, no matter how much better the effects may be. As far as I'm concerned, the only good thing to come out of it is it very likely put Shout! Factory's special edition of the original on the fast track, and if any film in the New World library needed an image upgrade it was this one.

Directed by Joe Dante (who had previously co-directed 1976's Hollywood Boulevard and toiled in New World's trailer editing department for several years before that) and written by John Sayles (his first of many screenwriting jobs), Piranha may have started out as a low-budget Jaws clone, but it stands head and shoulders above all the other imitators that monster hit inspired. Credit for that goes to the filmmakers' resourcefulness (if Dante learned nothing else from Roger Corman, it was how to stretch a dollar) and the superb cast, which is able to sell the scares and the satire in equal measure. Sayles keeps the obvious laugh lines to a minimum, though, preferring to save exchanges like this -- "What about the goddamn piranhas?" "They're eating the guests, sir." -- for the end of the picture.

On the acting front, Bradford Dillman does most of the heavy lifting as the rugged loner enlisted by insurance investigator Heather Menzies to track down two missing teenagers, but they're aided and abetted by genre vets like Kevin McCarthy (as the scientist who develops the genetically altered title creatures), Keenan Wynn (as Dillman's closest neighbor), Paul Bartel (as the director of a summer camp in the path of the swarming piranhas), Dick Miller (as a real estate developer whose brand-new water park is next in line), and Barbara Steele (as a scientist working with the military, so you know she has to be hiding something). The film also features a terrific score by Pino Donaggio, who would do the same for Dante's follow-up, The Howling, in 1981. As for Dante, his next brush with the Jaws franchise would come when he was approached to make a more direct spoof entitled Jaws 3, People 0 (based on a script by John Hughes, no less), but that got nixed by Universal, which plunged forward with Jaws 3-D instead. Typical.


Sunday, August 22, 2010
If you weren't for real, I wouldn't believe it.

Took in a pair of '80s cult movies today, one of which was entirely new to me and the other one that I had seen many years before and had always planned on revisiting at some point. Another thing that connects them is the fact that both were covered by Danny Peary in his book Cult Movies 3, which was where I first read about the 1981 French film Diva. Co-written and directed by Jean-Jacques Beineix, who went on to make the Oscar-nominated Betty Blue in 1986, Diva is a film about the transformative power of art, in this case the high art of opera. Frédéric Andréi stars as a young postman who's so entranced by singer Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez that he secretly records one of her recitals and even steals the dress she was wearing during the performance to have something to remember it by. Both acts are necessary because Fernandez refuses to record and sings in public so rarely, which puts her in conflict with Taiwanese bootleggers who wish to procure Andréi's tape, by any means necessary.

As it turns out, they aren't the only ones pursuing Andréi after he comes into possession of a tape incriminating the top man in an international drug smuggling and prostitution ring. Both the criminals and the police want the tape, and Andréi flees from just about everybody because he doesn't know who to trust. Meanwhile, he crosses paths with a petty thief (Thuy An Luu) and her bohemian artist pal (Richard Bohringer) who turns out to be a great man to have in your corner when you get into a jam. The film also features Dominique Pinon in an early role as a thug whose preferred method of execution is an ice pick in the back. In a lot of ways, though, he has nothing on the Taiwanese gangsters who devastate Andréi by wantonly destroying all of his recordings (in a manner reminiscent of similar scenes in The Conversation and Blow Out) when they're unable to find the one they're after. Haven't they ever heard the one about catching more flies with honey?

That's a lesson that most of the protagonists in Alan Rudolph's 1984 film Choose Me have taken to heart, but unfortunately it hasn't helped any of them attract a suitable mate. Geneviève Bujold is a radio shrink whose show, "The Love Line," has a devoted audience that hangs on her every piece of advice, but she herself is perpetually unlucky in love. The opposite is the case with bar owner Lesley Ann Warren, a frequent caller to Bujold's show who's involved with a married man (Patrick Bauchau) and has to fend off the advances of her amorous bartender (John Larroquette). And then there's barfly Rae Dawn Chong, who hangs around reading her lousy poetry to anybody who will listen. Into their lives comes escaped mental patient Keith Carradine, who's quick to ask people to marry him, but it's hard to know how seriously to take his proposals since even he admits he's a habitual liar.

