Saturday, October 29, 2011

Film Review: Creature From The Black Lagoon

"Creature From The Black Lagoon" ** 1\2 (out of ****)

"Creature From The Black Lagoon" (1954) was a science-fiction/horror film made at Universal Studios. At one time Universal Studios was known as a successful studio which produced some of the most memorable horror films of all time. It was at this studio "Dracula" (1931), "Frankenstein" (1931), "The Mummy" (1932) and "The Wolf Man" (1941) was made.

Those movies were quite ambitious. "Dracula" and "Frankenstein" borrowed a visual style from German Expressionism and the work of Fritz Lang and F.W. Murneau. "The Wolf Man" borrowed from noir films, which were quite popular at the time. But with "Creature From The Black Lagoon" Universal Studios seems to have lost its ambition. "Creature From The Black Lagoon" seems to be borrowing from Ed Wood. This is an almost campy "B" film. Their is great potential here but the film's execution is slightly off.

It is largely believed "Creature From The Black Lagoon" signaled the end of Universal's monster reign. "The Gill Man", as he is known, was the last successful horror film character the studio created.

The film takes place along the Amazon river. A marine biologist, Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno) finds the hand of what appears to be a prehistoric creature among some rocks. He takes the hand to some fellow colleagues; Dr. David Reed (Richard Carlson), Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams) and Dr. Mark Williams (Richard Denning) all of whom are intrigue by the hand and what he may represent for their studies. Dr. Williams is also interested in the fame and financial rewards such scientific find may bring. So, they all agree to head at to the site where the hand was found and explore.

"Creature From The Black Lagoon" is a relatively short film but it makes a lot of mistakes. The biggest mistake is the way the villain, The Gill Man, is treated. I feel the character is seen too soon into the picture, roughly 24 minutes into the movie. This takes away a lot of suspense which could have been created as an audience prepares itself for what this creature may look like. But Universal Studios went all out pushing the character out on the public through its advertising. The creature was the main selling point to the studio and they were going to exploit the look of the monster at all cost in their attempt to generate excitement over the movie.

What also hurts "Creature From The Black Lagoon" is the "B" quality of the film. The acting is under-par. The performers are rather stiff, the dialogue somewhat clumsy. The film lacks suspense not just because of the way the creature is presented but because we are never fully engaged in the story. We don't come to fear for these characters.

I wasn't born in 1950s America. In fact I wasn't in the 1950s but, I suspect, from what I know about other films from the period, "Creature From The Black Lagoon" is a good representation of the times. The 1950s saw a time of great interest in science-fiction. Particularly "B" pictures. Think of Ed Wood titles such as "Night of the Ghouls" (1959), "Plan 9 From Outer Space" (1959) and Roger Corman's "The Beast With A Million Eyes" (1955).

The movie also has an interesting message. Yes readers, a movie called "Creature From The Black Lagoon" has a message. The way I interpret it "Creature From The Black Lagoon" tells us, mind your own damn business. The 1950s, as I said, were a time of great interest in exploration. Going into outer space and alien invasions, discovering the world around us. In "Creature From The Black Lagoon" the characters feel by understanding the past we can understand the future but, like it says in the bible, "seek and ye shall find". And that is the point of the movie. If you go looking for something, you just might find it, and that may not be a good thing. Better to leave nature alone. Better to mind your own business and let things remain as they are. Trouble may be on the horizon.

Some also say the film has that old "King Kong" (1933) element going for it. That of a beast falling in love with a beautiful woman. The Gill Man (played on land by Ben Chapman and in water by Ricou Browning) actually falls in love with Kay. That is why he begins to attack the group so he can get his hands on Kay. This is of course an old theme in movies and literature. Presenting the beautiful woman as an object of affection for a deformed being whether it is in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame", "Beauty & The Beast" or "King Kong". Look at what Peter Jackson did in his 2005 remake. He made the woman (played by Naomi Watts) actually feel for Kong.

"Creature From The Black Lagoon" could actually benefit from a remake (God, I can't believe I just said that). It has been something which has been rumored from time to time in Hollywood but the project keeps falling through. But a good movie is lurking here if someone would give it another shot. Put in a little more money, better acting and better dialogue. Also, take that old "Jaws" (1974) approach of delaying the on-screen appearance of the creature.

Will "Creature From The Black Lagoon" work on today's younger audience? I doubt it. Should you watch it anyway? Sure, why not. "Creature From The Black Lagoon" has some qualities worth recommending and it has clearly left an influence on horror films and inspired many films. Just don't expect a masterpiece something on par with Universal Studios earlier horror films.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Film Review: The Raven

"The Raven" *** (out of ****)

To some people "campy" is a dirty word when describing a movie. I believe when people think of a movie as being campy the films of Ed Wood or something similar comes to mind. They think of movies that are amateurish and unintentionally funny. But Roger Corman's "The Raven" (1963) while campy is a different example.

