Monday, January 30, 2006

My Movie week for January 22-29

Well, here's what I saw last week. Busy week. I've got some non-review work to do on my web site this week, so don't expect any new material.

(1967, directed by Georgi Kropachyov and Konstantin Yershov): Visually inventive fairy-tale horror movie from Russia, concerning a seminary student tasked with praying over the body of a witch for three nights. Every night at midnight, she gets up from her coffin to play. Think of what a movie directed by the love child of Tsui Hark and Mario Bava would look like and you have the gist of it. Great fun, though it goes overboard near the end.

The Queen of Spades (fragment) (1916, directed by Yakov Protazanov)
The Portrait (fragment) (1916, )
Satan Exhultant (fragment) (1917)

These are exerpts from the roots of Russian horror movies, included on Russico’s disc for Viy. Each of them is a fascinating artifact. The Queen of Spades is in the worst shape, but seems the most engaging of the three, telling the story of a gambler’s descent into madness. The Portrait provides a powerful shock of recognition as an early manifestation of the ghost that comes out of a picture (think a version of The Ring, ninety years early). There’s a reason I put tape on my full length mirrors, lest I accidentally walk into a parallel universe. Satan Exhultant seems like it would be the most interesting of these films, telling the story of how Satan invades the lives of a parson and his family. A cross, if you will, between Dreyer and Benjamin Christiansen.

Trouble Every Day (2001, directed by Claire Denis). I suppose I could accept a sallow-faced Vincent Gallo as a sort of vampire--though not as a scientist of any stripe--and Beatrice Dalle sure looks the part, but director Claire Denis has stripped the film of the thrills of a horror movie in the mistaken assumption that they do not serve the subtext. I suspect she doesn’t recognize the subtext, either, or the fact that the central “gimmick” of her cannibals is the same as the one found in Cat People or Shivers, though without either Cat People’s poetry of image or Shivers’s intellectual inquiry. The photography is nice, but the movie on the whole is a disagreeable and largely meaningless drone.


Where is the Friend’s Home? (1987, directed by Abbas Kairostami). I am beginning to suspect that Kairostami is not for me. While this film ends on a nice note of grace, it’s too goddamn long by half, and it’s only an hour and seventeen minutes. There is a nice short film to be seen in this story of a boy who has mistakenly taken his friends notebook and who must return it lest that friend be expelled from school. The execution bungles everything, though. Here’s an example: early in the film, our young protagonist is trying to tell his mother why he needs to go out:

Ahmed: I have to take Mohamed his notebook.
His mother: Nonsense. Do your homework then do your chores.
Long pause.
Ahmed: I have to take Mohamed his notebook.
His mother: Nonsense. Do your homework, then do your chores. Are you lazy?

In two minutes, this scene could have established that Ahmed’s mother is protective and will punish Ahmed if he does the right thing. At NINE minutes, this scene plays like what it is: padding; and Ahmed’s mother is revealed as what she is: a contrived and deliberate obstruction. Most of Ahmed’s encounters with adults are similarly contrived as obstructions. Given the monotony of these encounters, this begins to suffer the time-dilation effect I usually associate with bad movies. Not for me, thanks.

My Beautiful Girl Mari (2002 , directed by Seong-kang Lee). A lovely, lovely animated film. Very much influenced by the Ghibli studios, though without the painstaking animation. The animation style here is interesting to me though, because it was done with relatively low-tech means in Adobe Illustrator and Flash, two programs with which I am intimately familiar. There is an artistic (and possibly practical) choice in this movie to omit the pen-and-ink outlines we normally associate with animation, which results in a “look” that is pure color.

Galaxy Quest (1999, directed by Dean Parisot). Watched in a party atmosphere. Amazing what an audience will do for a comedy. Fun, and none too gentle with the satire of Star Trek and its cultural influence. Sam Rockwell has the funniest part. Heh.

Rich and Strange (1931, directed by Alfred Hitchcock). The movies were talking by the time this film was made, but apparently, Hitchcock didn’t get the memo. A silent movie in almost every respect, except for the fact that there’s sound. A bold experiment that suggests the wonders that exist in an alternate universe where Hitchcock didn’t get locked into his signature thrillers. The opening of this movie is a tour de force that might make King Vidor green with envy given that it neatly encapsulates all that was great in The Crowd into a two-minute montage. If only this were pure cinema, then it would be a masterpiece. But it’s not. It has the burden of telling the story of two wayward suburbanites who learn some hard lessons while on a round-the-world trip. The talking parts of the film just don’t work. The relationships just don’t ring true, and the performances are stiff in the way that only early-talkie performances are stiff. Every so often, though, the film shuts up long enough to come alive. Strange, strange film.

