Sunday, June 29, 2014

Guilty Hands (1931)

Barbara (Madge Evans), the young daughter of former prosecutor, now lawyer and part-time cynic Richard Grant (Lionel Barrymore), has put it in her head to make a horrible mistake in marrying middle-aged, vile and rather ugly yet apparently – if you believe the script and not your eyes – sexually magnetic playboy Gordon Rich (Alan Mowbray).

Grant knows Rich quite well as a client for his particular sexual tastes that see the women he’s involved with thrown away like broken toys once he had his way with them, or even mysteriously falling out of his apartment window. As a lawyer, Rich is the kind of person Grant is willing to live with, but as a father, he’s completely set against the marriage, going so far as to privately threaten Rich with murder. Neither Rich, who really just wants to marry Barbara so he can fuck her and is perfectly willing to go back to Marjorie West (Kay Francis), the only woman he always goes back to, afterwards - or in between, for that matter - , nor Babs, who for some inexplicable reason can’t control herself when it comes to Rich, are dissuaded any by Grant’s dissent.

So Grant does what any good insane father would do in his place and goes through with his plan for the perfect murder, making Rich’s death look like a suicide. And what do you know, the people in the mansion where he committed his murder think he’s just the man to solve the case before calling in the police!

If you’re of the disposition to be able to enjoy mysteries as cynical little demonstrations of the amorality of the forces of law and order, and if you’re willing to overlook what might be one of the worst film endings I’ve ever seen or just one that mocks films that see things put right through the hands of fate by letting the hands of fate move in absolutely preposterous ways, W.S. Van Dyke’s deeply pre-Code film should be quite the find for you.

I, at least, enjoyed myself immensely. There are several reasons for that enjoyment that come together to form one rather astonishing and very lovely movie. Firstly, there’s Bayard Veiller’s script about amorality putting itself in the service of morality in the worst possible way, tightly paced with many a nasty little aside, full of dialogue that does sharp as well as it does melodramatic.

Then there’s Lionel Barrymore’s central performance, utterly gleeful, showy, and shameless in the most delightful manner, yet also with enough subtlety to actual sell the idea we’re witnessing the acts of a man who truly loves his daughter, how little human sympathy he shows for anyone else. Barrymore’s character here is quite close to our contemporary charming sociopath (Dexter Morgan, to the red courtesy phone please), though probably not influenced by much clinical knowledge (which wasn’t exactly large at that time anyway, and certainly not in Hollywood), and in that sense not far away from the sort of thing Bette Davis was up to in her pre-code films, just here in other class and gender guise.

While Barrymore is quite magnetic here and certainly the film’s centre, Kay Francis’s Marjorie turns out to be as close to an actual antagonist as Richard has. Francis does a remarkable job of standing up to Barrymore acting-wise, making clear how horrible Richard is by contrasting his gloating amorality with the deeply human fragility, confusion and anger of a woman confronted with the death of the asshole she inexplicably loved (and of whose true character she was well aware), and her life falling apart with the death.

Given the script and the core performance(s), director Van Dyke does the most logical thing – particularly inside the technical constraints of his era of movie making – and puts himself fully in service of his actors and his writer, a directing approach that never grants a director much applause yet surely is the right choice here. At the very least, I find it impossible to argue with the resulting film.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

In short: Highway to Hell (1991)

Underage couple Charlie (Chad Lowe) and Rachel (Kristy Swanson) elope, planning to get married in Vegas. Alas, they take the wrong side-road and accidentally end up right next to the highway to hell. A charming hellcop (C.J. Graham) makes off with Rachel, because he’s always on the look-out for beautiful female virgins for his boss, you know who.

After some helpful exposition and an equipment endowment by road-side gas station owner Sam (Richard Farnsworth), who made one of the least effective attempts at warning anybody off in any horror movie ever before, Charlie’s off to hell to save his fiancée, only accompanied by his trusty dog Mr Ben (Rags).

Hell, it turns out, looks a lot like the Arizona desert by eternal day, and is full of slightly surreal interpretations of Americana, like the roadside diner where cops and assorted hangers-on never quite get their beloved donuts and coffee. It’s this curious and imaginative version of hell that makes Ate de Jong’s horror action comedy the minor delight that it is, with hardly five minutes going by where not at least one or two funny or (sometimes) mildly creepy versions of elements of “typical America” turn up to produce a smile or two. (There’s also a short and sweet digression into Greek myth with a seriously wonderful Charon, but I digress – as always).

And if a given idea doesn’t tickle one’s fancy, the film’s so nicely paced the offending bit won’t stay on screen for too long, because there are, after all, a couple hundred other visual gags and neat ideas de Jong just has to show you. Highway to Hell is very enthusiastic about everything it has to offer too, always giving the impression of a film doing its utmost to have something fun to offer in every scene. While this approach doesn’t exactly lend the film much depth or logic, the former isn’t what it aims for (it prefers broadness), and the latter not necessarily something befitting a film taking place in hell.

At the same time, I wouldn’t say Highway to Hell is a stupid movie as such. Many of its visual gags are actually pretty clever, and it would be foolish to doubt the intelligence of a film with a Devil this ambiguous, nor of one who may use the traditional “save the princess” structure but still gives his female lead much more space to demonstrate agency and competence than you’d expect in this sort of set up. First and foremost, though, Highway to Hell is and obviously wants to be a fun, pacy, little film. It is that, too.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

SyFy vs. The Mynd: Wraiths of Roanoke (2007)

aka Lost Colony: The Legend of Roanoke

There’s a lot of things that turn this attempt at making a horror film out of the lost colony of Roanoke into one of the less watchable SciFi/SyFy Channel Originals, like the uncreative way it mixes Viking undead, understandably pissed Native Americans, and historical fact, or how little sense director Matt Codd has for the actual horrors of the situation his protagonists find themselves in. The last is absolutely inexcusable in a film about an isolated group of people without resources or recourse to help finding themselves not just plagued by the vagaries of nature and the consequences of their own bad politics, but by supernatural powers even more out of control, because you don’t actually need to seek out the horror and tension of this particular situation when it all but bites you in the ass. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I become convinced it must have taken considerable effort to make a film based on this situation and have it turn out quite as heel-dragging and confused as this effort.

It doesn’t help the film’s needlessly hopeless cause either that the acting, particularly whenever things get “dramatic” and “intense” – at least supposedly so – has a certain whiff of school play surrounding it; quite an achievement given that the cast mostly consists out of professionals who really should be able to do better.

Of course, and here I have reached the only truly memorable part of Wraiths of Roanoke, quite a few of these professionals are Australian, so this film doesn’t just delight the pained audience with the usual combination of fake and dubious accents – though we have that part covered too – but also a world where the historical invasion of the North American continent seems to have been committed by Australians, a fact the history books denied us until now. And that doesn’t begin to explain the curious accent of Native American leader Manteo (as played by Michael Teh).

