After Ebert: More Movies

If there is one thing I have learned about doing movie-watching challenges – these crop up on the Letterboxd social site – it’s that a month of watching a movie a night and then writing it up causes my mental gears to start smoking alarmingly as the month comes to an end, and I wind up taking a break. This one was lengthier than the last, I admit. I was engaging my brain in other activities, like reading (Warren Ellis’s Gun Machine) and giving Facebook casual gaming another go. The gaming was numbing, the reading wasn’t: perfect combo.

But I did still watch the occasional movie. “Occasional” has ballooned to an unwieldy number, so it’s time to start cleaning out that bin.

shootistThe Shootist was on The List, and it seemed a good cornerstone to merge the quality of the Ebert Great Movies with the stream of movies I usually watch: good quality intersecting with pop culture. The Shootist came out in 1976, the year I entered college, when movie watching took a back seat to education and mere survival. I recall I had a shot at seeing it at the student cinema for 50 cents or a dollar, but I probably had rehearsal that night. Such is the life of a theater arts major. So I went for decades without seeing it.

The Shootist features John Wayne as J.B. Books, an aging gunslinger who moseys into town at the cusp of the 20th century, visiting an old doctor friend to get a second opinion, and the news isn’t good. Books has advanced prostate cancer (apparently distressingly common among men who rode horses all day long), and is given less than a month to live. Books checks into a nearby boarding house and sets to preparing to die, knowing that a man of his notoriety will not be allowed an anonymous death. He grows close to the widow running the boarding house (Lauren Bacall) and her troublesome son (Ron Howard). He finally elects to not die a prolonged, painful death, but sets to cleaning out some accounts with a final, arranged four-way gunfight.

1360084977_2Based on Glendon Swarthout’s novel of the same name, The Shootist was nearly not as awesome a movie as it eventually became. During pre-production, it was generally felt that John Wayne was the logical choice to star, but was too ill to actually make the movie. He had been cancer-free since 1969 – at the cost of a lung and several ribs – but his 70th birthday was staring him in the face, and time takes its toll, no matter the spirit of the man. George C. Scott was preparing to play the role, and he would have been predictably amazing, but when the Duke caught wind of the project – well, everything just fell in line. I love Scott, but Wayne brings with him the weight of an entire career, as we see flashbacks of a younger Wayne in older movies. The degree to which this movie is enriched by that true fictional past cannot be underestimated.

Wayne’s casting had the effect of attracting a phenomenal cast – we’ve already mentioned Lauren Bacall, but also Jimmy Stewart, Richard Boone, and Hugh O’Brian, who reportedly offered to do the movie for free just so he could be in it. This high caliber of personnel also extends to the other side of the camera, including absolutely the best director for the project, Don Siegel. Siegel was never a terribly flashy director but he was always a rock solid, engaging storyteller, the perfect choice for a character-driven Western.

So yeah, I liked it. Kind of surprised it wasn’t on Ebert’s list; it’s rare to see such a perfect coda to an actor’s career. Maybe he just hadn’t gotten around to writing it up.

I watched Star Trek Into Darkness, as required by Nerd Law. I was entertained while it was running, but had some burning questions afterward. That link takes you to those questions on another site, sort of the ultimate spoiler space.

215px-RussianarkEarlier in the year, I had taken in Mark Cousins’ multi-part Story of Film on Netflix, and one of the movies that was excerpted, which I had heard only vague things about and was immediately inspired to put on the watchlist was Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark. Ark follows a strangely timelost narrator (our subjective camera) and a disagreeable French diplomat from the 19th century, as they wander about the Russian State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and meet historical figures like Catherine the Great and Czar Nicholas (and Alexandra and a young Anastasia) as well as some contemporary Russians. Even the constantly bitching Frenchman is an historic figure, the Marquis de Custine. There are some astonishing setpieces and astounding costumes on display.

What makes the entire thing remarkable is that it is shot as one take – 96 minutes long! – as the Steadicam glides through its various vignettes. That is a feat which required months of rehearsal, but sadly only pays off occasionally. Much of the time it seems like a taped museum tour (but what a museum!), though the final half-hour, recreating a grand ball just before the Bolshevik revolution, is simply incredible, especially when the camera leaves with the richly costumed partygoers and goes down a massive staircase, finding itself confronted by hundreds of people in perfect period costume. It is jaw-dropping, and well worth the effort to see.

Pretty sure Tillman Buttner, the DP who was operating the Steadicam, and his poor boom operator were exhausted afterwards. Especially since I recall reading they did two takes.

wreckit_ralph_ver16_xlgOne weekend I went to pal Dave’s because he had not yet seen Django Unchained and that needed to be remedied. But we also caught up on Wreck-It Ralph – yes, it was a sublime, bizarre double feature – and I loved it unreservedly. I’m not sure I would have loved it as much if I hadn’t been able to identify all the Roger Rabbit-style video game cameos, but that becomes a minor cavil when you consider the well-constructed story, full of heart and great characters. Disney has learned well from Pixar, and Wreck-It Ralph is the result.