Every Halloween I review at least one movie directed by Roger Corman and every Halloween I complain that I only review his movies in October. Corman deserves more attention especially from moviebuffs. I don't think Corman is one of cinema's great filmmakers, in a class with Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini or Orson Welles, but I do admire his spirit and what he represents. That indie, non-Hollywood, non-conformist style.

Roger Corman, while often thought of as a "B" filmmaker, has directed a few worthwhile films. The movies which I enjoy watching the films and the ones which I review are his Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. These films I believe show Corman at his highest artistic merit. The films have his best production designs, his best plots and his best acting. In the past I have reviewed "The Pit & the Pendulum" (1961), "The Masque of the Red Death" (1964) and "The House of Usher" (1960). Now comes "The Raven".

"The Raven" is a bit different compared to the other Poe adaptations. "The Raven" is more of a campy comedy. Not a comedy in a laugh-out-loud kind of way (at least I never laughed-out-loud) but in an amusing, lighthearted sort of way. The reason I think the movie works, to the extent it does, is because it knows it is campy. The cast, consisting of all horror movie pros; Vincent Price (a Corman regular), Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff, give the audience a wink and a nod. They know what sort of movie this is and the best way to approach this material.

For an adaptation "The Raven" is pretty loose. Outside of naming the film the same as Poe's most famous story, having a raven in the movie and a female character named Lenore, very little is the same. This movie deals with magicians and magic and a power struggle between two of them. It is also a simple story of good vs evil.

Vincent Price stars as Dr. Erasmus Craven. A sometimes absent minded magician. His wife, Lenore (Hazel Court) has passed away two years ago. With her death his world has come to an end. Nevermore, to quote the raven, will he see or hear her voice.

One day a raven (voiced by Peter Lorre) flies into his window. It explains that he is really a man who has had a curse put on him by Dr. Scarabus (Boris Karloff). The raven requires Dr. Craven to make a potion which will convert the raven back to his human form, Dr. Bedlo.

Once Dr. Craven helps Dr. Bedlo, Bedlo explains that he has seen Lenore at Dr. Scarabus' castle. Bedlo suggest Craven follow him to Scarabus' castle, where Bedlo hopes to get revenge on Scarabus for turning him into a raven.

As you can tell little resembles the Poe story and there isn't much here that is scary. The film never goes for a creepy, mystic tone. The interplay between Price and Lorre is comical. They bicker like a married couple. Each throwing insults at the other. Lorre tries to get a lot of laughs presenting his character as a drunk.

For a Roger Corman film, the movie actually has a very talented cast. Price, Lorre and Karloff are experienced actors. You'll also see a young Jack Nicholson play Rexford Bedlo (Lorre's son). This might surprise some viewers who are use to seeing Nicholson act in higher caliber films. But Nicholson actually was given a big opportunity by Corman. He would act in other Corman films including "Little Shop of Horrors" (1960) and "The Terror" (1963). In Nicholson's performance you'll see him play the wannabe hero whom no one will listen to.

Will "The Raven" be a suitable film to watch on Halloween night? Probably not, depending on what you're looking for. If you are looking for a lot of scares, blood and guts, then no. If you are looking for a silly, playful story dealing with magic and Edgar Allan Poe, "The Raven" will work for you. The question is, how many people are looking for that?

Friday, October 14, 2011

Film Review: The Turin Horse

"The Turin Horse" **** (out of ****)

One of the most anticipated films at the 47th annual Chicago International Film Festival, for me, was the Hungarian film directed by Bela Tarr, "The Turin Horse" (2011).

Bela Tarr is one of the great and perhaps one of the most uncompromising filmmakers to come out of Central & Eastern Europe. His work can be compared to Michelangelo Antonioni, Theo Angelopoulos or Andrei Tarkovsky. But, like any great artist he is unique. He has his own vision. And is not to be compared to someone else. However, in an effort to help you understand what to expect in one of his films, I've made the comparisons.

