Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Season of the Witch

The She Beast
d. Michael Reeves, 1966
Starring Barbara Steele, Ian Ogilvy, and John Karlsen

In Communist-era Hungary, a vacationing English couple (Ian Ogilvy and Barbara Steele) find themselves dragged into a supernatural curse from 200 years ago when Veronica is possessed by a witch killed in the 18th century. Unfortunately, the only person able to help John exorcise his wife is a musty old dispossessed descendant of the Van Helsing clan (John Karlsen, who’d later pop up in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure).

            The first Michael Reeves' film I saw, Witchfinder General (a.k.a The Conqueror Worm) was the last one he made before dying at the young age of 25. It’s an epic and effective period horror film, full of amazing performances married to rich visuals. It is one of the few horror films to effectively attack the voyeurism of the crowd without feeling hypocritical.

            And this film is nowhere near that one.

            Now, the DVD Netflix put into my possession is partly to blame. The film has a lot of problems, but they’re exacerbated by an awful print that frequently devolves into a bunch of indistinct blobs, with very poor sound quality. Pity poor Barbara Steele, whose beauty is almost totally invisible. It makes me worry that the rest of Reeves’ films are sitting in a rubbish heap somewhere, rotting away.

            But even if the actual materials were restored, this film would still be problematic. The script is incredibly episodic, with complications and delays inserted into the script to pad it out to feature length. Van Helsing’s acts of incompetence fits his character somewhat, but an endless car chase and comic relief Communist police are just infuriating.

            The shame of it is, there are a few things that hint at Reeves’ talents. The titular she beast, while occasionally ridiculous-looking, has a great concept. Her hideous face and ape-like build, her age belied by furious strength, does make her uncanny. You can see why this woman inspired fear in an entire village. And there a lot of neat little touches, such as a murder timed to coincide with a cock fight.

            But way too little time is spent on the witch and too much time is spent on an arbitrary exorcism process or comic relief. Too bad this makes up half of Reeves’ film oeuvre in print. Hopefully someday we’ll see The Sorcerers, his film with Boris Karloff, in a good print. 
D- for presentation, C- for content
(The link below is supposed to be to a much better transfer supervised by the original producer, in original 'Scope ratio)
The She-Beast
Witchfinder General

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Under construction

Fooling around with new looks for the blog.
In the interim, some recommendations:
Nico's THE END concert album is a pretty damn amazing slice of wintry Nordic depression. You'll probably want to follow it up with something optimistic as a chaser, but it's a great album for a post-hangover mood or a "the holiday is over" feeling.
The End

And maybe that chaser should be Big Boi's recently released Sir Lucious Left Foot... The Son of Chico Dusty, which is a salacious, gleeful and complex glob of funk that I can't stop listening to.
Sir Luscious Left Foot... The Son of Chico Dusty

And if you need a movie that out-actions the summer blockbusters that are finally coming out on DVD, watch The Good, The Bad and The Weird. This Korean kimchee Western is a delicious mix of history, geopolitics, martial arts, gunfights and slapstick, that calls to mind Takashi Miike and Jacques Tati collaborating on an action film.
The Good, the Bad, the Weird

Saturday, November 20, 2010

I hated, hated, hated this movie...

Tim over at Antagony & Ecstasy just posted a review of Song of the South that was calmly reasoned, yet empathetic, dealing with the complexities and problems of race in film in Hollywood's Golden Age. I think he's right about the hypocrisies and blind spots in how and why people decide to whitewash history, and I don't doubt he's right.

However, I had an interesting experience when I sat down to watch The Mask of Fu Manchu, the 1932 version starring Boris Karloff and Myrna Loy. It was just so hateful I just couldn't finish it.

Now, I've watched some films that are notoriously hard to watch (such as Cannibal Holocaust) and I've watched films with bad racial politics (Gone With the Wind). But despite beautiful production design and a wonderfully campy performance by Boris Karloff, I just couldn't watch more than 30 minutes.

