Monday, April 24, 2006

Movie Week for 4/24/06

Here's my movie week in a nutshell:

The movies from the DDD sales are starting to trickle in. I'm happiest to have replaced my "grey market" dupes of Homicidal and Mr. Sardonicus with good DVD editions. But that's not everything I watched. To wit:

Three...Extremes (2005, directed by Fruit Chan, Chan Wookpark, and Takashi Miike) poses this question: "What does it say about an anthology movie when the most sedate, austere, and tasteful entry is directed by Japanese madman Takashi Miike?" Quite a lot. This is a sequel, of sorts, to the pan-Asian Three. Like that film, it presents filmmakers from three nationalities (Japan, Korea, and Hong Kong). The results are all over the map. "Box," Miike's entry is tonally cold and elegant--to its detriment--though the "extreme" elements can be found in both the hints of incest and in the nature of the crime that drives the plot. The circus setting reminds me of Tod Browning in the twenties, which is probably not an accident. Having built up a tremendous head of steam, the story ends with an un-earned non-sequitur. "Cut," Chanwook Park's entry, seems like an offshoot of his vengeance trilogy. In purely formal visual terms, it's a dazzler. As a story, it reeks of contrivance. Still, it makes an impression. The crown jewel, though, is Fruit Chan's "Dumplings," the short version of the feature of the same name. The short is better. The feature has a different ending, and takes much longer to rachet up the dread. At short length, though, it is unforgettably nasty. As I was watching, I kept asking myself "How the hell did this get made?" It certainly couldn't be made in North America. Part Sweeney Todd, part Dorian Gray, this film trades on incendiary imagery and ideas. This may well be the sickest horror movie of the century, made poisonously appealing by Christopher Doyle's impeccably framed cinematography. But it's the sound design of the film that really turns the screws. The "crunch, crunch" of Bai Ling's dumplings as Miriam Cheung eats them puts the film well and truly over the line. Extreme, indeed.

Mr. Sardonicus (1961, directed by William Castle) was a great favorite of mine when I was younger, but revisiting it anew was a bit of a shock. Back then, I had no idea of just how thoroughly the film was plagiarized from other sources: notably from Cornell Woolrich's "Post Mortem" (in which a man is buried with his winning lottery ticket), from The Man Who Laughs, and from Les Yeux Sans Visage. The film hasn't got an original thought in its head. The film also features one of director Castle's most annoying cinematic mannerisms: do you remember the scene in Amadeus when Salieri tells Mozart that he hasn't given the audience cues for when to applaud? Castle learned that lesson early. Every time there's a "shocker," he has conveniently placed a woman in the scene who screams her head off as a cue to the audience. In any event, it's annoying. Maybe it's true: you can't go home again.

The screaming woman cue returns in Castle's Homicidal (1961), too. A shameless--and I mean SHAMELESS--rip-off of Psycho, the film further enhances Castle's reputation as a cut-rate Hitchcock. Homicidal is more violent than Psycho, and throws in an extra twist to Psycho's transgendered shenannigans, but so many scenes and elements are transparently lifted from Hitchcock that it's cold comfort. Castle wouldn't come anywhere near Hitchcock until he hired Robert Bloch to write Strait-Jacket for him, or, arguably, until he hired somebody else to direct Rosemary's Baby. Not content to rip-off just ONE source, Castle has also borrowed elements from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, too. Still and all, there is something appealing about such brazen larceny.

Blake Edwards's Experiment in Terror (1962) is the real deal. A film noir from the very end of the cycle, this film turns the screws tight. Edwards is best known for comedies, but he demonstrates a gift for the thriller in this film. The opening conversation between Ross Martin's asthmatic psycho and Lee Remick's woman in peril is as tautly written and performed as they come, and the cat and mouse game that plays out over the rest the film never degenerates into people doing stupid things to advance the plot. Also of note is the nocturne that plays out over the film's opening credits, as a we get a nighttime tour of San Francisco to Henry Mancini's evocative and menacing jazz underscore.

Finally, there's Spike Lee's Inside Man (2005), which has been touted as a departure for the director, a rare dip into commercial filmmaking. The movie surrounds a heist that may not be a heist, and while Lee is perfectly adept at depicting this, it's a hook on which to hang a parable about multi-culturalism in New York. The song, "Chaiyya Chaiyya," announces this pretty definitively as it plays over the opening credits, but the flourishes to the plot--from the broad demographic of the hostages to the scene when the cops play a recording from the bank to see if anyone in the crowd recognizes the language--are singular instances of the director's anima. It's almost disappointing that Jodie Foster gets an ill-conceived character meant to represent "The Man." She's visibly uncomfortable in the role, which is a shame, because the rest of the cast is game. It's hard to resist a film where part of the plot turns on the size of a woman's breasts. Russ Meyer would have approved.