Wednesday, April 16, 2014

the epitome of a decade, a drunken piano-player, and another flawed sequel



Desperately Seeking Susan: (1985. dir: Susan Seidelman) One of the few undisputably totemic movies of the 80s, Desperately Seeking Susan is a major player in that "girls-just-wanna-have-fun", cautiously pre-Lipstick-Feminist movement, and it's the one that redirected Madonna from superstar into movie star. (It's the best role she ever had, because she's playing herself, and using her own wardrobe.) Boasting cameos from '80s cult luminaries Richard Hell, Ann Magnuson, Rockets Redglare, Annie Golden, John Lurie and Stephen Wright, it is the place to go if you're looking to learn anything about the pop culture or aesthetics of that decade. It also, though, has a charming story to tell and an anemic, nascent-but-fetching, pre-Thelma-and-Louise girl-power dynamic. In its original ending, in fact, the Roseanne Arquette and Madonna characters disappear to travel the world together, leaving their respective girl-toys (Aidan Quinn and Robert Joy) pining at the lunch counter, waiting for them to call. It's hard to believe now, but in that pre-Courtney Love era, Madonna was busy redefining sexuality for a generation of girls just coming of age, with her mix of lingerie and men's boxer shorts, her controversial hybrid of Boy-Toy and power-bitch. The scene in which she blow-dries her armpits in the subway station restroom reminds me of a moment in Jane Campion's strange and unforgettable Portrait of a Lady in which the delicate heroine sniffs her own shoe before putting it on, a wonderfully jarring reminder of the earthy pungency of female flesh which so often gets fastidiously obscured onscreen.

Everyone is young and gorgeous, with Quinn never sexier, Arquette never more adorable (did I say this was a feminist venture?), and young versions of John Turturro and Giancarlo Esposito in minor roles, both already fully in charge of presence and charisma. Will Patton is there as a truly slimy villain, but my favorite moment belongs to Laurie Metcalf as a rich woman who catches her brother and her lover comfort-eating in a time of stress and rails at them, "Why don't you take a valium like a normal person?"



Black Angel: (1946. dir: Roy William Neill) It's noir time in Los Angeles, and Dan Duryea is just perfect as a heartbroken drunk of a piano-player scorned into despair by his fatale, estranged wife. Peter Lorre is, likewise, about perfect as the droll, unflappable club-owner who may or may not have murdered aforesaid wife. Alas, that's about it for the perfect. It's based on a Cornell Woolrich book, and so needs to be much darker from the outset. Any Woolrich book is a long descent down a mirthless stairway into hell, as is this one, and the tone Neill sets is much too light to communicate properly the thick, tenebrous heart of the thing. June Vincent fails to fascinate in the female lead, a chanteuse-housewife trying to clear her falsely-accused, two-timing husband's good (well, mediocre) name by teaming up with Duryea to collar the real bad man.

This was director Neill's last venture, having made his name early in cinematic history and found later, steady work helming the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes series. As far as the noir goes, he gets the lighting right, and a certain aloofness of delivery, a certain cold, jadedness of character, but ultimately misses the target by allowing too much metaphorical daylight in through those slanty, noir blinds.



Alien Resurrection: (1997. dir: Jean-Pierre Jeunet) The first Alien movie was one of the best films ever made. The second was a whole different beast, a blockbuster epic adventure, but masterfully done, managing while staying true to the original to expand it into something, if not as great, which is still a rollicking and lasting success. The third, cobbled together like a Frankenstein's monster from various scripts and fallen-away directors, fell into David Fincher's then-cinematically-virgin hands and was an undeniable failure, but an interesting one, with a lousy script, a phenomenal cast, and some interesting choices.

The fourth is another bold failure. Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet (City of Lost Children previously, Amelie afterwards), it imposes his quirk-and-style-over-substance sensibility over a script by a pre-Buffy Joss Whedon. You wouldn't guess it was Joss' without knowing, but once you do know, you can see the Betty as an early sketch of the beloved Firefly-class boat Serenity, as well as the beginnings of Jayne Cobb in Ron Perlman's Johner. (After Ripley tearfully destroys a lab filled with tragic proto-Ripley cloning experiments, Johner is genuinely puzzled over the waste of ammunition: "Huh. Must be a chick thing.")