Choose Me is populated almost exclusively with emotionally damaged people, none of whom know how to get what they want out of life. (Outside Warren's bar one night a streetwalker approaches Bujold and asks if she's looking for a good time. Bujold's straight-faced reply: "No, I'm not.") Bujold even has to keep her profession a secret (she claims to work for a telephone answering service -- which isn't too far from the truth -- when she moves in with Warren), which you'd think would be hard to do since she has such a distinctive voice, but no one ever tumbles to the fact that she's really Dr. Nancy Love. Meanwhile, Carradine drifts from bed to bed, both seducing and being seduced, until he winds up with the one person who truly understands him. In Rudolph's world, though, nothing is ever a foregone conclusion.


Monday, August 23, 2010
Is this convoy some sort of protest demonstration? And if it is, what's its purpose?

Over the years I've managed to see most of Sam Peckinpah's films, with the exception of his little-seen directorial debut, 1961's The Deadly Companions, and 1975's The Killer Elite, which is considered one of his weaker efforts. And then there's 1978's Convoy, based on the novelty song by C.W. McCall, which turned out to be his biggest box-office success. I'm sure he would have rather that honor go to something he put his heart and soul into -- like The Wild Bunch or Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid -- but beggars can't be choosers and in the latter half of the '70s Peckinpah wasn't doing much choosing when it came to his film career.

Made the same year as Harper Valley PTA, another film based on a country hit, Convoy stars Kris Kristofferson as a trucker with the handle Rubber Duck who runs afoul of corrupt Arizona sheriff Ernest Borgnine, who apparently has it in for him for some unstated reason. (Maybe he just doesn't like truckers.) Along the way he picks up a passenger, well-tanned photographer Ali MacGraw, and forms the nucleus of a convoy with fellow long-haulers Love Machine (Burt Young) and Spider Mike (Franklyn Ajaye), who likewise get on Borgnine's bad side. The plot doesn't really get rolling, though, until a chaotic truck stop brawl (which incorporates some of Peckinpah's trademark slow-motion shots) breaks out and Kristofferson and company have to make a run for the border -- of New Mexico, that is. Naturally, trouble has a way of following them, and before all is said and done many cars, trucks and buildings have bit the dust, sometimes in particularly stunning fashion.

Less successful are the scenes that attempt to graft some kind of a message onto the paper-thin premise, which is a pity because otherwise Seymour Cassel makes a great late addition to the cast as the governor of New Mexico, who tries to co-opt the populist trucker movement. (Kristofferson essentially becomes a folk hero overnight, which is a little hard to swallow, but then again this was the '70s. It's not like there was a whole lot to do back then. Heck, why do you think CB radios became such a fad in the first place?) In the final analysis, the film probably should have heeded the wisdom of its star. When asked what the purpose of the convoy is, Kristofferson laconically replies: "The purpose of the convoy is to keep moving." As long as Convoy keeps moving, it's serving its purpose. The rest of the time it's just spinning its wheels.


Tuesday, August 24, 2010
Ignorance and superstition won't disappear easily from this part of the world.

This month's Full Moon Feature had to be viewed under a cloud since the skies are so overcast that I couldn't see the moon at all. This is a pity because tonight's film, 1971's Werewolf Shadow (the fifth entry in the "Hombre Lobo" series), was actually Paul Naschy's highest-grossing horror film, at least according to Wikipedia. It's certainly his most widely available one since it's in the public domain under its American title, The Werewolf vs. the Vampire Woman. If that seems a little on the nose (after all, Naschy's hairy alter ego winds up fighting not just one, but multiple female bloodsuckers), the original Spanish title was La Noche de Walpurgis (or "Walpurgis Night"), which makes sense since the film reaches its climax on that night. As for Werewolf Shadow, I'm not entirely certain what that's supposed to mean. What happens when a werewolf sees its shadow? Does it get six more weeks of rabies shots?

