Birth

Birth (2004) movie poster

(2004) director Jonathan Glazer
viewed: 09/29/10

Last month, I read an article on the Guardian’s website in which critic David Thompson listed 10 under-appreciated or “lost” films of genius.  And sure enough, I’d seen none of them.  And almost equally assuredly enough, not many of them were even available from Netflix.  One of the two that was, the most recently produced of these “lost” films, was Jonathan Glazer’s 2004 film Birth, starring Nicole Kidman, Danny Huston, Lauren Bacall, Anne Heche, and Cameron Bright.  Thompson’s emphatic feelings about this film (which I only vaguely at the most even recalled) urged me to queue it up for viewing.

It’s a strange story.  The film opens with the figure of a jogger, running through a snowy Central Park.  We never really see his face, just track him as he moves across the landscape.  As he enters a tunnel, just a silhouette, he collapses and dies.  The next moment, we are shown a newborn, emerging into the world.

Ten years later, Nicole Kidman’s Anna is about to marry Danny Huston.  It’s been ten years since the death of her husband Sean, and she’s finally relented to marry her long-time boyfriend.  But at a party for her mother’s birthday, an extremely serious 10-year old boy shows up, pulls her aside, and tells her that he is Sean, her Sean, reincarnated.

Slow-moving chaos ensues.

Actually, when I first read the description of the narrative, I almost imagined a romantic comedy of the Sandra Bullock ilk.  The film is, however, very grim, very dark, and very serious.  Glazer takes the outlandish premise and plays it out with as much realism as possible, as in, “what if this crazy thing really happened?”

Glazer, whose 2000 film Sexy Beast had been quite the intense experience, paints a moody, disturbing picture in Birth.  Not to give away any of the film’s twists and mysteries, I won’t try to delve into the way the story unfolds, but I will say that I probably agree with some of the film’s critics of the time of its release in suggesting that there are some implausible elements to some of the film’s core emotional elements and that some of what plays out in the film’s narrative, that further twist and enlighten the story, muddle the feeling of understanding and believability.

That said, the film ends with what might be considered a very “European” sensibility, an open-ended scene, which leans more heavily on tonality than finality.  I give Birth credit.  It’s interesting, challenging, and evocative.  But I don’t know that I agree entirely with Thompson of its ultimate qualities of greatness, elusive and debatable thing that that is.

Spider Baby

Spider Baby (1964) movie poster

(1964) director Jack Hill
viewed: 09/25/10

They’re creepier and they’re kookier, more mysterious and spookier; they’re all together ookier than The Addams Family.

An apropos epithet for the Merrye family, the center of director Jack Hill’s 1964 horror-comedy, Spider Baby.  Actually, both The Addams Family and The Munsters debuted in 1964, the same year that Spider Baby was produced.  Maybe it was just due time for a comedic take on black humor and a re-cast appreciation for the horror films of the 1930’s-1950’s.  But that’s not to say that the Merryes are like the Addamses.

No, in fact, the film’s original title was Cannibal Orgy, which along with the theme song, a jiving semi-surf rock tune with star Lon Chaney, Jr. speaking the lines “this cannibal orgy is strange to behold in the maddest story ever told,” which also includes the film’s subtitle.  And the film opens with this tune and some amusing cartoons in the title sequence.  This isn’t your average, everyday cannibal orgy.

Lon Chaney, Jr. plays Bruno, the caretaker of the Merrye family who are cursed with a degenerative disease that erodes the mind and body starting around the age of 10.  There are three Merrye children: Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn), Virginia (Jill Banner), and Ralph (Sid Haig).  Down in the basement are a couple of aunts and an uncle, testaments to the fact that the very strange and backward children have a lot further to slide down the pit of degradation.

The film opens with Virginia “playing spider” with a delivery man, which includes trapping him in her web and “stinging” him with two big knives.  But what the delivery man was bringing, news of a visit by some distant relatives who want to take over the remote property for financial gain, is a bit of a death knell for the merry Merryes.  The greedy aunt Emily (Carol Ohmart) just wants to have them all locked up.

Well, that’s not how things turn out.

