Friday, October 23, 2015

Film Review: Bridge of Spies

"Bridge of Spies"  *** (out of ****)

Steven Spielberg's "Bridge of Spies" (2015) is two movies in one. One half of the movie is a commentary on American morality and our belief we have moral authority over the world and the importance of due process. The second half of the movie is rather conventional spy fluff.

If only "Bridge of Spies" would have focused on the issues in the first half I might have considered it one of the year's best films.

Walking into "Bridge of Spies" I wasn't exactly sure what to expect. I thought it was going to be an intense Cold War spy thriller and then we get this commentary on due process and civil liberties and American hypocrisy regarding these issues. For a while I thought to myself, Steven Spielberg is becoming the moral, liberal conscience of this country! But then "Bridge of Spies" backs away from this point and Mr. Spielberg goes back to the idea of Americanism prominent in "Saving Private Ryan" (1998), which shows Americans are brave heroes that always do the right thing, which is what made the first half of this movie so remarkable to me. Mr. Spielberg was showing the dirt under the carpet.

Tom Hanks stars as James B. Donovan, an attorney that deals mostly with insurance claims. He is asked by the U.S. government to defend a man believed to be a Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). Initially Donovan is reluctant to take on the case. He does not want the bad press. He is worried about what the community and the nation will say about him for defending a Soviet spy in court. But, the U.S. government is determined to show the world in America everyone is entitled to due process. And so Donovan agrees as he sees this to be his patriotic duty.

Upon taking the case all of Donovan's fears have come true. People look at him with suspicion. Why defend a spy? A Soviet spy nonetheless. Everyone, the government and the public, believes the man is guilty and a trial is pointless but Donovan sees it as his duty to provide the best legal counsel he can. Slowly he begins to notice from the judge presiding over the case to the American public that no one wants to give this man a fair trial. The whole legal system is a farce. It is pretend. This is all being done so the public can see a trial was given, a defense was provided and Abel was found guilty. However Donovan learns the government never had a search warrant, the judge will not allow a continuance so Donovan may build a case, the government wants Donovan to revoke his attorney / client privilege and inform them of what Abel says.

This should generate with the American public. Our society has had to deal with these issues since September 11, 2001. Should those that were responsible for those attacks be given a trial? Many Americans felt they shouldn't. Should those in Guantanamo Bay be given a trial and for that matter, many there haven't even been charge with anything. Many Americans feel they are not entitled to a trial. Should the Boston bomber have been given a trial and any other individual responsible for such acts? Many Americans feel the answer is no. Society talks about innocent until proven guilty and due process but those are just words, right? There are limitations, right? Not all people are entitled to civil liberties, right? It is this asinine hypocrisy that Mr.Spielberg is pointing a finger at. Americans believe they are exceptional, Americans believe in their moral authority, but, you know what? Doing the right thing is a burden sometimes. It is too difficult. Why go to all that trouble? Lets just say and feel we are great and not live by our words. That is so much easier and then we can all have time to do nothing and watch television, okay?

You wouldn't expect a message like this from Steven Spielberg. Mr. Spielberg always seemed so safe to me politically. He made movies where the Nazis were the bad guys. That's not daring. But then Mr. Spielberg started taking more chances. He started making bold movies. "Munich" (2005) argued violence will only lead to more violence, as the Iraq war was being fought. Not to mention Jewish groups were angry with him for this message. "Lincoln" (2012) showed a dirty side to politics and how sometimes great men have to bend the rules to reach their goals. Now comes "Bridge of Spies" with its indictment against American hypocrisy on civil liberties.

But, Mr. Spielberg can't help himself and he reverts back to his old ways. This is when we enter the second half of the movie. A U.S. pilot (Austin Stowell), working as a spy for the C.I.A. is captured to sentenced to prison. The pilot was given orders to kill himself if he believed he would be captured when he did not do that the U.S. government would like to arrange an exchange between the pilot and Abel. Once again Donovan is brought into the circle and asked to negotiate the exchange.

Plot-wise this makes a lot of sense. The audience has seen Donovan argue on behalf of a Soviet spy for an hour. You can't leave the audience with that. You have to make some effort to show Donovan is an American. You must show him actively participating the defend an American solider to help balance his behavior and show the audience all Donovan cares about is doing the right thing.

Unfortunately this part of the movie is not as interesting as the first half. It goes into standard spy cliches and has less of a voice. What is "Bridge of Spies" telling us now? From this point forward there is nothing new and / or fresh "Bridge of Spies" has to add to this genre.

"Bridge of Spies" is a well made movie. Steven Spielberg knows his craft. Tom Hanks is a very good actor. He fleshes out Donovan and makes him a man the audience can respect and presents his emotions and logic in a realistic fashion. We would like to believe men like Donovan exist in today's world.

What is surprisingly missing is a overwhelming feeling of sentimentality. That is unusual for Mr. Spielberg. There is an attempt by the end of the movie but by that point it is too late. The audience may like the idea of the characters and what they present but emotionally I was never completely involved. I sat back and watched what was going on but didn't feel like an activate participant.

This may be explained by the fact Joel & Ethan Coen had a hand in the movie's screenplay. I don't normally warm up to any character in any of their movies. They are also not known for sentimentally in their movies. They have a very pessimistic view of society, which can be seen in any number of their movies. This creates an interesting clash of styles between the Coen Brothers and Spielberg.

Audiences should see "Bridge of Spies". I wouldn't be surprised if the movie earns several Academy Award nominations but "Bridge of Spies" is not Steven Spielberg at his best. It is a decent, well made movie with a very good performance given by Tom Hanks with a strong social conscience in the first half. But then "Bridge of Spies" falls into standard spy material, despite the fact it is based on real events.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Film Review: Young Frankenstein

"Young Frankenstein"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks bring the comedy / horror genre back to life in "Young Frankenstein" (1974).

What first and foremost allows "Young Frankenstein" to succeed as a motion picture is the fact both Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks have respect for the source material. Only because they present the Frankenstein story properly and follow it closely does "Young Frankenstein" work as a whole and is a prime example of how to make a comedy / horror movie.

"Young Frankenstein" understands you need to have a balancing act between the comedy and horror. You need to work within the confines of the horror genre and gently poke fun at it. If you don't treat the horror part somewhat seriously and play into the now standard horror cliches then what you have is an entire movie that is a joke and seems silly and childish.

It has been said, by Gene Wilder nonetheless, that going into pre-production for "Young
Frankenstein", Mr. Wilder did not want this movie to be another typical Mel Brooks comedy, meaning vulgar sex jokes and a comedic style which throws 50 jokes at a dart board in the hopes one of them will hit the bullseye. Mr. Wilder even told Mel Brooks he did not want him to appear in the movie. Mr. Brooks, wanting to be like Alfred Hitchcock, used to write small cameos for himself in his previous movies; "The Twelve Chairs" (1970) and "Blazing Saddles" (1974).

"Young Frankenstein" follows the Gene Wilder approach to comedy moreso than the Mel Brooks approach. The "Wilder style" is to take your time to explain the plot and the jokes will come later. Mr. Wilder feels once you get the basic plot points out to the audience then you can tell a joke. Pay attention to the structure of "Young Frankenstein". Events and situations are introduced and then comes the punchline. While the style is not typical for Mr. Brooks "Young Frankenstein" however is able to get many laughs and create several funny sequences.

Mel Brooks often gets a bad rap. When people think of a "Mel Brooks comedy" no one thinks of what goes into it. Very few people give Mr. Brooks credit as a talented filmmaker and an artist. I guess it is difficult to think of someone as an artist when they put fart jokes into their movies but "Young Frankenstein" is a "mature" movie. The movie does display Mr. Brooks' ability as a director. He knows where to put his camera. He understands the fundamentals of filmmaking. If you believe all Mel Brooks can do is make a movie where a guy punches a horse watch "Young Frankenstein" and you will see there is more to the man than that.

The main sources of inspiration for "Young Frankenstein", besides Mary Shelley's novel "Frankenstein", are the Universal Studio 1930s horror movies in particular "Frankenstein" (1931), "Bride of Frankenstein" (1935) and the lesser known "Son of Frankenstein" (1939). It is mainly "Frankenstein" and "Son of Frankenstein" which Mr. Brooks and Mr. Wilder target.

Although it is not required that someone be well acquainted with the earlier "Frankenstein" movies to enjoy "Young Frankenstein" I believe, as is the case with most spoofs and the movies of Mr. Brooks, the more familiar you are with the source material the funnier you will find Mr. Brooks' movies. If only because you will be able to tell how Mr. Brooks is making fun of the original. You will have a reference point. For example, when I first saw "High Anxiety" (1977) I laughed but I wasn't terribly familiar with the work of Alfred Hitchcock, it wasn't until I saw more of Mr. Hitchcock's movies that I was able to see how clever "High Anxiety" is and the many ways the movie incorporates different Hitchcock movies together.

Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (Wilder) learns he has inherited the estate of his grandfather Dr. Victor Frankenstein (in the original movie his name is Henry Frankenstein) and must travel to Transylvania to claim it. Frederick though has tried to distance himself from his famous grandfather and his work, going as far as saying his last name is pronounced Fronk-en-steen and dismissing the very notion that it is possible to bring dead tissue back to life.