Tarr's films are known for long, unbroken camera shots. When I reviewed his film, "Satantango" (1994), his most popular work, I wrote Tarr's films are filled with moments other directors would put on the cutting room floor. What I mean by that is, Tarr will keep his camera on his subjects long after the "message" of the scene has been conveyed. His films are not so much about conventional narrative as they are about abstract ideas. Tarr's films are more about pace and tone and emotion. His work may in fact put you in a trance. It can have a hypnotic quality. The films are also shot in black & white, something Tarr has been doing since his film "Damnation" (Karhozat, 1988). And they are sparse on dialogue. Clearly from my description of his work, you may be able to sense he is not a mainstream director. His films are not for everyone. Strangely, in my opinion anyway, the screening last night for this film was filled with young male college age film students. I say strange because I was expecting an older, Hungarian audience. Not so.

The reason I was so eager to see this particular Tarr film, besides the fact I have seen all of his films and I take a certain pride watching his films, as I am Hungarian myself, had to do with Tarr has said this will be his final film. If he holds true to that, it shall be a major loss for world cinema. Tarr is a distinct voice. His lost in cinema will be felt by film lovers all over.

But what about "The Turin Horse"? Well, I can't tell you much about it. Not because I don't want to spoil anything for you, but, because this is one of those movies some audience members would describe as a film where "nothing happens". Any time you walk into a Bela Tarr screening expect a divided audience. I remember the last time I saw a Tarr film at the festival, "The Man From London" (A London Ferfi, 2007), it was a packed house but people did walk out. They sighed and complained. They left the theatre baffled. "The Turn Horse" was no different. I saw people walk out of the theatre and never return. I heard an elderly woman tell her companion, "I simply didn't like it."

The film revolves around Ohlsdorfer (Janos Derzsi) and his daughter (Erika Bok, whom Tarr first introduced in his film "Satantango" and has casted her in films since). Ohlsdorfer, whose job is never quite made clear, drives a horse and carriage. The horse is sick and is unable to make the journey into the city. These characters live lonely, dull lives. They live in a deserted village. We do not see another house for miles. There is a terrible wind storm, the sound of blowing wind fills the soundtrack. The characters rarely speak to each other, they rarely have guest. Their existence follows a routine. They eat at the same time, dress and undress at the same time and only eat potatoes.

That is not going to sound interesting to a large number of viewers. But you have to understand Tarr is a different kind of storyteller. Tarr is revealing character traits. The film has ideas. Only, this is an intellectual exercise. I personally was involved throughout the film. My mind was constantly going. Trying to understand the significance of certain scenes, certain images. I have not been this actively involved in a Bela Tarr film since "Almanac of the Fall" (Oszi almanach, 1984). "The Turin Horse" is probably Tarr's best film since "Satantango".

One image which Tarr keeps going back to, time and again, is their eating ritual. When we first see them eat Tarr keeps the camera on Ohlsdorfer. It is a medium close-up. We see him peel the skin off the potato and practically devour it. Tarr never breaks away to show the daughter. Why show us a man eat? You know you're going to ask yourself that question. But, wait a minute. Tarr is revealing character traits here. Lets dissect this scene. First, lets start with the obvious. The man is hungry. He scarfs down that potato as if there is no tomorrow. We can see the steam coming out of the food. He blows on his hands and the potato consistently, yet, he never allows the food to cool off. What does this tell us? He has no patience. He'd rather burn his mouth then wait. Also revealed in this scene is he never speaks. His main focus is on the food. Most people take pleasure when they eat. They sit down, have a conversation and relish their meal. Not this man. Eating is not a pleasurable experience.

Tarr goes back to this scene four more times in the film. Each time taking a different approach. The next time he shows them eating it is the daughter who is our focus. She takes her time eating. She slowly peels the potato and waits for it to cool off. An immediate contrast to the father. This reveals much about her. She has assumed the role of caretaker. She helps her father dress, cooks and cleans. Never complains or talks back. She has accepted her role.

Another sequence Tarr devotes much time to is the daughter dressing the father. One of his arms is broken. He is unable to move it. As a result he requires assistance. These moments enforce the concept of the daily routine of their life. The daughter knows the drill. And again we have to notice the lack of communication between father and daughter. Not a "hello", "good morning" or even a "thank you" from the father.

Now, at this point readers have to be asking themselves what does any of this have to do with the movie as a whole? An hour into the film a guest arrives, Bernhard (Mihaly Kormos). He starts to complain to Ohlsdorfer how life is meaningless. Society manages to debase everything. Our existence is filled with nothing more than victory and defeat. Life has an order to it but it is of a mundane existence. There is even mention of God in this conversation as the character explains, God's hand only makes things worst. This I believe is the message of the film. Bernhard is the heart and soul of the film. The movie's conscience if you will. We are all living our lives in expectations to the role that has been designed for us. The daughter's job is to take care of her father. The horse serves the man. The man serves God.