I first saw this film over 10 years ago, on a whim as a rental from a Cult section of a video store and I was totally into it.  Spider Baby had suffered some obscurity because just at the time it was completed, the company that had funded it went under and the film wasn’t properly released for several years.  Hill didn’t maintain any control over it, and though it became an obscurist hit at some theaters, it wasn’t as well known until the boom of video and DVD rental.

It’s not just that it’s comedy.  It’s really got weirdness and charm.  Chaney’s caretaker mindfully reprimands but offers unconditional love to the twisted, very naughty murderous children.  And their uncle Peter (Quinn K. Redeker) is also cheerfully accepting of their eccentricities and utterly non-judgmental.  So, in a sense, the film has a great deal of heart.  And while it’s a low-budget affair, it’s production values are not shabby at all and the performances are all quite enjoyable.

But the main joy is the full-on weirdness, black humor, and goofiness is Spider Baby.  Little wonder it’s such a popular cult favorite.

Diabolique

Diabolique (1955) movie poster

(1955) director Henri-Georges Clouzot
viewed: 09/24/10

Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (known in the US as Diabolique) is sort of the great Hitchcock film that Hitchcock never made.  Or so the story goes, in that Clouzot swept up the rights to the book “Celle qui n’était plus” (She Who Was No More) by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac before Hitchcock could get his hands on it.  And, according to the story, Boileau and Narcejac then wrote “D’entre les morts” (The Living and the Dead) for Hitchcock who in turn developed it into his classic Vertigo (1958).  Another story around this film and Hitchcock is that he supposedly made Psycho (1960) as somewhat of a response to Les Diaboliques, perhaps namely in regards to the shocker ending opportunity.

The film stars Véra Clouzot (wife of the director) as a fragile wife of a selfish and cruel husband (Paul Meurisse), who together run a boarding school.  Simone Signoret is a teacher at the school and openly Meurisse’s lover, but who also seems to loathe his cruelties.  Together they conspire to kill Meurisse over a long holiday weekend, drugging him and then drowning him in Signoret’s bathtub.  They then dump his body in the school’s murky swimming pool, hoping to make it look like an accident.  Only the body is not there when the pool is drained and it seems as though his ghost has come back to haunt them.

There’s more to the story, but as the film asks kindly at its end to not spoil the surprises for anyone, I won’t detail the twists and turns and the drama.  You know, I had first seen this film some time ago, and I remembered liking it quite well.  I had only vaguely recalled the exact details of the drama, even though I was aware of a much less respected American re-make that came out in 1996.  And yet, still, knowing sort of how the story was going to turn out, I did feel a little less compelled that the first time around.

I decided to re-visit Diabolique because though I am more than buried by my long list of films that I want to see that I have never seen (a priority that drives most of my viewing), I was also thinking how that there were a number of films that I’d really liked when I’d seen them some years ago (before I started writing about every film I watch), and I was interested in seeing them again.

Diabolique is an excellent film, and I’m glad to have re-watched it.  It’s certainly not a Hitchcock film, but it’s fun to watch it with those considerations in mind.  And truly, if you have never seen it, the less you know the better.  The shocks aren’t quite as dramatic as you might think, but the tensions in not knowing exactly what is happening, the lingering uncertainties, those are the things that make the film at its best.  Lacking those does take a level off of the fullness of enjoyment.

Detour

Detour (1945) movie poster

(1945) director Edgar G. Ulmer
viewed: 09/23/10

Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour is one of the best film noir ever made.  Not just my opinion, but one that is widely shared.  But unlike some of the other finest noir films, Detour was filmed on the lowest of budgets, often referred to as “poverty row” pictures, and both because of and despite its limited and cheap constructs, is a bleak and vivid a noir film as there is ever made.  I had seen Detour some years ago and it had stuck with me.

Tom Neal is a piano playing schmoe in New York whose girl heads off to California to try to make it big.  After their initial split, he decides to follow her out there so that they can get married.  As Neal hitchhikes his way across the country, he gets a ride with a garrolous fellow who is heading all the way to Los Angeles.  But when Neal stops the car to rest and tries to rouse the car’s owner, the owner falls out of the car and hits his head, dying instantly.  Sure that he’s going to be blamed for killing the man, Neal does the only thing he can think of, steals the man’s car, clothes, and identity, with the plan of ditching the car once he makes LA.

