Craig J. Clark Watches a Lot of Movies
June 2011

Wednesday, June 1, 2011
Intellect is seldom a feature of physical beauty. And that makes you a remarkable woman.

In 1964, hot on the heels of the searing Shock Corridor, which exposed the ills of modern society by way of a murder investigation conducted in a mental institution, maverick director Samuel Fuller once again took the country's pulse and reported back his findings in The Naked Kiss, which remains one of his most floridly overcranked potboilers. It's the story of a prostitute (Shock Corridor's Constance Towers) who arrives in a small town selling bottles of Angel Foam champagne (and her body) for $10 a pop, but decides to reinvent herself by taking a job as a nurse's aide at a hospital for disabled children. Her change of heart (not to mention occupation) doesn't convince gruff police captain Anthony Eisley, though, and he tries on a number of occasions to run her out of town, especially after she catches the eye of local philanthropist (and war hero) Michael Dante, who shares her love of Beethoven and poetry. Unfortunately for Towers, her great catch turns out to be harboring a dark secret that forces her to throw him back.

Fuller always had a gift for florid dialogue and kooky conceits, and The Naked Kiss has its fair share of both. Take local madam Candy (Virginia Grey), whose whorehouse is stocked with what she calls her "bonbon girls." It isn't long before Towers puts her in her place, much like she does with her pimp in the opening scene (which contains one of Fuller's most shocking reveals). Then there's the jaw-dropping musical number "Mommy Dear," which is sung by Towers and her adorable charges. It's the kind of sequence that makes you wonder whether Fuller expected his audience to take everything in the film with a straight face or not. No wonder it found its way into both The Official Razzie Movie Guide and Danny Peary's Cult Movies 3.

Thursday, June 2, 2011
We're gonna have to make this a night to remember.

Even though its edition of The Silence of the Lambs has long been out of print, Criterion must have thought it looked a little lonely in its Collection because last month it added Jonathan Demme's 1986 film Something Wild to keep it company. (Which makes me wonder, can Married to the Mob be far behind?) In the tradition of the screwball comedies of yore, it pairs up uptight executive Jeff Daniels and impulsive free spirit Melanie Griffith, who shanghais him for the weekend so she can have someone presentable to pass off as her husband at her high school reunion. Halfway through, though, the film morphs into something else entirely when Griffith's actual husband, ex-con Ray Liotta, arrives on the scene and steers it into much more dangerously unpredictable territory.

Demme peppers the film with cameos from the likes of Tracey Walter (as the owner of a liquor store that Griffith robs), Charles Napier (as the chef at an Italian restaurant where they skip out on their bill), John Sayles (as a motorcycle cop) and John Waters (as a used car salesman). He even gets The Feelies to play Griffith's class reunion (as "The Willies"), during which they perform "I'm a Believer" and David Bowie's "Fame," as well as their own "Crazy Rhythms" and "Loveless Love." I can think of few directors who would be able to pull off something like that, let alone the tonal shift that Liotta brings to the party. (That's something that could have easily tripped up a less assured director.) I'm not saying Demme could do no wrong, but back in the '80s it seemed all but impossible for him not to do right. Pretty wild, huh?

Friday, June 3, 2011
There's always someone younger and hungrier coming down the stairs after you.

A while back I followed a promising Amazon recommendation and purchased a book called Showgirls, Teen Wolves, and Astro Zombies: A Film Critic's Year-Long Quest to Find the Worst Movie Ever Made. As a matter of fact, I've had it on my shelf for well over a year now, but haven't started in on it because I had never seen the first film in the title -- and I knew it was one that I would want to see cold when I eventually got around to it. Well, I can finally crack open the book because at long last I have succumbed to the dubious charms of Showgirls, which, in my estimation, is far too self-aware to be granted the title of "Worst Movie Ever Made."

I suspect this has more to do with the contributions of director Paul Verhoeven than screenwriter Joe Eszterhas, whose overripe dialogue is riddled with some real howlers. Of course, it doesn't help that many of them are delivered by Saved by the Bell alumnus Elizabeth Berkley, whose tough girl act is far from convincing, but I guess that's not so much of a concern to those who just want to see her parade around in her birthday suit (which she does often). Personally, I was much more interested in the supporting cast, which includes Robert Davi as the owner of the topless bar where Berkley gets a job soon after her arrival in Las Vegas, Kyle MacLachlan as the entertainment director at the casino where she auditions to be a dancer, and Gina Gershon as the bitchy star who practically begs to get pushed down the stairs to make way for Berkley's ascent. Davi's the one who gets the funniest line in the whole film, though, when he comes to see her in the show and congratulates her afterwards, saying, "It must be weird not having anybody come on you."

As long as the story remains focused on the backstage shenanigans (Cat fights! Monkey alerts! Boat shows!), it's on fairly solid ground. It's only when Eszterhas tries to play up Berkley's relationship with her roommate, aspiring costume designer Gina Ravera, or her would-be boyfriend, choreographer Glenn Plummer, that his script gets bogged down in clichés. A big deal is also made about how she's running from some dark secret in her past (when asked where she's from, her stock reply is "Different places"), but when the final reveal comes it's decidedly anticlimactic. Maybe it goes some way toward explaining why she has such an attitude from the word go, but not why her level of naïvete fluctuates from scene to scene. Perhaps if she had previewed Ted V. Mikels's Girl in Gold Boots before setting out, she would have been aware of some of the pitfalls to avoid.

Saturday, June 4, 2011
I was like, "Oh, my God. This is his whole life, just making this one film."

It's a miracle any film gets made, let alone made well. That's the main thing I take away from films about the filmmaking process, be they fiction or documentary. And it's certainly the case with Chris Smith's American Movie, which documents the efforts of aspiring Wisconsin filmmaker Mark Borchardt to produce a semi-autobiographical drama called Northwestern, which he eventually puts aside in favor of finishing a short horror film called Coven (which is pronounced like "cloven" without the "l"). The latter, he hopes, will provide the seed money for the former, which would probably be a tough sell under the best of circumstances.

A beer-swilling high school dropout and father of three with mounting debts and a total disdain for the daily grind, Borchardt is buoyed by his passion for film and the friends -- and skeptical family members -- who enable him. (Major funding for Coven comes from his elderly Uncle Bill, who seems to doubt he'll ever see his $3,000 again.) Apart from him, the most memorable "character" in the film is his best friend Mike Schank, a burnout whose tales of his misspent youth would be harrowing if they weren't so hysterical. Borchardt's the one who's front and center, though, and by the time Coven is finally completed and ready for its big premiere, he -- like the character he plays -- may be bloodied, but he's decidedly unbowed.

Don't squabble, gang. It's supposed to be a team-building weekend.

