Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Bookended horror films

The bookend scene is a common story telling device in literature to start a story at or near the climax and loop all the way back around again to the end. It certainly beats the heck out of the more traditional, and frequently pedestrian, beginning, middle and end narrative. It serves several purposes in that it keeps the reader off balance while plunging into the story and foreshadowing events to come. The term 'bookend scene' is often used interchangeably with 'framing scene' but the two, in my mind, are distinctly different. A bookend scene involves character(s) who are active participants within the story and is the identical twin (or nearly so) of itself at the beginning and end. A good cinematic example can be found in a film like Pulp Fiction where Ringo and Honey Bunny appear at the diner in both the opening and closing scenes in the same timeframe. Although the POV changes at the end, we are in the same place with the same characters at the same time as the opening. An example of a framing scene would be the old man with his family at the beginning and end of Saving Private Ryan. Framing scenes are much more expository, like prologues and epilogues and add little to the story (and in Ryan's case, actually detract from it).
While framing scenes are quite common in horror (it seems every slasher ever made has a prologue that ends with "20 years later..."), it's rare to find bookend scenes in the genre. Maybe because horror is such a linear type storytelling genre or maybe it's because the degree of difficulty in writing and editing bookended-type films is higher. In any case, here are two excellent examples of bookended horror - Thom Eberhardt's 1983 film, Sole Survivor and Tony Williams' 1984 film, Next of Kin.

The opening scene of Sole Survivor involves an all-but-empty metro bus trundling down the rain-soaked, downtown streets of an unnamed, southern California, San Fernando valley suburb. As the shot changes to the well-lit interior of the bus, we see a lone, attractive, but somewhat disheveled woman, pulling at her long sleeves in an attempt to cover the bloodstains on her hands. As she raises her right hand into view, we observe she is holding a gun...

This same scene shows up again in the last few minutes of the film and fits in so flawlessly, it's more like a feeling of deja vu than a recognition of a previously shown scene. The bookend scene figures in nicely with the whole can't-escape-destiny subtext of the movie. The director, writer and editor, Thom Eberhardt of Night of the Comet fame, doesn't talk about this film and I don't really get why. It's a decent, if modest, little horror gem with editing that is particularly good as the film initially jumps back and forth between characters, visions and dreams. The first several minutes may be confusing if casually watched, but the storytelling does make since and draws the viewer in.

Synopsis: After being the sole survivor of a plane crash, a young woman begins seeing strange people.

The principal characters in the movie are the heroine Dedee, an ad agency TV commercial producer played by Anita Skinner, and Karla, a clairvoyant, has-been, B-movie actress played by the film's co-producer Caren Larkey. Larkey, who is perfectly cast, looks and acts the part of the fading star to a tee especially when blowing takes on a fictitious infomercial. Her predicament reminded me a lot of the the psychic character Patricia Belcher played in Jeepers Creepers in that she knows exactly what is happening, and realizes no one will believe her, but feels the need to try and relate what's really going on even to the detriment of her career. Skinner, who looks a great deal like Chloe Sevigny's older, more well-adjusted sister, does a decent job as well in the lead role. The scenes between Skinner and Larkey are the best in the movie as they are easily the strongest actors and their characters are both written and directed with the most pathos.

Sole Survivor is often compared to Carnival of Souls and Final Destination. Thematically, this is true, but the story plays much differently than either of those films, mostly due to the clairvoyant character, Karla. She really added an element of melancholy-like fatalism that I really liked which made for an odd and interesting tone to the film. I was rather surprised at the ending, which does not sell out but is made a little less effective by an epilogue scene that should have been clipped. There's also a shoehorned strip poker scene starring Brinke Stevens' boobs that seemed wildly out of place and was probably inserted for marketing reasons. Also detracting from the movie were some dubious sets, like the morgue which looked exactly like an empty warehouse with some gurneys parked in it, and some very marginal acting from the lesser supporting players. The pacing is intentionally slow, with a ticking clock and dripping faucet shots to build tension and symbolize the inevitable. There are limited horror f/x as the film is much more about atmosphere. Overall though, the story and tone work well due to the superior editing and decent acting to make this one of the better 80's B-movies.

Score 7/10

At a roadside diner/petrol station, a tired, disheveled woman, stares off into the distance before getting into her truck with a young boy...

This opening bookend scene from Next of Kin is quite subtle, so much so, it can easily be missed when it comes around again near the end of the movie. It's also clever in that the voice over gives the false impression that this is just the beginning of the film. I first discovered this Tony Williams' sleeper while watching the Not Quite Hollywood Ozploitation documentary a couple of years ago. One of the scenes shown from Next of Kin in the documentary is a slow motion overhead of the heroine Linda running down a dark hallway.

