Apocalypse Later Empire
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Also announcing the 2nd annual Apocalypse Later International Fantastic Film Festival!
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Sunday, 30 November 2008
This is no ghetto, though we're set up to believe that it is. Double K may be a class below most of the rest of the characters we meet, but he's not ghetto class. There are a bunch of locks on Double K's door but they don't stay locked, even though mama's already lost one son out there. He has a serious amount of hardware to play with in his room and al these breakdancers have more money invested in their clothes than in their apartments. The trains are clean, tagged admittedly but they're still clean. Best of all, Ramon has a kid, with some Italian girl called Carmen, but it's black! Young Julian is a frizzy haired black baby, but his alleged parents are both as white as I am, and given that Rae Dawn Chong is notably more black than I am that's saying something.
At least Double K's little brother Lee has some serious talent as a breakdancer, and after a dance off at the Roxy he gets approached by Tracy Carlson, who is some sort of rich college student doing performing arts work: composing, choreography or some such. Of course the rich girl falls for the poor boy and vice versa, so we get a romance angle to go along with the ghetto boy making good. In fact we have a few angles, many of which feature Ramon instead of Double K: there's Ramon trying to get over to his dad that he's an graffiti artist not a crook, Ramon and Carmen trying to find a life together, Ramon searching for a white A train like it was Moby Dick, Ramon painting burns while some punk called Spit just tags his name over the top of his art.
There's a lot of flavour here and I did make it through, it holding a lot less embarrassment for me than for my lass who lived through this era and saw much of it for real. She was even more amazed than I was at the lack of authenticity, given that there are some major performing names playing themselves. With people like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and Afrika Bambaataa in the film, you'd expect authenticity, but the only black people seem to be the ones on stages performing. The audiences all seem to be white. Even the music is plastic and safe, perhaps a Hollywood requirement but not one that stands up to posterity. This is 1984, so I'm not expecting gangsta culture, but I was expecting something a little more gritty than the Santa Rap.
Saturday, 29 November 2008
It follows Ivanhoe Martin, a young singer who comes from the country when his grandmother dies, hoping to make it as a singer. He finds it a little harder than he expects, even to get a chance to show anyone what he can do. Before he can do that he has to find work and a place to stay and they aren't forthcoming either. Eventually he finds a girl and gets a single recorded and he thinks he's arrived, but he hasn't counted on the recording industry keeping very much in charge of everything. He finds that the only way to get a hit is to sell the rights to the song, for far less than it's worth, so Ivanhoe ends up working for Pedro dealing ganja instead.
It's hard to describe the film beyond just calling it Jamaican because it doesn't easily fit into other categories. It's a musical film, for sure, drenched in the music of the Caribbean, but that's not the only thing it is. It looks at Jamaican life, pure and simple, showing us the rich and the poor, the devout and the heathen, the good and the bad. We get dreadlocks, streetside domino games and a whole host of berets. We get shanty towns, kids dealing newspapers to drivers by dodging traffic and of course plenty of ganja, given that Ivanhoe ends up in the gangster life. It was great to see people playing bar billiards. I miss that game.
The story doesn't seem entirely consistent, though given that I couldn't understand more than half the dialogue certainly couldn't have helped, and it meanders all over the place. Apparently the two versions have different endings, so I wonder how the subtitled one ended. However much it makes sense, or doesn't make sense, it's certainly an original film. It doesn't feel like anything else I've ever seen: not any other gangster film, music film, rags to riches story, exploitation picture, anything. For a film to remain somewhat unique after 35 years isn't commonplace, so it's hardly surprising it became a cult hit. It deserves that much.
However it's much more than that. It was the first film produced in Jamaica and the trigger by which reggae really hit the States. As much as I could understand what was going on, Jimmy Cliff does a fine job in the lead: beyond being a damn fine singer who sings at least three classics here (The Harder They Come, Many Rivers to Cross and You Can Get It If You Really Want), he provides us with a memorable anti-hero. Midnight movies weren't just cult hits, they were cult hits that people went back to and back to and I can understand why here: the uniqueness, the flavour, the view into a completely different culture. I'd watch it again, but I'd like to see it with subtitles next time.
What's most joyously delirious about this film is that this unnamed runaway turned hooker may just be the sanest character in the entire film (with the exception of her sister who arrives later). Judd the Starlight Hotel manager, who is our central character, is crazy as a loon, but he's not the only one to be a little lacking in the sanity department. Usually you'd expect characters like a family of paying customers who turn up to book a room at the hotel to be pretty normal, there to ground the rest of the film and become victims too, of course. Yet Tobe Hooper, who directed this after his runaway success with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre didn't make anything so obvious. There are scenes of complete genius here everything gets awesomely reversed.
Judd the loon does completely normal things like dust his rooms and listen to the radio while the 'normal' family bicker and rage at each other, probably not just because Snoopy, the little girl's dog, thinks he can take on the croc. Roy, played by William Finley, makes weird clutching signals with his hands while raging at his wife for 'gouging out his eyes', which she completely hasn't done, even metaphorically. He notably takes everything an extra step or two too far, which is interesting as his wife Faye is played by Marilyn Burns, whose screaming scene towards the end of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is about as powerfully over the top as anything in horror cinema.
That makes a number of major names involved and they're not the only ones, not even just from a horror fan's perspective: Miss Hatty is played by Carolyn Jones, Morticia Addams herself, in her last but one movie. Kyle Richards is here, in between The Car and Halloween. Janus Blythe would soon move on to The Hills Have Eyes and The Incredible Melting Man. There's also Mel Ferrer as the father of that hooker at the beginning, come to search for his runaway daughter only to unknowingly stay with his other daughter at the Starlight. Coincidentally he was also in the other Eaten Alive, the otherwise unrelated Umberto Lenzi cannibal movie of only three years later. There's Stuart Whitman as the local sheriff.
However the actor who shines brightest is Neville Brand. It isn't just that he's the lead, he really gets into the character of Judd the crazy hotel manager and embues him with a depth that isn't common in sleazy horror films. While waiting for the next gruesome death scene, we can't help but wonder about what makes him tick, because there's far more there than in someone like Leatherface, for instance, which has to be the most obvious comparison, especially given the chase scenes and the way he waves his weapon, albeit a scythe rather than a chainsaw.
Judd is functional enough to run a business, though given that all his customers seem to end up the same way, I'm not sure how. He relishes the death scenes, literally jumping up and down and grinning from ear to ear as the croc or his scythe claim another life, but he has tenderness too. Even when dealing with a woman that he's attacked, viciously slapped around and tied down to the bed, he courteously wipes the sweat from her face more than once. We don't know his intentions, but they don't seem to be sexual. He rages often about Miss Hatty's brothel and apparently used to be a regular, but she kicked him out for good because he never did anything there except talk to the girls. The reasons for his wild idiosyncracies are never explained but it's easy to guess at many sources. I learn towards him being a traumatised soldier suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.
As great as Brand is the way the film feels. The set decorators and the casting crew did an awesome job of making this film look and feel sleazy and dangerous and populated with characters who aid that no end. The opening scene looks and feels like a dubious porn film, then as it progresses into more traditional horror fare, continues with an excellent use of colour. The Starlight Hotel's colours are a bizarre combination of seedy and garish. The unusual soundtrack with its strange noises often merges with the sound effects of the story, screams and cries and such, so that it's sometimes hard to tell the difference between them, especially with the faceless country music (so faceless that I don't even recognise the names of the artists in the end credits) playing continually from Judd's jukebox. All this sound and light and colour, along with dust and fog makes for a palpable atmosphere, which is there regardless of the fact that there's a croc living in the swamp right next to the Starlight not because of it. It didn't hurt that it took me three weeks to watch the movie, for reasons completely unrelated to the film itself. Highly recommended.
Friday, 28 November 2008
Unfortunately for them, Winslow isn't the thief they think he is and he doesn't have $50,000 of stolen bonds in his briefcase for them to liberate for their own end. He's really a screenwriter heading for Hollywood to make his fortune. Fortunately though, he writes crime stories without really knowing anything about crime, and the Tibbetts are just the people to make them realistic. They have a real story to tell too, to show the entire world what a heel the Hawk is. The catch is that in doing so they deliberately use real names and real events and it isn't too surprising that the Hawk gets a little upset to find out that Trail of the Hawk is all about him and the Austin Bank & Trust robbery.