Because, in contrast to Song of the South, this is a film bound up in racist ideology, without any sense that anyone involved was trying to do something other than insulting. It is a film that sees miscegenation as more horrifying than any type of torture, that dismisses a variety of cultures and nations as one monolithic evil entity, and indulges in some of the worst "yellowface" casting ever. As far as I watched, there was not one single Asian person in the cast.

And meanwhile, the white "heroes" are such awful assholes and idiots, with no sense that anyone involved thought they are anything but justified. They talk about their servants in the most insulting terms and treat them brutally, and are surprised that they are betrayed! They are aghast at the idea that the Chinese might want Genghis Khan's artifacts for their own use instead of stuck thousands of miles away in the British Museum! They wonder at the glory of an "unplundered tomb" right before they set to destroying and plundering it! There is no irony, no nuance, nothing to betray even a hint that these behaviors are not the white man's right as a superior being.

I certainly don't want it banned, but I'm shocked that this can show on TCM (a channel I admire and watch religiously) without a hint of controversy, while Song of the South remains in limbo. And the next time someone goes on about how we need more movies like in the old days, when men were men and women were women, etc., I'll remember that the era they speak so fondly of also produced filth like this.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


Between finally catching 5 Million Years to Earth (a.k.a Quatermass & the Pit) and watching a ton of Dr. Who, I'm curious as to what the timeline for each franchise (because Quatermass was a franchise, for a short time) and their various successes have to say about British science fiction and popular taste about science-fiction in general.

Hypothesis: The Quatermass series' subject matter is generally the failings of man and nature, and how man's organizations worsen those traits. Dr. Who's subject matter is the wonders of man and nature, and how most problems are best solved by an individual's bravery, compassion and intelligence. So Quatermass' success suggests a period of disillusionment or uncertainty, Who's success suggests an approaching period of optimism and excitement.

Just an idea. Anyone with any opinions on this? I can already see some flaws with the societal interpretations I've suggested, but anyone with a counter-argument about the way I've characterized the two franchises?
Quatermass & The Pit
Quatermass 2
Doctor Who: The Complete Fourth Series
Doctor Who: The Complete Second Series
Doctor Who: The Complete First Series

Thursday, November 11, 2010

"Me? I'm a businessman. You and me are going to do a little business..."

Note: Another old draft I reread and realized was publishable. More new content soon.

Act of Violence (1948; d. Fred Zinneman, starring Van Heflin, Robert Ryan, Janet Leigh and Mary Astor)

I'm a Van Heflin fan. That's kind of an odd thing to say, if only because his filmography, while not undistinguished, is fairly minor. An important supporting role in Shane, a lead in the original 3:10 to Yuma, and a bunch of roles in a mix of mostly forgotten films. However, he was one of the stars of The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (Kirk Douglass' debut! with Barbara Stanwyck), where his unshowy but solid performance provided the whole foundation of the film. Without him, there is no place for Stanwyck and Douglass' neurotic performances to go.

What I loved about his performance in that film is the way he played a tough good guy who is always one bad choice away from becoming a thug. He's got good impulses and empathy, but he usually bristles at the first sign of confrontation, holds onto grudges and loves to play the angles. And these might have served his character well in the army, but in Strange Love they keep pushing him to the edge of criminality.

So I feel vindicated by his performance in this film, where he plays a nice, hard-working family man... with a very dark secret. It's the polar opposite of his role in Strange Love, and he plays it like a craftman, carefully but with no showiness or cheap tricks. The rest of the film is like this, stripped down and sleek, with few frills, but it puts everything in service to the story.

Act of Violence starts with a limping man (Robert Ryan) in a rain-soaked trenchcoat going into his apartment, grabbing his gun and heading straight for the bus depot. He buys a ticket to California,  arriving on Memorial Day in a small town a couple hours outside of LA. He immediately gets a hotel room, ignoring all the festivities, and starts looking in the phonebook for Frank Enley.