The point is, when it was over, I thought, "Why is this a bad movie?", since it has much of interest in it. The actors are intriguing (Sigourney Weaver, Michael Wincott, Perlman, Winona Ryder, Brad Dourif, Jeunet staple Dominique Pignon), the story is told in potentially interesting turns. What it lacks, in the end, is any sense that the universe of the film stretches beyond the edges of the screen, beyond the parameters of each scene. It is a conglomeration of set-pieces, with no jarring visual or aural dissonance to pull us out of the production design, and yet the ensemble, for all its talent, never sparks into life. In the first movie, on the Nostromo, there is no question from the first waking moments that the crew-members have previously interacted, with recognized friendships and interpersonal frictions and all the bedevilments which arise from the forced intimacy of long-term space travel. Despite an effort to create it, that's what's missing here. The amities and enmities seem contrived, the interactions lacking that elusive spark of divine fire which would lift an otherwise fair-to-middlin' venture into the realm of the lasting. Because Whedon is involved, it brings to mind the crushing discrepancy between the candescent life of Firefly and the awkward misfire that was its cinematic sequel, Serenity. It's possible that Joss needs the continuity of a series, that he doesn't have the necessary expositionary talents for a two-hour movie. (Alright, Avengers was OK, but we all know much of that stuff already. Nobody needs to have Bruce Banner explained to them; he walks onscreen and even little kids and grandmas know what's up.)

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

jazz noir, a disturbing halloween, and the chronicle of a french revolution


All Night Long: (1962. dir: Basil Dearden) Criterion has lately recognized English director Dearden's groundbreaking work in a series called "London Underground", works which explored and documented London's seamier underside during the fifties and sixties, the shadow London which went unacknowledged by the BBC. Dearden's bolder ventures included the important Dirk Bogarde films the Blue Lamp and Victim, dealing respectively with crime and homosexuality, and Sapphire, which dug into racism and anti-miscegenation.

All Night Long is a portrait of England's jazz community using the plot of Othello to surprisingly good effect. The setting is an all-night jam in honor of the first-year anniversary of esteemed piano-player Aurelius Rex (Paul Harris) and his retired singer-wife Delia (Marti Stevens). As the music and champagne flow, faux-Iago and drummer Johnnie Cousin (Patrick McGoohan) tries to convince Delia to front his new band, and, when that fails, sets up a complex of machinations to break up her marriage. The characters are interesting,and both the photography and performances are good (special mention to Keith Michell as the good-hearted and wronged pot-head band-manager Cass. Michell would a few years later become my own template for the royal wife-killer in one of the very first Masterpiece Theatre productions ever, the Six Wives of Henry VIII). Most surprisingly, the script is a good one, incorporating lingo of the time without becoming slave to it, and tamping the high melodrama down into a jumping pulse building to a believable climax.

On top of it all, the music running constantly behind the action transports you back in time. This is the kind of jam session where a guy who looks like your junior high science teacher sits down at the piano and you realize it's Dave Brubeck, and the cat on bass is called Mingus.



*SPOILER ALERT*

Satan's Little Helper: (2005. dir: Jeff Lieberman) Alternating between the lame, the funny, and the downright disturbing, this ultra-low-budget horror outing is strong on suspense and character, probably leaving behind a good hunk of its natural audience. When the gore came, I found it upsetting. The mime abilities of the mute villain are unsettling. Kathryn Winnick (Lagertha in the Vikings) is already a full-fledged movie star, very good in a difficult role, and Amanda Plummer brings her usual eccentricity to provide the needed depth to the maternal figure. This is a family under siege, and the women have to take charge, although not as successfully as one might like. It's also a satirical statement, not only about the debilitating power which super-desensitizing computer games wield over pliable, young minds, but also about the ready agency which we afford to the clothing a person wears. (It's Halloween, and the little boy believes that the guy dressed like Satan really is him, then the same guy dressed as Jesus really is God, then the same guy dressed as a cop... you get it. It's unsettling.) When this director gets a little money thrown his way, he's a fellow to watch.



