Friday, December 31, 2010

Zed's Dead, Baby

The first film I saw in 2010 was Avatar. Somewhere, somehow, I got it in my head that the last movie I should watch in 2010 should be Zardoz (1974, directed by John Boorman). A to Z, as it were. Zardoz turned out to be pretty available, so I gave it a shot...

Wow. I had forgotten just how bad Zardoz really is. I remembered--correctly, as it turns out--that it was beautifully shot. It is. It's gorgeous. Kudos to Geoffrey Unsworth. I had NOT remembered, however, just how obsessed it is with Sean Connery's cock, and with cocks in general. You want a phallocentric movie? This is your huckleberry. It's arty enough and literary enough for me to class this with the work of an entire generation of male literary lights who spent most of the 1960s and 1970s writing about their penises (I'm looking at you, Philip Roth, John Updike, and John Irving). This is that impulse made flesh. One of the first lines of dialogue in Zardoz makes this explicit: "The Penis is bad!" the big floating stone head of Zardoz tells his Brutals. Then it elaborates that "The gun is good" before vomiting forth guns and ammo. My first thought upon seeing this scene was "Wait? You're displacing the phallus with a phallic symbol? Explicitly and by name?" Ho-kay...

Anyway, the story here finds runaway "Brutal" Zed, played by Sean Connery, loosed among the "Eternals," a decadent class of Eloi who can't die, but can't get it up, either. The presence of Zed, who can get it up pretty much on command, sends a shockwave through Eternal society. The only downside to this is that it's not explicitly a porno movie, because, let me tell you, this set-up could have been an EPIC porn movie. Instead, we get John Boorman noodling through his various private themes of marginal men in culture clash, overlayered with the notion that god is the man behind the curtain (pay no attention), and that religion is an elaborate scam. There's a Marxist impulse at work here, too, methinks, but that seems self evident in the division of labor. One wishes it were funnier. It all has a sense of its own absurdity. You can't listen to the pronouncements of Zardoz and come away thinking it's all sincere. It's a put on. All of it.

Connery, for his part, seems visibly uncomfortable in the movie, with his long braided wig and his orange loincloth. Charlotte Rampling, on the other hand, seems entirely in tune with the set-up, like she's in on the joke, and she takes the whole thing seriously. The production itself looks cheap and expensive at the same time, no small feat and one that Boorman repeated in Excalibur, though that was a better movie than this one. Great chunks of this are visually dazzling to the point where you can almost forgive the film's pretensions, but the weight of it all comes crashing down in the end.

One thing that this movie really got me to thinking about, though, is how John Boorman seems to have paid no real price for it. I mean, this would be one of the legendary bad movies if it weren't overshadowed by Boorman's own next film, The Exorcist II: The Heretic. And yet, Boorman went on to make Excaliber and Hope and Glory and continues to have a career to this day. Why is that, I wonder? Surely, Deliverance didn't give him THAT much cover, did it? It got me thinking about other directors who made legendary bombs. The two who stand out are Michael Cimino and Elaine May. Cimino took down an entire studio, and still managed to get work (for what it's worth, Heaven's Gate isn't all that bad, really). May, on the other hand, hasn't directed any more movies at all following Ishtar (which is also not that bad, really). This doesn't have anything to do with Zardoz, I guess, but it's what got to rattling in my head after I watched it. It happens sometimes.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Generation Gap

You can see the end of the franchise in the broad outlines of Star Trek: Generations (1994, directed by David Carson). With the original cast retiring after the previous installment and with Star Trek: The Next Generation having ended its seven year run on television on a mostly "up" note, the cast of Next Gen jumped into the movie franchise to take the reigns. The transition was not a smooth one. Paramount clearly had no faith that the Next Gen cast was as beloved as the original cast, else why midwife them into the movie franchise with the movie equivalent of The Big Crossover Story (tm). This is unfortunate, because top to bottom, the Next Gen actors are better. Well, maybe "better" is the wrong word. More in tune with their characters, perhaps. Next Gen had nearly three times the number of episodes as the original show, so by the time it wrapped, the characters had been developed in far greater depths, and the actors had had far more acquaintance with them than the original crew ever did. It shows in the performances. It doesn't hurt that the lead is played by a Shakespearean with a voice that could command armies. But, for some reason, Paramount never trusted them. Pity.

Generations isn't bad, however much one might want to slot it into the curse of the odds, but it is ungainly. Coming so soon after the TV series wrapped, it's more concerned with continuing the character arcs from the series than the previous films ever were. This is especially true for Brent Spiner's Data, who installs an "emotion chip" only to discover that he has no control over his resulting feelings, but you also see hints of the residual storylines concerning Riker, La Forge, and Worf, though none of these character is allowed to really shine. At some point during its run, Next Gen found an equilibrium between its three most interesting characters and, much as the original series focused on the triad of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, Next Gen found its attention drawn more and more to Picard, Data, and Worf. This tendency was exaggerated in the movies. The rest of the crew became more and more marginal in the movies. You see this process begin in Generations.