I went back to The List for the next weekend and Around the World in 80 Days, not the Disney-fied 2004 Jackie Chan vehicle but the 1956 David Niven/Cantinflas road show monster. It’s a movie of parts rather than a whole, which rather echoes Jules Verne’s adventure novel, which was also episodic as hell. In case you don’t have a rudimentary education: David Niven is Phileas Fogg, a wealthy punctilious Englishman who makes a wager at his gentlemen’s club that he can, as the Daily Telegraph claims, travel around the world in a mere 80 days. He sets out on this the same day with his new valet, Passpartout (Cantinfas) and a carpet bag full of money. Adventure ensues.

around_the_world_in_eighty_days_ver2Around the World was largely conceived as a delivery vehicle for producer Michael Todd’s Todd-AO Vision, a process that delivered Cinerama-width spectacle while using only one camera (the previous year’s Oklahoma! was the process’ debut).  The movie is rife with splendid sunsets and some instances of things-rushing-at-the-camera that bring to mind the roller coaster in This Is Cinerama, and some grand landscapes… though spoilsport literalists will point out that most of the movie was shot on backlots, not on location around the world, as the producer would prefer us to think.

This is the movie that coined the term “cameo role”, and there are a ton of them, especially once the movie hits San Francisco, the center of a cluster of them: Marlene Dietrich, George Raft, Red Skelton, Frank Sinatra, John Carradine and Buster Keaton in the space of ten minutes. But Todd’s real coup was Cantinflas, at the time the wealthiest, most beloved actor in Mexico. Known as the Mexican Chaplin, the comedian had never made an English language movie, his success was such that he probably didn’t feel the need – yet somehow Todd prevailed upon him.

around_the_world_in_80_days_11Watching Around The World unfold, you start suspecting how Todd managed it; though Fogg is supposedly the hero, all the movie’s action devolves onto Passpartout. There is an entire segment in Spain that does not occur in the novel, involving Passpartout in a bullfight. That is strictly there for Cantinflas, who had no small amount of bullfighting experience himself. Passpartout is the agent for change throughout the movie, while Niven is generally playing whist or dallying with young Shirley MacLaine, oddly cast as an Indian princess. Cantinflas did finally attempt another English language movie in 1960, Pepe, which sadly flopped at the box office, despite having almost as many star cameos as Around the World.

I’ll just mention that the scene between Cantinflas and Red Skelton in San Francisco was obviously cut short, which is a shame. Two great comic talents playing off each other, and it could have gone on much longer.

Around the World in 80 Days is interesting primarily as a relic of that bygone practice, the Road Show Engagement. Its value as entertainment is going to depend on the level of your yearning for such fare, gently satiric (S.J. Perelman gets a screenwriting credit), with adventure scenes that are rarely as pulse-pounding as they seem to wish to be.

Though I was left with a yearning to see The Great Race again… Hm.

Okay, one more, and we will be halfway done.

600full-lady-terminator-posterLady Terminator has been in my possession for ages, and I finally put it on The List to force the issue of seeing it. This is an Indonesian movie by H. Tjut Djalil, the director of Mystics in Bali, perhaps the finest penanggalan movie ever made.  That was in 81, by 1989 Djalil had a larger budget, better equipment, and the ability to show naked breasts. These are all ingredients for a grindhouse hit.

As with Mystics, Djalil capitalizes on an Indonesian legend, the South Sea Queen, who lives in a palace at the bottom of the ocean and keeps killing her male consorts during sex. Finally, one heroic fellow satisfies her, but literally pulls a snake out of her lady zone, which she screeches is her “inner essence”. The snake turns into a dagger, and when our curiously anglo fellow declares he will not give it back, and her murdering days are over, the Queen proclaims she will avenge herself on his great-granddaughter, and vanishes in a puff of smoke.

ladyterminatorIn the present day, a beautiful anthropologist gets too nosey while scuba diving and gets possessed by the Queen, turning her into an unkillable leather-clad aerobics instructor with a taste for automatic weapons and, yes, killing guys during sex, apparently by biting off guys’ junk with her hoohah. (The lady is serious about her kegels).

Lady Terminator is serious about its title, reproducing two and a half scenes from The Terminator, even that eyeball surgery scene, although it makes little to no sense. LT is determined to kill the granddaughter, a rising pop star, and she has no time-traveling soldier to protect her, so she has to make do with the only Caucasian cop on the Indonesian police force. I’m reduced to bullet points here to detail the awesomeness:

  1. Indonesian security guards carry Uzi pistols.
  2. We establish early on that bullets have literally no effect on LT, yet the cops will continue to use them for the next hour or so.
  3. Due to this, by the end of the movie, our Caucasian is apparently the only cop left alive in the entire country.
  4. If you’re the Caucasian’s Rambo-esque American pals, called in to help on short notice, you can bring all sorts of ordnance into the country, no problem.
  5. Yes, the granddaughter has the dagger, and could have saved hundreds of lives by just stabbing the bitch, but then we wouldn’t have a movie.

ladyterminator2Indonesian movies have a very high fun content. There is just a whole lot of determination to simply entertain, and if the action gets repetitious, it makes the completely over-the-top climax even more welcome. This is eventually going to make it as a Crapfest entry, and I don’t know what higher accolade I can give it.

