Craig J. Clark Watches a Lot of Movies
January 2011

Tuesday, January 4, 2011
There's nothing makes people laugh so hard as seeing someone else get slapped!

Have decided to kick off 2011 with a silent film that I've had on tape since TCM showed it back in August. That would be 1924's He Who Gets Slapped, which Lon Chaney made in between The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera. Based on the play by Leonid Andreyev, the film was co-adapted and directed by Victor Sjöström and stars Chaney as a down-on-his-luck scientist whose work is stolen by a slimy baron (Marc McDermott) who proceeds to steal Chaney's beloved wife (Ruth King) as well. Not only does Chaney suffer the indignity of being slapped by McDermott in front of the Academy of the Sciences, but he's also slapped by his unfaithful wife when he discovers her infidelity. (Shouldn't that be the other way around?) From there he becomes a full-fledged masochist, transforming himself into a circus clown whose entire act revolves around being slapped silly (sometimes receiving as many as a hundred slaps a night).

The bulk of the film is spent in and around the circus where Chaney is the star attraction (and which is populated by a veritable bevy of supporting clowns). There he allows himself to fall in love with an Italian bareback rider (Norma Shearer) who's torn between daredevil rider John Gilbert and an unseen benefactor her conniving father, a destitute count (Tully Marshall), wants to marry her off to. When Chaney discovers that the rich man in question is none other than McDermott the stage is set for revenge most sweet, but only after he is able to reveal his true identity. After all, as the opening title reads, "In the grim comedy of life, it has been wisely said that the last laugh is the best."

Wednesday, January 5, 2011
It's easier to die for a cause than go on suffering.

Those who think Douglas Sirk's career started and ended with the string of melodramas he made in Hollywood in the '50s may be surprised to learn that two decades earlier he actually directed a number of films for UFA before fleeing his native Germany following the rise of the Nazi party. After a brief stopover in the Netherlands, Sirk wound up in the States where his first directing assignment was the anti-Nazi propaganda film Hitler's Madman, which was based on the same events that inspired Fritz Lang's Hangman Also Die! Made in 1943 and set in the small Czech village of Lidice, Hitler's Madman is about as unsubtle as a film can get, but there was a war on so that sort of thing's somewhat understandable. As the title character, the notorious "Hangman of Europe," John Carradine is practically a cartoon villain the way he pushes hapless Czech citizens around and cracks down on intellectualism. When the time comes for him to his motorcade to be ambushed we're more than primed to see him go down in a hail of bullets, but I must confess his subsequent deathbed scene is quite riveting.

Carradine isn't the whole show, of course. There's also a pair of doomed lovers (displaced schoolteacher Patricia Morison and resistance fighter Alan Curtis), an overly cautious town elder (Ralph Morgan), and a shifty hermit (Edgar Kennedy) who may or may not be the sort of person who would turn Curtis over to the Gestapo for the reward. For my money, though, top acting honors go to Ludwig Stössel as the German mayor who remains steadfastly loyal to the party, even after he's placed under arrest for not ferreting out Carradine's assassin quickly enough. I'm not sure who he thinks he's trying to impress with his patriotic display, but his commitment to the tenets of National Socialism marks him as a true believer -- and Germany sure had plenty of those in the '40s.

Thursday, January 6, 2011
Strangest thing I ever heard of, having a funeral in the middle of the night.

Those who think William Castle's career started and ended with the string of tricked-out fright films he made in the '50s and '60s may be surprised to learn that he had been working in Hollywood for a good decade and a half before he struck out on his own with 1958's Macabre, a film he self-financed and sold on the gimmick of taking out a $1,000 life insurance policy with Lloyd's of London on every audience member. Not that there was ever a chance of anyone actually dying of fright during such a tame thriller, but Castle's gambit paid off, paving the way for many more gimmicks to come.

Macabre marked the first of five times Castle worked with screenwriter by Robb White, who had to jump through some hoops to tell the story of small-town doctor William Prince, whose name has been mud ever since his sainted wife (Dorothy Morris) died in childbirth while he was out with another woman (Susan Morrow) who later became his fiancée. Then he goes and loses the other daughter (Christine White) of the richest man in town (Philip Tonge), who just so happens to be his father-in-law, and, well, it's no wonder somebody comes along, snatches up his three-year-old kid, and calls him to says she's been buried alive. What's a fellow to do but traipse down to the local cemetery with a flashlight and shovel and try to find where his daughter's been buried before it's too late?

Castle and Robb waste no time in providing us with plenty of possible suspects (although it must be said that just about everybody in the cast comes under suspicion at one time or another). First and foremost is police chief Jim Backus, whose unexplained hatred of Prince is palpable, followed by funeral director Jonathan Kidd, a gambling addict who owes money all over town. Even Prince's devoted nurse (Jacqueline Scott), who harbors a crush on him, and nanny (Ellen Corby) turn out to have motives, however tenuous, for putting him through the emotional wringer. I wouldn't dream of revealing the film's twist ending, though. The narrator said something bad would happen to me if I did.

Friday, January 7, 2011
The syndicate gets what it wants. You know that.

Since it took me an entire year to watch just ten of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's films (plus his 14-part magnum opus, Berlin Alexanderplatz) I have decided to step it up in 2011, starting with his debut, 1969's Love Is Colder Than Death. As befits a first feature it's a rather stark affair, taking place for the most part in sparsely furnished rooms where the walls are painted white, all the better for Fassbinder to pose his actors (including himself) in front of them. Fassbinder plays a small-time pimp who doesn't want to join the local syndicate and befriends fellow criminal Ulli Lommel (soon to be a film director in his own right), with whom he commits an escalating series of violent crimes. Also along for the ride (although not, thankfully, to set up a love triangle) is Fassbinder's girlfriend/whore Hanna Schygulla, who wants to settle down and raise a family but that doesn't appear to be in the cards for them.

As the film opens a leather jacketed Fassbinder is seated in a waiting room, reading the paper and smoking a cigarette. When another man asks him for a smoke Fassbinder beats the living crap out of the interloper, thus establishing that he's serious about some things, even if organized crime isn't one of them. (Smoking must have been one of Fassbinder's primary interests at the time because there sure is a heck of a lot of it in this film.) For his part, Lommel buys into the gangster aesthetic wholeheartedly, playing the part of the Belmondo-like tough guy to the hilt in his trench coat and fedora. But he's not the only one playing around. In a scene reminiscent of something Godard might have included in Band of Outsiders, Fassbinder, Lommel and Schygulla descend upon a hapless clerk in a department store and steal three pairs of sunglasses right out from under her nose. (Later, while Fassbinder is languishing in police custody, the other two take a trip to the supermarket to do a little shoplifting, presumably to stay in practice.) In the end, though, they find themselves playing the roles that have been assigned to them, no matter how much they've come to like (or even love) each other in the interim.

Saturday, January 8, 2011
Most models would sell their soul to the Devil for that kind of recognition.

The month of January is looking pretty good as far as TCM Underground is concerned. I've been wanting to see more films that were featured in the Ozploitation documentary Not Quite Hollywood, so I was pleased when 1979's Snapshot popped up on the schedule, even if the description on TCM's website ("A sports photographer tires [sic] to steal his best friend's girl.") didn't quite jell with what I had seen in the doc. Even more confusing was my cable box's claim that it was a "Spoof of photographers and their models" and that it was a comedy. Looking into it today, I found that somebody apparently got this Snapshot confused with a 1976 film from Canada called A Sweeter Song which also goes by the name Snapshot. This is entirely understandable since Snapshot itself has a few alternate titles, including One More Minute, The Day Before Halloween and, confusingly enough, The Day After Halloween. Think some crafty distributor wanted to ride on the coattails of a certain John Carpenter hit?