The story here finds the now-retired Kirk on an honorary tour of the new Enterprise B, he's in the company of Chekov and Scotty (Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelly declined to return after Star Trek VI, and who can blame them). As is often the case in Star Trek --see, for instance, Star Trek II--the undermanned Enterprise is the only ship in range of a distress signal from two transport ships who are in the path of some mysterious energy ribbon. The Enterprise effects a rescue, but during the operation, an energy bolt strikes the Enterprises and presumably kills Kirk. Two of the individuals rescued are Dr. Soran, an Elorian scientist, and Guinan, who would go on to become the bartender on the Enterprise-D 79 years later. The Enterprise-D, commanded by Captain Picard, is on a routine cruise when Picard gets word of the death of his nephew. He has no children of his own and he mourns the end of the line of his family. Simultaneous with this news is a distress call from a research outpost that has been attacked by Romulans. The sole survivor of the attack is Dr. Soran, who has some mysterious experiment going and who will brook no delays. His project destroys the star around which the outpost orbits and he makes his escape to a Klingon Bird of Prey under the command of Lursa and B'tor, two renegade Klingons looking to re-conquer the Empire, rekindle war with The Federation, and to whom Soran has promised his star-killing weapon. For his part, Soran is trying to return to the Nexus within the energy ribbon, and to this end, he plans to destroy another star, this time one with an inhabited planet. Picard, in trying to stop Soran, gets sucked into the Nexus himself, where he recruits Kirk--who got sucked into the Nexus in the first part of the movie--to aid him in stopping Soran.

There's a generational theme running through this movie, obviously, as if the filmmakers felt obligated to live up to the title of the film. For all that, it works well enough, and we have an appearance by Sulu's daughter as the new helmswoman of the Enterprise-B, we have the subplot with Picard's grief, and we have the Nexus's portrait of what unending joy would be for Picard, in which he is surrounded by a large extended family of his own. The focus on these elements is surprisingly heartfelt, aided, no doubt, by Patrick Stewart's portrayal of Picard. The fun part of the movie comes from the combat with Lursa and B'tor, two villains from the TV series, who engage the Enterprise in one of the series' better space battles (even if the end of it re-uses footage from Star Trek VI). Where this film stumbles is in shoehorning in the team-up between Picard and Kirk. This is awkward, to say the least, and the sort of thing designed more to pander to fans (and boost box-office) than as an organic element of the story. It also gives William Shatner the chance to act Kirk's death scene, which is also fairly awkward. "It," as a last line may play well on paper, but Shatner overplays it. The stark difference in acting styles between Shatner and Stewart is on full display in the last act of the movie, and I tend to prefer Stewart to Shatner. That might be the Bardolator in me, though; I tend to love Shakespeareans. For that matter, Malcolm McDowell's performance is at odds with both actors, though it's effective enough for being a performance that the actor has given in a dozen other roles. Brent Spiner, ancillary to the main storyline, gets the showiest role, as Data discovers humor, fear, and self-doubt.

As I said, you begin to see the outlines of the end of the Star Trek franchise in this movie, and they start with the big team-up, and they end with the increasingly desperate tendency of the Star Trek movies to destroy the Enterprise. This worked well in the elegiac Star Trek III, but it's played as a stunt in this movie (they do it again, more or less, in Star Trek: Nemesis). You also see the work of an increasingly cheapskate studio at work in this film: I mentioned the re-use of footage from the previous film, but the costumes are borrowed from the then still-running Deep Space Nine (some of them are particularly ill-fitting) and most of the props and models were adapted from existing props and models rather than being purpose built for the movie. Credit director David Carson for making a pretty good-looking film for all that, though Soran's base at the end seems particularly bare-bones for the final bolt-hole of a franchise super-villain. It's a measure of the creative bankruptcy of Hollywood screenwriters that this is yet another film where, despite the world-destroying stakes involved, the resolution of the plot hinges on a fist-fight. These are practices that catch up to the series in the end, though the infusion of the Next Gen crew and the goodwill they generate after their TV run forestalls the end for another several movies, but the writing was on the wall even here. Like I say, Paramount never really trusted the Next Gen crew. When they decided to "reboot" the franchise in 2009, it's significant that they went back to the characters from the original series rather than revisit the other series, or, for that matter, create something new. In the context of the original film series, that distrust proved their undoing.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Conflicts of Interest

If you want to know what a director actually does, and if you want to know what distinguishes a "good" movie from a "bad" movie when both types of movie share a common pool of elements, you could do worse than study Hong Kong director Johnnie To. I mean, taken purely on the level of their plots, To's movies are not particularly distinguished. They're stock genre exercises, most of them. It's what To does with the elements of his movies that make him special. His films chart the geographies of action like no other. He moves his pieces around the board like a chess grandmaster.

Take, for instance, the scene in Vengeance (2009) where Johnny Hallyday's character first hires the team of hit men to find his daughter's murderers. Each of the hit men are shown in a series of crosscut shots walking in specific directions. When they come together in the same frame, there's a sense of an action completed. They're in the EXACT right spots relative to where they've been shown in the previous shots, and from there, the director puts them into motion into the next sequence:

It's fluid. It's carefully composed. It's totally not essential to the movie, but the aggregate of these kinds of shot sequences adds up. You can sense the quality of the filmmaking, especially when the director punctuates them with shots that DO matter. For an action film, the shots that matter are in the action sequences, and here, the director takes the rhythms he's been riffing on in the rest of the movie and kicks out the jams.