Something in the Air: (2012. dir: Olivier Assayas) I get it. It was a brilliant time to be alive and an intellectual, the 60s and early 70s in Paris. Now every French director of an entire generation is making his film about coming of age during that heady time of anarchy in the streets, opium in the pipes, and free love everywhere else. (If you want to have a film festival, see also Phillippe Garrel's Regular Lovers and Bertolucci's the Dreamers.)

The trouble with making a movie based in your own (highly romanticized) experience is that you don't know what to leave out, so all these movies are too long. This one, Apres Mai, to use its original title, is my favorite. I particularly like the ending (very minor spoiler alert here), with the main character moving to London to work as gopher on a film about Nazis fighting dinosaurs.

The good thing about these films is the care that goes into the details. You really do feel you're walking through a different age in France. The bad part is that political anarchist kids are, probably by definition, grossly self-righteous and humourless. (And the kids in the Dreamers are just too smug to be borne. Too damned French, perhaps. I couldn't finish it, so it's possible that life cuts them down to size by the roll of the end credits.) Still, solely in the interest of time travel, these films taken together are a fascinating experience, with occasional, exhilarating highs alleviating the more consistent sense of petty annoyance.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

humoresque: the place is haunted


*SPOILER ALERT*

(1946. dir: Jean Negulesco) Neither Joan Crawford nor Clifford Odets has ever been better. Crawford had just won her Oscar for Mildred Pierce and her role in this one subsequently unfolded from a compact point into a broad canvas. The story is a John Garfield vehicle, heavy melodrama about a young musician and his older patroness, but the script is so vivacious that the thing rarely drags. Odets' humor is as dark here as it ever gets, dark and fast and fizzy, a cynical champagne of a screenplay, and the only times it starts to lag are in the "happy part of the love story" times, because the happy part of a love affair is the hard part to communicate. Plus, Odets doesn't believe in love, which further hampers his course.

The movie's true passion for classical music is fully apparent, and sometimes hypnotic. When Crawford pulls her Anna Karenina at the end, it's set to such a gorgeous piece and so beautifully photographed that you let the Wagnerian Soap Opera angle of it slide.

The other interesting thing (in these Hays Code times) is the despair which Crawford's character feels towards marriage. She's a dame who's been around the block a time or two and knows for a solid fact that Happily Ever After doesn't come after you say "I do", but also knows she's mad for this boy and wants to believe in it, the possibility of building happiness with him. It's that knowledge, that street wisdom, the inability to sustain the necessary illusion, which spells her doom. "Here's to love," she toasts, at the end, quietly, drunkenly, to herself, "and here's to the time we were little girls and no one asked us to marry." She's a nearsighted drunk who goes into physical ecstasy at the sound of Garfield playing his violin, and yet resents the music as the mistress who will always rule first in his heart. It doesn't scan, it's hard to buy, but everything looks and sounds so great, and Garfield and Crawford throw themselves so wholly into it, that you buy it anyway, without carping over the price-tag.

What a fantastic screenplay. Garfield, after the tragedy, is walking on the beach with his piano player. He's weary and wounded, and what momentous thought does Odets give him? "I have to shave. Why do I have to shave every day?" It's so real it hurts.

The Crawford character tells us she spends most of her time doing penance for things she does wrong every day. In one particularly good drunken scene in the bar she frequents, she keeps repeating, "No offence," to everyone, then, when the barman puts his hands on Garfield who's trying to drag her out and she tells him to back off, the guy says, "No offence," and Crawford, with that confused recognition drunkards get, says, "No offence? That's my line, no offence." Almost as good is her line when Garfield walks in to claim her: "Well, what do you know? The place is haunted."

And in his opening speech, Garfield gives us what might as well be the summation of every part he ever played: "All my life I wanted to do the right thing, but it never worked out. I'm outside, always looking in, and feeling all the time that I'm far away from home and where home is I don't know."

