Monday, March 17, 2008


69. So, there's not an original thought in Neil Marshall's Doomsday (2008). It doesn't take a film historian to spot the source of the basic plot: a one-eyed anti-hero is sent in to a walled-off prison/quarantine area to find the Macguffin. Mix liberally with Mad Max, Aliens, and half a dozen other sources and you have a movie drunk on its own derivitive impulse. And while I have some qualms about Marshall's preference for the "run and gun" approach to action sequences, I give him props for taking on his sources on their own ground and adding his own brand of nastiness to them. There are a lot of decapitations in this movie. For all of that, I can't say I disliked it. Indeed, I walked out of it with a huge grin, because, of all the lessons Marshall has learned from John Carpenter, the timing and substance of Doomsday's punch line, when it comes, does his idol proud.

70. Speaking of Carpenter...1981's Escape from New York seems today a relic of another time. It's strange watching an action movie that hasn't even a hint of the Hong Kong action New Wave. In a way--and even for its time--it kind of plods. Still and all, it presents a pretty depressing future (now in the past) populated by vivid personalities, and it shows an admirable economy of resources. But if it remains interesting at all, it's because Kurt Russell's Snake Plissken is an iconic anti-hero. Russell holds the film together by sheer force of will. It's almost a pity Plissken never got a vehicle worthy of him. Alas...

71. One of the previews at Doomsday was for the new Jackie Chan/Jet Li movie, in which there appears a woman warrior with animated white hair. This is a figure that should be familiar to fans of Hong Kong action films, given that Ronny Yu's The Bride With White Hair (1993) is one of the signature fireworks displays of their glory years. Yu is best known in the US as the director of Bride of Chucky and Freddy vs. Jason, but even though it's not explicitly a horror movie, The Bride With White Hair is a better horror movie than either of those. Its intent is as a romantic fantasy, a kind of wuxia Romeo and Juliet, but it has such a high body count and so many instances of spurting arterial blood (often backlit for maximum effect) and a villain that is a palpable monster, it's hard not to see it as a horror movie, too. That's the nature of some of the best HK flicks, they defy genre convention by choosing their generic elements a la carte. In any event, the title character is played by the wonderful Brigette Lin, who can lacerate her opponents with an icy stare and a whip, while her beau is played by the dashing Leslie Cheung, who plays the wuxia warrior as slacker. This is the kind of movie that Tsui Hark and Ching Siu-Tung did so often in the 1980s, but Yu's style is more brutal than theirs, and his flair for the grotesque is grittier, though it is by no means less outlandish.

72. For most of its running time, Stuart Gordon's first entry in to the Masters of Horror series, Dreams in the Witch House is pretty mundane. The original story by H. P. Lovecraft has one of my favorite opening sentences ("Whether the dreams brought on the fever or the fever brought on the dreams Walter Gilman did not know"), which is disappointingly absent. Absent, too, is the feeling of antiquity in the eponymous house, along with its sinister history (elided, but not expounded). It seems a run of the mill boarding house rather than a decaying relic of a witch-haunted past era. Ezra Godden is the lead, a mathematician plagued by awful dreams about his new lodgings. He's pretty good; better, anyway, than he was in Gordon's Dagon, but the story doesn't give him much to do until the end. The end is memorably nasty and almost makes up for the relatively lackadaisical build-up. Of the MOH installments that I've seen thus far, this one is middle of the road.

73. Among the more improbable collaborations in movie history: Jess Franco and Orson Welles. Franco was a second unit director on Welles's Chimes at Midnight (1965), which ultimately led to Franco asserting the moral authority to cobble together the fragments of Welles's Don Quixote. This, of course, is absurd. But I won't quibble. The second unit stuff on Chimes is nice. This was Welles's favorite of his own movies, and its probably my own favorite of Welles's movies, too. It's certainly my favorite Shakespearean film, though I sometimes waffle between this and Throne of Blood. It seems criminal to me that this film remains largely unseen. It's a masterpiece. In any event, during this revisiting, I was struck by how unpleasant a character Prince Hal really is, and by the fact that he tells the audience, and he tells Falstaff, exactly what his calumny will be late in the movie, with no one believing him. Anyone who buys into the notion that Henry V is militarist propaganda needs to see the first two parts of the Henriad to realize that the Bard cuts that notion off at the knees. One of the multifarious triumphs of Chimes at Midnight is the bitter irony it imparts on Ralph Richardson's narration from Hollingshead's chronicles, praising Henry V's reign as Falstaff's coffin is wheeled away. In any event, this remains one of the great sleight of hand acts in all of cinema, in which Welles concocts an epic from smoke and mirrors. He presents himself as a magician and a charlatan at the beginning of F for Fake, but this movie shows that the man was capable of miracles.

1 comment:

Bob D. said...

I could not agree with you more--Welles' masterpiece, and the finest Shakespearean movie yet made. (Though I still think Gielgud's Cassius from the Brando-"Julius Caesar" is the finest single Shakespearean performance on film.)
I can't wait for the American DVD release of it because I believe the option for English subtitles will make it easier for Shakespeare novices to enjoy (the combination of poor audio and iambic pentameter make the film pretty hard to follow the first time if you don't know the play.)
The close of the movie is indeed devastating--the reaction shot of Falstaff's face when he's being rejected and denounced is blood-tingling stuff, and I think of it as the obverse of Chaplin's final reaction shot from "City Lights" (which Welles often called his favorite Chaplin film.)