Two Netflix and a Blu-Ray

Last week was depressing. We lost Robin Williams, then Lauren Bacall, bang bang. I went to bed one night in 2014 and when I watched the news the next day, I had apparently awakened in 1964, without the attendant youth and energy I possessed in ’64. Then again, I think ’64 was the year one of my numerous bouts of pneumonia nearly succeeded in killing me, so perhaps this uneven version of time travel was for the best.

This week? Just as depressing.

If I stand for nothing else, I certainly stand for escapism in my entertainment. So let’s see…

untitledI completely fail at escapism in my first choice from Netflix, Nanking (2007), which is about the Japanese occupation of that city in 1937, and its attendant horrors. The narrative drive of the film is provided by diary and journal entries, largely from a group of Western missionaries and businessmen who took it upon themselves to establish a “safety zone” for refugees; many of these people were rightly honored as heroes by the Chinese, and they paid the price for that heroism, often in unfortunate and yes, depressing ways. The entries are spoken by actors like John Getz, Mariel Hemingway, Chris Mulkey, Jurgen Prochnow, Woody Harrelson, Stephen Dorff, Rosalind Chao. This is bolstered by interviews with survivors, many of whom break down in tears about things they witnessed while still children.

up-Nanking_LRGThis is a tremendously sobering movie.  It makes all too obvious the evil of which men are capable, but also the tremendous good of which they are equally capable. This is not a movie for light viewing, but it is very, very good: history made all too real and gut-wrenchingly horrible.

Nanking on Amazon

the quiet man 1I was on slightly more sure footing with a blu-ray I had picked up at my local used disc store, which is Olive Films’ 60th Anniversary Edition of John Ford’s The Quiet Man. It’s hard to typify The Quiet Man as anything but escapism – hell, I’m sure there are many people in Ireland who would love to visit the version of Ireland presented here.

In case you’ve not had the pleasure: John Wayne is Sean Thornton, a retired prize fighter who returns to his birthplace, the Irish village of Innisfree. There “The Yank” runs into Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O’Hara), and immediately falls in love with her, as who wouldn’t? There is a fiery, tempestuous courtship (although “the proprieties will be observed” as declared by village marriage broker Barry Fitzgerald), and they are wed. The-Quiet-Man-006The main conflict is with Mary Kate’s brother, the bellicose Will Danaher, who refuses to pay Thornton her dowry. The Yank doesn’t care about the money, but it is a tradition ingrained in his Irish bride, and it nearly destroys their newly minted marriage. Thornton is reckoned a coward because he won’t fight Danaher – but only the local Protestant vicar knows Sean’s secret – he killed a man in the ring, and swore to never again strike another person. Everything turns out alright when Thornton and Danaher finally throw down, much to the delight of the entire village (and the movie audience).

the-quiet-man-fightThis was Ford’s dream project, which also meant that no studio in Hollywood would touch it for years. I always thought it was kind of odd that this was a Republic picture, but an included supplement hosted by Leonard Maltin cleared that up: Republic was trying to break out of its reputation as a maker of serial potboilers and B movies, and signed Ford to a three picture deal. Still, they wouldn’t let him do Quiet Man until he delivered a profitable picture first, on a lower budget than he was used to: Rio Grande, supposedly to offset the losses The Quiet Man would produce. After convincing Republic of a number of things, not the least of which was using Technicolor, shooting on location, and upping the budget to $1.5 million (and he delivered it a few thousand under budget), he finally made his dream movie – and a dream it is, as gentle and humanistic a story can be that ends in a fifteen minute fistfight. An unusual movie for Wayne, not known for making romantic comedies – nor for playing straight man to a bunch of fine character actors.

I felt a bit disappointed in the transfer on the Olive Films blu-ray, until I watched the Maltin extra, which was obviously sourced from video, and it had the chroma turned up absurdly high. The Technicolor on the Olive transfer is much more realistic, and is fine, really – it’s just that previous versions had led me to expect to be hit between the eyes with vibrant green in every shot.

The Quiet Man on Amazon

Space-Pirate-Captain-Harlock 2013 posterFor maximum escapism, I returned to Netflix and something I had intended to watch ever since I heard it had been added: Space Pirate Captain Harlock, or, as Netflix calls it (confounding my searches for a while) Harlock: Space Pirate. Because, well, come on; who doesn’t like pirates? In space?

Though I really like the character Harlock, I have to admit my exposure to him is pretty limited. I first encountered him in Galaxy Express 999, which was showing at the local art house theater. In those days, finding anime was tough, let me tell you. I managed a couple of dubbed episodes of the TV show, and one movie, Arcadia of My Youth, which was, in those days, called My Youth in Arcadia.

1This is a motion-capture CGI movie, and more than a bit of a reboot. A prologue tells us that as Earth began to die, mankind reached out tot he stars, and with its usual aplomb, failed miserably. There was a general exodus back to Earth, but so many people would have finished the job, as it were, so something called the Homecoming War happened, with the result that the Gaia Communion operates Earth as a closed, gated community, with no interlopers allowed.

Of course, Captain Harlock and his crew are tooling the Arcadia around the galaxy screwing with The Man, but they’re also up to something, and a spy manages to worm his way into the crew to find out what. Harlock is setting up “dimensional detonators” at specific nodes, with which he hopes to disrupt the fabric of time, basically resetting the universe.

10I had a brief discussion on Facebook about live-action adaptions of the anime of our youth, and how the modern versions of Devilman, Gatchaman and even Cutey Honey got bogged down in tidal pools of mega-angst. (This was pretty nicely parodied in Karate Robo Zaborgar – “You can’t punch me! I have diabetes!”). There is mega-angst in this Harlock, too, but it doesn’t seem needlessly tacked on (and to be fair, most of my memories of Arcadia of My Youth is of people crying). Harlock is apparently immortal, well over a hundred years old, and tired. He has a deep dark secret deeper and darker than anyone would suspect, and so does our spy.

I was originally drawn to anime for its ability to present the amazing imagery in service to stories that were, to me at least, coming from unique viewpoints. The space imagery in this CGI movie is pretty marvelous, for the most part. The story gets really ponderous in the last 20 minutes or so, but it was still pretty solid entertainment, and took me somewhere else for two hours.