Keeping in mind that To makes movies for an action audience, it's worth looking at the action sequences in the same light. The first big action sequence is like a blueprint, in which the hit men retrace the murder of Hallyday's family. It's like the director is going through point by point and showing the audience how he blocks the action, so they know what the hell they're looking at when he's not guiding them by the nose. When the bullets are flying for keeps, the director is very cognizant of where his characters are, what is around them, and how it affects the battle. The first of these scenes is beautifully orchestrated after the filmmakers allow the bad guys to finish a picnic with their families (suggesting a level of honor among killers). The subsequent shootout hinges on the position of the clouds in relation to the moon, of all things. To is a master at putting the elements to work in his movies, something he learned from Kurosawa. There's a further scene in the movie, in which To recreates the essence of one of Kurosawa's big samurai battles in a trash dump, complete with a "king" viewing the action from a pavilion. It's a sequence that stands as one of the glories of the director's output. It's a marvel of motion and color.

The story in Vengeance, while an exercise in stock genre, is more convoluted than one would expect. It's twofold. It's the story of Frank Costello, a chef with a violent past intent on avenging his his daughter's murder. Complicating things is a bullet in his brain that is slowly depriving him of his memory. Costello was written for Alain Delon, and To, for his part, would be a perfect director for Delon, a kind of Asian descendant of Jean-Pierre Melville, whose existential crime films explore many of the same themes. To has Johnny Hallyday to stand in for Delon, and it works. Hallyday is a superior presence. The memory theme is interesting, too, providing the question of what vengeance means. Of what use is it to a man who cannot remember it? The film even puts this question in the mouth of one of its hitmen. This is also the story of the trio of hit men he hires, played by To regulars Lam Suet, Ka Tung Lam, and the ubiquitous Anthony Wong. In taking the job, they unknowingly cross their boss (played by To regular Simon Yam), who does not look kindly on their conflict of interest, and Costello's vengeance suddenly becomes their own. To is on familiar ground here, inhabiting a Hong Kong noir style that he largely invented, and this film forms a thematic trio with The Mission and Exiled. As he does in those films, he tweaks the conventions of the action film to make them sing.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Something like a list...

I'm not constitutionally a list-maker. Lists usually imply a hierarchy, and like Francois Truffaut, I abhor any kind of hierarchy in cinema. This goes along with my usual refusal to assign a grade or rating to the movies I see. I mean, I make grocery lists occasionally, and I actually DO keep a list of the movies I own for insurance purposes, but a ranked list? Oh, no. Put a gun to my head and ask me what my favorite movie is and you might as well pull the trigger for all the veracity contained in any answer I might give.

However, some of my friends have asked me about a year-end list, and because I like my friends, I'll play along. Here are ten of the movies I liked this year:

Winter's Bone
The Red Riding Trilogy
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Please Give
Broken Embraces
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
The Kids are Alright
Everyone Else

For good measure, here are ten more:

The Girl Who Played with Fire
The Crazies
The Square
The Secret of the Kells
Prodigal Sons
Animal Kingdom
Shutter Island
The Ghost Writer

Clearly, this isn't anything like an authoritative list. I don't know what order these all go in. Hell, I don't know that I wouldn't switch out The Crazies for The Wolfman, Please Give for True Grit, or The Secret of the Kells for The Secret in their Eyes. This is all freely associated. There's no system to it, much like my writing about movies in general.

For what it's worth, I didn't write about all of the movies I saw this year, although I made a pretty good effort. I think I saw a shade over 250 movies this year, new and old, which makes this a down year for me. Among the movies I haven't seen: The Social Network, The Black Swan, 127 Hours, Toy Story 3, Inception, The King's Speech, Never Let Me Go, and so on. I can't see everything, unfortunately, however much I might want to. I'll catch up to most of this eventually.

I can give my impressions of the state of movies, I guess. I can't say that I like the state of popular cinema. 3-D gives me a headache (hence the absence of Toy Story 3 from my year), but to my eye, 2010 was an excellent year for movies as movies. The kinds of meat and potato movies that sustain the art form may have been squeezed out of the multiplexes, but they still play the art houses. There are always good movies being made, and this year was no different. Contrary to all the gloom and doom, the audience has never had an easier time finding movies, either.

So, yeah, it's been a good year. Hopefully, next year will be a good year, too.

That Evening Redness in the West...

Tone is everything.

The Coen Brothers' new version of True Grit (2010) is largely the same movie as Henry Hathaway's 1970 version. The plot is the same. The various incidents are the same, though the new movie embellishes them in ways that would never have occurred to Hathaway. Hell, this "more faithful" version points out that the original was fairly faithful to Charles Portis's novel in the first place. The Coens make two vital changes, though. First they shift the focus of the movie away from Rooster Cogburn and back to Mattie Ross. Second, they film the West as some kind of apocalyptic wasteland rather than as an epic landscape.

The first change is a subtle way of defusing comparisons between the Coens' Cogburn, played by Jeff Bridges, and Hathaway's Cogburn, played by John Wayne. Frankly, when you have John Wayne play the character, the movie becomes about him, and the 1970 version amplifies this by providing him with two co-stars in Kim Darby and Glen Campbell who can't endure the blazing light of his stardom. The new film does not have that problem. Bridges vanishes into the role and the role vanishes into the movie and the spotlight returns to where it always should have been in the first place.