No matter what people call it, the film was directed by León Klimovsky, who also helmed the next in the series, 1972's Dr. Jekyll y el Hombre Lobo, as well as a number of other Naschy films. Naschy must have liked his working methods because Klimovsky tips his hand early on by including some of the most stupefyingly unconvincing day-for-night shots I've ever seen outside of a Larry Buchanan movie. These are followed by a scene wherein Naschy is brought back from the dead when a skeptical doctor removes the silver bullets from his chest (it never pays to be a skeptic in a werewolf movie) and, after he thanks the doctor by slashing him to death, the most wildly inappropriate title music you could possibly imagine. After a prologue like that, the film has nowhere to go but up and thankfully it goes there, even if it takes a few detours on the way.

This time out, Naschy's Waldemar Daninsky character is found living in a remote region of northern France, splitting his time between looking after his mad sister Elizabeth (Yelena Samarina) and looking for a cure for his lycanthropy, which he contracted in the Himalayas (which is consistent with the previous film, The Fury of the Wolfman). Into their lives come a pair of graduate students (Gaby Fuchs and Barbara Capell) looking for the final resting place of the notorious Countess Wandesa (Paty Shepard), who drank the blood of virgins to stay young -- until some pesky villagers drove a silver crucifix through her heart, that is. Faster than you can say "I totally saw that coming," Shepard's grave is disturbed, Capell is enslaved to her, and Fuchs finds herself falling in love with Naschy because he co-wrote the script and wants to kiss her hard on the lips and have a look at her breasts. There's more to their relationship, of course, but that's the gist.

After the initial werewolf transformation, it's a while before Naschy wolfs out again, but when he does it's well worth the wait. (Not since Michael Landon has a werewolf been so prone to drooling as Waldemar Daninsky.) And when he reveals his affliction to Fuchs I have to say she takes the news extremely calmly. (I guess that's what comes of writing your thesis on the study of the black arts.) The only hitch, really, is her fiancé, dogged police inspector Andrés Resino, but as obstacles to true love go, he's pretty benign. Less benign is Naschy's hilariously loquacious handyman (José Marco), who manages to thoroughly skeeve Fuchs out during a drive into the village. It's just bad timing on his part that he chooses the night of the next full moon to do something about it.


Wednesday, August 25, 2010
Women of dreams are busy these days.

I was deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Satoshi Kon yesterday, particularly since, at 46, he seemed far too young to be taken from us. The director of such acclaimed animated films as Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress and Tokyo Godfathers, as well as the television series Paranoia Agent, Kon's work frequently explored the boundary between dreams and reality, and that theme permeated his last completed film, 2006's Paprika. I had hoped to see Paprika during its limited theatrical release in the spring on 2007, but unfortunately it bypassed Bloomington and, since it came to DVD, has remained on my "to see" list. Now, at last, I can cross it off and pay tribute to Satoshi Kon's legacy at the same time.

It's actually quite fitting that I caught up with this film the same month as Christopher Nolan's Inception since both are built around a device that allows people to enter other people's dreams. In this case, though, the purpose of the device is to give psychiatrists a tool to help their patients confront their personal demons. (The opening sequence, a nightmare with a circus theme, takes place in the subconscious of a police detective on a murder case, which is but one piece of unfinished business that's haunting him.) The story concerns a terrorist who begins planting dreams -- frequently of a menacing parade of creepy toys and dolls -- in other people's heads, but the main thrust of the film is the ease with which people can slip in and out of a dream state, as well as from dream to dream. In Kon's hands, the results are never less than stunning. One can only hope that the forthcoming The Dream Machine, which has been in production for the past few years and has a 2011 release date, retains his singular vision.