Space Pirate Captain Harlock on Amazon

Quality Continues

I suppose, if you take a look at my works (ye mighty, and tremble), you might think that all I watch are bad movies. After all, I wrote for many years a site called The Bad Movie Report (hello, Web 1.0, if not.05). That part of my branding grew so ingrained that when I tried to write about something I thought was good, the e-mails would come in “How dare you even talk about [redacted] it’s not a bad movie!” Small wonder I eventually walked away. I’m claustrophobic; I don’t like being boxed in.

Just like everyone else, I enjoy a good movie. I just disagree at times about what constitutes a “good movie”.

This means there are holes in my education. Some -perhaps more than I would care to admit – are due to my pushing back against popular opinion. I don’t trust the masses. They can be kind of stupid. A lot more is due to availability. I can’t just turn on Netflix and watch Godard’s Breathless or Murnau’s The Last Laugh – I have to actively seek it out, find it, and probably pay for it, before I can even think of watching it.

So several years back, I started educating myself. I’m not getting any younger, and there are movies I heard about all my life, and have just never gotten around to seeing. I tried keeping lists of Movies I Will By God Be Watching This Year, and those didn’t really pan out. They’re still stuck on top of this page, if you want to see my failure. It’s just best for me to set aside a month and say, this month. The good stuff. I find Roger Ebert’s essays on The Great Movies a rock-solid starting place. Let us continue:

The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964)

stmattI had been looking forward to this for some time, ever since experiencing Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life movies (The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales, Arabian Nights). Having then experienced Pasolini’s controversial Salo, It seemed proper to finally indulge that desire. As Sean Frost pointed out, it’s not every director that has the guts to handle De Sade and the New Testament.

Here’s the thing: I had been led to believe that this was a fairly politicized version of Jesus, and given Pasolini’s personal views, I really expected such. But there really isn’t that much of it in evidence here: there is a special emphasis on Jesus’ speeches to the masses between the triumphant procession of Palm Sunday and Passover, where he is really socking it to the Pharisees and generally sealing his eventual fate, and therefore, the redemption of Mankind. It seems a pretty traditional movie version of the accepted text.

But here’s the other thing: I’m not entirely sure I trust the print I saw.

1964 Il Vangelo Set shotThe version that was available to me was on Amazon’s video service, and as a Prime member I had access to the movie for free. There are two things about that version that marred my experience: the first was a transparent watermark in the corner for Film Chest, which I was eventually almost able to ignore. The other thing, far more damaging, was that it was dubbed in English.

Yes, I have been completely spoiled by the Criterion Collection.

My suspicious nature concludes that anything could have been substituted in the dubbing process. I also sort of doubt my own little paranoid conspiracy theory, but the dub job does the movie absolutely no favors. Flavorless, flat and rushed, it’s like listening to the English dub of Speed Racer, but without the charm.

03_top10jesusfilmsThere’s still a lot to like in the movie, however. Pasolini was able to do amazing things with a period piece on a limited budget, bits of Italy and Morocco standing in for the Holy Lands, embracing a low-level, unflashy aesthetic that adds significantly to the realism. He also has an eye for the most remarkable faces for the camera to dwell upon, sometimes grotesque, sometimes beautiful, always real and honest.

I really did want my political Jesus, though. I wanted a movie version of Baigent, Lee and Lincoln’s The Messianic Legacy. Frustrated Gnostic that I am, I still feel Judas is getting a raw deal. But possibly Pasolini, lapsed Catholic though he was, still could not bring himself to totally smash some icons.

Buy Gospel According to St. Matthew at Amazon

The Honeymoon Killers (1969)

Honeymoon KillersYou know what? It is suddenly a week since I wrote that last part. When I said I couldn’t possibly do a formal Movie Challenge, a movie a night for a month, I was being way more prophetic that I thought possible.

The next flick I watched was The Honeymoon Killers, which is not on Ebert’s list, but it is in the Criterion Collection. It was my turn to pick a movie for the Daily Grindhouse podcast, and after two incredibly mediocre movies, we were ready for something better. It was a calculated risk on my part, because I’d never seen Honeymoon Killers, but I did know my first exposure to it was via one of Danny Peary’s Cult Movie books, so that seemed a fair indicator.

We were supposed to record last Wednesday, but Joe Cosby’s work had shifted into Hell Mode, so it was just going to be me and Jon Abrams. Then Jon’s workplace turned on him, and the podcast world doesn’t need an audio version of this blog. So it got delayed.

Les tueurs de la lune de mielThat is the shorthand version of last week. Crisis and exhaustion were the watchwords of the day, and when I managed to wind up in my easy chair, I didn’t have the energy for anything more involved than one of the many true crime shows on Netflix.

Speaking of true crime: The Honeymoon Killers is based on a true story – yeah, I know, we’ve heard that before – of a murder case from the late 40s to early 50s. TV show producer Warren Steibel and opera composer Leonard Kastle both hated the movie Bonnie & Clyde, feeling it was “too glamorous”, with even bloody violence given artistic merit. Steibel, wanting to branch out into movie production, managed to get $150,000 together – still peanuts, in 1969 – and convinced Kastle, the only writer he knew, to do the screenplay.

Kastle puts together a pretty good chronicle of the relationship between suave con man Ray Fernandez and overweight nurse Martha Beck, although all he had to go on was trial records and newspaper clippings. Kastle loved filmmakers like Goddard, Truffaut and Pasolini, and constructed the story like one of their neo-realist movies. The effect is a sort of documentary verisimilitude, a low-level reality, aided by the black-and-white photography (which also glosses over the fact that they could not afford to do a true period piece).

Sem7peli2The center of the story is the unlikely romance between Ray and Martha, and how Martha’s jealousy interferes with Ray’s studied predatory gigolo procedures, and eventually leads to murder. That build-up leads to pretty horrific murder scenes that would be considered fairly tame these days, but have an added punch thanks to the relatively staid events leading up to them. Tony Lo Bianco and Shirley Stoler are perfectly cast, and carry the movie effortlessly.

