Monday, March 03, 2008

Two Week's Worth

49. Howard Hawks's Ball of Fire (1941) contains one of my favorite Billy Wilder screenplays (with Charles Brackett). A reworking of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, this finds gangland moll Barbara Stanwyck hiding with a group of academics in the final stretch of writing an encyclopedia, led by linguist Gary Cooper, who realizes that his entry on slang is all out of date. The slang quotient of this movie is high and most of it is a foreign language these days, but that adds to the enjoyment as I imagine the Austrian, Wilder marshalling his relatively recent English skills in constructing this movie. But make no mistake, this is Hawks's movie. If you want to see an abject lesson in the primacy of the director over the writer in making movies, look no further than this. The words are great, sure, but the placement of the camera and the actors in the frame dominate this movie, particularly Hawks's penchant for constructing communities from group shots (including group shots that reveal character independent of the script) and his penchant for defining his characters by their professions. Excellent character work in this movie, by the way, especially from Dana Andrews as Stanwyck's gangster beau.

50. This year-long project of mine compells me to make genre distinctions for the tally of horror movies, which gives me fits when it comes to a movie like Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger's Black Narcissus (1947). The last act of the movie plays a LOT like a horror movie, or, at the very least, like a full blown gothic, with the Himalayan convent turning dark and empty, like a vast haunted house. The movie provides the proverbial madwoman in the attic, too, in Kathleen Byron's deranged Sister Ruth. I'm not the only person to notice this association. Glenn Erikson's review at DVD Savant includes this observation:

Some recent Savant reading unearthed the tale of English filmmakers Powell, Carol Reed and David Lean watching convoy-shipped rare prints of American movies during World War 2, personally bicycling one of their favorites, The Seventh Victim to screenings in a bombed-out London. This makes Savant want to connect Black Narcissus to the films of Val Lewton, particularly his I Walked With a Zombie. Before your eyeballs roll violently, think on the following: A sensual, distracting tropical ambiance created entirely in the studio, with seductive tracking shots and lighting effects that create a palpable feeling of fantasy. An interpersonal story that pits the political and religious ideologies of individuals against one another, in a land where modern Western ideas sit uneasily atop incompatible ancient beliefs and traditions, some of which are dangerous. The story is told less through action than (this right from the Black Narcissus DVD notes) 'a succession of small incidents and casual encounters' - precisely the way Joel Siegel described Lewton's narrative style in The Seventh Victim. Very similar to the zombie product of passion and repression in Zombie, Sister Ruth in Narcissus is transformed into a zombie-like harpy, a 'worldly woman' in a red dress and red lipstick, eyes blazing and hair akimbo, like a Fury. If this comparison does nothing for the appreciation of Narcissus, it will hopefully elevate the genre-bound graces of the Lewton and Tourneur's wonderful Zombie movie.

So, screw it, I'm counting it, but don't expect the usual huggermugger of the genre if you decide to take this as a recommendation. What you WILL get is one of the great conjuring acts in movies, in which Powell and Pressburger and cinematographer Jack Clayton construct a Himalaya environment of dreams without ever leaving England. This is one of the high points of technicolor cinematography, which is amazing given the muted color schemes on display. Even the usual meddling of technicolor consultant Natalie Kalmus doesn't appear to have taken root in Cardiff's astonishing photography. Byron once claimed that half her performance in Black Narcissus was provided by the lighting, which explains why many actors prefer the stage as a true test of their ability.

Another problem with my year-long project reared its head this week, too. How do I want to count short subjects? And television projects? For the TV stuff, I think I'll count it if it's self-contained (opening the door for, say, Fanny and Alexander later in the year). For shorts? Hell, I don't know. Maybe I'll count them, and decide at the end what to do with them. I have another ten months.

51. The Cameraman's Revenge (1912, directed by Wladislaw Starewicz) is a perverse example of insect noir, in which a jilted cuckold takes revenge on his cheating spouse and vice versa, all animated by real insects turned into stop motion puppets by the genius (or madness) of Starewicz. Creepy and funny at the same time.

52. Destination Murder (1950, directed by Edward L. Cahn) is a second feature noir programmer through and through. It's not bad. But it's not good, either. Has a memorable use of Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata," but it's an otherwise rote variant on Cornell Woolrich's The Black Angel.

53. Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (directed by Aditya Chopra) is one of the biggest hits in the history of movies--it had an eleven YEAR first run--but you'd be hard pressed to know it if you live outside of India. I mean, Titanic is friggin everywhere, but this film is barely a blip on the consciousness of Western pop culture. Actually, this film is a LOT like Titanic--minus the special effects, I guess. It is intended as a huge entertainment first, and as art only incidentally. I have to admit that I found the first seventy minutes or so to be a chore. Shahrukh Khan's "romantic lead" is so infused with the spirit of Jerry Lewis that I devoutly hoped that he would get hit by a bus. But at about the half way point, I started to groove on the rhythms of the movie. This thing is at its best when it is indulging in musical numbers, even towards the outset, though even as an outsider, I can get a feel for the alienation engendered by the Indian diaspora and expressed admirably in portions of this film. Indian starlets are gorgeous, by the way. Really gorgeous.

54. "Fetiche ("The Mascot," 1934, directed by Wladislaw Starewicz) finds the director's stop-motion artistry in full flower. The tale of a stuffed dog trying to bring a child an orange is simple enough, but the long dark journey through which this quest threads is a tour de force in cinematic ingenuity. This is one of my very favorite films.