Needless to say, there are no references to Halloween anywhere in Snapshot. Rather, the film is about a naïve hairdresser (Sigrid Thornton) who is lured into the world of modeling by a friend (Chantal Contouri) who's already in the business. (So why does she want the competition? Who knows?) All it takes is a quick introduction to a hot photographer (Hugh Keays-Byrne) who likes to photograph dead animals in his spare time for Thornton to wind up topless in a major cologne ad and get kicked out of the house by her repressed mother (Julia Blake). Meanwhile, she's stalked by her creepy ex-boyfriend (Vincent Gil), who follows her around in a Mr. Whippy ice cream truck, and she has to fend off the advances of Contouri's much older husband (Robert Bruning), a film producer who promises to put her in pictures. But, as Contouri warns her, "You've got to be careful. The world is full of strange people." Yeah, no kidding.

Snapshot was directed by Simon Wincer, who went on to have an extremely varied career (including such disparate titles as D.A.R.Y.L., Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man, Free Willy and Operation Dumbo Drop), and was co-written by Everett De Roche, who penned a fair number of Australia's more memorable exports of the period. And its music was composed by Brian May the same year he scored Mad Max. One thing May isn't responsible for, though, is the song that plays over the montage of Thornton's first photo shoot, which includes such pointed lyrics as "Angela, have you gone too far this time?" and "Angela, it's too late to change your mind." Of course, a more literal-minded lyric might have gone "Angela, when you woke up this morning did you suspect you were going to be topless on the beach in the middle of winter? No? Well, tough titty! By the way, Angela, nice titties." She really should have trusted her first instinct, when she asked Contouri, "Why should I trust a man who photographs dead mice?" Why, indeed?

You're an accused man. You've got nothing to lose.

In the half-century since Orson Welles's 1962 adaptation of Franz Kafka's The Trial there have only been five other feature films based on his work. The one with the highest profile, of course, is Steven Soderbergh's 1991 film Kafka, but it was joined two years later by a remake of The Trial which boasted a screenplay by Harold Pinter. Directed by David Jones, who previously brought Pinter's Betrayal to the screen in 1983 (there's another film that, like Kafka, needs to be on DVD already), this version of The Trial stars Kyle MacLachlan as Josef K., the senior bank clerk who wakes up one morning to find he's been placed under arrest (on his birthday, of all days) but is never told what he's charged with and is even allowed to go about his daily business, which is a peculiar way to handle somebody who's under arrest. No wonder he doesn't take it seriously.

I would attempt to describe the plot, but I know that would be a fool's errand so I'll simply mention some of the great actors who inhabit Kafka's by turns infuriating and menacing characters. There's David Thewlis and Tony Haygarth as K.'s arresting officers, Juliet Stevenson as the fellow lodger he has the hots for, Jason Robards as his bedridden lawyer (who's also in bed with the powers that be, which is unacceptable to K.), Alfred Molina as the court painter who has his own inside line on legal proceedings, and Anthony Hopkins as the prison chaplain who tells K. the parable of the man from the country who seeks the law. Like a lot of the advice he receives over the course of the film, K. misinterprets it before rejecting it out of hand. He probably realized he was on the right track early on when he declared, "There's no way you can defend yourself against this court." Not if you don't know what you're accused of, no.

Sunday, January 9, 2011
I have seen beauty thrive in the most fragile of places.

Last year when the Academy Award nominations for Best Animated Feature were announced the question on everybody's lips was not whether Up (the eventual winner, which was also in the running for Best Picture) would somehow be bested by Coraline, Fantastic Mr. Fox or The Princess and the Frog, but rather what was that fifth nominee, The Secret of Kells, and where did it come from? The answer to the latter question was Ireland, Belgium and France. The answer to the former isn't quite so cut and dried.

An independent, traditionally animated film with a grounding in Celtic mythology, The Secret of Kells was a labor of love for director by Tomm Moore (who also wrote the story) and his co-director Nora Twomey. It tells the story of a young boy named Brendan (voiced by Evan McGuire) who has never been outside the walls of the Abbey of Kells where he lives with his overprotective uncle, Abbot Cellach (Brendan Gleeson). Cellach is obsessed with fortifying the walls to keep the Northmen out, but Brendan is more interested in the tales of master illuminator Brother Aidan (Mick Lally), who arrives on their doorstep bearing the Book of Iona, which is incomplete, and takes Brendan under his wing, must to his uncle's consternation. The main thing Brother Aidan does is to encourage Brendan to go exploring in the forest outside the monastery walls, where he encounters the fairy Aisling (Christen Mooney), a bold and fearless creature except when it comes to the Dark One, a pagan deity named Crom Cruach, who dwells deep within the woods.

The Secret of Kells is full of rapturously beautiful images and frankly terrifying visions. (I can imagine small children being scared out of their wits by the scenes of the barbarous vikings attacking defenseless villagers.) It's important for there to be a balance, though, because it's impossible to fully appreciate beauty if you have no idea what the alternative is. As one of the monks says, regarding Brother Aidan's mystical tome, "To gaze upon the book is to gaze upon heaven itself." To its credit, The Secret of Kells allows us to gaze upon heaven and hell.

P.S. - Now I've managed to see all of last year's Best Animated Feature nominees save for one and I expect that will probably continue to be the case. There's just something about the Disney touch that fails to attract me for some reason.

The mood I get from most of it is kind of a heavy kind of a sort of gloomy feeling, you know?

I've never been a huge Doors fan. Sure, I grew up listening to their songs on classic rock radio and my father had a few of their records on vinyl (namely Strange Days, Waiting for the Sun and L.A. Woman), but I never took to them the way I did, say, The Beatles. The Beatles were the bedrock upon which my musical education was built. The Doors were just another band with a handful of songs that always seemed to be on whenever I turned on WMMR or WYSP. Maybe I would have felt differently about them if I had been around in the late '60s, but Jim Morrison was not the shaman who changed my life, for better or worse. I didn't even think he was that great a poet (not that I've ever claimed to be an expert on the subject).

So why watch When You're Strange, a documentary all about The Doors, you ask? Well, it comes down to the fact that it was written and directed by Tom DiCillo and I am a fan of his work (even if he has yet to fulfill the promise that was so evident in Living in Oblivion). For this film DiCillo eschews the talking heads that litter most rockumentaries and sticks with original footage of the band, much of which has never been seen before. In this way he allows Morrison and the other members of the band to tell their story while it's unfolding, without the benefit of hindsight and the historical revisionism that often engenders. That perspective is provided by Johnny Depp's narration, which veers between the relatively straightforward ("The fact is, the music is strange. It is music for the different, the uninvited. It carries the listener into the shadowy realm of dream.") and the self-consciously metaphorical ("If the band has a surreal, fairground air, it is Morrison who is the frenzied trapeze artist."). Somebody should have told DiCillo he didn't need to try quite so hard. Also, the editing can also be a bit on the nose, as when he sets the requisite Vietnam footage to "Riders on the Storm." Don't know if he has designs on any more documentaries, but a little subtlety never hurt anyone.

Monday, January 10, 2011
If I was happily married to a girl like you I wouldn't leave you alone nights.

Welcome to Day One of Joseph Losey Week. Over the past few months I've been amassing a collection of his films from the '50s and early '60s and now that I have enough to fill up a whole week (thanks in large part to TCM) I'm going to start in on them. And first up is The Prowler, an unsettling film noir he made in the very busy year of 1951, which also saw the release of his remake of M, which wasn't very well-received, and The Big Night, which was the last film he completed in Hollywood before being blacklisted.

Written by Dalton Trumbo (who went uncredited because he was already on the blacklist) and Hugo Butler (who was soon to join him), The Prowler stars Van Heflin as a smug policeman who, along with partner John Maxwell, responds to a call about a prowler on the property of stay-at-home wife Evelyn Keyes, whose husband is out of the picture due to his late-night radio show. That's practically an open invitation for Heflin, who returns later that evening to "check up" on her. It's also the set-up for one of the most unpredictable noirs I've ever seen. You may think you know where it's going, especially after Heflin tries to force himself on Keyes and is rebuffed, but then the film takes a sharp turn that throws everything into question. Then it takes another. And another one still. By the time it reaches the final standoff between Heflin and the police (a profession hes long since left behind) in a deserted ghost town you may be wondering just how they got there, but that's entirely appropriate since the characters are probably asking themselves that very same question.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011
Everyone has a secret. It's not always written in the face.