All this only goes to show even the lowliest of films can and will contain some minor delight to make up for the waste of a viewer’s (that would be me) precious time (that would be the time of a guy who has by now written up about fifty SyFy Originals).

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Arsène Lupin (1932)

Supremely grumpy Parisian police inspector Guerchard (Lionel Barrymore) has been hunting for gentleman thief Arsène Lupin (?) for quite some time now without ever even coming close to catching his man, leaving the police quite embarrassed. After his newest failure, during which he arrests the Duke of Charmerace (John Barrymore) as Lupin, an idea that is of course utterly impossible, Guerchard is given one final week to catch Lupin.

Guerchard is convinced the Duke actually is the thief, and the duke certainly doesn’t act like he isn’t, so it’s a helpful “coincidence” for everyone involved when Charmerace heroically volunteers for helping protect the jewellery and paintings of one Gourney-Martin (Tully Marshall) - rich people must help each other out, dontcha know – Lupin seems to be after next. The thief doesn’t have to cope with a tenacious, if sometimes ridiculous, detective who is now very close on his trail now alone, though, there’s also danger for his heart in form of Russian noblewoman Sonia (Karen Morley).

But romancing his perfect woman, thwarting the police in anti-authoritarian ways, and stealing various valuables is all in a night’s work for him.

It’s pretty curious that what seems to be the first really successful screen adventure of French master thief Arsène Lupin was not made in France but by MGM. But then, the early 30s were – at least quality-wise – one of the high points of this sort of light, somewhat pulpy, mystery film in Hollywood, so the character just fit the vibe of its surroundings quite nicely, if one can excuse the horrible things some of the actors involved do to French names. I suspect these films – at least when they involve highly moral law-breakers - were becoming increasingly difficult to make once the production code began its sad reign, for how do you make a film a bout a thief hero when the rules you have to work under say that criminal behaviour on screen has to be punished. Which is pretty much the opposite of what’s happening here, where even Guerchard is in the very end so charmed by his eternal opponent he helps his arch enemy escape. I’m actually quite interested in how the production code Lupin films that do exist got around the problem, and will report once I’ve found out. I very much suspect just letting him get hitched like this film does won’t be enough, and am right now betting on the old “thief who only steals from thieves”.

John Barrymore certainly is a wonderful Lupin, embodying the humour, the verve, and the strange morality (because at least this version of Lupin is far from being amoral, he’s just working from different ethical assumptions) of the character, as well as the romance inherent in its basic concept; and all this while looking good in early 30s evening wear. Casting John’s brother Lionel as his eternal nemesis Guerchard also turns out to be quite a coup. These two have a highly enjoyable screen chemistry going on as antagonists, which makes at least half the fun in a piece like this.

I’m also quite fond of how in Lionel Barrymore’s hands  Guerchard is not one of these bumbling cops that usual hunt the loveable rogues, but clearly a capable, if sometimes cynical and perhaps even cruel, man who is probably only missing a bit of luck to catch his prey. This makes the whole plot of “in which delightful way will Lupin fool the policeman next?” quite a bit more exciting than it could otherwise be, leading to a game of silly yet awesome, sometimes eyebrow-raising, fun.

For once the script (by Lenore Coffee, Bayard Veiller and Carey Wilson) is up to the task too, going about its business with the appropriate breakneck speed, while throwing out one witty line after the other. Because this is the pre-code era, there’s also some fun sexual innuendo between Morley and John Barrymore, with a kind of matter-of-fact positivity towards sex you won’t even find all that often in films today (we’re really much more interested in seeing people punished for their sexual behaviour today than watching them enjoy it, it seems).

Jack Conway’s direction finishes off Arsène Lupin’s all-around excellence with an approach that’s as sprightly as you could away with in a talkie made in 1932, doing justice to the actors, the often clever sets, and each and every fun idea the script throws at its audience.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

In short: The Keep (1983)

1940. A troop of German soldiers under the command of Hautpmann Klaus Woermann (Jürgen Prochnow doing his usual “good German” shtick that has little to do with the atrocities the real Wehrmacht committed quite without SS help, but you know how it goes with these things) takes control of an ancient, and rather strange, keep in a Romanian mountain pass. Some greedy soldiers accidentally free an Ancient Evil™ from its captivity, and soon, said Evil is killing about one soldier a night. Woermann finds himself helpless to do anything against it.

Things don’t improve when SS major Kaempffer (Gabriel Byrne) arrives with his men to “help out”. Carting in a Romanian, Jewish scholar (Ian McKellen) and his daughter (Alberta Watson) just before they’re deported into a concentration camp only provides the Evil with a useful Renfield. Fortunately for those parts of the world who aren’t fans of the whole evil thing, our AE does have an Ancient Enemy™, too. A certain Glaeken (Scott Glenn) slowly makes his way to Romania and just might get around to doing some good.

I’m what you’d generally see as a good candidate to appreciate Michael Mann’s The Keep (based on one of the few readable novels of the mostly insufferable libertarian F. Paul Wilson), as I’m the kind of guy who often sees no problems with films taking a “style over sense” approach. Of course, most of those films don’t make heavy, yet empty gestures towards saying something profound about the nature of “Evil”, and aren’t as dull as The Keep is.

Pretty the film sure is, though, with Tangerine Dreams’ ill-fitting soundtrack and Alex Thomson’s beautiful photography producing some fine picture postcards with sound. Alas that prettiness is completely at odds with the tone the film needs to have to actually reach the effect it is aiming at. It’s rather difficult to feel dread, or even become convinced of the existence of Evil when the film’s visuals have nothing whatsoever to do with these things. Mann’s type of artificiality as a director is the completely wrong one here too, completely missing the mark of the dream-like state the film needs to induce in its audience to work, given the vacuousness and just plain bad craftsmanship of a script that drags out the least important scenes until they feel as if they were going on forever, and barely finds time for the important stuff.

One might think the really rather wonderful cast might manage to salvage something out of the script’s mix of dullness and disinterest in the themes its supposedly about, but all performances are just as dull and lifeless, the unconvincing and uninteresting dialogue delivered in ways suggesting everyone involved was replaced by a life-sized manikin of themselves.

The resulting film has such an air of boredom surrounding it I’m not even interested enough to find out what went wrong during the course of The Keep’s production (because this surely can not be the film Mann actually wanted to make); I’m just glad it’s over and I won’t have to watch it again until I’ve forgotten how little I care for it.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

They Call Me Trinity (1970)

aka My Name is Trinity

Original title: Lo chiamavano Trinità...

