The Curse of Frankenstein

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) movie poster

(1957) dir. Terence Fisher
viewed: 01/27/07

I got the notion to see this film when there was a misprint in an advertisement for Curse of the Golden Flower (2006) showed up on my My Yahoo page.  I had thought, “Wow, that would be great to see!” but then I realized that it had to be a misprint and realized that I’d been foiled.  But, that is what we have Netflix for, right?  This and the other 5 or 6 other Hammer Frankenstein sequels that they produced.

I was a “monster movie” fanatic as a kid.  Well, fanatic is probably too strong, since I realized that I didn’t have the fervor or minutiae-obsessions that really speak to fanatics.  I just loved horror films, particularly Universal, Toho, and Hammer studio fare…well also RKO or any black-and-white era Hollywood flicks.  They had great series of them run on local cable channels and I had many favorites.  Hammer, however, never appealed to me as much as the American ones, and I think that is because I liked the old black-and-white stuff best.  I haven’t analyzed it.

Well, The Curse of Frankenstein is the first Hammer film with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, whose names are particularly synonymous with the studio’s horror output in its heyday, as is director Terence Fisher, who helmed an awful lot of the movies himself.  As a child, I knew nothing about directors, only actors.  It’s an interesting take on the story, which I understand had to be modified for legal reasons to not resemble James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) in any significant way.  So, it varies a lot, really.  Frankenstein, himself, is not just a mad scientist, but a cheat, a murderer, and many other things.  He’s bad.  Cushing is great in the role.

The monster isn’t utterly unsympathetic.  Lee, wearing a lot of white make-up, looks like a cross between the somnambulist from Robert Wiene’s classic Expressionist film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and something with a lot of heavy make-up that ends up looking like a mask.  There are some good sequences, particularly of the “Creature” (not “Monster”, but “Creature”).

The film also creates that strange, yet charming vibe of Victorian England that is probably nothing like it was, but still has that amazing way of creating a “feeling” of some other place or time.  Maybe that is just the dated qualities, I don’t know.  But something.  I also really liked the final shot, the shadow of the guillotine out the window of the cell.  The film has some real character to it and a seriousness that I think eventually dissipated from the Hammer catalog after a while.

I don’t know.  I will have to see more of them.

Thieves Like Us

Thieves Like Us (1974) movie poster

(1974) dir. Robert Altman
viewed: 01/24/07 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

I’d seen this movie years and years ago on cable.  I’d stumbled on it largely because the title of the film was used for a New Order song, so I thought it would be worth investigating.  I don’t know that I even knew who Robert Altman was at the time, but the film made a real impression on me.  Some of the images just stayed with me all this time. This was about 16 years ago.  A long time.

When I was living in England, I discovered They Live by Night (1948), Nicholas Ray’s first film and was totally blown away by it.  Though I am not 100% sure all the significance of the statement, I would have to agree with Jean-Luc Godard that “Nicholas Ray is cinema” and this film is amazing.  They Live by Night, of course, is adapted from Edward Anderson’s novel, Thieves Like Us, the same source material for Altman’s amazing film.

The novel I later discovered and read and it is brilliant.  I believe that it was Anderson’s only book.  It’s a dust bowl noir, sort of like David Goodis meets John Steinbeck or something.  Tremendously good.  Of course, it’s been a while since I read that book, too.

With Altman’s death last November, the recognition of his contributions to cinema has been widely praised, and the Castro Theatre showed some double features of his films for a week and I took the opportunity to revisit this film, which I hadn’t seen in so long, but had kept in mind all that time.

It’s completely brilliant, to be honest, from the very opening shot of the chain gang on a truck on the road that pans over to the two escaped criminals.  What struck me so strongly was the tonal similarities to my favorite Altman film, McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), the Western set in the Pacific Northwest.  Though, that film I think addresses different issues than this one.

