Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Great Unwatched: The Deadly Bees (1967) and Out of the Past (1947)

Out of the Past (1947)

Director: Jacques Tourneur
Runtime: 97 minutes

As the credits came up on Out of the Past, I thought to myself, "I have never seen a film-noir before this; I only thought that I had." This thought is particularly amusing, because as Tourneur's movie opened -- and despite the title card -- I thought that I'd put the wrong disc in the player.

Let me explain. Out of the Past has a reputation as one of the great film-noirs, a genre known for their oppressive cityscapes and chiaroscuro lighting. Tourneur's past work with Val Lewton's horror unit demonstrates that he has a way with shadowy cinematography. So it's a shock when the first sights we see in Out of the Past are open plains, the first sounds a slightly rustic musical cue. One of the credits notes that the film is based on a novel called "Build My Gallows High." When we finally see a hard-top car driving along the country road, it's a relief -- this is not a Western after all.

Of course, this is the genius of Out of the Past. It's a film that seems to define the film-noir experience, but it wouldn't work without the film-noir tropes already established by earlier films. One of the key elements of great film-noir is that those elongated shadows and endlessly criss-crossing city streets form a prison around the protagonist, locking them into the date with destiny they made when they gave in to their passion. Opening on a sun-bathed rural community is a calculated surprise; it drives the mystery before a single word is spoken. Why are we here and not the city? What is coming out of the past? The Western associations also work in Tourneur's favor. That car that drives up the road is both welcome (because it's a clue we're in the movie we expected to be) and strange (its dark color makes it look like an unwelcome invader of this dusty village).

The man in the car is looking for Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum), the local gas station owner who used to be another person entirely -- Jeff Markham, private eye. Their meeting begins Out of the Past's descent into darkness, as night and shadow creep into the tale (both metaphorically and visually) with alarming speed. Markham became Bailey to hide from a big-shot named Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas). Why he went into hiding is a story he tells his girl during the drive to Sterling's lodge, with the requisite flashback and narration. Why he needed to hide comprises the rest of the movie.

My original summary of the film isn't accurate; it's not that I hadn't seen a film-noir before, it's that I'd never seen a film-noir protagonist before. How could there be any other except Robert Mitchum? The rest, even his predecessors, seem like pale imitations, shadows if you will. Hard-bitten doesn't begin to describe him. When he breathes, "Baby, I don't care" to Jane Greer, you know that he goddamn means it. He has a way with conveying emotion that's guarded and revealing all at once. When his deaf station assistant tells him he has a visitor, his face barely moves, but his expression changes all the same. It's a masterpiece of performance.

Worth the Purchase? Oh definitely.

The Deadly Bees (1967)

Director: Freddie Francis
Runtime: 83 minutes

This one's a bit of a cheat, as I'd seen a truncated version of The Deadly Bees once in an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. A lack of wisecracking robots does this film no favors, unfortunately. It's slow, repetitive, and silly. A pop star (Suzanna Leigh) goes to a remote island to recuperate from a nervous breakdown, only to be caught in a hive of villainy -- one of the island's two beekeepers is releasing a new strain of killer bees on the unsuspecting populace. Is it cold, forceful Guy Doleman or the doddering, avuncular Frank Finlay? Does the audience care? Notable mainly for a strong performance from that ubiquitous supporting player of British horror, Michael Ripper, as the local barkeeper/lawman.

Worth the Purchase? I should've been stingier with my money.


In Two Weeks: Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Return of the Great Unwatched

When I started this blog 11 months ago, it was devoted to a project called "The Great Unwatched," the goal of which was to watch 400 movies, all of which I owned and none of which I had seen, in a year. That project fell through in a month, even though I found parts of it extremely gratifying.

The goal was noble, but the pace was... well, stupid. It amounted to 1.1 movies a day, which might have worked if I wasn't the type of guy to balance two or three other projects alongside it (not to mention my 40-hour-a-week job and my social life).