Kastle, who eventually took over direction after two others didn’t work out (and one was a young Martin Scorsese), may be taking his cues from European directors (and does a great job – his visual storytelling is efficient but elegant), but he also seems to derive some inspiration from the 1967 In Cold Blood, another piece of true-crime cinema with a black-and-white, documentary approach. Though in Kastle’s case, it was more a matter of financial necessity, which he then proceeded to exploit, and exploit very well. There are simply some things you can do with black-and-white that is impossible with color film.

Well, I had meant to save my babbling for the podcast, but I guess this is rehearsal, eh?

Buy The Honeymoon Killers at Amazon

My Darling Clementine (1946)

mcWqxj75qltyh85d4O7EJ6FYzsfOne thing I learned about The Honeymoon Killers was just how much Kastle shortened and in a lot of cases, actually whitewashed the story: Martha Beck’s backstory was particularly heartbreaking, and the two were accused of over twenty murders, not just the four we witnessed. Well, Hollywood, and all that. The necessities of fiction, of telling a good story.

Then how to address John Ford’s My Darling Clementine, the tale of the legendary Shootout at the OK Corral, where damned near nothing is true?

First of all, none of that is John Ford’s fault. The script is largely based on Stuart Lake’s posthumous biography of Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal, which in true Shootist style, is a collection of bunkum. The 1939 movie of the same name gets it just as wrong, if not wronger. To be sure, there is still a deal of controversy among historians about what exactly went down at the OK Corral, but we can be pretty sure that whatever it actually was, it wasn’t very photogenic.

54.57-foxIn this particular alternate universe, Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) and his brothers are driving a herd of cattle west, and not doing a particularly good job of it. While the three oldest, Wyatt, Morgan (Ward Bond) and Virgil (Tom Holt) head into Tombstone to get a shave and a beer, the Clanton gang, led by Walter Brennan, rustle the cattle and kill the youngest Earp, James (a baby-faced Don Garner). The Earps take jobs as lawmen in Tombstone, at least until they can track down their brother’s murderers. Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) runs a saloon in town, and he and Wyatt strike up an uneasy friendship, strained all the more when Doc’s old girlfriend Clementine (Cathy Downs) finally tracks Doc down, and Wyatt takes a liking to her.

Holliday, rather famously, is dying from consumption, and tries to send Clementine packing, egged on by his current girlfriend, a fiery saloon girl with the unlikely name of Chihuahua (Linda Darnell). Chihuahua’s fecklessness will eventually provide Wyatt with the piece of evidence he needs that the Clantons were responsible for James’ death, but that also gets her a bullet in the back from Billy Clanton (John Ireland). After that, it’s only a matter of time until everybody winds up at the OK Corral slinging lead.

My Darling Clementine (1946)This is Fonda and Ford’s first movie together after their tours of duty in World War II, and there is a tinge of melancholy and loss over the proceedings not evident in their pre-War work. Ford still works the atmosphere and period textures like few other directors ever managed, and some of the lighting effects in the nighttime scenes are spectacular – easily the best being the scene in which Holliday must operate on the wounded Chihuahua in the empty saloon, the improvised operating table illuminated by every oil lamp in the joint, surrounded by the deep black forms of people standing by, unable to help.

That’s also a bit indicative of the post-War Ford spinning his wheels a bit, though; the scene is directly lifted from his earlier Stagecoach, right down to the drunken doctor calling upon nearly forgotten skills for emergency surgery, assisted by his patient’s hated rival. An earlier scene with Fonda delivering a monologue over James’ grave is also reminiscent of a similar scene in Young Mr. Lincoln.

martinsYou really sort of expect Tombstone to have been mysteriously relocated to Monument Valley – this is a John Ford Western, after all. The liberties taken with history only get more fanciful from there. Virgil was the Marshal in Tombstone, with Morgan, James and Wyatt occasionally pitching in to help. James, Virgil and, yes, Wyatt, were all married when they moved to boomtown Tombstone – dreadful sorry, Clementine. Holliday’s friendship with Wyatt went back several years before Tombstone, and unlike here and Frontier Marshal, he survived the Shootout. There were two Clantons present, and four other suspected rustlers, and only Billy Clanton and two brothers, the McLaurys, died.

Hell, these days we’re told the Shootout actually happened down the street from the OK Corral.

The lead-up to the Shootout is a great deal more complex than Clementine would have us believe, but the messy details of reality would only get in the way of a good story. It’s intriguing to consider that the version we’ve had on TV and in theaters for the past 65 years was trimmed of nearly 30 minutes by producer Darryl F. Zanuck, according to his own sensibilities and some preview audiences that necessitated retakes months after the movie wrapped. A nearly complete version of Ford’s version was actually discovered at UCLA in ’94. It’s not necessarily better, either, just… different.

Anyway, I think I now really need to watch something in color.

Buy My Darling Clementine at Amazon

The ABCs of March, Part Five

Previously on Yes, I Know: A through E  F through J  K through O  P through T

U: Upstream Color (2013)

upstreamA lot of us know about Shane Carruth through his first feature, Primer. If you’re any kind of a science fiction fan, you’ve probably seen it. If not, well… it’s currently not on Netflix Instant, which is where I first encountered it, but it’s definitely worth seeking out, a time travel story that’s brainy, dense, and remarkably free of the usual claptrap that surrounds such stories. Also, like the best Nolan movies, you need to pay attention every minute, and your gray matter is going to get a workout.

Now take that and square it, and you may be ready to approach Upstream Color.

Any attempt at a synopsis is going to get nightmarishly complex. Check out any of those on various streaming media, and you will find yourself wondering, “What movie did they watch?” I’m no better, but here goes:

A guy called only Thief (Thiago Martins) has found a worm that lives in certain exotic orchids; if a person ingests it, the parasite makes them instantly docile and extremely susceptible to brainwashing techniques, which he uses to steal every cent they have and cover his tracks… in case they survive the harrowing aftermath. At the beginning of the movie, he does this to Kris (Amy Seimetz), leaving her dazedly trying to cut out the worms scurrying under her skin with a butcher knife. Another mystery man called The Sampler (Andrew Sensenig) attracts her to a remote location with electronic music that is also coaxing normal earthworms out of the ground. He uses a crude but effective method to get the parasites out of Kris and into an anesthetized pig. The next day, Kris awakes as if from a nightmare, and attempts to try to put her completely destroyed life back together.

