The ABCS of March 2014 part three

Previously on Yes, I Know: A through E;  F through J.

K: Kuroneko (1968)

KuronekoIt’s a setting we’re used to in Japanese movies: a time of civil war. A ragged, wandering troop of samurai, thirsty and starving, come upon a remote farmhouse and two women. Men being the animals that they are, the women are raped and killed. The cooking fire runs amok, and the house is consumed, leaving only one survivor: the black cat.

Soon after, at the nearby Rajomon Gate, samurai are being lured to an equally remote house where two eerily familiar women entertain them, and the men’s bodies are found the next day, their throats torn out. The man of the farmhouse who was missing at the beginning was conscripted to fight in the wars; he returns a hero, and is made a samurai. His first task: to find whatever is killing men in that grove and destroy it. In point of fact, the two are the spirits of his missing wife and mother, who had made pacts with dark gods to kill samurai and drink their blood until the end of time, or the end of samurai, whichever comes first.

Thus an old Japanese folk tale is complicated by familial ties, as man and wife, desperate to see each other, take to nightly trysts in an attempt to regain what they lost in the war. This causes the wife to renege on her pact, and she is sent to Hell – willingly, for the week she is allowed to spend with her husband. Then the man must face down his mother, or pay the consequences of failure.

goblin catKaneto Shindo has a remarkably varied filmography, but he is likely best known in the states for Onibaba, another tale of ghostly skullduggery during this tumultuous era. Shindo’s family was agrarian, so it’s small wonder that he always sides with the farmers in his period pieces. His samurai are vile dickweeds, make no mistake, and the mere fact that the protagonist’s inclusion into this class places him in mortal danger from his lost family is no mere plot twist: it is subversive in the extreme, given the revered status of samurai in most Japanese movies.

Kuroneko also includes the line, “You’ve slain a 1000 year-old goblin cat the size of a cow,” which I am going to try to work into polite conversation as often as possible.

Kuroneko on Amazon

L: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

600full-the-life-and-death-of-colonel-blimp-posterIn which we discover just how educational exercises like this can be.

First of all, being a Yank, I had no idea of the cultural significance of the title until I was going through the supplements in the gorgeous Criterion blu-ray of the restored print. Colonel Blimp, I discovered, was a satirical newspaper comic character by David Low, famous in Britain in the 30s and 40s. Wikipedia describes it succinctly: “The cartoon was intended to portray attitudes of isolationism, impatience with the concerns of common people, and a lack of enthusiasm for democracy.”

These days, he would be re-cast as a member of the Tea Party. blimp_comic2He was always in a Turkish bath, towel-bedecked, and red-faced. Which explains the opening sequence, and our introduction to the character, who is never, ever referred to as “Colonel Blimp”.

Which is good, because none of that prepares you for the genial, affecting, downright human story that will unwind before you in the next two hours and forty-five minutes. Three hours that will flash by like three minutes.

the-life-and-death-of-colonel-blimp-2The surrogate for Blimp is Clive Candy (Roger Livesey), a decorated military man whose story begins in the Boer War. Through a determination to do the right thing, he almost creates an international incident and has to fight a duel in Germany; both participants wind up scarred (Candy’s causing him to grow the trademark moustache), but also results in the friendship that will last his entire life, with the German officer chosen to represent their Army, Theo (Anton Walbrook, here far more sympathetic than his turn in The Red Shoes). As the story progresses through World War I, Candy seeks out his embittered friend at a prisoner of war camp; Theo will also flee to England from Nazi Germany, only to find himself classed an Enemy Alien.

Blimp_Film_Page_originalThe further you dig into Colonel Blimp, the more complex it becomes; Candy’s relationship with Theo echoes the partnership between directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who created some genuinely classic films as “The Archers”: A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus, The Red ShoesDespite working on many propaganda movies during the War Effort, Pressburger remained an Enemy Alien, required to adhere to a curfew and carry his “papers” with him at all time. Theo has a very moving speech about this that you know came from Pressburger’s heart. and doubtless with his co-director’s urging and blessing.

