Thursday, October 30, 2008
Since a political election is coming up I thought it would be interesting to review a movie or documentary involving politics (see I try to keep this blog topical).
I don't know of any documentary made about Barack Obama, and if did I honestly wouldn't want to watch it. The same goes for John McCain. But I remember hearing about "An Unreasonable Man" last year. Only now did I rent it.
First I suppose I should offer something of a disclosure. Ralph Nader is one of my political heroes. I believe in all the causes he has fought for in his long career as a consumer advocate. I feel he belongs in a class with my other heroes such as Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson (I admire Johnson's "Great Society" programs, not so much his decision to get involved in Vietnam).
Having confessed all that, it would seem like "An Unreasonable Man" would simply be preaching to the choir in my case. However, don't jump ahead of yourself. This is not a love letter to Ralph Nader. As is usually the case with Nader he allows other, dissenting voices to be heard. He doesn't shy away from a challenge. Of course, in fairness, who knows if that was really his decision or the filmmakers; Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan.
"An Unreasonable Man" has a little something for everyone. If you admire the work Nader has done, he is responsible for public auto safety. Does your car have a seat belt? Airbags? Repeat after me; "thank you Ralph Nader." Ever hear of the "clean air act"? The "clean water act"? Or the "freedom of information act"? Those are some of Mr. Nader's accomplishments. If you don't like Mr. Nader, don't fret. Much attention is paid to his involvement in the 2000 election. Probably what Mr. Nader is known for most by younger generations and hateful Liberals.
For some reason this surprised me. "An Unreasonable Man" is right down the middle. The documentary doesn't exist in its own world. It realizes some people don't like Mr. Nader and their voices, which unquestionably reflect great numbers, are heard.
Strangely though that my lead to "An Unreasonable Man"'s downfall. So much time is given to the haters it takes away from more time being spent discussing Nader's personal life.
If you know a lot about Mr. Nader, much of what is presented here will be known to you. The first half of the documentary tells us about Nader's fight with the auto industry and his book, "Unsafe at any Speed". And how GM tried to smear him in an attempt to get him to back off auto safety.
Much of that is interesting. I personally wasn't aware of the blackmail attempts. But what I wish was discussed further was Nader's childhood. This is briefly touched. Nader talks about how his father came over to America and the discussions they would have at the breakfast table. Politics was always the focal point. His father would present him and his sisters with "problems", like thinking up a way to enhance parking on busy streets, and to be ready at dinner time with a solution. Stuff like that is interesting. It reveals how Nader became who he is. More of that was needed.
This was the first film for both of the directors. Steve Skrovan is actually a comedy writer. He has written some episodes of "Everybody Loves Raymond" and "Seinfeld", while Henriette Mantel, who use to work for Nader, was a stand-up comic. They are an unlikely pair to make a documentary on Nader. But they do an admirable job.
In the end "An Unreasonable Man" presents Nader as a maverick (now where have I heard that word before?). A crusader who has always fought for the little guy. He has been guided not by greed but by his own moral compass. He does what he feels is right. Others contend his ego drives him but did not everyone benefit from seat belts?
For those unaware Mr. Nader is running again for President on the Independent ticket. This documentary shows how capable of a leader he could be (hint, hint). Hopefully in time Mr. Nader will be fully appreciated for all the work he has done for this country. It is debatable, but you could say he has done more for this country than some presidents. That should not be forgotten.
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
Sometimes you will watch a movie that is so bad you want to take the DVD out and smash it into tiny pieces or take out the VHS and burn the film. That is how I felt watching this movie but I couldn't do either of those things because I rented the movie.
"The Last House on the Left" was written and directed by Wes Craven. It marked his debut. Most of my readers may know Wes Craven through his "Nightmare on Elm Street" series. Or possibly his "Scream" films (there is supposedly a fourth on the way). But after watching this piece of garbage (I refuse to refer to this as a "movie", "film" or "picture") I cannot, for the life of me, understand how Craven was ever able to make another movie again. Why would someone want to invest in one of his projects after watching this?
The plot of this piece of garbage revolves around two young girls; Mari (Sandra Cassell) and Phyllis (Lucy Grantham). They go to a rock concert in a bad neighborhood. They approach a young man, Junior (Marc Sheffler) who they think might be able to help them score some grass (and I'm not talking about for planting). Junior tells them both to come up to his room where three other people are in his apartment; his father, Krug (David Hess), his girlfriend (?) Sadie (Jeramie Rain) and "Weasel" (Fred J. Lincoln). They have all just escaped from prison. They kidnap the girls, beat and rape them and finally kill them.
Meanwhile Mari's parents, a doctor (Richard Towers) and his wife (Cynthia Carr) have called the sheriff (Marshall Anker) and his deputy (Martin Kove) to help find their daughter and her friend.
As it turns out the gang of thugs are actually just across the street from where Mari lives. After the gang kills the girls and their car brakes down, they stop into the girl's parents' house seeking shelter. Not knowing who these people really are. Once the father does find out who they are he kills them one by one.
Some of you may think I've just revealed too much. Not really. I'll explain why. This story was actually based on another film, Ingmar Bergman's "The Virgin Spring", which won an Oscar for best foreign language film. If I had merely said the film is based on Bergman's movie, anyone who has seen it would have already known everything I just described without me saying another word. So I don't feel I have spoiled anything.
The Bergman film is not one of my favorites of his films. But, compared to this movie it is the single greatest film ever made in the history of cinema. Another movie came to mind as I watched "The Last House on the Left". Michael Haneke's "Funny Games" a movie about two young punks who torture a family for no reason at all other than the "fun" of it. That movie however was a least trying to make a social point. This piece of garbage isn't.
Now on paper this piece of garbage may sound like it could make a good horror movie. And I agree. I did rent it after all for a reason. But everything about "The Last House on the Left" is disappointing. Nothing in Craven's weak and pathetic script works.
My first problem with this piece of garbage is the script. No one in this movie speaks the way real people speak. It sounds phony. The sheriff character and his deputy say their lines with a fake southern accent. The script is also extremely dated. This piece of garbage was released in 1972 and the characters say things like "groovy man" and "yeah man". This becomes laughable. In the opening scene Mari is about to go out to the party while her father stops her and checks out her breast, telling her she better go put on her bra. Never have I heard a father and daughter have such a conversation. They are speaking so openly about sex. Mari is swearing in her of her parents and they all just joke about it. It didn't seem like something I could relate to. It wasn't part of my reality. My father never told my sisters to put on a bra. I don't think he ever checked.
The second problem is the acting. Thank God Sandra Cassell and Lucy Grantham never acted in another film ever again. They give very weak performances. Again there is no sense these people are real. I don't believe in them. The gang of thugs suffer from the same problems. No one is trying to seem realistic but rather are acting in a style which I have referred to as real people trying to act real in a way they feel other people perceive real. Sound confusing? Imagine what the performances are like.
This piece of garbage also seems violent for no reason. Characters are constantly being cut with knives and beaten and raped. It feels as if Craven merely did this not because it suited his story but because he wanted to push the envelop and shock us for the sake of shocking us. This is really a piece of exploitation.
Craven makes very lame attempts at dark humor. The soundtrack is mostly slow hippie songs about love. In one scene Krug tells the two girls to get undressed and make up with each other at gunpoint while Craven puts a tender song about love on. I can only guess this was Craven's way to insert humor but it just doesn't work. The other times, when the sheriff is on-screen, Craven uses silly music which tries to give the piece of garbage a comedic, slapstick feel.
The Sheriff scenes are so bad! Craven presents them as nitwits. Their car brakes down as they try to hitchhike only no one will stop for them. This leads them to argue with drivers. Another lame brain attempt at humor, these scenes simply don't belong in this piece of junk. It breaks the flow. Maybe that was Craven's idea. A release from tension created in previous scenes. But there is no tension created.
Since reviewing so many horror films this month I have spoken about what I think makes a horror film work. There has to be a sense of realism. The viewer has to think this could happen in real life. Could the events here happen? Probably. You always here stories about people being kidnapped. People getting killed in their homes. I have relatives who were murdered in their home. This story could happen. But the problem is it is not presented realistic. I watched this piece of garbage late at night, alone. I shut the lights off and was hoping to be scared. Ladies and gentlemen, I sat bored to death. I even considered shutting the thing off.
A lot of people may wonder why "zero" stars? I have saved my "zero" star rating for rare occasions. John Waters' "Pink Flamingos" for example. The worst thing I have ever seen before. And Tom Green in "Freddie Got Fingered". Those pieces of garbage I found morally objectionable. They were vile and disgusting. Not to mention poorly made. "The Last House on the Left" doesn't struck me as morally objectionable but it is so poorly made that I cannot give it the satisfaction of 1 star. It doesn't earn it.