One film that seems like it's been on the employee picks rack at Plan Nine forever -- and which has seemingly been rented every time I've wanted to take it out -- is the 2006 British horror-comedy Severance. (Guess it's pretty popular.) Co-written and directed by Christopher Smith (who also made last year's much grimmer Black Death), the film is about a busload of salespeople for a weapons manufacturer flogging their wares across Eastern Europe who get lost on the way to a weekend retreat. Having seen the opening sequence, in which their boss is stalked and gutted by an unseen assailant, we know they're headed for trouble when they're put off their bus and have to walk the last mile or so through the woods to their lodge, but it takes a while for the penny to drop. The slow build gives Smith and co-writer James Moran time to play up the comedy, but alas, their script just isn't as sharp as it could have been.

The only actor in the cast that I recognized was Blackadder alumnus Tim McInnerny, who plays the team's ineffectual manager, but everybody pulls their weight, from grumbling prick Toby Stephens (who tries to take charge and loses his head) to bumbling safety officer Andy Nyman (who naturally is the one who steps into a bear trap). Equally grisly fates await conscientious landmine designer Claudie Blakley and resourceful assistant Babou Ceesay (who miraculously is not the first to die despite being the only black actor in the film), which means it's up to the group's token American (Laura Harris) and walking pharmacy (Danny Dyer) to face down the threat (which, as it turns out, their company helped to create). Smith and Moran don't push the satirical angle too much, though, which is why the closing refrain of "We'll Meet Again" feels vaguely unearned.

We that are true lovers run into strange capers.

After 2000's Love's Labour's Lost bombed at the box office, I figured Kenneth Branagh would lay off the oddball Shakespeare adaptations, and he did -- for a few years. In 2006, however, he came across with a version of As You Like It set in late 19th century Japan for some damned reason. I didn't find out about it until it was already out on DVD (having bypassed theaters in the U.S. entirely) and even then I didn't rush to borrow it from the library. Of course, now that Branagh has moved into the realm of comic books with Thor (which I feel duty-bound to check out before it scampers off the big screen), the time has come for me to see how much I like As You Like It.

On a Branagh/Shakespeare scale of 1 to 5 -- with 1 being Love's Labour's Lost and 5 being Henry V -- I would have to give it a 2. A definite step up, but still far below the standard he set with Much Ado About Nothing and Hamlet, where the changes in setting and time period actually made some narrative sense. Did As You Like It really need a ninja attack, sumo wrestling and a scene set in a rock garden? Probably not, but Branagh threw them in anyway. I don't want to be too hard on the film, though, because I found it to be very well-acted, even if the showy camerawork sometimes got in the way of the performances. It's simply impossible for me to dismiss a film that gives juicy roles to Brian Blessed (who plays a deposed duke and his brother, the usurper), Richard Briers (as a faithful servant), Kevin Kline (as a melancholy retainer who gets to deliver the "All the world's a stage" soliloquy), Janet McTeer (as a lustful maid) and Alfred Molina (as the requisite fool with quite the hairdo).

It wouldn't be a Shakespeare comedy without a marriage or two and this time out the Bard gives us a number of them, with the most important being the union of Blessed's daughter (Bryce Dallas Howard) and a wrestling enthusiast (David Oyelowo), closely followed by the whirlwind romance of the other Blessed's daughter (Romola Garai) and the wrestling enthusiast's brother (Adrian Lester). Suffice it to say, things are a lot more complicated than that, but that's Shakespeare for you. Like it or lump it.

Sunday, June 5, 2011
You know, for a crazy homeless guy, he's pretty cut.

It's been about a decade and a half since I last caught a Kenneth Branagh film in theaters (that would be 1996's Hamlet, which I made a special pilgrimage to New York City to see), so I decided to end the drought with Thor because why not? I may have skipped The Incredible Hulk (mostly because I didn't see the point of a franchise reboot so soon after Ang Lee's Hulk), but the Iron Man movies were fun enough and I want to be prepared should I choose to give The Avengers a look next year. And besides, my previous exposure to Marvel's Thor was in the television movie The Incredible Hulk Returns and that's just not right no matter how you slice it (or hammer it, as it were).

I trust I don't need to go too much into the plot or worry about any potential spoilers. After all, this is a major tent-pole release that's been out for a month and has drummed up $169 million domestically. Probably not the box office bonanza Marvel was hoping for, but I don't think anyone was expecting it to make Iron Man money. (Then again, when the first Iron Man came out I don't think anyone expecting that to make Iron Man money, either. Funny how that works.) But enough about the business side, what about the writing, directing and acting?

Well, as far as the screenplay (which is credited to three writers, with two more receiving a story credit) is concerned, I don't have much to say about it because it's largely functional in nature. It does the bare minimum required to get Thor (a grandstanding, table-flipping braggart when we first meet him) stripped of his powers and banished to Earth for disobeying his father and then restoring him to his full glory after he's spent a sufficient amount of screen time learning how to be humble (and falling in love with a mortal in the process). And while Branagh proves he was the right man for the job of bringing these outsized characters to the big screen, his style is overwhelmed by the production design of Asgard and the too, too chaotic battle scenes (which I can't imagine playing that much better in 3-D).

On the acting front, Chris Hemsworth acquits himself well as the title character, delivering a commanding performance that's leavened with just the right amount of humor. (I do wish the pet shop gag hadn't been spoiled for me by one of the reviews I read, though.) As for the other Asgardians, Anthony Hopkins gives us an appropriately weary Odin, Rene Russo isn't given enough to do as his wife Frigga, Idris Elba mostly lets his armor do the acting for him as gatekeeper Heimdall, and Tom Hiddleston brings some complexity to the role of the ever-scheming Loki. (Meanwhile, their antagonists -- the largely anonymous Frost Giants -- are led by an unrecognizable Colm Feore.) Earth-side, Natalie Portman makes for an agreeable love interest (if not an entirely plausible astrophysicist), Stellan Skarsgård makes the most of his role as her mentor, Kat Dennings is pretty much deadweight, Clark Gregg reprises his role as S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson (delivering on the promise of Iron Man 2's credit cookie), and Samuel L. Jackson makes his usual uncredited post-credit appearance to set up Joss Whedon's The Avengers, which doesn't look very Whedon-y just yet. That's not necessarily a bad thing.

I am in blood stepp't in so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o'er.

If there's one thing I'm always up for, it's a new version Macbeth, which is why I immediately pounced on it when I saw that my library had acquired last year's modernized television adaptation starring Patrick Stewart. A co-production of the BBC and PBS, where it premiered on Great Performances, it was based on director Rupert Goold's award-winning stage revival and placed Stewart's Macbeth in a militaristic, Soviet-like nation represented by claustrophobic corridors, creaky elevators, stuffy train compartments and the like. (You can count on one hand the number of scenes that take place out of doors or in natural light.) It's visually striking, to be sure, but I'm not quite sold on all of Goold's interpretations and interpolations.

