Wednesday, February 25, 2015

black and white double feature: a place of one's own and the search for beauty

a Place of One's Own: (1945. dir: Bernard Knowles) Knowles began as Hitchcock's pre-Hollywood cinematographer, and this was his first jaunt in the director's chair.

James Mason plays thirty years older than his true age, and does it with a certain Johnny-Deppian glee, and without a hitch or a falter. This is a ghost story, but plays out like an old parlor-play or chamber-piece, with the servants ducking in upon occasion to act as a Greek chorus, providing exposition and letting us in on the mood of the house. Mason and (also artificially aged) Barbara Mullen shine unfailingly as the unlucky couple who have retired to a haunted house, but Margaret Lockwood, a big star in Britain at the time, gets clumsy with the kabuki over-emoting and nearly ruins the piece. Well, the piece is so slowly-paced that it really ruins itself; she helps it along towards its inevitable failure.

It doesn't hold a candle to the Uninvited, another British ghost story from the same period. This one is like a short story stretched to try and fit across a novel-sized frame, with the same dull conversation about whether ghosts exist repeated as a sort of coda, just to fill the time. Its twist-ending, when it comes, is not sufficiently impressive to justify the build-up. Its best moments are when Mullen is watching the ghost (which we sometimes hear but never see); she is so entirely convincing that one can almost see the phantom reflected in her eyes, and these are the only chilling moments the film has to offer.

the Search for Beauty: (1934. dir: Erle C. Kenton) An early vehicle for Ida Lupino (when she was still blond and English) and Buster Crabbe (with the day's equivalent of a Schwarzenegger physique) about a shyster trio who want to cash in on the sex appeal of Olympian superstars to make a million bucks under the thin veneer of respectability offered by a "health and exercise" campaign. The film itself, pre-Hays and cheese/beefcake focused, achieves some inspired moments of levity with its skipping dialogue and the wonderful powers of reaction owned by James Gleason, a veteran of the Spanish-American War, then of the stage, then a frequenter of the backlot from the earliest times of Hollywood. Mostly, though, it's about healthy young bodies parading around wearing very little.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

the guest: bravo

(2014. dir: Adam Wingard) I don't have a ten-best list for 2014 (because I went to the cinema exactly two times all year), but if I did, this would be on it. This film is great from the opening: we see, from behind, a guy running, then a title card drops in against a very effectively ominous strain of music, then cut to another great shot, a pumpkinheaded witch-scarecrow, beautifully framed, with a quiet, parental voice over it asking someone if they're ready. It never lags, either, this film; every detail is spot-on, right to the end. The music is especially lovingly chosen, and the sound is awesomely good, as in a moment when a distant thunderclap, just barely registered consciously by the audience, emphasizes a direful facial expression.

It's an old story. A stranger ingratiates himself into a household and, one by one, wins the trust of each family member, until some trifle slips and someone gets wise. This version is just better told than most. Even in the end, when it inevitably descends into shoot-em-up, it's such wonderfully well-filmed and well-edited shoot-em-up that it still works, and I don't remember the last time I was able to say that about a gunfire scene. (Yes, I do. It was the Lone Ranger, which you still ought to see.)

Dan Stevens gets my Oscar as the enigmatic stranger, equal parts corn-fed Kansas boy and psycho-robot Kansas boy. It is as self-assured a performance as you'll see. The scene towards the end when he realizes that the daughter of the house (Maika Monroe, channeling Kate Hudson to very good effect) has fooled him with the army boots, and a slow grin crosses his face while he lets his head fall sideways, as if he's falling a little bit in love, is just plain one of the best moments I've seen in a very long time.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

the visitor: he jodorowskies, he misses!


(1979. dir: Michael J. Paradise) In his interview in the extras, Lance Henriksen says he thinks the explanation for this welter of confusion (or camp-classic, depending on your perspective) is that the Italian director had worked for Fellini and was attempting his own "Fellini", landing wide of the mark. I see no Fellini here: I think he was trying to "Jodorowsky", and missing by a country mile.