He is strangely at his ease as the violin virtuoso ascended to fame and fortune from poor roots. People will tell you that the movie doesn't really start until Crawford shows up, but that's hogwash. It's every bit as easy to lose yourself in Garfield as in Crawford; they're both superstars. This whole movie, in a nutshell, is better than you think it's going to be.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

a revenant scarecrow, a sadistic nazi, and a fraught western triangle


*SPOILER ALERT*

the Dark Night of the Scarecrow: (1981. dir: Frank De Felitta) Television movies were on the whole pretty bad back in the seventies, but there's an infamous handful which transcended their designated medium entirely. The Elizabeth Montgomery Legend of Lizzie Borden is an obvious one, and there's a thing called Bad Ronald which is spoken of with fervor; I never saw it, but from what I can glean, it's about a boy who moves about inside the walls of a house.

Dark Night of the Scarecrow is another such: not a great movie, but one which transcends its budget, trappings, and expectation. It's a revenant vendetta film in which an innocent is wrongly executed, then returns for dark vengeance, generally using farm equipment. Frank De Felitta, who wrote the madly popular blockbuster Audrey Rose, directs. The script is oddly good, and the acting is exemplary, with Larry Drake as the backward victim, and Charles Durning, Lane Smith (one of those guys you'd know if you saw him, and go, "oh, THAT guy,"), Claude Earl Jones and Robert Lyons as the doomed malefactors.

The build-up is gripping, the pay-off is pretty good, and I learned a few things. Like, when you know you're being hunted with murderous intent and you hear someone in the loft of your barn, don't go up there. A few corollaries: don't get your courage out of a bottle, and be careful where you store your wood-chipper. Here's another: when there's heavy machinery bearing down on you in the middle of the night in an abandoned field, don't try and reason with the driver. If he were a reasonable human, he'd be at home asleep, or out having a beer. Just run, alright? One thing about farm equipment is that it doesn't move so quickly. You have a fighting chance, but not if you stand there like an asshole.

Anyway, scarecrows have a high creep factor. I recommend it as a low-key, unpretentious pleasure.



the Fallen Sparrow: (1943. dir: Richard Wallace) A truly dark, claustrophobic and unsettling just-pre-war noir based on a novel by Dorothy B. Hughes, one of the greats of pulp (In a Lonely Place is hers, and, good as the movie is, I prefer the book). We catch up with John Garfield just as he's recovering from having been captured while fighting in the Spanish Civil War and tortured for some time by a sadistic Nazi. He's been in Arizona recuperating, and now he's on his way back to the Big Apple to figure out why his good friend, the man who saved him from his ordeal, has mysteriously died.

The plot points don't quite hang together, and you have to stretch your credulity some. Also, Maureen O'Hara, lovely femme as she is, is just too damn nice and earnest to be the necessary fatale. (In her defense, since this was made while the war was underway, had her character been seen as in league with the Nazis, it would not have played well, and it was probably a directorial decision to strip her character of her traditional fatale-propulsion.) Aside from those quibbles, though, Garfield is completely believable, indeed, mesmerizing, as a tough guy who's been broken by torture then cobbled back together again through sheer moxie and will power, and the lighting is creepy-dark and creepy-good.



Three Violent People: (1956. dir: Rudolph Mate) Well, it's a Western, so there's some violence, yes. I suppose they're including Anne Baxter in the "violent" titular trio along with southern gunslinging brothers Charlton Heston and Tom Tryon, but it's the fifties, so she's not allowed to be truly fierce, except maybe in her love for her man and her baby, and even then she has to exercise some decorum.

It starts out with a John Ford sort of absurdity: the kind of courtship that only happens in an old Hollywood movie, with no dynamic except histrionics and power-struggle, a ridiculous courtship, an impossible courtship. Once that's done, though, we can get on to the real plot, which involves carpetbaggers up against proud, Texan landholders. One of the great weaknesses of the film is that Tryon, although pleasant enough company, is no match for Heston (or, for that matter, for Baxter); the part really called for a Richard Widmark or a Kirk Douglas or, hey, how about a Paul Newman? Tryon's got a sort of Ricky Nelson haircut and this was the age of Elvis, so I'm guessing that's the fan-base they were going for.