There is a lot going on that I don’t totally get.  The radio broadcasts that play over much of the film and the action are interesting commentary on the events being played out, sometimes in contrast, sometimes in tune.  It’s an interesting aspect of the first form of media communication that brought information in real time across large distances.  It also created a great deal of the culture of narratives and news information.  Radio pervades the film, set largely in small towns and outskirts of towns in and around Mississippi.

The other pervassive thing was the coca cola drinking in this film.  It’s like the only product in the world at times.  Bottles are carried around, beverages are offered and sought, it’s everywhere throughout the film, even in the final sequences.  Is it perhaps another comment of the growing globalization that radio began to offer.  A pervasive product that everyone drinks?  Is it product placement?  It’s strong and bizarre.

Shelley Duvall is amazing as Keechie, her quirky as hell beauty and dim-witted charm.  Though I have never been a fan of Keith Carradine, he also really is the character of Bowie, a good guy who only knows how to rob and steal, and hardly knows anything else.  Actually, the whole cast is excellent.  The cinematography is gorgeous, capturing the southern landscape and the small towns in their dull, muted beauty.

Altman was a master.  He has many excellent films to his name and this is absolutely among the best.  It’s an amazing fact that two such different films have been adapted from one novel, by two important American directors of different generations, who created utterly unique, yet true to the novel, adaptations, masterworks.  And the novel itself is a largely lost classic.  It had been out of print for nearly 30 years after this film was made.  It’s as good as anything out there.

Arthur and the Invisibles

Arthur and the Invisibles (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. Luc Besson
viewed:01/20/07 at the AMC Loews Metreon 16

Rancid.

Insipid.

Whatever Luc Besson has had in his resume for street-cred, something that has not had any back-up apparently in years and years, is utterly and completely non-existent in this incredibly awful children’s film.

Part live-action and part-digital animation, the movie strives pretty pathetically to evoke that “classic” feel of children’s film/art/literature/what-have-you.  The animation itself is heinously designed, featuring troll-like (troll, the dolls with the frizzy synthetic hair and the stupid grins) characters who live in a miniature existence somehow connected to Africa but transplanted to Connecticut?  And these African giant warriors?  And amazingly unoriginal plot points like a sword that cannot be pulled out of something until the right person comes along.

Besson, please stop!  Now!

Oh yeah, this is supposed to be his final directorial work.  Whatever.  Dude, we’re taking away your license and re-examining your hip early work with its strange hipness and fun violence with strange themes of near-pedophilia.  I really think that marriage to Milla Jovovich was the fatal blow.

Not that I thought this was going to be good for any reason.  I was just curious.  Oh, my.  My, my, my.  Definitely among the worst that I have seen in some time.

Slither

Slither (1973) movie poster

(1973) dir. Howard Zieff
viewed: 01/19/07

A strange, off-beat comedy loaned and recommended to me by a friend, Slither (1973) leans more to the odd and subtle than the broad side of comedy.  James Caan, in a subdued role as a small time crook just out of prison, is more light and amusing, hardly the tough that he often is known for playing.  It also features a surprising, wacky, and sexy Sally Kellerman and the decidedly nutty Peter Boyle playing an embezzler who hides out as an RV enthusiast (or “Rec Vee” as they refer to it in the film).

The film maintains an entertaining air, hard to guess where it’s going ultimately, a little hard to pin down the tone.  Really, it’s comedy, just a twist on a semi-caper-ish theme.  It has some surprises, some nice moments, some good lines.

Not available on DVD, and not directed by a too-notable filmmaker, I guess this is a bit of a lost cult film.  It’s not entirely Earth-shatteringly good, just decent and surprising and fine.  I liked the ending, the ultimate twist and the final shot.  It all fits together and underscores its character and humor.

Also, I liked the shots of Pismo Beach circa 1973.  Quite different.  Don’t know 100% that that is where it actually shot.  If so, it was kind of neat.