When arriving in Transylvania Frederick is greeted by Igor (Marty Feldman) and Inga (Terri Garr), both of whom will serve as his assistants, and taken to the Frankenstein Castle where the three of them meet the housekeeper Frau Blucher (Cloris Leachman).

The arrival of Frederick causes suspicion among the townspeople who worry Frederick will follow in his grandfather's footsteps and create another monster. Of course, they are right to be suspicious. After reading his grandfather's manual entitled "How I Did It", Frederick begins to believe his grandfather was right. It is possible to create life. This allows for the introduction of the character Inspector Kemp (Kenneth Mars) whom the townspeople ask to meet with Frederick and inquire about his intentions.

While "Young Frankenstein" may seem to take a slower approach than is usual for Mr. Brooks audiences need to keep their eyes open for all the subtle gags flowing through-out the picture. Pay attention to the moment Frau Blucher greets Frederick, Igor and Inga. She is holding a candelabra and ask the three of them to stay close to her as they walk up a staircase. If you are paying attention you will notice not one of the candles in the candelabra is lit! If you look closely at the Monster (Peter Boyle) you will notice he has a zipper on the side of his neck instead of stitches. When Frederick is attempting to generate life into the Monster he ask Igor to pull three switches. The third switch is labeled "the works". Finally as Frederick arrives in Transylvania he spots a shoeshine boy and says "pardon me boy, is this the Transylvania station?" To which the boy replies "ja, ja, track 29. Oh, can I give you a shine?" These are actually lyrics to a song "Chattanooga Choo Choo" made popular by bandleader Glenn Miller.

Another reason why "Young Frankenstein" works is because the actors are playing it straight. There is very little of performers "winking at the camera". Gene Wilder possesses a cool demeanor as he seems to be channeling Basil Rathbone, who starred in "Son of Frankenstein". Mr. Wilder never goes in for the obvious laugh. Only Marty Feldman I would dare say is visibly having a good time and wants the audience to know he is in on the joke. He may be the character children respond to most. Mr. Feldman and Mr. Wilder do have a good amount of chemistry in their scenes together. The contrast of their styles works to their advantage.

The movie was nominated for two Academy Awards; best sound and best adapted screenplay (Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks) unfortunately though the cinematography was not nominated. "Young Frankenstein" also remains one of Mel Brooks' most popular movies and is routinely listed among the funniest comedies of all-time.

"Young Frankenstein" is a showcase of Mr. Brooks' talents as a filmmaker. The movie shows restraint but is still able to produce big laughs.The jokes generate from the characters and grow from the plot, not bombastic, out of left field, breaking the fourth wall kind of jokes.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Film Review: The Birds

"The Birds"  *** (out of ****)

Birds. What do you think of them? I find them to be disgusting, worthless creatures. I find nature to be an evil, violent place. Animals preying on other animals. Liberals might say, well, birds / animals are no different than humans. Look how violent humans are; wars, assassinations, mass shootings..ect. That's all true but it is besides the point. Two wrongs don't make a right. So what about those birds?

Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds" (1963) takes a somewhat simple idea - a group of birds start attacking people, and then escalates the tension and the intensity of the attacks and scares us out of our minds because we think to ourselves, is it possible for birds to do this in real life? Maybe not on the scale we see in this movie, but, it could happen, right?

I was very young when I first saw Hitchcock's "The Birds". I didn't like Mr. Hitchcock's movies as a child. He scared me. I was frightened even watching episodes of his television show. I can't quite say this with absolute assurance but "The Birds" may have been the reason I am afraid of birds and animals. To this very day, I am hesitant to walk pass squirrels. I always look behind me after passing them to make sure they aren't chasing me. Why am I telling you this? I'm not sure. I guess to explain how relatable the premise of the movie can be.

Tippi Hedren makes her screen debut as Melanie Daniels, a spoiled San Francisco socialite who receives a lot of media attention due to her wild behavior, such as jumping into a fountain in Rome naked or "practical jokes" which result in the destruction of property. She meets a lawyer, Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), at a pet shop. At first he mistakes her for an employee of the store but quickly, without telling Melanie, realizes she is not, and proceeds to ask her if there are any love birds he can buy.

The joke comes to an end when Mitch finally reveals he knows Melanie is not a salesperson. This upsets Melanie, as she does not like to have practical jokes played on her. She is attracted to Mitch though and decides to surprise Mitch by buying him the love birds, which were meant as a gift for his younger sister, and deliver them to him. What Melanie doesn't realize is Mitch has left town for the weekend and has headed to Bodega Bay. Stuck with the love birds she bought, she travels down to him.

When Melanie arrives at Bodega Bay she is greeted somewhat coldly by the residents. She looks out of place. Because she is wealthy she expects people to jump at her command and extend their services to her. The women in particular keep a cold distance. One woman Melanie meets is a local school teacher, Annie (Suzanne Pleshette) who exhibits a bit a jealousy at the thought of Melanie spending time with Mitch. We learn Annie and Mitch used to date and Annie is still secretly in love with him.

Melanie doesn't allow Annie's feelings to stop her from meeting Mitch and his family. Once again Melanie is given a cold greeting this time from Mitch's mother, Lydia (Jessica Tandy), a recent widow. Lydia recognizes Melanie's face from the newspapers and the viewer can tell Lydia doesn't think Melanie is right for her son. Then again, what mother thinks any woman is right for her son?

Then there is the issue of those birds. As the movie begins we see a large flock of birds in the sky. As soon as Melanie arrives at Bodega Bay a seagull swoops down at her. Crows gather and attack school children. Seagulls again attack customers at a local dinner. Many of the attacks end with the birds killing a significant number of humans. What is causing it?

Watching "The Birds" it is inevitable you will ask yourself what do the birds represent? What is their social significance? Mr. Hitchcock doesn't offer an explanation for why the birds do what they do. Some have suggested the bird attacks have no meaning they are the MacGuffin in Mr. Hitchcock's story. MacGuffin was a term Hitchcock described as an unimportant detail which was mainly used a plot device to help drive the story forward. The best examples include "Notorious" (1946) and "North By Northwest" (1959) which involve "government secrets". What exactly the "secrets" the villains in the movie are after doesn't matter. In the example of those movies the MacGuffin theory works quite well. In "The Birds" it doesn't. The entire movie revolves around the bird attacks. It is the driving force of the movie. It must have a purpose.

Looking at the 1960s the birds can represent a few things. The most popular theory is "The Birds" is kind of an Orwellian "Animal Farm" story of animals revolting against humans due to the mistreatment animals have endured. Politically speaking America was engaged in the Cold War. "The Birds" was released prior to the assassination of President Kennedy so the bird attacks could represent the fear of outside forces attacking America. Feminism was on the rise in the 1960s thanks largely to the book "The Feminine Mystique" written by Betty Friedan. Some have correctly pointed out the cast in "The Birds" is largely female. In Britain "bird" is slang for woman. Could the bird attacks represent females fighting for the attention of the single male character prominent in the story? The attacks do stop after two of the female characters have joined together. And finally there is the theory that there is no theory. Bad things simply happen in the world and there is no explanation for it.

This represents the downfall of "The Birds", the lack of meaning behind the attacks. Mr. Hitchcock deliberately leaves it ambiguous. This may not have been a problem if the story revolving around the attacks wasn't so weak. There is not anything very interesting developed. Whether or not Melanie and Mitch get together is meaningless. The movie doesn't go to the trouble of creating interesting human characters. The Birds are the stars of the movie.

On the other hand, "The Birds" was perhaps the last movie Mr. Hitchcock directed that became part of American mainstream culture. I would argue the image of the birds swooping down attacking Melanie and the school children is just as iconic an image in film history as the shower scene in "Psycho" (1960). Nothing Mr. Hitchcock directed after this movie has left an indelible mark on the American conscience; "Torn Curtain" (1966), "Topaz" (1969) or "Family Plot" (1976) are all considered second-rate Hitchcock movies by the general public.

The movie was inspired by a story written by Daphne Du Maurier published in 1952 and has been interpreted in some circles as a metaphor for the Cold War. Ms. Du Maurier also provided the source material for two other movies Mr. Hitchcock directed, the Academy Awarding winner "Rebecca" (1940), Mr. Hitchcock's first American movie and "Jamaica Inn" (1939). The screenplay for "The Birds" was adapted by Evan Hunter, who also wrote an episode of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents".

As is the case with his other movies Mr. Hitchcock is able to inject moments of humor into this story, though I don't find it blends as easily into the story as in "Rear Window" (1954) for example. One of the best scenes in the movie takes place at a restaurant where the costumers start debating why the birds are on the attack. An ornithologist dismisses the very idea of birds attacking explaining they aren't violent. At that very moment we hear a waitress put in an order for fried chicken. Subtly getting the idea across of how violent humans are towards animals.

You will also notice Mr. Hitchcock places a lot of emphasis on Ms. Hedren's beauty. The very first time we see her she is walking down a street when a man gives her a cat call. She turns around and has a beautiful smile on her face. Immediately bringing to our attention this is a beautiful woman. Her appearance is the reason the people of Bodega Bay treat her coldly. And there are plenty of close-ups and medium shots of her.