55. I don't have a lot to add to what I've written about Forbidden Planet (1956, directed by Fred Wilcox) in the past, except to note that the Krell laboratories and planetary machines are still the coolest environments in all of 1950s science fiction. There's a real sense of awe in this set of reality.

56. It's Alive III: Island of the Alive
(1987, directed by Larry Cohen) is occasionally funny, but it's the end of the line for these movies. Having exhausting a thin premise, this veers into the ridiculous. Even Cohen's frequent collaborator, Michael Moriarty, seems to know that this is pretty dire material. Cohen's ideas have always outstripped his execution, but this film finds the director's abilities and ideas farther apart than usual.

57. Justice League: The New Frontier (2008, directed by Dave Bullock) adapts an acclaimed graphic novel in a variant of Warner's current "superhero style" originally pioneered by Batman: The Animated Series. It's an uneasy mixture of Watchmen-style revisionism (see the scene between Superman and Wonder Woman in Indochina at the beginning of the film) and the goofy optimism and outre monsters of the original Justice League comics from the late fifties and early sixties. There's a lot to recommend, and fans will find lots of soothing nostalgia spotting the referrences in the background, but I wish the movie had been longer than its mere 72 minutes. It feels cramped, which tends to make the character development come to naught.

58. Masters of Horror: Cigarette Burns (2005, directed by John Carpenter) has a creepy performance by Udo Kier as a mysterious film collector and some memorable gore, but at the end of the film (le absolute fin de film, as it were), this is a low-rent retread of Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness, with it's insanity inducing horror movie standing in for an insanity-inducing book. And given that I hated In the Mouth of Madness for its anti-horror subtext (horror fiction turns people into degenerates and murderers, the film implies), I doubly repudiate THIS for repeating the same cannard with much diminshed elan. Crap, mostly.

59. Masters of Horror: Incident On and Off a Mountain Road (2005, directed by Don Coscarelli) is more like it. Mind you, I might take issue with the notion that Don Coscarelli is a "master," having made a bunch of Phantasm movies and Bubba Ho-Tep and not much else of note, but damned if he doesn't deliver with this. Coscarelli seems to be pretty self-effacing on the interview material on this disc--he knows, given the other filmmakers associated with MOH--that he's on notice to prove his bona fides. So where Argento and Carpenter seemed to be phoning it in and relying on their bearded reputations, Coscarelli gives his best effort, and I mean that literally. This is his best horror film. Another collaboration with writer Joe R. Lansdale (who legitimately IS a "master" of horror), this is a mean deconstruction of slasher movie conventions that turns a neat (if mildly predictable) twist of the tale at the end. It reminds me most of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre 2 without that film's excesses and dodgy performances. This is more intimate than that film--it's a chamber version of the same material, if you will--in which the nature of monstrosity is given a going over. It's pretty damned good.

60. Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis (2007, co-directed by Vincent Paronnaud) is another adaptation of a graphic novel, one of a much more serious bent. A chronicle of Satrapi's life in Iran before and after the revolution, and in Europe as a teen, this has a deceptively simple visual aesthetic, a particularly wry sense of humor, and an underlying humanism that transforms it into something universally accessible. Sony made a BIG mistake when they decided to market this to the art house crowd at the expense of the mulitplex, because teen-age girls would have made this an enormous hit if they had the chance to see it. Stephen Colbert was absolutely right when he asked Satrapi: "If you humanize your enemy, don't you make them seem more...human?" (If I had the wherewithall, I'd show this to everyone who was thinking about voting for John Bomb-Bomb-Iran McCain. Hell, I'd love to show it to McCain himself.) This makes great use of Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger." It's that kind of movie.

61. The Story of the Fox (1930, directed by Wladislaw Starewicz) is a full-length feature on which the filmmakers labored for more than a decade. The care shows in every frame. The story is standard fairy tale fare, in which the King of the Beasts orders the arrest of the Fox after receiving a multitude of complaints. But that's all incidental. What commands interest is the shear audacity and scale of what Starewicz puts on the screen. This is as technically intricate a stop-motion film as you will ever see, with each character clearly designed and performed. A wonderment.

62. "The Town Rat and the Country Rat" (1927, directed by Wladislaw Starewicz) is another technical tour de force, in which I found myself wondering how Starewicz was accomplishing his effects. Not my favorite of Starewicz's films by a long mile, but fascinating.

63. The Tragedy of Othello (1952, directed by Orson Welles) is a study in pure cinema. Stripping the play to its barest bones, Welles places his film in an expressionistic Venice where the angles and vast architectures mirror the ambitions and passions of the characters. Welles is an adequate Othello, but this is Iago's play even in this incarnation, and Micheál MacLiammóir is a more than admirable Iago. One wishes that the sound were better, but there's nothing to be done for it. We're lucky to have even this.

64. The Uninvited (1944, directed by Lewis Allen) retains some of the comedy elements of the ghost movies of the day, but it doesn't monkey around when it comes to the haunting itself. It's a pure gothic when it delves into the revenants that occupy its haunted house and haunted past. Think of this as a supernatural version of Rebecca. The initial manifestation of the movie's ghosts do an admirable job of ratcheting up the dread. Interesting lesbian subtexts are to be found the various supporting characters.

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