It did not look to be the average 80's horror movie and, quite intrigued, I began searching out the film. I finally found a copy in a Dutch edition that was part of a going-out-of-business sale of an on-line retailer. The first time I watched the movie in its entirety, I was mesmerized by the hypnotic pace, smart, subtle storytelling and slam-bang ending. It is the rare type of film that constantly doles out important information, but in such a subdued, casual manner, that critical details can easily be overlooked. Everything that occurs in the very suspenseful and fast-paced final act is set up in a very leisurely-paced first hour. In order for the payoff to be satisfying for the viewer though, much attention needs to be paid to the information given up front in the initial set-up.

Synopsis: Linda, a young, pretty and soulful Australian woman returns after her mother's death to a retirement home previously owned and run by her mother and a partner. While there, she begins to suspect something's amiss as she's bothered by surreal dreams, childhood memories and disturbing journals written by her mother. As she reconnects with old friends such as retirement home resident Lance, diner owner Harry, his boy Nico and old beau Barney, Linda also begins unraveling a frightening mystery at her old home.

One of the things Williams and co-writer Michael Heath did extremely well in the film was to create believable small town characters with maximum efficiency to make them memorable enough to be reintroduced later on but not over stay their welcome. The young, precocious boy Nico, for example, hitches a ride to his dad's diner with Linda at the outset, and the viewer immediately and implicitly understands the nature of the relationship between the characters. Likewise, when old boyfriend Barney (played by Wolf Creek's, John Jarratt) shows up, the backstory between he and Linda can be pretty much sussed out by their current attitudes towards each other. The clever script is also rife with clues and red herrings concerning the story and even manages a little black humor along the way. Williams' direction is excellent as evidenced by many stylish shots which at times broach the surreal.

Williams' peppers the film with a few such disturbing shots and some jump scares that are anything but traditional. I got the distinct impression on a couple of occasions that he intentionally withheld a scare from a routine source to defy expectations (note the very uneventful shower scene). There is also a double jump scare involving a corpse and an old lady that still gets me every time. But it's the last 20 minutes of the film that pays off big time with murder, suspense, action, tension, sugar cube construction and ultimately resolution. Maybe it's because the first hour is so quiet and subdued by comparison, but the last act really delivers the goods.

Along with the outstanding writing and direction, comes a really nice understated performance by Jacki Kerin as Linda. The entire film is from her point of view so she has to carry most scenes and does an admirable job while showing a nice vulnerability to go along with her construction prowess. Also deserving of praise is an absolutely fantastic drum/synth composition from former Tangerine Dream member Klaus Shulze. The music is, in no small part, responsible for the unusual tone and atmosphere of the film and ranks as one of the best horror scores ever. I've watched this film no less than half a dozen times since obtaining and easily rate it in my top 20 horror favorites of all time.

Score 8.5/10

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Nepeta cataria

"All mimsy were the borogoves."
-Lewis Carroll Jabberwocky

What is it about this woman that drives men mad with desire? I don't know myself, but I must confess to being similarly afflicted of late. It started when I revisited Argento's Four Flies on Gray Velvet and continued with The Perfume of the Lady in Black and most recently culminated in the 1975 horror giallo Autopsy. Like a black cat drawn to catnip, I'm similarly attracted to this actress and can't seem to escape her alluring mystique. Maybe it's because she's one of the select few giallo queens that hails from America. Or maybe it's because she often displays a fragile vulnerability in the roles she takes. Or maybe she's just the human equivalent of nepeta cataria which works on some biological level to make men act whacky. It would certainly explain a lot about her character's effect on the males in Autopsy. But I'm getting a little ahead of myself.

With short, often disheveled, bleached out hair, slightly gapped teeth and a talent for sculpture, Merle "Mimsy" Farmer seemed an unlikely actress. An American, who after doing some episodic television and a few juvenile delinquent movies movies in 60's Hollywood, went on to work in some of the coolest European cinema of the 70's and 80's.  Her work in giallo films is what interests me most, but she has a varied resume with work in political thrillers, art house films, slashers and a host of other movies from such diverse directors as Argento, Fulci, Margheriti, Campanile, Barilli and Carpi. The roles she played were often that of delicate, possibly unbalanced women who always seemed moments away from being terrorized in some fashion. In no film is this description more apt than Armando Crispino's Autopsy.