Hygienically challenged professional drifter (with a horse), and probably fastest gun alive, Trinity (Terence Hill), by chance comes upon the town where his half brother Bambino (Bud Spencer) is working as a sheriff. Or rather, where Bambino has gone under cover as sheriff, for in truth he’s only a mildly successful horse thief with a grumpy disposition, and has taken the place of the town’s actual new sheriff whom he - half accidentally - shot.

Mostly, Bambino is trying to lay low, and the town’s nice and quiet enough for that, or it was before a group of pacifist Mormons (yeah, I know) lead by Tobias (Dan Sturkie) arrived, settling as farmers in a place horse magnate and practical owner of the town, Major Harriman (Farley Granger), wants for his horses. Up until now, the Major’s men haven’t done much beyond punching out a Mormon now and then, but the situation won’t stay this way forever.

Particularly not once Trinity takes a look at two pretty Mormonesses and decides he really should be helping their people out against the Major and his men, dragging the unwilling Bambino in with him.

It’s always dangerous visiting childhood favourites, particularly when you’ve already made the experience that Terence Hill and Bud Spencer movies don’t hold up when you’re not a kid anymore, even when you’re as childish a grown-up as I am doing my best to be at all times, so realizing Enzo Barboni’s They Call Me Trinity was actually a rather nice Spaghetti Western comedy turned out to be a very pleasant surprise for me. Which might have a lot to do with the fact this was actually the first comedic outing by Hill and Spencer after the success of the comedy dub of a much more serious earlier film – Boot Hill - featuring the two in Germany and elsewhere in Europe proved surprisingly successful, and this was the film that set the basics of the formula of the pair’s films instead of just repeating it ad nauseam.

What makes the film work beyond the often quite funny interplay between Hill and Spencer, with Spencer as always giving the grumpy straight man to Hill’s trickster, is its clear-eyed view of the elements that make up the Spaghetti Western. Unlike Tonino Valerii would later do with Hill in My Name is Nobody, Trinity doesn’t use that knowledge so much for a deconstruction of the genre as for the kind of mild comedy that clearly loves its genre too much to become a true parody yet can’t help but use the more ridiculous elements of it as the base for jokes. Quite a few of these jokes are really just slight exaggerations of the generally exaggerated things happening in Spaghetti Westerns (particularly those having to survive on actors making snake eyes at each other and one or two gimmicks), often used surprisingly subtly and with only the very mildest wink in the direction of the audience.

Despite what one is used to from later Hill and Spencer movies, there really isn’t all that much slapstick going on here, with most of the physical humour working more as a sub-set of sight gags; just with more punching on heads and shot down trousers, as if the film’s high concepts was to take the Spaghetti Western and replace most shoot-outs with light and fun brawls. An approach that certainly, given the general wiliness of Italian genre producers, doesn’t just by chance open up the genre to family audiences.

Consequently, and despite some cynical jokes, the resulting film is a rather good-natured concoction where the big bad is sent off to Nebraska after a big climactic brawl, where shot sheriffs walk around on crutches quite sprightly, and where tricksters can happily escape the threat of grown-up responsibilities while still helping out those in need if they put their mind to it. If this is supposed to be a conscious argument against the Spaghetti Western’s generally more cynical and bitter bent I’m not at all sure, though it’s certainly not impossible.

In any case, They Call Me Trinity proves how a capable director can take some very pessimistic (sometimes even cruel) genre conventions, and give them a believable twist in the direction of the good-natured, the fun, and the (dare I say it?) life-affirming, without having to turn to sappiness – at least in the realm of comedy.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

In short: Mission of Justice (1992)

This Jeff Wincott vehicle with Brigitte Nielsen as the film’s big bad is a highly commendable example of US low budget martial arts nonsense, seeing as it contains fight scenes as good as they get in US martial arts films, a lead in Wincott whose acting ability is actually present while still leaving him room for actually knowing about screen martial arts too, direction by Steve Barnett that never gets in the way of the film or of itself, and enough adorable stupid nonsense to put many smiles on my face. A personal highlight among the copious silliness is Brigitte’s plan to become mayor of Los Angeles by founding her own cult of violent male vigilantes roaming the streets in very tight shirts and jeans, all the while buying TV spots with the money she gets from the inheritance of grandmas her henchpeople murder. It also involves hiring a guy with anime hair as her election manager, which would even work if not for pesky Jeff Wincott and his ass-kicking ways. Additional joys consist of Karen Sheperd looking very angry and also kicking ass, electro torture, a short encounter with a police robot, a randomly mean police sergeant who seems to hate Wincott for knowing martial arts(!?), and perhaps the best use of a stolen boxing championship belt you will find in a movie.

This really only doesn’t get a longer write-up because I’m a) sick and won’t remember anything about the film once I’m fine again (future Denis now editing this really has only the vaguest clue what this write-up’s on about) and b) Mission of Justice isn’t quite crazy enough for me to rave about it for too long. That isn’t to say that Barnett’s film isn’t crazy enough to be a real joy to watch, though – for it surely is.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

In short: Das Rätsel der roten Orchidee (1962)

aka Secret of the Red Orchid

In a development that’s enough to make one’s bowler rotate, two rival American blackmail gangs, or in one case what’s left of one, make their way to the shores of London and start their brutal ways there. Scotland Yard is shocked, because clearly, before the Americans came, there was no violent crime, and certainly no machine gun murders, in peaceful straight-laced Great Rialto Britain.

Inspector Weston (Adrian “Boring” Hoven) is on the case, though, and seeks the occasional help of FBI man Captain (look, I didn’t write the script) Allerman (Christopher “The American” Lee), who helps out as much as the budget allows. Hilarity in form of murder ensues.

As much as I agree with the early Rialto Wallace adaptation cycle’s attempt to not deliver films completely to one formula, it’s difficult to ignore most of the films that were really mixing up things just ended up like Das Rätsel der roten Orchidee, which is to say, not very good.

Part of this particular film’s problems surely is Helmut Ashley’s technically competent but stylistically uninvolving direction that recommended the man for the career in indifferent German TV direction jobs he took up soon after. Where Rialto Wallace core directors Reinl and Vohrer (both later TV victims themselves) always demonstrated the kind of style and personality that effortlessly turns silliness and distractible scripts into assets, Ashley’s attempts at something comparable feel much more like a series of tonally disparate scenes, following a plot nobody involved actually cared about. Even the identity of the evil mastermind – as much as the film even has one – is obvious even to the dumb very early on, making a lot of the plot’s contortions look like pointless ways to prolong the inevitable.