Pickpocket

Pickpocket (1959) movie poster

(1959) dir. Robert Bresson
viewed: 01/16/07

I had never seen a Robert Bresson film before catching a double feature at the Castro last year.  Both Au hasard Balthazar (1966) and Mouchette (1967) were amazing films, serious downers while also transcendental.  Transcendental is a word that is often used to describe Bresson’s work, and it’s kind of easy to see why.  There is something, perhaps less spiritual per se, but maybe more akin to the way you might describe something that was existential.  It’s more the intent and the tone than the experience.  Maybe it’s just me that I think if you describe something as transcendent that you are implying yourself somehow in the experience.

Interestingly, Bresson was inspired by Samuel Fuller’s Pickup on South Street (1953) to create this film, so incredibly opposite of Fuller’s hammy, fun film about the slick thief.  Bresson created a film that opposes traditional filmmaking in subtle ways: in pacing, acting styles (very flat), use of music (in rare instances), and his overall narrative itself.  It’s not jarring like a Godard film, but rather slowly off-setting.  Bresson’s pickpocket is not the streetwise, tough-talking Richard Widmark, but does possess a similar cavalier attitude towards the world.  However, Michel, is in a serious crisis in his life, and he is unaware of how to extricate himself.  He simply moves on through life.

There is something in both films that struck me when the pickpockets are slipping into ladies wallets.  It’s very sexual, tactile, and eroticized.  Much of the other wallet-stealing is more pure sleight-of-hand dexterity and art.  But the process of the ladies’ purses take more time and also cut back and forth to their passive, yet dreamy faces.

This is a film that I had heard mentioned many times and have had on my list for ages.  It’s a very beautiful film, subdued and downbeat.  However the ending is less tragic yet similarly uplifting than his later work.  It was an interesting pairing with Pickup on South Street.  I’d recommend it as a good double feature.

Children of Men

Children of Men (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. Alfonso Cuarón
viewed: 01/15/07  at Century San Francisco Center

Children of Men is less Science Fiction (though it takes place in the year 2027) and more Social Fiction.  It’s certainly less about technology and science and much more about the direction that humanity might take in the coming years.  Directed by Alfonso Cuarón who is most notable for Y tu mamá también (2001) but more recnetly also Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), the film has a polish and certain power throughout, showing a strong hand from the director.

However, the hand is not just strong, but heavy, and the messages about the treatment of immigrants in England (and all over Europe) is extrordinarilly pointed to extreme degrees, with images that clearly reckon of WWII Nazi concentration camps and at least once, quite explicitly, of images from Abu Ghraib prison and the current political climate.  The word that comes to mind is “portenous”.  To grab quite crudely from an online dictionary, http://www.m-w.com/dictionary/portentous, “self-consciously solemn or important”, just to clarify that I am using it correctly.

The whole thing is heavy and doom-ridden.  But for some reason, it doesn’t really hit home.  The narrative doesn’t reek of importance, only self-importance.  And so even though there are some striking sequences, usually of the violence, and the fact that the performances are all fine, it just simply wasn’t as significant as it aims to be.

There are lots of Biblical metaphors, so explicit that the narrative has to debunk them.  The story is about how in the future all women become infertile and that no babies have been born in 18 years, then out of nowhere, a woman becomes pregnant and the baby has a Christ-like effect on those who view it.  When the woman’s pregnancy is first exposed, it is in a barn, echoing the birth of Jesus.  But the woman jokes about the possibility of it being a virgin birth, drawing clear attention to the metaphors.  It is also significant, perhaps from a more biological angle, that the woman who is pregnant is of African decsent, recalling the genetic traces back to the African “Eve.”

All in all, I am not sure where it is going with this, but for a brief moment, the baby stops the violence.  I guess perhaps the movie is meaning to leave itself open-ended a bit.  What is the power and significance of this child?  What will it mean?  Though many want to capitalize on it for political reasons, where will it go?  It’s semi-interesting, I guess, but not as compelling and important as it seems to find itself.