In Autopsy, Farmer plays a forensic pathologist med student with the unlikely name of Simona Sana which not only alliterates quite nicely, but could also double as a Bond-girl's handle. Simona's main problem in the film is that men like her way, way too much. From the introduction of Sana until the end of the film, the character is harassed, terrorized or victimized in some way or other. So much so that the American release's alternate title of The Victim is a lot more on the nose than Autopsy in describing the film. But don't worry, there's plenty of gruesome stuff on the autopsy tables to make the title apropos. The movie bursts out of the gate with several scenes of the most enthusiastic suicides ever seen. I don't want to spoil by describing, but they are quick and disturbing at the same time. We're then whisked off to the morgue where the huge pathology lab is set up like a large hostel only with dozens of gurneys lined up in a big room instead of beds. Being use to one pathologist working over one body Quincy-style, I was unnerved by the mass production autopsies being performed. The young Doctor Sana is no sooner introduced than she starts hallucinating imagining the cadavers up to all kinds of hijinx. This scene, coupled with the opening suicides is a more than potent one-two punch that is easily the 'make or break' part of the movie. The rest of the film doesn't quite live up to the strong opening and becomes a much more conventional giallo. Initially, I thought I was in for a down and dirty psychological horror ride, but the film becomes more and more of a sleaze and gore fest. It's still well worth watching, but after a great set up it settles down to some degree to become a standard mystery.

Don't get me wrong though, there's still a lot of crazy, good fun to be had. A lot of people describe this film as convoluted, but it goes far beyond that. The main cast members regularly go off the acting deep end unnecessarily with their characters exhibiting wild emotional swings for no reason. It's as if director Crispino got bored during shooting and occasionally dropped a mouse down a random cast member's pants and shot their reaction. This was only exacerbated by the dubbed dialogue which would go from mild to wild in a split second. But the oddest aspect to the movie is that Farmer's character is constantly getting molested in some way, shape or form by every male character (except for the priest ironically). Guys just seem to lose their minds around Simona and get all kinds of inappropriate with her. Even her father, played by Carlo Cattaneo, takes a peak up her dress and gives her an unwanted kiss full on the mouth. It becomes almost comical the amount of times the men get rape-y with her and how often the camera leers. Not since The Sister of Ursula have I felt the need to shower off and attend a gender sensitivity training class after viewing a giallo. Again, this aspect doesn't harm the movie, it's just odd that it's ubiquitous throughout, but at the same time, kind of pointless.

The three main characters of the film are molestion-magnet/pathologist Simona, her boyfriend Edgar (played by Ray Lovelock) and the aforementioned priest, Father Paul Lenox, played by Barry Primus. Lenox, a former race car driver(!) who quit because he had a grand mal seizure while driving and killed a bunch of people, is a little tightly wound to say the least. Early on, after being attacked by a dog, Father Paul chokes the owner out exclaiming "I've killed before, I've killed before!". While Simona spends the majority of the film dodging wildly inappropriate sexual advances, only Lovelock's character of Edgar seems relaxed and groovy, even good-naturedly dubbing Simona "Ice Cube" when she won't put out for him.

As the story unfolds, Father Paul reveals that he is the brother of one of the suicide victims who he actually believes was murdered. As he begins to investigate, more people appear to commit suicide. All the while, there's a marked increase in sun spot activity (and male gropiness). What's really going on does get satisfactorily explained in the end, but it's the bat-shit insane ride along the way that makes the movie fun. Even with wild, erratic bursts of overacting and some odd directorial and editing choices, the film is still neither incomprehensible or incompetent. It's just a very nutty fever dream. The movie does get a little flabby in the middle, but generally sleazes out to sustain interest. The movie's tone is helped a lot by a steady and subtle Morricone soundtrack. The film isn't particularly stylish with a limited production value and looks fairly average but it's not quite ugly either. But for fans of hybrid gialli, Italian horror or especially Mimsy Farmer, this is an entertaining watch.

Score 6.5/10

Monday, November 14, 2011

What's That Smell?

Ooh, ooh that smell
Can't you smell that smell?
Ooh, ooh that smell
The smell of death surrounds you.

-Lynyrd Skynyrd

I can't quite figure out why Francesco Barilli's 1974 film, The Perfume of the Lady in Black is so overlooked. Maybe it's because it was so hard to find for so long. Or maybe it's because it's so difficult to categorize. Or maybe it's because I'm the only guy in the world with a mad crush on Mimsy Farmer. Well, the good news is, it's no longer hard to find. It's currently playing on Netflix Instant Watch, but if you really want to view it in all its splendor, check out the RaroVideo release that's currently available for less than a sawbuck at Amazon. As to what category the film falls into, that's debatable. Most reviewers call it a giallo, and if it is, it would fall into the same borderline psychological horror territory as The House with Laughing Windows, Short Night of Glass Dolls or Footprints on the Moon. It has horror, even occult elements, but it also has a distinct giallo feel. The first time I viewed it, I kept expecting a black gloved killer to pop up and take out poor ole Mimsy Farmer's character Torso-style. But the film also has more than a bit of an art house quality to it. It is stunningly beautiful with a soundtrack to match. Further, the story is a bit opaque with flashbacks and patchwork dreamlike sequences that may, or may not reflect reality. A lot of reviewers have likened the film to Polanski's work, at least in terms of story and tone, but I think it's much closer to Aldo Lado's films. In visual style, it comes close to Argento's best - yes, it looks that good - with striking colors and recurring geometric patterns that make it a feast for the eyes. Mimsy Farmer's bedroom, for example, may be the bluest room I've ever seen on film. In fact, I'd love to see the blue in this film fight it out with the red in Suspiria in a no-holds-barred death match of rich color. The attention to detail by Barilli, to color palette alone, is quite impressive and often makes the film appear to be a moving work of art. Couple this with the visual geometry the director displays in tunnels, passageways, staircases and other architecture and the eye candy just keeps coming.