Unfortunately for us, this isn't a precode. Like Warren William, there just weren't parts for Lee Tracy once the code hit because he was at his best playing fast talking characters that slid back and forth wildly from morality to immorality and back. He's fine here but the part isn't worthy of him and there's only so much he could do with it. Paul Guilfoyle (not the modern one best known for CSI) is terribly wooden to begin with but he's actually a pretty good fit for the part. Lee Patrick and Bradley Page are decent, but best of all is Richard Lane as Hugo Wells, the effusive studio boss at Wonder Pictures. He comes out with lines like, 'It'll take more than a Hawk to stop a Wonder picture!' and is responsible for most of the joy in this film, probably presaging his work as an announcer of wrestling, roller derby and midget car racing.
The story is pretty dumb, even for Hollywood. There's a love interest angle that's almost entirely pointless and almost entirely annoying, even though there's nothing wrong with Joan Woodbury's performance. You won't be surprised to learn that the Hawk and the actor playing the Hawk look so alike that they're played by the same actor, Bradley Page, and there's the inevitable comedy of errors nonsense. Winslow may need Tibbetts to write his scripts but the writers of this one could have done with our help to make it a little less obvious. However dumb it is, there's still fun to be had, but surprisingly it's more for Richard Lane than Lee Tracy. It's good to see him in something where he doesn't lose out the way Inspector Farraday always seemed to do in the Boston Blackie films.
Sunday, 23 November 2008
And yet as fundamentally irresistible as she is here, she doesn't steal the film. I hadn't even heard of Robert Williams, who shines like a star as reporter Stew Smith from the Post. He's about two thirds Bing Crosby and a third Bill Murray, and what's most intriguing is that he was there first. Crosby's first film was in 1930 and Williams's last was this one in 1931: he died of peritonitis four days after its release. I wonder how much Crosby stole from Williams, especially given that anyone who hasn't seen this film wouldn't ever have known different. He's a riot and if anything he's the one who steals scenes: his timing is perfect and he plays the part so fresh that everyone else picks up on it and the enthusiasm becomes so contagious that it rubs off on us.
Stew Smith is a reporter and he's sent to the Schuyler residence to investigate the sort of unsavoury rumours that plague the rich. The Schuylers are very rich: you know that much when you see Louise Closser Hale is the matriarch. Apparently Michael Schuyler has fallen prey to a young lady known to the press as the Human Cash Register, who they've paid $10,000 to leave him alone, and Smith doesn't take long to root that little snippet out. He doesn't take long to fall for Anne Schuyler too, and she falls back, leaving them a surprising couple after a quick elopement.
The third wheel is Smith's sidekick at the Post: Gallagher, only ever referred to by her surname, is a rather lovely young lady played by the very talented Loretta Young. Her name is top on the credits but she has the least to do: as Stew Smith marries Anne Schyler, she can only sit back and quietly hurt because she's head over heels in love with him. For his part he thinks the world of her, but hardly even notices that she's a woman let alone one who's quite obviously pining for him. Of course she's an ever present third wheel because Stew is trying to turn Anne into his sort of woman and Anne is trying to turn Stew into her sort of man, neither attempt of which isn't going too well but Anne's winning. Stew now has a valet, is wearing garters and is turning up to dinners with the ambassador. He's also ceasing to be Stew Smith, he's 'Anne Schyller's husband', 'the Cinderella Man', and 'a bird in a gilded cage'.
The story isn't too surprising but it's executed wonderfully. Williams drives the film with an astounding energy and style, and his loss must have been seriously felt. He only made seven films, four in 1931, and this was the last of them all. I'll definitely be seeking them out now. Harlow is irresistible and Young is quietly charming. She's perfectly desirable while still being 'one of the boys'. Backing them up are reliable supporting players like Louise Closser Hale, Halliwell Hobbes and Reginald Owen and Capra keeps the whole thing rolling along nicely. It's not a deep story by any means, but it's done about as well as you could imagine.
Well, no it doesn't. Needless to say this doesn't hold a candle to Jaws, but Steven Spielberg had $12m to work with and Bill Rebane had $250,000. For one fortyeighth of the budget, I think Rebane did a stunning job. Don't get me wrong: this is not a great film, but where Monster a Go-Go is a bad bad movie, this is a good bad movie. Where Monster a Go-Go is a film to just not watch, this is a film to watch and enjoy, especially if you're drunk and with a bunch of buddies. No wonder it's listed among John Wilson's 100 Most Enjoyably Bad Movies Ever Made because that's a pretty fair description.
The title says it all. We're in northern Wisconsin where some sort of meteorite has crashed to Earth bringing with it a whole slew of geodes containing various species of what are apparently radioactive spiders from a parallel universe. Or something like that. These spiders do a little bit of running around making the local hillbilly women jump, but they also grow in size. Before you know it there's a fifty foot spider roaming the countryside chasing whole carnival loads of people. Luckily there are scientists on hand who know gibberish so well it comes out of their pores, well two of them at least. One is a local, and NASA is so concerned for national security that it sends a whole taskforce of one more scientist to assist.
So why is this better than Monster a Go-Go? Well pick any reason out of a hat and it'll be valid. It's populated with real actors for a start, maybe not people like Robert Shaw, Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss, but people like Steve Brodie, Barbara Hale and Alan Hale Jr (no relation), and it looks like they all turned it into something of a family affair. There are Brodies all over the credits, not least Steve Brodie in the lead as the NASA scientist. He made this in between Jerry Warren movies like The Wild Wild World of Batwoman and Frankenstein Island, so it's definitely a step up. He brought his son Kevin along for a small speaking role, just as Barbara Hale brought her husband Bill Williams.
It's also huge fun: how could it not be fun with a Volkswagen Beetle turned into a giant spider? Part of the fun is that it's a delightfully schizophrenic film, due to the fact that the two writers had very different approaches. Richard L Huff took it seriously, so presumably is responsible for all the scientific gibberish, which is truly stunning. Steve Brodie and Barbara Hale, in the forms of Drs Vance and Langer, brainstorm the situation with more buzzwords per sentence than can comfortably be imagined, none of which have anything to do with the price of fish. Meanwhile Robert Easton, already an established dialogue coach, had fun with it, especially given that he plays the cheating hillbilly who owns the farm the meteorite crashes onto. Alan Hale Jr has the most fun, treating the film like a comedy, beginning with a Gilligan's Island reference (for the rest of the world who didn't grow up watching this show, he was the Skipper) and keeping the humour up from there on out.
So I need to pay more attention to Bill Rebane. Monster a Go-Go would seem to be an unfortunate starting point, though wandering through IMDb I realise that I've seen his work before: films like Rana: The Legend of Shadow Lake which I picked up on cheesy looking VHS from a market stall somewhere a couple of decades ago. That one came before this one, but he followed them all up with a few more and they're well represented in the various Mill Creek 50 film box sets. He only made ten films which leaves me eight to find, but I'm seeing five in these box sets: The Demons of Ludlow, The Alpha Incident, They, Twisters Revenge and The Cold. I'll definitely need to delve soon.
To be fair the main reason that it's so bad is that it's really two films. Director Bill Rebane ran out of funding on his film Terror at Halfday in 1961 and couldn't finish it. It would have disappeared without a trace had Herschell Gordon Lewis not needed a second film to play alongside his Moonshine Mountain three years later. He bought the footage, shot some additional scenes to finish it off (with new actors given that the originals weren't available) and added a narration and a new title. He was so proud of the results that he didn't even put his name on them: he's uncredited as a director and listed under the pseudonym of Sheldon S Seymour for his additional dialogue.
It centres around a space capsule sent up by the Americans and which crash lands back on Earth in a rural area amazingly close to the space base in Chicago. Yes, this film is full of mysterious coincidences. The authorities find the capsule, but they don't find the astronaut who was inside: Frank Douglas is mysteriously missing. They do find the man who found the capsule though, dead at the scene, with his body shrivelled up and his blood turned to powder. There are mysterious burn marks on the ground nearby and soon a ten foot radioactive monster is killing off local teenagers.