Friday, August 27, 2010
We weren't those people, those unlucky people to whom bad things happen for no reason.

I passed on The Lovely Bones, Peter Jackson's adaptation of the acclaimed novel by Alice Sebold, when it was in theaters last winter because of the middling reviews it received. Now that I've caught up with it on DVD, I can see why it wasn't a runaway success with critics or audiences. Tonally, it just never settles on what kind of film it wants to be, and while that's somewhat understandable since it shuttles back and forth between the real world and "the in-between" where 14-year-old murder victim Saoirse Ronan resides while putting off her entrance into heaven, there shouldn't be a place for a comedic montage set to "Long Cool Woman (In a Black Dress)" by the Hollies. That sort of misstep is liable to stick out like a poorly CGIed thumb.

Anyway, Jackson and his co-screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens take their time establishing Ronan's family life with accountant father (and model boat-builder) Mark Wahlberg, down-to-earth mother Rachel Weisz and bratty younger sister Rose McIver, not to mention her hopeless crush on high school senior Reece Ritchie. At the same time, they keep creepy neighbor Stanley Tucci at arm's length but always lurking around the corner of the frame, his face obscured until the moment when he traps Ronan and... does what he does with her. (The film is maddeningly vague on this point, whereas the book was apparently much more up front about it.) From there we're plunged along with Ronan into the in-between, which is by turns nightmarish and visually striking, but these scenes have a way of detracting from the actual human drama playing out as her family tries to cope with their loss. Even Weisz's alcoholic mother (Susan Sarandon) gets in on the act, but she's hardly the center of gravity that she needs to be.

If the film has a major failing it's that the suspense for Ronan's character largely dissipates once she's been murdered. All that's left for her to do after that is hang around and make fleeting appearances to her father (who becomes obsessed with the idea of finding her killer) and "otherworldly" (read: proto-goth) classmate Carolyn Dando, who is established early on as someone who's in touch with the other side but precious little is done with this. Then there's the original score by Brian Eno, which occasionally dips into his back catalog for source cues that may help establish the time period (the story opens in 1973) but are distracting to anybody familiar with the original album versions. And Eno's not the only one pillaging his past since some of the fantasy sequences are highly reminiscent of the ones in Jackson's own Heavenly Creatures. Now there's a film that dealt with a horrific murder and its tragic aftermath and actually had some heft to it.

Back to July 2010


Saturday, August 28, 2010
You must never, never be fooled by imitations.

A few weeks back I was hanging out with Kirk, the human counterpart of Baron Mardi from Atomic Age Cinema, and he presented me with a number of films that he wanted me to see. One of those was Cosmos: War of the Planets, a.k.a. the Italian Star Wars ripoff that Alfonso Brescia co-wrote and directed (under the pseudonym Al Bradley) just before his 1978 Star Wars ripoff War of the Robots. This one's a little different, though, in that it steals just as much from 2001, as evidenced by the extended spacewalk sequence set to synthesized classical music. Gotta love those crafty Italians.

The film stars John Richardson (erstwhile star of Mario Bava's Black Sunday and Hammer Films' One Million Years B.C. and The Vengeance of She) as a hotheaded captain who doesn't like taking orders from computers and, after punching a guy out, is rewarded with command of a ship on an important scientific mission. When Earth is contacted by aliens, Richardson's ship is the one sent to investigate and crash-lands on the uncharted planet that seems to be the source of the broadcast. ("We're outcasts on a lost planet in space, but at last we have something firm under our feet," says one of the crew members after they get out and start looking around.) As it turns out, the broadcast was a lure sent out by an evil supercomputer bent on conquering the universe -- if only it can trick someone into the replacing the one bad circuit board in its mainframe. That's where Richardson's crew comes in, the dopes.