For starters, the three witches are dressed as nurses, which is reasonably clever, but they have the unfortunate habit of acting like they're in a music video. Second, I quickly grew tired of Tim Reloar's rather too buffoonish Ross, which clashed terribly with the other performances. Furthermore, while the updated time period allows for the use of intercom systems and pointed references to enhanced interrogation methods, adding guns into the mix almost always has a detrimental effect on Shakespeare's text. On the plus side, Kate Fleetwood's Lady Macbeth is a formidable villain, and Martin Turner's thoughtful Banquo made me sorry to see him go. Then there's Stewart, who fully inhabits the title role, taking us on the journey into madness with him. I especially like the way he resigns himself to his fate when it becomes clear that the three witches have played him for a fool. No wonder he doesn't look too surprised to find himself in an elevator going down, but at least he'll have company in Hell.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011
Once you're over that wall, there's no rules, no backup.

While it's true that few films wear their influences on their sleeves quite as brazenly as Neil Marshall's Doomsday does, it's safe to say that only Marshall would have thought to combine elements of George Miller's Mad Max trilogy, John Carpenter's Escape from New York, John Boorman's Excalibur and countless others into one relentlessly entertaining film. He's right up front with the Escape parallels, too, efficiently establishing how the entire country of Scotland is quarantined in 2008 due to the outbreak of a deadly virus (which also raises the specter of George Romero's The Crazies). He even goes so far as to have composer Tyler Bates deliberately ape Carpenter's synthesizer scores (much like Robert Rodriguez had done the previous year in Planet Terror) and uses his standard font for the onscreen text.

The plot kicks into gear a quarter century later when domestic security officer Rhona Mitra (who is beholden to the fascistic government) is handpicked by chief Bob Hoskins to lead a covert operation north of the border to seek out a cure for the virus which has once again reared its head, this time in central London. Once over the wall, her team (which includes Adrian Lester as her second-in-command and soldiers named after Miller and Carpenter) finds itself in a barren wasteland patrolled by cannibalistic punks led by a spiky-haired Craig Conway and, after their numbers have dwindled somewhat, seeks out viral researcher Malcolm McDowell, who was left stranded by the government all those years ago and has since ensconced himself in a medieval castle along with his followers (who are all decked out in appropriate costumes). As for Conway and his crew, who magically reappear in time for an extended riff on the chase scenes in The Road Warrior, they're the usual assortment of bondage enthusiasts, because where would a post-apocalyptic film be without at least one guy dressed like this?

I don't even want to think about what that outfit must smell like after 25 years.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011
He's driven by hate. It's how he survives. Why he never loses.

After last night's grim vision of the future, I'm going to spend the rest of the week looking into the past -- deep into the past. First up is Nicolas Winding Refn's 2009 film Valhalla Rising, which stars Mads Mikkelsen as a one-eyed Norse warrior who is the captive of a group of heathens who force him to engage in knock-down, drag-out fights -- quite frequently to the death -- on a muddy pitch. From what we can glean from the scant dialogue (none of which comes from Mikkelsen, who remains mute throughout), he's been their star attraction for some time, so when he's sold off he engineers his escape while in transit and exacts bloody revenge on his captors, only sparing the boy (Maarten Stevenson) who brought him his food and water. Good thing, too, because Stevenson has to speak for both of them when they encounter a group of Crusaders whose leader (Ewan Stewart) is bound and determined to reach Jerusalem.

Periodically, Mikkelsen is shown to have red-tinted visions of future events and far-off places, as when he foresees the Crusaders' arrival in what they take to be The Holy Land, but is somewhere else entirely. (I'll give you a hint: Terrence Malick made a film about it a few years back.) Taking a page out of Malick's book, Refn composes a number of painterly images and captures some breathtaking vistas, which is not what I was expecting from this film at all, but I'm glad he saw fit to include them. Accordingly, I suspect this is one of the few Viking sagas that actually inspires thoughtful contemplation. Sure, it's punctuated by scenes of intense and brutal violence (usually at Mikkelsen's hands), but you've got to have something to put in the trailers to get butts into seats. (Not that I ever saw the trailer for this in a theater because it got nowhere near a wide release in the States, but my point still stands.)

Thursday, June 9, 2011
This place is the arsehole of the world. Even the land wants us dead.

Going back to his debut, 2002's Dog Soldiers, Neil Marshall has shown a great affinity for stories about bands of highly trained soldiers fighting their way out of hostile territory -- and against seemingly insurmountable odds. That trend continued with last year's Centurion, which is about the Roman Empire's ill-fated incursion into northern Britain and the heavy losses it suffers at the hands of the primitive but tenacious Picts. Michael Fassbender stars as a centurion on the frontier who is captured during a surprise raid on his outpost and is rescued by the legendary Ninth Legion and its general (Dominic West), who's been charged with tracking down and killing Pict king Ulrich Thomsen. Unfortunately for West, their Pict guide (Olga Kurylenko) leads them into an ambush in which he's captured -- and which leaves only seven of his men alive. Kind of makes you wonder why they thought they could trust her in the first place, but there you have it.

If the present-day parallels aren't clear enough, there's a point early on where West says, "This is a new kind of war. A war without honor, without end." Once he's out of the picture, though, it's up to Fassbender to lead the remains of the legion to safety. All the while their numbers are being whittled down by Kurylenko, who has a preternatural gift for stalking her prey. The only sanctuary they find is in the abandoned village of an outcast witch (Imogen Poots) who has no love for her own people. The same goes for Fassbender, who's given plenty of reasons to become disenchanted with Roman society at the end of the day. And tying this film in with Doomsday, it ends with the building of Hadrian's Wall, which clearly looms large in Marshall's imagination. Too bad this film didn't receive half as much attention as Kevin Macdonald's The Eagle, which came and went a few months ago and could be considered a sequel of sorts since it takes place 23 years later. The trailer looked pretty damned generic, though, so I expect I can skip it.

Friday, June 10, 2011
We have the tools. We have the will. We journey into Hell. But God travels with us.

Going back into the past once more this week -- for a film set in the year 1348. That would be Christopher Smith's Black Death, which was released last year and -- like Centurion before it -- was somewhat overshadowed by its American-made dopplegänger, the Nicolas Cage-starring Season of the Witch, which came out some months later. Much more serious-minded than Severance, it stars Sean Bean as a pious knight charged with capturing a necromancer whose apparent pact with the Devil has spared a remote village from the scourge of the plague. Along the way Bean picks up a young novice from a monastery (Eddie Redmayne, who's the actual main character) who offers to be his guide but what the boy really wants to do is run away and be with his girl (Kimberley Nixon), who left town ahead of him.

On the road Redmayne's eyes are opened to the brutality of life outside of the sanctuary of the monastery, and he eventually leads Bean and his men to the secluded village where they're greeted by a most genial Tim McInnerny (laying on all the charm and self-confidence his character lacked in Severance) and Redmayne's injuries are tended to by the alluring Carice van Houten. Unsurprisingly, it turns out to be a trap and, like the pagans in The Wicker Man, the villagers have no compunction about sacrificing a few Christian soldiers to safeguard their existence. Suffice it to say, by the time Redmayne is delivered back into the hands of his abbot (David Warner in a too-brief cameo), he's a much-changed man. Few would say for the better.