I was a film major in college. We had to make short silent films in school. None of them were really any good. We were all learning and developing a style. Trying to figure out ways to use the camera. I would rather watch those student films over this piece of garbage any day. Those movies (and I'm even willing to refer to them as "movies") were more realistic than this.
I have nothing against Wes Craven. I really enjoyed "Scream". I thought "Red Eye" was a decent thriller. I wasn't too impressed with "Cursed" but I never thought Craven was a talentless director. After seeing this piece of garbage however it has damned him in my eyes. I've lost a lot of respect for him. He'll never recover. This is pure junk. If you want to rent a decent horror film on Halloween night please, please, stay away from this.
Sunday, October 26, 2008
As Halloween approaches, I only have a few more days left to review some classic horror films. Of course, since I reviewed both the original "Frankenstein" and one of its sequels, I have to review "Dracula".
Both "Frankenstein" and "Dracula" were made in 1931 and produced by the same man, Carl Laemmle Jr. Even the some of the cast is the same. Edward van Sloan appeared in both films, here he is Professor Van Helsing. Dwight Frye was Dr. Frankenstein's assissant and here plays Count Dracula's slave, Renfield.
Among horror film fans there use to be a competition between which character was scarier and which film was better.
In one way I'd hate to add to the debate but on the other hand, I love to stir people up and upset them. I usually like things which are outside of the mainstream.
Of the two films, "Dracula" is the more effective. It is a scarier film. Keep in mind neither one will keep you up at night with bad dreams but "Dracula" is the more eerie of the two. Dracula, as a character, is the more sinister one. The "Frankenstein" series tried to represent the monster as a misunderstood child. There was a level of innocence to him. With Dracula he is pure evil. There is no other side to him. He is out for blood not friendship, unlike the monster who wanted a bride.
"Dracula" takes place in the mountains of Transylvania. A stage coach, which is carrying several visitors, including Renfield, who is something of a real estate agent, sent to deliver a property lease to Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi). When they arrive at the mountains the townspeople (who are actually Hungarian. We hear them speak and pray in Hungarian) warn Renfield about the legend of Dracula. The local Hungarians feel Dracula is really a vampire. He is unable to roam around the village during the morning and at night turns into a bat. He lives off of the blood of others by biting their necks, leaving two marks, while draining them of their blood.
So much of "Dracula" is effective. The sets and costume design, plus the cinematography, which makes plenty use of shadows. "Dracula" is a "dark" film. Dracula lives in the shadows constantly trying to lure people into the darkness.
Dracula eventually finds himself in London, where his castle neighbors a sanitarium headed by a Dr. Seward (Herbert Bunston). His daughter Mina (Helen Chandler) has fallen victim to Dracula. Because of Dr. Seward's inexperience with vampires Van Helsing is brought in to help. Much of the film now is a showdown between Dracula and Van Helsing.
Bela Lugosi was a Hungarian actor, known mostly for his stage work. "Dracula" while based on a novel written by Bram Stoker, was adapted into a play, where Lugosi first played the part. He was not the original choice for the lead however, Lon Chaney was. But Chaney died before the film went into production so the part was given to Lugosi.
Lugosi is known to the world over as Count Dracula. His performance may be the best thing about the movie. His presence is both dominating and endearing. He was a better actor than most people give him credit for and was able to out act the entire cast here. When he is not on-screen the film feels slow, Lugosi livens the movie up.
The film was directed by Tod Browning. Some of his credits including the truly disturbing 1932 film, "Freaks" filmed with actually freaks. He also directed Lon Chaney in "The Unknown" and directed one more vampire film with Lugosi, "Mark of the Vampire", where Lugosi played Count Mora.
I said in my review for "Frankenstein" that I don't think it would scare people by today's standards but did admit the make-up used to create the monster (by the way Lugosi was the original choice for the monster) was brilliant. But with "Dracula" while it may not scare adults I think some child may be frightened by it. When I was younger I was.
Many people might not know there was a Spanish version of this film shot at the same time as this. The Spanish version is actually very good. Most of the performances are actually better in that film except for the Dracula character who simply isn't as convincing as Lugosi. But the Spanish version has more sexuality to it. Surprisingly the American version has very little. It was made before the production code so I don't understand why. If you rent "Dracula" on DVD the Spanish version is included.
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
Movies of 1997 were pretty good. You just had to know where to look and acknowledge that other movies beside "Titanic" were released.
Besides "Titanic" Matt Damon and Ben Affleck became major stars with their "Good Will Hunting". So far it is the only good movie Affleck has been in. "Boogie Nights" stirred up some controversy and became a critical darling. It didn't impress me. But, the modern day noir film "L.A. Confidential" certainly did. Putting Curtis Hanson on the map, making him a director worth paying attention to. He hasn't quite lived up to that promise.
Here are my choices for the best films of 1997!
1. THE ICE STORM (Dir. Ang Lee; U.S.) - A sad look at suburban life in America during the 1970s and the sexual revolution. The film put me in awe the first time I saw it. The performances given by the cast are pitch perfect consisting of Kevin Klein, Sigourney Weaver, Joan Allen and breakthrough performances by Katie Holmes and Christina Ricci. It is interesting to note the movie came out before "American Beauty". Lee sets the film up as pure poetry. It creates a wonderful yet devastating atmosphere.
2. DECONSTRUCTING HARRY (Dir. Woody Allen; U.S.) - For all the melancholy of the first choice here is a flat-out-funny comedy by one of our greatest and most underappreciated directors; Woody Allen. The 1990s were a pretty strong decade for Allen. With "Deconstructing Harry" Allen is holding nothing back. He is in full attack mode. The film is vulgar and unrelenting however it is funny beyond belief!
3. UNDERGROUND (Dir. Emir Kusturica; Bosnia) - Perhaps one of the greatest films made in the 1990s. The greatest of Kusturica's long and successful career and maybe one of the greatest films ever made. A satirical and jaded look at the history and downfall of the former "Yugoslavia". Like Fellini, Kusturica paints a dizzying portrait of his childhood and the country he loves. The movie is alive and exciting. The camera dances with joy following these characters. The film is big in scope and while some may feel it is a project which takes on too much it won the palme d'or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1995.
4. AS GOOD AS IT GETS (Dir. James L. Brooks; U.S.) - It was such a good year for movies that honestly any of my first four choices could have easily been number one on my list. Every film was powerful in its own way. This film gives us one of Jack Nicholson's great performances. The movie has a wonderful old-fashion feel to it. Makes you feel good after watching it.
5. JACKIE BROWN (Dir. Quentin Tarantino; U.S.) - Usually regarded as one of Tarantino's worst films the movie got an unfair reaction, even among Tarantino fans. I remember this was the first of Tarantino's films I saw and it made me a fan ever since. Each and every one of his movies I find enjoyable. "Jackie Brown" has all the ingredients we expect in a Tarantino film. It has a bold energy you don't find in many American films.
6. TEMPTRESS MOON (Dir. Chen Kaige; China) - Kaige's follow-up to "Farewell My Concubine" was another film critics unfairly damned. In fact many critics have failed to admit that Kaige has made any film worth watching since "Concubine". "Temptress Moon" was a movie which took on a lot but with it, it has many rewards. It is a rich film.
7. EVE'S BAYOU (Dir. Kasi Lemmons; U.S.) - Marked the directorial debut of Lemmons. I originally said on amazon.com that another name for this movie could have been "secrets and lies". The movie is about the secrets we keep from others and from ourselves. It is an emotionally powerful film which Roger Ebert named as the best film of the year.
8. RAINMAKER (Dir. Francis Ford Coppola; U.S.) - Probably the best film Coppola has made in recent times, OK, maybe in 15 years. This courtroom drama starred Matt Damon, Danny DeVito and scene stealing performances by Jon Voight and Claire Danes.
9. ULYSSES' GAZE (Dir. Theo Angelopoulos; Greece) - One of the master of imagery's best films. The movie is a haunting and poetic dream of a man searching for his soul through the power of cinema. Harvey Keitel stars as a director searching for the first known film footage shot in Greece. It has Angelopoulos' usual slow-moving camera and lingering pace but the film is able to put you under a spell.
10. CRASH (Dir. David Cronenberg; Canada) - Features two things every guy should love; cars and sex. Only this movie combines both of them. A perverse film about a group of people (James Spader, Holly Hunter, Elias Koteas) who find sexual satisfaction in car crashes. Has a David Lynch quality to it. It will probably turn off some viewers but whatever you may say about the film you cannot say it is not original.
Tuesday, October 21, 2008
** 1\2 (out of ****)
Sometimes I'm afraid to review older films which I don't like. To movie fans such a thing is almost sacrilegious. These movies have stood the test of time who am I to discredit their worth? In many ways I understand that way of thinking but sometimes certain older movies need to be looked at again without being viewed as "classics".