If the visual highlights aren't enough, there's a fantastic original score by Nicola Piovani. The main 'music box' piece sounds like a cross between The Exorcist's Tubular Bells and Goblin's Suspiria theme. And aside from one overly loud sting, the music is pretty subtle and unobtrusive, effectively creating a moody, dreamlike tone without being too noticeable.
And finally, there's Mimsy Farmer. Setting aside my crazed love for her gappy teeth, bleached hair and Jabberwocky name, I can objectively say she puts in a career performance in a very beefy, complex part. Unfortunately, she worked in a time when a lot of second tier actresses were consigned to the wife or girlfriend stereotype and thus unable to strut their stuff. But Farmer gets the opportunity in this role and she makes the most of it. Her character's emotions have to run the gamut, and she does a nice restrained job, but also goes suitably nuts when required. In addition, she has to carry the film, not only because she's the central character, but also because there weren't any supporting characters who really drew attention or had charisma. And that's about the only criticism I have of the film. It really needed one or two standout creepy characters, like the sisters in Don't Look Now for example. The supporting actors do execute a workmanlike job, but there weren't any performances that sent chills up my spine (although there were certainly a few scenes not involving Farmer that did give me the willies).

I intentionally avoided talking about plot points and story in the post because I think this is a film better experienced than related. Farmer's character is a successful professional woman who starts experiencing some weirdness. That's about all you need to know going in, but be on the lookout for details that crop up here and there. The family photo shown at the outset is the first piece in the puzzle. The movie could definitely be off-putting to those not into symbolism and/or the ADD afflicted, as the pace is leisurely. But the film never bores as there's always another piece of the jigsaw around the corner to keep up interest and curiosity. What it all means, I'm not quite sure of, but that's part of the film's intrigue and definitely fodder for conversation afterward.

If the film is indeed a giallo, I need to redo my top ten list because it definitely belongs on it. But it works as a dream-like, psychological horror film as well that will haunt those who view it long after the experience.

Score 9/10

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

3 OG MoH films

I've never been a fan of gore or jump scares in horror films. To me, they're just too easy and require too little thought, imagination and talent to employ. They are the comedic equivalent of a pie in the face, pratfall or bad pun. When anyone can do it, it just isn't that impressive or effective. Which I guess explains my pre-Halloween viewing habits this year. I've been re-watching some of the old masters like William Castle, John Llewellyn Moxey and Leslie Stevens. These guys were, first and foremost, masters of atmospheric horror. That doesn't mean they never used jump scares or gore - they just didn't rely on them to sell the film. Instead, they did something much more difficult which was to create an atmosphere, an environment of unease and dream-like quality, that permeated the story and setting. Three films in particular, one from each of these masters, provide excellent examples of the spooky atmosphere they were so adept at creating.

As you can see, William Castle's 1964 film, The Night Walker, certainly has a good pedigree with a screenplay by horror icon Robert Bloch and stars Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor. The DoP for the movie was Harold E. Stine who would go on to shoot The Poseidon Adventure and MASH. Like the majority of Castle's work, it's filmed in black and white and looks sharp and crisp. But two of the strongest components that lend immeasurably to the atmosphere of the film are Vic Mizzy's fabulous score, and Hayden Rorke's creepy prosthetics. Mizzy's score is nothing short of sublime, and though it is very much in his style, it's missing the goofy Adam's Family/Ghost and Mr Chicken playfulness that's a hallmark of his work. Being that this is one of Castle's more melodramatic films, which is performed without any hint of humor, the music is spot on, especially the main title theme which is used throughout and will stay with you forever, at least it has with me.
Hayden Rorke, who was a TV staple for three decades, beginning in the fifties, and best known for his role as Dr. Bellows on the I Dream of Jeannie television show, is terrific in this. His role in the film as Howard Trent, Barbara Stanwyck's blind, jealous husband, is about as far a way from his comic character in IDoJ as is humanly possible. Moreover, his white contacts, and later, his burn prosthetics freaked me the f out as a kid, and still make me uneasy. The make-up effects on Rorke may well be the most valuable thing about the movie outside of Mizzy's score.