Joseph Losey Week continues with Time Without Pity, which he made in England in 1957. It was actually his third British film but the first where he was credited under his own name. (On 1954's The Sleeping Tiger and 1956's The Intimate Stranger he was forced to use a pseudonym.) A gripping thriller, Time Without Pity stars Michael Redgrave as a man who's painfully aware of the passage of time (and how pitiless it can be) because his son is due to be executed for a crime he didn't commit and he has less than 24 hours to try to clear him. This is no easy task since the guilty party (whose identity is boldly revealed in the opening scene) is Leo McKern's well-connected sports car manufacturer and wherever Redgrave goes McKern seems to follow, invariably with a drink in hand trying to get him to fall off the wagon.

In addition to Redgrave and McKern, the film features a Murderers' Row of superb British actors, including Peter Cushing as Redgrave's son's lawyer, who doesn't think there's much hope; Alec McCowen as the son, who's resigned himself to his fate and doesn't want his father's help ("It's too awful when you think there's hope," he tells Redgrave. "I went though it once. I'm not going through it again."); Joan Plowright as the victim's sister, a chorus girl who's understandably distraught about the whole business and doesn't want to talk to Redgrave; Ann Todd as McKern's wife, an anti-death penalty advocate whose championing of McCowen's case sticks in McKern's craw; and Lois Maxwell (soon to be 007's Miss Moneypenny) as McKern's former secretary, who provides Redgrave with a vital clue. In fact, nearly everyone he meets tells him something he needs to know, if only he could keep off the sauce long enough to put it all together in time to save his son.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011
You're only a villain when you get caught.

We have reached the midpoint of Joseph Losey Week and tonight my film of choice was 1960's The Criminal, a.k.a. Concrete Jungle. Written by Alun Owen (who mostly worked in television, but his other feature credit is on A Hard Day's Night, so when I saw his name in the opening credits I sat up and took notice), the film stars Stanley Baker as a career criminal who has a big job planned for when he gets out of prison. In fact, he's hot to do it pretty much right after he's released (kind of like Sam Jaffe in The Asphalt Jungle, a clear antecedent) and his dandy of a partner (Sam Wanamaker) is ready to set it in motion. Meanwhile, Baker wastes no time in dumping his old girlfriend (Jill Bennett), who's a little too unstable for his tastes, and falling into bed with a new girl (Margit Saad), who's more exciting because she's foreign.

So, the big job goes off as planned and Baker drives out to a snowy field to bury the loot for safe keeping (sound familiar?), but he's soon apprehended and back in the clink, where he runs afoul of resident kingpin Grégoire Aslan and officious head guard Patrick Magee. Then he finds out Wanamaker is making a lot of noise about getting his cut and even threatening Saad, which inspires him to break out. He gets his chance after a chaotic prison riot (easily the most exciting sequence in the whole film), but there are no happy endings in store for our man. Then again, you won't find many of those in Losey's filmography. Can't imagine why that is...

Thursday, January 13, 2011
Someday they will have to be told everything. I wish there were some way to avoid it.

All the time he spent working in England, Joseph Losey only made one feature for Hammer Films and that was 1963's These Are the Damned, which was shot in 1961 but went unreleased for two years. It's set in and around a coastal town where an American on a boating holiday (Macdonald Carey) is mugged by a gang of leather-clad Teddy Boys led by Oliver Reed after the Yank shows an interest in Reed's sister (Shirley Anne Field). Field's tired of being under Reed's thumb (not to mention acting as his bait), so she runs off with Carey, but Reed and his thugs (whose ranks include Kenneth Cope, who had a small but pivotal role as an ill-fated inmate in The Criminal) are never far away.

Meanwhile, there's a parallel story about a sculptress (Viveca Lindfors) who's renting a cottage from local bigwig Alexander Knox, who's in charge of a mysterious project that he has to keep a secret from her lest he put her life in danger. Naturally the two plot strands come together when Carey, Field and Reed stumble onto Knox's not-quite-secure military installation and discover a group of children living underground in a fortified bunker. The reason why Knox only ever appears to them over closed-circuit TV I'll leave for you to discover should you decide to seek the film out (it was released last year as part of Hammer's "Icons of Suspense Collection" along with a few other titles I'm eager to catch up with). I will say, however, that the explanation is rather on the chilling side.

Friday, January 14, 2011
We're all on trial for our lives. The only thing that makes him original is that he's failed.

How's that saying go? Another day, another downbeat Joseph Losey film? I think that's how it goes. Anyway, when he made 1964's King & Country, which is about a soldier's court martial for desertion during World War I, Losey was just coming off The Servant, which was his breakthrough in Britain and quite possibly emboldened him to face the heavy drama head on. He certainly didn't do much to downplay its stage origins, keeping the action mostly confined to the muddy trenches and emphasizing the grimy conditions the soldiers have to put up with. It's a film that resembles Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory in many ways, only it stays resolutely down and dirty the whole way through.

On the acting front you couldn't ask for a better lineup, starting with Dirk Bogarde as the officer who mounts a vigorous defense for private Tom Courtenay, who just started walking one day because he wanted to get away from the guns. (After three years in the trenches, this doesn't seem to be an unreasonable thing to want to do.) Bogarde faces stiff opposition, though, from prosecutor James Villiers (who previously played one of the secretive military men in These Are the Damned) and blustery medical officer Leo McKern, whose testimony just about sinks him. The film also features Barry Foster as Courtenay's commanding officer, who openly wonders what it will do for morale if his soldiers have to shoot one of their fellow men. Of course, I suppose I shouldn't be too coy about how the story wraps up. After all, I wouldn't call it "downbeat" if it ended with Courtenay being acquitted, now would I?

Saturday, January 15, 2011
Why on earth do we need Modesty Blaise? We have our very best man on the job.

At first glance, Joseph Losey would seem to be a singularly unlikely choice for the assignment of bringing a comic-strip heroine to the screen in a frothy, candy-colored spy adventure, but that's exactly what happened with 1966's Modesty Blaise, a film that followed in the footsteps of the Derek Flint films and paved the way for the likes of Barbarella and Diabolik. To aid in his efforts, Losey had the help of screenwriter Evan Jones, who had previously written These Are the Damned and King & Country for him, and a game cast headed up by Monica Vitti as the title character, a retired thief who is called upon by British Intelligence to foil a plot by master criminal Dirk Bogarde (in smashing form as the debonair, white-haired devil Gabriel) to steal 50 million pounds' worth of diamonds on its way to an influentialsheik in a small but vitally important Middle Eastern country. Of course, once she's on the case, what's to prevent Modesty from making off with the jewels herself? The answer to that, of course, is "not much."

The film co-stars Terence Stamp as Modesty's closest criminal associate (albeit one she's never slept with), an expert knife-thrower who's always around to get her out of a jam (and vice versa), Harry Andrews as the government agent who recruits Modesty and then tries his best to keep an eye on her, Clive Revill in a double role as both the sheik and Gabriel's cost-conscious financial adviser, and Rossella Falk as the deadly Mrs. Fothergill, whose first act in the film is to deal very harshly with a traitorous mime. And if a film featuring a traitorous mime isn't your cup of tea, then it's unlikely you'll be moved by Modesty's many costume changes or bizarre details like Gabriel's personal organ-playing friar. As engaging as it is for most of the running time, though, the film kind of gets away from Losey at the end. Little wonder for his next project he chose the much more self-contained Accident.

A guy like this can't go underground. He's too noticeable.