One of the best parts is Gilbert Roland, dignified and elegant despite a role in which he must say "chihuahua" over and over. He has a passel of sons, including Robert Blake and (I'm not making this up) Jamie Farr. Elaine Stritch is very good, too, as the madam who spells it right out for Baxter at the beginning, before the wedding, what's going to happen when her man finds out her wicked pre-marital secret, and damned if the madam isn't spot-on correct. It's the fifties, so there's a sudden baby without any sign of pregnancy to disfigure Baxter's tiny little waist, a baby who comes into the world without causing pain or even mussage of hair or makeup, a very polite baby.

You get the idea. There's good stuff here, shuffled in with fifties Hollywood absurdity. Unlike so many other Westerns from the time, though, it manages to triumph over its many flaws.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

five unusual movies: three pretty good, two not so much



Casa de mi Padre: (2012. dir: Matt Piedmont) You gotta love Will Ferrell, even if you don't like Will Ferrell, for his bottomless well of shamelessness and enthusiasm. Even if, like me, you have had minimal exposure to the Mex-ploitation film industry he's sending up, this is still an enjoyable romp. Entirely in Spanish with subtitles, you get everything you'd expect: the asshole yankee DEA agent (Nick Offerman of Parks and Recreation, BRILLIANT), the flamboyant drug-lord and his newly-encroaching rival (Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna, both having way too much fun), along with very funny pokes at magical realism (if nothing else, you have to see the Ferrell character's power animal) and filled to busting with continuity errors, bad timing, film glitches, buckets of blood splashed over slow-motion massacre scenes, subtitles which don't quite match the spoken words, even a scrolling apology from the second-camera assistant about why they couldn't use the fierce coyote-v-jaguar fight footage.

I laughed out loud twice, I think, but the rest of the time I was pleasantly amused.



Afraid of the Dark: (1991. dir: Mark Peploe) This is a low-key but truly harrowing double-story: about a boy going blind while trying to keep a grip on his life, and the same boy sighted but surrounded by blind people. The possibility of bloodshed lies around every corner, and the characters, having been well-written as normal, everyday people, seem terribly vulnerable and trusting. Utterly unconventional without descending into cleverness, chilling without sacrificing heart, and peopled by an astonishingly good cast (James Fox, Fanny Ardant, Paul McGann, Clare Holman, Susan Wooldridge, Robert Stephens, David Thewlis) speaking refreshingly good dialogue, it kept me on the edge of my seat right up to the end.



Deserter: (2002. dir: Martin Huberty) You watch it for Tom Hardy, sure, but it's also an interesting subject: a young Englishman of Romantic sensibilities (Paul Fox who, amazingly, seems NOT to have been spawned by the James/Edward Fox dynastical empire of acting talent) deals with a broken heart by running away to join the French Foreign Legion (La Legion Estrangere. Isn't that gorgeous?) only to find it a gruelling and decidedly unromantic row to hoe. The movie is lit, however, so that everything, --the desert, the medina in Algiers, the barracks, --everything looks beautiful, which you'd think would negate the point a bit, since the point (you'd think) would be the ugliness of reality. That's a red herring, though: really, this is a Hallmark-Movie-of-the-Week thing, designed ultimately to warm the cockles of your heart, convince you that the world is at last safe and warm and that destiny is in your corner, rooting for both your comfort and ultimate joy. That, in the end, all this which looks, at first glance, like chaos actually makes all kinds of sense, the fairy-tale, happily-ever-after, soul-mates-will-find-each-other and God-is-in-His-Heaven kind of sense.

I had hoped to learn some about the Algerian War of Independence, but this is all so simple-minded as to be a little insulting to everyone involved. (I did learn that when De Gaulle announced France would be pulling out and leaving the country to its own devices, the French Foreign Legion took over the airport and was on the verge of instigating a coup, which is interesting.) The worst of it is that there is a late, climactic moment between two great friends, a moment which ought to have been quite devastatingly effective, particularly since Tom Hardy was involved (and he is, as always, lovely in this). But because we are being led delicately by the hand as if children through a war-torn landscape bearing only the vaguest resemblance to anything in the real world, the moment passes without conjuring emotion. Or, anyway, conjuring something so small and un-upsetting that it bears only the vaguest resemblance to true emotion.