The story itself of The Night Walker does veer a little more toward the melodramatic, especially early on, as the Howard Trent character accuses Barbara Stanwyck's Irene Trent of cheating on him after he overhears her moaning about a supposed lover in her sleep. The movie then becomes equal parts horror, mystery and melodrama as Stanwyck's dreams continue to haunt her and strange things continue to occur. If there's a flaw in the film, it's the pacing, which can be noticeably slow at times. In addition, there are several scenes of driving from one location to another that seem like unnecessary padding. Even with an 85 minute runtime, the film still could have been cut by another 10 to move it along at a more tolerable rate. Overall though, it is a creepy little sleeper that, like it's music, stays in your head long after viewing. Unfortunately, The Night Walker is not included in The William Castle Collection which is a crime considering there are some absolute duds in that box set that no one would miss. The good news is, the VHS of the film was last released in the mid-90's and is immaculate. It is out of print, but there are ample copies available.
Score 7/10

Even if you don't know John Llewellyn Moxey's name, you've likely seen and enjoyed one of his movies. Moxey is best known for 1972's made-for-TV movie The Night Stalker with Darren McGavin as the scruffy newspaper reporter Carl Kolchak. But Moxey also made a number of other memorable TV films in the 70's including A Taste of Evil, The Strange and Deadly Occurence and Where Have All the People Gone? In addition, he directed some solid theatrical releases early in his career of which The City of the Dead was his first. Oddly renamed Horror Hotel and cut for the American market, a recent DVD restored the film to its original length and title. It is a minor classic chock full of atmosphere with a plot twist that was unprecedented at the time. Shot entirely on set, and in black and white, it is nevertheless a fantastic looking movie and does a great job of creating its spooky setting where most of the movie takes place.

As the story begins we are introduced to these guys:

and this woman:

...and well, you get the picture. We then flash forward to modern day where Professor Alan Driscoll, played by the great Christopher Lee, is recounting the previous historical event to his students. One of the students, Nan Barlow who is played by Venetia Stevenson, obviously has a wee crush on the teacher (can you blame her?) and he gives her some advice on where to further research the subject matter at hand.

Miss Barlow then travels to Whitewood, a small, extremely fog-enshrouded town in New England to continue her study on witchcraft. On the way, she meets this figure...

...which probably can't be good judging by appearance. From then on, the film is a familiar, but exceptionally well executed gothic horror story with loads of atmosphere courtesy of the ubiquitous fog, creepy townspeople and strange hotel where the heroin is lodging. Most everything about this film works extremely well from the solid acting, especially Patricia Jessel in a dual role, to the atmospheric mega-Fulci fogged set, to the film's quick and unfaltering pace. Moxey proves true to his name by pulling a few interesting camera moves as well that other first-time director's would likely shy away from especially on a low budget, limited time shoot such as this.
I was really surprised at how well this film holds up and how well crafted it is. It's certainly a prime example of how good something shot on set can look and the strong atmosphere that can be created with some good acting and a little fog. The movie is available all over the internet including YouTube at the link below as Horror Hotel, but I'd recommend the restored DVD (the color cover above) as it has many extras including commentaries and interviews with Christopher Lee, John Llewellyn Moxey, Venetia Stevens and more.

Score 8/10

Simply put, if you loved the original Outer Limits television show, you will love the 1966 film Incubus. Reason being is that the people who worked on the show, made this movie including the writer/director, Leslie Stevens, future Academy Award winning cinematographer, Conrad L. Hall, composer Dominic Frontiere and cast members William Shatner, Allyson Ames and Robert Fortier. The film definitely has the unique look and feel of the television show, but is steeped in religious mythology instead of science fiction.

The story is about a succubus named Kia, played by Ames, who has tired of taking corrupt men's souls and wants to go after someone pure of heart. One of her fellow succubi Amael, played by Eloise Hardt, cautions her against it as these type of men are capable of the power of love which is anathema to the evil ones like themselves. Enter Shatner as Marc, a courageous wounded soldier who has come home to his sister to mend. Kia, after failing to find someone good among the local clergy, sets her sights on Marc and trouble ensues for both.

There are many things, both film related, and occurrences that happened outside of the production, that set this movie apart. First and foremost, the script was written in Esperanto - a language invented in the late nineteenth century to serve as a European common language. As far as I can garner, this was basically done for two reasons, one artistic and the other for marketing purposes. Stevens apparently wanted an other-worldly feel, and to this end, used the artificial language. It works exceedingly well, in my opinion, and gives the film a flavor and strange European authenticity it would not have had if filmed in English or even another traditional language. The major beef at the time among Esperanto speakers was that the accents were off which seems kind of silly being that the language has no real ethnic or cultural roots and was less than 70 years old at the time of the film's release. It would be akin to a Star Trek nerd complaining that the actors were mispronouncing Klingon words. Ultimately, it's an effect that works for everyone except Esperanto speakers. Unfortunately, Stevens counted on distributing the film to an estimated seven million Esperanto speakers not realizing that they were scattered far and wide throughout the world. A negative screening by those who spoke the language, coupled with a high profile murder/suicide involving a cast member just as the film was set to release, doomed the film at the box office. Further, all domestic prints of the film were lost by a storage facility under mysterious circumstances. Producer Anthony Taylor was subsequently able to track down a print in France and restore and release it in the early 2000's.