The film has that old Hungarian communist mentality that all of life is meaningless. Nothing good will ever happen. And we must remember this message is coming from a director who made a movie called "Damnation". The bleakness of society has always been a constant theme in Tarr's work.

Watching "The Turin Horse" I couldn't help but feel this is Tarr's most "pure" film. Tarr is simply being Tarr. He is not even going to attempt to get us a narrative. A character to root for. A beginning, middle and end. He is just going to do what he wants. Engage us through his images.

If this truly turns out to be Tarr's last film, it is a fitting conclusion to his career. It is a film which captures everything Tarr has stood for. It is the work of a bold, confident filmmaker with a unique vision. Tarr is stamped all over this film. It remains my favorite film at the Chicago International Film Festival. An uncompromising masterpiece. The work of a visionairy.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Film Review: Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein

"Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein" *** (out of ****)

As I review horror films in the month of October in celebration of Halloween, I want to pay attention to a sub-genre of comedy which combines these two elements together.

Comedy/horror is nothing new. One of the earliest cinematic examples which I can instantly think of is the Harold Lloyd two-reeler, "Haunted Spooks" (1920) but no comedian or comedy team enaged in this mash-up combo more than Bud Abbott & Lou Costello. They first ventured into this genre in their comedy "Hold That Ghost" (1941) but the film that is often cited as their best example of this genre is "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein" (1948).

It is difficult to say why this is such a popular genre. One theory I have is, if we can laugh at what scares us, it is no longer scary. Comedy/horror films demonstrate the formula of most horror films then turns those movies on their head by making fun of them. Showing us, the audience, how silly it is to find these predictable movies scary.

The cross genre has been so popular over the years that nearly all the great comedians and comedy teams have attempted to delve into this territory at least once. I've already given you the Harold Lloyd example. Other examples include Bob Hope in "The Ghost Breakers" (1940), the comedy team Olsen & Johnson in "Ghost Catchers" (1944), the team Wheeler & Woolsey in "Mummy's Boys" (1936) and Laurel & Hardy in "The Laurel & Hardy Murder Case" (1930). For a more modern example look at what Wes Craven did with the "Scream" series of films.

By the time "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein" was made both "the boys" and the Universal Studio Monsters had fallen on hard times. Viewers were no longer interested in Dracula or Frankenstein's Monster. And Abbott & Costello were starting to show signs of aging. The team had unofficially split-up at one point. In their comedy "The Time of Their Lives" (1946) the team wasn't even on speaking terms. In that movie they do not have any scenes together (!). So, this film was an attempt to rejuvenate both properties; Abbott & Costello comedies and Universal horror films.

One of the reasons I think this film works as well as it does is because the film does a good job keeping the horror part serious. Lon Chaney Jr., the original Wolf Man and Bela Lugosi, the original Dracula are in this movie. The background story involving these characters could have honestly worked on its own. But the movie does an amazing balancing act and incorporates an "Abbott & Costello" comedy into the mix. The film does a great job splitting the movie in half. Those that want to watch the movie to see their favorite Universal Horror characters may enjoy the scenes involving those characters. Those who want to watch an Abbott & Costello comedy will find many gags and the team's famous wordplay to enjoy. In almost effortless fashion the film can easily go from comedy to horror within the same scene.

In the movie Abbott & Costello play a couple of baggage handlers; Chick Young (Abbott) and Wilbur Grey (Costello). They are ordered to deliver two crates to a wax museum. Inside those crates are Dracula's coffin and Frankenstein's Monster, played by Glenn Strange (while not the original Monster, of course Boris Karloff was, Strange did play the Monster in previous films; "House of Dracula" (1945) and "House of Frankenstein" (1944). Naturally Chick doesn't believe in such nonsense. Dracula and Frankenstein's Monster were made up characters. But Wilbur is not so sure. One gag involves the team reprising their moving candle gag, seen in "Hold That Ghost". I wonder if it inspired Mel Brooks for his "put the candle back" routine in "Young Frankenstein" (1974).

From there the boys learn, from Larry Talbot (Chaney) that in fact Dracula and the Monster are real. Talbot has traveled from London to destroy them, once and for all. But will he be able to stop them? You see, Talbot has his own problem. Many years ago he was biten by a werewolf and when the moon is full...well, you know the story.

"Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein" has a lot of fun with this set-up. As I said, the film never makes fun of the monsters. Their storylines are pretty much intact. You can describe the movie really as a horror film with Abbott & Costello thrown in. Not the other way around. Abbott & Costello are almost comic relief. The film is comparable to previous attempts by Universal Studios to combine all of these famous characters into one film. The "House" movies are an example of this as well as "Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man" (1943).