"Bride of Frankenstein" is a movie most filmbuffs will tell you is better than the original. I couldn't disagree more.
Roger Ebert even included this film as part of his "Great Movies" series and said it was the best of the classic horror films. He is not alone in that thought. I realize I'm in the minority. But if you read Ebert's review I don't think he makes a convincing case. Most of the reasons he recommends it, I actually dislike the film for.
Ebert reviewed the movie shortly after a bio on Whale's life was released entitled "Gods & Monsters", a very good film by the way. Ebert seems fascinated by undertones of homosexuality within the script. I personally don't really find that interesting though it is noticeable.
Lets try to put ourself in the mindset of audiences viewing the film for the first time back in 1935, four years after the original. The movie starts off with an epilogue explaining everything that has happened in the first film which Mary Shelley (Elsa Lanchester) tells her guest and her husband that her novel was never meant to end where the film ends. There was much more to the story.
If you remember the original, the Monster (Boris Karloff) is stuck in the burning castle but we find out he survived. He was stuck inside of a well which protected him. Now once again he roams around the village reeking havoc among the townspeople.
Another associate of Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive reprising his role) enters the film, Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger). Somehow he has become aware of Dr. Frankenstein's experiment. It is never revealed how he knows. "Brides of Frankenstein" starts off on the same day as the first one ends. There is no time lapse. Regardless Dr. Pretorius knows of his work and wants to make Dr. Frankenstein an offer. He too has tried to bring back the dead but never achieved the same results as Frankenstein. This time however he would like to make a woman.
Dr. Pretorius' experiments have results in a collection of little people which he keeps in jars. He complains he has not been able to achieve the same size as Frankenstein's Monster. Unlike Frankenstein though he did not collect bodies from graves but instead says he grew them by seed.
This leads to one problem I have with "Bride of Frankenstein". This scene is played humorous. Dr. Pretorius had made a king, who resembles King Henry VIII, a Queen, a Priest and the Devil himself!
So much of "Bride of Frankenstein" has a satirical tone. This lessens the movie in my opinion. The original was viewed as a horror film. Its intention was to scare audiences. Frankenstein's Monster was suppose to inspire fear. He was a misunderstood creature. Here though you get the sense Whale and his screenwriter William Hurlbut are going after laughs. It feels largely inappropriate. This makes "Bride of Frankenstein" feel like an unnecessary sequel.
With the first "Frankenstein" the question arose if such an experiment were possible. Would Dr. Frankenstein actually be able to bring life to the dead? When he succeeds there is no longer any suspense. Knowing this, what would stop us from believing that Dr. Frankenstein and Dr. Pretorius would not be able to create a woman? We know they have the capability to succeed. So there is no longer any suspense. There is no chance they will fail.
Another new character is introduced, Minnie (Una O' Connor) a chambermaid. She provides even more comedy to a film which didn't need it to begin with (she was the inspiration for the Cloris Leachman character in "Young Frankenstein").
It feels like James Whale is making two different films at once. He is making a sequel and a parody of his own movie. It doesn't seem to blend. I found much of it off putting.
In this film the Monster speaks. He becomes more human. He shows kindness to other. A scene where he meets a blindman comes to mind. They sit down and have a meal together. The blindman teaches the Monster to speak. I don't like this decision and neither did Karloff at the time of release. While this does make the Monster more human you have to ask yourself is that a good idea? Again I must go back to the point the Monster is suppose to be scary. By having him talk the audience is no longer afraid of him. Try to think back to the original film and when we first see the Monster. Their is anticipation. There is suspense. We are suppose to be afraid. Now we don't fear him. His appearance no longer inspires chills.
But I'm sure many will want to disregard any point I may have made. I am not being fair to the movie. It is after all a "classic". I am taking the film to literally. I don't think that's true. I'm trying to accept the film on the basis of the rules it had created and started in the first film. I do not question whether such a Monster could be made. I do not question how he survived the fire. Or how the woman was created. But this movie takes things in such a bizarre, different direction it breaks away from everything that was established in the first film.
Some interesting notes about this film is Boris Karloff this time is given credit. But he is credited as "Karloff". His name goes above the title. But, it is the Monster's Mate which is credited with a question mark. However, I'm going to reveal a big secret (?). Don't read the next sentence if you really don't want to know who played the bride. Elsa Lanchester plays dual roles as Mary Shelley and the Bride. Also a new actress is brought into the role of Elizabeth, Valerie Hobson. With this film and the original, Elizabeth seems to be the weakest character. Though her presence in this movie serves more of a purpose.
"Bride of Frankenstein" does not make for a good horror movie experience. The original was the best of the series. That is the influential film not this.
When I was younger, before my school years, my friends and I liked to watch the Universal Studio Monster movies. "The Wolf Man" and "The Mummy" scared the love of Jesus Christ in me. I remember the first time I was "The Mummy" and the mummification scene, I took the VHS out of the VCR put the movie back in it's box and hid it until it was time to return to the video store. I didn't watch again for another 15 years! "Dracula" scared me but I felt a certain relationship with him because as my grandparents would always point out, Bela Lugosi was Hungarian (they always liked to point out who the Hungarian actors were).
"Frankenstein" however was something of a bridge. It scared me but I felt sorry for the Monster, especially at the end. Unlike Dracula or the Wolf Man, the Monster didn't always mean to cause harm, the famous scene with the young girl and the flowers is an example. He (or "it") was something comparable to a confused child. Only if he felt threatened did he attack.
"Frankenstein" was released right around the same time as "Dracula" in 1931. The style of many of these early horror films take on a Gothic look. They seem to have been inspired by German expressionism. Without knowing much about director James Whale it would be my guess he was influenced by German cinema of the time.
Three things about "Frankenstein" impress me a lot. The first thing is the opening scene is a cemetery. We are witnessing a burial while Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and his assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye) hide in the shadows. But pay attention to the set design. There is a crooked branch in the background, crosses stand in front of grave sites, Frankenstein and Fritz are behind a gate with the tip of the spikes on the gate seem bent, leaning towards the right. In fact the entire scene seems to have been shot on a slant. It is jarring to look at. It appears to reflect Frankenstein's twisted mindset at the time.
I also love the look of the castle where Frankenstein works. I could almost feel a slight chill coming from it. You get get a good sense of how it might feel to be there. Everything seems damp and cold. It's always shot in darkness.
And finally the make-up used for The Monster is brilliant. You could understand why audiences would have been afraid of this movie back then. Today, we see characters split people in two, so the, what is now "simple charm" of Karloff's make-up may not have the same impact on viewers, but I'm sure make-up artist must still be impressed by it.
I haven't really went over the plot of "Frankenstein" because I assume most people know it. However, it is the story of a man who has discovered a way to bring life back to the dead. He steals bodies from graves, which explains the opening scene, he takes different body parts and assembled them into his own creation.
Most people say it is a story of man playing God. Bringing life into this world and destroying it. That is clearly one theme of the movie but Mary Shelley, who wrote the novel this is based on, said her intention was to condemn the Industrial Revolution. The Monster is a "machine" in a sense and kills people just as Shelley felt machines would take over human jobs and in a sense "kill them". Shelley was a product of what is known as the "Romantic age".
Supposedly the idea of "Frankenstein" came to her in a dream when she was 18 and pregnant. She didn't finish the novel until she was 19 and was challenged by a group of friends to write a ghost story.
But whatever Shelley's intentions may have been when she wrote her story it has little to do with what is actually on-screen. No movie, that I have seen, really gets to the heart of her intentions.
Director James Whale is probably best known for this film, though many filmbuffs believe his sequel "Bride of Frankenstein" is a better film. Whale also directed "The Invisible Man" and just so you don't believe he was purely a horror director he also did the original 1930s version of "Waterloo Bridge" and "Show Boat" (not the silent version).
Most of the cast is somewhat good. Colin Clive seems a little too campy at times. His scenes were he is "mad" could have taken as laughable. He definitely gave Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder a lot to work with when they did "Young Frankenstein". Leslie Howard was actually considered first and would in all honesty been a better choice. Though Clive's delivery of "it's alive" is now part of the American culture.
Dwight Frye is okay as Fritz, having not seen this film for many years I always thought Frankenstein's assistant was Igor. And Edward Van Sloan is Frankenstein's old professor, Dr. Waldman. Nearly every movie fan will known him as Prof. Van Helsing in the original "Dracula". Van Sloan strikes me as the kind of actor that took himself very serious. I have a hunch he thinks he is delivering a great performance. One of extreme intensity. It is a shame no one told him he isn't.