The movie was nominated for one Academy Award for its visual effects. A well deserved nomination. It was also a box-office success continuing on the popularity Mr. Hitchcock enjoyed with "Psycho", proving the old master (who was 64 when he directed this movie) still had a few tricks up his sleeve and was a relevant filmmaker. It will still get a reaction out of viewers today. But would I describe it as a horror movie?

I have been struggling lately with this very question. Are the films of Alfred Hitchcock horror movies? I have always classified his work as "suspense". There is a reason Mr. Hitchcock was given the title "master of suspense", though that title was given to him in reaction to his television show in the 1950s. Though the majority of his work is not "horror" is my opinion. A lot of people consider "Psycho" to be a horror movie. I believe it is a murder / mystery. Sometimes "The Birds" is thought to be a horror movie. I consider it a suspense / thriller. Which leads me to ask the question, how do we define horror? I suppose I have a rather old-fashion interpretation of it. I consider the monster movies of the 1930s & 40s as horror movies. But is the definition of "horror" broad enough that it may include a movie like "The Birds" or other suspense movies?

Regardless "The Birds", despite its flaws. is worth seeing. The premise is still able to shock us and cause debate. I don't believe this is the best movie to serve as an introduction into Mr. Hitchcock's work though it does contain certain elements we associate with his best movies.

[P.S. - I am also under the impression this movie influenced M. Night Shyamalan's "The Happening" (2008), another movie about unexplained events]

Monday, October 19, 2015

Film Review: The Unseen

"The Unseen"  *** (out of ****)

"The Unseen" (1945) is considered to be director Lewis Allen's follow-up to his critically acclaimed ghost story "The Uninvited" (1944).

Unfortunately "The Unseen" has remained unseen by a large majority of the American movie going public. The movie hasn't even been put on DVD and is out of circulation on VHS. This is regrettable since "The Unseen" is not a movie which should be avoided.

I was never particularly a big fan of "The Uninvited". I found it somewhat slow moving and lacking in suspense. It did however give us the tune "Stella By Starlight" which I suppose is worth something. While it wouldn't be fair to compare "The Unseen" to "The Uninvited", as they are two different movies, I must say I found "The Unseen" to be a much more livelier picture.

The setting for "The Unseen" is similar to the prior movie. Both take place in big houses where the residents suspects someone or something is in the house with them. Both movies deal with murder but in "The Uninvited" there was a supernatural element to the story. In "The Unseen" we don't suspect ghosts are at play. This is more of a mystery movie.

Gail Russell stars as Elizabeth Howard, a 21 year old woman who has come to the Fielding residence to be employed as a caretaker for Mr. Fielding's (Joel McCrea) children; Ellen (Nona Griffith) and Barnaby (Richard Lyon). Ellen takes an instant liking to Elizabeth but Barnaby views Elizabeth as his enemy and even tells her so. Barnaby "loved" their previous nanny Maxine (Phyllis Brooks) and wants her to return to take care of them.

Elizabeth doesn't receive much support from Mr. Fielding, as he goes out almost every night and bad mouths his children, referring to them as "monsters" and constantly reciting Barnaby's bad traits to Elizabeth.

Mr. Fielding has his own troubled past. His wife was murdered two years ago and from what the viewer can gather, the police believed Mr. Fielding was a suspect. Raising the children has been difficult for him. He even tried to send the children to their grandmother, but she didn't discipline them, so they are back with their father.

The only person Mr. Fielding spends much time with is Dr. Evans (Herbert Marshall), who takes care of the children and is considered a family friend. He tries to tell Elizabeth about Mr. Fielding's past and to be patient with him.

Next door to the family is an abandoned home. Every night though young Barnaby looks out of his bedroom window staring at the house. One day he sees an elderly woman approach the home, staring intently at something and a man exit the home and chase after her. The next morning in the paper it is revealed a woman was murdered near by. Is this what Barnaby witnessed? We also learn Barnaby may be in communication with the killer.

"The Unseen" is based on the novel "Midnight House" written by Ethel Lina White with an adapted screenplay by Hagar Wilde and Raymond Chandler and was director Allen's fourth movie as director.

What works best in "The Unseen" is the mood the movie creates. There is genuine interest in finding out what exactly is going on. How will the events unfold. The screenplay for "The Unseen" creates a lot of suspense and tension. Is someone breaking into the house or is Elizabeth imagining things?

There are also a lot of good dialogue exchanges in the movie. Plenty of sarcastic remarks and witty banter between Dr. Evans and Mr. Fielding as they discuss his children and Elizabeth.

The choice of actors are good as well however this is kind of an odd role for me to see Joel McCrea in. We don't always see his character in the best light. I've always been used to seeing him in comedies; "He Married His Wife" (1940), "Sullivan's Travels" (1941) and "The More the Merrier" (1943) or playing heroes; Hitchcock's "Foreign Correspondent" (1940). The one remaining trait is his characters usually had a weary sense of humor.

Herbert Marshall, for me, is one of those actors that can do no wrong. He is always a pleasure to see on-screen although he is nearly wasted here, outside of a few witty remarks. Ultimately his character feels like an after thought not an essential character created to further develop the plot.

The movie has an ending which feels rushed and not fully developed. The very last line of dialogue Dr. Evans has is ridiculous. It is as if the writers simply gave up. They wanted to end the movie and didn't care to write anymore.  The movie is all build-up and poor execution.

It is also not fair to view this movie as a follow-up to "The Uninvited". The two movies have nothing to do with each other. This may cause some viewers not to like the movie as they will be comparing the two movies and may be prejudice since they really like "The Uninvited".

Despite some short comings there is enough in "The Unseen" to lead me to recommend it based upon a nice atmosphere created, some witty dialogue, the screen presence of Herbert Marshall, and a decent level of suspense.

The movie was also nominated for an Academy Award for best sound. It lost to "The Bells of St. Mary's" (1945). Which is well noted for its superior sound (I'm joking).

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Film Review: The Lodger

"The Lodger"  *** (out of ****)

"The Lodger" (1944) released by 20th Century Fox is a remake of a earlier silent film adaptation directed by Alfred Hitchcock in the 1920s based on a novel written by Marie Adelaide Belloc Lowndes about the Jack the Ripper murders.

We are in the Whitechapel district of 1880s London. The streets are empty. A heavy fog is in the air. Policeman stand at every corner. The camera pans from right to left as we see empty street after empty street. Suddenly we hear a group of people exit a saloon. They are in good cheer singing. One elderly lady, a bit tipsy, proceeds to leave the group and begins to walk home. A policemen stops her and asks her if she has far to go. She informs the officer she lives around the corner. She makes it to her front door as the camera pans away and we hear a loud female voice screaming. The elderly woman we had been following has been killed. The police and busybody spectators chatter among themselves, it must have been Jack the Ripper. This marks his fourth victim as the police remain clueless to the killer's indentity.

Next we see Mr. Slade (Laird Cregar), whose real name is not Slade. He has taken the name of a street sign he has passed, as he approaches the home of Robert and Ellen Bonting (Sir. Cedrix Hardwicke and Sara Allgood) a wealthy married couple whom have embarrassingly fallen on difficult financial times and have placed a Ad looking for a lodger. Mr. Slade has come in reply to the Ad and would like to move in immediately. Ellen Bonting believes he looks like a gentleman and agrees.

Mr. Slade is a peculiar man with a stranger habit of taking late night walks by himself until the early morning. He walks by the river and stares into it. Mr. Slade is a man of science as says he needs to spend plenty of time by himself so he may run his experiments.

More murders are committed by Jack the Ripper and slowly Ellen and her niece, stage actress Kitty Langley (Merle Oberon), who lives with her aunt and uncle, suspect Mr. Slade may be the serial killer in question. Where does he go every night? Soon it is discovered Kack the Ripper carries a small black doctor's bag. So does Mr. Slade. One night Mr. Slade is caught burning his clothes. He says it was because chemicals spilled on them and may have contaminated them. Or could it be because the stains were blood and he was destroying the evidence? Or have Ellen and Kitty allowed their imagination to get the best of them?

The movie was directed by John Brahm, who had previously directed "The Undying Monster" (1942) at 20th Century Fox. According to 20th Century, if you listen to the special features in a box collection they have put together featuring three movies Mr. Brahm directed, they would have you believe Mr. Brahm was an extremely talented filmmaker. In fact Mr. Brahm was so talented Fox wouldn't let him direct quality movies! It is a bit of revisionist history if you ask me. For example Mr. Brahm also directed the Sonja Henie vehicle "Wintertime" (1943), for which film historians still proclaim Mr. Brahm was snubbed of a best director Academy Award nomination (I'm kidding!).

"The Lodger" is however an entertaining movie and is perhaps one of the best movies Mr. Brahm directed. When I reviewed Mr. Hitchcock's "The Lodger" (1927) I wrote the movie didn't create an eerie mood and play around with lighting, keeping its characters in the shadows. This remake of the material does however. I wouldn't say this remake is better than Mr. Hitchcock's version, only because Mr. Hitchcock is a better storyteller than Mr. Brahm and he can create better visuals. But it is not possible to deny the technical craft which Mr. Brahm tells this story.