Unfortunately the following Abbott & Costello films which followed, where the team would meet various monsters, changed the formula a bit. Now the films would be Abbott & Costello comedies first, altering the movies to adjust to their style of comedy. That's why this movie is the best of all the films the team did in this genre.

Some interesting facts concerning the film are Boris Karloff doesn't make an appearance. As I understand it, he was in fact approached to play the role but declined fearing the film would make fun of the characters. However, Karloff would appear in a comedy with Abbott & Costello in "Abbott & Costello Meet The Killer, Boris Karloff" (1949). Bela Lugosi would never again play "Dracula" in a movie. Lugosi was actually in "The Wolf Man" (1941) with Chaney. Lugosi's character was the one which turned Chaney into the Wolf Man.

If your looking for a good laugh on Halloween night, honestly "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein" should please most viewers with its unique blend of comedy and horror.

Film Review: Dream House

"Dream House"
** 1\2 (out of ****)

Many times a studio will have a fine film on their hands but they won't know how to market it. They will make changes to the film against the director's wishes in an attempt to "sell" the film to a certain demographic. To have a wider commercial appeal. I have a feeling that's what happened to Jim Sheridan's "Dream House" (2011).

If you've happened to see the trailer for this film there is a good chance you were expecting a haunted house story. According to the trailer the film is about a family which moves into a new home, we assume this is where the film gets its title, it was their dream house, only to find out some disturbing secrets, like a family which was murdered in the house. It would seem the spirits of the house are trying to contact the living. Perhaps in an attempt to guard what they still feel is their home.

Well, I don't want to spoil anything for those that haven't seen this film yet, but, "Dream House" is and isn't about that. The film actually goes a little deeper than that. It is about the demons we keep inside us. Our inability to let go of the past. Not being able to fight our own skeletons in our closets. But the film has the look of a major Hollywood slasher film. A big-budget, brain dead production. Certainly that is how the film was marketed.

Daniel Craig plays Will Atenton. He and his family, Libby (Rachel Weisz) and their two daughters; Trish (Taylor Geare) and Dee Dee (Claire Geare) have left the city to move into their new suburban home. Will has even quit his job as an editor to spend more time with his family.

At first the film has the usual set-up we expect in a film such as this. The happy, well-adjusted family is excited about their new home. Everything seems perfect until one day the house starts to make noises and figures are seen outside the window and the neighbors don't seem so nice, in this film's case that would be Ann Patterson (Naomi Watts). What is going on?

Soon Will and Libby discover the house was the setting for a terrible murder. It is believed a man named Peter Ward killed his wife and two children. Peter is now going to be released from prison, where he was never found guilty of the crime. The fifth anniversary of the event is approaching making people in the community nervous. Will and Libby fear Peter is coming after their home.

The film has a terrific cast but no one really seems put to good use. Naomi Watts is wasted. A majority of the film has absolutely nothing to do with her. Her second billing is not deserved. Rachel Weisz has much more screen time. Watts is one of my favorite actresses working today. I believe she has extraordinary skills but "Dream House" does not allow her to display her acting range at all. An actress with the caliber of talent at Watt's level was not required of this role. It could have been a nice opportunity for an unknown actress to strike out. My guess is Watts was cast to remind people of her role in the horror film, "The Ring" (2002) which I never liked, including its sequel.

Craig fares a little better, because the role requires more of him but it just doesn't feel like Craig is giving his all in this movie. Everyone in the cast looks drained. Is director Jim Sheridan that difficult to work with?

For readers unaware Sheridan has actually directed some very good movies. He may be best known for "My Left Foot" (1989). He also directed "In the Name of the Father" (1993) and "In America" (2002), all of which were nominated for Academy Awards. So Sheridan has a pretty impressive track record. He is respected in the business. And one gets the feeling he wanted "Dream House" to be something more than your typical horror film. "Dream House" is really a psychological film. A kind of brain teaser. But the structure of the film felt a bit off. Somewhat underdeveloped. The movie's big twist felt a little too rushed for me.

I personally wouldn't call "Dream House" a scary movie. There isn't any blood or guts on-screen. No extreme violence. So, if after watching the trailer, you are expecting something along those lines, consider this your warning. You will be disappointed.

There's a good movie lurking around somewhere in "Dream House". I can most definitely see the possibilities. Sadly the final product doesn't live up to the film's potential. Too bad. This is a missed opportunity.