But the weakest performances I think are given by Frankenstein's bride-to-be Elizabeth (Mae Clarke) and Frankenstein's friend, who is also attracted to Elizabeth, Victor Moritz (John Boles). They make the old acting mistake of believing a pause in your delivery creates both suspense and drama. For example, say this line aloud, "what are you (long pause) doing"? What neither one of them seems to realize it is tone of your voice must change as well to create emotion.
But Boris Karloff steals the show. He makes the movie. During the opening credits his name isn't even given it reads "The Monster......?" This was done so audiences would think it was real. By the closing credits though his name is given.
Does "Frankenstein" still have the ability to scare audiences? I think so, but a certain kind of audience. Mainly children. Horror films have just become too bloody and violent. We have pushed the envelop so far that it is difficult for anything to scare us. I've actually meet people who tell me "The Exorcist" makes them laugh!
"Frankenstein" is for a different audience. It is for those of us who prefer atmosphere and craft. We have yet to be jaded by society.
Monday, October 20, 2008
In movies sex is rarely just sex. Sex is usually used to trigger more than passion. It can transcend beyond that. A power struggle, a display of dominance. Sometimes, through it, you can find the meaning of life. That is the idea behind Eliseo Subiela's film "Don't Look Down" (2008, No Mires Para Abajo).
Eloy (Leandro Stivelman) has just lost his father. The boy has a hard time getting over his death. Every night when he goes to sleep he notices when he wakes up messages are written in his notebook. Are they from his father? That is his first instinct. It is discovered however that Eloy has become a sleepwalker and he is the one writing in the notebook. On one of his sleepwalks, which he does on rooftops, he falls into Elvira's (Antonella Costa) bedroom.
Elvira, the very name suggest a temptress, studies Kama Sutra. It is her intention to help Eloy get over the pain of his father's death through sex. And the Kama Sutra, she believes, will improve his life in other ways. It will help him live a longer and healthier life.
"Don't Look Down" now becomes one of those movies which shows us the joys of life. Life is beautiful if only we would take the time out and actually enjoy it. Films such as this are suppose to offer us "life lessons". This is where the film fails.
Before I walked into the theatre to see this movie I thought it would be a very erotic, sensual film, but the story would go deeper. It would become the kind of movie I just described earlier. It is not so. The movie has plenty of sex scenes. Some of which were more explicit than I thought they would be. The viewer gets lots of full frontal nudity from both actors. And these scenes are erotic. There were plenty of couples in the theatre with me. Which suggested a lot. More than I can reveal here.
But that is the problem with the movie. It becomes nothing more than a sex movie. It is not a porn. It doesn't sink to those lows but it becomes something you might see late on Showtime. The film does make attempts to offer us something deeper but they are amateurish.
The title "Don't Look Down" does even make much sense. The only connection I can see it having to the rest of the movie is Eloy was taught by his father how to walk on stilts. Perhaps "don't look down" is what you tell someone when you are high in the air. But so what? The title doesn't serve the movie well.
Nothing visually exciting (with the exception of the sex scenes, which provides a different kind of excitement) is done here. I didn't walk out of the theatre remembering anything about the movie other than the sex. There are moments when the movie does hit home the idea of sex being used to teach us about life but then that scene is followed by the two of them trying a new Kama Sutra position and soon you are forgetting the scene before it.
My first instinct was this must be the work of a new director. Someone who had a good idea in their head but just didn't know how to bring it to the screen. Then I find that Eliseo Subiela has directed 19 movies! You'd think by now he would know how to properly tell a story.
Antonella Costa is a beauty. She has appeared in several films and her most notable may be "The Motorcycle Diaries". I don't know if I can really comment on her acting but she does make a strong screen presence. She may be the best thing about the movie.
"Don't Look Down" could have been a great movie. It could have been one of those movies where you walk out of the theatre feeling good about yourself. It gives you hope. But the movie doesn't show us the magic of life. It excites our body but not our mind.
The movie played at the Chicago International Film Festival. At this point I am unsure if it will find American distribution.
Friday, October 17, 2008
Oliver Stone is the kind of filmmaker who doesn't shy away from controversy. Back in 2006 he also made a film about Sept. 11, which seemed to have gotten overlooked because of "United 93". But "World Trade Center" was causing some Conservatives to complain before they even saw the movie. Was Stone going to blame President Bush for the attacks? Was he going to re-write history as he tried in "JFK"? These same worries appeared again when hysterical Republicans heard about Oliver Stone's new film about our current president.
Stone claimed the film was not going to take sides. It would be an honest look at George W. Bush's early life at Yale and in Texas and the decisions he has made while in the White House.
Many felt only Liberals or Bush-bashers would go see this film. Stone was going to pander to this group which simply can't get enough bad talk about the president.
Whether or not I agree with Stone's portrayal of Bush and his interpretation of his presidency I feel doesn't matter. "W" feels like an unnecessary film. Shouldn't Stone have waited at least until President Bush leaves office so he could get all the facts? Allow some time to pass so his presidency could be properly accessed?
I'm usually not comfortable discussing politics with people who I don't know and\or people who I know in advance don't share my views. I just don't think it is anyone's business how I vote. But, for the sake of this review I will admit I don't like George Bush. I didn't vote for him in 2004 and I was too young to vote in 2000. If I could I would have voted for Al Gore. I think Bush is the worst president this country has had in the last century. So Stone would merely be preaching to the choir. But none of that matters. In the end "W" simply isn't a good movie.
What hurts "W" most is oddly enough the lead character. President Bush is not an interesting character in my opinion. Compare this film to Stone's "Nixon". Stone presents Nixon as a misunderstood man. Whatever your feelings on Nixon, after watching the film you feel a certain sympathy for the man. Nixon was a very nuisance person. He was a conflicted person. George Bush has no nuisance. At least not the George Bush seen in this movie. There is nothing interesting on-screen unless you simply want to hear how corrupt the Bush administration is.
Much of what happens in "W" should not come as a surprise to anyone who follows politics closely or reads the paper daily or watches the news. The events depicted here happened in our lifetime. We are still discussing the issues. We are getting ready for another election. The bottom line is there is little re-writing of history here. Stone doesn't take too many liberties with the facts of the Bush administration. If he does with Bush's early years, I honestly don't know.
Much of the performances are very good. Josh Brolin plays the president. The problem I have with Brolin is, I was never quite sure how to approach his acting. Is Brolin playing this for comedy or drama. And to a larger extent that is the overall problem Stone has with the film. What is the correct tone of the film. I laughed at some parts but were they intentional? Sometimes it feels like Brolin isn't trying to get inside Bush and really develop a character. Look at what Anthony Hopkins did with Nixon. Brolin doesn't take it that far.
Richard Dreyfuss is creepy as Vice-President Dick Cheney. He has one extremely powerful scene which does suggest alternative motives for going in war. Cheney is discussing how the U.S. must go into Iran for oil. He points out it is the only country in the middle-east where there is no U.S. influence. If the United States can start a war with Iran, the U.S. can create an empire and rule the world and its energy resources. Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright) asks Cheney how long will we be there to which Cheney responds we won't leave. Dreyfuss delivers the lines so effectively its scary because this could have actually been said by Cheney.
James Cromwell plays George H. W. Bush, who the movie suggest never approved of his son, President Bush. And as a result George W. Bush would try his whole life to get his father's approval. That there could have caused an inner conflict within Bush but the way the film treats it is not realistic. Elizabeth Banks plays Laura Bush and Thandie Newton plays Condoleezza Rice.
For everything "W" tries to address it leaves out a lot. No mention of the 2000 election or Bush's re-election. No mention of the CIA leak or anything on Attorney General Gonzalez. In fact no one even plays him in the movie. And in a missed comedic opportunity no mention of Cheney's hunting accident.
Does this hurt the movie? Not really. Though I do think the 2000 election should have been mentioned. Still you can't expect any 2 hour movie to completely cover a man's life. The scriptwriter Stanley Weiser, who wrote Stone's "Wall Street" and a TV movie on Rudy Giuliani does a good job assembling all this information and making a coherent film out of it. But we come back to my original point. He doesn't do enough to make President Bush an interesting character. Nearly every other character is more interesting. They all have conflicts and acknowledge them. Bush doesn't.
Will Oliver Stone fans want to see this? I'm sure they will. But the film is nowhere near as good as "JFK", "Platoon", "Born on the 4th of July" or even "Any Given Sunday". "W" could have been a great film ultimately, like the last eight years, it becomes disappointing.
It has been 19 years since Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) was on his last adventure, with his father (Sean Connery) in "The Last Crusade". Much has changed since then. Most notably, everyone has gotten older.
The "Indiana Jones" series along with the "Star Wars" films help cement Ford's persona as a reliable hero. The film's box-office success continued Steven Spielberg's track record of one commercial hit after another.