Besides the opening sequence, one of the best visual moments in the movie occurs as Jack the Ripper is about to kill another innocent elderly woman. The woman is inside her dark apartment as she hears a door creek. She stands up and looks towards her front door. There is a look of shock and horror on her face. Soon the camera jerks side to side creating an uneasy, hectic feeling. These type of sequences would suggest Mr. Brahm knew where to place his camera. In the order of fairness the cinematography should also be given credit; Lucien Ballard, who had a very long career in Hollywood. He even worked with Sam Peckinpah on "The Wild Bunch" (1969) and "The Getaway" (1972).

For all the good visual moments there is still an issue with the story itself. It lacks true suspense. We only have one suspect in "The Lodger" concerning who Jack the Ripper could be. The movie practically spells it out for us in the first few minutes after introducing the character. You keep hoping for a twist. But it never comes. The movie is rather straightforward in that respect. The viewer knows who the killer is and must wait nearly an hour for all the other characters to figure it out as well.

In a similar Hitchcockian (?) fashion "The Lodger" also takes a bleak subject - a serial killer murdering woman, and subtly injects dark humor into its story. George Sanders plays Scotland Yard Inspector Warwick, who would like to solve the mystery of who Jack the Ripper is but also wouldn't mind flirting with Kitty Langley and asking her out on a date. One funny scene shows them looking at artifacts of prior murder cases, while the Inspector keeps asking Kitty if she would like to meet his mother for tea. Nearly every police officer wouldn't mind asking Kitty out on a date and every time Kitty goes to the music hall where she performs, she has several police officers escort her.

Mr. Brahm really gets the most out of his actors. You will enjoy the banter between Mr. Sanders and Ms. Oberon. Mr. Sanders isn't given enough to work with but, I've always believed he was such a good actor that even when not given great material he is still memorable. Ms. Oberon I assume was casted in the movie because of her beauty, which becomes a significant aspect of the plot. There is not much of an emotional range for her to demonstrate.

If anyone comes out looking the best it would be Laird Cregar, who passed away the same year this movie was released. He was a character actor that appeared in both comedic and villainous roles. He co-starred with Jack Benny in the comedy "Charley's Aunt" (1941), played a pirate opposite Tyrone Power in "The Black Swan" (1942) and was the Devil in the Ernst Lubitsch romantic-comedy "Heaven Can Wait" (1943). He made one more movie with Mr. Brahm, "Hangover Square" (1945), which was released after Mr. Cregar's death.

Cregar plays Mr. Slade as a mild-manner, timid, polite, soft-spoken, lonely man. Although he exhibits suspicious behavior and Ellen and Kitty suspect him of being a serial killer, he doesn't quite fit the description. He almost seems to "normal". This is suppose to be what is so frightening about this scenario. Anyone could be a murderer. Even nice, unsuspecting people who live among you.

"The Lodger" soon becomes a story about sex. Aren't all horror movies? A motive for the killings is given explaining only beautiful women are being killed because women are dangerous. Women are too casual about using their sex appeal to their advantage. They tease men. They purposely lure men into a false sense of hope. Yes, women are beautiful but they are also evil. A man should reject them. This can also be interpreted as dealing with sexual repression. It is that repression which causes a man to kill. Unfortunately this seems all too real, especially in the wake of mass shootings where the killers are said to have been virgins and never had girlfriends.

While I have trouble viewing "The Lodger" as a horror movie, mostly because of the lack of suspense, I am even more shocked to read upon its initial theatrical release the New York Times wrote a movie review claiming audiences were laughing at the movie and at Mr. Cregar's performance as Mr. Slade. I cannot imagine anyone laughing at this movie.

"The Lodger" is a good movie with some good performances and nice visuals. You will appreciate the mood the movie creates and the production values. The musical score by Hugo W. Friedhofer compliments the material and elicits the proper emotions from the viewer. Mr. Cregar turns in an effective performance which explores his versatility as an actor. Will the movie scare you? I doubt it. But, you will be interested in watching it from beginning to end.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Film Review: The Tomb of Ligeia


"The Tomb of Ligeia"  *** (out of ****)

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, 
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore-
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently tapping, rapping at my chamber door.
"Tis some visiter" I muttered, "tapping at my chamber door-
Only this and nothing more."
                                 Edgar Allan Poe - The Raven

"The Tomb of Ligeia" (1964) was the final movie in director Roger Corman's "Poe Series" - eight screen adaptation based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe.

Unfortunately "The Tomb of Ligeia" has very little about it that is new and fresh. Roger Corman would admit as much in an interview with the British Film Institue (BFI). Mr. Corman says he was simply running out of new ways to film Poe adaptations. He tried to use humor for some stories and in the case of "The Tomb of Ligeia" he says his intention was to make a love story.

Mr. Corman also states he never wanted to make a series of Poe adaptations. Although he admits he was an admirer of Poe's writing, all he wanted to do was make an adaptation of the "Fall of the House of Usher" (1960). The movie made money and so the studio asked Mr. Corman to adapt more Poe stories.

Roger Corman is generally considered to be a "B" filmmaker and his often associated with horror and science-fiction movies. He also would shoot feature length movies in 10 days. He has been cited as a mentor to such distinguished filmmakers as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Ron Howard. Jack Nicholson acted in some of his movies very early in his career, one of them was a Poe adaptation.

I mention this because I found often there are some that thumb their nose at Mr. Corman and his movies. His work was too low-brow. He was not an auteur. His movies were campy. I can't deny the "campy" charge but Mr. Corman has his place in the history of cinema. He was an important American filmmaker on the independent scene. I very much admire his spirit. Making the movies he wanted to make. Not feeling the pressure of a major studio and being told what was "commercial" and what wasn't.

According to the movie website IMDb.com Roger Corman is credited with having directed 56 movies starting back to 1955. Of these movies his most critical acclaimed are the Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. These are among my favorites as well and are the only movies Mr. Corman had directed that I have reviewed.

Prior to "The Tomb of Ligeia" Mr. Corman had directed "The Pit and the Pendulum" (1961), "The Premature Burial" (1962) and "Fall of the House of Usher". You will notice similarities between all of them. I even thought of Poe's "The Raven", hence why I quoted it. That is why I feel "The Tomb of Ligeia" has little about it that is new. We have seen so much of this before. We have seen these characters under different names. How many movies can you make with a dead body, of a loved one, buried in a secret tomb or crypt in a castle? Apparently the answer is eight and "nevermore".

The plot revolves around Verden Fell (Price). At the beginning of the movie Verden is burying his wife, Ligeia (Elizabeth Shepherd). A priest warns Verden the ground he is burying his wife on his holy ground and as Ligeia was an atheist her soul will not rest in peace. Verden however dismisses this as he believes Ligeia is not dead. She will return. Her last words to Verden expressed her will to live and how she would return and forever be his wife.

The years pass. Verden has fallen out of social circles. He spends his days in his castle and visits the resting place of his wife. He is still tormented by her lost and perhaps fearful of her return.

One day Verden notices a young woman, Rowena (Shepherd again), on his estate at his wife's resting place. When he approaches her she is startled and faints as her friend, Christopher (John Westbrook) has followed Rowena to the castle. Christopher and Verden are old friends. Verden invites Rowena and Christopher inside.

From this chance meeting we suspect Rowena is taken by Verden. Maybe because she finds him so mysterious and senses he is a tragic and lonely figure. Verden we suspect sees his wife, Ligeia, in Rowena and so the two get married.

Rowena soon discovers something is not right at the estate. Verden disappears for days. There is a black cat which persistently bothers Rowena, at one point even scratching her. Could it be the spirit of Ligeia is haunting the caste? Could Ligeia have taken control of Verden? Does Ligeia want Rowena out of the caste and away from Verden?

These are the questions which arise in this somewhat Gothic tale of lost love, torment and grief and the shadowy line we must confront between life and death.

What is different about "The Tomb of Ligeia" and what leads me to give it a minor recommendation is the acting. I think the performances here are the best Mr. Corman had gotten from actors in the previous movies. To my astonishment I also must say Vincent Price has moments when he really tones down the level of camp. He is not as animated as he usually is. There is something much more subtle about his performance this time around. But, by the end of the movie, he lets it all out.

The downside is I don't feel many of the actors have any chemistry between them. It is difficult to accept Verden and Rowena in love. It is difficult to see Rowena and Christopher as potential lovers. Each performance is fine, on its own, but all three actors seem to be in their own movie. It doesn't feel like the actors are reacting to one another.

Elizabeth Shepherd is playing a sort of prim and proper upper-class English woman who seeks some thrills and wants to escape the hum-drum order of her life. John Westbrook represents the "order" Shepherd's character is trying to escape. Nothing in the material allows Westbrook to stand apart from the other performers. By the end of the movie he is put in the role of hero. Vincent Price is the mysterious figure. Think of him as the eccentric millionaire who lives a secluded life.

"The Tomb of Ligeia" really starts to pick up in the last act. While the plot twist may become too complicated for some to follow, I found it intense and liked some of the "cheap scares" the movie throws our way. I responded positively to the psychological aspect of the movie. What is real and what isn't?