A Month of Roger Ebert’s Great Movies, part eight

By now you know the rap, that members of the Letterboxd community were doing a month-long challenge to watch thirty of the movies in Roger Ebert’s list of Great Movies, and a viewing of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls to boot. At least that was what I thought; returns to the site find that original Challenge page gone, and only one other list beside mine using the “EbertMay” tag.

Ah well. I watched a lot of good movies. Only two left to finish up the Challenge.

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

last_temptation_of_christThis was twenty-five years ago? Good Lord (to turn a phrase).

I didn’t see this at the theaters because a) I’m not a Christian, though raised as one and pretty up on the scriptures – moreso than some professed Christians, apparently; and b) I was on staff of a small regional theater at the time. That theater is doing very well for itself now, but back then we’re talking horrific schedules, day and night, grueling definitely-for-young-people stuff. I can place the movie in that period only because I leaned on Peter Gabriel’s soundtrack heavily for a particularly awesome version of Hamlet we mounted in that time.

Ha ha, you young’uns that were born at the tail-end of the 80s and in the 90s missed quite a to-do, let me tell you. Televangelism, riding so high in the late 70s and early 80s, had suffered through some pretty bad scandals, and Last Temptation proved a very convenient “Hey! Look over here!” distracting target. Protests and picket lines were numerous. Molotov cocktails were thrown inside a Paris theater showing the movie.

There was an interview with Martin Scorsese, the director, that I recall reading. It was memorable because the journalist reported the complicated phone tag, the mysterious directions to a nondescript apartment, where the door was answered by a burly, armed security guard, before he could even get into the same room as Scorsese; that’s how serious the shit had gotten. There are people who still refuse to watch the Academy Award nominee Hugo because Scorsese directed Last Temptation a quarter of a century ago.

None of these people ever bothered to watch this movie, either. Of course.

large_the_last_temptation_of_christ_blu-ray_x09The reason for this rancor is two-fold: the first is right there in the title. On the cross, a young girl appears to Christ (played by Willem Dafoe), who introduces herself as his guardian angel. She reveals the crucifixion was a test, like the time God ordered Abraham to sacrifice his son, and just like then, the test has been passed. There is no reason for Jesus to die, and he finds himself free of the cross and nails. He marries Mary Magdalene, has sex with her – this is where the line got drawn – and when she dies, he takes up with Martha and Mary (the sisters of Lazarus) and sires several children, living as a normal man. This has ramifications, resulting in the ultimate sacking of Jerusalem and Jesus’ discovery that the girl is actually Satan, using a far more sophisticated pitch than he employed when Jesus was fasting in the desert. Jesus denies this last temptation, and finds himself on the cross again, saying, “It is accomplished.”

But never mind that, they showed Jesus getting it on.

The second blow Against All That Is Decent is presenting Jesus as a conflicted man instead of the confident avatar of all that is good and decent, as presented in Vacation Bible Schools.

There is a valid school of theological thought that notes the concept of God evolves as civilization develops; thus we go from a God who heartily endorses wiping out entire tribes to the rather radical concept of the same God preaching love. One scholar goes so far as to posit God pouring a part of Himself into a mortal vessel, to suffer as his creation does, as a sort of apology to those creations, with that apology ultimately taking the form of a slow, agonizing death. Suicide as an act of contrition.

TLToC1The political angle is probably another thorn in the side of fundamentalists (though heaven forfend they should abandon their political activities). An eye-opening book for me (come to think of it, read at about this time) was Michael Baigent’s The Messianic Legacy, which examined Jesus and the disciples in their roles as political activists. Viewing Last Temptation has left me with the desire for a re-read. As Pontius Pilate (David Bowie) says to Jesus after he denies being King of the Jews or any special divinity, “That just makes you another Jewish politician.” Politics is an unfortunate, constant fact of life, even of civilization. How could a Messiah avoid them, especially if one of the roles of the Messiah is to deliver his people from oppression, either secular or spiritual?

We won’t even address the subject of Judas, here removed from the role of Designated Villain to Disciple With The Toughest Job, possibly the most faithful disciple of all. That is the sound of heads exploding in the distance.

The Last Temptation of ChristSo it turns out The Last Temptation of Christ was the Jesus movie I had wanted all my life: it does not ignore the “Son of Man” part of the story, though I can’t say it glories in it, either. Jesus is confused, conflicted, unsure, fearful – all the things a contrite Deity should feel, as He experiences what his creation must deal with on a daily basis. If the Scriptures are to be believed, Jesus was at least half human, and that is the half that most doctrine studiously ignores. You hardly ever hear about the Cursing of the Fig Tree, for instance, which was a pretty human moment, no matter how many attempts to turn it into an example of the power of prayer.