The film is narrated by Neal in voiceover, a reflection on what has brought him to be where he is, haunted and cast in shadow and weird lighting at some diner in Bakersfield.  But the illogic of his choices start to call into question the verity of his storyline.  No one will believe him because it’s so unbelievable that he didn’t kill the man.  Maybe we don’t even believe him.

As Neal hits the road again for LA, he picks up another hitchhiker, a young woman, Patricia Savage.  Only it turns out that Neal had ridden with the original owner of the car and immediately sizes up the situation and takes control, lest she report Neal to the cops.  She’s as hard-boiled as they come and gets him to head to LA with her in tow, pretending to be the dead man and his wife.

Savage is savage, an emotional rollercoaster of a broad, ten thousand times more wise than Neal, biting his head off and bullying him, while drinking and being vicious.  Savage’s performance is really something else, suggesting so much, while veering between viciousness and vulnerability.  Neal is just a sap, with the face of an injured puppy dog, but also the mug of the Depression and depression.

Like so many film noir protagonists/lovers, they are in a spiralling dance of death.  And the dramatic event, the twist in the story that makes it so weird and lurid, what pushes them both over the edge, is just a strange and clever plot device.

For a film that is not even 70 minutes long, made on the way cheap, starring an actor and actress for whom this was their biggest claim to fame, what is created is nothing short of grand cinema magic.   The film has a ruthless air of depression and doom, but is vibrant and clever.

And interestingly, this film, which was selected by the United States National Film Registry for preservation (showing a keen and selective eye for this diamond in the rough), is part of the public domain.  Available on DVD in several formats as a result, it is also available for free download on the web from a number of sites.  And it is just plain one of the great films out there.

Eaten Alive

Eaten Alive (1977) movie poster

(1977) director Tobe Hooper
viewed: 09/22/10

Tobe Hooper’s first follow-up feature film after his legendary The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Eaten Alive dips its proverbial toe back into psycho killer waters, this time with a giant crocodile to nibble on it.  Actually “inspired” by a true life serial killer named Joe Ball, who ran a saloon that featured an alligator pond (to which he was rumored to have fed his victims), Eaten Alive is sort of a Southern Fried version of Psycho (1960) and to some extent a less-potent retread of elements of Hooper’s more successful earlier film.

The film stars Neville Brand as the scythe-wielding proprietor of a backwoods hotel who talks to himself in rambling, semi-nonsensical monologues about the nature of the beast, his “pet” crocodile (from Africa) who gobbles up numerous members of the cast, including a young buck named Buck, A Nightmare on Elm Street‘s (1984) Robert Englund.  The cast also includes Mel Ferrer and Carolyn Jones (Morticia of television’s The Addams Family).

The story follows a teenage runaway, who is fired from the local cathouse, which is run by Jones, and ends up as Brand’s first victim.  When her sister and father come looking for her, and another little family drops in to the misbegotten hotel, the body count goes up, up, up, either by scythe or crocodile, or in most cases, a combination of the two.

The film’s primary strengths are in its Southern-ness, the swampy backwater, populated by many an oddball, though Brand is the oddball deluxe.  The soundtrack features an ongoing litany of country music, with a couple of the tunes taking the foreground as they are “turned up” while Brand fidgets about the downstairs lounge.

There are some weird elements, like the little family with their daughter and pet dog that stop by the hotel.  The father has this very strange scene with his wife that doesn’t make a lot of sense, but is sort of mondo-weirdness indulgence.  Why the wife is wearing a wig is never explained.  And the father’s aggression and psychosis is just hard to explain.  But there is some perverse humor when the dog, Snoopy, is eaten by the croc.  Perhaps most odd, Brand has a pet monkey that just curls up and dies.

When the film begins, it feels like classic exploitation stuff, but Hooper’s characters, while hardly fleshed out, are given quirkiness and oddity that feel almost like David Lynch creations.  Eaten Alive doesn’t begin to capture the visceral thrills of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but it does stick with a portrayal of the South as a freakshow and does offer a unique heap of campy weirdness.