To the uninitiated, Fassbinder's third feature, 1970's Gods of the Plague, looks a lot like his first two. It was shot on high-contrast black-and-white stock, it features numerous scenes of characters posing against nondescript backgrounds, and the dialogue has a highly improvisational feel. The biggest difference is that Fassbinder, who wrote, directed and edited the film, does not play one of the leading roles, instead letting Harry Baer (who had previously appeared in Katzelmacher) play the central character of Franz, a small-time crook just out of prison who floats around aimlessly, mooching off girlfriends old and new. The girl he winds up with first is cabaret singer Johanna (Hanna Schygulla), who is then relentlessly hounded by policeman Jan George because they're after one of Franz's criminal associates whose unexplained nickname is "The Gorilla."

Along the way Franz is bailed out of a jam by his sister-in-law (Ingrid Caven) when he's caught trying to steal a suitcase and is subsequently stripped naked by her (guess you'd say they're a close family), and he shacks up with a working girl named Margarethe (Margarethe von Trotta) but resists her attempts to domesticate him. Eventually he does run into "The Gorilla" (Günther Kaufmann, in his first of many Fassbinder films) and they hatch a plan to rob a supermarket with an old crony, but their erstwhile pal has since settled down with a wife and a baby on the way so it's up to Franz and Günther to commit the robbery themselves. Meanwhile both the police and Johanna go to smut peddler Carla (Carla Egerer), who also sells information on the side, in the hopes of heading them off before they do. (Fassbinder has a brief cameo as one of her customers, but he's only interested in the hard stuff.) Unsurprisingly, things don't really work out for any of them, but you don't give your film a title like Gods of the Plague because it sends people out with smiles on their faces.

I wished I had a nickel for every name I got that was all right.

When I heard that Peter Yates died last weekend I was immediately reminded that I've had one of his films, 1973's The Friends of Eddie Coyle, on my "to see" list ever since Criterion released it a couple years back. Well, there's no time like the present to cross it off, now is there? Based on the novel by George V. Higgins, the films stars Robert Mitchum as an aging gunrunner for the mob who's facing three to five years on an unrelated charge and is willing to do just about anything to stay out of prison, including talking to ATF agent Richard Jordan. Mitchum isn't the only one talking to Jordan, though, since we also see him periodically getting an earful from bartender (and convicted felon) Peter Boyle, whose sideline is arranging hits.

As the story progresses we get to watch how Mitchum's supplier (Steven Keats) operates and see how a gang of bank robbers (led by Alex Rocco) uses the weapons to pull off their jobs. For these guys, operating outside the law isn't an occupation so much as it's a way of life, and to Yates's credit he doesn't glamorize that life at all. As far as I'm concerned, as '70s crime films go this one is right up there with The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (the original, of course). That film was a cable staple when I was growing up, and seeing this film now makes me wish it had been, too. At least I can be thankful to the Criterion Collection for giving me the chance to discover it at all.

Sunday, January 16, 2011
Good afternoon. We are the Dynamite Women and we're here to rob you.

This week's TCM Underground feature, the Japanese horror film Jigoku, is one I already saw a couple years back, so I'm filling in the gap with the 1976 cult movie The Great Texas Dynamite Chase, which was released by New World Pictures. Directed by Michael Pressman, who went on to make The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training and the infamous Doctor Detroit before finding his ultimate calling as a television director, the film (which was simply called Dynamite Women before New World's marketing division got hold of it) stars Claudia Jennings as a woman who breaks out of jail and uses dynamite to stick up a bank so her family can keep their farm. This impresses teller Jocelyn Jones, who was in the process of being fired anyway, so she hits the road and by pure chance is picked up by Jennings on the outskirts of town. Thus begins a partnership that will reach many highs, but just as many lows (their first job as a duo is a complete bust and later on, after their infamy has grown, they have a number of increasingly violent run-ins with the law).

For the most part the women are independent and self-reliant, but they also have the occasional need for male company, as in the scene where Jennings sleeps with a hot stud with dynamite to sell (Christopher Pennock). And Jones gets a steady love interest when they perform an impromptu supermarket robbery and the young man they take with them (Johnny Crawford) offers his services as a professional hostage. It's not all work, work, work, though. Periodically they take time out to live it up, eating at fancy restaurants and taking up residence in a ritzy hotel's bridal suite, but their ultimate goal is to make it to the Mexican border. Of course, with the entire state of Texas out to get them, that's easier said than done.

I'm sure you'll all enjoy Nilbog. We're hospitable people, especially to strangers.

Boy, oh boy. Where to begin? While I've long been familiar with the 1986 horror fantasy Troll (thanks to the frequency with which it appeared on television in the late '80s and early '90s), I was never once tempted to check out its sequel-in-name-only, 1990's Troll 2. Then along came Best Worst Movie, Michael Stephenson's 2009 documentary about the cult audience that has grown up around the film due to its utter ineptitude. The doc is currently held up at the library (it should be getting to me in the next week or so), so in the meantime I have sacrificed 95 minutes of my life to give the piece of dreck that spawned it its due.

The story, screenplay and direction on Troll 2 are credited to "Drake Floyd," a transparent pseudonym for Italian filmmaker Claudio Fragasso, who was also responsible for Monster Dog, a terrible werewolf film from 1984 starring Alice Cooper that I saw during Jon Kitley's last
Turkey Day Marathon. (If I ever run low on werewolf movies I may go back and re-watch it so I can write a review, but I don't foresee myself getting that desperate.) And Stephenson has a good reason for having a personal stake in the film's popularity since he stars as the youngest member of the Waits family, which accepts an invitation to spend a month in small, rustic Nilbog, which is described as "a wonderful, half-empty town" by teenage daughter Connie McFarland to her horny boyfriend (Jason Wright), whose three stooges are always nearby (and ready to be picked off one by one once they all get to Nilbog). Their clueless parents are played by George Hardy and Margo Prey, and Stephenson receives frequent visits from his deceased grandfather (Robert Ormsby), who warns him about the goblin threat ("Goblins don't need to justify their cruel acts," he tells his precocious grandson. "They're evil creatures.") and somehow has the ability to stop time, appear in mirrors and cause Molotov cocktails to appear out of thin air.

If I wanted to, I could spend all day running down Troll 2's numerous deficiencies (the clumsy dialogue, the crummy story, the cheap monster masks, the unconvincing gore effects), but I want to close with an appreciation for the over-the-top performance of Deborah Reed, who introduces herself as "Creedence Leonore Gielgud of ancient druid origins" and modern-day overacting. There's plenty of just plain bad acting on display in Troll 2 (as the countless YouTube videos devoted to it can attest), but no one else in the cast scales the same giddy heights as Reed, whose priceless reaction when her evil plot is defeated by a bologna sandwich is almost worth the price of admission. Sadly, for whatever reason she chose not to be a part of Best Worst Movie, which is a pity because I'm sure her perspective on the whole phenomenon would be most illuminating.

You can't translate poetry into prose. That's what makes it poetry.

For my first film of the year at the Ryder I chose Howl (with the full moon just days away, there's no better time to). Written for the screen and directed by Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman, the film covers the creation and reception of Allen Ginsburg's epic poem, cutting back and forth between its first public reading in 1955, an interview he gave in 1957, the historic obscenity trial that took place the same year, and an animated depiction of the full text of the poem. That's a lot of strands to keep track of, but Epstein & Friedman prove adept at keeping all their balls aloft at the same time. Of course, it helps that they have a remarkable Ginsberg in James Franco, whose performance transcends mere impersonation. Whether he's reciting Ginsberg's poetry or talking frankly about his life and his hangups (sexual or otherwise), Franco fully embodies the role, effectively disappearing into it.

Ginsberg famously didn't attend Howl's obscenity trial because he wasn't the one on trial, the book's publisher was. (Regardless, he must have been gravely concerned about its outcome.) In the series of scenes that cover it, prosecutor David Strathairn seems obsessed with the specific words used in the poem and is given to asking the defense's witnesses what certain passages mean, and his own experts (Mary-Louise Parker, Jeff Daniels) testify that it has little or no literary merit. For his part, defense lawyer Jon Hamm builds a strong case backed by expert witnesses (Alessandro Nivola, Treat Williams) whose arguments are a bit more convincing, at least to judge Bob Balaban (who, with his deadpan delivery, gets some of the biggest laughs in the whole film). Overall, it's an uplifting story with an impassioned message about the value of intellectual and artistic freedom. And that's a good thing to be reminded of every once in a while.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011
Is he a man or animal? It'll be for you to judge.