Das Rätsel is not horrible, though. Apart from the film’s basic competence, there are some actually fun moments hidden behind the indifference. At least one third of Eddi Arent’s humorous shenanigans are actually funny, Kinski (playing a gangster called “Pretty Steve”, if you can believe it) seems in a particularly good mood, the Peter Thomas soundtrack is groovy before groovy was invented, a pre-Italian exploitation movie Marisa Mell demonstrates how much better her acting got a few years later, and Christopher Lee’s German is pretty fine. Of course, Lee also seems bored, and Adrian Hoven wins the no-prize of “dullest Wallace adaptation Inspector” but then you can’t win all the time, or so I’m told.

I have to admit, I would have hoped a film adding fake-Americans to the bizarre fake-England of the Rialto Wallace films would be rather more exciting but then I didn’t expect the fake-Americans to be this less interesting. So it really is true you can’t win them all.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Curse of the Fly (1965)

The newest generation of the Delambre family – as represented by Henri (Brian Donlevy) and his sons Martin (George Baker) and Albert (Michael Graham) – still hasn’t learned a thing about research safety standards, and is continuing with its ancestral (by my calculation, the film should take place in the 2030s) teleportation experimentation. Yup, they still haven’t realized inventing a teleporting device that’s only good for dead matter would still be an incredible technological leap.

Anyhow, when Martin’s driving through beautiful Canada one night, he meets Patricia Stanley (Carole Gray), running in her undies through the woods in slow motion. Some short words about her fictitious employer’s fictitious husband convince Martin that there’s nothing strange about her behaviour at all, and before you can say “slow down, cowboy”, the two are married and moving into the mansion where the family conduct their experiments.

In truth, Patricia has escaped from an asylum where she was treated for a nervous breakdown. Of course, she’s not the only member of the new family who has secrets. Martin suffers from some weird sporadic aging sickness that leaves him in rather a bad state from time to time, but that’s really not the worst problem here, for Martin and his dad have been conducting their experiments on human beings, and keep the irradiated results (no flies here, I’m sorry to say) locked up in some nice little cells in the garden. Oh, and one of these results is Martin’s wife Judith. And no, they never got divorced. Add to that Henri’s total lack of scruples, Albert’s disgruntlement with his crazy family ways, and the fact that the Delambre’s Chinese (cough) servants hate her, and soon you’ll find a drugged up by her husband and father in law Patricia slowly driven insane by the mutants and the servants, among the less troublesome developments.

The belated third The Fly film was directed by sometimes mediocre, sometimes nearly brilliant genre film veteran Don Sharp in one of his good weeks. It’s barely a sequel to the first two films – which is a good thing given that you can do only so much with a human fly, I think – and could really be about a family of totally unrelated mad scientists without losing anything. Sharp, or writer Harry Spalding, really seems to be more interested in crossing the more science fictional horror approach of the first two films with typical gothicisms. The film’s sense of the gothic doesn’t  just offer the expected mad scientist type but also includes a huge dollop of gothic romance of the sort the post-Daphne Du Maurier generations were actually beginning to churn out (unless I’m off a few years, in which case this would be something of a predecessor of the type). “Rebecca”, it turns out, only further improves with the addition of mad scientist family troubles and mutants.

It’s a rather interesting combination that leads to a film recommending itself at the very least through the originality of unexpected sub-genre crossings. I’m also quite fond of Curse’s moments of delicious strangeness, executed with style (and a lot of rather beautifully staged scenes) by a Sharp who is clearly in his element whenever it comes to the gothic and the strange.

What Curse of the Fly isn’t, is a film whose plot will withstand any kind of logical scrutiny. Everything that happens here makes sense thematically and atmospherically, though, and if you’re willing to accept the basic silliness (and who wouldn’t be?), then you might even call the film’s treatment of different kinds of mentally illness, and its sombre thoughts about the troubles with family and trust rather intelligent; one might even think there’s a reason behind the way this unassuming little horror film contrasts Patricia’s relatively open and only dangerous for herself mental illness with the Delambres’ secret and much more destructive ones. I’m even willing to go as far as suggest there’s a bit of a hint of criticism of how much more willing the society of 1965 seems to accept “aberrant” behaviour of men when compared to that of women packed into this delicious sandwich of mad science and mutants.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Three Films Make A Post: Y9u never kn9w when y9ur number is up

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013): The second film in the trilogy continues what was pretty great about the first film and builds on it well and with style. Sure, we’re still in blockbuster land, so subtlety lives elsewhere, but we are in a district of that particular country where an audience is assumed to not be made up out of idiots that need to be talked down to, and where the astonishing amounts of money involved are actually put to good use. Which is quite the thing in an area of filmmaking where compromise and assumption of idiocy all too often are the name of the game.

And, you know, the film also goes to show that genre movies with female leads where the guys are getting the usual plot position of The Girl sell perfectly great to audiences if they are good, but then I assume that’s not going to be a surprise to anyone not working in big media.

Cold Eyes (2013): Like a magic trick, Jo Eui-seok’s and Kim Byeong-seo’s apolitical surveillance thriller and superior remake of Hong Kong movie Eye in the Sky doesn’t impress by anything you could analyse about it because it’s really not at all about depth but about the wonders lying on the surface of things. Like any good action film, it’s a film where bodies and movement express everything it has to say.

In this regard, Cold Eyes is practically flawless, with no detours to detract an audience from the film’s core, and really nothing to get in the way of film as a physical experience. It’s as much of a dance as a particularly great martial arts movie, and as with particularly great martial arts movies, criticizing its lack of depth means getting wrong what it’s actually about.

Alien Lockdown (2004): A bunch of doomed uniformed people scampers through the usual dark corridors fighting a monster that just happens to look a lot like a crap version of the one from Alien. Nothing of interest or of note happens but this might be more effective against troubles falling asleep than counting sheep, so there’s that to say for the film (if we have to call it one). Plus, it’s not horrible so much as painfully dull, though I’m not at all sure if that’s a positive or a negative.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Shotgun (1955)

Former outlaw and now Deputy Marshal Clay Hardin (Sterling Hayden) is bound to leave his job for the – cosy, it seems – position of Indian Commissioner and marry his fiancée. That is, until his mentor and best friend Marshal Fletcher (Lane Chandler) is gunned down with a shotgun by outlaw Ben Thompson (Guy Prescott).

Now, he’s leaving behind his fiancée and probably his career to ride out into the Arizona territories for vengeance, though, given the last scene between him and her, not marrying is definitely better for everyone involved. Clay’s hunt for Thompson is dangerous indeed, for the man doesn’t just have a few stupid men willing to attempt to kill Clay for him but is also delivering weapons to the renegade/freedom fighting Apache war chief Delgadito (Paul Marion), who does feel obliged to give Thompson a hand from time to time, even though he does have his doubts about his business partner. Revolutionary needs must.