Saturday, June 11, 2011
The past has always had a great charisma for me.

It may be noon in Bloomington, but according to Woody Allen magical things can happen at Midnight in Paris. I thought I was going to have to made the trek up to Indianapolis to see his latest film, but AMC saw fit to bring it here, so I've done my part to encourage them to do so again in the future. His first to be shot in its entirety in Paris, the film opens with a tribute to the city and its many landmarks -- kind of like the beginning of Manhattan but without the voice-over -- before plunging us into the story of a successful screenwriter (Owen Wilson) who's struggling with his first novel and whose engagement to a self-absorbed WASP (Rachel McAdams) is farcical at best once we learn just how incompatible they are. For one thing, she doesn't share his obsession with Paris in the '20s ("You're in love with a fantasy," she tells him), but that actually serves him in good stead when he's picked up one night by revelers in a vintage car and whisked away into the past.

If the present-day scenes are kind of standard-issue Woody (enlivened mostly by Kurt Fuller's turn as McAdams's ultraconservative father and Michael Sheen as an irritating know-it-all she clearly has the hots for), the ones set in the '20s see him at his most engaging and genuinely witty in years. Of course, it helps that he's writing for such luminaries as F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill), a suitably belligerent Hemingway (Corey Stoll) and Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates, last seen in Shadows in Fog), who agrees to read Wilson's manuscript (which she takes for science fiction) and give him feedback, just as she does when Picasso brings one of his canvasses by. And when Adrien Brody popped up as a rhinoceros-fixated Salvador Dalí, I knew it wouldn't be long before Luis Buñuel and Man Ray also put in appearances. (Allen even has Wilson pull a Marty McFly by having him give Buñuel the idea for The Exterminating Angel, which the director claims not to understand. "Just think about it," Wilson quips.)

The '20s scenes also give Wilson the chance to woo beautiful costume designer Marion Cotillard, a development that reminded me of the fantastical courtship of Mia Farrow and Jeff Daniels in The Purple Rose of Cairo. This film isn't interested in plumbing the same emotional or psychological depths, but Wilson's ultimate realization -- that time travel is just another form of escapism -- is still right on the money.

She looked at him and all she could do was surrender to the impulse in her heart.

Having proven himself capable of delivering a commercial film with 1971's Business Is Business, Paul Verhoeven's producer gave him the wherewithal to make Turkish Delight -- the film he really wanted to make his debut with -- in 1973. One of the most successful Dutch films ever made (it was even nominated for Best Foreign Film, but lost out to Truffaut's Day for Night), Turkish Delight was written by Gerard Soeteman, based on the novel by Jan Wolkers, and reunited Verhoeven with actor Rutger Hauer, the star of his 1969 television series Floris. In this film, Hauer plays a headstrong sculptor who falls head over heels for reckless redhead Monique van de Ven, whose overbearing mother (Tonny Huurdeman) does everything she can to keep them apart. (Her father, played by Wim van den Brink, is a lot more amenable, but it's clear that Huurdeman is used to getting her way.)

Once they're married, Hauer and van de Ven have their ups and downs -- their honeymoon at the beach reveals how immature they both are and Hauer's first major commission, arranged by his doctor friend Dolf de Vries, causes a major rift between them. This is further exacerbated by Huurdeman after she's widowed and Hauer refuses to take over the family business, but then van de Ven starts acting erratically and things go south in a hurry. Sounds melodramatic, I know, but Verhoeven and Soeteman mix in enough bawdy (and scatological) humor to keep it from descending too far into soap operatics. Even if some scenes are played a little too broad, there's still a truth to the whole thing -- and Dutch audiences responded to it in a big way. No wonder it was named Dutch Film of the Century in 1999.

You decided to fly at a bad time, Billy.

From a Turkish delight to a Turkish nightmare: 1978's Midnight Express probably didn't do a whole lot for Turkey's tourism industry, but as cautionary tales go, it's hard to beat. Directed by Alan Parker, who couldn't have asked for more of a change of pace after the 1976 kiddie musical Bugsy Malone, the film was based on the true story of Billy Hayes, an American caught trying to smuggle two kilos of hashish out of the country and sent to a brutal prison where he languished for years before he was able to effect an escape. Hayes himself had issues with the film, especially since screenwriter Oliver Stone played fast and loose with some of the facts, but that didn't prevent the Academy from awarding him with an Oscar for his efforts. (It was nominated in five other categories, including Best Picture and Best Director, but its only other win was for Giorgio Moroder's pulsating score.)

On the acting front, Brad Davis makes an indelible impression as the indefatigable Hayes, but John Hurt is the one who was nominated for his supporting role as one of Hayes's fellow prisoners who has been locked up so long that he has few moments of lucidity. The supporting cast also includes Bo Hopkins as a mysterious American working with the Turkish government, Randy Quaid as a volatile prisoner who pays a steep price for his escape attempts, and Paul L. Smith as a sadistic guard who relishes his punishments so much he even comes in on his days off to dole them out. Little surprise that he was in demand as a screen heavy from this point on. He practically lived the part.

Sunday, June 12, 2011
They say a werewolf is stalking around.

In 1973, Fassbinder branched out into producing other people's films with Tenderness of the Wolves, which was directed by Ulli Lommel and written by Kurt Raab, who shaved his head to lend an extra level of creepiness to his performance as Fritz Haarmann, a real-life serial killer who was active in Germany in the 1920s. Known as the Butcher (or the Vampire) of Hanover, Haarmann previously served as the inspiration for Peter Lorre's character in Fritz Lang's M, but in this film Lommel and Raab play up his homosexuality and his obvious attraction to his underage victims. In fact, the film opens with Raab being arrested when he's caught in bed with a naked boy, but he's put right back on the street because the police are more interested in his black-market connections. As for Raab, he's hopelessly in love with his partner in crime (Jeff Roden), but he also claims to want to marry his neighbor (Ingrid Caven), who knows better than to put much stock in such talk.

Meanwhile, one of Raab's other neighbors (Margit Carstensen) noses around until she believes she has enough evidence that he's up to no good. (On the subject of the young men he's always seen with, she says, "I think he lets them in, but they don't come back out again.") What the film suggests, but doesn't show explicitly, is that he disposes of his victims by chopping up their bodies and selling the meat to the restaurant across the way, with owner Brigitte Mira (star of Fassbinder's Ali: Fear Eats the Soul) seemingly unconcerned about where it comes from as long as there's a steady supply. Fassbinder himself puts in an appearance as Roden's criminal associate, and El Hedi ben Salem (the other star of Ali) plays a black-market trader who deals in stolen clothing. (One of Raab's scams is to put on a priest's collar and go door to door collecting for the needy.) Eventually, the police wise up and set a trap for Raab, who's caught with his teeth in the bait's neck. No use denying it at that point, I guess.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011
I like to see things grow. I don't like to see things die.