The full moon isn't until tomorrow night, but tomorrow also happens to be Edgar Allan Poe's birthday and since he didn't have the foresight to write a werewolf story (which, if he had, would surely have been made into a film by now, probably several times over), this month's Full Moon Feature will just have to be a day early. And my lycanthropic tale of choice is 1975's Legend of the Werewolf, for which I have
Jon Kitley to thank since he's the one who provided me with a copy of this hard-to-find gem. Not sure what the holdup is (if Earl Owensby's rancid Wolfman can find a home on DVD, then so can this film, damn it), but I consider it to be the missing link between The Curse of the Werewolf and the werewolf cycle of the early '80s, and as such, it deserves to have a higher profile.

Not only does Legend of the Werewolf have the feel of an old-school Hammer film (the period setting, decent production values on a limited budget, the emphasis on sex and blood), it was even made by a number of Hammer vets, from director Freddie Francis and screenwriter Anthony Hinds (using his usual pseudonym, John Elder) to star Peter Cushing and supporting player Michael Ripper (who also appeared in The Curse of the Werewolf). It was even inspired by the same novel that Curse was based on -- Guy Endore's The Werewolf of Paris -- but it's no mere retread. Rather, Hinds used some of the story elements that hadn't made it into the previous version and even moved the setting back to Paris (which doesn't prevent most of the cast from speaking in British accents, but there's nothing unusual about that).

Cushing gets top billing, but he doesn't appear until the story is well underway. Instead, the film opens with an orphaned baby being adopted by a pack of wolves and growing into a feral child who is taken in by professional swindler Hugh Griffith, who makes the wolf boy the star attraction in his decidedly low-rent traveling show. Eventually the boy grows up to be a strapping young lad (David Rintoul) who transforms into a hairy beast under the full moon one night and, after making his first kill, hightails it to the city whereupon he immediately lands a job as assistant to grubby, raspy-voiced zookeeper Ron Moody. He also promptly falls in love with prostitute Lynn Dalby, who tries to keep her profession a secret from him with predictable results. Meanwhile, forward-thinking police surgeon Cushing takes an interest when bodies start showing up at the morgue with their throats torn out and investigates the attacks on his own initiative, despite being warned off the case by inspector Stefan Gryff (one of the few actors who even attempts a French accent). As for Ripper, he's one of Rintoul's victims, who's so unfortunate I don't even think he gets to be discovered by the police.

Since this film predates The Howling and An American Werewolf in London by half a decade its makeup and transformation effects aren't groundbreaking in any way, but the werewolf does have a great look that holds up well even at the end of the film when the camera settles down and holds on him long enough for us to really study it. And speaking of the ending, this may very well be the first werewolf film on record where the fully transformed creature is still able to speak and be reasoned with. I know there are a number that have come out since where that is the case, but it's nice to see a werewolf on film that isn't entirely bestial, that hasn't completely lost touch with its humanity.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011
There is a double silence. One is the silence of the body; do not fear it.

Before he sliced his way into cinema history, Luis Buñuel was an assistant director on a handful of French silents, the last of which was 1928's The Fall of the House of Usher (which I watched tonight to commemorate Edgar Allen Poe's 202nd birthday). Directed by Jean Epstein, the film is a very loose adaptation of Poe's story (for one thing, Roderick and Madeleine Usher are now husband and wife instead of brother and sister), but it is one that is positively dripping with atmosphere. One detail that Epstein plays up is the way Roderick (Jean Debucourt) is obsessed with painting Madeleine's (Marguerite Gance) portrait and how its completion seals her doom. (As he works on it, we slowly become aware that it is actually Gance seated inside the frame -- no wonder the painting is so lifelike.)

Epstein also incorporates the character of the guest (Charles Lamy) who comes at Roderick's invitation and almost immediately gets under foot, but he's more of a distraction than anything else. More often than not, Epstein extends moments -- especially the scenes involving the transportation of Madeleine's coffin -- and uses double and triple exposures to accentuate the oppressive mood. This lasts right up until the closing moments, when the house is set ablaze and rent asunder, an effect that is accomplished through the use of a model. To think Roger Corman went to the trouble of filming the interior of an actual barn being burned down. Of course, he probably thought a model would be too expensive. Clearly Epstein thought different.

Having cut his teeth in the fledgling French film industry, Buñuel then set about shocking already-complacent cinema-goers by cutting open an eyeball in the opening sequence of his directorial debut, 1929's surrealist masterpiece Un Chien Andalou, which he co-wrote with Salvador Dalí. You'll have to forgive me for not lingering too long over it, but this is a film that is impossible to adequately describe (although that hasn't stopped many from trying). Sure, one could catalog everything that happens over the course of its 16 minutes, but that still wouldn't convey just how aggressively bizarre it is. In many ways, the rest of Buñuel's 50-year career was his attempt to top this one, indelible short. Considering all the incredible work he did during that time, one can easily forgive him for not succeeding.

Included on the tape I borrowed from Indiana University's library (but sadly not on the DVD release, which is why I haven't picked that up) is Buñuel's documentary short Land Without Bread, which was the first film he made after parting ways with Dalí. Also called Las Hurdes or Unpromised Land, the 27-minute film purports to show the tremendous poverty and backwards customs of the residents of a remote region of Spain, and for a while it seems fairly straightforward and factual, with a helpful narrator explaining what we're seeing, but soon it becomes apparent that Buñuel is fucking with us. What else can one think when his camera shows us an old woman holding a baby and the narrator bluntly states that she is "only 32 years old"? And later on there's a scene with some boys, one of whom the narrator insists is 28 years old. I've heard of unreliable narrators before, but that's ridiculous. Of course, knowing Buñuel, I'm sure that was precisely the point.

Thursday, January 20, 2011
Horror and fatality have been stalking abroad in all ages.
For my second Poe film of the month (can you guess what January's Kryptic Army Mission is?) I chose 1968's Spirits of the Dead, an anthology collecting three of Poe's macabre tales adapted by three of Europe's most celebrated directors. (Well, at least two of them were.) The one that gets all the plaudits nowadays is Federico Fellini's "Toby Dammit," which has the least to do with the story it's ostensibly based on, but there are two other segments to get through before we come to it.

First up is Roger Vadim's take on "Metzengerstein," which he tackled right after completing Barbarella with his then-wife Jane Fonda, who also stars in this and gets to appear in a parade of outlandish and revealing outfits because that's pretty much what Vadim knows how to do. Fonda plays a cruelly decadent libertine of a countess who becomes enamored of her estranged cousin (who's played by her brother Peter for maximum incest-related creepiness) and doesn't take it well when he snubs her. Once scorned she has his stables set on fire (because she's vindictive like that) and is pained to learn that he perished in the blaze. No wonder she's convinced that a riderless black stallion that appears right afterward is both the incarnation of the horse in a tapestry on her wall and the reincarnation of her dead cousin. This leads to a lot of scenes of Fonda both on and off the horse, frequently in outlandish and revealing outfits. Like I said, that's pretty much what Vadim knows how to do.

The second tale has a bit more going for it since it's Louis Malle's adaptation of "William Wilson," which stars Alain Delon as the title character, who's introduced running into a church and buttonholing a priest so he can confess to a murder. Turns out he's quite the notorious fellow, having been a troublemaker at boarding school and medical school before landing in the Austrian Army. Along the way, though, he's been dogged by his double, whose m.o. appears to be showing up at inopportune moments and spoiling his rotten schemes. These include torturing a fellow student, terrorizing a helpless young woman and cheating at cards to get back at a haughty socialite (played very haughtily by Brigitte Bardot). After being exposed by his double once too often Wilson does away with his shadow self, but that only winds up spelling his own doom.