I haven’t even mentioned Deborah Kerr, who plays three separate roles as the women in Candy’s life (an amusing conceit commenting on Candy’s constantly surrounding himself with versions of his unrequited love, younger than himself). Kerr, only 20, is luminous in the three roles; she had her work cut out for her, sharing the screen with veterans like Livesey and Walbrook, and she rises to the challenge.

The-Life-and-Death-of-Colonel-Blimp-(1943)---Roger-Livesey,-John-Laurie-790944I find it incredible that this movie almost did not get made – Winston Churchill wanted it scotched completely. no cooperation was given by the Ministries of War or Information, which should have been the kiss of death. Yet, here it is, and thankfully so, as I find it the most quintessentially British movie I have ever seen. What some saw as a critique against a certain kind of patriot, I see as an ode to everything I love about Old Blighty (perhaps with a viewpoint just as jaundiced as its detractors): kindness, a belief in fair play, and just out-and-out decency. Candy admits he may be a bit of a laughable fool for believing in such things in modern times, but honestly – we could use a great many more fools like that.

Highest possible recommendation.

The Life & Death of Colonel Blimp on Amazon

Ah, the French. When they make a trailer, they know to get out of the way and let the movie speak for itself:

M: The Mask of Dimitrios (1944)

MPW-53767Kind of hard to leave wartime Europe behind, it seems.

Except that Mask of Dimitrios, the fifth of eight movies in which Sidney Greenstreet appeared alongside Peter Lorre, rather studiously ignores the thorny problem of World War II, instead taking place between the wars. Based on an Eric Ambler novelMask is the tale of Cornelius Leydon (Lorre), a successful mystery writer, who is told by an ardent fan (and police chief) about Dimitrios Makropoulos, a monstrous international villain and occasional spy, whose murdered body washed up from the Bosphorus that morning.

Intrigued by the possibility of writing about such a character, Leydon travels Europe, investigating Dimitrios’ former haunts and interviewing people inevitably screwed by this blackest of curs, and learning about the destroyed lives he left in his wake. Eventually the equally shadowy Mr. Peters (Sidney Greenstreet), who has been tailing Leydon, makes himself known, and Leydon finds himself neck-deep in schemes and counter-schemes.

EpdAIThe largest part of Dimitrios is told in flashback, as each interviewee details Dimitrios’ foulness in a number of arenas. You’ve got the usual formidable array of Warner’s supporting cast with standout performances by Arthur Francen and Zachery Scott as Dimitrios, in his film debut. Scott holds his own against Lorre and Greenstreet, which is no small feat; the Texas-born actor went on to have, if not a flashy, star-making career, a steady one lasting up until his death in ’65… a true trouper in every sense of the word.

Greenstreet provides his usual eloquent menace and Lorre is charming and affable. This is the sort of movie that Warner Brothers did so well, for so many years, and cheers to Warner Archive for dragging it back out into the sun.

The Mask of Dimitrios on Amazon

Alas, no trailer, but here’s a little Lorre and Greenstreet to tide you over:

N: Night Tide (1961)

night_tide_poster_01This one’s considered a classic of indie horror; it’s remarkable it’s taken me this long to see it.

Young sailor Johnny Drake (Dennis Hopper), on leave in sunny California, meets and eventually falls in love with Mora (Linda Lawson), an enigmatic young lady who earns her living pretending to be a mermaid in an “amusement pier” attraction.  Strange occurrences seem to indicate she might actually be some sort of legendary sea creature, doomed to eternally lure men to their death, especially when Johnny finds out his new love has had two boyfriends in recent months – both of which drowned.