Here's the thing: I seem to find all sorts of time to be movie fan, but I put aside less and less time to actually watch movies. I find making the simplest viewing choices excrutiating, as I try to balance a million questions -- Will I be able to sit through this movie, given my ADHD? Will I be able to review this movie for Classic-Horror? Can I watch this movie with my wife, who has aversions to films without strong plots and, well, pretty much all horror? Most importantly, what will this film add to my existing understanding and apprecation of cinema?

The last question is both the most important and the least relevant. Over the last week I've watched several films, letting my id choose whatever looked interesting in my Netflix Instant Watch queue. The films have mostly been horror (Strait-Jacket, The Cat and the Canary '27, Pin...) with exceptions like the Singapore-based Cyber Wars (original title, no joke: Avatar). Not every film has been a masterpiece -- some I didn't like very much at all -- but they've all added something to my filmgoing experience. Looking back on the single month of The Great Unwatched's first iteration, I realize this is generally true. Even the films that were really terrible like The Dark and Pick Up have stuck with me in some form or another (not so much Las Vegas Lady, but I did watch that with my then-girlfriend/now-wife, so it's not a total loss).

I figure it's time to revisit the experiment, but as a matter of quality over quantity. Every other week, I'm going to have a PHP script randomly select three films in my collection that I have not seen. I will watch at least two of them and publish my thoughts here. This new Great Unwatched will alternate with B-Sol's 52 Perfect Movies feature, so there will be new content here on a weekly basis. I'm looking forward to seeing the best and the worst my collection has to offer me in a variety of genres.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

52 Perfect Movies: Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

My next film is certainly something that might be more typical for me to write about, given that I run a blog called The Vault of Horror. I'll admit I'm a little more in my element, but I'd go further than saying Bride of Frankenstein is one of the finest horror movies ever made--it is without question one of the finest movies ever made, period.

As horror films go, this could very well be the most skillfully made of them all--certainly of the so-called "classic era" of horror movies, in which, very often, they were treated as mere children's fare. Bride of Frankenstein is so much more than that. It's a sublime expression of cinema as art, wrapped subversively in the guise of a monster movie. And it is without question the finest hour of James Whale, the man I consider to be the greatest horror director who ever lived.

Whale's original 1931 Frankenstein was a masterpiece in its own right, but this was an improvement in almost every way (except sheer ability to terrify), making it perhaps the first sequel to surpass the original. With a much larger budget, and studio confidence on his side, Whale weaves a lush tapestry, giving greater license to Universal set designer Charles D. Hall. It's bolder and more impressive than its predecessor, with a script that's smarter and richer.

I won't be the first one to point this out, but the film is also tinged with a daring Christian allegory that only adds to the viewing experience. Who would've thought that the Frankenstein monster could become a Christ figure, yet this movie does it--having the creature literally descend into the grave and "rise again", associating him with a blind man in a scene which plays to "Ave Maria", and of course there's that iconic moment of the monster "crucified" by the townspeople. This is heavy stuff for a creature feature!

Boris Karloff gets to speak as the monster, and delivers a performance that is packed with power and pathos. Colin Clive, aged considerably by the rigors of alcoholism in the four years since the original, puts in another terrific performance as the good doctor, as well. But it's Ernest Thesiger who steals the picture as the one and only Dr. Pretorius--perhaps the greatest non-monster role of any of the classic Universal horror films. He also gets one of the great movie lines: "Here's to a new world of gods and monsters!"

Beautifully lit and shot by John J. Mescall, who had previously shot Karloff in The Black Cat for Universal, Bride of Frankenstein is filled with unforgettable scenes. Chief among these is the rightfully famous log cabin scene with the blind hermit. Parodied in Young Frankenstein almost as famously, this is nevertheless one of the truly immortal film scenes, and for my money may be the most emotionally moving one I've ever seen in a horror film. It's for moments like this one that the film totally transcends the genre.

Ironically, despite the genuine sincerity of the cabin scene, much of Bride of Frankenstein actually plays for laughs, which is pretty bold in and of itself, given the somber gravity of the first film. The incomparable Una O'Connor is on-hand to make sure things never get taken too seriously, and even some of the monster's violence is given camp value. Yet it never feels forced, or a betrayal of the source material. This is also part of Whale's genius, and the genius of William Hurlbut and john L. Balderston's screenplay.