And speaking of characters who are pretty much doomed right from the start, that's the perfect description for Terence Stamp in "Toby Dammit," which Fellini based (very loosely) on the story "Never Bet the Devil Your Head." Brought to Rome to make "the first Catholic Western" (which the director describes as "something between Dreyer and Pasolini with just a hint of John Ford"), Toby is bombarded by a parade of Fellini's grotesques and thrown into a bewildering television interview and self-congratulatory awards show, all of which he endures with a pained expression on his face and a steady supply of booze. Turns out all he really wants is the Ferrari he was promised in his contract and when that's delivered he immediately gets behind the wheel and drives around Rome like a maniac. That's the sort of thing only Roberto Benigni can do safely, though, so it should come as no surprise that Toby winds up losing his head over the whole deal. (And, no, that's not a spoiler, Dammit.)

So, in the final tally I have to agree with the critical consensus that "Toby Dammit" is the best of the lot, but I'm glad I hung in there with the other two segments. Sure, "Metzengerstein" is overlong (you have to really like watching Jane Fonda ride around on a horse to appreciate its middle section) and "William Wilson" could have used a bit more pep, but at least Vadim and Malle can lay claim to being faithful to their source material. That's got to count for something, right?

Saturday, January 22, 2011
You needn't watch if it upsets you.

In the early '60s Hammer Films produced a series of low-budget psychological thrillers, many of which had titles that brought Hitchcock's Psycho to mind. One such film was 1963's The Maniac, which I considered making the middle part of a triple-feature with 1934's Maniac (a notoriously bad exploitation film) and 1980's Maniac (a just plain notorious slasher film) before mercifully nixing that idea. I'm sure my psyche thanks me.

Written and produced by Hammer mainstay Jimmy Sangster and directed by Michael Carreras, The Maniac is set in the Camargue region of southern France (later referenced by Sir Bedevere in Holy Grail), where American painter Kerwin Mathews is left stranded by his spoiled girlfriend and decides to stick around once he gets the lay of the land. This includes chasing after local lass Liliane Brousse and falling into bed/love with her stepmother (Nadia Gray), who fills him in on the status of the girl's father (Donald Houston), who's been locked away in an asylum ever since he took a blowtorch to the man who raped her. Somehow Mathews is convinced that the only way he can be with Gray is to help her break her husband out (I suppose he imagines Houston will be so thankful to be free that he won't mind being cuckolded), which immediately raises the suspicion of police inspector George Pastell -- and that's even before he knows about the welding supplies that have mysteriously shown up at the house. If you ask me, that would be the perfect time for Mathews to question the wisdom of breaking the person responsible for "The Acetylene Killing" out of the nuthouse.

You don't understand. Or, rather, you don't want to understand.

For this week's Fassbinder I went with his fourth film, 1970's Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?, which was his first in color and also the first he made with an equal collaborator, Michael Fengler, who shares credit for the writing, directing and editing. It's also the first Fassbinder film where the characters do actual work (the Herr R. of the title, a stone-faced Kurt Raab, is a technical draftsman for a small architecture firm) and have children to raise (Raab's is a boy named Amadeus who's having trouble at school). If there's any film that captures what it means to be trapped in a middle-class malaise it's this one, with Raab and his complacent wife (Lilith Ungerer) leading lives of utter banality, especially compared with Ungerer's schoolfriend (Hanna Schygulla in a one-scene cameo) whose hairstyle alone sets her apart as an individual.

There are a few moments where we see cracks forming in the facade, though. Take for example the scene where Raab goes into a record store looking for a certain song he heard on the radio, but his descriptions of it are so generic that the clerks behind the counter laugh openly at him. (Oh, how I wish I could have done that when I worked at Tower.) There's also a company dinner where Raab has one too many and makes a long, rambling speech that has people checking their watches and reaching for their coats. (He can practically kiss the promotion he's been campaigning for goodbye after that.) The final straw comes when one of their neighbors visits and endlessly jabbers away about skiing, which is just the sort of thing that would drive anyone to calmly beat them to death with a candlestick. Maybe if Herr R. wasn't so reserved and polite he would have just told her to shut the fuck up.

Sunday, January 23, 2011
I don't know what's going on, but whatever it is, it's weird.

Kryptic Army is still going strong (and it's recruiting new troops all the time), but that hasn't stopped Jon Kitley from compiling a list of 100 Overlooked & Obscure Movies and challenging people to see all of them before the year is out. When I went down the list I determined that I had seen a quarter of them, which left far too many for me to contemplate meeting his challenge, but there are a number that I've been meaning to get around to (including William Castle's Macabre, which I watched a couple weeks back), so if nothing else I should get a handful of horror obscurities under my belt this year.

All this is a long way to go to explain why I chose to spend part of my day being thoroughly repulsed by Horror Planet, which is the more genteel title the North American distributor gave 1981's Inseminoid, a British-made Alien clone that somehow managed to beat New World's Galaxy of Terror to the punch, at least in its native country (we didn't get to see it here in the States until the following year). Presented by Sir Run Run Shaw (of Hong Kong's insanely prolific Shaw Brothers), the film was directed by Norman J. Warren on a tiny budget without the benefit of any big stars, but when you're making a movie about a team of archaeologists exploring an abandoned outpost on a lifeless planet where one of the females is impregnated by an icky-looking creature and then spends the rest of the film stalking her fellow crew members, stars are somewhat beside the point. In fact, the only actor I recognized in the entire cast was Victoria Tennant (future wife and co-star of Steve Martin), who's seventh-billed (which probably gives you some idea how long she gets to stick around before getting killed off).

I suppose I could spend another paragraph or two running down the details of the plot and identifying all of the major characters (there are a dozen in all), but to be perfectly frank I just don't want to. For the most part, the film alternates between tedious scenes of people walking around in bulky spacesuits that render them indistinguishable from one another and slightly less tedious scenes of people not in space suits running through identical-looking tunnels and passageways. And anyway, the only actual performance worth mentioning is Judy Geeson's as the unfortunate recipient of the alien spermatozoa whose pregnancy is artificially accelerated, all the better for her to hunt down her fellow humans to provide nourishment for the monsters growing inside her.

Speaking of growing monsters, 1981's Bloody Birthday -- also on Kitley's list, but I would have seen anyway because it was this week's TCM Underground feature -- is the story of what happens when three children are born simultaneously during an eclipse. Ten years later the trio of preternaturally intelligent tykes (Elizabeth Hoy, Billy Jayne and Andy Freeman) go on a rampage, arranging accidents and committing violent murders at will, even in broad daylight. In a lot of ways this is the film
Devil Times Five could have been if its execution hadn't been so sloppy. At the very least, I liked this one a lot more and thought it generated a certain amount of genuine suspense, which is no small feat.

Much of the credit for this goes to co-writer/director Ed Hunt, who sets up the basic situation, has one of his characters (amateur astrologist Lori Lethin) offer up a credible explanation for why the kids are acting like such psychopaths, and then runs with it. He also got some name actors to play small roles (Susan Strasberg as a strict teacher, José Ferrer as the doctor who delivers the children and then shows up for their 10th birthday party) and lucked into casting Julie Brown at the beginning of her career as the little girl's older sister who does a topless dance at one point and is consoled by her boyfriend after her father, the chief of police, is murdered. ("It's hard to believe," he says, "a tough guy like your father killed by a skateboard.") Later she gets bumped off herself when she's shot in the eye with a bow and arrow. (The fact that this happens indoors isn't even the most unusual thing about it.) Then there's the classmate (K.C. Martel) who always seems to see too much, which of course marks him for death. I suppose the only reason he manages to avoid that fate is because it's hard to justify a kid killing another kid in a movie. That doesn't mean they don't give it the old grade-school try, though.

Monday, January 24, 2011
The incredible thing about Troll 2 is that the public took it back.