It's hard to understand why a film like this exists, without having been there at the time. I was born in 1971 in England and didn't even see a drive-in movie theatre until 1999 when they were a dying breed. Yet back in their heyday the youth of America thronged to them, though generally not to actually watch the movies. This really is the epitome of a film that young couples could happily make out during and thus know as much about it when they leave as when they arrived. Plan 9 from Outer Space is terrible but it's highly watchable. Even The Beast from Yucca Flats had colour and Tor Johnson on its side. This doesn't have anything except the title.
Sunday, 16 November 2008
Here Chaney plays not one but two characters, though you'd have a solid case for three. He's Dan Tate, the Blackbird, professional thief and all round bad guy and scourge of the Limehouse district, itself home to all manner of bad guys. He's also the Bishop, a cripple who runs a mission whose motto is 'life is what you make it'. Everyone in Limehouse loves the Bishop and fears the Blackbird. What nobody except him knows is that the Blackbird and the Bishop aren't just played by one actor, they're one and the same person, Dan Tate apparently being able to endure the same legendary sort of dedicated pain as Chaney himself to put over an effect.
Even the toughest crook has a heart, and the Blackbird falls for a young French lady called Mademoiselle Fifi (no connection to the later Robert Wise film of that title) who is performing a cute little puppet show at a local variety house. She's played by Renée Adorée, who is far better in this part than she would be in another Chaney film a year later, Mr Wu, in which she landed the part of Wu Nang Ping, Chaney's daughter (and granddaughter: Chaney loved those dual roles), over Anna May Wong, a far better candidate who was relegated to being her servant.
The Blackbird isn't the only crook who falls for Mademoiselle Fifi. Falling just as hard is Bertram P Glayde aka West End Bertie, as high class a gentleman thief as the Blackbird is a working class version. West End Bertie is in Limehouse on a slumming party ('I say... we are going down Plum Alley to see the Chinkies smoking.'), which he's set up so that his men can rob them all in someone else's territory, and he sees Fifi at the same variety palace. Bizarrely, Bertie is played by Owen Moore, already a few hundred films into his career, who must have felt a little strange romancing Adorée, given that up until only two years earlier she was his sister-in-law. He does a great job though, in some scenes presaging Burgess Meredith's Penguin.
These two are much better than Adorée, partly because they're much better actors but partly because they have the benefit of playing contrasting opposites in a competition to win the favours of Mademoiselle Fifi. There's some great interplay between Chaney and Moore, as they sit round the table with Fifi inthe variety club and first realise just how much they're competing for her. Moore is restrained, full of quiet disdain, as Chaney seethes across the table at him. They're both excellent in this film, worthy foils, though of course Chaney gets far more opportunity to shine.
While it's annoying that Browning for some reason cut short a great scene partway through in which he transforms from the Blackbird to the Bishop, we get another opportunity to see this late in the film. It's always amazing to watch Chaney working one of his grotesque physical transformations, because he could do things that nobody else could, even today. Of course he was no slouch without such contrivances either, as his well known nickname, The Man of a Thousand Faces, would suggest. He gets plenty of opportunity here to demonstrate that and while some of it inevitably lurches into overblown melodrama there are some great subtle scenes too. Chaney was truly awesome at depicting inner pain and torment, and this film contains some great examples of that talent.
Unfortunately that talent didn't last too much longer. He had thirteen more films in him, but would be dead four years later of cancer, at only 47 years of age. That still outstripped the Renée Adorée though, who died at 35 of tuberculosis in 1933, only seven years after this film was released. Owen Moore outlived them all, dying in 1939 at the age of 46. Sometimes it seems that the silent stars either died young or lived forever. One that thankfully had a long career is Doris Lloyd, who plays the Blackbird's former wife, Limehouse Polly, here. She worked through five decades, but for some reason was never recognised as the talent she really was. She doesn't have much of a part here but she shines nonetheless, and anyone who can shine when sharing the screen with Chaney is worth watching.
Saturday, 15 November 2008
Star: Banlop Lomnoi and Sakda Kaewbuadee
As I delve deeper into Asian film I keep finding new surprises. I'm reasonably new to Thai cinema but I've already found dark comedy and quirky drama from Pen-ek Ratanaruang, decent horror featuring Achita Sikamana and powerful martial arts with Tony Jaa, along with the Thai work of Hong Kong director Oxide Pang Chun, one of the Pang Brothers. Here's something different again, an experimental film that works very hard to avoid easy definition, courtesy of writer/director Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
It's really two films in one, two separate stories that have much in common but which are yet very different. They follow the same general theme, that of seeking rather than finding, but are are told in utterly different ways. The first is a story set in the real world, the second in a world of spirituality. The first is a sound film with dialogue, the second full of sound but where the rare dialogue is primarily the subtitled speech of monkeys. The first has a cast, the second almost entirely only two actors. These two appear in both, but only one as the same character. Both halves are distinctive and uncompromising in their approach, somehow magnetic but nigh on impenetrable.
The first is a sort of gay love story. The two lead characters are Keng and Tong, played by Banlop Lomnoi and Sakda Kaewbuadee respectively, and we aren't really told much about them other than what we fathom for ourselves. Keng is a gay soldier working on the forest patrol and he pursues Tong, who works at an ice plant in the countryside. To suggest that this relationship is subtle really isn't sufficient: while there's always the hint of a gay subtext, it takes half an hour for it to actually state itself. Even then it's hardly what you'd expect and it's never truly fulfilled. The impression we have is that Tong isn't really gay at all, merely attracted to Keng in some other way that is misconstrued by us as well as Keng.
And then the first half ends in a truly unexpected and abrupt manner. As Keng sits on his bed looking at snapshots of the boy he's fallen for, the film literally burns up and goes black. Ten seconds later (I went back and counted), we're introduced to part two, which is woven around a tale of a powerful Khmer shaman who could turn into various creatures. Shot as a tiger, his spirit is now irrevocably trapped in the tiger spirit and he haunts the forest. Our soldier, presumably still Keng, ventures into the forest apparently to find a missing villager or some such, but who finds instead a naked ghost, covered in tribal tattoos and ritual scarring, and the tiger itself.
This half of the film has even less happening than the first half, but it's even more magnetic. The forest is evoked magnificently and there's some truly magnetic imagery going on: the tree coated in fireflies, the appearance of the tiger in the clearing. Even the infrequent use of title cards like 'the ghost is fascinated by the soldier's mysterious sound device' can only add to the tone of this segment. I can't claim to understand everything that's going on here, but after nearly giving up on Tropical Malady entirely after twenty or thirty minutes, I found that the more I watched, the more I had to keep watching. It's as an entirety that it has most impact and it's going to resonate.
Stars: Shigeru Amachi, Noriko Kitazawa and Katsuko Wakasugi
Now here's a film that bridges eras! Made in 1959 in full colour, it begins as a samurai film but turns into the most obvious precursor of J-Horror I've ever seen. There's no technology to fear and no lesbian schoolgirls, but there's everything else. We open in Bizen, Okayama where Iemon Tamiya is lying in wait for Yotsuya Samon. They're both samurai but of very different classes: Samon looks down on the young man with contempt as 'a libertine' and 'an uncouth ronin'. That doesn't bode well for Tamiya who wants his daughter Iwa's hand in marriage, and so as it's patently obvious that approval is never going to be granted, he kills Samon and his companion.
Also present is his crony Naouseke, who wants Iwa's sister Sode for his own, and step one to that end is the death of the father of Sode's fiance Yomoshichi Hikobei, who just happens to be Samon's companionon this fateful night. Sure enough, Yomoshichi himself soon follows, ironically being murdered by Iemon and Naouseke at the Shiraito Falls, a shrine dedicated to revenge. Iwa and Sode have persuaded them to come here to pray for revenge for the death of their father, which Iemon and Naouseke have blamed on a noted villain, Usaburo, who has a memorable sword slash across his face.
Things progress down the invitable path for such a dishonourable pair. Two years later in Edo, Naouseke has Sode and Iemon has both Iwa and their baby son, yet everyone is broke and dissatisfied. The pair do work on occasion for a rich man called Ito but promptly gamble away the profits, so with nothing left to pawn they attempt something a little more audacious, hatching a plot for Iemon to marry It's daughter Ume. Of course this means that they have to kill off Iwa and this is we kick into definite horror territory. This film shouldn't be called The Ghost of Yotsuya, it should really be The Ghost of Iwa, as discovering the plot too late to avoid her own death, she comes back to haunt Iemon and she doesn't quit.