Pickup on South Street

Pickup on South Street (1953) movie poster

(1953) dir. Samuel Fuller
viewed: 01/14/07

Samuel Fuller’s Pickup on South Street is probably one of the most straight-forward of his films that I have ever seen, a polished, rich film noir, featuring some great performances from Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, and Thelma Ritter. Ostensibly, a portrait of the life of a pickpocket, a low-level criminal profession that Fuller identified more akin to that of an artist but also a level of character in society that Fuller identified with. Fuller is such a fascinating character himself, and his films certainly all speak to that significantly, but in oddly different ways. In some ways perhaps, Pickup on South Street demonstrates his more formal strengths as a filmmaker, though is typically a crime film with the tough anti-heroes at its emotional core.

There are a number of great shots and scenes. It’s visually quite appealing, and there is some interesting camera movement that follows action through some moments. There are also lots of little story details that are quite nice, like how Widmark’s character keeps his beer in a box on a rope in the Hudson River since he doesn’t “have a Frigidaire”. There is also a great scene in which the villainous Joey escapes a crime scene by lowering himself down a dumbwaiter. There is a lot going on here that is cool and fun.

Ultimately, it’s an anti-Commie flick, which it handles rather humorlessly. Fuller uses the contrast of the villainy of “the Reds” in comparison with the petty crime that he sees as a nearly legitimate profession of that of the small-time crook, represented by Widmarks’s pickpocket, Thelma Ritter’s stoolpigeon, and Jean Peters’ semi-floozy mule. So, it’s an interesting mix, as I think is often noted about Fuller, of some social sensitivity toward the down-and-outers while maintaining a pretty staunch and heavy partiotism.

While it is a very good film on a number of levels, it lacks the over-the-top wackiness that I tend to associate with Fuller. At least that aspect of the film is much more tame. But it’s an excellent noir well worth its salt and certainly works well probably in a real full assessment of Fuller’s work.

The Bank Dick

The Bank Dick (1940) movie poster

(1940) dir. Edward F. Cline
viewed: 01/12/07

W. C. Fields is definitely very funny, I think for his classic voice and delivery and especially his hilarious one-liners, of which there are quite a few in this film.  The Bank Dick, however, didn’t strike me as overly brilliant.  Featuring Shemp Howard of The Three Stooges as a bartender, the film feels very much in the quality of the Stooges’ short films, which certainly have humor and timing, but are also sometimes less deft than it could be.

I guess that I actually have not seen any of his films before, though maybe years and years ago.  Some of his schtick is pretty hilarious, especially his treatment of his daughters and vice versa.  But eh…

Crank

Crank (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. Mark Neveldine, Brian Taylor
viewed: 01/09/07

This movie is either pure trash or pure genius.  Okay, that’s one way of looking at it.  It’s actually neither, but it’s also a combination of the two.  The San Francisco Chronicle‘s Neva Chonin summed this film up by describing it thusly: “Cross D.O.A. (1950) with Speed (1994), add lots of carnage, and you’ve got Crank, a feature that’s more full-length video game than movie.”  Actually, I would say it’s more Run, Lola, Run (1998) than Speed but also with this whole “cranked-up” visual style and editing that is about as in your face as anything I have seen recently.

Jason Statham of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998), Snatch (2000), and The Transporter (2002), awakens to find himself poisoned with a “Beijing Cocktail”, which is essentially some drug that will kill him when his adrenaline level goes too low.  It’s ridiculous, but it’s one of those movie premises that make great sense in terms of an action film and, really, that is what makes this movie work.

Featuring hyperbole upon hyperbole of radical action and bizarre nihilistic rampage, Statham races across Los Angeles in search of his “killer,” destroying and killing all over the place.  It’s actually somewhat funny the lengths his character goes to in order to keep his adrenaline running, from pumping drugs, guzzling Rock Star and Red Bull, riding a police motorcycle standing up with his eyes closed and no hands while wearing only shoes and a hospital gown, and having sex with his girlfriend on a crowded street in the city’s Chinatown.  It’s all loopy and over the top of over the topness, and it varies drastically between working and failing, but the whole thing moves so fast that you don’t really dwell on anything either.