Film Review: His Mother's Eyes

"His Mother's Eyes"
** 1\2 (out of ****)

As the 47th annual Chicago International Film Festival continues, I managed to attend a screening for this somewhat interesting French film, "His Mother's Eyes" (2011), a film which was under the radar at the festival. Just what I like. I enjoy attending the films which others aren't seeking out. You never know, you might discover a gem. "His Mother's Eyes" isn't a gem in my opinion, but, it was a risk I was willing to take.

"His Mother's Eyes" stars the great French cinematic icon Catherine Deneuve. I hate to say it, but, Deneuve has not been in a film which I feel deserves her. I think very highly of Deneuve as an actress. Gone are the days when this beauty appeared in "important" films in which she would give stirring performances. No more "Repulsion" (1965), "Belle de Jour" (1967) or "Tristana" (1970) in her future. Now she appears in movies like "Potiche" (2011), "8 Women" (2002), "The Girl On The Train" (2009, which I also saw at the film festival) and "Apres lui" (2007). Mind you, none of these films are bad. I enjoyed "The Girl On The Train" by Andre Techine quite a bit. I thought it was one of the best films of the year. But, my appreciation for that movie and others had nothing to do with Deneuve. Films and directors don't seem to be using her properly anymore. Or are they simply not making films like they use to? Films which demanded more of her.

On paper "His Mother's Eyes" sounds like an interesting concept. The film centers on Mathieu Roussel (Nicolas Duvauchelle, who appeared with Deneuve in "The Girl On The Train" and other highly celebrated French films such as "White Material" (2010) and "Wild Grass" (2010) by Alain Resnais). He is a celebrity journalist. One of those people who hunts down the rich and famous and writes "tell all" books exposing old family secrets and scandalous sex stories and gossip. Mathieu has now set his sights on TV anchorwoman, Lena Weber (Deneuve).

In preparation for his new book Mathieu lands a job as a personal assistant to Lena thereby giving his access to her daily routine. He also manages to meet Lena's estrange daughter, Maria (Geraldine Pailhas) a famous ballet dancer. He never reveals to Maria he knows her mother and never reveals to Lena he has contacted Maria.

There are many secrets hidden in these people's lives. Why exactly does Lena and Maria have such a strained relationship. What exactly his the relationship between Maria and Judit (Marisa Paredes), an elderly Spainish women who acts as Maria's mother. We also learn Maria had a child, Bruno (Jean-Baptiste Lafarge) whom she gave up for adoption and now would like to contact.

Mathieu learns all of these family secrets. It is a goldmine for his new book. But after spending so much time with these people can Mathieu go through with his deceitful behavior?

Walking into "His Mother's Eyes" I was expected a suspense film. I felt the plot called for that tone. But "His Mother's Eyes" doesn't fall into that genre. It plays its material more heartfelt. It goes for drama. That was kind of a mistake in my opinion. "His Mother's Eyes" could have been a Claude Chabrol type thriller. In fact the great French master of suspense did make a film about a journalist interviewing a celebrity where sinister family secrets were learned. The film was called "Masques" (1987, I have reviewed it). That film had a tongue-in-cheek tone though. Still, I enjoyed that film a bit more.

For what it does, "His Mother's Eyes" has some nice moments. Unfortunately, once again, I wasn't impressed by Deneuve, the film doesn't really give her much to do. There aren't many scenes which require a great range of emotion, but, everyone else does a nice job. Geraldine Pailhas seems sincere in her scenes where she tries to reach out to her son. We can sense her optimism and defeat. Duvauchelle plays the creep, no morals character quite well. We can never quite tell which side of the fence he is on. Is he showing emotion or just playing a part, trying to manipulate these people?

The film was written and directed by Thierry Klifa. Unfortunately I'm not familiar with this director's work. But Klifa does have a fine eye and is more than capable of stringing a film together. I just couldn't get over the feeling that the movie was playing against what should have been a more natural tone and pace for this type of story.

I'm skeptical if this movie will find distribution in the United States, still, I'm glad I saw the movie.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Film Reviews: Bedlam & Isle of the Dead

"Bedlam" *** 1\2 (out of ****)

Since starting this blog some years ago I have always devoted the month of October to horror films in honor of Halloween. This year will be no different. In the past I have usually written about classic horror films such as "Dracula" (1931) and "Frankenstein" (1931). I have also spent a great deal of time reviewing the films made by producer Val Lewton. And here we have two more films produced by the great horror/suspense master; "Bedlam" (1946) and Isle of the Dead" (1945).

Both films were directed by Mark Robson and star Boris Karloff. Of the two films I would say "Bedlam" is the better one, though not the best collaboration between Karloff and Lewton, who worked on three films together. My favorite is "The Body Snatcher" (1945), which I have already reviewed.