Other features of the planet include a Stonehenge-like monument that zaps anybody who comes too close to it, a robot called "the immortal monster" that goes around conking people on the head, and a race of pointy-eared, blue-skinned humanoids who don't wear enough clothing. (As in War of the Robots, one even becomes a member of the crew, albeit a short-lived one, once the generator is repaired and they're able to take off again.) The only other thing worth noting as the presence of Yanti Somer (who also appeared in War of the Robots) as Meela, a technician who's been "conditioned by machines" and needs to be taught how to love by the captain. Oh, yes. And the main machine on Earth is called Wiz, but we never do find out if there's anyone behind the curtain. Pity.

For 1979's Star Odyssey, also co-written and directed by Alfonso Brescia (this time as Al Bradly without the "e"), Yanti Somer gets top billing as Irene, the niece of a brilliant scientist whose intellect is so advanced that he alone poses a threat to the alien conquerors (who look like they have ceramic tiles glued to their faces) who plan to harvest the people of Earth for intergalactic slavery. To combat the aliens, a ragtag group of Earthlings is recruited, including a gambler who uses his hypnotic powers to cheat at cards, a button-down military officer, a couple of hardened criminals/scientists (one of whom parades around in leather fetish gear), an agile gymnast who's prone to showing off (he's introduced boxing a robot named Hercules who looks like a Cyberman from Dr. Who), and a pair of whiny robots. By the end of the film, you'll wish they'd left the robots in the junkyard where they found them.

Perhaps it was a mistake to watch these back-to-back, but after a while I found that I really couldn't be bothered to pay attention to the plot of Star Odyssey. (It didn't help that, of the two, it's the one that drags more and makes less sense.) Even the reappearance of the golden Jackie Rogers Juniors from War of the Robots didn't help matters. In fact, all that showed was how willing Brescia was to recycle his villains along with his props, costumes, sets and not-so-special effects. Suffice it to say, if I ever get the chance to see 1977's Battle of the Stars (the first film in the series) or 1980's Beast in Space (the last), I will most definitely pass on them. I may be a completionist by nature, but even I have my limits.


Sunday, August 29, 2010
I want you to know what sort of a nut you might be getting mixed up with.

Had another cult movie kind of a day. First up: Chilly Scenes of Winter, a winning film about and a hapless romantic that didn't do so hot when it was initially released in 1979 under the title Head Over Heels, but made out much better a few years later when it was re-released with the original title and downbeat ending of the Ann Beattie novel it was based on intact. (Goes to show that audiences don't always like a happy ending.) Written for the screen and directed by Joan Micklin Silver, the film has an Annie Hall-like quality, which isn't too surprising since both films are about a doomed romance that is being remembered by one of the participants after the fact. The one doing the remembering is civil servant John Heard, who is still pining for former co-worker Mary Beth Hurt one year after she left him to return to her husband. Heard's inability to move on leads to some stalkerish behavior on his part, but he only acts that way because he believes he'd be better for her than a husband who loves her too little. What ultimately drives her away, though, is the fact that Heard loves her too much. Now, is that really such a crime?

Watching from the sidelines are Heard's best friend (Peter Riegert), who crashes at his place after he loses his job, his sister (Tarah Nutter), who stays with him until it's time to go back to college, and his secretary (Nora Heflin), who has a hopeless crush on him. Meanwhile, Heard has to contend with his flaky mother (Gloria Grahame in one of her final roles), who's prone to suicide attempts, and his stepfather (Kenneth McMillan), who could be more of a steadying influence in her life. And Griffin Dunne, who was one of the producers on the film, makes a distinct impression in his one-scene cameo as Heflin's control-freak boyfriend. He comes along too late to be an object for Heard, though.