A little over a week after exposing myself to Troll 2 I have now seen Michael Paul Stephenson's Best Worst Movie, which examines its curious cult status through the eyes of its mortified stars. Chief among them is outgoing Alabama dentist George Hardy, who is quick to embrace his unlikely fame, attending sold-out screenings across the country in the company of some of his fellow travelers (who share their own memories of its troubled production and initially unenthusiastic reception). For his part, Italian filmmaker Claudio Fragasso (who's tracked down in Rome) isn't quite so accepting of his film's perceived place in cinema history (he considers it to be a parable about modern society), but even he eventually concedes that "Being considered the worst movie is almost as much a compliment as being considered the best."

In terms of conflict, Fragasso provides the lion's share of it with his sniping from the sidelines, but he's really only a supporting character since Stephenson chooses to stay focused on Hardy and his less contentious relationship with Troll 2's ardent fans. Hardy even hosts a screening of the film in his hometown which is a sure sign that he's long since gotten over any residual embarrassment. Then he makes a few appearances on the convention circuit, first at a memorabilia show in the U.K. and then at a horror convention in Dallas, but finds that while he's a hero to a very select audience, the general public just isn't interested. (As one of its fans admits, "It just doesn't sound compelling to most people.") Stephenson ends the film on an upbeat note, though, with a well-attended outdoor screening in the Utah town where the film was shot close to two decades earlier. Somehow I doubt that's a point of local pride.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011
How do you trust your feelings if they can just disappear like that?

I already had plans to see Blue Valentine tonight (figuring it was the sort of film that wouldn't stick around Bloomington long) when I found out the Oscar nominations were being announced this morning. (In fact, I pretty much found that out as they were happening, which shows how little I keep up with these things.) The film only wound up only receiving one nomination -- for Michelle Williams for Best Actress -- but that didn't deter me because I knew, like Rabbit Hole, it was not necessarily going to be a big attention-grabber (apart from the very public battle that was waged when it was first slapped with an NC-17 by the MPAA). That said, Ryan Gosling's lack of a Best Actor nod is pretty galling now that I've seen how good he is.

It's the story of a disintegrating marriage that jumbles up its own chronology, allowing co-writer/director Derek Cianfrance (making only his second feature) to jump back and forth between the present, where Gosling and Williams are just trying to hold things together, and the couple's rocky beginnings, which show that their relationship never had the chance to be built on a solid foundation. Complicating matters is their precocious preschool-age daughter (Faith Wladyka), who gets dropped off at her grandfather's so they can spend the night at a sleazy motel and see if there's any spark left between them. Kind of fitting that the Future Room (as opposed to Cupid's Cove) winds up being the place where they find out if they have a future together or not.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011
How can we be heroes if they think we're criminals?

My original plan yesterday was to see Blue Valentine, get a quick bite to eat and then catch an evening showing of The Green Hornet at the same theater. That fizzled when I learned the bargain ticket price, which I had been led to believe applied to all screenings on weekdays, was no longer in effect after 6 p.m. (This is the second time AMC seems to have changed its admission policies in this manner; I am not pleased.) So I bailed on The Green Hornet and postponed it until tonight which was probably for the best because that wouldn't have made for a good double feature anyway.

It's been a few years since Seth Rogen and his writing partner Evan Goldberg impressed me with the one-two punch of Superbad and Pineapple Express. Now they're back with the much-delayed big-screen adaptation of The Green Hornet, which apparently needed the extra time so it could be retrofitted for 3-D (a process that continues to baffle me). And joining them is director Michel Gondry, whose previous features -- like theirs -- have been much more modestly budgeted. At this point, two weeks into its run, it remains to be seen whether this one will turn a profit, which of course will directly affect whether we see a Green Hornet 2 or not. My guess would be not, but I've been known to be wrong about these things before. But enough about the potential Green Hornet 2. How does the first one fare?

Well, I happen to think Rogen does a good job as party animal Britt Reid, who inherits a massive media conglomerate when his father (a constantly glowering Tom Wilkinson) dies unexpectedly and then has to figure out what to do with his new-found responsibilities. Enter his father's personal mechanic Kato (Jay Chou), who turns out to have an ingenious invention for every occasion and kick-ass karate skills to boot. Faster than you can say, "Hey, since you guys are in a movie called The Green Hornet and everything, why don't you start kicking criminal butt together?" they start kicking criminal butt together, which draws the unwanted attention of ruthless Russian gangster Christoph Waltz (who's hyper-concerned about whether his image is menacing enough) and the disdain of newspaper editor Edward James Olmos, who disapproves of the way Rogen wants to play up the Green Hornet's exploits in his own paper.

In a curious way, the film has a story arc like a romantic comedy where our heroes have a falling out (or, to be more specific, a knock-down, drag-out fight) over their mutual interest in Rogen's secretary (Cameron Diaz) and then have to make up with each other before the climactic action sequence. Whether that was intentional on Rogen and Goldberg's part, it's something I picked up on and thought I would mention. I'd also like to mention the amusing cameos by James Franco (as an upstart drug dealer whose attempt to invade Waltz's turf is ill-advised at best) and Edward Furlong (as a similarly ill-fated meth dealer). I didn't even recognize Furlong in the film, which goes to show how long it's been since I've seen him in anything. Suffice it to say, even if a sequel is in the offing, neither of them has to worry about being called up for it.

Friday, January 28, 2011
No one is innocent. All men are guilty.

The first Jean-Pierre Melville film I got to see on the big screen was 1970's Le Cercle Rouge, which I was fortunate enough to catch when it was re-released in 2003. Melville's penultimate film, it re-teamed him with his Le Samourai star Alain Delon, who plays a thief just out of prison who enlists a fugitive from the law (Gian Maria Volonté) and an alcoholic ex-cop (Yves Montand) to commit a daring robbery. It's not as straightforward as that, though, since Delon meets Volonté purely by chance after he escapes from the custody of policeman André Bourvil, who is under pressure to track him down. When Bourvil's usual sources come up empty, he starts putting the pressure on nightclub owner Francois Périer, who insists he'll never turn informant ("Nothing can change a man's basic nature," he says), but Bourvil knows just how to get him to open up.

Meanwhile, there's the heist itself, which is meticulously planned and is a carried out in a bravura 26-minute sequence that contains exactly two lines of dialogue. (That's a sure sign that these guys are professionals who know what they're doing.) The only hitch comes when their cautious fence (Paul Crauchet) balks at handling the take from such a high-profile robbery, leaving Delon literally holding the bag. How Melville resolves the situation I'll leave for you to discover. As with most of his films (I can't speak for all of them since there are some that I still need to track down), this is one that contains ample rewards for those who seek it out.

Saturday, January 29, 2011
There's no trade union for my job. If anyone betrays me, I'm finished.

As time inexorably marches on, so does Rainer Werner Fassbinder's film career. Today's selection is The American Soldier, his fifth feature and the third one he made in 1970 alone. It stars Karl Scheydt as the title character (who's actually German by birth), a heavy drinker and irredeemable prick who did a tour of duty in Vietnam and is now a contract killer. He comes to Munich at the behest of police detectives Jan George and Hark Bohm (appearing in his first of many films for Fassbinder) for reasons that are never quite clear, although they do have him bump off a few underworld types, including a Gypsy palm reader (Ulli Lommel) and the information peddler (Katrin Schaake) who led Scheydt to him. After the second murder Scheydt even has an awkward family reunion with his mother (Eva Ingeborg Scholz) and brother (Kurt Raab) because they happen to live in the neighborhood.

Even more awkward is the fact that George sends his own girlfriend (Elga Sorbas) to Scheydt when he asks for a whore. Their tryst is compounded by the arrival of hotel maid Margarethe von Trotta, whose unrequited crush on him compels her to sit on the edge of the bed while they're making love and tell the story that Fassbinder would later turn into Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. Later they witness her killing herself over a man, an extra touch of melodrama in a film that has no shortage of it. (By the time we've already seen Scheydt's encounter with old girlfriend Ingrid Caven, who has since gotten married; for a man who makes a living killing total strangers, he takes the news in stride.) Fassbinder also appears (uncredited, as usual) as one of Scheydt's criminal associates who's there to back him up when needed. When Scheydt is no longer of any use to the police, he definitely needs all the help he can get.