The second change, the tonal change, is what really separates the two movies, though. Some of the shift can be attributed to the change in shooting locations. The Coens shot their film in Texas during the bleak heart of winter. Hathaway shot his in Colorado. But that's not all of it. I'm tempted to call the tone of this movie the aftertaste of the Coens' flirtation with Cormac McCarthy. The West of this movie is a West built on corpses. The movie begins with Mattie Ross's father lying dead in the snow, then shifts to a public hanging, then shifts to Mattie sleeping the night in the undertaker's warehouse with both her father and the corpses of the men who have been freshly hanged. Another hanged man, dangling from a high branch in the wilderness, also figures in the movie as a terrible signpost and mememto mori. The gang of "Lucky Ned Pepper," the villains of the piece, are more feral than any cowboy outlaws I can remember, but the movie is otherwise populated with some of the grotesques that the Coens like so much so it's all of a piece. The violence in the movie has a brutal finality to it that most Westerns would quail at. The result of all this is a movie that's weirder than one expects, and more than a little bit distancing.

As I say, though, it's largely the same story, in which 14 year old Mattie Ross hires Marshall Rooster Cogburn, a man she has been told possesses "true grit," to track and bring to justice the coward, Tom Chaney, who shot and robbed her father. Chaney has fled into the Indian territories of Oklahoma where he has taken up with the gang of Lucky Ned Pepper. He is also being pursued by a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf, who teams with Mattie and Cogburn with the intent of collecting the substantial reward for Chaney's capture. Metaphorically, the Indian Territories are off the edge of the world. Law and order doesn't figure there. Neither LaBoeuf or Cogburn wants Mattie to accompany them, but Mattie has other ideas and is both whip smart and headstrong. She will not be swindled, and demands to oversee the hunt. Inevitably, they catch up with Chaney and Pepper, and after Mattie gets herself captured by the gang, Cogburn has to find a way to take them all.

The movie establishes itself as Mattie Ross's movie early. Hers is the voice heard narrating the story at the outset, and she is the character whose every move we follow, beginning to end. She's played in this movie by Hailee Steinfeld, who was 13 when the film was shot, and she blows just about everyone else off the screen. She is NOT outshone by the garrulous Bridges--who plays Cogburn as a much less likable sot than Wayne did--and she's certainly not outshone by Matt Damon's LaBoeuf. The Coens have found the ideal actor for Ross, something that manifestly eluded Hathaway, and they've coaxed a star-making performance from her. Damon, for his part, is pretty good as LeBoeuf, who he plays as kind of a dandy. The Coens re-stage their sequences to accommodate the shift in the film's point of view. Two of the film's major action sequences are shot in distant master shots--particularly the final confrontation between Cogburn and Pepper's gang--that remove some of the immediacy from them, but place the audience behind Mattie's eyes. This amplifies the film's last action sequence, though, which begins with a rattlesnake pit and ends with a ride across the Territory that plays more as hallucination or dream fugue than it does as a story event.

(As an aside, the rattlesnake pit is one area where the original film exceeds this one. It may be because I saw the original when I was very young. It was one of my dad's favorites, so we watched it whenever it came on television and I remember seeing it in a theater at least once. In any event, the rattlesnake scene haunted my nightmares for a long time. While these associations may color my perceptions, I also think that the use of CGI snakes takes some of the terror out of that scene and reduces its impact some.)

This movie includes a coda that the original film omitted, too, that mourns the passing of The West and its heroes (and, by proxy, mourns the passing of the Western), but which firmly and indelibly draws the woman that Mattie Ross becomes, defined by her "true grit," and etches her in stone. The last shot, in which she walks away from her family plot, is kind of perfect.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Fear of Flying

Snotty bourgeois college students have the life expectancy of a fruit fly, if you believe horror movies. Nuts with machetes, satanic cults, Eastern European sadists, remote Mayan ruins, ski lifts; you name it, the universe has it in for them. I have this theory about the repeated use of these characters in contemporary horror (I mean, apart from creatively bankrupt screenwriters kowtowing to perceived demographics or to tried and true formulae). These characters are like all of those affluent characters in Italian giallo movies, the ones who are massacreed in the midst of their bourgeois splendor as a kind of class warfare. Same here.

Anyway...The latest iteration of the college student as chum to cross my retinas is found in Altitude (2010, directed by Kaare Andrews), in which our stock obnoxious college students are put into a plane that malfunctions, causing it to climb ever higher. I have to admit to a certain level of admiration for the various horrific situations that screenwriters are dreaming up lately. This joins the situation in Frozen as a situation that I've not seen, nor even imagined, before. The story follows a group of five friends who have chartered a plane to take them to a Coldplay concert (which, by the way, suggests that they all have more money than sense, but that's another discussion). The characters are: The film student, the musician, the shy nerdy guy, the asshole, and the pilot. The pilot is Sarah, and she's our ostensible protagonist, the final girl if you will, who is fighting some demons from her past (her mother was killed in a plane crash) and the expectations of her military father. Unusual for this kind of movie: all five characters play the honorary Bill Paxton "We're all screwed!" character. It makes them all more unlikeable than they might otherwise be, and by the time the Lovecraftian entity in the sky shows up, I was ready for all of them to be eaten. The screenplay does the whole enterprise no favors by invoking the Curse of the Krell at the end, either.