I saw the movie when it initially showed on the Sci-Fi channel in 2001. A lot of people I knew who had never seen the film were expecting a campy delightful train wreck of a movie. I had high hopes, and low expectations, but was blown away by its quality. Film snobs may whine that the movie is like warmed over Bergman, but even they can't argue that Hall's cinematography looks fantastic. Further, the ethereal music by Frontiere helps create that other-worldly mood that Stevens was attempting. And although I've been to Big Sur and the central coast area where the film was shot, I hardly recognized it due to Hall's great use of lighting in conjunction with the black and white film. Stevens claimed to be a Kurosawa fan, and you can definitely see some similarities, especially in the landscape soft focus shots, but there's also some shots cribbed directly from Bergman like the two women standing in profile to one another. In addition, there are some great money shots like the Incubus rising from the earth, the shadowy winged creature by the house and the attack on the Arndis character. In short, there's a lot of great eye candy, even when there's little happening. The acting is theatrical, but professional, with Shatner giving a surprisingly relaxed performance which is truly amazing given he's speaking an unfamiliar language phonetically. There's not a hint of camp or goofiness to be found anywhere. If there is a flaw, it comes thematically, with a story that has a pretty simplistic point to make. I do wish the characters had been a little more complex and the ending a little more ambiguous. But at its heart, the film is very much a fairly tale and such stories are usually simple and straightforward.
The movie is currently available on YouTube at the link below, but there is a very nice DVD available with two separate commentaries by Shatner and producer Taylor. 

Score 7.5/10

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Crowe Weaving

"Before love comes trust. Before trust comes...Proof."

Long before Russell Crowe was a tough gladiator or a salty sea captain, and long before Hugo Weaving was a wise Elven king or flashy drag queen, they played friends caught in a strange love triangle in a film from 1991 called Proof. Weaving's character, Martin, is a single, educated man who lives alone and has a passion for photography. He's also blind. Crowe plays a likable young busboy named Andy whom Martin befriends one evening outside the restaurant where Andy works. All would be well but for Martin's housekeeper Celia (Genevieve Picot) who harbors a rather unhealthy obsession for her seeing-impaired employer. A blind photographer as a lead character sounds like a trite art house conceit or a bad joke, but writer/director Jocelyn Moorhouse has a salient point to make with the character who has a legitimate and believable reason for photographing things he can't see which becomes apparent as the story unfolds.

The film is brilliant, and at times, darkly comic in its look at trust, love and obsession. It's also one of the few examples I've ever seen in cinema of a near perfect unrequited love triangle. Martin loathes his housekeeper Celia, who desires him, but he keeps her around so he can pity her instead of her pitying him as he later explains to Andy. Martin becomes quite fond of Andy but Andy has an unspoken attraction to Celia. Celia is jealous of Martin's new "little friend" Andy, but is quite aware of his attraction to her. The story is executed with subtlety, intelligence and a wry since of humor with each character fully formed and there motives quite clear. There are no good or bad guys necessarily and even Celia, who is clearly the antagonist, elicits some compassion in the end. 

Weaving is fantastic as the fiercely independent, introspective Martin who is almost the polar opposite of his upbeat character in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Initially, he seems a cold and uncaring person, but as the story unfolds, he becomes understandable, human and even likable. Crowe's busboy Andy is also a far cry from the characters he played in LA Confidential or Romper Stomper. In Proof, Crowe is at his most charming, likable and natural. Andy is portrayed as a nice, but somewhat naive, slacker who is a little in over is head when it comes to dealing with neurotic people like Martin and Celia. Andy's not dumb, but his two new friends are whip smart and not above using Andy to torment each other. Genevieve Picot should have been blown off the screen by these two future cinema icons, but surprisingly, she gives the juiciest and most nuanced performance. She somehow manages to be believably bitchy, sexy, plain-looking, acerbic, sad, frightening, beautiful and funny in the role of Celia. Janet Maslin compared her favorably to Glenda Jackson, but I think Picot is actually funnier in a dark way and more interesting.