He must learn that a man's word to anything, even his own destruction, is his honor.

Have attended my first pair of screenings at the newly dedicated Indiana University Cinema, which will be my go-to place for repertory screenings and offbeat independent fare for the foreseeable future. (This has been a long time coming.) My primary objective today was John Ford's The Searchers, but first came his 1950 film Rio Grande, which was the third part of his "Calvary Trilogy" starring John Wayne (who else?). (I missed the first two parts -- Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon -- but that's not as much of a problem since they're really only linked thematically.) Wayne plays an officer in charge of a regiment stationed near the Mexican border, which provides the Apache with convenient cover since Wayne and his soldiers are unable to cross the title river in pursuit. (Needless to say, this bugs the living daylights out of Wayne.)

As if he needed the added aggravation, Wayne is also saddled with a group of new recruits whose ranks include a soldier wanted for manslaughter (Ben Johnson) and his own estranged son (Claude Jarman Jr.), who flunked out of West Point and enlisted in the Army not realizing he was going to be placed under his old man's command. Jarman is soon followed by his mother (Maureen O'Hara), who intends to buy her son's way out of the service but neither Wayne nor Jarman is having any part of that. Rounding out the cast is Victor McLaglen as the comic-relief Irish sergeant major, whose comedy pretty much go over like a lead balloon these days. Add to that the unenlightened attitude toward the Apaches (essentially, Indians = bad guys) and overall lack of complexity and you've got a film that's hard to feel strongly about one way or the other.

The same thing cannot be said of 1956's The Searchers, which saw Ford tackling a much darker and more nuanced story (which Danny Peary praised in his first Cult Movies book). Much of that darkness is embodied by Wayne's character, an unreconstructed Confederate soldier who rides out after the Comanche when they slaughter his brother's family and abduct his young niece (Lana Wood). Accompanying him is his adoptive nephew Jeffrey Hunter, who stays with him through thick and thin (even as the search stretches out over five long years) because he fears what Wayne will do if and when he finds her. Their extended absence creates a rift between Hunter and his steady girl (Vera Miles), but at the end of the trail they find the kidnapped girl (now played by Natalie Wood), who has become completely assimilated into the Comanche way of life. It doesn't take a mind-reader to know what Wayne thinks about that.

As in Rio Grande, there is some humor in The Searchers that comes off as more than a little incongruous, but thankfully the one original song is confined to the opening credits. (The regimental singers in Rio Grande got at least a couple showcases too many.) I also noticed that both films feature a fistfight that is broken up by the arrival of an authority figure who then sanctions it because that's just how men settle disputes in the Old West, I guess. Overall, though, there's a fundamental seriousness to The Searchers that helps it rise above other, more formulaic westerns of the period. (Perhaps Ford had a look at Anthony Mann's collaborations with James Stewart -- which spanned the first half of the decade -- and realized there was something to their psychological complexity.) However it came about, The Searchers is an unimpeachable classic and I'm glad I was able to see it on the big screen. Long live IU Cinema!

Sunday, January 30, 2011
She doesn't look like blackmail bait, but she's definitely the strawberry birthmark in that photo.

The early '70s was a frustrating time for Samuel Fuller. He was removed from one project (the 1973 western The Deadly Trackers) after clashing with star Richard Harris and walked off another (1974's The Klansman) when the producers insisted on script changes that he felt damaged the story. (Both were finished by other directors, although he still retained story and screenplay credits.) The only film he had complete control over in that entire decade was Dead Pigeon of Beethoven Street, which he made for German television in 1973. Of course, with that control came certain budget limitations, but Fuller proved more than up to the task of working within them to produce something that was recognizably his own. (That said, this is the only Samuel Fuller film that could ever feature music by Can.)

The story follows an American private detective (Glenn Corbett, who previously starred in The Crimson Kimono) looking into the murder of his partner, who was investigating a blackmail ring based out of Germany on behalf of a senator with presidential ambitions (who just so happens to be voiced by the director). Corbett's own investigation leads him to the woman in the incriminating photograph (Christa Lang, who just so happened to be the director's wife) and, after he's infiltrated the organization, all the way to the man at the top (Anton Diffring). But first he has to gain their trust by working with Lang to photograph a few international diplomats in compromising positions (interestingly enough, the one who proves unable to be blackmailed is played by Alex D'Arcy, who's known to fans of MST3K as Gary from
Horrors of Spider Island). He also has to steer clear of a trigger-happy operative with the unlikely name of Charlie Umlaut (Eric P. Caspar) and keep his head after he falls for Lang, otherwise he's liable to be the next dead pigeon.

One of our bears got lonesome, came down for a little action.

For its last feature before taking the month of February off for the network's annual "31 Days of Oscar" festival, TCM Underground aired the venerable Grizzly, the first Jaws knock-off to make it to the screen during the feeding frenzy that followed in the wake of that film's monster success. Released in 1976, a full year before any of its competitors could come to market, Grizzly was written and produced by Harvey Flaxman & David Sheldon and directed by experienced exploitationer William Girdler (who had a number of blaxploitation credits to his name and would go on to make The Manitou, another prime candidate for the Underground treatment). Transposing the setting to a state park in the off-season, the film stars Christopher George as a forest ranger who quickly finds his park besieged by a 15-foot-tall, 2,000-pound grizzly bear with a taste for human flesh. (I guess pic-a-nic baskets just lost their allure.)

Anyway, the film co-stars Andrew Prine as a helicopter pilot and Vietnam veteran who gets to delivers its equivalent of Quint's U.S.S. Indianapolis speech, Richard Jaeckel as the naturalist who wants to capture the grizzly alive so he can study it (you can guess how well that works out), Joan McCall as a nature photographer who becomes George's kinda-sorta love interest, and Joe Dorsey as the park supervisor who refuses to close the park because he doesn't want to "blow things out of proportion." The unsung hero of the film, though, is whoever the filmmakers got to don the huge bear claws that periodically swoop through the frame, dismembering screaming campers and -- in one memorable scene -- beheading a horse with one swipe. Not something you see every day.

I think my favorite thing about Grizzly is the way it withholds revealing the entire bear for as long as possible. I realize this is standard operating procedure for monster movies, but it reaches the height of absurdity during the scene where the grizzly rises up on its hind legs to menace a hunter and the camera tilts up to show its body but stops just short of its head. Did the filmmakers really think they were somehow keeping its identity a secret? It's a bear, for Smokey's sake!

Monday, January 31, 2011
The bigger the job, the more desperately you try to hang onto it.

Have decided to dip back into Criterion's Golden Age of Television box set this week. First up: Rod Serling's Patterns, which was first broadcast in 1955 and, like Marty before it, was almost immediately optioned for a big screen adaptation. (Now you know what I have on the docket for tomorrow night.) Directed by Fielder Cook, who also helmed the remake, Patterns is set in the world of big business where the quickest way up the corporate ladder is at the expense of somebody on their way down (or out). In this story, the one on the way up is novice executive Richard Kiley, who's brought in to replace ailing veteran Ed Begley, whose 24 years with the company doesn't mean a whole lot to unsentimental boss Everett Sloane. Of course, the fact that Begley has an ulcer, a bad ticker and an incipient drinking problem probably doesn't help his standing, either.

Coming in at a brisk 53 minutes, Patterns doesn't have time for a whole lot of nuance (I expect Serling was able to fill it out some in the process of expanding it to feature length), but it does give Kiley, Begley and Sloane room enough to sketch in their characters. Sloane in particular is about as gruff and irascible as they come, which is probably why, like Begley, he got to reprise his role in the film. I'm not sure why Kiley wasn't asked to do the same, but I'll see soon enough how well Van Heflin was able to fill his shoes.

Back to December 2010 -- Onward to February 2011

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