You've got Franco Nero in book-end appearances as a Christ-like teacher/storyteller. You've got roomfuls of pale skinheads, some of them kids, some young adults. You've got an exploding basketball which throws an important game to Atlanta. A woman with alien DNA who gives birth to super-mutant children. A bad-seed evil mutant girl who bears a resemblance to the young Linda Blair (even wearing her satin jacket from Roller Boogie) and keeps an attack-kestrel named Squeaky as a pet. She gets a toy bird from her aunt as a birthday gift but it morphs inside the box into a handgun with which she shoots her mom, then she does gymnastics while her mom is undergoing life-or-death surgery.

You have opaque cubes filled with moving silhouettes on top of a building; John Huston walks amongst them, looking regal. You have Sam Peckinpah as a philanthropist doctor who saves the world by performing an abortion. Lance Henriksen as an evil basketball magnate (what? who's ever heard of those?) and Mel Ferrer as the ringleader of the evil aliens who are apparently trying to take down the world. Glenn Ford is a cop who has his eye taken out by Squeaky while he's driving and ends up in a ball of flame. Shelley Winters is a housekeeper-slash-spiritual-sentinel, who holds her own against the devil-spawn child and tolls the death-knell for poor Squeaky after he turns into a hawk and attacks the mom.

The mom has been paralyzed by the gunshot, but adjusts to life in a wheelchair with remarkable rapidity, managing to move around, remain stunningly dressed and maquillaged without assistance, still drives a car and manages to climb in and out on her own, somehow folding the wheelchair and depositing it neatly in back before doing so. The best part may be a battle in a mall ice-rink in which the demon-child takes on a thuggish band of teenaged boys, making short work of them in the time it takes John Huston to walk down an endless flight of stairs. There's another showdown, between Huston and the little girl, amidst funhouse mirrors ala the Lady from Shanghai, and, not surprisingly, it's nowhere near as gripping as the original.

In the climactic scenes, John Huston orchestrates a groovy light-show in the skies which culminates in an army of pigeons who take vengeance on the little girl, while the basketball magnate gets skewered by a flying metal bird-sculpture.

I've left out some psychedelia and some chase scenes, some talking and a lot of hyperventilating, but you get the gist. It's quintessential seventies; check out the haircuts! Yes, I've given away a ton of spoilers, but "spoilers" is a misnomer here. The point is not enjoying the unfolding of the plot, because there is no "plot" in the sense of a cohesive, logical story-progression. This is meant as a double-bill alongside something like Look What's Happened to Rosemary's Baby. You get baked with your friends and laugh at it.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

alien invasion triple feature

the Faculty: (1998. dir: Robert Rodriguez) ... in which Rodriguez gives us the best high school movie ever. Like the Breakfast Club, only without the suckage, and on steroids.

The kids at Herrington High come slowly to realize that their teachers have been infected by an alien entity, and, as traditional in the genre, neither parents nor cops can be trusted to set it right; they have to do it themselves. The cast is great, both students and faculty. Robert Patrick has a blast as the football coach, Josh Hartnett shows off his youthful mastery as the flunking genius drug-dealer, Jon Stewart is the geeky science teacher with a crush on the school nurse (Salma Hayek, weirdly underused), Clea DuVall plays the Ally Sheedy character, only way better. Bebe Neuwirth takes a couple of killer scenes to town as the principal. The only real downside is the silly endcap in which the school loser (Elijah Wood) winds up sucking face with the overachieving cheer-queen (Jordana Brewster, who inexplicably gets the high billing). Also, Famke Janssen is disappointingly overwhelmed, faced with playing a neurotic introvert.

Slither: (2006. dir: James Gunn) Taking it's pleasure Schadenfreude-style via the road of total gross-out, this alien-invasion venture is both way too disgusting and has too much gratuitous cussing to succeed at becoming the Tremors-like funfest it would like to be. The cast is great, the production values excellent, and if you watch the extras, you can tell everyone had a big party making the thing. (It seems that, unsurprisingly, Nathan Fillion is a barrel of laughs to work with.) The alien "makeup" -- can you call it that when it takes up a whole room? -- is fantastic; Michael Rooker suffers a wonderful, uber-grody metamorphosis, but it's all just so endlessly disgusting that you shut off after a spell.

Still, if you have a high tolerance for the cussin' and the gross, this is your evening pleasure. Gunn is the fellow who wrote and directed Guardians of the Galaxy, so you can be sure he knows how to make you laugh. And definitely watch the "Who is Bill Pardy?" extra afterwards.

the UFO Incident: (1975. dir: Richard A. Colla) This is another of those rare '70s television movies that was actually very good. Based on the first modern tale of alien abduction, the story of Betty and Barney Hill, an interracial couple in middle-class Massachusetts who lost time on a night-time drive down a lonely road and woke to find their lives changed, it is so well-acted by James Earl Jones and Estelle Parsons that one forgives the rubbery looking aliens.