This theme is complimented by some nice visuals in the movie. Movie critics (sheep) go out of their way to emphasize Mr. Corman used exteriors shots. Which was not part of the norm for Mr. Corman. The movie was filmed on location in the UK at an actually Abby. However the most arresting visuals in the movie I believe occur doing a dream sequence. Mr. Corman would routinely incorporate dream sequences in his Poe movies and they usually had a "trippy" quality. The dream sequence here is filmed in slow motion which intensifies the action.

As is the case when adapting a novel or short story to the screen, the movie adaptation may not be faithful. I have never read Poe's short story, Ligeia, however, from what I can gather, there seem to be some differences. For example, it has been suggested Poe's story was a satire on Gothic romances. Mr. Corman doesn't treat this material in a satirical fashion. I believe the movie handles this material in the most serious way it could. The screenwriter was Robert Towne, who would go on to write "Chinatown" (1974).

In the end though it doesn't matter if the movie is a faithful adaptation or not. Movies are a visual art form and need not restrict themselves to what is on the written page. Movies and novels are two different mediums. Novels have a greater ability to dwell into the psychological and from what I can tell, Poe's writings deal more with the mind. So, a movie must come up with ways to visual express this and sometimes alter events.

Still, a faithful adaptation or not, it should not affect a viewer's appreciation of "The Tomb of Ligeia". While this is definitely familiar material for Mr. Corman, "The Tomb of Ligeia" does have its moments. I enjoy the acting in the movie, especially the performance given by Elizabeth Shepherd. There are nice visuals and some intense moments and sequence which make you jump out of your seat a bit. Can the movie scare today's audiences? Probably not. But, it is still a decent viewing experience.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Film Review: Nosferatu

"Nosferatu"  *** 1\2 (out of ****)

The first time I saw F.W. Murnau's silent horror film "Nosferatu" (1922) I was greatly impressed by it. I came away believing it was a near masterpiece. I saw the movie a second time, years later. This time I found that I had enjoyed the movie but no longer believed it was a great movie. This I attributed to seeing a poor transfer with a lousy musical score, which can alter the mood one has when watching any silent movie. Then I bought a copy of the movie on DVD, a transfer released by KINO, and found I enjoyed the movie again, but, not for the same reasons I had originally been impressed by it.

"Nosferatu" is a movie I actually believe is not really about a vampire named Count Orlok (Max Schreck). Lets look at the movie's title. Its complete title is "Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror". The term "symphony" may not be easily interpreted by today's movie fans. I take "symphony" to mean a ground swelling burst of emotion. The emotion being horror. But, lets change the word. Lets call the movie "Nosferatu: A Tale of Horror". "Nosferatu" I believe is a story of good and evil living side by side in the world. Evil doesn't have to mean a vampire.

The movie starts off by introducing us to Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) and his wife Ellen (Greta Schroder). They are presented as a young married couple deeply in love with one another. Their life together is peaceful and idyllic. Ellen has plenty of free time to play with a kitten and Hutter can pick flowers in their garden for his wife. Danger and violence, if they do exist, are far away.

Hutter works in real estate. His employer is a man named Knock (Alexander Granach) who sends Hutter to Transylvania to meet Count Orlok, who is looking to buy property in their town of Wisborg. Knock tells Hutter this would be a great opportunity for him. There is a lot of money to be made if the deal goes through. Knock also believes he has the perfect place for Count Orlok, an estate right next to Hutter.

Not wanting to waste much time Hutter travels to Transylvania even though Ellen clearly has an intuition something will go wrong. And so Hutter is now a young fool heading out to unknowingly stare evil in the eye.

Count Orlok we learn is a vampire. The townspeople fear him and will not approach his castle. They warn Hutter not to travel at night. Many movie critics (sheep) have pointed out Orlok resembles a rodent. He has a bald head. Long, pointy ears, long finger nails and two large fangs in the front of his mouth. His look inspires fear.

But what does Count Orlok want? Why leave Transylvania? Why travel to Wisborg? Why does he begin to be preoccupied with Hutter and Ellen? All good questions. None of which the movie has answers for. This leads me to believe the movie is not about Count Orlok. It is not about any scheme he has. The movie is about evil forces all around us. Even if we believe we live in an idyllic, carefree world, violence is near us.

On two occasions the movie cuts to Professor Bulwer (John Gottowt) as he gives a lecture to his students on carnivorous plants. We see a Venus fly trap kill a fly. Initially some may not see the point of these scenes. Plot wise they have nothing to do with the movie. At no point in the movie do Professor Bulwer and Count Orlok meet. Professor Bulwer is not a Van Helsing type of character. I tried to come to some logical conclusion to explain these scenes. The best I could come up with is they explain the theory that violence is all around us, even if we aren't aware of it. On the grand scheme of things there are Count Orloks in the world. On a smaller scale there is violence in nature with Venus fly traps. Good and evil living side by side, sometimes completely unaware of it.

When I view "Nosferatu" as a cautionary tale of evil forces in the world, I find it works much better. If I view it as a "vampire movie" things don't add up. Motivations aren't provided. If "Nosferatu" was to be a vampire movie there would need to be a Van Helsing character. Someone to inform the other characters what they are up against. Someone to explain to them how to kill the vampire. Hutter and Ellen make absolutely no attempt, at any point in the movie, to tell the people of their village there is a vampire among them. If this were a vampire movie there would need to be a reason behind Count Orlok's actions and a reason for Knock bringing him to the town.

Perhaps I am prejudice but I cannot believe F.W. Murnau was not aware of this. I cannot bring myself to say Murnau didn't know how to tell a story. Murnau must have had other intentions.

Compared to today's standards "Nosferatu" is not scary but one can see how this movies might have scared audiences in 1922. One of the most memorable scenes in the movie has a coffin lid slowly open as Count Orlok rises from the coffin in a standing position. Another scene shows him down a hallway as he approaches a character. The movie also has great shots of Orlok's shadow towering over characters with his long finger nails reaching out.

For every effective image however the movie does show its age. At times "Nosferatu" has a sense of humor. In one scene Count Orlok sees a picture of Ellen and comments to Hutter his wife has a lovely neck. In other scenes the camera speed is fastened as Count Orlok assembles six boxes, each one filled with dirt. Fastening the camera speed is a technique usually associated with slapstick comedy, think Keystone Kops. If an audiences watches the movie today, they will laugh at the scene. Count Orlok is even shown walking around town carrying his coffin.

Another problem modern movie fans have with silent movies is the acting. They find it over-dramatic. In all honesty, I usually don't. I understand the time period and accept the performances were a product of times and don't think about it. But, I must say, the performance given by Greta Schroder was a bit much for me at times. One scene has her read a book about vampires. After reading a paragraph she then goes into these wild gestures as if she is about to faint. The words in the book are supposed to be so frightening and powerful. Over-all though the performances work.

"Nosferatu" presents itself as a story of written fact. The movie begins with a pages of a book about the Great Death of Wisborg being opened. The intertitles read like a character's narration. The real book however that "Nosferatu" is based on is Bram Stoker's Dracula. Murnau and the movie studio could not obtain the rights to the novel. So, in an attempt to protect themselves from any wrong doing the names of characters were changed. That is why the vampire is called Count Orlok. The widow of Bram Stoker sued and the courts agreed, "Nosferatu" was an unauthorized adaptation of Dracula. All copies were ordered to be destroyed, as the movie studio filed for bankruptcy to avoid any settlement payment.

Today "Nosferatu" is regarded as the first movie adaptation of Stoker's novel, though according to Wikipedia, two versions existed prior. One a Russian film and the other Hungarian. Both are considered "lost". It is seen as the beginning of the "vampire movie" and is routinely recognized as one of the greatest silent horror movies of all-time. Not to mention it is one of F.W. Murnau's most popular movies. The movie was also remade by another German filmmaker, Werner Herzog. I believe it is one of Herzog's best movies.

[Note: There are several versions of "Nosferatu", as it has fallen into the public domain. This review is a reaction to the DVD released by KINO called "The Ultimate DVD Edition". It also includes the original 1922 score written by Hans Erdmann.]

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Film Review: Cat People

"Cat People"  *** (out of ****)

Walking into "Cat People" (1982) I was slightly apprehensive. Whenever I watch a movie I want it to be good. I am giving up somewhere between 90 minutes to two hours of my time. I want to have a positive experience. However, I am weary of remakes of classic movies. Hollywood has a way of overdoing everything. And you can bet your bottom dollar, whenever an older movie is adapted to attract a "modern audience" Hollywood will always sexualize the movie.

Essentially that is what happened here. "Cat People" is a remake of the RKO (who fittingly also released this picture along with Universal) B-horror movie "Cat People" (1942) produced by Val Lewton and directed by Jacques Tourneur.

The original "Cat People" is considered one of the most influential horror movies of all-time. It made inventive use of shadows and lighting. It was made on a minimalist budget and as a result it could not show "cat people". So it was smartly decided to keep the cat people and the violence off-screen. This would become a staple in Lewton's movies. His movies leave the horror to our imagination.