Meanwhile, Frank Enley (Van Heflin) is at the dedication of a housing development he helped construct, where his business associates praise his hard work and joke about his distinguished war record.  After the ceremony, Frank, his wife Edith (a young Janet Leigh) and year-old son Georgie head home, where he packs for a weekend fishing trip at the lake with his neighbor Fred (Harry Antrim). He leaves a little bit before the limping man shows up, asking for Frank. Edith tells the stranger that he just left for the lake but he should be back by Monday. So the limping man, gun still concealed in his trenchcoat, sets out for the lake.

Bad timing and Frank's own surprising paranoia keep the limping man away for a day more, but when Frank leaves for a business conference in LA and Edith confronts the limping man, she finds out that Frank's distinguished service in WWII acquired an awful blot while he was in a POW camp and Frank's pursuer is his old army buddy Joe Parkson. As for how Joe got the limp... well, let's just say it's tied to that same POW camp. And by the way, we've still got another hour to go in the film. And we still haven't seen the titular Act of Violence yet...

For a movie that sounds like an '80's action film, Act of Violence is mostly devoted to building tension. Joe's unflagging pursuit of Frank hangs like a cloud over everything, even when Frank doesn't realize he's being chased. The first fifteen to twenty minutes, as we watch Frank barely evade Joe by sheer coincidence, is like a cinematic response to "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God", with doom waiting around every corner, never thwarted, just delayed. 

For a film noir, in fact, this film actually contains a fair amount of moral complexity. It never sinks into the easy nihilism that imitators usually pick up (i.e. everyone's flawed and corrupt). Instead, it shows the crucible of war, where a fundamentally decent man makes an awful decision in a moment of weakness and is punished for it. I don't watch the movie wanting Enley let off the hook (there's a sense throughout that Frank knows he deserves to be punished but is afraid to face that), but Parkson murdering him will not solve anything. In fact, it will just corrupt Parkson. Act of Violence actually manages to find a cathartic way out of this conundrum that doesn't feel cheap or sentimental, but offers a hope of redemption all the same. B+

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

"It's not a screenplay. It's my life." June Film-log

While I was going through and deleting old drafts that were no more than a half-written sentence, I came across these two entries from my June film-log that were in publishable shape.

Popcorn (1991, d. Mark Herrier/Alan Ormsby?) - The release date says '91, but almost every other aspect of this movie screams '80s. A bunch of college students holding a horror movie marathon at an old movie theatre find themselves getting killed by a face-changing maniac. Most of the murders are committed with props from '50s b-movies (think William Castle-themed murders). Reasonably inoffensive, but does nothing both Scream, Darkman and Waxwork did better, with better casts. Alan Ormsby, as screenwriter and possible co-director, proves that Bob Clark deserves most of the credit for their collaborations. I wasn't even interested in finishing it. D

Up (2009, d. Pete Docter) - Don't know what I can add. Great film about an old man & a little kid finding in each other the family they've lost. The first 15 minutes, which elapses with almost no dialogue, has to be the poignant depiction of love and loss I've seen in a while. Personally, I love how the dog henchmen are still dogs underneath it all, down to the suspicion of mailmen. A+

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Department of "Fan" Service, AFI Edition

Dear Tim,
you should know that Aaron Sorkin likes All the President's Men. As in, really, really, really likes All the President's Men. He said that it's a film that you can watch 8 or a dozen times and still find something new every time. So your good taste is shared by one of the luminaries of screenwriting.

No surprise, really, but sometimes validation is a wonderful thing.
Mr. K
P.S. Everyone else, read Mr. Brayton's review of All the President's Men. He really breaks down why the film is amazing in much better ways than I feel capable of.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

AFI: Hearts & Minds, 1900s Edition

AMIGO, directed by John Sayles, 2010
Starring Garret Dillahunt, Chris Cooper, Lucas Neff and DJ Qualls [Although the main characters are actually the Filipino actors who probably won't get any billing on the poster, if this ever gets theatrical release]

In some ways, the story of how Amigo came about is the most interesting part of it. John Sayles has apparently been working on a screenplay about the 1900s for a while, during which he researched the Spanish-American and Filipino-American War.  He eventually realized that his screenplay was way too ambitious to ever get produced, so he decided to change it into a novel. While he was doing some additional research in the Philippines with Joel Torre, who is a famed actor in the Philippines,  he realized he could shoot at least the portion of the story set in the Philippines for a relatively small budget. So with the help of a Filipino poet, he translated portions of it into an obscure dialect of Tagalog while having his Cantonese actors translate the dialogue themselves, hoping they would tell him if the messed up a line. As of now, it has no distribution, so he's hoping that the Filipino community will help build some word-of-mouth.