The Hills become depressed and paranoid after their evening of strangeness and eventually go to a psychiatrist who performs the first of the now-familiar regressions to retrieve lost memories. It is Jones' performance while under hypnosis and reliving his abduction that is a truly riveting scene; man, what an actor.

When I watched it as a child I wanted only the alien story, which, by the way, is very well written, moving back and forth in time and memory gracefully, giving us clues and hints ("Silly dog. Why are you barking at the moon?") which build our suspense with perfect timing. The other half of the story, though, is the relationship between the Hills, and this I found dull and frustrating at the time. In retrospect I see that it would have been groundbreaking stuff for its day, and this may have been the filmmaker's primary motivation behind the project. Certainly it's far more compelling than any of the old Guess Who's Coming to Dinner crap. This is a loving couple whose relations are already tested by the strain of the societal gaze, who undergo something undescribable, something which must remain secret, a metaphorical Journey into the Underworld, and we are watching them pick their uncertain way back into the light. In the meantime, we watch a white woman and a black man just being married, something which I'm guessing hadn't much happened in television or even on the movie screen back then, not with any sort of realism. Leave it to science fiction: it's always easier to sneak a political or socially fraught message into the living rooms of suburban America via a genre piece, as Star Trek well knew, than through flat-out. undisguised drama.

For students of the Fortean, it is required viewing.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

stephen mchattie double feature: pontypool and death valley

Pontypool: (2008. dir: Bruce McDonald) What if a virus could take refuge within a language, hide there and transmit itself through specific words? What do you do if you're the disc jockey on a radio station when the English language becomes its chosen method of transmission? McHattie plays radio shock-jock Grant Mazzy, recently shuttled out of the mainstream and into the Canadian hinterlands after offending the wrong people. It's early morning, the world is socked in with snowstorm, he makes it to work at his new podunk job, accompanied only by his producer (Lisa Houle) and a young engineer recently returned from service in Afghanistan (Georgina Reilly). After the usual struggles in the first part of the morning, things start to get weird.

It's a strange, bold idea, and early on it builds some terror by refusing to show us the horrors. We hear them described (masterfully) by the guy in the "weather copter", and then, in one instance, we watch a poster of Mazzy's face on the wall in skewed Dutch angle as we listen to a murder being committed just off-screen. McHattie and Houle, Canadian actors long married, work well together and give the piece a certain necessary cohesion even after its script has begun to fall apart. Before the end, it gets twisted up in its metaphors and chokes fatally on its own pretensions, but the two leads are so good we keep caring. The last moment before the credits is inspired. Then there's some silliness following the credits which must have been an inside joke. Anyway, I didn't get it.

Death Valley: (1982. dir: Dick Richards) This is a weird-assed little movie. It begins in an eastern city, with Billy (Peter Billingsley, he of the coke-bottle lenses in Christmas Story) spending a day of culture with his dad (Edward Herrmann): they play chess, visit museums, then make a tearful farewell. His mother has a new man in the Southwest, and he is off for a vacation in Death Valley. A plot which initially seems to be heading into "how will the new stepdad win the kid's affection?" country runs sideways into la-la-land when Billy steals a necklace from an RV which turns out to be a murder site, then sees the pendant's exact double around the neck of a waiter (McHattie), then reports this to the Sheriff (Wilfred Brimley, who might as well be Billingsley grown older)... and weird pieces of chaos follow, one after another, without making a whole lot of sense, but without seeming to care much about making sense, either, which somehow makes it more acceptable.

The reason to watch it, the one reason, is McHattie. He's given a lot of leeway with the improvisation, and he makes it great. The scene in which young Billy locks himself in the motel bathroom and bad hombre McHattie breaks him out by removing the moulding from around the door, all the while making light banter with the boy, is the kind of inspired that drags a bad movie upward a couple of pegs, a thing for which this actor is known. Once the boy escapes and runs to hide by the pool, just the way his predator prowls around it, calmly tracking, is beautiful to watch. Then McHattie improvises a whole bit while driving, including a rendition of "Billy Boy", and it all builds up to his dance on the rooftop: "I'm dancing on the roof, daddy, and there ain't nothing you can do about it!"