When you remake a classic you better have a good reason to do so. Many people feel movies from the 1930s & 40s were restricted because of the production code and therefore couldn't deal with their subject matter in the most direct way possible. So, Hollywood believes it can remake these movies in today's world where society's standards are lower or looser if you prefer. If those movies dealt with sex or sexuality today we can be more explicit about it. I sincerely can't think of any other reason to want to remake "Cat People" other than you can now have sex scenes in the movie. For me, that's just not a good enough justification to remake a classic.

"Cat People" has themes of incest, sexual repression and the animal, killer instincts which lurk in humans. It is actually similar to what the original was about minus the incest theme. The original was made during WW2 so there was also a theme suggesting, don't trust foreigners. If foreigners are going to live in America they better learn to give up their tradition and embrace American values. That theme is not in the remake and appropriately so.

In the remake the legend of the cat people has changed. We are told, years ago, in order to survive, the cat people would offer their children as sacrifice to panthers. After the panthers would eat the children, the soul of the humans would remain inside the panthers, causing them to transform into humans. When the cat people engage in sexual activity with humans they transform into a panther and must kill in order to transform back into a human. If they do not kill they will forever remain a panther. Cat people can only have sexual relations with other cat people which will prevent the transformation process. Everybody got that?

The movie begins with a woman named Irena (Nastassia Kinski) traveling to New Orleans to meet her brother, Paul (Malcolm McDowell), whom she was separated from as a child. In a not so subtle fashion the movie suggest these two are cat people. The difference is one has learned the family history and embraces their life as a cat person, hiding in the shadows, committing murder when sexually aroused, while the other lives in denial and does not act upon sexual desire.

In both movies there is a moment when Irena stands in front of a panther at a zoo and begins to sketch it. Watching the original we assume Irena does so because she feels a kinship with panthers because she turns into one. But nothing further is developed. The remake however suggest, what if Irena knows who the panther is? What if the panther is another cat person stuck in the form of a panther. This is the only significant, non-sexual, contribution "Cat People" makes to improve the original.

While at the zoo Irena meets Oliver (John Heard) the zoo's curator, who is both interested in what she is drawing and in her. The attraction seems mutual. But, if Irena is one of the cat people, how can she have a relationship with Oliver without killing him?

What I initially dislike about the original movie and this remake was there is never any doubt that Irena is one of the cat people. I would have preferred a bit more mystery. Then I thought one could make the arguement, whether or not Irena is a cat person is not important. It is the symbolism that is important. Irena's psychological hang-ups is what makes the movie and makes the character interesting. That is the driving force of the movie and makes "Cat People" less of a horror movie and more of a psychological thriller with Freudian undertones.

Although I may disagree with what I feel were the motives to remake this movie, if I lived in a world where the original didn't exist or I had not scene it, "Cat People" would be a much more interesting movie to watch. It does play around with a lot of thought provoking ideas. It is a well made movie with some good performances.

As with most remakes it is always going to be difficult to cast the movie without audiences thinking of the original actors. While no one could replace Simone Simon, Nastassia Kinski has some of the same needed qualities. Kinski is able to come off as both innocent and sexy. Sometimes the movie presents her as a naive woman that doesn't quite understand the effect she has on men while in other scenes she puts her seductive abilities to work. This helps enforce the theme of sexual repression. Irena could be a very sexual woman. She knows how to flirt with men however she must always stop herself because of the consequences. In one scene she admits to being a virgin.

The overwhelming majority of horror movies are usually precautionary tales about the dangers of premarital sex. "Cat People" is one more example. Irena, for the most part, is able to lead a normal, productive life, because she is a virgin and has not had to deal with turning into a panther. It is only after developing a relationship with Oliver do her problems begin because now she has had sex.

The movie ends on an outlandish note, if we think about it long enough and all the implications it implies. By the end of the movie I came away with the thought, we are all caged animals. Whether we are behind real bars or our skin it is all the same, we must fight our impulses, we must control our mind. Pretty scary stuff!

"Cat People" was directed by Paul Schrader. That makes a lot of sense. Schrader wrote "Taxi Driver" (1976) and "Raging Bull" (1980) and directed "Auto Focus" (2002). He often deals with self-destructive characters. His movies are about redemption. The screenplay was by Alan Ormsby who believe it or not wrote "Porky's II" (1983). I guess that explains all the sex and unnecessary nude shots.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Film Review: Scream

"Scream"  **** (out of ****)

This review is dedicated to filmmaker Wes Craven, who died August 30, 2015 at the age of 76.

To fully appreciate Wes Craven's "Scream" (1996) you have to remember the environment in which it was created.

Slasher movies, once popular in the 1980s thanks to "Halloween" (1978), "Friday the 13th" (1980) and Craven's own "A Nightmare on Elm Street" (1984), had fallen on hard times. Mainly because of those very movies and the endless amount of sequels which were created. There were not a lot of memorable horror movies being made in the early 90s. Nothing had managed to find its way in the pop culture as those movies made a decade earlier. And then came "Scream".

"Scream" was made on a modest budget of $15 million and was not considered a mainstream Hollywood film. No one really saw its success coming. The movie, which did generate positive reviews from movie critics (sheep) survived largely because of word-of-mouth. A buzz was created. "Scream" became the movie to see among teenagers and twenty-somethings. It also rejuvenated the career of Wes Craven and introduced him to a whole new generation of movie fans.

Besides rejuvenating the career of Wes Craven, "Scream" also kick started the career of screenwriter Kevin Williamson, who would go on to write "I Know What You Did Last Summer" (1997) and create the television series "Dawson's Creek". He and Craven would work together on the following "Scream" sequels as well as on "Cursed" (2005), though nothing seemed to match the quality of "Scream".

What made "Scream" such a success was it was something different. It took the teen slasher movie and turned it on its head. "Scream" knew the genre of horror movies. It understood the rules. It became part satire while still following the conventions of teenage horror movies. It had a self-referential, hip attitude which made it refreshing. It set a new standard for horror movies. There were countless imitators which tried to copy its style. For a few years afters its release, teenage horror movies were all the rage and gold at the box-office. That is both the blessing and the curse of the success of "Scream".

"Scream" starts off with a both brilliant and violent introduction. We are in the home of high school student Casey Becker (Drew Barrymore) as she is waiting for her boyfriend to arrive so they can watch a movie. Her phone rings as she is preparing to make popcorn. She answers the phone but doesn't recognize the voice. The person on the other end is flirty and they discuss movies and horror movies in particular. Things soon escalate and the situation becomes grisly. This all happens before the beginning credits and helps set the tone for the rest of the movie. The characters have causal conversations about movies and then someone dies a violent death.

The rest of the movie is a reaction to the incident which happened to Casey as the small town of Woodsboro believes there is a serial killer lose. Casey's fellow high school students seem to be the killer's targets. They include Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), whose mother was raped and murder exactly a year prior, Sidney's boyfriend, Billy (Skeet Ulrich, who looks an awful lot like a young Johnny Depp, who was in "A Nightmare on Elm Street), Sidney's best friend, Tatum (Rose McGowan), Tatum's boyfriend Stu (Matthew Lillard) and their friend Randy (Jamie Kennedy) a movie geek who works at the local video store (remember thoses?).

Randy becomes the character that informs everyone of standard horror movie cliches, in order to help everyone survive and not fall victim to the Ghostface killer.

The movie also adds humor by having a dim-witted deputy, Dewey (David Arquette) investigate the murders with a TV news anchor, Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), whom he has a crush on. She uses him in order to get closer to breaking a big story. I suppose the character is a satirical look at "entertainment reporters".

Watching "Scream" you will notice something quite interesting and unusual for a horror movie. How quickly the movie introduces "Ghostface", the name given to the serial killer running rampant in the movie. Most movies take their time before showing the killer. They slowly lead up to it, building anticipation. That approach was taken in "Halloween" and "A Nightmare on Elm Street". But not "Scream". Sometimes I prefer the anticipation. That is more scary than seeing the serial killer. Being on edge, waiting, looking over your shoulder, listening for every sound.The "Scream" approach works too because while the method is different the result is the same. The viewer is constantly on edge waiting to see when the Ghostface will strike again.

One could argue one of the themes in "Scream" is the influence horror movies have on our psyche and their ability to promote violence and provoke dangerous behavior in us, the viewers. Nearly every character in the movie talks about movies. Some openly say they love horror movies. The Ghostface killer always asks his/her victim's what is their favorite scary movie. Do we live in a society where life imitates art?

Detractors of the movie will argue Wes Craven and "Scream" want to have their cake and eat it too. You can't make a horror movie with gruesome scenes and make satirical observations against the genre. I can see their point. First and foremost I would argue "Scream" is a horror movie and is a satire for those that want it to be. However, the satire is not dominate and could have went further to make its point and make a great comment on society. But it doesn't because it is content to be a horror movie, which is fine with me.

When news had spread of Wes Craven's death many remembered him as an influential horror filmmaker. A modern master of the genre. Many believe his movies re-imagined the horror genre. Unfortunately I was never much of a Wes Craven fan. His "A Nightmare on Elm Street" and "Last House on the Left" (1972) were disappointing to me. For me "Scream" was his best picture. There is no way someone can deny its influence and the new standard it created for the horror genre. However outside of the "Scream" franchise there were few movies he directed that I enjoyed. His "Red Eye" (2005) was slight but entertaining. The final movie he directed was "Scream 4" (2011). Not the best movie in the "Scream" franchise but one I enjoyed watching nonetheless.