Now, I don't want to sell Amigo short. It's just that what I just wrote up there sums up, in miniature, the problems of making movies today and the ways that directors are trying to get around those obstacles, such as filming in cheap locations and aiming at niche markets. And yet, it's also an echo of the relationship that Roger Corman (one of Sayles' mentors) had with Filipino director Eddie Romero in the 1960s.

However, I can see why this film currently lacks distribution. It's not a bad film but... well, I'll get to that in a minute.

Because Amigo's actual story is also pretty fascinating. Brief refresher, for people who aren't history buffs: at the end of the 19th century, America declared war on Spain over what are now thought to be dubious causes (such as the sinking of the USS Maine). The US conquered Cuba very quickly and the Spanish surrendered. The Philippines decided that they would revolt, so they would be democratic like Cuba, and the Spanish handed the Philippines over to the Americans, who found themselves in the awkward position of squashing a pro-democracy revolution. The fight between the Americans and the insurrectos dragged on long after the cessation of hostilities in Cuba, and sparked a major debate about American imperialism that included such luminaries as Mark Twain, William Jennings Bryan and Rudyard Kipling.

Of course, Sayles' treatment of the subject only requires you to know that the US is in the Philippines, it's a sideshow to the war in Cuba, and no one quite knows how to handle the natives now that the Spanish have left. When a small unit of American soldiers led by Lieutenant Compton (Dillahunt) set up camp in a rural Filipino village, the village headman Rafael (Joel Torre) has to strike a balance between his village's welfare and the risk of being seen as a collaborator by the insurrectos, whose number includes his brother (Ronnie Lazaro) and his son. All of this, of course, complicated by the communication gap and the long-festering envy and hatred present in any community, no matter how small.

To Sayles' credit, the movie mostly unfolds from Rafael's point-of-view. The American soldiers are definitely the outsiders, an alien element that disrupts a well-established way of life for almost inscrutable reasons. Nor is he romanticizing that way of life. He makes perfectly clear that there were tensions and problems in the community before the Americans came. However, they don't have anywhere near the knowledge or understanding to identify, let alone fix, those problems.

And the movie certainly plays to Sayles' strengths. Both the script and the direction are focused on developing the life of the village, so that, for example, when the soldiers kill the village's water-buffalo, the audience understands the tragic ramifications of this act. The long sequences devoted to the building of a house or the planting of a field help us better understand this world and what is being disrupted (or what could be built).

While Sayles sometimes hits the allegorical elements a little hard (there are more than a few lines about winning hearts and minds or how such-and-such an act isn't "torture"), he does a good job of dramatizing the plight of the village without turning either the guerillas or the American soldiers into mustache-twirling villains. There's one particularly well-edited sequence cutting between Dillahunt's reading of an order and a guerilla proclamation being delivered that drives home the utter impossibility of remaining "neutral" in a conflict where even neutrality is seen as treason. And there are a few clever scenes of Americans giving orders that are translated into cynical asides by their main translator, a disillusioned Spanish priest.

However, the movie has several major flaws. The film is filled with way too many characters, and while we see hints that the actors have done their homework and are inhabiting fully-developed characters, we are rarely privy to anything that proves this. Most of the soldiers are stock war movie cliches, who can be identified as Soldier with a Thing for a Native Girl, The Drunk, The Intellectual, the One With the Clap, the Dutiful Sergeant, and etc. Dillahunt is given a little more to go on, as a man trying his best to be both moral and professional in a situation where neither is possible. And Chris Cooper does manage to give his savage Army colonel a specificity that grounds his cruelty in the real world. Even the villagers, save for Rafael, function more as plot devices or local color than people facing moral dilemnas.