And then there's that incredible score. German film composer Franz Waxman was one of the most acclaimed and prolific of his day, and Bride of Frankenstein was the first American movie he got a chance to work on after moving to Hollywood. It may very well have remained his greatest. Filled with themes instantly recognizable to any vintage horror fan, the score is as much a character as any actor in the movie, conveying the dread as well as the light-heartedness. The actual theme of the Bride herself is an exotic and beautiful bit of music that represents a high watermark for horror film scores.

Bride of Frankenstein is a film that is far more sublime and wonderful than it has any right to be. Filled with remarkable imagery and delightful performances, it is the kind of film you show to someone who has yet to appreciate the finer points of what genre entertainment has to offer. Plus, it all climaxes in the highly awaited reveal of the Bride herself, portrayed in her brief appearance by the beautiful Elsa Lanchester. With Clive, Thesiger, Karloff and Lanchester all together in this scene, it becomes the kind of thing you don't want to take your eyes off for all the world.

There is a handful of horror films of such high quality that one can literally classify them among the greatest movies ever made. Bride of Frankenstein is one of them. It's the shining triumph of the beloved Universal cycle of monster films, and in this writer's opinion, the best horror film made in Hollywood's "golden age" of the 1930s-1950--which covers a hell of a lot of ground.

NEXT UP: Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

52 Perfect Movies: Top Hat (1935)

The 1930s musicals of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers will always hold a special place in my heart. Believe it or not, before our hyper-sensitive and more sexually aware era, it was perfectly acceptable for a straight man to love musicals without his "manliness" being called into question. I'm pretty sure your grandfather could hum a few Irving Berlin tunes in his day, but just try walking down the street belting out an Andre Lloyd Webber song--yeah, whole different scenario.

What I'm getting at is that these films come from a completely different era of motion pictures, indeed a more innocent time, when happy-go-lucky musicals filled with beautiful melody and beautiful people could transport us away from our troubles without the slightest hint of snark or irony.

I grew up with the movies and music of Astaire, and his musicals are a part of my childhood as much as Star Wars action figures and The Muppet Show. And for me, Top Hat will always be the best--the creme de la creme, with the world's greatest dancer at the height of his powers, and the stunning Ginger looking for all the world like an angel fallen to earth.

And then there's the music. What can one say, but that Mr. Astaire is, in large part, responsible for some of the greatest songs of all time coming into being. Composers like Jerome Kern, Rogers & Hart and Irving Berlin set to work writing masterpiece after masterpiece for his films, and in this case its Mr. Berlin who wows us with tunes that have become part of the fabric of our culture. The title song, of course. "Isn't This a Lovely Day?" "The Piccolino" And then... "Cheek to Cheek".

You don't need to have seen The Green Mile to understand the power of this song to move, and of the particular scene in which Astaire and Rogers dance to it. It's moments like this one that the name of this blog series was created for, because it's about three minutes of absolute, unassailable perfection on film--two larger-than-life beings moving on screen as no two humans ever did before or since. It can literally take your breath away.

The melody and lyrics are pure Irving Berlin, and it remains one of the most well-known songs ever written. I have a particular affinity for the Great American Songbook--in fact, I devoted a whole blog to it. And well, this is certainly one of the absolute marvels of that amazing literature of popular music. I hear a song like this, and I get a bit sad for the sense of melody and beauty that has pretty much been lost in what we now call popular music.

What's the plot, you ask? Who cares, really? It's your basic romantic comedy plotline, guy and girl falling for each other, one misunderstanding after another standing in their way, until they finally stand united at the end. But that's not finally what this is all about. It's the music that's the star, and also the ambiance being created. That's all that matters.