Wes Craven will be missed.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Film Review: Deep Red

"Deep Red"  **** (out of ****)

A jazz pianist turned amateur detective must rely on his improvisation skills to solve a deadly mystery in Dario Argento's "Deep Red" (1975).

Dario Argento was at one time considered one of the greatest Italian horror filmmakers. His specialty was a sub-genre of horror films called giallo (pronounced yellow in English) which is the Italian word for yellow. When his career as a director first began in the 1970s with titles such as "The Cat O' Nine Tales" (1971) and "Four Flies On Grey Velvet" (1971) he was being championed by audiences and movie critics (sheep) as a new emerging talent who understood the fundamentals of the horror genre. He was even being compared to Alfred Hitchcock.

His earliest films showed minimal screen violence, which critics liked. Argento, they said, left the viewer to imagine the horror, which is far more scarier than seeing it. But Argento's films started to switch. He soon became known for staging lavish death scenes of pretty young women. He had acquired a fetish for blood, allowing his camera to linger on it like an animal going after its prey. Soon the Hitchcock comparisons stopped and he had gained a reputation as an ultra-violent filmmaker. "Deep Red" was the beginning of this new direction in Argento's work.

"Deep Red", along with "Suspiria" (1977), his following picture, is often considered one of, if not his greatest, work. It stars David Hemmings as Marc Daley, an English jazz pianist who teaches music in Italy. One night, on his way home, David witnesses a murder, the death of a psychic, who lived in the same building as him. Intrigued and frightened by the killing Marc decides to investigate and discover the identity of the murderer along with the help of a journalist, Gianna (Daria Nicolodi, a one-time companion of Argento's).

In this sense we can see the imprints of Hitchcock as an innocent person plays amateur detective investigating a sinister plot which they have been unwillingly brought into and fear for their life.

What Marc didn't know was prior to the psychic, Helga Ullmann's (Macha Meril) death she was giving a lecture with Dr. Giordani (Glauco Mauri) where she felt the presence of a murderer in the room and recalls the horror of an act of violence which had been committed years ago.

It is after speaking to Dr. Giordani, Marc discovers what may be the killer's calling card, a piece of children's music which is played before each victim's death. The music is believed to serve as an emotional trigger which alters the killer's state of mind and provokes the instinct to kill. Marc also learns of a "haunted house" where legend has it a a child was heard singing followed by screams of a person being murdered.

This leads Marc to find the house where the legend is to have taken place and discovers it may provide a direct link to a series of recent killings including Helga's.

When I first saw "Deep Red" I thought it was a masterpiece. After watching it a second time I see it more as a mixed bag that ultimately works. The first forty minutes to an hour of the movie are very confusing. The viewer doesn't understand the time frame of events happening. There is a rushed romance between Marc and Gianna and there is no sense of danger. Is anyone after Marc? But, once the investigation begins everything changes and the movie greatly improves though it still ends on a confusing note which raises questions the movie does not have answers for.

What works best in "Deep Red" are the death scenes. Argento and his co-screenwriter Bernardino Zapponi, have come up with some very gruesome scenarios. One involving a truck at the end of the movie is perhaps the most disturbing I have ever seen in an Argento movie. Others causalities involve someone getting their teeth bashed in and someone is killed by a meat cleaver.

While I am not someone that enjoys watching slasher movies with serial killers gutting people open, "Deep Red" is a little more than that to me. The killing scenes can be gruesome but they are also an exercise in genre film making. Argento's movies as a whole don't struck me as violent. I admire the craft of his story telling. That is what I appreciate about the death scenes in his movies, even the gruesome ones.

The death scenes do what they are supposed to do however and create suspense and heighten the viewer's interest to figure out who is the killer. This is the other element of "Deep Red" which works. I enjoy watching the "police procedural" of Marc hunting down clues, investigating different locations, learning more and more about the legends and tying it all together. This brings the audience into the story.

But the movie also has its flaws.

One of Dario Argento weak spots in all of his movies is psychology. He is never able to truly develop fleshed out characters and provide a decent motive for the killer. He works at an amateur textbook level of psychology. The majority of his films deal with a traumatic incident in a person's life from childhood which causes them to kill. You can't always blame your parents for your problems! Geez!

"Deep Red" doesn't have strong acting either. David Hemmings doesn't give much of an energetic performance. He looks tired and worn down. He is simply going through the motions. Though his appearance in this movie makes us think of "Blow-Up" (1967), another movie where he believes he has witnessed a murder.

On the other hand Daria Nicolodi seems to be acting in another movie entirely! She is lively and a bit campy in her performance. Her scenes with Hemmings are meant to be humorous but it comes off more forced than natural. There is not a lot of chemistry between the two. It is a bit of a stretch to ask audiences to believe these two are attracted to each other.

I also disliked the cinematography. The movie takes the approach of doing a lot of point of view (POV) shots from the killer's perspective, which is standard in horror movies. But the camera movements aren't fluid in my opinion. Many sequences are clumsily filmed and edited at best. Some of the best camera work I have seen in an Argento movie was in "Opera" (1987) where he also does POV shots. There the camera is almost dancing.

Still, I must go back to the point, when the movie works, it works! Once we are settled into the story and understand the characters Argento is able to hold our interest and delivers a few scares along the way and make us turn out heads away from the violence. "Deep Red" effectively plays on our emotions, mostly our fears.

Some wonder why "Deep Red" is considered to be one of Argento's best and quite frankly, why it is considered a good movie by any standards. The reason I feel is because it is pure giallo. It contains several of the classic elements which comprise the genre. It is a thriller mixed up with elements of a detective story combined with a bit of eroticism and sexuality. Based on that critieria the movie does what viewers expect it to do and it does it competently enough to sustain an audience's interest.

Viewers that aren't familiar with the work of Dario Argento are definitely encouraged to either start here or with "Suspiria" as their first venture into his films. "Deep Red" contains all of the classic elements fans association with Argento. It is one of those movies that can still make you sit on the edge of your seat and have you look over your shoulder when it is all over.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Film Review: The Phantom of the Opera

"The Phantom of the Opera"  *** (out of ****)

Younger movie fans may think "The Phantom of the Opera" is an Andrew Lloyd Weber stage musical which was turned into a movie in 2004  and starred Gerald Butler and Emmy Rossum. While that is true, older movie fans may recall this motion picture starring Lon Chaney more quickly.

"The Phantom of the Opera" (1925) was based on a novel by Gaston Leroux and is the oldest known surviving film adaptation of Leroux's work. There was believed to have been an adaption made in 1916 that is now considered lost.

Though often considered a "horror" movie I've never felt that description was accurate hence why I have been reluctant to review it in the month of October when I review horror movies. But, the public regards the character, The Phantom, as a horror figure, so, who am I to disagree? To me though, "The Phantom of the Opera" is a macabre romantic / comedy / mystery story, if such a thing exist. And, if it doesn't, that should give you a sense of the direction of the movie. It is all over the place.

While today is the movie is considered a "classic" during its time of release Universal Pictures was not happy with the original final product and there were said to have been three different versions of the movie as during test screenings audiences reacted negatively towards the movie. The original version was directed by Rupert Julian. His version was thought to have been too macabre for audiences. Universal then hired Edward Sedgwick to direct new scenes. Sedgwick was a comedy director who had worked with Buster Keaton and Joe E. Brown. He naturally added more comedy to the story. Finally Universal got its hands on the movie and edited it down to the product we now have. This is what makes the movie lack a consistent tone.

Prior to starring in this movie Lon Chaney had acted in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1923) as Quasimodo. It is a movie and a character I was constantly thinking of as I watched Chaney in this movie. Both men are disfigured freaks shun by society. Both men have encounters with a beautiful woman. Both men kidnap the beautiful woman. And both men face an unkind fate. For me, "The Phantom of the Opera" is nothing more than another "Hunchback of Notre Dame", which was written by Victor Hugo well before Leroux wrote his novel.

It would seem only Chaney could have played both of these characters. Chaney had secured a reputation in Hollywood for playing lonely, tortured souls. He was also known to be a wizard with make-up, transforming himself into these hideous creatures. If they gave out Academy Awards in those days for best make-up, he would have been a lock.

"The Phantom of the Opera" largely takes place at the Paris Opera House where we hear rumors from performers and stage hands of a Phantom lurking around scaring everyone in sight with its ghastly appearance. The Phantom though may be the person behind demands that Christine Daae (Mary Philbin) play the lead role in each opera by writing threatening letters to the current leading lady of the troupe, Carlotta (Mary Fabian).

Christine has never seen The Phantom, but, he communicates to her while she is in her dressing room, as he stands behind walls. He tells her she must give up all worldly pleasures and focus on her art. The Phantom wants all of Paris to take pleasure in her voice as he does. But The Phantom is not doing all of this purely for his appreciate of opera. He is also in love with Christine. Christine, while not in love with The Phantom, is infatuated by the idea of him and tells The Phantom she eagerly awaits the day they can meet face to face.