Recommended for Hardy completists only.



North Fork: (2003. dir: Michael Polish) An American town in the fifties is about to be drowned beneath a man-made lake. Pairs of men in identical gray business suits are dispersed to disearth the stubborn stragglers to higher ground. Simultaneously, a dying boy dreams his death-hallucination which brings the objects on his night-table to life.

An interesting monochromatic landscape, good cinematography, and a pace set at a daring but exact amble using a veritable battalion of very good actors cannot combat the boatload of whimsy involved, so particularly contrived as to be downright leaden, sinking the movie straight to the bottom where it thumps along, occasionally managing a raised flipper, but never rising into any true sign of life. Too bad. It was an interesting notion.



the Adjustment Bureau: (2011. dir: George Nolfi) A nice love story, care of Philip K Dick. Actually, I suspect much of the Philip K Dick has been filtered out, because it's a little too nice, a little too simple, but you can feel the author's sensibility still honored.

Pretty-boy Congressman David Norris is in the end-run for his Senate bid, and looking like a shoe-in when a frat-boy prank scandal threatens to end his political career for good. I should point out that this early part of the film, an accelerated, bullet-points-only view of his campaign, is masterfully done, giving us just enough to care about the guy, at the same time not hiding his insincere, politician side. (His campaign manager, wonderfully, is Michael Kelly, whom you'll recognize as Doug Stamper from House of Cards.) At this point we are introduced to a team of suited, tied, and hatted Men in Grey who are unknown to our characters but obviously pulling strings to move history in whichever direction suits them, including introducing Norris by apparent accident to Elise, who inspires him to give the speech of his life which puts him back on track to public office.

That's as much plot as I feel comfortable revealing. Suffice to say that Matt Damon and Emily Blunt are a good-time couple to hang out with; I've never enjoyed Damon's company so much. True, they do spend too much time running up endless staircases and opening doors onto terraces they just left, -- call it Philip K Dick, Escher-like, labyrinthine padding, --and the ending is far too tidy. Still, speaking as (on the whole) not-a-fan of romantic movies, this was my favorite in a long time.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

destination tokyo: yanks in wartime


(1943. dir: Delmer Daves) It's a top-secret, ridiculously dangerous submarine mission which will take our heroes right into the heart of Tokyo Bay, running reconnaissance for what we now call the Doolittle Raid. The sub itself seems strangely roomy, and the men on it are largely good-hearted rascals mixed in with sober, milk-fed Kansas boys still learning what they're capable of. Cary Grant is the well-loved, stalwart captain. He tells stories not about courage under fire but about taking his little boy in for his first haircut and how he met his beloved wife on a blind date. John Garfield carries around a dame-shaped doll and tells endless tall tales about his adventures picking up gorgeous gals while on furlough.

There's a prolonged depth-charge attack, a "Nip" carrier cut in two by torpedoes bearing cheeky Yank graffiti, an emergency appendectomy performed with kitchen utensils by a kid who's taken a few pharmacology classes, a beloved crew-member treacherously knifed in the back while rescuing the pilot of a fallen Zero. This last affords Cary Grant with an opportunity to hold forth on how while good Americans give our five-year-olds roller-skates to play with, the Japanese give lethal weapons to boys of the same age, whole generations being raised for nothing but warfare and hatred. The speech is startling to hear today; substitute the word "Islamist" for "Jap" and history looks like a neverending circle.

Because it was made while the war was still on, there's no self-knowing slyness, no doubt about God or democracy that is not firmly and readily quashed. The jokes are corny and you're fair certain even in the worst darkness of explosions and spraying water that all will come out well in the end for our intrepid man-boys, but it's Delmer Daves' premier foray at the helm, he has something to prove, and, all in all, does so.