Eventually Jeff (our auteur, Shane Carruth) becomes attracted to her, and a relationship forms. Jeff, it turns out, has a similar black hole in his life, in which he abused his position as a broker to embezzle a lot of funds. They start finding out they have a lot of things in common, and a lot of things they shouldn’t have in common, because their identities are still fractured and bleeding into each other. The Sampler is not as beneficent as he seems; he has a whole herd of pigs, all carrying parasites from other victims, and he uses the connections these parasites still have with their former hosts to sample their lives.

upstream-color-pigs-croppedThat is about as bare bones yet cohesive as I can get. Like Primer, there is a hell of a lot of grist for the conversation mill here. Where it’s going to differ from Primer, though, is that much of that is so much more abstruse than its predecessor. The motivations of The Sampler are still beyond my comprehension, and that may in fact be the point: our lives are frequently shaped by unknowable forces, by people who we will never meet but nonetheless have power over us. I found it hypnotic and engrossing; others are just going to be pissed off.

One of my major frustrations with fiction is a perverse one – I love having a mystery to ponder, so much so that I feel let down when that mystery is solved (probably the main reason I liked Lost so much, even though most people use it as a swear word these days). I’m still chewing on Upstream Color days later. I like that.  Some people won’t. I’m okay with that. (This being the Internet, I also find that this tolerance is not reciprocated, and I expect I will soon be told why I am an idiot. Whatever.)

Upstream Color on Amazon

V: Vampyr (1932)

vampyrposterAnother one I had seen twenty years or so ago (on laserdisc, no less).

Carl Theodor Dreyer was looking for a more commercial property after his Passion of Joan of Arc was a critical and box office failure. (It is now, of course, widely regarded as a masterpiece) So hey, why not a horror movie? Remembering the problems Murnau went through with Nosferatu and a litigious Florence Stoker, he derived his inspiration from a collection of stories by Sheridan Le Fanu, In A Glass Darkly, which had recently gone into the public domain – so odd to consider that at the time, these things happened automatically 50 years after a creator’s death.

Supposedly Vampyr is based on the famous story “Carmilla”, which Hammer Films would go on to milk some forty years later. I say supposedly because the only thing the two have in common is a female vampire – and after gender, we draw the line.

A young traveler, Alan Gray (Julian West) stops at a remote inn; he is visited by a man who tells him, “She must not die,” and leaves him with a small package that is labeled “To be opened in the event of my death”. Gray investigates, and soon finds himself embroiled in the woes of a family being afflicted by the title creature,  aided by the village doctor. The man who visited him (the father of the victim) is assassinated by one of the vampire’s henchmen, so the package is opened: it contains a book about vampires, which turns out to be damned handy, as it even name checks the woman who is causing all the trouble.

vampyr460There is a delirious, dream-like quality about Vampyr, even before its most famous sequence, when Gray, pursuing the doctor into the night, passes out because he’s still weak from a blood transfusion given to the dying victim. He has an out-of-body experience in which his body is sealed into a coffin with a window over his wide-open eyes, and taken to a churchyard to be buried.

Besides the constant barrage of dream imagery and labyrinthine buildings for our protagonist to wander through, Dreyer’s camera is often in motion for very modern, swift dolly moves, at times feeling like a chiaroscuro Shining without benefit of a Steadicam. Most of the movie is silent, with the very few pieces of dialogue recorded by a still-experimental method; the silent parts show all the power and expertise of Dreyer’s mastery of that form.

The vampire storyline itself is pretty standard stuff these days, after almost a century of such tales. What sets Vampyr apart is that marvelous visual palette, and the embellishments wrought by Dreyer: shadows detached from the bodies that cast them, a vampire that is so obviously an old woman, certainly not the Ingrid Pitt Carmilla.

The major fun I have in considering the movie is that “Julian West” – actually the film’s financier, the Baron Nicolas de Gunzberg – looks a little like H.P. Lovecraft, and the villainous Doctor (Jan Hieronimko, a Polish journalist – Dreyer liked using non-actors) has a passing resemblance to Albert Einstein. I like to think of the two of them as pals, filming a movie with borrowed equipment on the weekends, Lovecraft playing hookey from his writing and Einstein from his chalkboards. That, though, is a silly thing, and shouldn’t take away from my admiration for Dreyer’s final product.

Vampyr on Amazon

W: White Zombie (1932)

Yeah, somehow I’d manaPoster_-_White_Zombie_01_Crisco_restorationged to live my life without seeing this one either.

In a Haiti with a curiously small black population, Neil Parker  (John Harron) has brought in his lady love Pamela  (Madge Bellamy) to get married. On the boat over, Pamela encountered rich scalawag Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer), who wants Pamela for his own. Under the guise of letting the two marry in his mansion, Beaumont sets to work trying to steal her from her man. When this doesn’t work, he enlists the help of local witch doctor Murder Legendre (Bela Lugosi).

Using a drug Legendre gave him, Beaumont poisons Pamela on her wedding day. She apparently dies, is laid to rest in a tomb, and is later exhumed by Legendre and his hit squad of zombies, all former enemies he has now enslaved. Beaumont is troubled by the fact that the woman he wanted is now a blanked slate, a zombie herself, which leads Legendre to poison him, too, Meanwhile, Neal rouses himself from his multi-day drunk to take on Legendre with the aid of  a sympathetic missionary (Joseph Cawthorn).

White-Zombie-1932White Zombie has some memorable images – the one you see quoted in documentaries whenever the movie is mentioned is Legendre’s zombies toiling away in his sugar mill, with one zombie slipping and falling into the cane mill’s blades, without the other zombies noticing or caring. But really, the movie belongs to Lugosi, at the height of his powers, before he became a cliche over-used by hack directors. He has several moments of cold-blooded villainy that will simply take your breath away.

The movie gets points from me for employing “the zombie drug” alluded to in Serpent and the Rainbow, offering up a somewhat rational explanation for the goings-on, even if that goes out the window with Legendre’s psychic power over his zombie slaves, embodied in the “zombie grip” of his two hands clasped together. White Zombie has another thing in common with Vampyr, too, in that the older character – the missionary here, the manservant in Vampyr – does all the heroic stuff. Take that, you young hooligans.