On his hunt, Clay falls in with former saloon girl Abby (Yvonne De Carlo), out for a better life in California, and sleazy bounty hunter Reb Carlton (Zachary Scott), out to find backs with a bounty on them to shoot, which will complicate things further on but also might promise a better future for at least some of the people involved, if they are willing to take the steps necessary.

By the time he made Shotgun, director Lesley Selander was already a veteran with an insane number of B-Westerns on his résumé (and with quite a bit of TV work on shows like Lassie and Laramie in the future). The handful of them I’ve seen are decent and workmanlike in their approach, though given the sheer number of films he made, and the quality of the film at hand, I might just have been plain unlucky with them and dozens of gems might still be hiding in his filmography.

As it stands, Shotgun at first looks like quite the straightforward film, with a 50s asshole protagonist, a woman who just needs the right man to slap her around and will die virtuously for him because women with a past aren’t allowed happiness in Hollywood, and a bunch of Evil Injuns™. In short, a thing with the potential to rivet and become exciting by virtue of its sheer unpleasantness – a lot like a Mike Hammer novel, if you’re looking at a different genre for a minute.

But then interesting things begin to happen: Clay turns out to be a much more complicated character than he at first appears to be, a man whose gruffness hides doubts and actual human feelings, with a past he isn’t proud of yet can’t escape fully no matter how much he tries. At that point, the film also starts showing its hand of not agreeing with all of the frontier hardness its characters demonstrate yet showing it nonetheless because anything else would be dishonest; there’s also the suggestion that some of this hardness really is just that – a demonstration and defensive shell made to keep danger – of the physical as well as of the emotional kind – away.

More surprising still, Abby is actually allowed to live and ride off into what might just be a happy end with Clay (if you for one minute assume these two people can provide a happy ending to each other, or at least a happy life), the attraction between her and Clay having turned something much more human than your usual 50s romance on the way, into that of two people who learn they have quite similar backgrounds and begin actually understanding each other from there. There’s also the more practical point that, while she’s never going to win this week’s Strong Female Character prize (because they have to be flawless ass-kickers without feelings, yet also at the same time role models to satisfy some I sometimes suspect), Abby does have quite a bit of agency and isn’t treated like a child by the film. Why, Selander (or perhaps rather Clarke Reynolds’s and Rory Calhoun’s script?) even suggests that in case of a large scale Apache attack on your camp, you’ll want to give the woman a gun too, without even making a point of it.

Another surprise element is the short yet effective characterisation of Delgadito, which falls neither in the trap of the Noble Savage nor in that of the Bloodthirsty Savage, and shows more sympathy with his situation and position than you’d expect of a random B-Western. As the film shows him, Delgadito is an intelligent man who clearly knows that he’s going to be crushed by our old enemy, the Wheels of History, and that he’s damned if he does and damned if he don’t.

This, and even a bit more, Selander provides in a highly economical way, while also demonstrating a mastership of the kind of scenes a film of its genre and time just needs to have, realized in a nearly off-handed way that makes tight, complicated scenes look easy. Given all this, I’d not be too surprised if Shotgun were actually Selander’s best film; it’s difficult to imagine how he still could have improved on the model.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

In short: The Frozen Ghost (1945)

Radio mentalist Alex Gregor aka Gregor the Great (Lon Chaney Jr.) suffers a breakdown when he thinks he has accidentally willed a drunken audience member to death. He breaks off all contact with his medium and girlfriend Maura (Evelyn Ankers), and doesn’t exactly act like the picture of mental health in other respects either.

His helpful agent and friend George Keene (Milburn Stone) has just the idea for a relaxing way for Alex to get his act back together. Why not move into the wax museum of Madame Valerie Monet (Tala Birell)? It will come as a complete surprise for everyone in the audience that things don’t go too well there for Alex. Ignoring the atmosphere of the place, there’s also the fact that the museum’s resident artist, former plastic surgeon Rudi Polden (Martin Kosleck), is a creepy eccentric who talks with his wax figures as if they were living human beings and hates Alex on sight, perhaps because Valerie’s niece Nina (Elena Verdugo) adores the man as if he were a singer in a boy band, or Frank Sinatra, to use a more timely comparison. As an additional problem, Valerie is very much in love with Alex, a feeling he doesn’t reciprocate.

When he friend-zones Valerie, the resulting scene ends with Valerie falling down (dead? unconscious? just very sleepy?), and Alex doing what he does best – running away. When he returns with George, his potential victim has disappeared, and the dumbest cop in town (Douglass Dumbrille) treats Alex as his main suspect in what can clearly only have been murder, right? Oh the mystery and excitement!

But seriously, Harold Young’s The Frozen Ghost, the fourth entry in Universal’s series of films branded after radio’s Inner Sanctum Mysteries – alas without excellent elements like the Creaking Door, or the cheesily cynical narrator - is a perfectly good time, if you’re not afraid of a mystery that is both obvious and just as preposterously constructed as it would have been in comparable Poverty Row movies. This being a Universal production, the production values are quite a bit higher than that of the poor relations, though, with some decently atmospheric sets (probably re-used from higher budget efforts), a director whose nickname isn’t “One-Shot”, and who consequently actually seems to have directed beyond shouting “cut!”, and acting that is at least decent, sometimes, like in the delightful scenery chewing of Martin Kosleck, decidedly enjoyable to watch.

Like the other Inner Sanctum movies, the film is also a showcase for the talents of Lon Chaney Jr., at this point in time credited without the “Jr.”, playing more suave and better dressed characters than you’d expect if you only know him as poor Larry Talbot or in his later incarnation of alcoholic wreck, in usually more convincing ways than you might fear. These films did of course know that what Chaney did best was reacting to pressure in ways even I’d call wimpy and milked that fact generally too much, but The Frozen Ghost at least isn’t overdoing it, and, like a few of the other Inner Sanctum films, also realizes the importance of giving Chaney’s characters some redeeming back bone when it is most needed. Despite their varying quality, the more of these films I see, the more respect I develop for Chaney as the kind of actor who actually could make something out of the things a script gave him, providing his characters with a dignity that made them worth rooting for because of their relatable weakness, or who at the very least gave it his best try.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

In short: Shihaisha no Tasogare (1998)

In some vague cyberpunk-y future Tokyo with demons. A young woman hires (kinda-sorta) the mysterious androgynous Tsunami to find a demon for reasons that would be spoilers if this thing had an actual plot. There’s some business about demons/ogres and the guardians supposed to protect humanity from them, sadistic flying telekinetics, and something about a drug that can turn normal humans into demons, but the OVA seems so disinterested in actually telling its story, I don’t know why I should care about any of this, if clearly nobody involved in the production did.

