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)