Early for a graphic horror film, this is occasionally clumsy, such as in how the happy ending is set up; and some of the gore is far from convincing, such as a severed arm, unfortunately one of the first gore effects in the film, but it picks up with a vengeance. In solid Japanese tradition, what we get isn't just horrific but genuinely creepy too, though of course what may be creepiest is that it's so unexpected for a 1959 Japanese ghost story. I was expecting something far similar to The Black Cat: a black and white period piece, slow but sure in pacing and subtle in its horror. Amazingly that came nine years later, but feels far more traditional.
This one has less staginess and nods to kabuki theatre, though the early scenes seem very ritual and lead actor Shigeru Amachi looks like he belongs on stage, but it has just as much of a deliberate and stylish use of lighting, sound and wind. Here that shocks not just in its intended effect but in demonstrating to us that what look like outdoor scenes are amazingly actually indoor sets. One in particular has Iemon raging insanely through haunting experience at the river bank where he dumped the bodies of his wife and the merchant he sets up as her lover. It's powerful in itself with the fading of light, waves of wind and the river of blood, but it also stunned me that it must have been a set.
I liked this so much I left it on my DVR to watch again later with my better half here to enjoy too. There are a few bits I want to get a clearer picture on, as I was a little confused at a couple of points. I also want to watch the first half again with knowledge of how the second half unfolds: this feels like the most obvious film of two distinct halves I've seen since From Dusk Till Dawn. And I want to see again the corpses nailed to shutters, the bucket full of snakes, the Japanese fondness for ghosts to defy gravity... among other highly memorable horror scenes. The second half of The Ghost of Yotsuya blindsided me. Let's see how well it works second time round.
I should mention the names involved, but I didn't recognise any of them. The director is Nobuo Nakagawa, who seems to be something of an inspiration to leading J-Horror filmmakers like Hideo Nakata of Ringu and Dark Water fame. Having seen this I'm not surprised, but I'll have to watch the other many ghost stories from his repertoire, not just the ones I've heard of, such as The Lady Vampire and Jigoku (both of which also star Shigeru Amachi) but others completely new to me like The Ghosts of Kasane and Black Cat Mansion. I'd seen Amachi before, in Zatoichi films, but didn't know his name. He seems to be a regular Nakagawa collaborator, as do many of the rest of the cast. Kazuko Wakasugi and Noriko Kitazawa, who play Iwa and Sode, made five films each for him, notable given that they only have nine and ten films respectively to their names.
The thing is that he looks precisely like he sounds. He doesn't look much different to Kronk: he's 6' 3" tall, is powerfully built and has a very hairy chest. Standing next to other people makes him look huge, not just taller or wider but huge in every way. And here he plays and deconstructs culture's stereotype of people who look and sound like Patrick Warburton. Maxwell Bright runs the Max Bright Television Emporium, he lives for football and poker games and he can't pee when someone else is in the room. His house is a complete slum but his shiny red sports car is immaculate. He swears like a trooper and drinks like a fish. And he's a complete asshole who has no respect for anyone, especially women, who are the bane of his misogynistic existence.
We first meet him running naked out of his house chasing an equally naked girlfriend who's already split his head open, and who promptly belts him one in the chest with a garden hoe right in front of the cops. Feuding with women seems to be a pretty common occurrence for Max, especially as every cop he tussles with is also a woman, and he's fed up with it, with all of it. He wants a woman to do what she's told, whenever she's told and then get the hell out of the way. So he ponies up $100,000 for an Asian mail order bride called Mai Ling. Six weeks later Mai Ling arrives and his life promptly changes.
Initially he's the same Max Bright. 'It's a bit messy', he tells her when she first sees his house. He isn't kidding and he isn't just talking about his house. He also happily approves of her but is completely taken aback with the realisation that she has to approve of him too. Gradually though his status as the man who can dissipates as his business collapses, his possessions are repossessed and he's diagnosed with terminal and untreatable cancer. And here the story really begins because he's forced to look at his life in the face of his death, at who he is and who he has been. Luckily he has a rather special wife to help him through it, who though he didn't realise it when they married, used to be a Buddhist nun. She's played by Marie Matiko, who I'd not previously heard of but who does an excellent job.
This is a low budget independent film, regardless of the calibre of the actors involved (not just Warburton but Jennifer Tilly, Simon Callow, Eric Roberts, Kurt Fuller, Carol Kane and others), and it shows. Some of the handheld camerawork is annoying and the sound, especially early on, is inconsistent, so that some of it is too loud and some too quiet. However the film has power and resonance and soon all these minor complaints vanish as it unfolds. The broad sweep of the film is pretty obvious but it still ventures into places we don't quite expect. The tone at the end is utterly different from the tone at the beginning. Though it's neatly bookended, it feels like a completely different film, yet the progression from beginning to end is consistent.
I wonder how this one evolved. It obviously belongs to David Beaird, writer and director, who I know as writer and producer of a highly underrated 1993 TV show called Key West that unfortunately only lasted a single season of 13 episodes and which is currently and sadly only available through the efforts of fans. Two of the regular cast from that show appear here: Jennifer Tilly as the doctor who tells Bright that he has cancer; and Leland Crooke, who is so uncredited here as a graveyard caretaker that he isn't even credited as uncredited in IMDb. Yet the focus of the film, the title character, is Patrick Warburton, who fits the part so well that it must have been written for him. The circle completes with the knowledge that Warburton is the screen husband of Jennifer Tilly in Family Guy.
I love this sort of connection game with independent film: it's usually playable and the connections give an insight into how films come together to be made. I watched The Civilization of Maxwell Bright as a recording from the Sundance Channel but as it finished I felt like I was sitting in a theater, amongst the applauding audience with some of the cast and crew present, ready to walk down to the front for a Q&A session. My hand would have been up to ask about how it all came together: who came up with the original idea, who brought in who, who was always going to be on board... the energy and cameraderie of independent film is often very palpable and it seeps onto the screen. This is no exception. And yes, this showed locally, at the Scottsdale Film Festival, with a Q&A from Patrick Warburton and I wasn't there.
The other thing that sometimes comes to independent film is a different way of providing a message. Many are preachy to the extreme, many are subtle, and only a small percentage go the dumbed down, explain everything route that pervades Hollywood mainstream product. This one isn't preachy and it isn't dumbed down but its subtlety is strange. Most of the film is far from subtle, in fact it's about as in your face as it gets with full frontal nudity and some scenes of stunning cruelty: not least the first poker party with Mai Ling present and the blistering display of honesty in Max's empty house when he verbally destroys the only real friend he's ever had. Eric Roberts is stunning here. Yet the film's message is delivered very subtly indeed, with the use of spirituality, the meaning of marriage and the nature of redemption all magnificently handled. Highly recommended for a lot of different reasons.
Monday, 10 November 2008
The first story is Vadim's: made the same year as Barbarella, featuring the same actress, his wife Jane Fonda and using what appears to be the same costumers. The story is undated and set in a fictional Europe that would fit in the middle ages if not for the wild and flamboyant costumes. Fonda is Frederique, the Countess of Metzengerstein, and she's well described early on as a 'pretty Caligula'. Decadence is very much the order of the day and she indulges in whatever she can get her hands on, and given that she's the absolute ruler of the region, that means anything and everything.
The only person who doesn't jump at her word is her neighbour, cousin and sworn enemy: the Baron Wilhelm Berlifitzing, played bizarrely by Fonda's brother Peter. Their families had feuded for years but they had never met until by accident the Countess steps into one of his traps and quickly falling in love. However he spurns her advances and in petulant response she has the stable containing his beloved horse Prince burned to the ground. What she hadn't counted on is that the Baron would rush headlong into the inferno in an attempt to save Prince, only to die in the attempt, leaving her with a hollow and bizarrely life changing victory.
Quite what Vadim was aiming at here I really don't know. What it comes across as is an attempt to make his wife look as gorgeous on screen as possible, which is hardly surprising given that he made a habit of this with all his many gorgeous wives. She does look good but the mysterious black horse that becomes her constant companion after the stable incident looks even better. There's certainly a supernatural flavour to the piece but is no focus or resolution and just fades out. Very disappointing.