What Saki Okuse’s Madhouse one part OVA is supposed to be, neither itself nor I are sure. Sure, it consists out of a bunch of clichés taken right out of excellent horror anime in the Wicked City mould, but it doesn’t do anything at all with them, because even its borrowing of ideas is incredibly lackluster, with monster designs that look more like cost-cutting measures and visual storytelling so lame and static you hardly even notice this thing is actually animated. Which it only barely is anyhow, because this thing is so much below standards, it can’t even be bothered to move.

That the film’s story – such as it is – is barely told at all (using a phrase like “only in the most perfunctory way” would suggest to much dynamic in the storytelling), perfectly fits into an anime that isn’t so much an actual anime as Madhouse saying “Oh, you like mutations, weird sex stuff and dark future Tokyo?” and throwing some crap they had lying around in their garage at the audience. Watching this, is an embarrassing waste of time that could be more fruitfully used doing dishes or looking into the mirror while repeatedly uttering “please make it stop”.

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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Charlie Chan in Panama (1940)

The US secret services get wind the mysterious German (though that word never falls) spy and saboteur Reiner (?) is coming to Panama, and given the timing with an American fleet to make its way through the Canal shortly, to do something rather dangerous and dastardly against the future war effort. A US agent contacts Charlie Chan (Sidney Toler) - who has gone undercover as a merchant in fine Panama hats - with the news. However, before he can give any hints concerning the identity of Reiner, the spy dies from a poisoned cigarette right in front of Chan.

Ironically, it’s this murder method that enables Chan to reduce his pool of suspects to a manageable number of people, all of whom came to Panama City on the same plane; less fortuitously, these are all highly suspicious people: there’s local cabaret owner Senor Manolo (Jack La Rue), a man so suspicious I’m not clear why he has never been arrested before nor why anyone would actually trust him with even the tiniest piece of information, Kathi Lenesch (Jean Rogers, not even trying to do an accent), a young woman with some secret or other that makes her susceptible to some of Manolo’s wishes, the absurdly British writer Cliveden Compton (Lionel Atwill), Egyptian cigarette merchant and part-time sneak Achmed Halide (Frank Puglia), German scientist Dr. Rudolph Grosser (Lionel Royce) who, as we will soon learn, likes to play with rats infected with bubonic plague, Miss Jennie Finch (Mary Nash), a middle-aged American schoolteacher on the first adventure of her life, and engineer Richard Cabot (Kane Richmond), a man so boring he can’t even be a red herring and must be innocent; also, the film’s romantic lead.

Chan has his work cut out for him, but it will take a bit of time to sort through everybody’s suspicious actions and secrets, to take care of the dead bodies Reiner leaves, and to avoid getting too perturbed by the over-excited help of second son Jimmy Chan (Victor Sen Yung).

I’ve already laid down my thoughts regarding the racial politics of the better Charlie Chan film in my last write-up of a film in the series (or at least the series before the character got into the hands of Monogram), The Black Camel, and what I wrote about the earlier film still holds nine years later, now with Sidney Toler having donned the yellow-face, and the film still treating an American Chinese as its hero. Actually, at this stage, the inclusion of actual American Chinese Victor Sen Yung looks like more positive progress for the series. Despite the character mainly having comic relief (and accidentally stumbling over hints) functions, Jimmy is allowed a degree of dignity not exactly typical of Asian actors in this period in Hollywood – while he’s hapless, Jimmy isn’t hopeless, and he’s also courageous, daring, and clearly doing his best fighting the good fight. He’s also – at least for my tastes – quite unlike a lot of comic relief characters by being actually funny and sympathetic instead of a hateful monstrosity that needs to die but never does.

It helps Charlie Chan in Panama’s case that the script by John Larkin and Lester Ziffren does have a nice line in funny dialogue, zipping through a film that otherwise is a serious war (or pre-war for you Americans) mystery/spy movie which features some elements I wouldn’t have expected of a movie that’s part of that corner of Hollywood that was – thanks to various political pressures - quite squeamish about naming enemy country names at the time.  I find one émigré character’s fear of being sent back to what’s left of her home country after “the invaders” now own it and ending up in a concentration camp quite a remarkable thing to hear, for example. There’s also the film’s obvious surety that the United States’ entry into the War can only be a matter of time, but that’s really the film taking on a (realistic) propagandist role of preparing its audience for the inevitable, censors who fear calling Germany by name notwithstanding. It’s quite an enlightening watch if you care for the idea of genre films as mirrors of the anxieties and obsessions of their times; in this case, the mirror turns out to be quite a direct and political one.

Apart from that cultural historical aspect, Charlie Chan in Panama is also a fine little mystery/spy thriller, as a Fox production still able to avail itself of a degree of production values, and even actually decent library footage, with a generally fine cast (even though I preferred the more charismatic and wry Ohland to Toler’s a bit blander Chan) doing good, professional work, and sure-handed, zippy, and often atmospheric direction by Norman Foster.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

In short: You’re Next (2011/13)

Sometimes, I feel more than a little disconnected from horror fandom and assorted critics. Case in point is the general adoration and praise lavished on Adam Wingard’s You’re Next, things I don’t feel the movie at hand actually deserves.

Don’t get me wrong, though. I do appreciate Wingard’s obvious abilities when it comes to making his low budget movie look so good the budget really never comes to mind when watching it. I do also appreciate the cast of veterans, young pretty people, and the mandatory cameos by Larry Fessenden and Ti West (the latter of whom can’t act at all, I’m sorry to say), as well as the 80s horror vibe of the soundtrack.

Unfortunately, I don’t really watch movies to be impressed by technical achievements but rather for emotional and/or intellectual involvement, and these aren’t things I get out of You’re Next. The former is hindered by the film’s thick patina of irony and self-consciousness, as well as by the fact the film never bothers to give its audience the slightest reason to care about any of its characters, seeing as they are all ironic ciphers only held together by actors much too good for what they’re doing here. What they are doing is pretty much exactly what you suspect, which is what stands in the way of any intellectual involvement on my part. Sure, there are some mild trope reversals, and an obvious but mildly clever plot twist (which of course does make it superior to a lot of other plot twists that seem made up on the spot and not part of the actual movie you’ve seen leading up to them), but the film never goes anywhere too interesting with it and stays well inside the most conservative lines of horror film writing. After all, a tiny bit of self-consciousness and cheap irony are expected of a horror film in the 2010s, and I’d probably more surprised by a movie not featuring them.

There’s a feeling of pointlessness that runs through the whole film, nothing really seems thought through to reach any kind of conclusion beyond the most obvious and least interesting one. What’s going on is this: there’s a bit of violence you can see everywhere else, the trope reversals come yet are done in a way that is neither very interesting nor points towards any new insights about the horror genre or humanity, some jokes are cracked I don’t find very funny, and the old “the rich are decadent and evil” bit I have seen done with more energy and nastiness in giallos of more than forty years ago is sung. It all comes together to form a movie-like object that’s just kind of there without ever being willing to commit to anything and see it through to the bitter end – neither the irony, nor the thoughts it threatens to have, nor the basic horror thriller set-up. If this sort of thing is the future of horror, the future of horror will be even more boring than The Conjuring.