For his part, first-time director and former comic book artist Kaare Andrews does fine with what he has to work with. He has, basically, one set and some low rent special effects to work with. The "one set" problem is mostly solved by this point by movies going back to Hitchcock's Lifeboat and Andrews has obviously studied the techniques used to make this work. The special effects work well enough by virtue of being mostly obscured by clouds, rain, and darkness. A few of the shots of the exterior of the plane in the film call to mind old school travelers in peril movies like Zero Hour and The High and the Mighty, but, hell, they aren't any worse than the sky squid that shows up in the last act, so what the hell. One wonders what Andrews could do with a better script and with better actors, because the visual sensibility is certainly there. The dramatic beats are another matter entirely...

Jessica Lowndes is as close to a "name" as the movie provides, having made a splash on the revival of 90210, and she's typical of this film's casting strategy. The filmmakers have placed "hot," young, inexpensive talent in front of the camera. It should be noted that the "hot," young, inexpensive talent in contemporary film is a LOT better than the equivalent thirty years ago, so this isn't necessarily bad, though it pays no dividends here. The performances, for the most part, are all pitched just this side of hysterical. None of these characters is developed beyond a type, and their "types" are signified by their props more than they are by any actual personalities. We know that the film student is a film student because she always has a video camera running. The musician is carrying a guitar (to a concert where he himself is not playing? Really?). The asshole jock is wearing a letter jacket. The geek has comic books with him. Frankly, this is all just lazy and bespeaks filmmakers who are either unwilling to let their actors work, who don't know how to work with actors, or who just don't care. This is the movie's crippling flaw, because the relationships at the end of the movie are paramount to the resolution of the plot, and lacking strong central performances and strong, well-written characters, it tends to leave the film dangling. Flapping, if you will, like tentacles in the wind.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Tiger by the Tail

It's movies like The Ticket of Leave Man (1937, directed by George King again) that suggest why Tod Slaughter is largely forgotten relative to his peers. Karloff, Lugosi, the Chaneys, and, hell, even George Zucco and Lionel Atwill all found at least SOME signature roles in legitimately good movies, often as part of rich ensembles. With Slaughter, he's the entire show. Imagine how boring all of those Universal horrors would be if they hadn't outgrown David Manners as their leading man. That's what you get with Slaughter's movies. Left adrift by indifferent filmmakers--Slaughter's constant collaborator George King never does the actor any real favors other than letting him rampage through the scenery--and tasked with carrying the whole show himself, Slaughter falls back on the tics of a Victorian barnstormer: the broad line readings, the insane giggling. After watching a few Slaughter movies in close succession, it plays to me as a rote performance.

The story here is kind of lame. Slaughter plays "The Tiger," another mastercriminal/serial murderer who takes great pleasure in throttling people. The cops are onto him, though, and he has to head to ground. After escaping a stakeout, he forms a "charitable society" as a front for his villainous activities. He also falls for a nightclub singer, and frames her fiancée for passing counterfeit money. The fiancée is the hero of the piece: A "ticket of leave man" is a parolee. Once out of jail, The Tiger continues to torment him, hoping to turn the honest man into a crook and accomplice. Unfortunately, The Tiger never saw a W. C. Fields movie, else he would have known that you can't cheat an honest man. And you can't fool the detective on the case, one Mr. Hawkings, who basically says so at the end of the movie in a "crime does not pay" tone of voice. A lot of characters speak in platitudes in this movie. And the good guys are just a little bit too squeaky clean. There's no such thing as moral ambiguity in this movie, even when it briefly touches on Hitchcock's "wrong man accused" theme. What would Hitch have done with Slaughter, I wonder. For some reason, I could see him casting Slaughter in the Leo G. Carroll roles. But I digress.

This is all a bundle of contrivances and scenes that don't connect with one another, which is common in these films. I don't think director George King even gave much of a crap about the actual theory and practice--to say nothing of the art--of filmmaking. Or even of screenwriting. He's not Ed Wood bad--if he were, his films might be more fun than they are--but he's bad enough. So we're left with Slaughter again and it's fun watching him burn his accomplices alive in his office and it's fun watching him slobber over the heroine and it's even fun watching him feign respectability, but only for a while. The scenes between bouts of villainy are a slog, though, and this movie has too many such intervals.

I don't know. Maybe I just need to get away from the movies Slaughter made with King. Or, hell, just look for yourself:

This concludes my participation in From Beyond Depraved's Slaughter Blogathon. Thanks to Joe for inviting me to play. I'm sorry I haven't been more enthusiastic. I think I just hit the bad spots rather than the highlights. If it's any consolation, that happened to me with the Naschy blogathon, too.

In any case, Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Poor Man's Moriarty

I don't know if Tod Slaughter ever played Professor Moriarty on stage, but he should have. The role of a criminal mastermind is exactly the kind of role the actor relished in his films. The closest he came in his film career was as Michael Larron, the head of The Black Quorum in Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror (1938, directed by Slaughter's long-time collaborator, George King). This is a stock series programmer, so no one should go into this expecting some kind of transcendent masterpiece. Hell, it's not even very good--just staying--but the idea of Slaughter as Moriarty is all kinds of delicious.