But within those 19 years which have passed Spielberg has matured as a director. If we go through his career chronologically the first film he ever made which I liked would be "Schindler's List". Everything, that I have actually seen, had disappointed me. I never really cared for Spielberg's childhood fantasy movies. Spielberg always seemed like nothing more than a "hit maker" to me. Someone more concern with making mainstream films rather than artistic statements. And that's fine, if that was his intention. Everyone likes money. But we need to view his films within that context than and judge them accordingly.
As you can probably tell, I don't like Spielberg. I have been willing to give him credit when I feel he deserves it however. I placed "Schindler's List", "Saving Private Ryan" and "Munich" on my year end top ten list of their respective years. And I never liked the original three Indiana Jones movies. To be honest, they kind of bored me. I didn't find them to be fast-paced action adventure films. They didn't thrill me with excitement. I understand what George Lucas and Spielberg had intended, a throwback to 1930 movie serials but "Indiana Jones" never seem to have much charm to me. The films don't make me feel nostalgic for an era gone by.
"Indiana Jones & the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" (what the heck is the title so damn long for? I'm simply going to refer to it as "Indiana Jones" from now on) starts off with an exciting action scene as Indy and his partner, Mac (Ray Winstone) are captured by Soviet spies (the film's setting is the 1950s during the Cold War) headed by Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett). They are after something called the "crystal skull" and believe Indy knows where it is hidden.
The scene then becomes action packed as Indy and Mac attempt to escape. And this leads to the major problem I had with "Indiana Jones". The movie feels like nothing more than a series of action sequences. I like action movies but no film can simply be told through action scenes. You have to have some sort of interesting plot. The plot in this movie is so ridiculous it could have been told in 20 minutes. There is very little of interest going on here.
This film has been rumored about for years. Spielberg and Ford always wanted to make another "Indiana Jones" picture if a good script came along. If this is seriously the best script they got what the heck did the others involve? Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs?
But I can't look you in the eye and say "Indiana Jones" is a complete waste of time. Shia LaBeouf plays Mutt, who informs Indy about the crystal skulls as his mother has been kidnapped. He turns to Indy to help him figure out the clues which lead to the skull.
LeBeouf is okay in the movie. He has found a persona for him to work in. He is the smartalec wise-cracking punk who seems tough until danger comes his way. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. I like him in small doses. Watch him in "I, Robot". I didn't care much for "Disturbia" or "Transformers".
Another things about LeBeouf is, he reminds me of the Fonz, from "Happy Days". The beginning of the movie seems like it could have been in Lucas' "American Graffiti".
This leads to another problem. The screenplay for "Indiana Jones", which was written by David Koepp ("Spider-Man", "Secret Window" and "Death Becomes Her") plays like a greatest hits of Spielberg's and Lucas' work. You'll be thinking of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "American Graffiti".
I like the scenes with Karen Allen who reprises her role as Mutt's mother, Marion Ravenwood and Indy. They have a good banter between them. John Hurt as Ox, a professor who has been put under a trance is funny. It allows the movie some comical moments.
But these things are few and far between. I felt no joy watching this movie. I felt little excitement and nearly no involvement. I thought some action sequences went on far too long and took away from the plot.
Fans of "Indiana Jones" may enjoy this picture as will Spielberg fans. If for any reason only because they don't want to criticize their hero. But for the rest of us, I don't think there is much to enjoy here. Lets hope Spielberg puts these type of films behind him and gives us more movies like "Munich".
Thursday, October 16, 2008
When "The Exorcist" was first released it was damned by the Catholic church and even the Pope as a celebration of evil. Believers were told not to see the film. Many incidents on the set led several to believe the film was actually cursed. A mysterious fire destroyed the set causing it to be rebuilt. Director William Friedkin brought Reverend Bermingham to bless the set on several occasions. Actors associated with the film suddenly died before the film's released. Two of them include Jack MacGowran and Vasiliki Maliaros. There was even a urban legend that the celluloid was cursed itself and subliminal messages were being sent. A demon's face would flash across the screen. Of course it was revealed this was done deliberately by Friedkin. And finally there were stories that the novel which the film was based on, written by William Peter Blatty was based on a true story which took place in 1949, Maryland to a small boy.
All of this was the surrounding hype when the film opened, get this, on December 26, 1973! "The Exorcist" is the most frightening movie ever put on celluloid. It is the greatest horror film ever made. It is a movie which strikes a fear in me that no other film has ever been able to.
Horror like comedy is difficult to write. We all find different things scary. Many people find such films as "The Ring" scary. I do not. Is anyone right or wrong in this situation? It is subjective. But I think the reason so many people respond to "The Exorcist" is because it is not played for horror. It is played as drama. It is plausible. If we want to take this a step further and bring in a religious aspect, most Catholics believe in exorcisms. Catholics believe the devil is capable to possess a body. It is for that reason I have also considered it the scariest film ever made. It is based on my perception of reality. This could happen. Is there such a thing as Michael Myers or Jason? No, at least I don't think so. But is there such a thing as the devil? I think so.
A good number of people probably have some idea what the story is. The film starts off in Norther Iraq where a priest, Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow) is on an archaeological mission when he finds a strange stone, with the face of a creature on it.
The film then shifts to Georgetown where an actress, Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is working on a film. But there is also another priest, Father Karras (Jason Miller) who is having problems with his faith after his mother (Vasiliki Maliaros) has died. He feels guilty since he was not with her at the end.
Events take another turn when Chris' daughter, Regan (Linda Blair) starts to behave differently. Chris is not a religious person. She turns to science for the answer. After a series of test and meetings with several doctors, none of whom can explain what is wrong with Regan, Chris then sends her to a psychiatrist. After that doesn't work Chris has to finally acknowledge her daughter is possessed by the devil.
Everything about the film is subtle. The film doesn't give cheap scares. Characters don't jump out from nowhere. Things aren't lurking around the background where others can't see them. The film portrays itself as a family drama.
The performances are effective and realistic. Burstyn gives a chilling performance as a woman who simply doesn't know where to turn to protect her daughter. Her lack of faith is to be tested. As for Blair much controversy surrounded her performance. Did the young girl realize what she was asked to do? Many people thought she was actually the one delivering the more explicit lines. She was not.
Another thing I like about the movie is religion is not presented as evil, especially the Catholic faith. I'm so sick and tired of Catholics taking a beating in movies. So many films present the believer as the problem, the villain. Here religion is the answer. To believe will save you.
I remember the first time I saw "The Exorcist". It was in my early teen years. My mother warned me against watching the film. A group of my friends rented it and watched it. After a few minutes, before anything truly scary happened, I left and went home. Years went by before I watched the film again. When I did, I saw the re-released version in 2000. It was called "the version you never saw before" it has the famous "spider-walk" in it. The film stood with me for days. Images were so strong they affected my sleep. The final showdown, the actually exorcism scene, blew me away.
And then because of my celebration of horror films I decided to watch this film again. This time I saw the original version. It is still a powerful film. Roger Ebert, when the first was first released wrote "if movies are, among other things, opportunities for escapism, "The Exorcist" is one of the most powerful ever made." The film was nominated for 10 Oscars, including "best picture" and "best director". It won two awards, one for its screenplay, which was adapted by Blatty himself and one for sound.
Some may disagree with this but "The Exorcist" is the scariest film ever made. It is a perfect blend of horror and religion which today's movies simply cannot compare to. It is one of the masterpieces of cinema.
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
I've never really been a big fan of Roger Corman. I understand the influence he has had on cinema and in some small way admire him but I never felt his work was essential to my cinematic viewing. I usually considered his work exploitation. For readers not familiar with Mr. Corman, he has made a career out of making small budget horror films and science fiction films. Some of his titles include "Little Shop of Horrors", which holds the record for the fastest production shoot of a featured film; 2 days! He also did "The Beast with a Million Eyes", "Teenage Cave Man" and "The Man with X-Ray Eyes".
I don't mean to diminish his work however. He is, in a small way, important to cinema and people, especially filmbuffs, should not snub his work. He is after all responsible for the early careers of many great directors and actors. He helped start the careers of Martin Scorsese, Jack Nicholson and Ron Howard got his early directing lessons from him. So the man knew talent when he saw it.
If you chose the watch Corman's films I feel the most comfortable recommending what is known as his "Poe series". A collection of films he directed which were adapted from the writings of Edgar Allan Poe. These films have the most artistic value. While the films were made on a small budget they look impressive. The sets look as good as you'll find in any other film. And because it is Edgar Allan Poe, the stories are interesting.