Killed some time tonight with the 1967 western A Time for Killing, which was directed by Phil Karlson, although it was originally intended to be Roger Corman's major-studio follow-up to The St. Valentine's Day Massacre. Not sure whether I would have liked Corman's version any better, but his fingerprints are all over the film, particularly in Daniel Haller's art direction (his last such credit before becoming a full-time director) and the casting of Dick Miller as a cowardly Union solder. Set during the waning days of the Civil War, the film stars Glenn Ford as a weary Union officer who's ordered to track down captured Confederate captain (and all-around asshole) George Hamilton and his men (whose ranks include Harry Dean Stanton, here credited as just "Dean Stanton") when they escape from his outpost. To add insult to injury, they even ambush the stagecoach that Ford put his fiancée, missionary Inger Stevens, on in the mistaken belief that he was sending her out of harm's way, and Hamilton eventually rapes her because I guess he wasn't repulsive enough before that.

If you're having a hard time picturing George Hamilton as a Rebel rapist, you're not alone. Frankly, I was much more interested in the supporting cast, which includes the unpredictable Timothy Carey (as a sharpshooter), the rock-solid Kenneth Tobey (as Ford's second-in-command) and Harrison Ford, who used his middle initial (J.) for his first screen credit at a lieutenant. The film pays some lip service to the lingering effects of the Civil War ("This war will never be over," Hamilton insists. "Whether we like it or not, we'll fight this war for the next hundred years."), but in the end in comes down to a battle of wills between two men who don't even get to have a proper showdown. Perhaps Corman intended this to be his answer to The Shooting (which he put up the money for, although Jack Nicholson received the producer credit). I guess we'll never know.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011
It is unthinkable that such horrors should be repeated.

The summer solstice isn't until next week, but I'm kicking off my second annual Summer of Naschy with 1970's Assignment Terror, which doubles as this month's Full Moon Feature since it was the third film Paul Naschy made as El Hombre Lobo, Waldemar Daninsky. Curiously enough, Naschy is sixth-billed here (and his last name is spelled "Naschi" on the print I saw), but that may be because he's but one of four monsters in the film, which was misleadingly called Dracula vs. Frankenstein when AIP first released it in the States. This, despite the fact that the film's Dracula (Manuel de Blas) gets staked by the hero before he even gets anywhere near the Monster (Ferdinando Murolo). As a matter of fact, the only one-on-one battles are Werewolf vs. Mummy (Gene Reyes as the off-brand Pha-ho-tep) and Monster vs. Werewolf, but I'm getting way ahead of myself.

The film's main plot is about aliens from a dying world who occupy the bodies of dead human scientists so they can carry out their plan to kill off all of Earth's inhabitants by creating thousands of monsters and turning them loose. This they do by reviving a dead vampire whose skeleton has been put on display in a carnival sideshow (just like in House of Frankenstein), a werewolf that has been resting peacefully in his family crypt (just like Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man), a mummy whose tomb has heretofore been undisturbed (that one's pretty much standard-issue), and Frankenstein's monster, which was apparently just lying around somewhere. (The print I saw was fairly jumpy around the reel changes and was severely cut to boot, so I'm not going to lay the blame for any of the narrative incoherence at the feet of Naschy, who wrote the screenplay, or director Tulio Demicheli.) Heading up the mission, incidentally, is Michael Rennie, who watches everything over closed-circuit TV and dispassionately dishes out punishments to his subordinates whenever they mess things up, which is often enough. Even second-billed Karin Dor is subject to his wrath after she lets Naschy escape for reasons that are never made clear.

Meanwhile, there's a subplot involving a police inspector investigating the strange goings-on in town (Craig Hill) and the chick he has the hots for (Patty Shepard) whose father actually had some dealings with Waldemar in the past and knows all about his lycanthropy. This time out Naschy has added another wrinkle to the mythology since a werewolf's killer must not only be a woman who loves him, but she must also be willing to die with him. (I guess he never considered the possibility of a gay werewolf.) Alas, we only get to see him transform twice (although it may be three times in the unedited version since there's talk of one murder that appears to have been cut out entirely), but Naschy makes the last one count since he gets to play his hairy alter ego for the last 15 minutes of the film. And really, that's what we're here to see, right? Right.

Friday, June 17, 2011
The way she wears that letter... Pride goes before a fall.

Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter has been brought to the screen a dozen times since the dawn of cinema, with over half of those adaptations hailing from the silent era, but the second talkie didn't appear until Wim Wenders took a crack at the story in 1973. At first glance The Scarlet Letter may seem like an odd fit for Wenders, but it plays on some of the same themes of guilt and punishment (or lack thereof) as his previous feature, 1972's The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, so it's not that far removed from what he was doing at the time. I suspect its relative obscurity (only 306 people have rated it at the IMDb) is due to the fact that it's only been released in a box set that quickly fell out of print, so few people have had a chance to see it. Then, of course, there's the possibility of residual damage from the notorious flop from 1995 which would be enough to make anyone swear off the novel. (Is it a mere coincidence that the book is taught in fewer high school English classes than it once was? Or, after a century and a half of service, did the bloom come off the rose of its own accord?)

Never having read Hawthorne's novel (one of many pillars of Western literature that I was spared), I can't judge how faithful Wenders's adaptation is, but I can praise Senta Berger's performance as the headstrong Hester Prynne. She's matched by Hans Christian Blech as her long-absent husband, who arrives in Salem after living with the Indians for eight years and is a bit put out to discover that she has a seven-year old daughter, and Lou Castel as the local minister and secret baby daddy whose repressed shame manifests itself in a series of fainting spells and what appears to be a self-inflicted A-shaped scar on his chest to match the one Hester is forced to sew into her clothing. Above and beyond that, she's shunned by the townspeople (that is, when they're not calling her a whore) and her innocent daughter is teased mercilessly by a roving band of unsupervised children. No wonder she's eager to pack up and take the next boat out -- with or without Pastor Dreamboat.

Saturday, June 18, 2011
What could be more seductive than security?

When Joseph Losey mounted his adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's seminal drama A Doll's House in 1973, he went to the trouble of shooting it on location in Norway, which is one way it can be distinguished from that year's other screen version, which was completely studio-bound and featured an all-British cast. In contrast, Losey gave the role of proto-feminist Nora Helmer to Jane Fonda, who puts a decidedly modern spin on the character (and not always in a good way). His film also has a prologue provided by screenwriter David Mercer which sets up the circumstances that lead to the play's major crisis and introduces all of the central characters: Fonda's best friend Delphine Seyrig, who breaks things off with suitor Edward Fox because he isn't wealthy; her gruff but ailing husband David Warner, who grudgingly takes the advice of doctor Trevor Howard and spends a year convalescing in Italy. However, the crux of the matter -- how Fonda gets the money to pay for the trip -- is kept a mystery.