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Sunday, June 8, 2014

SyFy vs. The Mynd: Earth’s Final Hours (2011)

aka Armageddon 2012

Uh-oh! A rude white hole spits dense matter at the Earth, which goes right through the planet, destroys the magnetosphere and stops our favourite planet’s rotation. It looks very much as if it’s time for the end of the world again.

CIA agent John Streich (Robert Knepper) is on the scene when the matter strikes, and soon it’s up to him, scientist Chloe Edwards (Julia Benson), his hacker son Andy (Cameron Bright), and Andy’s best friend Michelle (Julia Maxwell) to save the world with a very secret scientific method developed by one Dr. Rothman (Bruce Davison).

Unfortunately, the actual world-saving method Rothman devised has never been tested or investigated much, because the CIA under Streich’s evil boss Lockman (Michael Kopsa) and his evil boss’s evil boss, the doubly evil Arnett (Roark Critchlow), a) wanted to use it as a weapon (of course) and b) preferred the simpler plan of only saving a small part of the world full of the Important People™. Consequently, Rothman has spent the last fifteen years in a secret CIA prison masked as a mental institution.

Streich and his friends are a “let’s save everyone” kind of gang, though, so soon they are not only involved in a race against time (and some mighty destructive solar storms) to save the world, but also against Lockman’s attempts to only save a very small part of it, and kill everyone getting in the way.

Here I thought I had by now seen all SyFy movies actually worth seeing, and then along comes W.D Hogan’s (him of the execrable Independence Daysaster and the excellent Behemoth) Earth’s Final Hours to prove me wrong. Of course (and do I even need to say this?) the plot is patently ridiculous, the science is preposterous, and the way the film’s world works has nothing whatsoever to do with any part of consensus reality, but then, that’s really not what anyone (except IMDB reviewers and other people with a desperate need to prove their superiority over innocent little films like this) looks for in this kind of film.

What we – or at the very least I – do look for in a SyFy disaster movie is the joy of witnessing yet another silly yet imaginative way of destroying the Earth, and the comfortable and even more silly way the given film will go about saving it. We generally also enter with a degree of hope concerning as much destruction as the budget will provide and perhaps even one or two fun performances.

Final Hours doesn’t disappoint here, for the way the world (doesn’t – spoiler!) ends here is indeed silly yet imaginative, gives reason to much movie science nonsense speak (pleasantly disconnected from any of your established scientific facts), the world is saved in an improbable, cheap yet awesome way that to my great surprise doesn’t involve exploding the white hole or Earth, and the little bit of destruction the sun storms wreak is very fun to look at.

As are Knepper’s, Kopsa’s and Davison’s performances, so the surprisingly well done action sequences Hogan provides are a bit of an overachievement (not that I’m complaining), as is the visual (and plot-logical) cleverness of having the whole thing take place in the brightest of sunlight. It’s quite impossible for me to argue with any of this, so Earth’s Final Hours gets my seal of approval.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

In short: Holy Ghost People (2013)

I have been expecting the director duo of Mitchell Altieri and Phil Flores aka The Butcher Brothers to one day make a really great movie. Holy Ghost People, the story of a guilt-laden young woman (Emma Greenwell) dragging an equally guilt-riddled alcoholic ex-marine (Brendan McCarthy) into helping her investigate the disappearance of her sister by sort of infiltrating the evangelical Christian snake-charmer cult of one Brother Billy (Joe Egender), and the rather horrible consequences that ensue, is that film for me.

Only Altieri is listed as director here, with Flores getting credit as one among four writers (also including Altieri and Egender), which, if you’re inclined that way, means that there still isn’t a really great Butcher Brothers movie. I don’t mind too much, though, and for all I care, this particular piece of trauma noir (this should be an official sub-genre) and Southern Gothic could be directed by the legendary John Smith, Esq. But I digress.

After a beginning that - as does the amount of voice-over narration –suggests a degree of post-production rejiggering I wouldn’t be surprised was meant to insert more distributor-pleasing exposition where it isn’t terribly needed (and therefore is the film’s weakest point) the story quickly gains its feet, and circles around themes of trauma, guilt, faith and the hope for redemption in not new, but convincing and highly interesting ways. There is a cloud of doom and threat hanging over the characters that finds expression in the film’s landscapes and often more subtle acting than I had expected.

Going by Altieri’s other films, I had also expected more direct and meaner violence, but am quite pleased to report the film never gets closer to torture porn than with two lashings (there are deaths though, if you can’t live without them). The more horrible things in Holy Ghost People really are happening in the protagonists’ minds, the things they did they can’t deny or escape from, and the insane religious bullshit they just might be willing to accept just to make the pain go away, or at least to give it outward meaning. To the dismay of New Atheists all around (as an old-style atheist, I’m made of sterner stuff myself), the film doesn’t point and laugh at the religious people, though, and while the connection between peoples’ religious convictions and their psychological damage is clear, this isn’t a film interested in making sweeping statements about religion and religious people at large. It’s about specific people in a specific situation, and any conclusions we might want to draw for the larger picture are our own. The film’s not here to convince us of anything beyond the pain of its characters. That it – and some fine performances by the actors – manage to do quite well.

Friday, June 6, 2014

On ExB: Rider on a Dead Horse (1962)

If you’d have told me I’d ever watch an American proto-Spaghetti Western from 1962 directed by Herbert L. Strock of all people, I don’t think I would have believed in the existence of the film.

However, Rider on a Dead Horse does indeed exist, and my column over at the always glorious Exploder Button will tell you all I think about it.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Three Inner Sanctums Make A Post: Read the fine print: you may have just mortgaged your life

Dead Man’s Eyes (1944): In this Inner Sanctum Mystery, Lon Chaney Jr. feels particularly sorry for himself after his artist character is accidentally blinded (which is the sort of thing that happens when your eyewash stands right next to your acid). That’s bad news for the audience, for the only thing standing between it and a dull yet melodramatic plot full of non-events that mostly aren’t shown by director Reginald Le Borg anyway is an extra helping of Chaney whimpering “I’m blind! I’m blind”, followed by Chaney shouting “I’m blind! I’m blind”, and other assertions of blindness. If you’re like me and find Chaney’s general tendency to regard whininess as the supreme thespian expression aggravating more often than not, Dead Man’s Eyes might just cause you paroxysms (“My brains! My brains!”) of annoyance.