"The Pit & the Pendulum" continues on the collaboration between Corman and Vincent Price. Luckily for me, as I devote more time to horror films because of Halloween, I am killing three birds with one stone. In one movie I get to write about Roger Corman, Vincent Price and Edgar Allan Poe. How perfect! Price and Corman worked on the Poe films together. Some of the other titles are "The Fall of the House of Usher", which was released before this film, and "The Raven", Peter Lorre co-stars in that one. It is not a faithful adaptation and is played for more campy comedy instead. Corman also directed "The Masque of the Red Death".
Vincent Price is someone I've never considered a great actor. He is largely associated with horror movies but like Corman, they were usually cheap, silly movies. Some are good mind you and have become something of horror cult classics; "House of Wax", "The Fly", and "House on Haunted Hill". But Price would usually make fun of his reputation and appeared in some films with Frankie Avalon (!). I guess at least he had a sense of humor about the quality of pictures he was working on. Though at first in Price's career he did act in serious movies. Watch him in "Laura" and "Leave Her to Heaven".
In this movie however Price goes back to his campy style of acting. I honestly can't tell if Price thinks what he is doing is dramatic or if he knows it is campy and over-acted. The acting in the film, not just by Price, who actually comes out looking the best, believe it or not, is what hurts the film the most. This could have been a truly great film. But none of the actors are able to express much of a range. Could it have been Corman's fault? Was that the direction he gave? Did he want the actors to appear almost trance-like? To withhold any emotion? If he did, it doesn't seem to gel with the story here of a man haunted by the past and a lost love. The story is all about emotion.
Price plays duel roles as Nicholas Medina and his father Sebastian. As Nicholas he was married to Elizabeth (Barbara Steele). Who has died three months ago. Nicholas is still recovering from her death. Elizabeth's brother, Francis Barnard (John Kerr) is suspicious of his sister's death and comes to the Medina estate to find out exactly what happened to his sister. Staying with Nicholas is his sister, Catherine (Luana Anders).
Without giving away too much of the plot, many family secrets are revealed about Nicholas and the Medina family. Their father, Sebastian, was part of the Spanish Inquisition and had a torture chamber in the basement. A young Nicholas would see events take place there which would haunt him for the rest of his life. Nicholas feels it was the castle which killed Elizabeth. He also feels her spirit is haunting him.
Francis doesn't believe Nicholas but soon whispers are heard of Elizabeth's voice. Her harpsichord is heard playing and sounds come from her room. Is Elizabeth alive trying to torment Nicholas?
"The Pit & the Pendulum" does a lot of things right. As I have already stated, the production value is quite good. I also enjoyed the musical score and liked the cinematography. It all helps create a good atmosphere. The viewer knows something is going to happen but is not sure what. It is only the acting which drags the film down. I almost considered giving the film two-and-a-half stars instead but because Corman does so many things right in the movie I decided to tip things his way.
A very important element of the film is the use of colors. I'm going to reveal something here which I never have before, I am partially color-blind. I have trouble distinguishing various shades of colors. You'll notice I never mention color patterns in my reviews. I understand the importance of color in films, but, because I don't know what color I'm looking at or what certain colors represent, I avoid the topic. Still, there are dream sequences which have a certain hue. The opening credits are done over tie-dye and end with them too.
As for the climax, without revealing what happens, it does give you small chills. The ending is devilish. Sadly at this point however Price is completely gone. His acting to starting to border-line on comedy. It is almost a parody. But he is the only one in the cast which seems to be acting with any life. He seems to be the only one comfortable in front of the camera and actually willing to run the risk of making a fool of himself. He is willing to take a chance in order to get some sort of emotion across. You have to respect that.
"The Pit & the Pendulum" would make for a good Halloween viewing. It is silly enough for you to laugh at it with friends but at times suspenseful enough to keep you involved wondering where exactly is this story going to take us. Besides the acting, everything else is worth seeing.
Tuesday, October 14, 2008
After the huge success of "The Cat People" the studio heads at RKO had to follow-up on that film. You almost wish they wouldn't have. Why were they so motivated by greed and why did Val Lewton agree?
"The Curse of the Cat People" continues the themes of the original "Cat People", the fear of the "other". The need to conform. In this film Oliver (Kent Smith) and Alice (Jane Randolph) have married. If you remember in the first film they were co-workers who fell in love. They now have a child, Amy (Ann Carter).
Amy is a bit of a loner. She likes to daydream and play games by herself. She has an active imagination. In one scene she chases after a butterfly, which she says is her friend. This causes a scandal at home. Oliver demands that Amy stop having such a vivid imagination. She should make a greater effort to be like the other children. "The Curse of the Cat People" is really a film which argues against a child's imagination. Better to be like everyone else and bland like Oliver.
One day Amy goes to a supposed "haunted house". An old woman lives there, Mrs. Farren (Julia Dean) and her daughter, Barbara (Elizabeth Russell). Mrs. Farren was an actress for the stage. In another attempt to condemn creativity the woman is presented as strange and evil. A sub-plot involving the woman and her daughter is very interesting. The woman constantly says Barbara is not her daughter, her daughter died when she was six. But Barbara insist that she is. It is never explained why Mrs. Farren thinks her daughter died. That storyline could have made its own film. Maybe they should have made that story instead of this one.
At the house Mrs. Farren gives Amy a ring, a wishing ring. Amy then wishes for a friend. The friend turns out to be Irena (Simone Simon). But Irena must keep it a secret from her parents.
This film was directed by Gunther von Fritsch who was later replaced by Robert Wise. Fritsch was going over budget and was behind schedule so Lewton brought in Wise who had directed one other film, "Mademoiselle Fifi", which was also produced by Lewton.
But Wise would become a very famous director. He directed two "best picture" Oscar winners; "West Side Story" and "The Sound of Music". But he also did other films in the horror genre like the original "The Haunting".
Wise is no Jacques Tourneur. Wise doesn't use shadows and lighting the way Tourneur did. Of course the atmosphere in this film is different. Tourneur was making more of a horror film, Wise isn't. "The Curse of the Cat People" is a more gentle, sweet film. In "The Cat People" there was a fear of whether or not Irena was really a "cat person". Here there is no real sense of danger.
At the end of the first film it is revealed Irena was one of the cat people. Finally Oliver and Alice believed her story when it was too late. Irena dies at the end of the film first.
The only danger in the film is presented as Amy imagination and the presence of Irena. Photos are still kept of Irena, as Alice thinks Oliver should throw out the photos. But in this film Oliver and Alice talk about Irena being insane, despite what we know from the first film. This fear though is what drives Oliver. He doesn't want Amy to turn out like Irena.
"The Curse of the Cat People" is a good movie but not for the reasons you'd expect. It is not a horror film. I have no idea why it is classified as such. But it is a good movie dealing with the power of imagination. A movie which tells us it is okay to be different and be your own person. That is why the movie works for me.
One interesting note is, during one scene it is Christmas time. A group of carolers come to Amy's house. When Amy looks outside she sees Irena, who is singing Christmas songs in French. That's all fine and dandy but in "The Cat People" it was said Irena is Serbian. Why would a Serbian be singing a song in French?
Monday, October 13, 2008
I've mentioned "The Cat People" when discussing producer Val Lewton's other films which I've reviewed in honor of Halloween. Now, I've finally decided to review it.
For readers unaware "The Cat People" is one of the most influential "B" films ever made. It is also one of the most influential horror films ever made and one of the most popular.
The film was released in 1943. It marked the first collaboration between producer Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur. It was Lewton's first film as a producer. The studio, RKO, gave Lewton a budget of $15,000. This put Lewton and Tourneur on the spot. There was no way to make a costume for "the cat people". How would they even look? So it was eventually decided not to show them. Everything would be in shadows.
The basic idea of the plot is a Serbian, newly arrive in America, meets an all-American boy, Oliver Reed (Kent Smith). The Serbian is Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon). She tells Oliver of the history of her village. A group of people, known as "the cat people" were killed by King John of Serbian. But some of the people escaped in the mountains, bring danger where ever they go.
Oliver tells Irena she is foolish to believe stories about her country's history. She is in America now. Her stories are meaningless. Oliver suggest psychoanalysis to help her realize the error of her ways.
Irena believes she is one of the cat people. Because of this she is afraid to express any strong feelings. After she and Oliver get married she tells Oliver he must be patient with her on their honeymoon, which means Oliver is going to sleep alone. In fact, they don't even kiss!
Here now we notice two themes which emerge in the film. First of all what Irena fears most is her ability to become aroused. The film deals largely with sexual repression. Secondly we are dealing with fear of "the other". Irena is a foreigner. American was engaged in WW2 at the time. Americans had to be on the watch for suspicious characters. Anyone with a European accent was suspect. Oliver constantly tries to beat home the idea that he is an all-American. When in a restaurant all he ever orders is apple pie. Have you ever heard the saying, "as American as apple pie"? He also tells Irena she needs to become "normal". She needs to forget about her country and her beliefs. She needs to adapt to American way of living. This was very important during the war. It was an "us" versus "them" mentality.