This is the shamefully under-rated Curtis Harrington’s first feature-length movie, and it makes bountiful use of existing locations at Santa Monica and Malibu. Dennis Hopper, who could rightfully be considered a veteran at this point, plays the guileless innocence of a young man who joined the Navy to see the world very well. Linda Lawson is the proper mixture of exotic and down-to-earth. So much of the movie’s success rests on these two – Johnny is in almost literally every shot – that Harrington must have felt he hit the jackpot when he got them. Luana Anders is also on hand as a more normal girl interested in Johnny’s welfare, and acts as a winsome linchpin to the real world.

night-tide-8Night Tide provides us with a Scooby-Doo ending in which everything is seemingly explained rationally,  but is canny enough to make sure that some of it rings false, leaving the door open for speculation long after the movie has ended. For me, the most unexpected moment was when Johnny finally goes to a psychic who has been urging him to have a tarot reading… and it turned out to be one of the best such scenes I had ever witnessed in a movie, actually casting the cards not as an oracle, but a series of symbols allowing one to isolate and examine the tangled threads of life. Hearing the Hanged Man put in proper context was almost as shocking as the movies’s pivotal moment when an apprehensive Johnny goes scuba-diving with the possibly murderous Mora.

Night Tide on Amazon

O: The Orphanage (2007)

the-orphanage-poster-800This was originally going to be On the Waterfront, but it was late at night and I didn’t feel like something that raw (there will be another Challenge later this year based on Roger Ebert’s Great Movies, and doubtless this Elia Kazan movie will get its return match). Several people had been talking up The Orphanage, I had gotten a copy from the SwapaDVD Club, so… here we go.

Laura (Belen Rueda) comes back to the orphanage where she spent much of her childhood, intending to re-open it as a Home for Children with Special Needs. She and her husband (Fernando Cayo) are familiar with this; he’s not only a doctor, but their adopted son Simon (Roger Princep) has HIV. Before you can say “Don’t buy that spooky old mansion,” Simon is talking to, and about, his new invisible friends and things proceed to go south from there.

Now, I’m admittedly a hard sell for ghost stories. I don’t know why this is, since if they’re done right, they deliver some of the creepiest moments in the horror genre. But I am, and I eventually reached a point in The Orphanage when I was considering turning it off. I had just seen everything they were doing so many times before. “Okay, movie,” I muttered. “You need to step up your game. Give me a reason to keep watching.”

OrphanageAnd it did. And it continued to do so every time my interest began to wane.

Simon vanishes after a hurtful fight with his mother and stays vanished through most of the movie. Unraveling the mystery of the orphanage’s haunting becomes instrumental in his recovery, and the central trauma causing it is so extraordinary, so horrific, it’s unreasonable the police seem to know nothing about it, but perhaps that’s my grumpy critical mindset over-ruminating on details. There’s a very nice paranormal research segment featuring Geraldine Chaplin as a medium, and I’ll always like a movie that approaches ghosthunting with a bit of respect, like Legend of Hell House and The Conjuring. Certainly more respect than it accords itself in a half-dozen “reality” TV shows that clogged the airways a few years back.

So I’m glad I gave the movie its ultimatum and it listened. The Orphanage does draw you in and keep you off-kilter with tragedy after tragedy, until its unexpectedly bittersweet ending, with more of an emphasis on the bitter. Not the best ghost story I’ve seen, but a good one.

The Orphanage on Amazon

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

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.

Vertigo (1958)

vertigoVertigo, unfortunately, fell victim to what I call First Steak Syndrome.

That requires some explanation. Like a lot of people my age, my brain was scarred as a youth by The National Lampoon, when it was a magazine easily available on newsstands. A continuing feature was the Foto Funnies, which were lame jokes in a six-grid photo layout, which was always an excuse to show a topless model with alarmingly large breasts. The pertinent one involved the guy in bed with her (the set was almost always a bed) talking about how, if a person had never eaten a steak, but had been told all their life how incredible a steak was, how good it tasted, when that person finally had a steak, the result would inevitably be disappointment, because the steak had been so built up all their lives. The punchline was the pendulous model saying, “Not until I’m married,” but that’s not the important part. The important part is the lifelong build-up.

And this has happened to me several times in my seemingly endless catch-up on the Movies I Should Have Been Watching All This Time But Haven’t. When I watch a movie that has been praised so unanimously that it is impossible to watch it tabula rasa, that your viewing begins on the first frame with the weight of expectation pitched unnaturally high. Vertigo is, alas, one of those. It was first recommended to me highly in college, but that was when it was unavailable in any form; finally it was released again in 1984 with four other Hitchcocks that had been in rights limbo. It is heavily referenced in two of my favorite discoveries from last year, Chris Marker’s La jetee and Sans soleil. It replaced Citizen Kane as the #1 movie of all time in the Sight and Sound Critic’s Poll last year, for God’s sake. Yet I am immune to its charms.