This is not welcome news to Raoul (Norman Kerry) who is in love with Christine and she says she is in love with him. However, she is willing to accept the demands of The Phantom and tells Raoul they can no longer see each other. The Phantom's ultimate goal is to separate the two so he may have Christine all to himself, but, can Christine ever love The Phantom? Can anyone ever love a man that looks like The Phantom?

The first thirty minutes of "The Phantom of the Opera" is meant to build suspense and create anxiety. Who is The Phantom? What does he look like? It is an approach we would see many movies made afterwards follow. The best example may be Steven Spielberg's "Jaws" (1975). You don't scare the audiences right out of the gate with the monster. You slowly build suspense. You create a buzz. You have characters describe what The Phantom looks like. And of course those descriptions will be exaggerated, which only heightens our anticipation. It is one of the few things about "The Phantom of the Opera" viewers may admire.

What is missing from "The Phantom of the Opera" though is a background story. The viewer only sees what The Phantom has become not how he became The Phantom. That would be an interesting story to tell and perhaps invest more involvement from the audiences' perspective. It could even make viewers sympathize with the character to a degree and add more drama or make us fear him more because we can understand his desire for revenge on a society which he feels hates him. Having never read the novel, it is said The Phantom was born disfigured. That's fine but that only explains his looks not his mind and furthermore the origins of his looks is never stated explicitly in this movie. There is no clearly defined motive for the character as it stands now to fully explain his actions.

There is also not enough of the Carlotta character in the movie. How does she feel about getting these threatening letters? Is she scared or does she feel it is all a hoax? If she believes it is a hoax does she believe Christine is up to it? Does this create friction between the two women? If she is scared this creates many opportunities for scary scenes between The Phantom and her.

At the end of the day though "The Phantom of the Opera" becomes another story dealing with the theme of a woman as man's downfall. You usually equate these kind of stories with film noir of the 1940s and femme fatales but its origins go back further to biblical times with the story of Adam & Eve, when woman tempted man to eat forbidden fruit. You will also see this theme in "King Kong" (1933) and "The Creature From the Black Lagoon" (1954).

However Christine is not completely innocent herself and the movie treats her too lightly by not judging her actions. She was perfectly happy with the attention she received thanks to The Phantom. She was perfectly willing to meet The Phantom's demands and not see Raoul again. It is only when the identity of The Phantom is revealed (in one of the most memorable moments in all of silent horror films) that Christine is now repelled because The Phantom is not the handsome figure she had created in her mind. That tells us something about society and our obsession with beauty. Don't trust ugly people. They are dangerous. If The Phantom was handsome I believe we would have a totally different movie on our hands.

"The Phantom of the Opera" is worth seeing despite whatever I may have written that is viewed as negative about the the movie if only for Lon Chaney's performance. This has become one of his signature roles and younger movie fans, that have never seen him in a movie, should be exposed to his acting. There are moments when Chaney and the movie do present The Phantom as a menacing figure and those are the moments which work best. There is a terrific sequence on a roof top that has a Gothic feel to it and we see The Phantom as a real threat.

If "The Phantom of the Opera" was to be the story of unrequited love, jealousy, betrayal and chandeliers falling on top of people, it does a marginal job of telling that story. It is not really a horror film either. I have a hard time believing even by 1925 standards the movie was considered scary. Still you can see how the movie could have been these things. The seeds are there unfortunately there were just too many chefs in the kitchen working on this movie all with a different contrasting vision which would make it too difficult to bring together into one story.

By the end of the movie the only way one can describe what has happened is by stealing a famous ending line from another movie. "It was beauty killed the beast".

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Film Review: Mummy's Boys

"Mummy's Boys"  ** (out of ****)

Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey cry for their mummy in the RKO comedy / horror movie "Mummy's Boys" (1936).

Movie fans are not always kind to the comedy team of Wheeler & Woolsey. Many consider their comedy dated and corny. They simply feel Wheeler & Woolsey don't "bring the funny". The movies in which they appeared in together are not "timeless" the way Laurel & Hardy or Marx Brothers comedies are. Those movies seem to be able to continue to attract younger generation of fans. Also, a lot of people have not heard of Wheeler & Woolsey. Time has not been their friend. Once they were a hugely popular team in the 1930s and today they are almost completely forgotten. Thanks to Turner Classic Movies (TCM) they stand a chance of being re-discovered, as the channel occasionally airs their comedies.

Unfortunately "Mummy's Boys" is not going to be the best example of Wheeler & Woolsey at the top of their game. Watching "Mummy's Boys" will lead you to believe the comedy team should be forgotten. There is no reason the masses should suffer and be forced to watch this.

"Mummy's Boys" fails on two levels. First it fails as a Wheeler & Woolsey comedy. Secondly it fails as a comedy / horror movie. Wheeler & Woolsey comedies often have music in them. Bert Wheeler fashioned himself as something of a singer and was the "romantic lead" of the team. He was usually paired with Dorothy Lee (whom sadly does not appear in this movie) and they would often do a duet together. Robert Woolsey was the "leader" of the team. He was the "big idea" man who often came up with get rich quick schemes for the team. A lot of his jokes were one-liners, in the tradition of Bob Hope or Groucho Marx, and were risque for the times. Dialogue in a Wheeler & Woolsey comedy was peppered with sexual innuendos.

There is no singing and dancing in "Mummy's Boys". There shouldn't have been anyway. There is no time for a romantic sub-plot either. There shouldn't have been one to begin with. But, on the other hand, that's what made a Wheeler & Woolsey comedy. But, this is a comedy / horror movie. A comedy / horror movie needs to be able to blend the two styles. You need to find the right balance of comedy and scary scenes. You need to almost think of it as two movies in one. Take your comedy scenes serious and create a realistic horror plot.

It may not sound easy. Some may think it is impossible. But it has been done. The best examples include "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein" (1948), the Ritz Brothers in "The Gorilla" (1939) and a pair of Bob Hope comedies; "Ghost Breakers" (1940) and "The Cat & the Canary" (1939). Those movies had funny sequences but they also created an eerie atmosphere. They put the comedian in typical horror scenarios and then poked fun at the genre. "Mummy's Boys" forgets to do that. It creates a nice set-up but doesn't fully capitalize on the situation it has created.

Wheeler & Woolsey star as Aloysius C. Whittaker (Woolsey) and Stanley Wright (Wheeler). They are a couple of ditch diggers who answer a newspaper ad by an archaeologist, preparing to go on an expedition to Egypt, who acquires assistance.

What Aloysius and Stanley don't know is the archaeologist, Phillip Browning (Frank M. Thomas), was one of 13 men that traveled to Egypt a year prior and discovered the tomb of King Pharatime. Each man brought back treasures with him and now Phillip feels a curse has been placed on him as 10 of the men that traveled with him have died. Phillip now plans to go back to the tomb and return what he took. He only hopes he will live long enough to make it to Egypt.

Going along with Phillip is his daughter, Mary (Barbara Pepper) who is supposed to serve as the romantic interest for Stanley. The two take a liking to each other and some scenes are created to allow them to flirt with one another. There is also a stowaway, Catfish (Willie Best, a popular black comedian of the time) who agrees to accompany the group. He is as big a coward as Aloysius and Stanley and was supposed to provide more humor.

The banter between Aloysius and Catfish may borderline as racist to younger, liberal audiences. One joke for example, has everyone about to enter a dark cave. Aloysius, afraid, asks Catfish to go first, but he is also afraid there may be ghosts, to which Aloysius replies, even if there are ghosts they won't be able to see Catfish in the dark. To me it is not racist. Poor taste? Maybe. But not racist. Those are the kind of jokes though you will hear in this movie.

"Mummy's Boys" reminds me of "So This Is Africa" (1933) starring the comedy team. Both movies take the team out of the country and has them clash with different cultures, which is where the humor stems from. But, "Mummy's Boys" takes too long to get the team inside the tomb. The movie doesn't do enough to scare us. We don't feel anyone's life is in danger. Aloysius and Stanley aren't put in enough compromising situations. The movie isn't having enough fun with the horror genre.

This was the third to last movie Wheeler and Woolsey starred in together. Woolsey died in 1937 of kidney failure. After 1934 with the movie "Hips, Hips, Hooray!" the quality of their movies started to decline. Much of this was due to the declining health of Woolsey which prevented him from performing with the same high energy he normally would.

The director of the movie, Fred Guiol, directed two other movies starring the team; "The Rainmakers" (1935) and "Silly Billies" (1936). Neither one of them is any good, showing you what the team was capable of when performing at their best. The fault may not have been Guiol, who also directed a few Laurel & Hardy silent comedies, but perhaps the writers, who were trying to capitalize on the stories of a decade earlier and the discovery of King Tut and the "curse of the pharaohs".

If "Mummy's Boys" does anything it shows you how difficult comedy / horror can be. "Mummy's Boys" is not the worst Wheeler & Woolsey comedy out there but it is far from their best. This movie belongs in a class with "Zombies On Broadway" (1945) and "Ghost Catchers" (1944), which is not the kind of company you want to keep. If you are looking for a good comedy / horror movie watch "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein" or "The Cat & the Canary" instead.