What is also interesting about the film is during the 1940s psychoanalysis was becoming more and more accepted in society. A broad range of movies were starting to push themes involving it in films. Watch "King's Row" or Hitchcock's "Spellbound".
But what makes "The Cat People" so enjoyable to watch is the element of suspense. Is Irena really a cat person? Do such things even exist?
The film makes excellent use of shadows and lighting, as do all of the Lewton/Tourneur films. Irena is usually placed in darkness. Who is she really? What is she hiding?
The film is actually a bit slow at first. Everything needs to slowly build to the climax. The best scenes are near the end. A co-worker, whom Irena suspects is having an affair with her husband feels she is being stalked by something which is not human. One of the film's most famous scenes involves the woman, Alice (Jane Randolph) going for a swim in a pool. From the shadows on the wall we see a panther roaming around. Alice starts to scream but suddenly there are no more shadows.
"The Cat People" is not my favorite of the Lewton/Tourneur films. I much prefer "I Walked with a Zombie" and "The Leopard Man", another film about a dangerous cat roaming around. But if this film hadn't been so successful those other films may not have been released. "The Cat People" shows us the seeds of what would come later. Each film got better and better.
Is "The Cat People" a scary film? Not really. As I have already said in my other reviews of Mr. Lewton's films, his work is not gory and violent. Violence is not shown on-screen. These films are much more subtle.
If you really enjoy this film a sequel was made "The Curse of the Cat People" directed not by Tourneur but Robert Wise, who directed the original "The Haunting". Also a remake was made in 1982.
Thursday, October 9, 2008
"Appaloosa" *** (out of ****)
I walked into "Appaloosa" fully expecting to love it. I was prepared to call it a masterpiece and declare it one of the year's best films. I can still say those things but I would be lying.
Is "Appaloosa" a bad film? Not at all. There is actually much to admire about Ed Harris' second directorial film (after "Pollock"). But I walked into that theatre with such high expectations I suppose the film couldn't live up to them.
"Appaloosa" has received generally good reviews but the majority of critics I respect all pretty much say the same thing and I have to agree, it is a good film but not a great one. Still, why harp on the bad? Why not celebrate the good things about this film?
Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen play two hired gun hands who go from town to town forcing out trouble makers. Harris plays Virgil Cole, who serves as a Marshall while Mortensen plays Everett Hitch, his deputy. They have been hired by the town of Appaloosa to defend them against Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons) who is accused of killing the sheriff and his two deputies. Bragg's gang have all the townspeople in fear and feel Cole and Everett are their only hope. The two men agree to help but under one condition. Whatever Cole says is the law.
Right now we have the basic set-up of every western ever made. The group of bad guys causing trouble, the straight talking honest good guy ready to protect. And the inevitable showdown between the two.
Then from off the train a lady enters the town (don't they always in westerns?) Allison French (Renee Zellweger). She dressed nicely, speaks properly, plays the piano and best of all she says she not a whore. She immediately captures the attention of Cole.
And now we have the other ingredient in all westerns. The female touch. The woman who stands by her man but at the same time, in a sense, tames him.
This aspect of "Appaloosa", the masculine versus the feminine reminds me of John Ford's classic western, "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance". There two there was a showdown between the two. Conservatism (masculinity) and Liberalism (femininity). Jimmy Stewart was the educated Liberal while John Wayne was the fighting Conservative who saved the day. Once Cole meets Allison she takes away his manhood. He appears, at least to Everett, to be losing sight of what they are in Appaloosa for. She has Cole picking out drapes, buying a home, complaining to Everett that he doesn't visit him. Allison feminizes Cole turning him into, by definition, a Liberal, a sissy. But the problem is, "Appaloosa" is not "Liberty Valance". The film doesn't tackle this material in the same way. "Appaloosa" is not as entertaining.
For the most part the performances are effective. Harris and Mortensen come out looking best. At first they both have a certain hard edge look to them. These guys are tough. They have seen a lot. The stares from their eyes suggest they are cold. Everett barely speaks, suggesting he is not a man of words but action, making him the Conservative, the man. The only two performances I wasn't very pleased with were Zellweger and Irons. I think both of them are great actors and have appeared in many films I enjoyed but Zellweger seems to be too much of a puzzle. What is she really like? What kind of person is she? Where does her loyalty lie? I don't want to give away plot points, but Zellweger becomes a mixture of various women we find in westerns.
Irons is good in the second half of the movie playing the sleazeball who claims to have been reformed. But in the beginning he didn't strike me as much of a villain. He doesn't instill fear in me. I had no problem believing he would lose a gunfight with Cole, if it ever can down to it.
Besides some fine performances I really liked the cinematography by Dean Semler ("Dances with Wolves"). He gives the film a classic western look with the wide-open landscape shot in extreme long shots. It might be the best thing about the film (after Harris and Mortensen).
I've never really been a big fan of the westerns. I've seen some that I like very much. As I have already mentioned Ford's "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" , is one of my favorites. I'm also a big fan of Fred Zinnemann's "High Noon" and John Sturges' "The Magnificent Seven". All of these films, I hate to say it, are better than "Appaloosa". They somehow manage to involve the audience more, makes us care more about their characters.
In the end though "Appaloosa" is worth seeing. It is a solid piece of filmmaking by Harris, who I hope makes more films down the road, maybe even another western. He could learn from his mistakes here. The final message of the film does resemble "Liberty Valance". It was the real man who saves the day and restores the feminine Liberal's honor. Only one of the men walk into the sunlight with pride and honor while the other stays behind.
Tuesday, October 7, 2008
"Halloween" *** 1\2 (out of ****)
WARNING: THIS REVIEW WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS THROUGHOUT!
The first ten minutes of John Carpenter's "Halloween" are an adrenaline rush. A roller-coaster of freight. Within the first six minutes of the film a young boy named Michael Myers, kills his babysitter. The film then jumps ahead 15 years where Myers escapes from an institution.
If you are not on the edge of your seat during these scenes, I'd seriously consider checking your pulse.But Carpenter doesn't keep this pace throughout the film. After these two sequences Carpenter begin to slowly build anticipation. The film works its way to a chilling showdown climax. Carpenter doesn't do much new, but what he does, he does right. The film has typical horror cliches. The viewer sees things in the background the characters do not, the music which heightens at scary scenes and such. We know the devices.
Donald Pleasence stars as Dr. Sam Loomis. He was Michael Myers' psychiatrist for 15 years. In the scene leading up to Michael's escape, Loomis is driving to the institution with a nurse who will serve as a guard. He refers to Michael as it. Not him or Michael but it. When Michael does escape the doctor says evil escaped. Loomis returns to Michael's hometown in Illinois, where he is sure Michael is headed. But why? Who is Michael after?
Michael seems to be stalking Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis). He stands behind her, ahead of her and drives past her in a car. Sometimes she feels he presence, other times she actually shes him. Carpenter is also smart about this. The viewer only sees Michael's back. We never see his face in the beginning of the movie. I timed it and it is only after 23 minutes do we see Michael's entire body, it is in an extreme long shot. His face is not really visible. It is only at 53 minutes we see his face up close. This was something Steven Spielberg did famously in "Jaws". Everyone talks about the villain. We know he exist. We see glimpses of him. This creates suspense. When will the people in the movie see him? When will Myers attack?
For a horror film, the movie is not big on bloody scenes. Before Michael attacks again, 53 minutes go by. Carpenter doesn't really seem interested in the actually killing scenes it is suspense he seems to excel at. That is really what makes "Halloween" one of the all time great horror films.
Just how scary is the film? I don't find it to be very scary. Did it get my heart beating a little faster? Yes. Did I fall asleep that night without any nightmares? You bet! But the film works within the moment. As you watch the film you are involved. It is an excellent genre film.
Several sequels of course followed this film. I have not seen all of them. I have seen the more recent ones. None of them seemed to have been able to match this one. I wasn't around in 1978 when "Halloween" was released. But it seems to have been a small budget independent film. That explains a lot. Carpenter doesn't waste time getting into his story. Some people might wonder what triggered the first murder? How did this boy become evil? The film never explains that. Dr. Loomis says, after 8 years of treatment he realized there was no cure for Michael. So he spent the next 7 years trying to keep him in the institution. To be honest, I don't think Carpenter has the answers to these questions. Carpenter needed an incident to happen to push the movie forward. Someone had to die. Carpenter doesn't give us a big explanation why Michael is evil. He just is. We don't need to know more. Because the film was made on small budget I think that is what caused it. With a limited amount of money Carpenter couldn't waste time explaining things. We just need to get to the heart of the story. And it works.