William Wilson is Louis Malle's contribution to the film, and it's better than Vadim's, even though it begins with a long string of jagged edits. A man rushes into a Catholic church to emphatically confess that he had killed a man, not even knowing how because he isn't a Catholic. He's the William Wilson of the title, played by Alain Delon, and he's a sadistic little brat even as a child in military school, dangling a fellow student into a vat of live rats for fun. He seems to exercise complete control over the other students, but then a nemesis arrives: another boy with the same presence to him and with exactly the same name: William Wilson.
His progression through life follows the same pattern. Wherever he goes, from military school to medical school to the army, he runs the show, setting up elaborate tableaux to exercise his sadistic lusts in front of his fellows and winning through without much effort. That's until the other William Wilson shows up, of course, which he does unceasingly, always apparently out of nowhere and always at just the wrong moment. The final straw comes when he's beaten Brigitte Bardot at cards and is slaking his lust on her with a cane, only for nemesis Wilson to arrive and expose him as a cheat. He takes the matters into his own hands and the results are hardly a surprise to us but are arrived at nicely.
I'd read that only the final segment, Federico Fellini's Toby Dammit was worth watching, but there's much to enjoy in William Wilson too. Toby Dammit though is unquestionably the piece de resistance here but it's not the only thing worth of mention. William Wilson may be a little too long but it holds the interest and Delon and Bardot produce decent work. Louis Malle was always an inconsistent director, with his films ranging from pointlessness to genius, but this is not one of the worst pictures in his filmography.
On the other hand, Fellini is fast becoming one of my favourites and while there are always going to be successes and failures, I haven't seen anything he's done that is less than magnetic viewing. He is an unparalleled visual stylist and purveyor of the surreal, the decadent and the outre and he's on top form on those fronts here from moment one when English actor Toby Dammit, played by English actor Terence Stamp arrives at the airport in Rome to make the first Catholic western.
There really isn't a plot to this segment, at least not in the traditional sense. From what I can work out, Dammit is a self destructive prototype for the punk era, flouting convention and either raging against the world or trying to escape from it. After admitting in a claustrophobic TV interview that he doesn't believe in God, he points out that he does believe in the devil, not in the traditional Catholic form but as a freaky little girl in white who plagues the periphery of his vision. She's played by Marina Yaru, in her only film appearance, and she's highly memorable.
God is watching Toby's headlong plunge into self destruction, through debauched living, and in a moment of privacy at a surreal Italian Oscars ceremony, gives him an opportunity for salvation, promising to be with him always. When he rejects this offer outright his plunge becomes inexorable and we follow him in a madcap rush through mostly deserted Italian streets in a brand new Ferrari to his doom. Very white and alternately angelic and psychotic, but always magnetic, Stamp's performance could easily be a major influence on Heath Ledger's Joker. I'll find that out soon enough with The Dark Knight coming to second run theatres.
Stamp is astoundingly good here, which is possibly why everyone seems to put down Fonda and Delon and the other actors in earlier segments. Whether they're good or not ceases to really be the issue: none are in the same class as Stamp this time out. Fellini knows precisely how to use him too and this forty minute segment is a wild ride that feels like it's over in five minutes, unfolding with the insane chronology of dreamtime. When Fellini turns it on, it's impossible not to watch in passive astonishment what he conjures up on the screen for us, and he turns it on here turning this into a overwhelming dervish dance.
There are few sets, all used memorably with a fluid camera. Each has its own colour and tone, the tone and surreality progressively darkening and becoming more psychotic as they run on. The arrival in the airport sets the calibre high with impeccable choreoraphy providing rapid fire switching of focus. What seems like hundreds of extras appear to get about two seconds of camera time each, which is enough for them to stamp something unique onto the screen, no pun intended. Then we switch to the road and a scene full of surreal reflections that reminds of the arrival in Rome in Roma as the filmmakers wax lyrical and a passing gypsy woman refuses to read his palm. The TV interview has Toby the seated centre of attention as everything else moves constantly around him in a dance of technology. The Italian Oscars ceremony, set in some sort of historic ruin, is where things get truly bizarre and Toby flutters on the brink, only to escape in his new Ferrari on a high speed search for destruction. What a rush!
It's amazing cinema, no doubt, but something to see more than just once. So much happens in so short a time that I'm sure I missed plenty, but I saw enough to stun me and it's hard to focus on one thing to highlight. The choreography is amazing, but so is the use of light, reflection, sound, mist, pace and apparently everything else. Highlights for me were the use of light in a Roman square, the lowering of a street lamp turning the stone square into the stage for a supernatural spotlight; the vital roar of the Ferrari and the pauses between its scream as Toby turns or temporarily stops; the otherwordly mist that he rushes through; the use of an escalator as stage prop in the airport; the women at the Oscars ceremony, iconic yet unrecognisable. So much to praise, so little time. I need to see this again.
Sunday, 9 November 2008
What this extra £5 brings to his customers is a vision into their futures, along with a powerful warning, all provided through a model of the goddess Atropos, the oldest of the three Fates. In Greek mythology her sisters spun and measured the skein of life for every human being, but it was Atropos who cut them with her shears, thus ending lives in the manner she saw fit. Here, each character in this Amicus horror anthology gets their own segment, as shown to them by gazing at the shears of Atropos. It shows them what path the evil in their own souls will take them down but also the insight to avoid it.
They take their turns and first up is the biggest doubter of them all, Colin Williams. He goes to see his dying uncle Roger, who wants him to mend his ways and get a job, but Colin is merely waiting for what he believes will be a substantial inheritance because he's the sole heir and he's done his homework. Apparently Uncle Roger has never worked, but somehow managed to refurbish his house and pay for everything over a number of decades in gold coins. In trying to force the location of a presumed treasure out of him, the already frail Roger dies before he can reveal anything, and Colin goes searching for the treasure himself. He finds it too but of course there's a price attached that most people wouldn't be willing to pay.
This is a decent story but not a great one, not up to the general standards of writer Robert Bloch who penned all four segments. However the two that follow are worse. The second sees a TV actress called Carla Hayes deliberately screw over her roommate Millie to get a night out with agent Mike Charles, gateway to success in the entertainment industry. Her ambition knows no bounds but like Colin Williams, her success comes at a price that is far from an easy one to pay. The third sees a young lady called Dorothy Endicott insert herself between Leo and Euterpe: Leo being a world renowned concert pianist and Euterpe his piano, which is a jealous thing and has no room in its vision for a rival.
The last is the best, with the framing story not far behind. Jack Palance is Ronald Wyatt, a huge fan of Edgar Allan Poe. He meets the collector Lancelot Canning at an exhibition of some of his collection and eagerly follows up on Canning's invitation to visit him at home. Canning is the biggest collector of them all when it comes to Poe, having continued the work of his father and grandfather. However this collection contains more than would usually be expected from a Poe collector, and Wyatt's greed in seeing unpublished and undocumented stories becomes his own downfall. All of these stories are about greed but this one rings the truest.
Palance was top billed even though he doesn't speak until the fourth segment of the film, in which he plays opposite Peter Cushing as Lancelot Canning. He's believably enthusiastic and carried away as a fan and Cushing was born to play an educated collector. The cast are probably the biggest success here, though director Freddie Francis does a solid job, especially in the piano story. Palance and Cushing are the best, with Burgess Meredith highly memorable as Dr Diabolo, but also notable are Beverly Adams as Carla Hayes and Maurice Denham as Uncle Roger.
Saturday, 8 November 2008
Dr Heidegger's Experiment is a story about the fight against age and death. Carl Heidegger is an old grey haired man played by Sebastian Cabot and Price plays his long term friend Alex Medbourne, similar old and grey. However the central character is really Sylvia, Carl's fiancee who died on the eve of their wedding 38 years earlier. In a storm, her crypt is broken open and when they investigate, they discover her in her coffin apparently unchanged from the day she died. It all seems to be tied to a mysterious dripping of water onto her coffin from a crack in the crypt roof.