Strange Confession (1945): Despite some – surprisingly – stylish direction by John Hoffman and an extra sleazy performance of J. Carrol Naish as the world’s sleaziest capitalist, this outing of Lon Chaney Jr., unluckiest man alive, isn’t very interesting. It fluctuates wildly between pretty tame melodrama, not very interesting mystery, and sub-Frank Capra gestures, without ever seeming to get to the actual point. Unless the point is to tell us that capitalists are evil bastards out to exploit even genius chemist Lon Chaney Jr., in which case I can only say “No shit, Sherlock”.

Pillow of Death (1945): This final Inner Sanctum mystery finds beleaguered Lon Chaney Jr. again having trouble with a murdered wife. An absurdly old-fashioned (for 1945) old dark house mystery ensues, fake séances are held by a psychic investigator called Julian Julian, and a guy who steals corpses and stalks the film’s heroine gets the girl in the end. The script of this thing is so crack-brained, it’s not difficult to imagine this to be a Monogram picture – nobody’s motives and actions ever have anything to do with each other, the film’s murder reveal tries and fails to get away with the old “he’s crazy, so it doesn’t need to make sense”, and things like attempted murders by gassing have no repercussions for the people involved whatsoever.

Because director Wallace Fox (him of Monogram’s magnum opus The Corpse Vanishes) does his job with visible enthusiasm expressed via random fast camera movements, and the script seems to be totally at one with its own idiocy, the resulting film is a very entertaining example of its type, the sort of thing I’d recommend to everyone who has seen all Monogram productions with Bela Lugosi and wants to see more of the same, just with Lonnie and a slightly higher budget. Which describes myself pretty well, actually. God be merciful on our souls.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Die Tür mit den 7 Schlössern (1962)

aka The Door with 7 Locks

When safe cracker Pheeny (Klaus Kinski) comes to Inspector Dick Martin (Heinz Drache) of Scotland Yard to tell him a curious story about some people bringing him to a secret area to open a strange door with seven locks, Martin doesn’t really know what to think, and mostly shrugs the whole thing off. When he finds Pheeny dead in his cupboard, he’s sure something is going on.

It doesn’t take long until Martin and his intrepid assistant Holms (Eddi Arent) suspect Pheeny’s mysterious door is connected with the first two in what will soon become quite a series of murders, whose victims both carried two very similar keys around. A bit later, Martin encounters the proverbial unsuspecting young heiress in danger (Sabine Sesselmann), and finds himself wading through a lot of suspicious people, like mad scientist Antonio Staletti (Pinkas Braun), owner of a musical chair Betram Cody (Werner Peters) and his domineering and quite evil wife Emely (Gisela Uhlen), a frightening brute (Ady Berber), and so on, and so forth.

Die Tür mit den 7 Schlössern is only the second Rialto Edgar Wallace adaptation directed by series mainstay Alfred Vohrer. It doesn’t indulge quite as intensely in the director’s visual tics and obsessions, so there aren’t as many shots of peeping or enlarged eyes as usual (though Staletti has some very fine glasses), and the self-references and irony aren’t coming quite as thick and fast; probably because there just weren’t enough Wallace films made by Rialto to have finalized a house style to be self-ironic about.

There is still a lot going on that is very typical of Vohrer’s krimis, though, like the often creative, generally eccentric framing and blocking of shots and scenes, the director’s – and probably director of photography Kurt Löb’s – use of deep focus, and visual dynamics that emphasize the more grotesque aspects of any given scene and set, establishing early and often that the UK the film takes place in is a dream made out of cheap thriller novels and every cliché about the country Germans of the time probably not really believed in, yet still fancied quite a bit. At this point in the cycle, Vohrer operated with true verve, and while this is very close to the platonic archetype of what the Rialto Wallace formula would become, the resulting film feels fresh and lively, and as fun as these things come.

I was a bit surprised by the important role of the film’s mad scientist as played with great, sweaty enthusiasm by Pinkas Braun, or rather, I was surprised by the degree of mad science the Die Tür, quite atypical for the Wallace films, indulged in, with Staletti having already created his own mentally disabled brute and planning on continuing his good work by transplanting the head of a human onto an ape body (great shoddy ape costumes there, by the way), so that the geniuses of humanity can live on eternally, complete with as clear of an echo of certain Nazi “science” ideas as German pop cinema dared use at the time. As they say, SCIENCE! Staletti further recommends himself by taking the time to indulge in a little slide show presentation to inform the film’s heroine of a two-headed dog supposedly created by Pavlov, and gloating so intensely said heroine has ample time to slink away from him.

The film takes a bit of time to reach these heights of pulp nonsense (there’s, for example, also a gun hidden in an arm prosthesis to delight you if you like that sort of thing, and why wouldn’t you?). In fact, at first Die Tür seems a bit harmless and tepid. This is, however, Vohrer taking a run-up so he can then go as full out crazy as anything you’ll find in the cycle, with nary a second of the film’s latter half going by that does not contain a neat visual gag, or an absurd idea presented with the greatest matter-of-fact-ness. It’s a joy to watch, and, I can’t help but suspect after the resulting film, it looks as it was a bit of a joy to make too.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

A handful of thoughts about A Canterbury Legend (1944)

Not to get mildly confessional here, but one of the joys of blogging as relatively regularly about movies as I do here is that it’s unavoidable to watch films I’d never expected to watch, and find joy in films I’d never expected to find it in. Not that I’m afraid of Michael Powell’s and Emeric Pressburger’s war time efforts, but this particular film, with its exploration of the English national character (which is a thing I don’t believe in), and its near-spiritual feelings for the countryside (which I don’t have but admittedly enjoy in my fiction) is pretty far off from my usual interests and obsessions.

The thing is, of course, that the way Powell and Pressburger treat them, these things I don’t usually feel or relate to become relatable, human, and therefore turn into something curiously universal, at least curiously for a film so focused on the very local and highly specific. It’s as if Powell and Pressburger, while setting out to explore a national character - and certainly doing that also - couldn’t help but recognize that there are other, even deeper experiences and thoughts connecting people. And because this was made by the Archers, the film also carries a sense of whimsy, a sense of joy, and one of believable sadness. I’m not suggesting someone’s putting the whole of the human experience into what was supposedly meant as a piece of wartime propaganda about American/English friendship and a paean to the countryside; in fact, I’m quite sure that’s exactly what’s going on here.

Speaking of propaganda, the British really had the superior sort, what with the film not only not pretending war isn’t hell but also more interested in truths than lies; thanks to some incredible filmmaking even the film’s “miraculous” parts feel true to this atheist, not providing some kitschy way to help keep calm and carry on but merely suggesting that hope does exist as much as loss does. Selling that to a natural born pessimist like me, born in a very different country in a very different time, is no mean feat.