When the film catches up with Ibsen's play, Warner has just been named bank manager, ending years of financial insecurity for his family, and a recently widowed Seyrig has arrived in town looking for a job, which Fonda secures for her by using her influence with Warner. This simple act of kindness proves to be her undoing, though, since it is at the expense of Fox, a lowly clerk who knows all about the skeleton in Fonda's closet and will do anything to keep his position. This forces Fonda to fight for her family's survival, but it's hard to see why she's so attached to Warner since he's so condescending to her, calling her his "little one" and alternately treating her like a child and a possession. Even if that's what marriage was like in the late 19th century, when Ibsen wrote the play, Fonda's liberated attitude is such that it doesn't seem realistic that she would have put up with it as long as she evidently has. I'm tempted to borrow the other version to see how Claire Bloom tackled the role, but I have something else in mind for tomorrow.

Sunday, June 19, 2011
When a home is founded on debts and borrowing, it must be a miserable place.

This might have been more appropriate for Mother's Day, but nevertheless I spent the morning watching Fassbinder's Nora Helmer, which was made for German television in 1974. A fairly straightforward staging of Ibsen's A Doll's House, it stars Fassbinder regular Margit Carstensen as the title character -- quite a change of pace from her previous starring role in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, although they're both of a piece since this was also filmed on a single, claustrophobic set. To keep things visually interesting, Fassbinder frequently shoots through curtains and screens, and occasionally uses windows and mirrors to fracture the image. He also has his actors constantly flitting about the set so that it doesn't get too static. Sometimes it can be a little distracting, especially when the cameras seem to deliberately seek out obstructions, but it goes a long way toward establishing how much Nora feels hemmed in by the trappings of her marriage.

I suppose it would have been a bit too radical for Fassbinder to eliminate the male characters and tell the story completely from Nora's point of view, so they're all present and accounted for. Joachim Hansen hits all the right notes as her highly strung moralist of a husband, Ulli Lommel is appropriately slimy as her blackmailer, and Klaus Löwitsch is quite resigned as the terminally ill doctor whose sudden declaration of love is more understandable since they're much closer in age. Meanwhile, on the distaff side, Barbara Valentin takes the role of Nora's best friend, and the two maids are played by Lilo Pempeit (Fassbinder's own mother) and Irm Hermann (who played a similarly subservient role in Petra von Kant). More than anything, though, this is Carstensen's show and she digs in her heels and makes the most of it.

Understanding is secondary. The reasoning is the thing.

If there had been such a thing as a "World's Greatest Dad" novelty mug in the early 19th century, I doubt the father of Kaspar Hauser would have qualified for one. Apparently not one for the rigors of child-rearing, Hauser's father locked him away from the world for 16 years and kept him chained to the floor of his cell, which stunted his physical growth, and didn't teach him how to speak, which reduced him to a grunting beast. To portray this grunting beast onscreen, Werner Herzog cast non-actor Bruno S. in 1974's The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, which remains one of the director's most extraordinary works, thanks in no small part to the enigmatic nonperformance at its center. I expect this is because, like the character he plays, Bruno S. "seems to be not quite all right in the head."

For reasons that are never explained in the film, after doing the bare minimum required to keep him alive for so many years, one day Hauser's father dresses him up and takes him outside where he teaches him the rudiments of walking and talking. Hauser is then walked into the center of the nearest town and left holding a letter, which is the sum total of his introduction to the world. Ironically, the townspeople lock him up in the tower, but it eventually becomes clear that he isn't violent and that he's capable of being taught basic table manners (among other things). When he becomes a curiosity he's put on display in a circus as one of "The Four Riddles" (one of which is the Little King of Punt, portrayed by Helmut Döring from Even Dwarfs Started Small), but after an escape attempt he's taken in by a kindly professor (Walter Ladengast) whose charity extends to all sorts of unfortunates (including a blind pianist played Popol Vuh's Florian Fricke). The only person who seems to treat him like an equal is Ladengast's housekeeper (Brigitte Mira), who's present when he confounds a visiting scholar who attempts to stump him with a logic puzzle. Admittedly, Hauser's answer is rather unorthodox, but that doesn't make it any less valid. No wonder Herzog felt the need to tell his story.

Monday, June 20, 2011
Things aren't quite the same in wartime. You do things in a less leisurely fashion.

As much as I enjoy James Whale's horror films of the '30s, I've long been interested in the civilian films he made for Universal in between them. In fact, his first for the studio -- 1931's Waterloo Bridge, based on the play by Robert E. Sherwood -- immediately preceded Frankenstein and has more in common with his directorial debut -- 1930's Journey's End -- than anything that came after. Set in a London beset by German bombing raids during World War I, the film stars Mae Clarke (who would go on to play Elizabeth in Frankenstein) as an unemployed chorus girl who has to walk the streets for money (and doesn't care if it's wrong or if it's right) just to scrape by. One night while patrolling the titular bridge she has a meet cute with a Canadian private (Douglass Montgomery) during an air raid and before long she's invited him back to her place and he's fallen head over heels for her. She spurns his advances, though, because she doesn't believe she's worthy of his love.

The situation is only exacerbated when he invites her down to the country to meet his family -- doddering stepfather Frederick Kerr, doting mother Enid Bennett and sister Bette Davis (appearing in only her third film) -- and she can't bring herself to accept his earnest marriage proposal. She even makes a tearful confession to a very understanding Bennett -- and since this film was made before the Production Code was instituted she makes no bones about what she does for a living. I imagine that aspect of the story must have been toned down somewhat when the film was remade in 1940. Of course, by that time there was a whole other war on which Whale only got to dramatize once -- in a film called They Dare Not Love -- before he was forcibly retired from the industry in 1941. Hollywood's loss.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011
England expects that every secret service man this night shall do his duty.

One decade before he took the pulse of postwar Europe in The Third Man, director Carol Reed looked into how things stood during the lead-up to war with 1940's Night Train to Munich, a little-seen thriller that the Criterion Collection shone some much-needed light on last year. Written by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Laudner, who had previously scripted The Lady Vanishes for Hitchcock, Night Train places that film's star, Margaret Lockwood, in a somewhat similar position as the daughter of a scientist sought by the Nazis when they invade Czechoslovakia. After her father catches the last plane out of Prague, Rutherford is placed in a concentration camp from which she escapes with the help of Czech national Paul Henreid. All is not what it seems, though, and when the Nazis spirit Rutherford and her father out of England, she is forced to put their lives in the hands of debonair British secret service agent Rex Harrison.

The film is pleasingly fast-moving and makes excellent use of models throughout (now there's a lost art form). It also includes healthy dollops of wit, especially once it brings Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne -- reprising their roles as fussy English travelers Charters and Caldicott from The Lady Vanishes -- into the mix. (I was especially amused by the revelation that Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind is sold side by side with Mein Kampf at German railway stations.) Just as they did in the earlier film, it's nice to see how they rise to the occasion when faced with the reality of war. Not too strange, then, that audiences wanted to see more of them.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011
You mustn't threaten an Italian. It doesn't mix well in our blood.