Naturally you can see where the title comes in. Carl catches some of the water and tests it on a dead flower, watching it come back to life. Of course his next experiment is to try it on himself and he sheds years from his appearance. Anyone who's read any supernatural fiction must know that this sort of thing is against the laws of nature and so isn't going to last but the way in which the balance of nature is restored is always up for question. Price and Cabot are fine and Mari Blanchard plays Sylvia, the third character in the story. It's fun but it's just a warmup.
Rappaccini's Daughter is better, with Price as Rappaccini and Joyce Taylor as his delightful daughter Beatrice. Young Giovanni Guasconti falls in love with Beatrice Rappaccini from afar, looking down her daily walks from his window, but she's unapproachable. He asks for advice from his professor who gives him the background. Rappaccini was a great professor himself but chose to lock himself away twenty years ago with his daughter and it would seem that Giovanni is the only one to have seen her since. Apparently nobody else has entered the Rappaccini's house ever since.
The reason for all this is that the courtyard that Guasconti looks down upon is full of tremendously poisonous plants and Beatrice is as poisonous as any of them. One touch from her and anything living becomes very quickly dead, shrivelled and turned to purple. Rappaccini's love for her leads him to desperate measures. Price is decent here, as are Joyce Taylor and Brett Halsey as Guasconti, but it's the story that wins out here. The themes in Dr Heidegger's Experiment have been used and reused many times but this one still holds something of a unique place.
Last and best is The House of the Seven Gables, where Price is Gerald Pyncheon, who returns to the house of the title with his wife Alice, after seventeen years away. The house has been in his family for centuries, having been built on land stolen from someone else, thus prompting a long running and successful curse. Every male Pyncheon since the one that built the house has died with blood on his lips in a chair in the study, though naturally Gerald Pyncheon wants to break that trend. He also wants to find the vault, which no other Pyncheon has yet found and which contains riches and deeds and all sorts of goodies.
While his greed is the reason for his return to the house, Beverly Garland gets the best part as his wife Alice who begins to acquire strange psychic powers there. She enters trance states in which she talks with the dead, witnesses strange phenomena and knows or is aware of things that she has no logical reason to know. Garland is a decent actress and by all accounts an even better person to know, and I've never seen her better than here. She's never looked lovelier either in the various films I've seen her in. She should have played period horror more often, instead of B-movie sci-fi.
The story is probably Hawthorne's best known piece and it has resonance today. It also has some really impressive scenes to disturb and frighten, not least the house dripping blood from the walls and ceiling during some sort of psychic earthquake. OK, there's also one of the worst pick axe attacks I've ever seen but that's an aberration in this segment of the film. Again Price is decent, but then he always was, even when hamming it up which he does more than a little here, especially in Dr Heidegger's Experiment. The film is decent too but it's a more minor entry into his filmography.
There's some vague plot. Susan Strasberg plays a deaf runaway called Jenny who is trying to find her brother. He's sent her a postcard so she knows he's in San Francisco, but it takes some time to discover that his message, 'Jeus Saes God is Alive in a Sugar Cube', is really his address. He's known as The Seeker, and is apparently pretty well known in the city but rather difficult to find. He eventually turns up in the form of a wild Rasputin-like Bruce Dern. Assisting her on a search in at least a vague way are the various members of Mumblin' Jim: Jack Nicholson, Adam Roarke, Max Julien and Henry Jaglom as Stoney, Ben, Elwood and Warren.
The film as a whole is pure exploitation, not least the astounding fight in the junkyard where a few flower children beat up a bunch of jocks - while one of them is tripping, no less. However there's some real value here in a few scenes that get inside the times, whether they really intended to or not. Jenny first meets Mumblin' Jim in a coffee shop, there are cops looking for her and they help her to escape them by starting a fight. The key is that they know that the moment the cops start hauling them off, everyone else in the pace makes that impossible by showering them with flowers, beads and cries for peace and love.
There's an awesome scene in which Warren has a bad acid trip at a gallery while surrounded by power tools and sees everyone including himself as zombies. The trail to the Seeker takes them to Dave, played by Dean Stockwell, who lives in an apartment that's more like a hole: to get to him they have to climb up onto the roof and then down some sort of air conditioning duct to get to him. These odd little things are far better than the more overt flower power ones and that's not uncommon for this film. It feels like the material that was focused on isn't worth that much and the material that wasn't is.
Strasberg is excellent as the character the film revolves around and the young Nicholson is as fascinating as always as the character that drives most of the story. Dern hardly appears and while he's memorable, I'm not sure if that's in a good way. Stockwell is solid, though his character is hardly explored and is simply used in the ending, which seems to come without invitation and leaves us with a whole host of questions. Maybe that's the point but it doesn't feel right. It suggests that the filmmakers were trying to tell us something but kept forgetting what it was, so that any actual message can be backed up and refuted by material in the same film. Then again, maybe that's the point...
Friday, 7 November 2008
So he decides to do something about it. He tells his wife that he doesn't love her and isn't attracted to her and he can't live his life any more. He tells her that he's leaving and he's not coming back, and that's what he does. However he has absolutely no idea where he's going or what he's going to do. He starts by going to a bar and soon finds himself in conversation with Joe Mantegna. Mantegna's character doesn't have a name, as most characters in this film don't have names, but he talks and his outspoken racism and vague suggestion sends Edmond on a rollercoaster ride of an evening.
The film unfolds episodically through many little episodes that gradually strip away the polite veneer of Edmond's life and let the soul inside tearing out angrily against the world. There are obvious reference points: the descending spiral of After Hours or Falling Down, with the sort of wide ensemble cast of characters that you might expect Jim Jarmusch to put together. Falling Down is the closest parallel, with Macy's Edmond raging through a day where each step gets worse just like Michael Douglas's D-FENS.
The people Edmond meets are played by a dream cast of character actors that just doesn't quit. After Mantegna comes Denise Richards as a club hooker, Bai Ling as a peepshow girl in a pink wig and Mena Suvari as a whore. By this time, he's got nowhere except coughing up most of his money in cover charges, because whenever he gets inside it's always too much, and then mugged for the rest. He can't even call the cops at Jeffrey Combs's hotel because he doesn't have the quarters needed, so he pawns his wedding ring to George Wendt and buys a knife. When he gets mugged again by pimp Lionel Mark Smith he's ready to snap back and life explodes into an adrenaline high.
This is the mirror point of the movie marked by Edmond meeting the only other character with a name: Glenna, a waitress played by Julia Stiles. Glenna marks the only time something happens the way Edmond wants it too, though naturally it doesn't continue that way for long. She also marks the point of no return: there's no going back once he leaves Glenna. Luckily still to come are Patricia Belcher, Dylan Walsh and Bokeem Woodbine. These names keep coming and they continue past the actors too.
The director is Stuart Gordon, known primarily for his horror movies, not least Re-Animator, which I was lucky enough to see uncut on the big screen a couple of weeks ago with Jeffrey Combs in attendance. I love Re-Animator and From Beyond and even things like Fortress. They're not necessarily great movies but they have something very distinct about them that makes them pleasures to watch and pleasures to return to. I wouldn't have expected Stuart Gordon to make a film like this, adapted by David Mamet from his play, but maybe he was an inspired choice.
Mamet tends towards the impactful: just watch Glengarry Glen Ross for a great example of that, with an A list cast. This has as much impact but in a much more subtle way, infused with humour that Gordon may well have brought with him. It's a dream of a part for William H Macy, who I'm a huge fan of anyway, and given that Macy went to college with Mamet, I'm guessing he wrote it especially for him. I may be wrong there, given that it's also an old play, but it feels right. Macy is simply perfect as the white collar worker nobody would notice under most circumstances but who is unforgettable with the veneer of his life stripped away. Stunning stuff by all involved.
Wednesday, 5 November 2008
Play Time is the sort of film that has much to offer but anyone unprepared for Tati's very distinctive style must surely end up wondering just what the heck they're watching. Like previous films featuring Mr Hulot, this is effectively a silent movie with sound, which would seem like an insane concept to anyone who hasn't watched Tati before. There's dialogue in Tati films, but rarely to progress the plot, because there isn't one. It's generally used for the purpose of sound rather than meaning, to the degree that the words tend to be downplayed in the mix while more mundane sounds are emphasised, like footsteps, doors opening or paper crumpling.