So did it convert me? No. But then I don’t really believe that was the purpose behind it. Scorcese said he had always wanted to make a Jesus movie, and when the original production was cancelled by Paramount, he persevered. Universal finally green-lighted it, with a truncated shooting schedule and a budget fully half of what Paramount had agreed to – and at that, Scorsese had to agree to make a “Commercial” movie in exchange (Universal got Cape Fear out of the deal, so it was pretty good investment, overall). This was a passion production (you should forgive the double meaning) for Scorsese and many of the personnel (like Barbara Hershey, who had given Scorsese a copy of the book back during Boxcar Bertha), and it shows.

So the angry True Believers can keep themselves warm with their protest signs and their molotov cocktails. I’ve got my Jesus, and I am perfectly okay with him.

The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Poster - Bride of Frankenstein, The_07So a little more tampering in God’s domain. I definitely took it easy on myself for the last movie in the Challenge, finally pulling out that Universal Monsters Blu-Ray set again.

After the incredibly successful Frankenstein, director James Whale spent the next four years scrupulously refusing to do a sequel, until he was promised artistic freedom. The result is one of the best horror films ever made.

After an odd little vignette that has Mary Shelley (Elsa Lanchester) telling Byron that the end of her novel was not the end of the story (and also has Byron referring to the Monster itself as Frankenstein, Universal Pictures buying into and perpetuating that little bit of cultural mangling), Bride literally begins at the end of the first movie, the burning of the windmill with the Monster inside. Much as Baron Frankenstein survives, so does the Monster, falling through the burning floor into a flooded chamber.

Stills-bride-of-frankenstein-19762045-1600-1246So the Monster roams the countryside, and he’s more than a little put-off with his treatment, made worse when he rescues a shepherdess from drowning and, naturally, it is assumed he’s attacking her. It’s perfectly obvious that Whale’s sympathies lie with the misunderstood monster, and it’s never more clear than the famous scene where the Monster finds the blind hermit, drawn by the smells of food and beguiled by the music of his violin. This sequence is genuinely touching, both the hermit and the Monster reduced to tears of gratitude for deliverance from their loneliness.

Concurrent to that, Victor Frankenstein has renounced tempering in God’s domain and is trying to finally get married and leave Gothicland, when he is visited by one of his old teachers, Dr. Septimus Praetorius (a silky smooth and utterly charming Ernest Thesinger), who has been conducting his own experiments in life creation: a series of homunculi living in jars. He wants Frankenstein’s aid in creating something more substantial, an actual, life-sized human being. The younger scientist, having recently survived one such creation, refuses.

Stills-bride-of-frankenstein-19762095-1546-1133The Monster, never having a surplus of luck, gets rousted from the hermit’s cabin (by an interfering John Carradine, no less), gets captured, escapes (killing several villagers, whom everybody’s getting sick of, anyway) and takes refuge in a huge mausoleum, where he is discovered by a grave-robbing Praetorius. Realizing that he has found a perfect lever to move the intractable Frankenstein, Praetorius promises the Monster that he will make a friend for him – a woman, to be his bride.

Bride is the very rare sequel that betters its predecessor, by not only giving the audience more of the same, but also expanding intelligently on the themes of the first. Karloff himself felt that the hermit teaching the Monster to speak was a mistake, and to be sure, all the power of the original movie derives from his astonishing, mute performance. But as the Monster becomes more adult, as it were,speaking in simple sentences and continually brutalized by a world uninterested in understanding his plight, we are also watching his corruption; manipulated by Praetorius, he finally becomes the villain the world expected, though at the end, consumed by sorrow and despair, he does try to set things right by the only means he knows, or has been allowed to learn: by destruction.

the-bride-of-frankensteinMention must definitely be made of the Bride, also played by Elsa Lanchester. A striking figure, moving like a clockwork robot, due to Pretorius’ artificial brain, the five foot Lanchester stands on stilts concealed beneath her flowing robes to bring her to seven feet. As archly pointed out in Gods and Monsters, not only have the mad scientists dressed her, but they’ve done her hair, now cascading upwards over a wire mesh foundation. Lanchester modeled her performance, the startled hissing at the Monster’s appearance, on wild swans. For all its brevity, it is one of the most unique, memorable performances of the universal Classic Monster series.

The Bride is also the only Classic Monster to achieve her fame without killing anybody. Not that she ever really had the chance…

A Month of Roger Ebert’s Great Movies, part seven

As a tribute to the late Roger Ebert, some members of the Letterboxd community spent May visiting films in his Great Movies series. Since this dovetails with my personal project of filling shameful voids in my film education, I decided to commit myself, once more, to a regimented schedule for which I don’t really have time, but hey, you know. Movies.