I love John Garfield best when his eyes are darkening with the realization of betrayal, his face relaxing into the "you got me again" sardonic smile, and there's none of that here. He is what he is: he knows he's been chosen for the most dangerous mission because he's got "a strong back, strong arms, and a weak head." He and Grant both take some borderline unbearable lines and make, if not real gemstones, then a fair facsimile of enthusiastic zircon out of them, and that makes this movie worthwhile. Just know what you're getting into: not only is it not for the post-modern, blase and jaded mindset, it is also absolutely incompatible with modern-day political correctness.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

an uninspired count, a ghost story, and a family scandal


Dario Argento's Dracula: (2012. dir: Dario Argento) You can see it's him, that it's Argentino-ish, anyway, see it from the colors and extreme lighting (in this case, though, oddly flat and bright), and from the naked girls, including naked Asia Argento. But where's the master? I always thought even bad Argento was interesting (see Phantom of the Opera for some truly twisted imaginings), but this is just bad. It looks like he was filming a fairy tale for television, along the lines of Once Upon a Time, for example, except that the script is not good enough. (You heard me. Let that notion settle and simmer in your mind for a spell.) This script reads like it was written by someone who barely speaks English, and so is telling the bare-bones story with no subtlety, no grace, no elision. And, alright, the story of the bloodsucking Count is one that we KNOW already. We don't NEED the scene in which Van Helsing sits down with Mina and says, "The Count doesn't just drink blood, he changes his prey into creatures like himself..." We KNOW that. Just SHOW us things, alright? Didn't Argento used to be kind of a king in the realm of just showing us things from angles we never dreamt? or am I misremembering that?

On top of it all, the sound is awful, with bad dubbing throughout. It looks like it was made for television, with slow fades at commercial breaks. Even Thomas Kretschmann as the Count doesn't quite work. All those mad skills and charisma and even he needed something more: a script, yes, but maybe just some gothic trappings, some nice, mysterious lighting, perhaps, without which he's paddleless up a pretty fearsome creek. The music is nice and just-this-side of kitsch, using theremin and gypsy violins, but even that is not well-integrated.

On the other hand, how about that praying mantis, huh? Atta boy, Dario.



the Gift: (2000. dir: Sam Raimi) An old-fashioned ghost story done with easy, old-fashioned unfolding by Sam Raimi, with atmosphere to spare and a cast so great that they'll leave you sputtering with admiration. There's Cate Blanchett, amazing as usual, but also Giovanni Ribisi and Greg Kinnear, both of whom give stunningly good performances. Then there's Hillary Swank in a smaller role, and downright perfection as a downtrodden victim with a malevolent streak. Look at the way she walks, the way she hunch-shouldered sidles up to the woman she wants something from, stands too close, talks too quietly and insistently, manages to erase the presence of anyone else in the room. Really outstanding. Kim Dickens (Deadwood and Treme) also manages to demonstrate both chops and personality even in her do-nothing, I'm-a-plot-device, expositionary role.

Raimi uses a quiet, ambling pace, allowing the tension to build itself, and quaint old fade-outs at scene ends, which, God knows why, work well here. The story is a good one; the characters are good; the script is just good enough, and therein lies the rub. In the end, alas, we are asked to swallow too much, and so come away dissatisfied. Until then, though, it's really a nice ride.



the Stories We Tell: (2013. dir: Sarah Polley) I try to avoid documentaries people make about their own families. Generally they're using the camera as a weapon to get revenge on old grampa, or the people are awkward in front of it, whatever. But, just as even someone like me who hates weddings enjoys going to actors' weddings (because they understand the importance of timing, humor, dynamics, bold choices, and moving the damn thing along), Sarah Polley's family are a different kettle of fish, a family of performers. Her parents (well, "parents", in quotation marks, I guess) were actors and the kids tend towards a great, perhaps inherited, sense of showmanship. In short, they're a good time to hang out with. The great family "scandal" is not shrugged off, but also has good humor tossed its way along with some painful honesty. Polley has shaped things well and unapologetically, and provides both major parties involved wtih a good platform upon which to speak their individual pieces. The result is both interesting and surprisingly enjoyable.