The writing and performances are enough to make this a great movie, but Moorhouse's direction and the original music by Not Drowning, Waving, kick it up another notch. There's a great backwards tracking shot of Weaving's character, early on, walking down an ally with the camera angled up to show his head and shoulders framed against the cloudy sky. Moorhouse makes several clever or wry statements like this with her camera work throughout the film that just add to the superb quality. The photograph's taken by Martin were similarly clever, but just out of whack enough to appear to have been shot by a blind photographer. The award winning soundtrack for the film was done by Not Drowning, Waving and is a little reminiscent of Tangerine Dream only less electronically based with more percussion and wind instruments to give it a driving but still melodious beat. It adds a very unique tone and feel to the film.

For those who are not already fans of Crowe and Weaving, this film, and their performances will certainly push them in that direction. It will also cause some puzzlement on why Moorhouse and Picot haven't become international household names as well. Moorhouse did go on to direct a few films, but nothing approaching the quality and wit of Proof.

Score 9/10

Monday, October 3, 2011

God is Love and Versa Visa

"If we could each other, as much as we say we love Him, I 'spect there wouldn't be the bother in the world there is."

-Eva Le Gallienne as Grandma Pearl
in Resurrection

Francois Rabelais once said, "Nature abhors a vacuum." I think the same can be said of mankind in a metaphysical since. We hate ambiguity, especially when it involves the big mysteries of life. We have a hard time accepting the wonders of the universe at face value and seem to feel the need to assign meaning or assume knowledge. Should anyone or anything get in the way of our knowing the unknowable (or pretending to), they tend to get crucified.

In the 1980 film Resurrection, Edna Mae McCauley (Ellen Burstyn) is a transplanted mid-westerner  living with her husband in California when tragedy strikes. Edna Mae suffers a near-death accident and decides to return home with her father (Roberts Blossom) to recuperate on their rural Kansas farm. Soon after her homecoming, she discovers she has acquired the power to heal and is encouraged by her grandmother to use it to help the community. Of course, a few people have a problem with Edna Mae's miraculous power and just can't accept her mysterious blessing at face value.

After watching a pristine version of the movie on Netflix Instant, I was surprised and confused that the tag words used to describe the film were "supernatural" and "fantasy".  The story, characters and settings feel so authentic, that the movie doesn't seem to have any fantastical elements although the description is, in fact, very accurate. Scenes, such as Edna Mae and her cousin Kathy (Lois Smith) catching up on the local gossip, ring very true and feel quite natural. The distant relationship between Edna Mae and her father also feels very real especially Blossoms' portrayal of the stoic, loveless widower/father. Ellen Burstyn absolutely owns the 'every-woman' role and is superb in this film playing someone, who while not a saint, is a very decent, caring and moral person. Her performance anchors the film and really tugs at the heart without ever being sentimental. I found myself tearing up several times as Burstyn struggled to recover from her tragedy and then began healing those around her. Burstyn is supported by some first-rate character actors like Roberts Blossom, Richard Farnsworth, Lois Smith, Sam Shepard, Jeffrey DeMunn and stage actress Eva Le Gallienne. Both Burstyn and Le Gallienne were nominated for Oscars for the film, but the rest of the cast is incredibly praiseworthy.

Oscar nominated writer, Lewis John Carlino, who wrote the screenplays for such films as The Mechanic,  Crazy Joe, The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea, The Great Santini, and one of my all-time favorite TV movies, Where Have All the People Gone? wrote Resurrection and imbued it with a mid-western tone, sensibility and melancholy. It could have gone overboard in so many ways, but there's a nice subtle restraint to the writing that keeps it out of the melodramatic and/or maudlin territories.
Canadian director Daniel Petrie, who has a wildly diverse resume, has piloted some of my favorite sleeper films including Buster and Billie, Fort Apache The Bronx, The Bay Boy and Rocket Gibraltor, but is probably best know for A Raisin in the Sun with Sydney Poitier. He mixes some nice outdoor footage (with Texas standing in for Kansas) as much as possible to emphasize the vast expansiveness and loneliness of the mid-west.
Lastly, French composer Maurice Jarre, who has worked on over 150 films including Eyes Without a Face, Witness, Doctor Zhivago and The Tin Drum provides the oft etherial music for Resurrection, and although it's not nearly as memorable as some of his other work, it's still quite serviceable.
If I have any complaint about the film, it's in the cinematography from DoP Mario Tosi, whose work always seems to be uninspired, drab and colorless. There were great opportunity's for some vista and landscape shots that were photographed poorly. There were some similarly wasted opportunities in Buster and Billie which featured some nice rural southern locations that were also shot haphazardly. Unfortunately, the cheap looking cinematography gives the film a made-for-TV look. It may be the reason the film's never had a proper DVD release even though it garnered many awards and much critical acclaim.

Overall, Resurrection is an uplifting film that doesn't get preachy but nevertheless delivers its message through engaging performances and a heartwarming, if somewhat sad story. It's an unforgettable and surprisingly moving film that makes me yearn to move back to the mid-west. Although quite different in story, in many ways the film reminded me of David Lynch's The Straight Story and would make an excellent companion piece about middle America.