One year before he brought the Oscar-winning juggernaut All About Eve to the screen, Joseph L. Mankiewicz directed the 1949 film noir House of Strangers for Twentieth Century-Fox. Based on a novel by Jerome Weidman and screenplay by Philip Yordan (to which Mankiewicz made some uncredited contributions), the film follows the four sons of a fiery Italian immigrant (Edward G. Robinson in a performance that won him Best Actor at Cannes that year) who have inherited his quick temper and knack for holding a grudge. This is very much in evidence when second-oldest Richard Conte, fresh out of prison, arrives at his family's bank with a bone to pick with siblings Luther Adler, Efrem Zimbalist Jr. and Paul Valentine. We don't find out what's eating him, though, until Conte heads home, puts on one of his father's favorite records and, with a portrait of Robinson looming over him, flashes back to when it all went down.

This flashback actually takes up three-quarters of the film's running time and finds Conte operating independently as a lawyer while Robinson runs roughshod over his other three sons. (The fact that he's not in the family business may be the main reason why Conte is on such good terms with the old man.) And despite the fact that he's engaged to a nice Italian girl (Debra Paget in one of her earliest film roles), Conte steps out with a rich socialite (Susan Hayward) with whom he has a tempestuous affair. His resolve is tested in another way when Robinson is indicted by the government for his questionable lending practices and Adler, Zimbalist and Valentine refuse to step up to the plate. For all their talk of "keeping it in the family," do they ever stop to consider how much they must be killing their poor old mother (Marty's Esther Minciotti)? In the end, it's up to Conte to decide whether to keep the cycle of vengeance going or go away with Hayward and start a new life in San Francisco. That doesn't sound so bad, does it?

Friday, June 24, 2011
When such a woman spends more than five minutes alone with a man, that's enough to start rumors.

Despite its prominent place in Danny Peary's first Cult Movies book, the French melodrama Lola Montès was never a huge priority for me until I saw it name-checked in a couple of Fassbinder's early films. (I guess it gave him something to aspire to.) Made in 1955, Lola Montès was the last film completed by German-born director Max Ophuls, whose work tends to compel critics to break out their thesauruses and try to conjure up multiple synonyms for "sumptuous." Perhaps that's why I've been so reluctant to approach it (the same thing goes for Marcel Carné's Children of Paradise, which was made a decade earlier), but my local library forced my hand by acquiring the recent Criterion edition a few months back and, well, here we are.

To tell the story of the titular femme fatale (Martine Carol), Ophuls employs a sophisticated flashback structure driven by the curious circus act that her life has been turned into by ringmaster Peter Ustinov. ("The world's most scandalous woman," he boasts. "The most scandalous act.") Described by one character as an "insanely dangerous" show, it has her take center stage in tableaux recreating key moments from her sordid past in between death-defying acrobatics, which would seem to be outside her purview since she was trained as a dancer, but I guess she doesn't to have too many options open to her at that point.

Along the way we're privy to several of her romantic conquests, including an ex-soldier she marries for love instead of money (that doesn't work out), a married conductor she has an affair with, and composer Franz Liszt, who never so much as mentions marriage. She doesn't think about settling down, though, until she turns the head of King Ludwig I of Bavaria (Anton Walbrook), whose people revolt when he makes her a countess. If not for the intervention of leftist student Oskar Werner (who declares his love for her during their getaway), she might have really wound up in hot water. (I wonder if Ustinov ever considered adding that to the act.)

Saturday, June 25, 2011
What the cumulative effects of all these atomic explosions and tests will be, only time can tell.

The theme for June's Kryptic Army Mission is "Stay Out of the Water!" -- the perfect excuse to dredge up a couple of Ray Harryhausen's early monster movies. (Amazing to think he's still with us and will be celebrating his 91st birthday on Wednesday.) Up first is 1953's The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, which is about a dinosaur that is released from the arctic ice in which it's been hibernating for a hundred million years by an atomic explosion and makes its way to Lower Manhattan (where its attack is called "the worst disaster in New York's history"). Before it gets there, though, it takes out a couple boats and a lighthouse (the subject of the Ray Bradbury story that is credited with "suggesting" the film). And at one point we're also treated to a battle between a shark and octopus which, being regular-sized, are easily devoured by the title creature. Perhaps if they had been a mega shark and a giant octopus the odds would have been a little more even.

First-time director Eugène Lourié keeps the action moving along at an admirable clip (it helps that the monster is never kept off-screen for too long). And the human element -- atomic scientist Paul Christian, paleontologists Paula Raymond and Cecil Kellaway, and Army colonel Kenneth Tobey -- doesn't get in the way as it occasionally can in these films. Interestingly enough, just as it got us into this mess, radioactivity also saves us -- with an assist from expert marksman Lee Van Cleef (in one of his earliest screen roles) during the exciting amusement park finale. Harryhausen would get to work with bigger budgets down the line, but here his technical expertise and ability to orchestrate destruction on a large scale are already very much in evidence.

In many ways, 1955's It Came from Beneath the Sea was a bit of a step back for Harryhausen since he was given a less interesting monster to animate (a giant radioactive octopus released by H-bomb tests in the Pacific) and, more to the point, less money to work with. (This is why the creature only has six arms instead of the standard eight.) The film is also saddled with a boring-ass romantic subplot and director Robert Gordon commits the cardinal sin of waiting until the 28-minute mark to give us our first glimpses of It. (Considering how tight the purse strings were, though, he might not have had much choice there.)

On the acting front, Kenneth Tobey is back in uniform as the captain of an atomic submarine that is set upon by something (which is economically kept off-screen) during its maiden voyage, with Faith Domergue as the marine biologist he has the hots for and Donald Curtis as the marine biologist she may have the hots for. Or maybe she just likes to play the field. Or, you know, whatever. Frankly, I found their sub-screwball "battle of the sexes" banter so inane that I quickly tuned it out and waited patiently for the plot to kick back in -- and I can easily imagine matinee audiences in 1955 getting just as restless. Unfortunately, the monster's assault on San Francisco is something of a letdown because hey, it's an octopus. It's just not that mobile. If Harryhausen had had the resources to animate it coming out of the bay and laying waste to the city that would be one thing. As it stands, this is the definition of anti-climactic.

You never breathed a single word in all the time you were planning to go on this lunatic expedition.

One decade after The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and It Came from Beneath the Sea, Ray Harryhausen was in a position to bring much more spectacular fantasies to the screen. So it was that he created the visual effects for the 1964 adaptation of H.G. Wells's First Men in the Moon. Boasting a screenplay by Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale and Jan Read (co-writer of Jason and the Argonauts) and the services of director Nathan Juran (who had previously helmed The 7th Voyage of Sinbad), the film opens with a present-day moon landing that discovers proof of a previous lunar expedition all the way back at the turn of the century. Once its lone survivor is located, he relays the story of that fateful trip and the race of insect-like beings they found living beneath the moon's surface.