White Zombie on Amazon

Is it my imagination or is that Criswell doing the narration on this trailer?

 X: Xtro (1983)

XtroWell, here’s a movie starting with X I hadn’t seen yet.

Sam Phillips (Phillip Sayer) is abducted by a UFO in full sight of his young son, Tony (Simon Nash). Three years later,  Sam returns, but in a spectacularly gross and gruesome way that results in the death of three people. He shows back up at his old apartment, claiming amnesia. His wife (Bernice Stegers) is understandably confused but sympathetic, her new boyfriend (Joe Daniels) is pretty pissed off, and the au pair girl (Maryam D’Abo, debuting here) just wants to screw her boyfriend. Tony is ecstatic to have his dad back, especially once Dad infects him with some alien DNA and he starts getting psychic powers.

As if his bloody, mutating return didn’t make it obvious, Sam is no longer human. His main mission seems to be retrieving his son, but there is a much darker purpose to his visit, and it involves eggs laid in Maryam D’abo. By the kid.

Xtro1Xtro is beloved by a lot of people, because it is pretty weird in all the right ways and gooey in others. The initial return, a costume utilizing a man spidering around with a face glued to the back of his head, is suitably freaky; but just as effective are more subtle scenes, such as Sam turning on a gas heater but not lighting it, contentedly breathing in the toxic fumes.

Where the movie starts losing me is when it falls into the 80s trope of becoming a body count movie, with Tony using his newfound psychic powers to get rid of busybodies and interlopers. The alien has a dozen different ways to kill people (and uses them all, just to keep the proceedings fresh) and the kid can apparently create matter at will, using the power of his mind. Why all the subterfuge? If these aliens are so immensely powerful, why do these things in secret?

There are at least two sequels, but unless I’m desperate again for an X movie, there nothing here to interest me.

 Y: Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)

220px-YoungmrlincolnYeah, there’s a change that’ll give you whiplash.

This is a rah-rah end-of-the-Depression years John Ford movie with all the fixin’s, produced under the steely eye of Darryl F. Zanuck, and starring Henry Fonda (with a fake nose and trick boots to make him taller) as the Great Man. And God, is it ever good.

This takes Abe from his early days running a general store (when a family who can’t pay for any provisions off-handedly mention they do have a lot of worthless old books in the back of their wagon, oh how his eyes light up); it skips over his time in the legislature and gets right to his days as a “jackleg lawyer”, operating only off the knowledge he’s gleaned from those “worthless old books”. He’s not doing bang-up business, either, until a murder at Springfield’s annual picnic gains him a client and a mission to save two young men from the gallows, not to mention a lynch mob.

yml1This is period-piece myth-making, a form at which Ford truly excelled. Though the case is based on an actual one, Lincoln was not the attorney, and he probably never pulled a 19th Century Perry Mason act either, dramatically revealing the true murderer at the last moment. But dammit, he should have, and I don’t mind being told he did. It’s an early example of the central tenet of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” It’s not a documentary, nor was it ever claimed to be; but in this era of gritty reboots and revisionism, I don’t mind being told a figure I’ve admired across the ages actually might have been an okay fellow.

Young Mr. Lincoln on Amazon

Z: Zatoichi (1989)

zatoichiYep, I saved one for this. Also known as Zatoichi: Darkness Is His Ally, this is Shintaro Katsu’s swan song to the character, and it fell outside the scope of the Criterion Box Set I ran through a few months ago.

I’d like to give you a nice plot summary here, but there actually isn’t one. There’s the usual essential elements of a Zatoichi movie: a young and ruthless yakuza assassinating his way to the top, a thoroughly corrupt official, and… eventually… an attractive young lady for the official to attempt to force himself upon. Of course, a ronin who is impressed by Ichi, and is tasked with taking Ichi down. Groups of guys show up occasionally to kill him. We’re never really sure who’s sending them. Maybe it’s a subscription service or something.

Ichi meanders from one of these elements to another, once more trotting out his scam at a crooked gambling house where he makes the less scrupulous gangsters bet on dice that have fallen outside the cup, only to show that the real dice they should be betting on were inside the cup all the time. As usual, this results in a bunch of bilked baddies trying to kill him, but a high-ranking female yakuza chief intercedes. Later, she’ll have a dalliance with the aged Ichi in a bath, and we find out that “bring our efforts to fruition” is period slang for “simultaneous orgasm”.

zatoichi-1989Well, it’s an Ichi movie, so we know he’s eventually going to kill the corrupt official to rescue the innocent girl, then go up the street to kill all the local yakuza, who have been obligingly cutting their numbers in half with a turf war of their own, anyway. The thing is, Ichi’s dealings with these gangsters has been minimal, so that really is how it seems: he’s in the neighborhood, sword-cane’s out, might as well slaughter a hundred guys.

It’s an unfortunate, more-of-the-same end note for the character, or at least Katsu’s version, which was also the only version for nearly thirty years. One really hopes for more, but one also has to realize that not every cultural icon gets to make a Shootist or an Unforgiven. More’s the pity.


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

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.

Rio Bravo (1959)

Poster - Rio Bravo_01Earlier this year, in the course of another challenge, I said that The Searchers is likely the Ultimate Western. That’s the sort of generalization that gives you pause, once you’ve made it, over and over again, as you think of other movies that might fit that position just as well. Its scope is not as broad, but that’s also a strength for Rio Bravo, the Other Ultimate Western.

This was director Howard Hawks’ first movie after a four-year hiatus following the critical and box office failure of Land of the Pharaohs. He had some things to prove to a lot of people, not least of all himself, and the result is a movie that is so darned good he took some its best parts and re-used them again seven years later in El Dorado.

Sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne) locks up Joe Burdette (an astonishingly young – and thin – Claude Akins), the younger brother of the local ruthless cattle baron, for murder. This prompts big brother to seal up the town and start importing gunslingers to free Joe before the federal Marshall arrives in six days. Chance recruits his former deputy, Dude (Dean Martin) an alcoholic struggling to regain his sobriety and self-respect, and eventually Colorado (Ricky Nelson), a preternaturally calm and competent young gun. He’s already got cantankerous cripple Stumpy (Walter Brennan, sans teeth) overseeing the jail with a shotgun and an unending stream of invective.

rio_bravoInto this siege situation Hawks also drops Feathers (Angie Dickinson), a peripatetic gambler who chooses to settle in Rio Bravo when she takes a shine to the Sheriff. Dickinson here is lucky to get the role of a typical Hawks woman, preferring the company of men to her own sex, easily the equal of any of them. Wayne the actor seems honestly uncomfortable with the idea of a love affair with a woman who is almost literally half his age, and that somehow makes The Duke adorable. But this movie also marks an important turning point in his career – Wayne is obviously no longer a young man, and here begins the line of movies dealing with that fact, through the 60s and eventually into True Grit and Rooster Cogburn.

Martin and Nelson seem like stunt casting, and that may be true in Nelson’s case, at the height of his popularity in the TV series The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, but Martin definitely worked hard for the role. It benefited his acting chops considerably when Hawks wouldn’t let him get away with his usual nightclub drunk schtick – Martin sinks his teeth into the uglier, pathetic parts of drying out, and when he finally gets his mojo back, it is a triumphant, memorable moment.

It’s easy to fantasize that you can pick and choose between the casts of this and El Dorado and swap out Robert Mitchum for Dean Martin, James Caan for Ricky Nelson… but truthfully, both movies are just fine the way they are.

The Big Sleep (1946)

el_sueno_eterno_1946_2It’s really ideal when you can follow a Hawks movie with a Hawks movie.

Humphrey by-God Bogart plays Philip Marlowe, prototypical private eye. He’s hired by the aging and slowly dying General Sternwood (Charles Waldron in his final role) to clear up the matter of some gambling debts and possible blackmail against one or both of his wild daughters (the elder of whom is Lauren Bacall). Of course, since this is from a Raymond Chandler novel, nothing is as simple as it first seems.

Rather famously, The Big Sleep was held over from its original release date to A) clear out Warner Brothers’ inventory of war movies when World War II ended earlier than Warner had scheduled; and B) to punch up Lauren Bacall’s character, reshooting several scenes and adding others a year after the original shooting had wrapped.  1944’s To Have and Have Not was a tremendous hit thanks in large part to the Hawksian chemistry between Bacall and Bogart (and obvious sexual heat, needless to say).

But you don’t monkey with the structure of a complex plot like Chandler’s without paying a price, and The Big Sleep‘s gets pretty muddled to accommodate the new dynamics. I was thankful I’d gone out of my way to see the more linear 1978 version with Robert Mitchum a couple of years back, it helped anchor me through the turmoil.

Still, it’s a good ride. Past the banter betwixt its two stars, you could spot this as a Hawks movie by the incidental characters: Marlowe keeps running into charming, attractive women doing their jobs – in one case, a normally male job like a cabbie – doing them well, and with enough smarts and sass to impress Marlowe. probably past their time in the story (were it not for Bacall, if you catch my drift). Lucky goddamn Marlowe.

Beat the Devil (1953)

large_tmtx7hDqcZGYyQ8H76I7ZKOumgmI didn’t have another Hawks movie on tap, so instead I went for more Bogart.

Beat the Devil is an odd bird, and most people don’t seem to know what to make of it. You have a collection of four rogues headed by Robert Morley and Peter Lorre, and they’ve thrown in with Bogart to purchase some land in Africa that they suspect is rich in Uranium. This setup is complicated by the fact that they are marooned in Italy while their steamer is repaired or the captain sobers up – “More than a day, less than a fortnight.” Also complicating matters is a British couple, the Chelms: the stuffy husband and the brilliant but talkative wife (Jennifer Jones), who has an overactive imagination that leads the rogues down all sorts of false assumptive trails.

That isn’t complicated enough? Bogart and Jones fall in love, and oh, didn’t I mention Bogart is married to Gina Lollobrigida? Gina is an ardent Anglophile who falls for Mr. Chelm.

It gets even more complicated than that, but this is another movie that depends on the joy of discovery, so let me just leave it at that. This is a stellar spoof of adventure movies with foreign no-goodniks in pursuit of atomic gold, and honestly, the only thing missing is Sydney Greenstreet, who had retired in 1949, suffering from diabetes and Bright’s Disease (which had plagued him through most of his movie career). Robert Morley rises suitably to the occasion, however.

Matters weren’t helped by the movie posters proclaiming “The Bold Adventure That Beats them All!” “Adventure At Its Boldest! Bogart At His Best!” Nobody went into Beat The Devil expecting an hour and a half of banter so dry you could make a martini with it (Truman Capote is a credited writer). Everybody plays it deadly serious, making it even more hilarious. Bogart is smart enough to just lean back and let chaos reign around him. And did I mention the director was John Huston? Yeah, this nestles between Moulin Rouge and Moby Dick.

Beat the Devil is definitely an odd creature. Enjoyable, as long as you know what sort of movie you’re going to get. Have a nice three-minute clip from early on…

Stagecoach (1939)

Poster - Stagecoach (1939)_03Out of Hawks and Bogey, I might as well bookend this with more John Wayne, right?

Stagecoach marks a number of notable firsts. It’s John Ford’s first movie shot in Monument Valley, and the first of a long line of collaborations with John Wayne. Wayne had, by this time, made a slew of B-Westerns. That worked against him in the casting process, but when Gary Cooper wanted too much money, Ford finally got Wayne.

Stagecoach takes a basic dramatic premise and plays it for all its worth: Throw a bunch of disparate characters in an enclosed space, put that space in danger, and let events play out. The title coach is making a regularly scheduled run, complicated by the presence of Geronimo on the warpath. The cast includes an alcoholic doctor (Thomas Mitchell) being  exiled from the town, and ditto a “fallen woman”, Dallas (Claire Trevor), whose crimes are never elaborated upon, since it’s still 1939. There is also a woman trying desperately to meet up with her Cavalry officer husband, a roguish gambler who takes her under protective wing (John Carradine, superb as ever), a banker running away with a mining company’s payroll (it’s also still the Great Depression, so boo hiss at the Banker), and a whiskey salesman whose sample case is going to be decimated by the doctor. And then they pick up the Ringo Kid (Wayne) on the way. He’s escaped prison to avenge the murder of his family by the Plummer Brothers, and unfortunately for him, the Sheriff is riding shotgun on the coach.