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

sensitive tough guys: a double feature

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit: (2014. dir: Kenneth Branagh) This ought to have been a success. Chris Pine is good, Keira Knightley is good, Branagh is good as the Russian heavy facing his mortality, Costner is good in his mentor role. There are some lovely images: Branagh's Cheverin contemplating the Russian cavalry taking the French eagle at Austerlitz is a beautiful moment. When Pine's Ryan barely escapes a brutal assassination attempt and meets Costner for debriefing at a bus-stop, Costner's sad gentleness is sublime. And, after a convincing flirtation between Knightley and Branagh, the moment when he realizes he's been played, the expression into which his face falls, like a man turning into a stone golem, is one for the ages. Cheverin's moment of death is played out gracefully, too. It's almost as if Branagh wanted to direct the film because his interest lay in the poetry of this one character, this one mass of contradictions, poet and killer. It comes off, though, as if he didn't get to make the film he wanted to, only succeeding in vague, melancholy gestures towards what might have been.

That's not the biggest reason, though, that this is a failed project. It fails because it follows The Formula. As usual, you've got the vapid teal and orange color-scheme. You've got the shaky cam, which is always more annoying for me when the acting is good, when you're fair certain that if the camera were sitting still and showing you what the actors were doing, it might be quite interesting, but you'll never know for sure. There are extreme plot-turns and, more distancingly, such narrow windows of time in which the characters may accomplish their ridiculously impossible tasks that you subconsciously stop caring, since it doesn't have anything to do with the real world. You've got the requisite chase scenes: there he goes on a motorcycle, there he goes in a police van. Bet he'll end up in the river. Sorry. Did I give something away?

the Watcher: (2000. dir: Joe Charbinic) Another of those cerebral duels between a serial killer and his hunter. (If they happened half as often in life as they do on our screens, the world would be impossible to live in.) James Spader digs deep and finds gold as the disintegrating cop who has abandoned the dance to dissolve in the acid of his own guilt and remorse; Keanu Reeves is ridiculously miscast as the whimsical maniac. A scene to which the director returns, as if he wants it to be a centerpiece, is one in which Reeves does a sort of dark victory dance at the site of his final hurrah, and it is fatally marred because (one assumes) Reeves can't dance, and therefore the camera and the editor must skirt around its edges, draining away any emotional punch it might have carried.

Charbinic would have ruined it, anyway. He is one of those musical-montage directors; I suspect what he really wanted was to direct music videos, as that's the cheap aesthetic he brings to the piece. When we are watching through the killer's eyes, all brightness is drained from the colors, and he breathes like Darth Vader. There is also a sort of stop-motion effect Charbinic tosses into the mix, sometimes during chase scenes, probably meant to lend a hypnotic air, but instead resulting in a strobe-like distancing, and the last thing we need is further emotional distance, believe me. We have plenty already.

Spader is the one good thing about this movie. Oh, and Chris Ellis as the sidekick cop, an excellent secondary role, and he takes it to town.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

tough guys: a triple feature

Thief: (1981. dir: Michael Mann) There is magic in this. Mann somehow makes even the darkness bright and shiny; it's hypnotically beautiful without feeling contrived (contrived ala Miami Vice, I mean). The cinematography is breathtaking. Who will ever forget the angle of perspective when Robert Prosky is giving his last, terrifying, damning tirade at the prone Caan? or the mesmeric force of the sparks from the machinery as the heists are performed?

I can't fault the performances, either, but the weakness of the film is that I don't give a crap about any of these people. Caan's courtship of Tuesday Weld is supposed to be endearing in its ultra-toughness, I suppose, but it's only absurd. Weld gives it a game try but her character is a plot device, a mere symbol of a single aspect of the American Dream, as is the baby, purchased like a commodity, a baby silent and trouble-free. When Caan orders Weld to set out on her new life without packing anything, I wanted to laugh. With a newborn child? Have you ever tried to go ANYWHERE with a baby, even just up the street, without packing anything?

So the downside is that I didn't give a crap about these folks; the upside is that even in spite of that, I was electrified by the finale, when Caan reboots his inner robot and takes ruthless control. There's a shot of Prosky, waiting half-hidden behind furniture with a gun in his hand, silent and ready, that was just about as perfect as a shot can be.