In truth, Larron the Snake is kind of an amalgam of pulp fiction supercriminals. Inspired by Moriarty, sure, just as Sexton Blake, his adversary, is a knock-off of Sherlock Holmes. But Larron also has elements of Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu (there's an orientalism in his sartorial habits and employment of faux Si-fan underlings), and elements of a proto-James Bond villain. Slaughter plays this with surprising restraint, given the broad nature of the character and the actor's own tendencies. No mustache-twirling or hand-wringing here, though he has awesome facial hair for the role. On the other hand, once all pretenses fall, the tics come out.

The movie itself doesn't make a lot of sense. Sexton Blake is enlisted to track down the head of the evil Black Quorum. He suspects Larron, a fellow stamp collector, and this suspicion is confirmed when he is captured after entering the Quorum's safe house. Larron sees him coming a mile away with his fancy closed circuit tv technology, but instead of killing Blake, the ties him up and attempts to burn the house down. Blake is rescued by femme fatale Julie, an intelligence agent on the same trail. Unfortunately, Larron has his eye on HER, too, and at the end of the film, he "collects" her and puts her in a death trap with Blake's sidekick, Tinker. Blake is obliged to rescue them both. The weird thing about all of this is that individual elements don't really lead to any other elements. There are a LOT of talking killer scenes in this movie, mainly built around Slaughter's persona. In fact, these scenes seem to be the entire reason the movie exists. Like any good master criminal, he escapes in the end, even though he never played the role again. You can see a blatant early example of franchise building in this movie, even though later Sexton Blake movies didn't take advantage.

There's a dated quaintness in this movie that makes it seem even more out of time than Slaughter's Victorian roles. This movie's version of superscience--closed circuit television--may have been cutting edge in 1938, but it seems like a ridiculous contrivance now in our surveillance society. And it seems out of place with its Indian blow darts and secret occult criminal cabals. What this seems like is an overdressed chapter play. Don't get me wrong, there's certainly pleasure to be had from this, particularly if you have a nostalgia for this kind of poverty row entertainment, but if it wasn't for Slaughter or for its ancestral relationship with James Bond (a bridge, if you will, between Holmes and Bond), I doubt anyone would watch this these days.

Oh, and for the record, my favorite Moriarty is Henry Daniell in The Woman in Green.

Monday, December 20, 2010

You Better Watch Out!

Let's face it. When you get right down to it, Santa Claus is pretty creepy. I mean, he's a magical, moralizing Big Brother who takes it upon himself to usurp parental responsibility for rewarding or punishing children. And that's just the American version. The "Coca-Cola" version, as one of the kids in the Finnish Santa movie, Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010, directed by Jalmari Helander), says. European versions are even creepier. And that's not even including Santa's Northern European buddy, Krampus, a demonic figure tasked with the punishment of bad little kids. Here's a typical depiction:

I love Christmas.

Anyway. Rare Exports conflates Santa and Krampus as the monster in a fun Christmas horror movie. An expedition to the Korvatunturi mountains just to the Russian side of the Finnish/Russian border has unearthed the jolly old elf in all his Christmas horror, much to the chagrin of the Finnish reindeer ranchers just the other side of the border. Something has massacred their herd. Meanwhile, a plague of child abductions occurs. Only Pietari, the son of one of the ranchers, suspects whats' really happening, and his worst fears are confirmed when one of his dad's wolf traps captures a naked old man who may or may not be Father Christmas. Sensing an opportunity to recoup the losses from their reindeer, Pietari's father and his buddies take the old man to the excavation site, only to discover that something far more horrible is on the loose than anyone expects. And it's up to them to stop it.

Yeah. That plot summary makes me giggle a bit, too. This is a movie of considerable charm and oodles of droll comedy. Nor does it skimp on the horror. It's kind of perfect, and would easily enter the pantheon of juvenile adventure/horror movies if Americans would read subtitles, though some of the nastier scenes (the scene with the butchered pig, the bait for the wolf trap, and the hundreds of naked elves) might also give parents pause, I guess. At its most basic, it's a boy's adventure. It's a sly re-working of The Thing into a holiday picture. It's a LOT of fun.

But maybe this is all just me. I mean, I go around quoting Scrooge's line about prisons and workhouses during this time of years, so I'm totally down with darker versions of Christmas. My ideal Christmas would be gathering, as the Edwardians did, and telling ghost stories. All of those wonderful ghost stories by M. R. James? Written for Christmas. So putting the shudder back into Christmas is one of this film's rarer pleasures. It's also kind of a hoot seeing commercialism lampooned, too. I mean, the global reach of Coca-Cola I already mentioned, but I kinda dig the small business versus global capitalism undercurrent of the conflict between the Finns and the expedition. But maybe it's a mistake to read deeper meanings into this. It's only an 80 minute movie, after all, and it has its hands full just getting through its plot.

The relationships in Rare Exports are sharply drawn. There's an economy of performance in this film that is kind of a marvel, especially from the film's child actors, though I think pride of place goes to Jorma Tommila as Pietari's dad. There's a puzzling absence of female characters, and I won't claim that this isn't a flaw, but it's not a crippling flaw. This is a film of details, too. The creepy wooden dummies that are substituted for the abducted children are all kinds of wrong, while the "safety rules" for the dig are one of the best jokes I've seen in any film this year. This could all be assembled as some kind of shambolic patchwork, but director Helander, to his credit, puts it all together with a clockwork precision. This is as slick as anything from Hollywood, and more creative than an entire season of Hollywood holiday pablum.