That likely also has something to do with my own relationship with Hitchcock: I’m not a big fan. There is something about his movies that distance me from the events on the screen, even as I note the craftsmanship. The one Hitchcock movie I positively adore is Psycho, and small wonder, as it is his version of a B movie, my poison of choice. So, as I watch Vertigo unspool, I am appreciative of the technique, I note that Bernard Hermann and Alfred Hitchcock were made for each other, and don’t care much beyond that.

?????????????????I guess I should say that Vertigo is the story of police detective Scottie Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart), who is recovering from a nasty incident involving a chase across tenement rooftops that left a uniformed officer dead and Scottie with acrophobia and a sense of vertigo whenever heights are involved. His leave of absence is interrupted by an old school chum who begs him to follow his increasingly erratic wife (Kim Novak), who seems to be haunted by her ancestor, a woman who committed suicide a hundred years before. Of course, the two fall in love before she plunges to her death off the bell tower of an old Spanish mission, Scottie unable to stop her because of his crushing fear of heights. Then, after six months in a mental ward, Scottie sees a woman on the street who looks uncannily like his lost love…

Vertigo is based on a novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, who can count in their credits Diabolique and Eyes Without A Face. Unlike either of those, Vertigo rests on a conspiracy that ultimately fails because one of the conspirators makes two very stupid mistakes – well, three, really – leading to the final reveal. As a study in obsession, it is queasily great. As a mystery, not so much so.

It flopped badly when it premiered in ’58 (and is now regarded as Hitchcock’s masterpiece – sound familiar?), and a lot of blame over the years has been placed on Stewart’s shoulders. At age 50, he was thought to be too old to be playing a romantic lead to an actress literally half his age (again – sound familiar?). Hitchcock later said he thought Kim Novak was miscast (he had wanted Vera Miles), but truthfully, Novak is fine, essaying a difficult role very well.

The Conversation (1974)

resize_imageThe Conversation is another character study about an unpleasant character. Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is a surveillance expert who is neurotically protective of his own privacy. As the movie opens, he is engaged in his latest job, taping the conversation of a young couple during lunchtime in a busy park. Obviously thinking they have a safe place to talk, they are blissfully unaware of the three hypersensitive microphones with sniper scopes trained on them or the man with a shopping bag and a hearing aid tailing them.

As Caul mixes these four sources to provide the clearest version of their conversation, he becomes aware that the two are having an affair, and they are fearful of the woman’s husband, almost certainly Harry’s client. Harry’s claim to fame is an impossible surveillance he somehow managed in New York several years previous, taping a conversation under such guarded circumstances that it led to a bloodbath in a corrupt union, and the torture/murder of an entire family. Haunted by his culpability, however tenuous, to that crime, the already troubled Caul begins to fear that history will repeat itself, the two lovers will be murdered, and it will once again be his fault.

The-Conversation-1The Conversation is as post-Watergate as a movie can come. Harry’s evolving paranoia is well pricked-on by Francis Ford Coppola’s direction and grimy early 70s design. The titular conversation itself was shot with several different line readings, so the actual performance changes as Harry’s attitude toward it does. Coppola has said that movies like this and his earlier The Rain People were the sort of movies he wanted to spend his life making; the fact that this would mean living in a world without The Godfather movies or Apocalypse Now puts one in the unfortunate position of being glad he didn’t get his wish. Even with a lower budget and smaller scope, the cinematography here is highly detailed and enveloping: in that first aerial shot of the crowded park, you look exactly where Coppola wants.

Gene Hackman picks this as a personal favorite among all his roles, and he does an uncomfortably good job of portraying a shabby man with a shabby soul. The cast constantly surprises, with Teri Garr, a very young Harrison Ford (in a role that was supposed to be small, but Ford so impressed Coppola he expanded it), Robert Duvall, and that Rosetta Stone of 70s cinema, John Cazale.