"Bedlam" plays around with some religious themes, as most horror films do, and themes of nature vs nurture. What makes people bad? What brings about violence? Is it something simply within humans or does environment play a role? How are we suppose to treat the less fortunate, like animals or with kindness?

Boris Karloff plays Master George Sims. He runs an insane asylum. A fatal accident, of a sane man, has allowed Master Sims to fall out of favor with Lord Mortimer (Billy House). The man who died was a friend of his Lordship. Sims has explained that is was all an accident and in order to win good favor once again with his Lordship as invited him and his protege, Nell Bowen (Anna Lee), to his asylum where they may laugh at these people as they attempt to put on a play. His Lordship loves the idea but Ms. Bowen isn't sold on the idea.

At the asylum Sims regards these people as less than animals. He beats them, steals their food and does not provide stable living conditions. No beds or treatment. You see, they are violent, uneducated people. They do not deserve proper treatment. They wouldn't be able to appreciate it anyway, they are too ignorant to know any better. You mustn't treat them the way you would a civilize person.

Ms. Bowen arrives at the asylum to see exactly what goes on there. Sims, who doesn't like her, agrees to show her and explain his views. Though Ms. Bowen has a cold exterior, inside she is deeply affected by what she sees. Sims' views disgust her. She vows to reform this asylum with the help of Lord Mortimer. But this doesn't meet the approval of Sims. Ms. Bowen must be gotten rid of. Sims decides to have her locked up in his asylum. Then we shall see if she still regards these less fortunate individuals as "people". If they are worthy of kindness.

When we watch a Val Lewton production you expect a lot of shadows, danger lurking in the darkness. Lewton's films are more about atmosphere than say screen violence. In fact, violence is never shown on-screen in any of his films. If you walk into any of these films with a slasher mentality you will be gravely disappointed.

However, "Bedlam" misses a few golden opportunities. It required more scenes inside the asylum. At first Ms. Bowen is scared to be there. She wants to leave. Here Lewton and Robson should have shown us what type of place this asylum is. What exactly goes on there. How are the people treated? How do they react to Ms. Bowen. The setting is a perfect backdrop for a suspense/horror film. We aren't in the darkness so much. And we never come to fully understand what exactly happened to his Lordship's friend. Was he on to Sims? Was he about to expose him?

When compared to "Isle of the Dead", Karloff gives a much better performance here. He is more animated. More entertaining to watch.

The director, Robson, worked with Lewton on a few movies. He replaced Lewton's best director, Jacques Tourner, who directed "The Cat People" (1943) and "I Walked with A Zombie" (1943). Robson seems to have lacked Tourner's vision and understanding of what makes a Lewton film work. Robson directed "The Seventh Victim" (1943) and "The Ghost Ship" (1943) with Lewton and would go on, after Lewton, to direct the Frank Sinatra vehicle "Von Ryan's Express" (1965) and "Earthquake" (1974). Nothing he would work on suggested a man who understood horror.

Still "Bedlam" is perhaps Robson's best film with Lewton. He doesn't take full advantage of the film's setting, which would have worked nicely with this genre, still the film has some nice moments and interesting ideas.

"Isle of the Dead" *** (out of ****)

On paper I suppose "Isle of the Dead" should have worked but the final product is a bit weak. Once again we have a wonderful setting which isn't taken full advantage of.

We are in the midst of the war of 1912 on a Greek island. The plague has struck. A group of people are stranded on an island together for fear of spreading the disease. There is also the threat of an evil spirit, the vorvolaka, which may live inside a young woman, Thea (Ellen Drew).

The premise sounds creepy enough to get a few scares. It reminds me a bit of Agatha Christie's "And Then There Were None", where one by one each character will die off due to the plague. Who will be the last person standing? It also reminds me of other Val Lewton films like "The Cat People" also a story about an evil force within a young woman. And "I Walked with A Zombie" which takes place on an island where evil lurks. All three works are better.

Karloff stars once again as Gen. Pherides who arrives on the island to visit the grave of his wife. He along with an American war correspondent, Oliver (Marc Cramer) discover that the bodies are no longer in the graves. They notice a house on the island and pay a visit. A gentlemen named Albrecht (Jason Robards Sr.) has been living on the islands for years and knows all about the grave robbers. But there is nothing he can do. He suggest the general and Oliver spend the night with him and his guest; Mr. and Mrs. St. Aubyn (Alan Napier, best known for playing Alfred on the 1960s TV show "Batman" and Katherine Emery) and Thea.

When one of these characters dies the general believes it is the plague and everyone must stay on the island. But could it be something else? Could it be the evil spirit called the vorvolaka? Thought originally to be an ancient Greek myth perhaps it is true.