Sunday, December 19, 2010


Had he lived to see it, I'm pretty sure that Wilkie Collins would have approved of Tod Slaughter in Crimes at the Black House (1940, directed by George King). Collins famously wrote "sensation novels" and often rephrased his work for the Victorian stage, an idiom known for lurid sensation. Slaughter, that hammiest of character actors from the early talkies, would have been right at home in one of Collins's productions. It's pitched to his sensibilities.

Crimes at the Dark House is (very) loosely based on Collins's The Woman in White, and like that book, it features an early iteration of the "one damned thing after another" plot so favored by crime fiction. We begin with a murder, with a man getting a metal tent spike to the head (discreetly, mind you), followed by the return of one Sir Percival Glyde (Slaughter) to his ancestral home to claim his inheritance. It's obvious to the viewer--if not to the characters in the film--that Glyde is an impostor. Unfortunately for him, he discovers that the man he replaced is up to his eyeballs in debt, and now he's stuck with the role. Not one to let opportunity pass, he then looks to marry the wealthy heiress, Laurie Fairlie, who he subsequently bumps off and attempts to replace with the daughter of the real Sir Percival. Meanwhile, he's bumping off the people who suspect his masquerade with the zeal of a natural born serial killer.

The filmmakers here have moved the villain of the piece to forefront (he's not nearly so prominent in the original novel), and why not? Slaughter is the attraction here, and the movie lets him chew the scenery with gusto. The movie is really built around Slaughter, and every other element is designed to amplify his screen persona. Cinematically, this isn't a lot different than a filmed play. Director George King does not indulge in any kind of detectable style with his camera, beyond pointing it at his actors and letting them hit their marks. There's a certain appeal in this, but the overall effect is of a film that seems vaguely dated even for its 1940 production date, though in some other respects, it seems remarkably forward thinking. Its take on bastardy and the philandering of its villain is certainly something that would not have flown in a Hollywood production of similar vintage, and these are elements that make Sir Percival an even slimier villain than one expects.

Slaughter, for his part, rises to the occasion. His part is so broad and his villainy so delectable that one is rather willing to forgive the movie its shortcomings (this is a common theme among Slaughter's movies, I should note; Slaughter never had the kind of breakout, iconic film that Karloff or Chaney had, not even his version of Sweeney Todd). It's hard to resist the way he giggles while he bumps off his enemies, or the way he relishes lines like "I'll feed your entrails to the pigs!" That's some unrepentant villainy, right there.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Tears in the Rain

"People do not go to the movies to think. They go to the movies to feel."--Tsui Hark

I'm not entirely sure of where to begin when it comes to writing about Tears of the Black Tiger (2000, directed by Wisit Sasanatieng). Douglas Sirk? Sam Peckinpah? The Shaw Brothers? Bollywood? There's no doubt that this film is an explosion in the genre factory (one that lands severed limbs everywhere), but it would be lazy for me to catalog the various references, and presumptuous, too, because I am seriously ignorant of Thai cinema, and I'm sure that I'm not getting half the allusions. So maybe, I should start with the quote at the head of this review. This is a movie designed to make the audience feel more than it is designed to make the audience think. Oh, it CAN make you think if you have a post-modern, deconstructive impulse. It encourages that in some of its more overcooked moments. But the genre references the film is built from all have this in common: they're all about style and emotionality and in both cases, they are pitched at an eleven.

In its story particulars, it's kind of hokey. This is always a risk with melodrama, and you can either subvert it or wallow in it. This film wallows in it. The story follows doomed lovers. Rumpoey is an upper class woman who is betrothed to a local police captain, Kumjorn. Black Tiger is a notorious bandit, the deadliest man in the district, who is Rumpoey's childhood flame. Black Tiger works for the merciless crime boss, Fai, who Kumjorn has sworn to take down. Also working for Fai is Mahesuan, who is devoted to and insanely jealous of Black Tiger in about equal measure. There are crosses and double crosses throughout the movie, interspersed with insane action sequences in which blood, limbs, and other viscera fly. Taken as an action movie, this doesn't disappoint, but the action is set in a movie that seems a bit to arty, and a bit too artificial to satisfy an audience for cult movies. Maybe this is deliberate. Probably.

It's a beautiful movie, I should note. Filmed in saturated colors that re-create the gaudiest of technicolor excesses, this is a lysergic dream fugue. The artifice is striking, especially when it segues from obviously set-bound tableaux with painted backgrounds and cloud-tank effects into carefully chosen "real" landscapes. Combined with the simplistic melodrama of the plot, the film's visual design creates a kind of hothouse effect, one amplified by completely inexplicable flourishes punctuating the action. It has a sense of its own absurdity, and clues the audience in early when, having dispatched a character with fancy shooting, it rewinds and shows it to us again, in detail. The film is cleverer than it's more simplistic elements would have you believe, and pretty much all of this is done for effect. I mean, one of the villains has a painted-on mustache. That's a conscious choice with a specific effect. The evil laughter of the same character is the kind of fake "acting" laughter one finds in kung-fu movies. This, too, has a calculated effect. Sometimes its calculations are subtle, too, though "subtle" is sometimes hard to see with this movie. Take this shot: which there's not only a rear projection, but the rear projection is in black and white, in stark contrast to the blazingly red interior of the car. It's a nice kind of manipulation. Douglas Sirk would be proud of it. For that matter, this movie has an old-Hollywood understanding of matinee idols and boy, howdy, does it know how to film them. It gives itself over to the sheer beauty of its stars and indulges a deliriously romantic relationship between them and the camera.