Mulholland Dr. (2001)

mulholland-drive-poster-_2David Lynch has been called a lot of things, but probably the most succinct is challenging. Here, though, We have a movie that is adapted from a failed TV pilot, so the viewer feels secure that at least it’s going to be as comprehensible as Twin Peaks, right?

That’s if the viewer has forgotten how weird Twin Peaks could get.

Naive small town girl Betty (Naomi Watts) arrives in LA to spend a few weeks at her aunt’s apartment, hoping to break into show biz (the aunt is out-of-town on a movie shoot). What she finds in the apartment is an amnesiac who calls herself Rita (Laura Herring), pulling the name off a Rita Hayworth movie poster. We know that Rita was on a limousine on the titular street and she was apparently the victim of some set-up robbery when the limo was smashed into by drag-racing teens – Rita, however, doesn’t even remember that. When the girls search her purse for ID, they find many thousands of dollars and an odd key that fits a triangular lock – and so the Scooby-Doo sleuthing begins, with the girls not totally unaware that there are men searching for Rita, not the least of which is the most inept hit man in the history of the universe (Mark Pellegrino).

mulholland_drive_snap_2In the course of the first part of the movie, most of the Strange with a capital “S” is provided by movie director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux), who suddenly finds a shadowy organization demands the star of his next movie be a certain actress – “This is the girl” – and when he refuses, his entire world – personal, financial and artistic – is jerked out from under him. The organization is apparently run by familiar face Michael J. Anderson (Twin Peaks’ Man From Another Place), but Kesher meets with a fellow apparently above even him, known only as The Cowboy (Monty Montgomery), who wears a ten-gallon hat and no eyebrows.

Keep in mind I’m telling you the normal stuff. I haven’t gone into the spirit of death and horror who lives behind a Denny’s, or the eerily recurring red lampshade, or other Lynchian touches. At the two hour mark in a two-and-a-half hour movie, the girls go to a club in the middle of the night – Club Silencio (“No hay banda! There is no band! All this is… a tape recording!”) at which point we go full-on Lynch, and just when we think the plot has gone circular, it has turned into a damned Spirograph.

mulholland-drive-2001-to-2-gThe major portion of Mulholland Dr was supposed to form part of the third season of Twin Peaks, featuring Audrey Horne miraculously surviving the explosion in the Season Two finale and getting shuttled off to Los Angeles to find… well, you know by now. Knowing this doesn’t really help, since it leaves you wondering what would have been the outcome in that case, and then you start wondering if Season Three would have ever revealed why Josie Packard’s soul was trapped in the knob of that bedside table. Which doesn’t really aid any analysis of Mulholland Dr, but watching Lynch movies opens up some really odd brain connections.

I think we can conclude that the Audrey Horne version of the story would omit the R-rated lesbian sex scenes between Watts and Harring, not to mention the denouement of the last half-hour, which would fuel a fair number of discussions at movie nights. What I like about these accessible dreamscapes by Lynch is that on some level, you absolutely cannot intellectualize what is going on, you can only intuit it, engage with it on a primal level. This is a hypnotic, mesmerizing movie, genuinely suspenseful, often hilarious, ultimately puzzling. So yeah, I enjoyed it.

I am also fascinated by Lynch’s ability to wring existential terror out of a Roy Orbison song – this is twice that I know of. That, and if Lynch ever decided to do a serious full-on horror movie, we would all be screwed.

Dark City (1998)

darkcity1If there is a general upside to this determination I seem to have to watch movies on MY terms, not other peoples’, it’s that I missed out on Dark City the first time around.

I thought Dark City would make a good follow-up to Mullholland Dr., and I was right, as the movie begins with John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) awakening with amnesia, in an apartment with a murdered woman. A phone call tells him “they” are coming for him and he must run. “They” are indeed after him, a trio of cadaverous men in black overcoats and fedoras, and who can seemingly make people sleep at will. Murdoch, of course, tries to piece together who he is, and what’s going on, but that last one is a tall order: at midnight, everybody in the city goes to sleep, and the men in black – and there are a lot more than three – change the world, making buildings grow like plants, changing people’s personalities.

dc08There is one non-blackclad doctor (Kiefer Sutherland) who seems to be collaborating with these mystery people, but is also fearfully trying to get in touch with Murdoch. A police inspector (William Hurt) is pursuing Murdoch for serial murder – the previous investigating officer has apparently gone mad and left the force.  The Inspector is working with Murdoch’s wife (Jennifer Connelly). And one of the Men In Black (Richard O’Brien) is injected with Murdoch’s memories in a desperate attempt to track him down – desperate because Murdoch is showing signs of possessing the same world-changing powers as they.

First, we’re going to agree this is a hell of a good cast. Second, we are going to stand dumbfounded that this is actual thoughtful science-fiction, not some other genre script gussied up with sci-fi exteriors. Third, we’re going to find out that the studio did their best to kill it.