But believe it or not, there's even more than just Astaire, Rogers and Berlin to recommend this movie. The sumptuous art direction of veteran set designer Van Nest Polglase succeeds in putting across this magical fantasy world in which the characters reside. Delightful character actors Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore are pure gold in every scene they share. And Erik Rhodes is charmingly weaselish as the flustered heavy Alberto Beddini.

These kinds of 1930s musicals were designed to take people away from the dreariness of the real world going on outside the movie theater during the Great Depression, presenting them with gorgeous people moving gracefully through an elegant world, the cares of everyday life of no relevance to them. Unlike our modern audiences, which seek to wallow in misery when times are down, these were people who sought the blissful escape that entertainent could provide. And Top Hat gave it to them, in spades.

I prefer these classy musicals of the '30s to the more bombastic widescreen extravaganzas that would come in later decades. Top Hat is the epitome of the escapist film, creating a fantasy world through the music of Berlin, and the dancing and singing of Astaire & Rogers. To watch a film like this is to know what it feels like to fall in love. The word "heartwarming" was invented for it.

Forgive me if I've gotten a bit curmudgeonly or nostalgic with this particular review. But there's a phrase in one of the songs of the film, "simply reeks with class"--and that's what this movie does. There aren't many latter-day films we can say that about. Later movies would be great for other reasons. But what made Top Hat great, and what made the entire Astaire/Rogers cycle so great, is a quality which sadly is no more.

"Heaven! I'm in heaven," sings Fred to Ginger. And when we watch them move, so are we.

NEXT UP: The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Us Among Aliens Among Us: Avatar and District 9

I had the curious fortune to see James Cameron's Avatar and Neill Blomkamp's District 9 within days of one another. While I'm not really sure that District 9 did anything but confirm my initial opinion of Avatar, Avatar's flaws certainly deepened my appreciation of District 9. 


I saw Avatar in 3D on a "normal" theater screen -- no IMAX for me (but the IMAX they use for feature films hardly qualifies as proper IMAX). The visuals are breathtaking, yes, but here's the thing -- you get used to them after a while. That should be a good thing, since the visuals shouldn't distract from the story. In Avatar, however, the story is so old hat, it needs blocking badly. For all intents and purposes, Avatar is a CGI-heavy remake of Dances with Wolves as seen through the lens of FernGully: The Last Rainforest, with a little Braveheart thrown in for good measure. It's the precipice of the "What You People Need is a Honky" trope, wherein the White Knight teaches the People of Color how Things Are Done.

Somewhere in Avatar's fourth or fifth act (the movie has so much rising action in its 162 minute runtime that it borders on vertiginous), after human marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) uses his remote-controlled alien avatar to ingratiate himself to the denizens of Pandora, a strange boredom settles in. The plot has given up all of its secrets already -- when it comes down to choosing between the evil corporation hellbent on exploiting Pandora's resources and the tribal aliens (the Na'vi) that stand in their way, Sully's obviously going to side with not-evil. Cameron's world-building and the game-changing CGI have already done their work to a point -- they impress, but they don't add emotional resonance. Yes, it's very bad that the evil corporation ruins the environment and wants to displace the Na'vi and it's very good that Sully learns important lessons about ecological unity and honor. And? So? Maybe Avatar would resonate more if the corporation wasn't so evil, if the Na'vi weren't so honorable, if Sully wasn't such an empty receptacle for the Na'vi teachings (he actually comments on his "empty head" during his introduction to the Na'vi chief).I think Cameron wants the conflict to be complex -- Giovanni Ribisi's corporate exec looks perpetually ambivalent when giving damning orders -- but it never is and therefore the plot never surprises.

There are funny moments and thrilling moments and sexy moments (when Sigourney Weaver's avatar first shows up, I found that I can be attracted to a computer graphic). There are moments of pure awe and wonder. There are moments of none-too-veiled political commentary. But that's all the Avatar's impact is -- moments. These bits and pieces impress but don't last; they don't connect to the whole (which is ironic, actually, given some of the sci-fi/ecological concepts put forward in the film).