That’s quite a cast, and I didn’t even mention Andy Devine as the stagecoach driver. At this far remove, it is interesting to note that of this solid, often powerhouse group, Claire Trevor was at the time the box office draw.

stagemovieThe group dynamics shift throughout the journey, especially when the promised cavalry escorts keep getting called away to chase Geronimo. The scalawag Banker and the Officer’s Wife (and therefore The Gambler) want to keep pushing on, despite the danger – though the group is forced to shelter in place when the sickly wife is found to be pregnant and the doctor has to go into hyper-sober-up to get her through a difficult delivery, aided by the prostitute. During all this, the guileless and somewhat naive Ringo Kid falls for Dallas, thinking her just another lady; when they eventually arrive at their destination he’ll find out different, and it won’t matter.

That brief paragraph doesn’t begin to even outline the complexities of character and plot breezed through by Stagecoach in a mere 96 minutes. Viewing an extra on the Criterion DVD, a video essay by Ted Gallagher about Ford’s visual style, you find out how Ford threw exposition and character development simply by where he chose to point the camera in any given scene, and you realize that you are dealing with a director working several degrees above most of us. Tremendously humbling.

There are many, many reasons to watch Stagecoach, but I’m going to instead leave you with another first: the hat John Wayne wears as the Ringo Kid, he would wear in many another Western; its final appearance is as the beat-to-shit hat Chance wears in Rio Bravo, after the which the Duke finally retired it and kept it under glass in his house.

I love it when we can circle back like that.

The ABCS of March, Part Five

There was a big push to get ahead on the March Movie Madness event, because a) it was Spring Break, and b) weeks off always engender a Hell of Work To Catch Up On. This time is certainly no exception, as the Week of Hell is actually growing into a Fortnight of Hell. I have a 12 hour day coming up this Sunday which may kill me. Please tell my mother and my wife that I love them.

I’ve managed to claw a bit of free time out of the schedule, let’s see how far I can get:

Queen of Blood (1966)

queenofbloodOne of the stranger cottage industries Roger Corman spawned in the early 60s involved buying the rights to Soviet science-fiction movies – which were pretty high-minded and had some great effects by pre-2001: A Space Odyssey standards – and then harvesting the effects sequences to plug into American-shot movies, since no red-blooded Amurrican would be caught dead watchin’ no Commie movie, anyways. Like a Comanche using every last bit of the buffalo, Corman and his crew got significant bang for the buck out of this strange vivisection – Planet of Storms is the basis for at least three movies, almost all with “Prehistoric Women” in the title, and The Heavens Call yielded Battle Beyond the Sun and this odd little Curtis Harrington movie.

In the far-flung year of 1990, Earth’s Space Institute receives a message from another planet, informing them that the alien race is sending an ambassador. Several weeks later, it is discovered that the visitor’s spaceship has crashed on Mars, and a hasty rescue mission is organized. Only one survivor is found (by accident), and gosh darn it, on the way back to Earth it’s discovered that she’s a vampire.

A color-corrected Florence Marly in this lobby card.

A color-corrected Florence Marly in this lobby card.

Queen of Blood is an entertaining enough sci-fi programmer. It rarely drags enough to relinquish your attention elsewhere, and even has some nice drama when it’s determined that one member of a two-man rescue ship will have to stay behind on the Martian moon Phobos to allow the surviving alien to take his place on the lifeboat that will connect with the ship already on Mars. The mechanics of the plot are well-considered, even if some of the science is not.

Harrington had worked with Dennis Hopper in 1961’s Night Tide, and brings him along for the ride – it’s actually kind of refreshing to see him in a cardboard sci-fi context. John Saxon is predictably solid, and the other breath of fresh air is Judi Meredith, who has a swell little genre resume along with numerous TV roles – she’s in Jack the Giant Killer, Dark Intruder and The Night Walker. Basil Rathbone is on hand as the urbane head of the Space Institute, probably because John Carradine was shooting six other movies that day.

As mentioned in my grumbling about Prometheus, I’m more sad about the tremendously advanced Moonbase we’re utilizing in 1990 than amused. The most fun to be had is watching the film grain and lighting change from the Soviet material to the American.

The Red Shoes (1948)

redshoesThe quintessential backstage drama, which just happens to be about ballet. I’ll be frank and say that ballet, along with opera, are the two art forms I care very little about. I don’t hate them the way I loathe, say, most musicals, but I’d much rather spend my time watching something else. But they are still art forms, so I’m happy that both have more than enough fans that they don’t have to depend on me for their survival.

So I approached Red Shoes with a bit of misgiving, but I needn’t have worried. Art is art, performance is performance, and the act of creation is endlessly fascinating. The first section of the movie can get a little wearing, with two of our protagonists starting out at the bottom, and haha, those temperamental artists! But once events start to move, and we become invested in the rise of dancer Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) and composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring) under the direction of ballet impresario Lermontov (Anton Walbrook). This will lead to a triangle that has little to do with love, and everything to do with their arts. It’s a very different kind of passion at work here, and its tragic ending is almost inevitable.

At one point, during rehearsals for the new ballet The Red Shoes, Lermontov says to his set designer, “The audience will applaud in the middle!” He’s likely speaking for director Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, as the debut of the ballet, midway through the movie, is played out before us as a fantasia, heavily based on the paintings of scenic artist Alfred Roberts. It’s not meant to be a literal recreation of the ballet, which would require an impossible set on the world’s largest stage; it is more a representation of what is going on in the dancer’s and the audience’s minds, when, as Lermontov constantly proclaims, “The music is everything!”

red-shoesThe melodramatic plot and acting aside – all perfectly keeping with post-WWII standards, and none of it odious – The Red Shoes is an undeniable masterpiece. Which of course means that the Rank Organization thought it was pure rubbish and didn’t even bother to release it in its native England for several years.

And, just in passing, I guess I should mention I was largely on Lermontov’s side on the triangle. Both men are complete assholes at the movie’s end, but Julian’s insistence that Victoria give up her opening night in order to attend his is beyond the fucking pale, even for an artist.