Also while there's no plot, there's a huge amount happening and the 70mm frame is rarely less than very busy. However because of the way things unfold we need to watch the whole frame, not just narrow in on what would usually be perceived as the focus. We can't even assume that we should be watching the lead character because there really isn't one, not even Mr Hulot himself, and nothing, not one single thing, is shot in closeup. That's bizarre and it takes a while to realise why. We need to focus on the things in the background, which are often more important than those in the foreground. So many stories are told by minor characters who never get the frame to themselves, never speak and never really do anything. We don't know anything about them except what their actions tell us and it's amazing how much that becomes.
Those are the small stories and there are many of them, but there aren't really any big stories, beyond Hulot and a bunch of tourists arriving somewhere, interacting with that somewhere for a while and then leaving, thus echoing Mr Hulot's Holiday to no small degree. We wouldn't even know where 'somewhere' is if we hadn't seen the Eiffel Tower to let us know that it's Paris and this is important: these tourists never see the Paris we imagine, they see the modern Orly airport, some sort of international technological exposition and a brand new restaurant. One key character, Barbara, spends a long time trying to take a photo of an old lady running a streetside stall that seems completely out of place. 'It's the real Paris,' she says. The rest is mostly Tativille, a huge set with huge buildings created just for this film at huge cost out of metal and glass and light. We the viewers see the real Paris occasionally but the characters don't: it's always in reflection in doors or by accident out of windows.
The details are everywhere. Some are quirky and obvious like a plastic model of a plane melting in the heat but firming back up when the air conditioning kicks in, or in the flowers on the hats of women leaving for a night on a town be spry and lively but those on the women returning at the same time be drooping and dead. Some are much harder to describe and much more subtle to notice. Tati does a lot of trickery here, taking something definable and making it seem like something else.
There's a long scene where Hulot ends up in some sort of apartment, which is the bottom left quadrant of a set of four. We can watch him and what's happening in his quarter of the frame but there's plenty happening in the other quarters too. Sometimes they all become synchronised, sometimes there's an illusion that two are interacting with each other when there's really a wall between them. Tati doesn't even make it easy for us by positioning the camera to pretend that it's a split screen: he keeps moving it around and showing us different angles, while never venturing inside.
It's all very artistic, very cinematic in the way that almost nothing else is. What we have is a piece of choreography that becomes abstract art, similar perhaps only to something equally untraditional like Koyaanisqatsi, merely with Tati's take on sound instead of a Philip Glass composition. We're watching balance and contrast, not just as a ballet of light but also by using people and buildings as objects in some sort of fluid dynamics model. It's performance art immortalised on celluloid. In fact at one point people in a street stop what they're doing to watch a group of workmen inside a building move a large sheet of glass in what appears to be street theatre. The catch is that they're inside and the viewers are on the street.
Play Time is an amazing piece of cinema but to suggest that it's something that everyone should see would be the heart of naivete. To say that this is not for everyone is an understatement. It's almost like 155 minutes of watching other people play Jenga. We can appreciate every move, knowing that it may be the last for the particular game but generally won't be. The only absolute is that eventually everything tumbles and the game starts afresh. Is it fascinating? Yep. Is it tiring? Yep. Is there an irresistible urge to stop watching and join in, followed by the frustration of realising that this is a film and so that isn't an option? Absolutely.
It's a dream of a film to analyse. It invites analysis and I'm sure more than one film student has written a thesis on this movie. On the most obvious level, Tati's view of the modern deserves much comment: he was right on more than one extrapolation, not least office cubicles, though he didn't attach them together. On other levels though, that fluid dynamics model keeps coming back to me. There's so much caught up in the flow here that I'm sure more will become apparent with each viewing.
For instance, I caught much of the gradual breakdown of convention at the restaurant, early customers dressed up for a formal dinner slowly descending in formality, class and demeanour. In the end drunks and musicians dressed in loud clothes find their way in, but they're the ones having the easiest fun, the more formal the customer the harder they find that fun point. Yet I hadn't caught anything of the colour in those scenes: I had to read up to discover just what Tati was doing with red and green and patterns.
I also hadn't quite realised what he was doing with shapes, evolving from straight lines and rectangles to curves and circles. His approach to convention and conformity was summed up by film historian Philip Kemp who wrote, 'If Play Time has a plot, it's how the curve comes to reassert itself over the straight line.' I expected the next sentence to read, 'Discuss in 2,000 words or less.'
It's amazing cinema, but not for everyone and that realisation cost Tati plenty. I've read that the production made it at that time the most expensive French film ever made, and he had to sign over the rights to his previous films in order to finance the escalating cost. Partly because of what it is and partly because he refused to have it shown anywhere other than theatres that could show it in full 70mm and with proper stereophonic sound, people didn't go to see it and people who did often didn't like it. Critics, on the other hand, acclaimed it then and continue to acclaim it today. I can see why for both sides of that coin.
She's very much the focus here, regardless of how the title might suggest that other Barretts might get much of a look in and how you might expect a cast of this calibre to be granted plenty of opportunity for scene stealing by all and sundry. At this point in her life, starting in 1845, she's already a published poetess and a long term invalid, effectively exiled by her father to her room, where he does all he can to aid her recovery, according to his own emphatic beliefs of course. He brings her the best doctors, but often ignores their advice; he refuses to allow more than three of her siblings into her room at any one time; he prescribes tankards of porter which she despises and expects her to drink them out of love not fear. In seeking the best for her, of course, he denies her all that is best.
Shearer is very good as Elizabeth Barrett, however much we want to strangle her character. She was one of the greatest poets of the age, bright and intelligent and educated in the classics to a degree that would scare the socks off any student today, reading as a teen the major Latin and Greek works in their original languages along with the entire Old Testament in Hebrew. Yet here she seems afraid to actually live, resisting all the many opportunities she receives while using her father's intransigence and her undefined illness as a perennial excuse.
Then into her life like a tornado comes Robert Browning, a poet himself, who has fallen emphatically in love with her through her poems and her correspondence and so invites himself to her house to meet her, whereupon he continues to romance her and to continually propose marriage, even though he knows that she's forbidden to marry anyone. Browning is played by Fredric March and his earnest emphasis is palpable. In fact all three of the leads are excellent and were each worthy of the Oscar nomination that Shearer received.
Every time I read anything about Norma Shearer, there's an inevitable mention that she was married to MGM's wunderkind Irving Thalberg and therefore had everyone's attention for reasons well beyond her own talent. Yet she was still a very good actress who gave a number of very good performances. Here it's most obvious in the scenes in which she finally finds the courage to follow her heart, finding her way out of a land of entrenched excuses to freedom at cost.
March is a fine foil for her. March was one of the greatest actors of the day, one who is unfortunately frequently overlooked today, and he shines in a role that has him hogtied from moment one. He's a man in love with someone who loves him back and he can see with a poet's insight the joyous future that they could have, but he's continually and consistently rebuffed. 'I shall always remain an invalid,' she says, declining his proposals yet again. And it isn't because of her, of course, it's because of her father and because of her illness.
And then there's Laughton. Hogtied himself in a role which called mostly for stubborn intransigence, Laughton spends almost the entire film literally standing still, resolute against the world and its temptations, the inherent immobility of the character making it difficult to actually portray the emotions that an actor needs to do. Laughton is restricted to acting with his face and voice, along with some very subtle body movements, all of which makes his success even more admirable. He's a picture of suppressed rage and frustration, feared and obeyed, and in the hands of a lesser actor it would have been a one dimensional portrait. In Laughton's hands we see his own torment and how he projects it outwards to those around him.
I mentioned a talented cast. If Shearer, March and Laughton aren't enough for you, there are a slew of excellent character actors in tow. Most obvious is Maureen O'Sullivan as Henrietta, the wildest of the Barretts, another young lady who wants to get married but can't because of her father, but they keep on coming. Ian Wolfe is truly and embarrassingly scary as cousin Bella's fiance, but only as called to be by the part. Cousin Bella is Marion Clayton, who is almost as embarrassingly scary herself. Una O'Connor is a wonderful maid for Elizabeth, so at home in the hoop skirt that she glides across the floor like a dalek, showing everyone else up as clumsy. Leo G Carroll, credited without the G, is one of Elizabeth's doctors. Then there's Katharine Alexander and Ralph Forbes and more.