Lots of people have seen "Halloween" by now. It was a smash hit in 1978. Roger Ebert called it one of the ten best films of the year and declared it was as frightening as Hitchcock's "Psycho". And drew the comparison between Jamie Lee Curtis appearing in this film and her mother Janet Leigh appearing in Hitchcock's film. But all the attention the film has gotten is well deserved. "Halloween" is a horror classic.
Monday, October 6, 2008
When I started writing horror reviews this month I promised I would mix it up and review well known horror films and some people may not have seen. After reviewing a couple of classic Val Lewton movies I thought it was time to write about one a lot of people have seen.
I've always found "Carrie" to be an odd choice for director Brian De Palma. I like De Palma's movies a lot. He has made some films I truly enjoy, "The Untouchables", "Blow Out", "Dressed to Kill". Sure he's had a few missteps ("Mission to Mars", "Redacted") but I've never associated him with the horror genre before. I wasn't sure he'd be up for the task. Sure he's done his Hitchcock spin-offs (the man actually has the audacity to say he isn't influenced by Hitchcock) but I don't consider Hitchcock's work part of the horror genre. They are thrillers or suspense films.
But "Carrie" isn't your typical horror film. In fact any part that had to do with scare scenes was not what interested me. It was the human drama I found myself connecting to.
Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) is a socially shy teenager. She has no friends at the high school she attends. She is the subject of scorn among her female classmates. In the film's opening moments Carrie, while taking a shower, gets her period for the first time. Unaware of what is going on with her body she starts to scream and turns to the other girls for guidance. They offer none but instead embarrass her throwing hygiene products at her. And this event is what triggers the events for the rest of the film.
The way De Palma films this scene is unusual. He does it all in slow-motion. The other girls run around in the shower naked, some friendly playing games with each other (get your mind out of the gutter). Tender music plays in the background. It doesn't seem like the kind of sequence you would find in a horror movie.
But that's not the scary stuff. The scary stuff takes place a Carrie's home with her overly religious mother (Piper Laurie). It is because of her mother's religious views Carrie did not know about her period or for that matter any other piece of sex education. Her mother views her now as a sinner. She reads from a biblical passage which says when a woman bleeds it is a sin. She then locks her in a closet, where there is a sort of shrine, as Carrie prays for forgiveness. This reminded me of Ingmar Bergman, as odd as that may sound. Bergman's father was a bishop and would lock Ingmar in a closet as well in an attempt to put the fear of God in him.
A lot of horror films, or at least the ones I like usually combine religion and horror. Think of "The Excorist", "Rosemary's Baby" and "The Omen" though they also share another trait. My favorite horror films aren't ones in which every five seconds we see a brutal death. I prefer horror films which are a bit more subtle. In all honesty "Carrie" didn't scare me nor do a majority of horror films. What I come away with appreciating after watching a horror film was if it was well-made. Good directing, good acting, good script. "Carrie" has all of those things.
De Palma preoccupies the screen with two things. Blood is important to this film. It starts off with blood and ends with blood. But sex is always around. Again from the opening scene, to the gym coach Miss. Collins (Betty Bickley) who walks around in tight gym shorts.
If you've seen "Carrie" before you know she has special powers. She has the ability to move objects with her mind. At first I thought this was all due to sexual frustration. I thought that is where all her anger comes from. Think Norman Bates in "Psycho" but it seems to be a combination of a lot of things. I think her powers come from repression of all social contact.
In some ways "Carrie" could be De Palma's "Psycho". Both films are about a socially closed young people at the mercy of their mothers. When desires or feelings of any kind build up in them they only know how to express themselves through violence. There is plenty of sexual guilt as well. But De Palma would make a more obvious "Psycho" rip-off in "Dressed to Kill". And I thought Stephen King, whose novel the film is based on, wouldn't really want to bother copying someone else's work.
The only thing I don't like from the script, which was adapted by Lawrence D. Cohen, who also adapted King's "It" and "Ghost Story" with Fred Astaire and John Houseman, is the ending. I felt it over-reaches and tries to accomplish too much.
If you are expecting a lot of bloody scenes and a true freight fest I don't think "Carrie" will deliver. If you are looking for a film about inner demons we all carry and what happens when we let go and the horrors that brings, "Carrie" will work for you.
The film features some of De Palma's regulars like Nancy Allen and John Travolta. Spacek and Laurie were both nominated for Oscars for their performances.
Sunday, October 5, 2008
"The Ghost Ship" *** (out of ****)
"The Ghost Ship" was the second film producer Val Lewton and director Mark Robson worked together on. After Jacques Tourneur was promoted to "A" list films at RKO studios, Lewton assigned his editor, Robson to direct films. Their first collaboration was "The Seventh Victim".
The absence of Tourneur is felt in "The Ghost Ship". With only one other film behind him Robson was still green and didn't quite know how to create atmosphere the way Tourneur did. Some have suggested Val Lewton was really the man in charge of these films, but, I think "The Ghost Ship" proves these claims wrong.
Robson would become a successful director but his work here is second-rate. He doesn't take advantage of the picture's setting. A creepy ocean ship surrounded by the mist. Robson would eventually direct "Earthquake", "Von Ryan's Express" with Frank Sinatra and go on to earn two Academy Award nominations for "The Inn of the Sixth Happiness" and "Peyton's Place", a true masterpiece, which will make my "Masterpiece Film Series". But here he was still learning the ropes. Too bad. The film had great potential.
A young seaman, Tom Merriam (Russell Wade) is going on his first voyage as an officier. The ship is being run by Captain Stone (Richard Dix). He kind older gentleman who tells Tom he reminds him of himself when he was young. Tom says the captain is the first older person to treat him as a friend, an equal.
But soon strange things start happening on deck. Before they take off a sailor is found dead, to which the captain merely brushes it aside. Another sailor is killed in a freak accident, only after insulting the captain.
It doesn't take Tom long to suspect it is Captain Stone who is behind these murders. The captain always speaks of authority. This is his ship, everyone will do as he says. He has certain rights over their lives he tells Tom. Everyone on board must learn to respect authority. To never question his judgement. But Tom does, and soon starts to fear for his life.
"The Ghost Ship" lacks in the departments you might suspect a "B" film to lack in. The performances across the board are ineffective. Russell Wade as our young hero doesn't make the screen presence to have the audience connect with him. He delivers his lines blandly. He has no commanding lead in his performance. Imagine a better actor in the lead. Say Dana Andrews or a young Burt Lancaster. Of course then it wouldn't be a "B" picture.
Richard Dix is given top billing. Dix was actually a famous actor. His work goes back to the silent days of cinema. He may be best known by filmbuffs for his role in the 1931 best picture Oscar winner "Cimarron", the first western to ever win the award. Though he appeared in several other films for RKO studios. My hunch is Dix must have fallen on hard times to actually accept a role in this picture. He gives a campy performance. It may be memorable to some viewers but it is memorable for all the wrong reasons. You cannot convince me Dix gives a performance which represents true evil.
The final problem with the movie is the screenplay. It was based on a story by Leo Mittler (a German director) and written by Donald Henderson Clarke, who has written nothing important to speak of. The dialogue doesn't sound realistic. The characters don't seem to speak the way real people speak.
I also wondered about the film's message. Never question authority. The film was made in 1943, American was at war. Was the film trying to tell people have blind faith in your leaders? Or is it don't trust your leaders? Learn to question authority since the captain is presented as the villain.
Still though I am recommending "The Ghost Ship". Why? Though Robson doesn't milk the picture's atmosphere for all its worth. He does in fairness create suspense. A scene dealing with a giant hook anchor which swings across the ship, nearly injuring all the men, works. A scene near the end between the captain and one of the sailors, a mute (Skelton Knaggs) who get into a knife fight actually reminds me of Hitchcock. The two men battle for their lives while on the deck we hear the other sailors singing a happy song. It is the kind of dark humor Hitchcock excels at.
This lends itself to another problem with the film. The character of the mute, Finn. We hear his thoughts, he predicts danger will come aboard the ship. He is presented as a mythical, prophet figure yet the film doesn't do anything with him. At first the viewer suspects he will play a big role in the film only to disappear for huge chunks of it. What exactly is his purpose on the film?
As you can probably tell "The Ghost Ship" is not my favorite film produced by Val Lewton. Still the film has simple pleasures. There is potential there. I like the way Robson sets up some sequences and liked the idea behind the film. While much if it doesn't gel it is still a light diversion.
There was a film made in 2002 which had the same title. I never saw that film but I wonder if it is a remake of this. This film was actually out of circulation for 50 years after some legal problems. It appears there was another film set in production with a similar story. The writers of that film thought Lewton stole their idea. When the case went to court Lewton lost the case. I might be fun to watch this film and the 2002 film back to back.