On top of that, Amigo struggles to move out of the idle hangout mode even when a different energy is called for.  When Rafael's two worlds meet for an open shooting war, the movie still maintains a leisurely "let's stay for a while and just watch" quality. The languid feel of the film sometimes works to its advantage, but other times it just makes a two hour film feel much longer.

There are other minor problems as well, such as Sayles' ending, which thematically makes sense but is executed in such a way as to make the viewer feel like Sayles is hammering the point into their head.

So, a noble experiment, but a failed experiment. I hope this signals a new, daring stage in Sayles' career and not a last desperate stab at relevance. Because Amigo inhabits a no-man's-land between the two extremes.
Eight Men Out (20th Anniversary Edition)
Return of the Secaucus 7

Saturday, November 6, 2010

I'm so LA now...

Managed to get some tickets to the AFI Film Fest's events. So tonight I'm seeing John Sayles' new movie Amigo (about the Spanish-American War), tomorrow I'm seeing a Q&A with Aaron Sorkin & a screening of Bergman's Hour of the Wolf, and Tuesday I've got passes to a "Secret Screening", which I'm guessing is  either The Other Side of the Wind or Harry Potter 7.

I'll keep you guys posted.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Film Log: October/Now I have a DVR Edition, Part 1

They Died With Their Boots On (d. Raoul Walsh, 1941) - An Errol Flynn/Olivia DeHavilland swashbuckler, except this one is about William Armstrong Custer. Some of the charm wears off the duo when they're serving a bipolar piece of historical whitewash that simultaneously glorifies the military while trying to be anti-imperialist and anti-big business. This must be the only Civil War film that has ever tried to turn Winfield Scott (played by Sydney Greenstreet) into a hero! The Little Big Horn sequence is well-paced and well-shot, making me wish for a Little Big Horn movie that embraced it as a horror film without dehumanizing the Native Americans. B-

The Prowler (d. Joseph Zito, 1981) - Not to be confused with the Joseph Losey film of the same name starring Van Heflin,  this early 80's slasher film has only two things this film in its favor: Tom Savini effects and a striking costume for the killer. Neither of these are enough to make it worth the 90 minutes you'd spend watching it. And despite the way Farley Granger and Lawrence Tierney are billed, they're barely in it for 5 minutes. Steer clear. D

The Leopard Man (d. Jacques Tourneur, 1943) When a leopard gets loose in the wilderness around a New Mexican resort town, people blame it for a series of shocking murders that strike the town. A couple of wonderfully atmospheric scenes make good use of sound design and expressionist lighting. It really doesn't hold the imagination the way that I Walked With a Zombie does, and the serial killer plot is more notable as a footnote in the history of Hollywood's handling of the subject. Still, enjoyable and only about 75 minutes long. C+

Executive Suite (d. Robert Wise, 1954) - I have no idea how this film is virtually unknown. Fans of Mad Men would love this movie, which examines the power struggles of various executives after the main boss dies, while depicting the executive Man in the Gray Flannel Suit lifestyle in detail. Robert Wise is at his best, opening with a breathtaking long-take from a character's POV. On top of that, there are amazing performances by Walter Pidgeon, Frederic March, William Holden, Barbara Stanwyck, Shelley Winters and Louis Calhern. On top of that, it's got a smart script that's pro-capitalism but smart enough to recognize the problems in it. A film that deals with issues still relevant today but without ever preaching, and, on top of that, well put-together. A-

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Mad Men, 1950s-style...

Watching Robert Wise's Executive Suite (1954), and I get the feeling that Matthew Weiner must have seen this movie at some point. Not to say that Mad Men is ripping it off, just saying that this feels like a source of inspiration.

Also, Nina Foch in this reminds me a little of Joan Holloway, down to the pen hanging in front of her cleavage.