A bit of a tough nut to crack, but very worthwhile.

Chinatown (1974)

film-noir-chinatown-1974-movie-poster-via-professormortis-wordpressThanks to HBO, I had seen the last five minutes of Chinatown many times. It was time to catch up on the other two hours and five minutes. Besides, I had a crime thing going on.

In 1937 Los Angeles, private detective Jake Gittes is hired to investigate the possible infidelity of city water engineer Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling, who played Ham in Doc Savage, The Man of Bronze, and yes, I was distracted by that bit of trivia). Gittes finds it, then is surprised to find out that the woman who hired him was not Mrs. Mulwray – that would be Faye Dunaway – and when Mulwray turns up dead, Gittes finds himself on the trail of a conspiracy involving two very important parts of LA life – water and land.

People argue over whether Chinatown is neo-noir or just plain noir, so ably does it imitate the truly American genre from the 40s, but come now – the movie is so far removed from The Maltese Falcon or Double Indemnity that it’s clearly a new, meaner generation of that beast. Simple human greed is always a factor in noir, but here the greed is magnified a thousandfold, the corruption on a massive, government level. Director Roman Polanski trades in dark, venetian blind-lit rooms for sun-burned Los Angeles streets and parched orchards. Previously hinted-at sexual crimes, buried in Hayes Code-constricted noir is extremely – and famously – overt here.

Generally speaking, I don’t have a good relationship with the Polanski movies I’ve seen, but Chinatown is a seriously good movie. This is the movie that elevated Jack Nicholson to a romantic lead, and Faye Dunaway just keeps cropping up in these Great Movies, doesn’t she? There’s probably a reason for that.

Easy Rider (1969)

MPW-23917I didn’t feel like yet another crime movie, so I went with more Nicholson.

Though Easy Rider isn’t truly a Nicholson movie. What it is is a remarkable bellwether in American cinema. The third-grossing movie of the year (behind Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid and Midnight Cowboy), it kicked off the New Hollywood with a vengeance. Like that other surprise counter-culture hit, Bonnie and Clyde, it also borrows a lot from the French New Wave.

There’s not much plot in Easy Rider, but there is a hell of a lot of earnestness. Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (director Dennis Hopper) make a small fortune smuggling cocaine in motorcycle batteries. They buy new bikes and set out to find America, or at least make it to New Orleans in time for Mardi Gras. Along the way they pick up alcoholic ACLU lawyer George (Nicholson), and introduce him to marijuana. They pick up two hookers in the Big Easy and have an acid trip in a cemetery.  Everybody gets killed by rednecks. The end.

2077615734_0f6ef42587It’s an odd and interesting trip, so very different from the TV version, Then Came Bronson, just one of the many attempts to cash in Easy Rider‘s commercial success.I’m intrigued at how, without much in the way of visual effects, the trip sequence in the St. Louis No. 1 cemetery so accurately captures the LSD experience.

None of these guys were exactly strangers to Hollywood at this point, but this movie definitely – and most certainly in Nicholson’s case – brought them from the ranks of small roles and day players on TV shows to the ranks of actual Movie Stars, and not just in B pictures. Again, like Bonnie and Clyde, actual locals take many of the roles, but you can also catch young Karen Black, Toni Basil, and Luke Askew for once not playing a lunatic. Fonda is his usual straight-shooting dreamer, and Hopper has the courage to make his balancing role a paranoid jerk.

And if nothing else, Easy Rider has some arrestingly beautiful scenery played against THE BEST DAMNED MOVIE SOUNDTRACK EVER.

I should also point out, for the sake of completeness, that roughly between Network and Some Like It Hot in our last installment, I hit a day where I was called into work a City Council meeting to cover for a co-worker, and I had to employ my second cheat: Ebert had written about three Chuck Jones Warner Brothers cartoons, and I watched them in the waning hours of that Wednesday. They are What’s Opera, Doc?, Duck Amuck, and One Froggy Evening. All successfully subvert the usual template of Looney Tunes shorts, and are well-deserving of the respect shown them. There are copies available on YouTube, but are of such abysmal quality, I’m not even going to try linking them here.