He Ran All the Way: (1951. dir: John Berry) My expectations were high for this. It was John Garfield's last picture: blacklisted for his leftist politics, hounded by McCarthy and refusing to turn rat, his heart gave out at the age of 39.

This is the story of a young hood (Garfield is too old for the part, but he excels in boyishness) whose tragedy is that he cannot trust. The beginning is wonderful: we watch as Nick Robey is tormented by nightmares in his tiny brownstone bedroom, then tormented by his blousy, drunken mother (Gladys George). Out on the street, he is accosted by a weaselly bad guy (Norman Lloyd) who conscripts him into a payroll robbery. Robey protests, tries to tell his nightmare, keeps repeating that he knows he has no luck that day, that they should wait. It's a wonderful set-up, like a baleful prophecy, setting the doomed tone for the rest of the picture.

Like clockwork, best-laid plans implode, and in the aftermath of the fouled-up heist Robey ends up getting his hooks into Peggy (Shelly Winters), who takes him home to meet the family. For the next few hours, everything slowly goes south, as southward as possible, as you'd imagine in a John Garfield crime noir. Every mistake he makes, the script makes it clear, is because he does not know when, or, indeed, how to trust. He's been so battered around by everyone in his formative years that he has no firmament on which to stand, and feels he must take everything by force.

The bulk of the picture unfolds in the family's apartment, and it's a decent unfolding. Unfortunately, it's too easy to project what you know of Garfield's real life onto the picture, and feel his paranoia too acutely to enjoy it. It's gorgeously shot, of course, by James Wong Howe: from the early moment when we see Garfield waiting to attack the payroll guard, half his face in shadow, the other sweating in full light, to his last stagger in the water-filled gutter, nobody ever shot anything better than Howe did. Howe and Garfield work beautifully together to show us a boy tormented by doubt, and consequently, by hopes: look at his face in the back as Shelly Winters tells her father she is going away with Robey, a face torn between incredulous hope and cynical dread, or the climactic trip down the staircase, masterfully shot, while Garfield gives in entirely to his lower nature, forcing her at gunpoint before him, barking, "Garbage! Garbage!"

It's a good movie, but hard, in context, to enjoy.

the Lusty Men: (1952. dir: Nicholas Ray) This is Ray's rodeo movie, and it's a good one, if you use it for that purpose. By that I mean that if your heart jumps in anticipation when you read the words "rodeo movie", then you'll like it. It's got a lot of footage of the sport itself, some cameos by real names from the day, and a convincing feel for what the "circuit" might have been like back then.

As far as the women are concerned, it's not just another slog through the misogyny that was the '50s. I mean, it is, but it spends some time examining it. This is a place where Susan Hayward has to settle for being spunky and feisty in her hard-fought stand-by-her-man because she's simply not allowed a second choice. We hear her cooking complimented several times, and we watch her doing housework and fighting a no-account buckle-bunny for rights to her man's attentions. He is a burgeoning rodeo star played by Arthur Kennedy, an actor who somehow manages always to seem a little untrustworthy, no matter how clean they scrub him behind the ears, and the older cowboy who takes him under his wing is the far sexier Robert Mitchum in a role that's just as untrustworthy. (After Hayward opens up to Mitchum --about how she's going to stand by her man, of course, --he watches her go with a certain Mitchum dreamy-eyed quality, then muses to his hoss about why men always prefer a redhead, since they all have such hellion tempers? Gawd.)

Still, Hayward's character is full and real, and she makes it clear that, springing from a family of migrant workers, there was only one choice she was ever allowed in her life, and that was who she'd marry. She took her time and made it carefully, but she was fooled into thinking he really meant what he said when they were courting. There are other women around the rodeo: mostly wives, torn between worrying about their husbands knocking their heads open and where the next day's groceries are coming from. There's one particularly strong and unusual woman: Maria Hart plays a trick-rider who, although locked out of the main competitions, has created her own niche on the circuit.

It's not a bad movie; it's a good one. Even so, I'm grumpy. It's not Ray or this movie I hate; it's the fifties in America. What a godawful time.

The best moment in the whole shebang belongs to Mitchum, naturally. It's his last and it's filmed particularly well.