District 9

Sunday night, I saw District 9 for the first time, my wife for the second. At the film's end, as the credits rolled up my television, my wife turned to me, buried her head in my chest, and began sobbing deeply. She didn't stop for several minutes. My feelings did not run as deeply (I apparently cry only during scenes where families are reunited and at the very end of When Harry Met Sally), but I understood. It's a depressing film, a damning one, but also a brilliant one.

Like Avatar, District 9 is about a no-good corporation's efforts to relocate an alien species and the human caught between the two sides by virtue of weird science. However, director Neill Blomkamp layers on additional complexities. Here the aliens, derogatorily called "Prawns," are refugees whose ship showed up over Johannesburg, South Africa over twenty years ago. In those two decades, they've found nothing but hate and, worse, indifference. Even though the Prawns have been forced to live in filthy slums at the edge of the city, their human neighbors feel it is not far away enough, so a new settlement (no better than a concentration camp, one character admits) has been created. The corporation MNU has moved in to enforce the Prawns' migration (and scavenge whatever alien tech they find).

The Prawns themselves have largely settled into depression, accepting their poverty, and finding their few joys in in-fighting and cat food abuse. What do they have to look forward to anyway? Whoever isn't ignoring them or hating them is exploiting them. In one corner of the Prawn settlement, a contingent of Nigerian gangsters run all manner of criminal enterprises -- weapon trafficking, interspecies prostitution, gambling, black market goods, anything that might turn a profit. MNU has taken on the resettlement contract because they are also one of the world's largest arms developers. They want to unlock the secrets of the powerful Prawn energy weapons, which only respond to Prawn DNA.

In the middle of all of this is Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a South African bureaucrat who accidentally gets dosed with a Macguffin, which begins to rewrite his genetic code with Prawn DNA. The transformation would do David Cronenberg proud (it parallels Seth Brundle's in The Fly in some ways). Unlike Avatar's Sully, who can choose to exist in either the human or Na'vi worlds, Wikus is accepted by neither the humans (who see him as a guinea pig) nor the Prawns (who treat him with suspicion). District 9 also sidesteps making Wikus the Great White Hero. In fact, without Wikus's bumbling early in the film, one Prawn (given the human name of Christopher Johnson) might have carried out a two-decades-in-the-making plan to head home. Eventually Wikus does attempt to rectify his blunder, but his selfish drive to fix his own problem creates additional issues.

District 9's one significant flaw is one shared with Avatar -- the evil corporation is just too effing evil. Once MNU discovers that Wikus has been infected, they strap him down and begin a none-too-subtle mixture of medical experimentation and outright torture. Consider the stakes -- a whole bounty of alien technology that no human has ever been able to wield... until now. Why alienate (no pun intended) someone who is already sympathetic to the corporation's needs and desires? It would have been nothing for them to pretend friendship with Wikus to get what they want. Instead, they go straight for sadism and cease treating him as even vaguely human, even as he begs for compassion. No wonder he eventually sides with the Prawns, leading MNU to heavy losses in personnel, resources, and profit.

Blomkamp ends District 9 on a series of ambiguous notes, with the future of this mess uncertain. What is certain is that he's not that fond of humanity, even as he shares some understanding for why we act as we do. Without that empathy, District 9 would ring false, I think. Instead, it hurts like a motherf**ker.

Incidentally, I highly recommend my friend John Kenneth Muir's review of District 9. One of John's more infuriating traits is his ability to state my own feelings on a film with a greater depth of knowledge than I possess. I realize this is through no fault of his own -- his position just happens to line up with mine. In his analysis of District 9, John brings in comparisons both obvious (Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" and Graham Baker's film Alien Nation) and surprising (Paul Verhoeven's sci-fi satire Robocop and the video game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2). I dug it lots.

To Sum Up

Asking the same complexities of Avatar that exist in District 9 is ridiculous. Avatar follows the Campbellian "Hero's Journey." District 9 is a tragedy with action sequences. However, Avatar's excessive runtime demands a more complex film or it wastes the viewer's time. I only have so much patience for a film that builds in predictable ways to a predictable conclusion, especially one that wants very much to be revolutionary.