Vamp

 

Vamp (1986) movie poster

(1986) director Richard Wenk
viewed: 09/20/10

This was a film that I remembered from it’s original release and run in 1986.  Not a film that I remembered all that fondly, per se, but remembered nonetheless namely for the striking appearance of Grace Jones as an African vampire stripper of distinctive bearing.  And in one of my multiple themes in film viewing, a 1980’s horror-comedy seemed apt to revisit no matter how I’d remembered it.

Besides Jones, the film also features actor Chris Makepeace, who I’d liked a lot from his teenage films Meatballs (1979) and My Bodyguard (1980).  The story follows Makepeace and his buddy A.J. (Robert Rusler), two pledges looking to get moved out of the noisy Kansas state college dorms and into a fraternity, as they seek to land a big city stripper to impress their would-be frat mates.  They also pick up wealthy dorm geek Gedde Watanabe (best known as “Long Duk Dong” in John Hughes’ Sixteen Candles (1984)), in a less painfully stereotyped comedic role. They stumble on a strip club run by vampires, whose statuesque New Wave/Glam queen in Jones in a non-speaking role.

I’d remembered seeing the film in the theater in the day, and I recalled not particularly liking the film.  And it’s not a great film nor an overly well-crafted film.  The acting is also decent but clunky too.  But the film is not without its charms.  While it’s not as humorous as The Lost Boys (1987) (another 1980’s comedy-vampire flick), it has some likable characters in A.J., the buddy-turned-vampire, Amaretto/Alison(?) the girl next door/stripper/waitress, and Vic, the Renfeldian bar owner, who pines for Vegas and the days of Louis Prima.

And most significantly it has Jones, not necessarily utilized to full potential, but quite striking in her mien.  Her initial appearance, on stage as a cat-like stripper, with her bright red bob wig, whitened face, blue contact lenses, and Keith Haring-like body paint, is something of an All-Star drag event.  Her sexuality is potent and formidable, “out there” and “other”, artistic and odd, much like her general stage and artistic persona.  She appears in a bikini of sorts, made up of a couple of metallic spirals, barely covering her lean frame.  She’s almost a special effect in and of herself.

Cast in a classic 1980’s motif of color-hued lighting, the sets are often green or pink or red or blue, in a sort of faux neon theme.  The soundtrack pulsates with largely unrecognizable 1980’s music, too.  Very much of its time, and while not really peaking in any one area, the film as a whole isn’t as atrocious as I had recalled it.  There is pleasure in it.

The Circus

The Circus (1928) movie poster

(1928) director Charles Chaplin
viewed: 09/18/10 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

When the Castro Theatre announced that it was doing a mini-Chaplin festival, I was pretty keen on bringing the kids down to watch one, if not more, of the films.  But circumstances being what they are, schedules conflicted and as a result, only Felix was free to accompany me to see The Circus.

In the Charlie Chaplin/Buster Keaton debate, I fall more into the Keaton camp.  Not that I think that one by any means excludes the other, but the expectations and enjoyments often play out that way.  And it’s funny, but I’d have to say that it’s pretty consistent.  I actually think Felix would be in the Keaton camp too.

The Circus played with two shorter films, The Idle Class (1921) and A Day’s Pleasure (1919), which, under consideration, I think I may have enjoyed more than the feature film itself.  The Circus isn’t considered one of Chaplin’s major films, and though the Castro is playing several of those such as The Gold Rush (1925), City Lights (1931), and Modern Times (1936), I thought it would be interesting to see one that I hadn’t seen before.

In The Circus, the “little tramp” becomes the star attraction at a down-on-it’s-luck circus run by a tyrant of a ringmaster.  The ringmaster’s much-abused daughter becomes the tramp’s love interest, and while his natural inventiveness and/or clumsiness leads to his main schtick, he also takes up the tight-rope walking to impress the girl.

There is a lot of fun in the film, and Felix enjoyed the whole show, as did I.  Sadly, in comparison to a couple of years ago when I first started showing the kids silent films, Felix can now read most of the inter-titles himself (not the ones in cursive, however), and so the experience is a little less interactive than it once was.  I’ve been planning to bring over another Keaton film for the kids to watch, and with this under our belts I’m even more encouraged to do so again.