The Eyes Have It (1945, directed by Jack Hannah)
Donald’s Crime (1945, directed by Jack King)
Trombone Trouble (1944, directed by Jack King)
Duck Pimples (1945, directed by Jack Kinney)
Old Sequoia (1945, directed by Jack King)

It never occured to me before watching the latest Disney Treasures Donald Duck collection that the so-called “Good Duck Artist,” (aka: the great Carl Barks) was a force in the Donald Duck animated cartoons, but lo and behold, you can sense him. Just as he was as a cartoonist later on, he was largely anonymous in these shorts, but the jump in quality when he was behind a cartoon is visible. Among this group, the one that sticks out for me is Trombone Trouble, which seems like classic Barks. Mind you, the others here aren’t bad, but The Eyes Have It, a hypnotism gag, was done better at Warners, and Old Sequoia seems like a test reel for Chip and Dale. Donald’s Crime is a gem, though, as it casts Donald in one of his few sympathetic roles and reveals the influence of film noir even at Disney. Same goes for Duck Pimples, which introduces the world to Jessica Rabbit (I had always thought she came from Tex Avery, but here she is, big as life). Duck Pimples is as deranged a short as any Chuck Jones short, warping reality seemingly at a whim.

Speaking of Jones....

Duck Dodgers in the 24th and 1/2 Century (1953, directed by Chuck Jones) is grand retro-futurism, and Daffy Duck seems like he’s an ego just the right size for man’s conquest of space. But this isn’t the only game in town for retro-futurism, there’s also....

Our Friend the Atom (1958, directed by Hamilton Luske), which is unintentionally chilling as it details the uses to which radioactive isotopes can be put in agriculture. That’s not all it’s about, of course, but that sequence sent a chill through my spine. Personally, I like atomic science. I think it holds the promise to wean us from our petroleum habit (I love France’s approach to atomic power: “France has no coal, no oil, and no choice.”). But I’m not nearly so naive as to think the dangers aren’t profound. But then, I drive by a nuclear reactor on my way to work every day, so I’ve been living with it for a while. To its credit, this short isn’t so blind to the perils of atomic power either, and rightly compares it to a malign djinni. But it IS naive when it comes to radiation. Watching Heinz Haber repeatedly handle a chunk of uranium (possibly a prop, but still . . .) reminded me that the Curies died of cancer. In any event, a fascinating film.

Eyes in Outer Space (1959, directed by Ward Kimble) is less problematic in retrospect, given that much of the world of the future it projected is our everyday present. The subject is weather, and how man’s technology adapts to it. While we don’t have the weather control promised by this movie, we do have most everything else. Satellites have changed everything. Imagine, if you will, the horror that might have been wrought by Hurricane Katrina had remote sensing not predicted its likely path days ahead of schedule. In any event, the weather control stuff is fun, and the set they built for it is one of the coolest fifties sci-fi sets I can think of. This goes well with Bell Labs’ and Frank Capra’s Unchained Goddess, which as far back as the 1950s asked probing questions about how polution was changing our climate.

In any event, that’s enough pioneer spirit for one week...


Sunday, January 22, 2006

My movie week: 1/16-1/22

I've posted a review of Flavia the Heretic over on my main site.

Beyond that, I watched Sergio Martino's All the Colors of the Dark (1972), yet another showcase for the giallo's golden couple of George Hilton and Edwige Fenech, who I last saw in The Case of the Bloody Iris. While this film has more style than that film, it's equally boring. The plot follows a woman who, seeking something to cling to after a car accident causes her to miscarry, is drawn into a circle of Satanists. There is an ulterior motive behind the events, and director Martino uses some "is it real?/is it a dream?" trickery to disguise the plot (a tendency compounded by the director's insistence on trading out blatantly absurd dreams with dreams that look like the mundane reality the movie presents as "reality"), but in the end, I thought to myself: "That's it? That's all there is? If that's all there is, then let's keep dancing, let's break out the booze and have a ball..." The more films from this tradition I see the more I appreciate Dario Argento. I had intended to review this for my site, too, but I just can't get enthused about it either way. It happens.

Much the same thing can be said of Larry Fessenden's Habit. (1997). I had seen and kinda sorta liked Fessenden's subsequent film, Wendigo. Like that film, Habit, is a fine character study that seems uncomfortable with its horror elements. It also labors under the "vampire" film as metaphor for some other contemporary problem" syndrome (addiction, in this case, as if the title of the film weren't a tip-off). I had intended to review this film for my site, too, but I nodded off at about the hour and ten minute mark. It had to be back at the video store the next day, so I didn't push myself to finish it. I may go back to it.

I had no problems at all with Hideo Gosha's Sword of the Beast from 1965, though. This is a cracking samurai film that inhabits its genre so completely, and executes its generic elements with an such expert hand that one barely notices that the film is completely disillusioned with the genre. Gosha, along with Kihachi Okamoto, was one of the principle "revisionist" samurai filmmakers, and in this film's dismantling of the notion of feudal honor, one can see the seeds of the total negation of the samurai film Gosha would later perpetrate in Goyokin. While I'm grateful to Criterion for putting this out, I wish that they had done right by the movie. Christ, there's not even a trailer on the disc. This is the most "bare bones" disc I've ever seen from Criterion, but I guess they have to do this stuff for themselves now that they don't have Home Vision to take on the second-tier releases. Alas...