Once again Robson doesn't fully understand what makes a Lewton film work. The movie should be drenched in atmosphere. Isolated island, dead bodies, evil spirits, it doesn't get much better than this for a horror film. And Boris Karloff is it. It should all add up but it doesn't. Karloff in particular is quite stiff in this movie. Almost everyone seems in a bit of a trance. I guess in theory still goes along with the title, "Isle of the Dead", why should these actors be acting "alive"?

I'd put "Isle of the Dead" pretty low on Lewton's scale. Better to watch "Bedlam", "The Cat People", "The Leopard Man" (1943) and "I Walked with A Zombie".

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Film Review: What Love May Bring

"What Love May Bring" *** 1\2 (out of ****)

The 47th annual Chicago International Film Festival has begun and for my first night attending the festival I was at a special screening for Claude Lelouch's latest film, "What Love May Bring" (2011). Mr. Lelouch graced the audience with his presence, where he was also given an award.

I have long been a fan of Mr. Lelouch, a filmmaker perhaps best known for the film "A Man & A Woman" (1966). For which he won an Academy Award for the film's screenplay. When I found out his newest film was going to be screened, I knew I had to attend. The last film Mr. Lelouch directed, which was distributed in this country was "Roman de Gare" (2008). So I was due for another Lelouch film. Plus, there was the chance this film might not get picked up. Another film Mr. Lelouch had screened at the festival, "Le Courage d'aimer" (2005) never found American distribution. Sadly the name Claude Lelouch doesn't mean much to today's movie audience. Those in attendance at yesterday's screening were of the older variety.

"What Love May Bring" tells us the story of Ilva Lemoine (Audrey Dana), a woman on trial for killing her husband, the very wealthy Jim (Gilles Lemaire). Her attorney, Simon (Laurent Couson) tells the court Ilva's life story as well as his own life story (why are all lawyers such ego maniacs?).

The film takes us back to the 1920s where Ilva's mother, an actress in porn films, finally meets a nice man, Maurice (Dominique Pinon, who was in "Roman de Gare"). Next it is the beginning of WW2. This Jewish family is now being watched by the Nazis. Maurice, unknown to his step-daughter, is part of the resistance. But, no matter, because Ilva has fallen in love with a German soldier. Soon the Americans enter the war, where Ilva's meets two American soldiers, Jim and his best friend, a black soldier, Bob (Jacky Ido). Both men are in love with her and she may very well be in love with both of them.

For the first 90 minutues of this two hour film, I was intensely hooked. Claude Lelouch has given us a valentine, a celebration of life, love and that glorious thing called cinema. I found myself captivated by Ilva and Simon's story. Simon, also a Jew, is sent to a concentration camp, where in order to survive he keeps himself glued to the piano. He longs for a woman he meet on one of the trains to the camp. One who has now vanished.

But then sadly Mr. Lelouch gets a little self-reflective in the last act. A little too self-congraditatory. There is actually a character based on Mr. Lelouch in the film. There is a brief montage of Mr. Lelouch's films. Then the movie becomes a movie within a movie. We see an audience attend a screening of this movie. These moments serve no function. There aren't needed and completely go against the tone the previous 90 minutues had established. It was here the movie started to lose me.

If Mr. Leouch, who co-wrote the film with long time collaborator, Pierre Uytterhoven, who wrote "A Man & A Woman", along with its sequel, "A Man & A Woman: 20 Years Later" (1986), should have edited these finally minutes and just keep the film as the story of Simon and Ilva. Why turn the movie and the audience on its head with all this tapping himself on the back. Yes, Mr. Leouch is a great filmmaker. No question. I even wouldn't have mind the character who is suppose to be him in the movie but when you start showing a montage of your own films in the middle of one of your films, in an attempt to celebrate your own career, I believe you have gone a bit too far. A great talent deserves to be celebrated but not by the filmmaker himself. It comes off a little too forced.

Still I cannot deny the amazing effect the first 90 minutes had on me. It is a lovely period piece filled with great music, mostly "Stormy Weather" and the wonderful French song, "I Wish You Love" and a lot of emotion. You begin to feel for these characters and their stories. Their struggles, their search for love.

As I walked out of the theatre I over heard many people say how great the movie was. Their was a big applause at the end of the film. No one wanted to leave the theatre after the credits, I assume because they wanted to hear what Mr. Leouch was going to say. I mention this because clearly their is an audience for the film. There are people who are going to enjoy it greatly. I myself love many, many things about the movie too. But, will it be distributed in this country? Will a wider audience gain access to see this film? I'm not too sure.