It's been more than a few years since I last saw Ken Russell's 1980 film Altered States, so I figured it wouldn't hurt (William Hurt?) to give it another look. Based on the novel by Paddy Chayefsky, who also penned the screenplay but declined a screen credit (the adaptation is credited to "Sidney Aaron," which are his first and middle names) because he didn't like the way Russell handled it, the film became a cult sensation because of its hallucinatory imagery, which I suspect is what attracted Russell to the project in the first place. It also marked the feature debut of William Hurt, who plays an academic researcher working with schizophrenics who becomes obsessed with finding mankind's "original self" and uses sensory deprivation tanks and strong hallucinogenics to tap into his own primordial past. Pretty heady stuff, especially when Hurt emerges from the tank one night in the form of a hairy primal man (played by Miguel Godreau with the help of makeup maestro Dick Smith) and wakes up the following morning stark naked in the zoo, having killed and partially eaten a sheep (shades of An American Werewolf in London).

In this film, the ones watching from the sidelines are Blair Brown as Hurt's wife, an anthropologist by profession, trusted colleague Bob Balaban, and skeptical endocrinologist Charles Haid, who gets sucked into observing the experiments against his better judgment. (Of the three of them, Balaban and Haid are the ones most prone to having violent arguments about whether the research should continue or not.) The film also features walk-ons by John Larroquette as an X-ray technician, George Gaynes as a radiologist, and Drew Barrymore (in her screen debut) as one of Hurt and Brown's adorable moppets. I should also mention John Corigliano's Academy Award-nominated score (he later won for 1998's The Red Violin) and Jordan Cronenweth's brilliant cinematography (he was later nominated for Peggy Sue Got Married and also shot the cult movies Cutter's Way and Blade Runner). As for Russell, he may have made the film his way but he wound up burning a lot of bridges in the process and hasn't worked for a Hollywood studio since. Knowing Russell, this probably doesn't trouble him too much.


Monday, August 30, 2010
You know, there's something that gets me about this town on a hot Saturday night.

In just about every book on film noir I've ever read, one title that gets mentioned again and again is 1944's Phantom Lady, which gets high marks from just about every authority on the subject. Based on a novel by Cornell Woolrich (whose other film adaptations include The Leopard Man, Rear Window and The Bride Wore Black), Phantom Lady was the first of many noir films directed by Robert Siodmak, who had quite the affinity for dark subject matter. (A few of his follow-ups include The Spiral Staircase, The Killers, The Dark Mirror and Criss Cross.) In this case, an innocent man (Alan Curtis) is found guilty of the murder of his wife when his alibi (the titular phantom lady) can't be substantiated by anybody, least of all the homicide inspector (Thomas Gomez) on the case. In the end, it's up to Curtis's personal assistant (Ella Raines) to track down the lady in question and clear her boss's good name.

During the course of her investigation Raines runs into quite a few strange characters, including fanatical drummer Elisha Cook, Jr., who takes her along to an informal gathering of hot jazz musicians in the film's most celebrated sequence. As hopped up as he is, though, Cook has nothing on top-billed Franchot Tone, who plays Curtis's best friend, an intense sculptor who clearly isn't playing with a full deck. And speaking of things that don't make sense, what is keeping Universal from releasing this film on DVD? Its last home video release was on cassette as part of the Universal Noir Collection way back in 1998. You'd think they would have gotten around to giving it a digital makeover by now.


Tuesday, August 31, 2010
Why do women insist on loving men for what they want them to be instead of what they are?

Elia Kazan was quite the busy man in 1947. Not only did he tackle his first noir (Boomerang!) and his first Best Picture winner (Gentleman's Agreement), but he also took a stab at the western with The Sea of Grass, which is most notable for being the fourth teaming of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. The film is set in New Mexico, where the genteel Hepburn travels to marry cattleman Tracy, who's fighting against the encroachment of homesteaders backed by local prosecutor (and later district judge) Melvyn Douglas. Hepburn never quite adjusts to home on the range and even has an ill-advised fling with Douglas that produces a son who eventually grows up to be a very hotheaded Robert Walker. What it doesn't produce is a great deal of action or drama, even if there is a certain amount of teary-eyed hand-wringing on the parts of the principals. I guess Kazan just wasn't cut out for the sagebrush sagas.


Back to July 2010 -- Forward to September 2010



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