Well, not kill it, but damage it. This is where my stubborn refusal to drink from the trough at the same time as many comes in handy. “Thoughtful” movies being poison, and people stupid, uncomprehending animals, director Alex Proyas was convinced to tack a voiceover onto the movie’s beginning, which spelled out the movie’s plot. The plot I spent an enjoyable 111 minutes watching unspool.

Good God, I would have been pissed. There is nothing that turns me against a movie faster than having it treat me like an idiot. Fortunately, I only know of this voiceover through Ebert’s review; the Director’s Cut does away with it entirely. That’s the only version that exists in my universe because that is a good movie.

Cat People (1942)

CatPeopleHS-BAnother busy day, time to call in the 73 minute Cat People.

A chance meeting at the zoo between engineer Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) and immigrant artist Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon) leads to romance and marriage. There is one snag: Irena’s Serbian hometown is supposedly home to people that turn into great cats when their passions are inflamed. Though these weird people were supposedly eliminated in the Middle Ages, Irena believes in them strongly enough that she will not even allow her new husband to kiss her. The frustrated Oliver slowly awakes to the fact that his longtime pal at the office, Alice (Jane Randolph) carries a torch for him, and is not so adverse to the kissing stuff. The major problem there: jealousy is also a passion, and Irena begins stalking the two.

This was the first of the low-budget horror movies produced by Val Lewton at RKO, directed by Jacques Tourneur; these movies are rightly considered classics, but the modern horror fan is not going to have much patience with Cat People, at the very least. Tourneur is playing a game of ambiguity here. Is Irena truly a supernatural being, or just a very neurotic young woman on the verge of a violent breakdown? It was that approach that got Tourneur replaced barely four days into shooting , and Lewton went all the way to the studio head to get him reinstated. The Supervisor that fired Tourneur, though, is responsible for an actual panther showing up in one scene, removing all ambiguity and novelty. Those suspense scenes that remain untampered with are justly considered classic and Paul Schrader had no problem lifting them for his far more explicit 1982 version.

Cat-People-1942-SimonIt would have been nice to see Cat People as originally conceived (and The Wolf Man, and a host of others), but it’s worthwhile to watch any of the Lewton films and consider that here are people who worked on Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons now working on horror movies.  The budgets may have shrunk, but the talent had not.

Speaking of which, definitely check out William Dieterle’s The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) for the same reasons: good movie, lots of Kane  alumni, and Simone Simon as the living personification of sex. Oh, and Walter Huston as a particularly fine devil.

Rashomon (1950)

rashomon_sp2Coming into the home stretch on the Challenge, it gets a little wearying, so I opted for some comfort food. Besides it had been… well, I was about to say 30 years since I had last seen Rashomon, but that is too damn depressing.

Three men take shelter from the pouring rain in a burnt-out city  gate: a monk (Minoru Chiaki), a wood chopper (Takashi Shimura) and a Commoner (Kichijiro Ueda). The first two men are very disturbed, having testified at an inquest earlier that day, and they relate to the Commoner what transpired.

The Woodcutter had found the dead body of a samurai in the woods. The notorious bandit Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune)  had been captured with the dead man’s horse and some of his effects. He confesses to tricking the samurai (Masyuki Mori) and his wife (Machiko Kyo) into the woods, overpowering the man, raping the woman, and eventually killing the samurai in a duel at the woman’s insistence.

All well and good, except the wife, found hiding in a temple, tells an entirely different story. When the dead man tells his story, via a medium, it is different from the other two. There is yet another version of the story, lurking about, but it is best you discover it for yourself.

rashomon-sliceKurosawa makes some intriguing stylistic choices (making the viewer the judge in the inquest scenes) and pulls some camera moves that would be appropriated throughout the ages in his forest scenes. This is a movie so ingrained in our cultural purview that The Simpsons can make reference to it with impunity. It also marked Kurosawa’s full-blown introduction to the international cinema scene, and my God, the movies that were to come.

The oddest hangover for this is a desire to once more see the 1964 Western version of this, The Outrage, which I have seen only once during a seemingly accidental showing on TCM years ago.  Based on Fay and Michael Kanin’s play version, it stars Paul Newman as the Bandit, Laurence Harvey as the Husband, and Claire Bloom as the wife. The three guys in what is now a train station? Howard deSilva as a Prospector, William Shatner as the Priest, and Edward G. Robinson as “The Con Man”.  I recall it having some entertaining differences from the Kurosawa version, and besides: I collect Kurosawa rip-offs.

(Turn on Closed Captioning for English subtitles)

A Month of Roger Ebert’s Great Movies, part six

As a tribute to the late Roger Ebert, some members of the Letterboxd community are spending May visiting films in his Great Movies series. Since this dovetails with my personal project of filling shameful voids in my film education, I decided to commit myself, once more, to a regimented schedule for which I don’t really have time, but hey, you know. Movies.

Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972)

487303-1020-aOne of the things I went into this challenge swearing was that I was going to source every movie from my collection, local library system, or Netflix, and then I proceeded to immediately violate that vow. I had long meant to break my fast of non-documentary Werner Herzog, and there had been a box set of all the movies he had made with Klaus Kinski, put out by Anchor Bay in the 00’s. This monumental temptation combined with it being at its lowest price ever on Amazon – somewhere in the $25 range – tipped over into scheduling two of his most famous works for the month.

Aguirre takes place during Gonzalo Pizarro’s disastrous expedition to the Amazon River to find the fabled golden city of El Dorado. He did this by trekking his army – of soldiers and lots of Indian slaves – over the Andes mountains, and that is where the movie begins, with seemingly hundreds of people in period costumes (including two women) carefully picking their way down a mountain path, burdened by baggage and equipment. There is no trickery involved, no matte paintings or CGI, that is a bunch of people literally climbing down a mountain. This seems to be a prime indicator of how Herzog works.

Once at the immense river, Pizarro decides to send a party on rafts to see if they can find any indication of El Dorado within a week. He places Don Ursua (Ruy Guerra) in charge, with Aguirre (Kinski) his second. Against Pizarro’s better judgement, Ursua’s wife Inez (Helena Rojo) and Aguirre’s daughter Flores (Cecelia Rivera) are allowed to accompany them.

vlcsnap-2010-09-17-23h10m40s196The raft-borne party is almost immediately in trouble, encountering rapids that leave one raft trapped in an eddy against a cliff wall, and this is where the true power of Herzog’s approach is revealed: those are his actual actors on the rafts, in the rapids, and his actual cameras. Though you can never claim the movie employs a documentary approach, there is a visceral, fearsome quality to the footage that cannot be matched.

aguirrecut_55258Things get worse: the trapped raft is slaughtered in the night by unseen Indians. The Amazon rises fifteen feet, carrying away the original rafts and drowning much of the shoreline, denying the new rafts any but the rarest opportunity to make landfall. Rather than turn back as ordered, Aguirre leads a mutiny, intending to claim the city of gold not for Spain, but himself. Cannibals are encountered. An increasingly creaky and ill-kept cannon is employed. Starvation, fever, and sudden death by arrow, dart and spear become the norm, until the totally insane Aguirre finds himself master of a raft populated by corpses and monkeys.

Starvation and fever are probably apt terms for the grueling movie shoot. This is the movie that gave rise to the legend of Herzog pulling a gun on Kinski to keep him from walking off the set (if you can truly refer to these shooting locations as “sets”). Kinksi himself provides some pretty top-notch madness in his portrayal, his body seemingly becoming as contorted as his mind as the picture progresses. Though I never really got over the novelty of hearing Spanish conquistadors speaking German, the rest of the cast scurries to keep up with Kinski, and the ensemble is remarkable, not only in their acting but their stamina.

Mere summaries of the plot of Aguirre cannot match the visceral punch of the movie itself. This truly is a movie that must be seen, on its own terms, to truly appreciate. The money for that box set was damned well spent.

The trailer’s dubbed, but it is a very good dub:

Fitzcarraldo (1982)

l_83946_a0aafffeIt was almost impossible to not follow up Aguirre with Fitzcarraldo, as Herzog and Kinski return to Peru for another grueling historical adventure. This time we’re in the early 20th century and Kinski Is Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald (called Fitzcarraldo because the natives can’t pronounce “Fitzgerald”), a man who’s bankrupted himself attempting to build a Trans-Andean railroad. His main dream, though, is to build an opera house in this Peruvean rubber boom town, and since he can convince none of the rubber barons to put their money into this, he must become a rubber baron himself.

After a meeting with the most sympathetic of the barons, Fitzcarraldo has a daring plan: there is a section of the rain forest that is so far unexploited because of treacherous rapids. He aims to get to this unspoiled region by actually porting his 300-ton second-hand steamship over the narrowest isthmus between two rivers, a plan so daring that even the mechanic, a spy for the rubber baron, is impressed and joins in whole-heartedly. Clearing the jungle from the proposed path and actually moving the ship overland is only possible because the feared Jivaro natives, impressed by the boat, Fitzcarraldo’s immaculate white suits, and his phonograph records of Caruso, feel the boat is a holy vessel on a mission to purge evil spirits.

fitzcarraldo-posterFitzcarraldo is almost three hours long, but it’s one of those movies where it doesn’t feel like three hours, but at the end, you are exhausted and feel like you’ve been on that trip down the river yourself. True to form, Herzog doesn’t cheat with miniatures on that impossible portage – that is a real damn ship being dragged up an impossible slope, something engineers warned against. There is a part of Les Blank’s documentary on the making of the movie, Burden of Dreams, that shows a scene where one of the cables snaps during filming, and it’s quite likely that Kinski himself as well as other actors could have been decapitated or otherwise maimed. This is lunatic filmmaking at its finest, and the scenes of the ship slowly moving uphill invoke an incredible amount of tension in the viewer that would be impossible with models or CGI.