The main characters are a debt-ridden businessman (Edward Judd), who rents a cottage in the country so he can work on a play; his fiancée (Martha Hyer), who apparently has no idea how much he's in the hole; and his eccentric neighbor (Lionel Jeffries), an excitable research scientist working on an anti-gravity compound that will allow them to travel to the moon (and hopefully back). Jeffries is the prototypical absent-minded professor and hyperactive to boot, which is amusing at first but gets to be a bit much after a while. And like a good scientist he's keenly interested in communicating with the moon's denizens once they make their presence known, while the more practical Judd is more eager to get the hell out of Dodge. (Tellingly, Hyer is never consulted about the matter, but her character doesn't even exist in Wells's novel, so why should she have her own opinion?) All the while, Harryhausen presents us with dazzling visions and fantastical creatures, because that's what he does. Even if they lack the personality of 20 Millions Miles to Earth's Ymir, they're still damned impressive.

Sunday, June 26, 2011
You've no idea what goes on in some marriages.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder must have been in a terribly sadistic frame of mind when he wrote the script for his 1974 television film Martha, because he drags the title character -- a virginal, 31-year-old librarian brilliantly played by a brittle Margit Carstensen -- through hell and then some. When we first meet her, Martha is vacationing in Rome with her demanding father (Adrian Hoven), who clearly wasn't long for the world since he drops dead during one of their outings. With the help of an official at the German embassy (Kurt Raab), she arranges to have the body sent home and immediately takes up smoking -- something that was forbidden by her father. Upon her return home -- to a boozy, highly strung mother (Gisela Fackelde) and friends who all seem to be abandoning her as they get married off -- she rejects a longstanding proposal from her boss and takes up with a dominant engineer (Peeping Tom's Karlheinz Böhm) who seeks to control her just like her dear old daddy used to.

In a way, Böhm sets the stage for their marriage by taking Carstensen on a roller coaster and proposing to her immediately after she's thrown up. After getting her grandstanding mother out of the way (by having her committed to a mental hospital), he really starts in on her during their honeymoon, telling her what she can eat and drink and deciding that he doesn't want her to work at all. Once they settle into their new home, he then dictates where she can smoke, what music she can listen to and what books she can read, and severely limits where she can go and who she can talk to. She seeks out a former co-worker (Peter Chatel) as a confidant, but eventually Böhm's physical, mental, emotional and sexual abuse takes its toll and drives her into hysterics, leading to an inevitable (and damn near pitch-black) conclusion. In fact, she's so shattered by the end you'd almost think Fassbinder wanted to drive his lead actress around the bend himself.

Monday, June 27, 2011
Mabel's not crazy. She's unusual. She's not crazy, so don't say she's crazy.

When I learned of Peter Falk's passing last week, I immediately cast about for a film (or two) to watch in his memory. The first one that came to mind was Wim Wenders's Wings of Desire, in which Falk plays himself (and, incidentally, a former angel who has given up his immortality to be an actor), but his part in that is essentially a glorified cameo. A more substantial role -- and what I believe to be his most powerful performance -- can be found in 1974's A Woman Under the Influence, which was written and directed by John Cassavetes. Falk was very familiar with Cassavetes's improvisational working methods, having played one of the leads in 1970's Husbands, but he really showed what he was capable of as the exasperated husband of mentally unstable housewife Gena Rowlands, whose increasingly erratic behavior eventually forces him to have her committed to a mental hospital. Rowlands was the one who snagged the Oscar nomination (and a number of other accolades), but Falk was equally deserving, if not more so. Too bad they couldn't share.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011
You sound like you're ready for a straitjacket.

My personal Peter Falk tribute continues with 1976's Mikey and Nicky, which co-stars John Cassavetes and was written and directed by Elaine May, whose first two films were comedies, so it's difficult to know just how to react to it right off the bat. After all, its premise -- Cassavetes is a highly strung, low-level mob flunky who calls up longtime pal Falk because he believes there's a hit out on him -- could easily be played for laughs. (Essentially, it was when Brian De Palma made Wise Guys a decade later, but the less said about that the better.) As the night wears on, though, it becomes increasingly clear that Cassavetes has every reason to be paranoid, especially once hit man Ned Beatty enters the picture and stubbornly refuses to leave.

Despite the presence of Beatty -- and the occasional cutaways to William Hickey and Sanford Meisner as the two mob guys who ordered the hit -- this is Cassavetes and Falk's show from start to finish. The two of them do a great deal in a short amount of time to establish their relationship and give us a taste of what their friendship has been like all these years. (We also get to see their playful side when they have an altercation with a bus driver -- played by M. Emmet Walsh -- over which door they should use to exit the vehicle.) What's clear is this is far from the first time Cassavetes has gotten himself into a jam and expected Falk to get him out of it. Some jams are easier to get out of than others, though.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011
It's been so long since I had a good time, I wonder if I still know how.

For lack of a third Peter Falk film to watch this week (maybe something will turn up by Friday), tonight I made time for Alan Parker's 1982 drama Shoot the Moon, which stars Albert Finney and Diane Keaton as an unhappily married couple in the throes of a bitter divorce. Written by Bo Goldman, who had won the Academy Award two years earlier for Melvin and Howard, the film is a well-observed portrait of a marriage that is long past the point where it can be salvaged, which puts the couple's four preteen daughters in an awkward position to say the least. This is especially the case since Finney moves right in with his mistress (Karen Allen) and Keaton eventually takes up with a handsome contractor (Peter Weller). Hardly the best way to establish a stable and nurturing environment.

To the film's credit, it doesn't dwell on custody battles and legal proceedings (there's exactly one courtroom scene and by the time it comes up things are already pretty well settled) and instead concentrates on how Finney and Keaton relate to each other and their daughters. Speaking of which, it's amazing to think the oldest (Dana Hill, who gets to do the most dramatic heavy lifting) went on to play Audrey in National Lampoon's European Vacation and the two youngest (Tracey Gold and Tina Yothers) starred on two of the longest-running sitcoms of the '80s (Growing Pains and Family Ties, respectively). If Parker stumbles at all, it's in the occasional on-the-nose music selection (the Rolling Stones' "Play with Fire" when Keaton awkwardly flirts with Weller, a too-ironic use of Bob Seger's "Still the Same"), but I found it amusing when Finney is driving the girls to school and they're singing the theme from Fame, which just so happened to be Parker's previous film. (And he was already looking forward to his next one since Hill has a poster for Pink Floyd's The Wall up in her bedroom.) The most memorable scene in the film, though, comes when Keaton is singing the Beatles' "If I Fell" to herself in the bath and it's as if she's paying attention to the words for the first time. Heartbreaking stuff.

Back to May 2011 -- Onward to July 2011

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