The visual style and editing annoyed the hell out of me from the beginning, and it either mellowed out or I got used to it.  Some of it was clever and funny, but mostly it ranged from all kinds of visual disjunctures: freeze frames, text on screen, strange quick-moving dissolves.  As a whole, it’s a mess, but it’s a fun mess, fun enough, anyways.  And there is something interesting about the film’s portrait of Los Angeles, populated by Asians and Latinos, and broadly trounced by the protagonist.

Something as well about the lengths that Statham’s character allows himself in knowing his imminent death, completely without any regard for anyone in the world, yet not utterly hedonistic, mainly because it is a joyless, relentless run of revenge, not a passion for life.

Oh yeah, and Dwight Yoakam is in it, playing this shabby doctor.  I love Dwight.

Casino Royale

 

Casino Royale (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. Martin Campbell
viewed: 01/06/07 at the Balboa Theater, SF, CA

Surprisingly gritty yet slick entertainment, I have to say.

I have never been a true James Bond aficionado, though if I ever got around to reading Ian Fleming, that could change, I suppose.  I, like so many others, have always preferred the Sean Connery films to others, and actually have been increasingly dissatisfied with the more recent films featuring Pierce Brosnan.  The problem with the Bond franchise has been that it was based on something that has become increasingly outdated, and as a result, the producers and writers have continued to try and modernize the character and the villains and the situation, while retaining some air of the originals.  All while trying to accomplish this, the films have become paint-by-numbers overall, with off-beat villains, sexy “Bond girls”, and big action set-pieces in exotic, romantic locales.  All of this while trying to modernize the inherent sexism and the changing landscape of who the bad guys are since the Cold War ended.

I had been hearing about this idea to go back and make Casino Royale, the first of the Bond novels since it hadn’t gotten a “proper” cinematic treatment and it offered a chance for reinvention.  When Quentin Tarantino was associated with it, it seemed very promising.  There is so much media hype over this franchise, it’s crazy.  All the “controversy” over the casting of Daniel Craig was annoying.  Clearly, I am not a part of the fan club that cares that deeply.  But I had seen Craig in 2004’s Layer Cake and had seen the possibilities of his rough yet steely Steve McQueen-like charm and looks.

All that said, this movie was really pretty excellent, much better than I anticipated even though I had heard many a solid word-of-mouth recommendation on it.  Craig is a compelling hero, with his toughness yet very physical manner, and the variety of action pieces.  Much of the over-slick pretension of the films: the gorgeous settings, women, technology, cars, suits, everything…somehow in this film seem much less like gloss, but fitting wardrobe and environments for the action and narrative.

The film’s first major action scene has little flashes of the over-the-top sequences, but is also much more physical and muscular.  I mean, could one see Roger Moore doing these stunts?  Or any of the past Bonds except perhaps Sean Connery?  The sequence is a chase over a building site with a great deal of running and climbing that reminded me a good deal of the action in District B13 (2004), whose primary quality was the influence of the European martial art, Parkour, and the amazing David Belle who performed the leaping and climbing and fighting.  While a lot more over-the-top than that, the sequence stayed grounded in the tough fight sequences.  The action throughout carried a lot of that.

But even the romance and the villains,… the Bond cliches that tend to annoy me all worked so well here.  I guess that I’m still trying to fathom why, but it was great.  The villain, Le Chiffre, with his blood tears, the sinking Venetian building, the race on the tarmac to save the airplane…  Man.  This is an excellent action film, probably one of the best that I’ve seen in a long time.  And the play that the film uses with the Bond standards, while I wouldn’t call it “fresh”, I would say that it felt less pandering and somehow more unified.  Really, I was surprised.