If the film has a flaw, and I'm not even sure it is a flaw, it's in its bifurcated nature. There's a long stretch in the middle of the movie that is sure to give fans of cult action movies fits, because it's all a broadly pitched weepie. For that matter, an audience for weepies is likely to be put off by the violent action. Both of these impulses go for a gut reaction, and the wild mood swings between them can be disorienting, or, to some audiences, boring. If you're hip to what the movie is doing, though, it can be a pleasurable roller coaster. For myself, I liked it. And, it's not as if it doesn't give both audiences value for their money. The cult audience absolutely cannot complain that there's a lack of outré elements. I mean, there's a friggin' little person bandito! The last place in the world I ever expected to see a self-reference to The Terror of Tiny Town is in a Western from Thailand:

And the final shoot out is like some kind of love letter to Asian action films, part Seijun Suzuki, part Ringo Lam. It's pretty nasty, but it's so outrageous that most audiences probably won't mind. I didn't. I laughed out loud at it, which I think is the goal of the filmmakers.

For the most part, this movie is a box into which the filmmakers have poured everything they know and love about movies. It's an infectious enthusiasm when coupled with a keen sense of tragedy and sentiment. Tears of the Black Tiger has both of these in spades. This is a box filled to bursting.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Assassin's Lament

Stop me if you've heard this one: an accomplished assassin is fed up with her job and wants to get out of the business. Her employer is amenable, but demands that she do one last job. Yeah. It's a familiar plot, one that gets an austere re-thinking in the German film, Don't Look for Me (2004, directed by Tilman Zens). The assassin in question is Anna (Lea Mornar), who is burned out on her job, but performs it in anonymous hotels and restaurants. During her final mission, her target spots her. She plays along with him as he flirts with her, and tries to abort the mission, but her superiors won't relent. Her target ends up turning the tables on her, and though she escapes, she's now on the run from her employer/lover, who wants her to finish the job.

What distinguishes this from, say, La Femme Nikita or The Killer, both of which have more or less the same plot, is the cinematic approach. This is a quotidian movie, filmed in that deadpan that German filmmakers seem to live in. Mornar's assassin is not an action fetish figure. She's a woman whose job is eating her alive. She not a lot different from anyone who has a job in which they feel trapped, in a job that they hate. Hers is just a bit more soul-crushing. The locations are unglamorous, too. At some point she laments that one day she'll die in a hotel room. She's rootless, and you can see it in her eyes. There's some violence in the movie, but the violence is abrupt and ugly and I can't imagine an audience for action films getting off on it.

In sum, this is a desaturated, ugly film, but there's a point to this. Anna's final job, the price of her freedom, is one that would sever her from humanity. The dehumanizing price of violence in this movie is all-consuming, and she knows it. It's a tonic for the usual romance involved in this plotline, a nice ward against the bullshit of the archetype. Of course, it's not much fun, but it wants to confront the "fun" quotient of the noble assassin head on. That's not to say that there aren't pleasures to be had, just that if you're looking for the thrills of a thriller, you should probably look elsewhere. All there is here is an existential void.

For her part, Lea Mornar delivers a fine melancholy portrait of a burned out killer. The movie begins with a sexualized version of her. The opening of the film depicts her getting tarted up for a job, and it's all about surfaces. Slowly, surely, the movie drains that away. It strips the surface down to the raw bones of her face and the sadness in her eyes. In part, it does this with the nature of her missions. In part it does this by showing the minutia of her trade. The combination is a portrait in anomie. This is matched by the gray drabness of its style. Director Tilman Zens isn't such a minimalist that he doesn't move the camera, but his shot compositions are exercises in minimalism. This is not an expressionist movie. It's interiors are washed out by fluorescent light. Its exteriors are overcast, set among faceless apartment blocks and standardized hotels. It's a murky visual style that matches the moral universe of the subject matter. Again, this isn't much "fun," but it is effective.

I should note that "Fun" and "Interesting" aren't the same thing, and this film understands that there is nothing more interesting than the human heart in conflict with itself. I generally like these kinds of movies, because I think people are as interesting as plots and stories. Just saying.

Where the film loses its way is in its utter banality. Formal considerations aside, this is a familiar story, and at the basic level of story, it's NOT a lot different from other films of its ilk, however much the form may differ. I understand the possibilities offered by a simplified framework, but the filmmakers here have pared it down too far into a cliché. Mind you, Don't Look for Me is short at 83 minutes long, but this is a case where some level of complication might have helped transform a routine genre exercise into a scathing deconstruction. As it is, it hews too closely to its formula and unavoidably reminds the viewer of other film. This is probably a conscious decision on the part of the filmmakers, but not all ideas are necessarily good when you realize them on screen. It's not a bad film; it's just one that's kind of a slog for a payoff that anyone can see coming a mile away, and one that has ambitions that are just out of its reach.