The trailer gives you only an inkling of Jack Cardiff’s magnificent camera work, though the color, even faded, gives you some idea of the Technicolor glory of the restored print:

The Searchers (1956)

searchersThursday night was a good night; it started with The Red Shoes and ended with The Searchers.

The Searchers may very well be the Perfect Western. It so solidly bridges the gap between the silent starched West of Tom Mix with the gritty, grimy hell of Unforgiven. It still has love for the vast sunny beauty of Monument Valley (filling in for Texas) and the pioneering spirit of the people who live there, but it comes from a much darker place than any previous John Ford/John Wayne collaboration.

Wayne is Ethan Edwards, a man who returns to his brother’s homestead after a three-year absence (some of it due to the Civil War), just in time for the family to be slaughtered by Indians and the two young girls taken hostage. A posse of Ethan, some volunteer Texas Rangers, and Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter in his premiere) take off in pursuit. The posse is eventually winnowed down to Ethan and Martin, which is going to provide most of the conflict for the movie; Martin was rescued by Ethan from a similar Indian raid when Martin was a child. But Martin is also one-eighth Cherokee, and there is one thing Ethan cannot abide, it’s a half-breed. Ethan’s discovery of the older girl, raped and killed, cements his decision to find the younger girl, Debbie, no matter the cost.

searchers1As the search drags on for five years, Martin continues to accompany Ethan; the younger man’s role, he has come to realize, is to stop Ethan from killing Debbie once he finds her. By now the girl has been accepted into the tribe, and is in fact one of the wives of the war chief Scar, and as far as Ethan is concerned, that means she is no longer white, and better off dead.

We can all conjure up images of Wayne as the good ol’ righteous western dude – that’s most of his output in the 60s. But in his best roles, there’s an edge to the character, and in The Searchers he gets to be a complete and utter dick. Anyone who thinks Wayne wasn’t a good actor should watch The Searchers; there is one close-up – after Ethan and Martin have checked over the white captives of a tribe massacred by cavalry, only to find neither is Debbie and both are far worse for wear – a close-up of Wayne that combines such strong emotions, loathing, pity, simmering hatred… that it’s shocking.

actingBut the movie is far from being a grim slog-fest. There are lighter moments aplenty, and good support from the Ford repertory company, like the always-welcome Ward Bond, and I was completely unprepared for KEN CURTIS – FRONTIER MACK.

Both movies – The Red Shoes and The Searchers – are highly recommended, especially on Blu-Ray. The Criterion Collection of Red Shoes is beautifully restored, and the VistaVision transfer of The Searchers – an awesomely affordable disc, these days – will knock your eyes out. And the trailer has a ton of fine Duke moments:

The Third Man (1949)

third_manEventually I was going to find a classic I just didn’t care for.

I think it was about a year back when a former colleague messaged me, saying he has just watched The Third Man, and could not figure out for the life of him what it was that made the movie so revered. What did he miss? Did I have any insights? As I had not seen it at the time, I couldn’t supply any. Well, now I’ve seen it. Still can’t supply any.

This is a well-made movie, make no mistake. It’s obvious writer Graham Greene and director Carol Reed are both in love with Vienna. And it’s the Post-World War II occupation by four separate world powers and the burgeoning black market that make the story possible; it’s interesting to see the International Police Force at work, a cop from each occupying  country making each call. The story just never grabbed me, and I’m at a loss to explain why. Perhaps I was poisoned by that year-ago question.

The Third Man is the tale of Western novelist Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), who arrives in Vienna at the behest of childhood chum Harry Lime (Orson Welles, eventually) promising work. Martins, however, arrives just in time for Lime’s funeral, as he was killed in an odd pedestrian accident across from the building where he lived. Odd because Martins finds conflicting stories about the accident, including a, yes, Third Man at the scene that the police know nothing about. Martins, of course, sets about investigating.

org third man13711If there is one thing that bewilders me about The Third Man, it is the enduring popularity of Harry Lime. One of the things that Martins finds out, to his dismay, (okay, spoiler alert, even though there a statute of limitations on spoilers for movies that are 64 freakin’ years old) is that Lime was not only a black marketeer, but dealt in adulterated penicillin, resulting in the death and disability of many people, including children. Yet Harry Lime had his own radio show for many years (tales of Lime’s past, given the ultimate outcome of the movie), and by the time there was a Harry Lime TV show (starring Michael Rennie, if I recall correctly) Lime had been completely rehabilitated as a globe-trotting art collector.

I don’t get it. I shrug. I will say that my non-genuflection at The Third Man‘s altar should not be taken as a condemnation; as I said, it is a well-made movie that should be checked out, and if nothing else, has the best denouement of any number of noirs. You can make your own decision.

The Unknown (1946)

iloveamystery2Is he really going to do five movies this time? Yes, and five the next, if I survive tomorrow. Then this whole thing will be over, and we can get back to our normal anarchy.

The Unknown is one of three movies based on the I Love A Mystery radio series. To be disarmingly cute about it, I love I Love A Mystery, especially in its later incarnation as a 15-minutes-a-day serial. I think – no time for research this time, mes enfants, sorry – that this hearkens to the older, half-hour incarnation of the show, when our detective agency was only two people, Jack Packard (Jim Bannon) and the laconic Texan, Doc Long (Barton Yarborough), both men repeating their roles from radio.

i-love-a-mysteryThe Unknown is an old dark house, reading-the-will story, populated with strange characters and tangled sub-plots, so much so that Jack and Doc are practically guest stars in their own movie. There is an accidental death years previous that has completely twisted the family tree, a dead patriarch walled up in a fireplace rather than the family crypt, a will that keeps vanishing, and the ghostly crying of a baby in the night. Also the requisite secret passageways and cloaked killer, whose identity is perfectly obvious at the halfway mark, if not sooner. At a trim 70 minutes, though, it doesn’t have time to get truly tiresome, and does have at least one plot twist that surprised me.

It’s also so obscure there’s no trailer for it online. Instead, have the trailer for Larry Blamire’s parody of Old Dark House Reading of the Will thrillers, Dark and Stormy Night:

There. Bring on that 12 hour day.