Monday, February 04, 2008

Movies for the week of 1/28-2/3

25. For a guy who didn't make any kind of name for himself in horror movies, Lambert Hillyer made a couple of interesting ones. The better of the two is The Invisible Ray (1936)--the other is Dracula's Daughter--in part because it has a terrific, subdued performance by Bela Lugosi as the good guy. Karloff, for his part, is off his rocker in this movie and it's not much different than his "off his rocker mad scientist" in The Man Who Changed His Mind, save for the bad perm he wears in this movie. Lugosi is a revelation. It's the sort of change-up that Peter Cushing was later able to accomplish fairly often. Diabolical in one role, radiating kindness and warmth in the next. Frankly, I never though Lugosi was capable of it, and yet, here's the proof. And through a sinister goatee, to boot. The story is a bunch of improvisations surrounding Karloff's discovery and poisoning by the mysterious Radium X, which makes his touch lethal. Lugosi is a colleague who formulates a medicine to keep Karloff from burning himself up. It's all very routine, actually, though I'm amused at the notion that Africa is the source of Radium X; in real life, Africa has the richest uranium resources in the world. In any event, one wishes that Lugosi had been offered this kind of role more often.

26. Black Friday (1940, directed by Arthur Lubin), on the other hand, consigns Lugosi to a thankless supporting role, badly miscast as a gangster. Karloff is a scientist again (natch), this time with a radical brain transplantation technique which he uses to save the life of his best friend. To this end, he uses a gangster's brain, a gangster with the key to a half-million dollar stash of loot. Writer Curt Siodmak had a thing for brain stories. For the most part, both Karloff AND Lugosi are supporting players here, behind Stanley Ridges as the poor subject of Karloff's treatment. And that should tell you that the filmmakers were misapplying their resources wholesale.

27. Akira Kurosawa's Drunken Angel (1948) was described by the director himself as the film where he found his style. On the surface, that style seems to be a combination of American film noir and Italian neo-realism, which seems to me to be unsynthesized by the director at the time of making this film. It is, however, the first of Kurosawa's collaborations with Toshiro Mifune, and in this, it's important. Mifune was a force of nature in this film: raging, forlorn, and impossibly handsome as a yakuza underboss who discovers that he has tuberculosis. The doctor who diagnosis him is Kurosawa's other favorite, Takashi Shimura, and this is really his film. His alcoholic doctor, laboring in a slum next to an open sewer, is miles and miles away from his wise samurai in Seven Samurai or his wise scientist in Godzilla. He's his own worst enemy, a flawed doctor who manages to find some redemption for himself, even though he can't save Mifune's character. It's a pretty good movie. I would hesitate to call it a masterpiece, even if one is inclined toward the medieval definition of that word. Kurosawa would later re-frame elements of this film--particularly the climactic knife fight in which both antagonists become covered in paint--in Stray Dog, a film that probably IS a masterpiece.

28. Luis Bunuel is most associated with Salvador Dali when it comes to artists, mainly on the strength of their collaborations in the 1930s, but the more I watch his films, the more convinced I become that his more natural antecedant is actually Heironymous Bosch. Bosch was simultaneously an irreligious mocker and devoted interpeter of Catholicism, often in grotesque terms. Bunuel is much the same. Bunuel's The Milky Way (1968) is perhaps a shade less caustic than Viridiana, but by exposing the various catechisms and heresies of Catholicism to a blank-faced examination, he finds a level of absurdity that his earlier film never approached. And in spite of this, Bunuel's version of Jesus Christ remains the most humane depiction in film. We see Christ laugh. We see him shave. We see him out of breath. And we see, at the end of the film, that he's clearly deluded. The movie follows two pilgrims on the way to Santiago de Compestella, following the route of the so-called Milky Way. On the way, they encounter a series of unrelated scenes that enact various heresies against Catholicism, which causes them to examine their own understanding of Catholic dogma. They also seem to be travelling through time, encountering Biblical and medieval tableaux along with modern European ones. This is probably Bunuel's most overtly surreal film since his early career. The film's last image is the drollest joke in his filmography.

29. I was pleasantly surprised by Jason Reitman's Juno (2007). Behind its hipster dialogue, there's a closely observed humanity in this film that one rarely sees in comedies anymore. It's great fun seeing the film navigate its way away from expected stereotypes. While Ellen Page is terrific in the lead role, I'm pretty sure that I could watch J. K. Simmons read the phone book with some amount of pleasure and I seriously need to re-evaluate the talent of Jennifer Garner. Garner is NOT saddled with hip dialogue, it should be noted, and is set up as an object of ridicule in her early scenes. But damned if the movie doesn't detonate that expectation. I loved the end of this movie. Loved it.

30. As an example of meta-cinema, The Girl Hunters (1963, directed by Roy Rowland) is pretty weird. Adapted from one of Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer novels, the film casts the author himself as Hammer. But that's not all. One of the gripes that Spillane had with the film version of Kiss Me Deadly was that Hammer came off as kind of a douchebag. With the author himself in the role, Hammer comes off, again, as kind of a douchebag. Crazy. The politics Hammer and Spillane spew is hillariously over the top, with the author's right-wing paranoia given full reign. The story follows Hammer after a seven year bender, jumping on the wagon when word reaches him that his secretary, Velda, is alive. It's weird how this movie plays like a middle film in a series, but that's the way it goes. Spillane isn't completely awful as an actor, actually, though he is very, very limited. In Spillane's hatchet profile, one can see where Frank Miller got the design elements of his character, Marv, in Sin City. Even so, Shirley Eaton has no problem stealing the movie from him. But it's not much of a movie in any event. I like the score by Philip Green, and some of the photography is nice, but the story itself is one narrative blunder after another.

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