There is something amazing and profound about enjoying a film that is 80-90 years old with a child.  It’s an amazing form of time travel of sorts, looking at the automobiles and other ancient technologies, laughing at gags that persist to be funny throughout so many changes in the world, and to share in such a unique experience.  I have to wonder how he will come to look back on these kinds of memories as an adult.

I was also much brought to mind of the influence of these silent comedies on another “retro” experience that I have with the kids, namely watching old Warner Brothers and other studio cartoons from the Golden Age of animation.   The influence of the slapstick and the outright “borrowing” of jokes and gags never seemed clearer, even with their color and sound and far out lunacy, the basics of physical humor were well captured by Chaplin no doubt straight out of Vaudeville and transformed into the truest elements of cinema.

The Red Shoes

The Red Shoes (1948) movie poster

(1948) directors Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
viewed: 09/16/10

Now, that is what Technicolor is all about!

Long on my list of films to see, I just missed the opportunity to see the new print of the film that was released about a year ago when it was playing in theaters.  But this new Criterion Collection disc features that same restored print, and I have to say, Technicolor never looked better.  And while the images look lustrous and wonderful, the film itself is a masterful work by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, England’s greatest film-making duo of the 20th century.  And yet, this was the first time I saw The Red Shoes, and sadly only one other of their films have I ever seen.

Based on the Hans Christian Anderson “fairy tale” about a girl who longs for a particular pair of red shoes, but once she puts them on, is bewitched, for the shoes dance and dance endlessly, first through pleasure and then to literal death.  In this case, the scene is the London ballet, with a Maestro who creates great ballet and great talents (Anton Malbrook), and his two latest proteges, a composer (Marius Goring) and a dancing ingenue, the lovely Moira Shearer.  Malbrook’s maestro leads them to create a ballet of Anderson’s story, which plays out a bit like a “film within a film” and leads them to great commercial and artistic success.  But when he finds out that they have fallen in love with one another, the maestro connives to bring about a tragedy much like that of the Anderson story.

The ballet sequence of the film is fascinating, starting out as a more naturalistic stage presentation featuring the characters in the diegetic narrative.  But then quickly it turns into a dream-like segment, with the ballet played out to the music on strange surreal settings, well-removed from the theater and the rest of the story.  The lush designs are still quite theatrical, but the ballet is a dream/nightmare, portraying and inner story as well as the surface story.

Shearer is quite the Technicolor effect herself with her luscious red hair.  The saturated tones of the now outdated color process offer a lurid and vivid visual world, nothing like any reality I’ve ever seen.  The film is perhaps one of the greatest achievements in the Technicolor process.

And the film is quite something indeed.

Repo Men

Repo Men (2010) movie poster

(2010) director Miguel Sapochnik
viewed: 09/12/10

Not to be confused with Repo Man (1984) (with which it has nothing in common), nor to be confused with Repo! The Genetic Opera (2008) (with which is shares the concept of repossessing artificial internal organs), Repo Men is a gory sci-fi black comedy.

The concept, as Jude Law spells it out in voice-over in the opening, is that “if you don’t make payments on your car, it gets repossessed; if you don’t make payments on your house, it gets repossessed,” so in a future where high-tech artificial replacement organs are expensively available, these “repo men” will come, zap you into unconsciousness, and forcibly remove the items and return them to the company.  Of course, this type of “surgery” is typically unhygienic and fatal.  So, Jude Law and Forest Whitaker aren’t simply agents retrieving property rightfully owned by the corporation, but are essentially and literally killing the delinquent customers.  With glee.

But Law’s wife doesn’t like his hours, wants him to move into sales, and when he fails to do this, she leaves him.  And when Law plans to make the change, his last retrieval runs awry and he becomes seriously injured.  In fact, he ends up requiring an artificial heart.  He goes from company man to client.  And none to happily.