The movie also has lush scenery to spare and several shots that must have been ravishing on a big screen. Jason Robards at one point had the title role, but fell ill and was forbidden by his doctor to return to the production. Apparently Jack Nicholson at one point was the replacement, but felt the production was too insane, even for him. So it fell to Kinski, Herzog’s “best fiend”, and it has to be admitted that he brings to the role an injured vulnerability that plays well against the character’s seemingly unrealistic optimism. The experience would have been markedly different with the either of the earlier two actors.

And now I have got got got to see Burden of Dreams. I only know of that one scene through Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film.

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)

beyond_the_valley_of_the_dollsThis was one of the conditions of the Challenge: watch 30 movies from Ebert’s Great Movies, and also this movie, which, while it was not on the list, was actually written by Roger Ebert.

The movie version of Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls made money, so a sequel was inevitable; Susann herself wrote one, but Fox didn’t like it. The conditions of the contract gave them the right to make the sequel, with or without Susann, so somehow it fell into the lap of Russ Meyer, leading to the disclaimer at the very beginning that this is not a sequel to Valley of the Dolls.

As Ebert points out on his commentary track on the DVD, Meyer wasn’t all that interested in making sex movies; his primary interests were melodrama and comedy, something that is apparent to anyone who ever watched more than one of his movies. And Beyond the Valley of the Dolls offers melodrama in great dollops. Meyer and Ebert found Valley to be the tale of young innocents in the showbiz trade having their lives wrecked by sex and drugs, but it was sadly lacking in rock and roll. Ergo, Beyond is the tale of a female rock trio who move to LA, hit it big and immediately life gets complicated and melodramatic.

MPW-68199The screenplay is nothing special, outside of a few quotes that have become memorable camp classics. What Beyond does best is remind us of just how good a filmmaker Russ Meyer actually was – those montages over the rock songs of the Carrie Nations are superbly done, and actually progress the story. There is a backstage scene after one of their gigs that could have been crowded and sloppy, but instead clearly establishes every major character arc and relationship – it is really a small master class in managing such scenes.

Quite a bit is made of the blood-soaked ending, inspired by the Manson Family killings while Meyer and Ebert were still formulating the movie. You can see how actually conservative are the underpinnings of the story when the dead include the lesbian and the one character to have an abortion; but in case you missed it, the voice of Marvin Miller will appear at the end to recap what lessons you should have learned.

The acting is often as ripe as the dialogue, but that just serves to cement that everything here is of a piece. The Carrie Nations consists of two Playmates and a model, and they do just fine. John Lazar as quick-tongued promoter Z-Man is given all the best lines and delivers them with a quicksilver panache that makes you wonder why the hell you haven’t seen more of him in the intervening years. David Gurian, as the band’s unsophisticated manager, deserves some kind of acting award for making it look like having sex with (future Mrs. Russ Meyer) Edy Williams was a chore.

There is absolutely no use pretending Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is anything but trash. But as entertaining, well-made trash, it has very few real competitors.

El Topo (1970)

tumblr_m5z5m5q5cR1qzhoqfo1_1280It was either sheer perversity or sheer traditionalism that made me hit “Play” on El Topo at midnight. This is the movie that single-handedly started the Midnight Movie phenomenon, a phenomenon that even hit my teenage Texas town, which had a large college population. My midnight movies usually ran to Amicus double features or an amazing night with all four Beatles movies in a row, but their ancestry can be traced to El Topo, John and Yoko, and Beatles manager Allen Klein, who is the Abkco Films you see at the very beginning.

El Topo begins as an existential Western, with the title gunslinger (director Alejandro Jodorowsky himself) traveling the desert with his naked 7 year-old son, dispensing harsh justice to a murderous villain called The Colonel and his bandits. He leaves his son with a group of rescued monks and heads into the desert to face the Four Masters that reside there. He defeats them by trickery, which exacts a large cost on his psyche when he realizes exactly what he has become, and what he has destroyed. At this point we are not even halfway through the movie; the rest tells of his redemption by helping a group of crippled outcasts escape from their underground prison.

El_TopoLike The Holy Mountain – a Jodorowsky movie I much prefer – a spare synopsis is not going to even begin to replicate the experience of actually seeing the movie. Jodorowsky’s imagery is not as outlandish here, but it is still lush and plentiful. A small town massacred by the Colonel, where there is so much blood in the streets it looks like rain puddles. The grave of the first Master becomes a beehive. The third master lives in a corral of rabbits, who start keeling over dead as El Topo approaches. A church where the worship service is composed of the congregation playing Russian Roulette. It goes on and on to a dizzying, violent end that makes a little more sense than The Holy Mountain, but only a little.

2013 is a pretty good year for Jodorowsky. His first movie in 23 years, The Dance of Reality is poised for release, a documentary about his aborted attempt to make the movie version of Dune has done well at Cannes. But all this serves to point up that the man has only made 9 movies in his life, and not for lack of trying. I have only seen three of those movies, and those were enough to convince me that this paucity of Jodorowsky movies is a damn crime against humanity.