Score 8.5/10

Monday, September 26, 2011

Tank Boy

"When you're wounded an' left on Afghanistan's plains
An the women come out to cut up your remains
Jus' roll to your rifle an' blow out your brains
An' go to your Gawd like a soldier." 
-Rudyard Kipling 
"Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it."
-Winston Churchill

Sorry in advance for this, but before I get to the movie review, a little history lesson is in order...

I was just finishing up my first semester in college in late December of 1979 when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in support of its unpopular communist regime. Opposition tribal groups within Afghanistan, known as the Mujahideen, banded together to fight the invading Russian army. The US  provided assistance to these groups through the Pakistani intelligence services in a program called "Operation Cyclone". The Mujahideen were also aided by foreign Muslims from around the world, the so-called Afghan-Arabs, one of whom, Osama bin Laden would form Maktab al-Khidamat, aka the Afghan Services Bureau, with Abdullah Azzam. Branches of this organization were created around the world, including 33 in the US to help fund the opposition forces in Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden would eventually split off from Maktab al-Khidamat and form al Qaeda. 

And as Paul Harvey would say " you know the rest of the story."

Right off the bat, I have to say I love this film, but I have to address the elephant in the living room up front that could take some out of it immediately. Now I don't know if it was director Kevin Reynold's decision in The Beast of War to have an American cast play the Soviet tank crew, and to have them speak perfect, accent-less American English, but it does give the film a weird prescience considering it was made in 1988 thirteen years before the American invasion. Unintentionally highlighting the very American-ness of the crew even more is Cuban-born, Steven Bauer's solid performance as a tribal khan who speaks a very believable Pashto. Why have authentic sounding Mujahideen portrayals complete with subtitles, but not realistic Russians? I can only think of two reasons, one is for a purely marketing reason (but then why have any character speak another language?), or maybe there was an artistic statement behind it. Afghanistan was considered the Soviet Union's Vietnam. Was Reynolds making this point using American actors? Or maybe he's just clairvoyant. Seems a bit of a stretch, but in the end, it really didn't prove that much of a distraction for me, but I can see how it could take people out of the film, not to mention that America has since entered Afghanistan which really adds some irony to the casting. But if the cast doesn't take the viewer out, the other aspects of the film will certainly attract and hold attention.

Synopsis - A lone Soviet T-55 tank gets lost in Afghanistan after destroying a village. A small group of Afghans pursue it to exact retribution.

The simplicity of the story, the breakneck pacing and the plot twists really drive this movie and keep me on the edge of my seat like few films can. Peter Boyle, a frequent editor for director Kevin Reynolds,  ticks between story and character like a well calibrated metronome, never lingering too long with characters or fatiguing the viewer with non-stop action. There's just enough of the characters to care and then just enough action to keep up the suspense and move the story along briskly. It's surprising how many films can't achieve this balance, but The Beast of War executes it very well. So well in fact, this is one of the rare movies that I can't stop watching once I start.

Credit the script as well which not only has the cat and mouse aspects, but tension within both the opposing groups, plus a strong anti-war, pro-tolerance message. It's hard to believe a film as action oriented and suspenseful is based on a play, but it was (Nanawatai by William Mastrosimone), and some of the character dialogue and related themes of mercy, revenge and idealism do peak through on several occasions especially in conversations between the protagonist tank driver Koverchenko and Afghan ally Samad. Blind nationalism is also embodied in the tank commander, played by the excellent George Dzundza, who makes Patton look like a hippy. At times the themes get delivered a little too heavy-handedly as when Koverchenko asks the tank commander "How is it we're the Nazis this time?". Overall though, the message doesn't get in the way of what is a top-notch action/revenge tale.

Other strong attributes of the film are the soundtrack, by Mark Isham, which alternates between haunting and pulse-pounding, the Israeli geography which provides an excellent stand-in for Afghanistan's Kandahar region and Dale Dye's on-point military assistance and advice which always brings verisimilitude to any given war film he's involved in. Also, director Reynolds did some superior work camera-wise which really enhanced the suspense and helped bring clarity to the proceedings.

As for the flaws of the film, well, I guess that depends on how you feel about Jason Patric. I thought he was quite serviceable in this, but he is off-putting to some. Speaking of off-putting, Stephen Baldwin (blech) does have a small role as a cowardly member of the tank crew, but is mercifully limited in screen-time and importance. In short, he is quite easily ignored. As mentioned, Dzundza and Steven Bauer are both quite good in their roles, as is Chaim Girafi who plays Bauer's bad-ass, scavenger cousin Moustafa. Again, if you can get past some of the casting decisions, it's a very good, suspenseful action movie. 

Score 7.5/10