Tuesday, 4 November 2008
However these aren't our central characters: that honour falls to mild mannered Shinichi Ichikawa, who is a complete failure as a husband, father and teacher. Beyond not being able to say the right thing at the right time, he has a knack of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. His wife is cheating on him, his daughter has discovered her sexuality and his son gets picked on because of him. The first connection he really has with anyone is with a young boy called Shinpei Asano who transfers into his class, a boy who lost the ability to stand a couple of years earlier after discovering his father a victim of suicide. The thing is that Shinpei is a Zebraman fan.
Because Shinichi is so useless at everything else, he has an active fantasy life, acting out fantasies spawned from watching too much Japanese TV. He even dresses up as his favourite character, Zebraman, thus the obvious connection to Shinpei. Zebraman was a short lived character in a 1978 show that was cancelled after seven episodes and never repeated, making Shinpei an unlikely fan and a rare one. Maybe though it's this connection that gradually turns Shinichi into Zebraman, not the man in a suit but the real superhero who appears in 2010 to save the world from crustacean headed invaders. Suddenly his moves actually work.
Takashi Miike is a director as fascinating as he is prolific. He's all too often either dismissed or worshipped as a director of ultraviolent horror movies, known mostly for cult titles like Audition and Ichi the Killer. However his work runs far beyond just these films or their genre. His most frequent subject is the yakuza, with many crime movies under his belt, and he often delves into the bizarre with quite a few surreal, quirky or offbeat pictures to his name too. The last I saw was his deliriously stylish Sukiyaki Western Django, but The Great Yokai War and The Happiness of the Katakuris spring to mind as well. The latter, as the only Miike that hasn't impressed me thus far, is getting higher and higher on my need to see again list. I have a feeling that next time I may get it.
This is a strange film, at heart a story about the power of belief and a man finding himself, but it's all wrapped up in a freaky tale of alien invasion that suggests that the truth isn't just out there, it was hidden in a Japanese superhero TV show in 1978. Then again, I guess that's no weirder than the Men in Black concept that everything the Weekly World News is true, because they know full well that only those in the know will believe a word of it. It's less weird than Save the Green Planet! which would work well following this as the second half of a double bill, but then there aren't many things that are quite that weird.
Sho Aikawa is a great man to lead the cast, being completely believable in the unenviable task of being a failure who succeeds. He's a Miike regular, having appeared in no less than twelve of his films, but I've only seen one before this: Dead or Alive: Final. If this is anything to go by though, he's going to be great fun to watch in the rest. Zebraman's moves are mostly right out of Japanese superhero shows but he postures around like Adam West's Batman. He also gets beaten up more than any superhero I've ever seen but then this is a Miike film, right?
Backing him up are an able cast of people I've never seen before. I can't tell who played Shinpei Asano though he does a good job, but his mother is played by Kyoka Suzuki, who is delightful in a role that mostly has her play a simple mother of a crippled child. There's more depth there than that though and she gets a great dream sequence second role as Zebranurse. The special ops agents are Atsuro Watabe and Koen Kondo, though they get far less time than you'd expect. Watabe gets a few cool moments but he's generally overshadowed in those scenes by others and by the sheer inspired lunacy of the thing. Aided by effects that, like The Great Yokai War, run the gamut from pretty poor to excellent, it's a heck of a ride and it kicks the living crap out of Spider-Man 3. What was that budget again, Sam?
This one has Susannah Kelton travelling to a small island off the New England coast, near to the town of Dunwich. She was born there, as Susannah Whateley and her lawyer sent her the keys to the old mill on her 21st birthday. Now she and her husband Mike have vague plans to turn it into a summer home but they hadn't counted on how how serious the danger is. Her Aunt Agatha is glad to see her after 17 years but warns her to leave for the mainland with all haste, because she fears for a resurgence of evil if a Whateley stays just one night in that old mill.
Aunt Agatha is cool because she's played by Flora Robson, lives in a cross between a castle and a lighthouse and keeps some sort of eagle as a pet, but her dire warnings about the Whateley curse don't have the desired effect. In fact they take the edge off Susannah's fear, so she and Mike stay for the night. There is evil in the house though, not in the supernatural sense that Aunt Agatha may have hinted at, but in a more literal sense in the form of the creature that lives behind the door with the cool spiked peephole at the end of Susannah's childhood bedroom.
To be honest this evil is well handled, in the traditional don't show the monster in the first ten seconds of the movie way, and that side of the film is slow, subtle and effective. The surprising thing is that it's far from the most obvious side of the story. Much more apparent is the danger of the locals, led by Oliver Reed, understandably believable in his loutishness. Nothing like typecasting, huh?
Partly because Carol Lynley makes for such a beautiful Susannah and partly because there seems to be a dearth of women in the village, the local young men are more than willing to take their turn in trying something on with her. This is far from supernatural though and puts us firmly in Straw Dogs territory, albeit four years earlier. It's a decent thriller with a cool location and some consistently good acting. Everything about it is handled very well indeed. It's just not quite what you'd expect for a Lovecraft story.
Sunday, 2 November 2008
There's more entertainment here in the introductory ten minutes than in the entirety of The Dunwich Horror. We begin in the Arkham of 110 years ago where on a night riddled through with lightning, Vincent Price and his buxom assistant are about to sacrifice an entranced young lady on a huge and flamboyant set. The villagers rise up and rescue her, burning Price alive after only enough delay for him to curse them and their descendants: all the Weedons, Smiths, Wests, Willetts and Leaches. While this all bears little resemblance to its Lovecraftian origins, it is at least certainly the stuff of classic horror movies.
You could hardly expect Price to only have a few minutes screen time, unless this were a Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello picture, such as Beach Party, in which he had a brief cameo to publicise this film, and sure enough he arrives back in Arkham quick enough. However he was burned as Joseph Curwen, warlock, and comes back 110 years later as Charles Dexter Ward, his great great grandson to claim his inheritance. Naturally, the townsfolk want nothing to do with him or his wife, even denying him directions to his property.
Only Dr Willetts is willing to point the way to the haunted palace of the title, where they meet Simon Orne, the corpselike caretaker, played by Lon Chaney Jr, credited under his father's name, of course. In case you wonder why Orne would go against his fellows and why the palace is in such good repair when Arkham townsfolk would obviously love to have burned it to the ground, Orne and his colleague Jabez Hutchinson are fellow warlocks, merely awaiting Curwen's return. Now is the time and Ward the means as Curwen gradually takes ownership of his mind and body through the influence of the portrait hanging over the fireplace.
Price could do no wrong at this point in his career, well established as a horror icon and comfortable in a series of pictures for Roger Corman. Not all his films were great ones, but he shone even in lesser pictures like the 1962 Tower of London. Here he gets the opportunity to switch frequently between the Price screen persona of deliciously menacing villainy and something much closer to the real life Price that was cultured, polite and mild mannered. Chaney was always best as a sinister henchman with just a touch of sympathy and the part he has here was perfect for him. Milton Parsons get next to nothing to do as warlock number three.
The townsfolk are solid, though the key speaking roles only get cursory screen time and the mutated offspring are used sparingly. Leo Gordon is one of those names that mean nothing while his imposing figure and voice are easily recognisable. He's solid as Edgar Weeden and his ancestor Ezra. Elisha Cook Jr gets to use his full repertoire of shocked faces as Gideon and Micah Smith, and of course he has plenty of them. As for the ladies, there isn't enough of the delectable Cathie Merchant as the object of Curwen's affections, Hester Tillinghast. Luckily we get plenty of Debra Paget instead, as Ward's wife. She does an excellent job here, getting to be far more than just a screaming victim.
The difference between this one and The Dunwich Terror, which followed it seven years later, is vast and runs far beyond the difference in talent between Roger Corman and Daniel Haller as directors. I wonder if Dean Stockwell ever saw this film: if he did he ought to be ashamed of himself for what he did as Wilbur Whateley. Only Les Baxter comes off unscathed when comparisons are drawn: his score for The Dunwich Terror wasn't bad at all. Everything else pales in comparison to this film, which is a solid first screen adaptation of Lovecraft's work, even if it took serious liberties with the source material.