Law’s character undergoes a multifaceted “change of heart”.  Once he has an organ on which he owes so much money, he suddenly realizes how many peoples’ lives he’s destroyed in “heartlessly” repossessing products that keep people alive.  With his artificial heart comes his conscience.  But this doesn’t work well for his partner Whitaker nor his boss, Liev Schrieber.  They want him to just keep killing willy-nilly, pulling back all the unpaid for devices and go on being who he is.

Law’s changed perspective leads him to meet Beth, played by Alice Braga, a woman with many artificial components, who is on the run from the company and its repo men.  This sort of opens a door to the idea of people who would have many unnecessary surgeries and “improvements” and “enhancements”, perhaps an interesting point of projection.  But the film isn’t too good at being sophisticated science fiction.  It’s far more glib and comical satire.  But largely in the broad strokes.

The film received pretty bad reviews when it was released earlier this year, and it’s no great shakes.  It falls a little between genres with its comedy element being higher than your average sci-fi action film, but it also relies rather heavily on the drama and action for its entertainment as well.  And really, there is quite a shallowness to the whole proceedings if we are to think that our main protagonist/hero has a moral level only when he becomes one of the clients.

The film is quite gruesome and violent (I did watch the “unrated” version), but the positioning of the viewer in regards to how one is supposed to feel about the violence is a little weird.  We’re supposed to laugh at these two guys, laughing it up themselves, as they dismember person after person, just another day at the office.  But it’s kind of disturbing.  They’re like licensed serial killers.

And towards the end, there is a lot of weird focus on Braga’s artificial and real body, the brutalization she goes through fixing her robotic knee, with gaping wound and pouring blood.  And in a scene in which each component must be reached to be “scanned”, opening up a living, unanesthetized person is played for laughs (and eroticized). Actually, as far as body issues, this film could give a student/analyst a lot to work with.

Ultimately, I didn’t think the film was horrible.  Law and Whitaker are likable actors and Schreiber and Braga are enjoyable too.   And while the film mixes comedy and bloody, repulsive violence in ways that certainly are cause for myriads of mixed reactions, the thing as a whole has more to offer than not.  I consider my reaction mixed-to-positive, but unsettled.  How many stars does that qualify for?

You Only Live Once

You Only Live Once (1937) movie poster

(1937) director Fritz Lang
viewed: 09/11/10

After seeing Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and M (1931), I was interested in finally seeing more of his other films, his American films that he made after emigrating before the outbreak of WWII.  The first of these films that I queued up for myself was the Depression-era crime film You Only Live Once, starring Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sidney.

Considered a proto film noir, the movie is actually the first cinematic interpretation of the story of Bonnie and Clyde (with a great deal of liberties thrown in).  What’s most striking about the film are both some of Lang’s very poignant and powerful visuals and violence, but also the outsider drama and passion for the two misunderstood criminals.  I would argue that surely it’s proto-noir, not the genuine article, but that it is a fascinating step in the generation of the style while tying itself to the populist antihero criminals that are its stars.

Fonda plays a small-time criminal who is just being released from prison, reformed and ready to toe the straight-and-narrow with his loving new wife Sidney.  But a harsh world for ex-cons doesn’t show him either hospitality nor much leeway and he quickly loses the job that he’d gotten lined up for him on the outside.  Down on his luck, things get worse when he is framed for a bank heist that kills four bystanders and cops, and when his wife convinces him to turn himself in to prove his innocence, that backfires too and he is found guilty and sentenced to death.  His innocence on the crime is found out, but not before he kills a priest, a friend of his who has worked hard to help him, in a desperate jailbreak.  This lands both Fonda and his once innocent wife on the wrong side of the law for good and they take to the lam in a tragic story arc.  Harsh times beget harsh realities.

Really, it’s a very pessimistic film, a dark message for the Depression-era audience.  But it’s lively and well-made.  Fonda has never been a favorite of mine, but he and Sidney are strong in the film.  The real star is Lang’s construction, in most particular the violent bank robbery, which is deftly shot and powerful.  It’s fascinating to see the heroes/anti-heroes, good-hearted, good-natured people driven to extremes, driven in desperation by a world that doesn’t cut them an even break, and to see it all wrapped up in tragedy, not a merry ending.  Harsh times indeed.  Excellent film.