A randomly comprehensive survey of extraordinary movie experiences from the art house to the grindhouse, featuring the good, the bad, the ugly, but not the boring or the banal.
Monday, February 28, 2011
MICHAEL KOHLHAAS (1969)
Kleist's story may be more familiar in an altered, Americanized form as the tale of "Coalhouse Walker Jr." in E. L. Doctorow's novel Ragtime and the Milos Forman film. Since our setting is 16th century Germany, we're dealing with horses rather than cars, of course, and race prejudice isn't an issue. Class is, instead. Michael Kohlhaas (David Warner) is a horse breeder bringing some animals to a regional fair. To his chagrin, the local Junker, von Tronka, demands that Michael show a pass before carrying his animals through Tronka lands. Kohlhaas has never before heard of such a requirement and begs leave to get the proper paperwork on his way to the fair. The Junker demands that he leave two of the best horses as collateral, and one of Michael's men agrees to stay and look after the animals. From the regional authorities, Kohlhaas learns that he doesn't need a pass at all; the Junker had just been messing with him, because he could. Returning to von Tronka's estate, he finds his horses in a decrepit state and his man missing. The man had been beaten and driven away by Tronka's men, it turns out, who had then left Kohlhaas's horses to rot. The Junker is glad to be rid of the beasts, but Kohlhaas now insists that Tronka feed and groom the two horses at the Junker's own expense before returning them. This Tronka will not do.
Michael and his wife (Anna Karina) argue over how far to take the complaint, but Frau Kohlhaas finally decides to present a petition to the Elector of Saxony (Anton Diffring). For her trouble she is trampled by a horse during a procession, and she is brought back dying to the Kohlhaas farm. Rebuffed by nobility at every turn and given a runaround by lawyers, this is all Michael Kohlhaas can stand -- he can't stands no more. He gathers some men and burns the Tronka estate, though the Junker himself manages to escape. Michael's band soon becomes an army of brigands, gathering up army deserters, mercenaries and other misfits as he chases Tronka across Saxony. For him, this remains a matter of honor; he'd be satisfied if the stupid Junker would finally take care of his damned horses. But for Kohlhaas's new followers, the campaign is an opportunity for plunder. In time he has enough of an army to take entire towns, which become targets for sack and rape. He himself refuses to play the role of bandit king. When he learns that one of his lieutenants had raped a woman trapped in a pillory, who subsequently died when a burning roof fell on her, Kohlhaas has the man hanged.
Michael is willing to negotiate an end to the uprising if only Tronka can see reason. With no less a personage than Martin Luther acting as intermediary, Kohlhaas surrenders his arms to the Elector, who's preoccupied with a Polish invasion. While he stews in effective house arrest, and Tronka continues to stall, the mercenary starts a new rampage, calling himself Kohlhaas. While the real Michael has an airtight alibi -- he's under constant guard, after all -- the authorities hold him responsible for the mercenary's depredations and deem him in breach of the truce. At the final hearing, Tronka finally produces Kohlhaas's horses, good as new. But after he's sentenced to be broken on the wheel for taking the law into his own hands, Michael sets the animals free.
Like Julian Buchs' A Bullet for Sandoval, this ostensibly more prestigious production is a story in which a righteous man's revenge far exceeds his original grievance. Unlike the more stylized spaghetti western, Kohlhaas is a stark, grimy history play in the manner of the Czech directors on whose territory much of it was shot, as well as Schlondorff's "New German Cinema" movement. The two films have in common a generic continental concern of the period with the cruelty and injustice of history, the injustice in either case guaranteeing an excess of cruelty when victims finally lash out. In Kohlhaas the excesses of rebellion take Schlondorff close to spaghetti territory, especially in the town-sacking scene, during which Stanley Meyers' score is suddenly enhanced by dissonantly anachronistic electric guitars while Michael's less reputable men run amok. This turn of the rebellion toward viciousness and outright crime probably came as a rude surprise to those original viewers who may have seen Kohlhaas's movement building into some sort of proto-hippy youth uprising after the deserter (Michael Gothard) and his doxy (Anita Pallenberg) are introduced. What looks like an idealistic feud, and remains one in Kohlhaas's own mind, is quickly corrupted. Because Michael himself remains incorruptible, it's perhaps inevitable that he ends up paying for everyone else's sins in a suggestively gruesome finale. That sort of finish sets apart the more artistically ambitious "history of cruelty" films from spaghetti westerns, which usually allow their antiheroes to go out, if they even lose, in a blaze of glory, with their boots on, etc. The history-of-cruelty films prefer to emphasize the inexorable power of Power, the inescapable embrace of injustice, even if Michael Kohlhaas is allowed the symbolic grace note of freeing the horses.
The international cast and crew can't avoid a certain stiltedness in the proceedings, but as the film grows more action-oriented this becomes less of an objection. Schlondorff's refusal to invest the story with the romantic fervor which I'll tentatively presume is in Kleist's original is sure to alienate many viewers, but it negatively invests the film with an authentic naturalist feel. I saw it on the Vutopia on-demand channel, which is available free to Time Warner Cable subscribers who carry any premium movie service. While Vutopia lists Kohlhaas under a category of "Subtitled Cinema," it's version is actually the English dub with the actual voices of Warner, Diffring and others. The fullscreen image is apparently a faithful rendering of the original film's 1.37:1 aspect ratio. I may be inclined to overrate Michael Kohlhaas because of how well it seems to fit into this little subgenre of my invention, but if that type of movie interests you as well, and you have the patience to appreciate the relatively affectless presentation, this harsh little rarity is probably worth your time.
Sunday, February 27, 2011
A BULLET FOR SANDOVAL (Los Desperados, 1969)
Sandoval has one of the most utterly downtrodden heroes of spaghetti westerns. John Warner (George Hilton) is a Confederate soldier compelled to desert on the eve of battle when one of the Sandoval clan, an aristocratic Hispanic family that dominates the border country, informs him that patriarch Pedro's daughter is about to give birth to Warner's child in the midst of a cholera epidemic. With two comrades Warner absconds, escapes after recapture, and finally reaches the Sandoval estate, where a coldly furious Pedro (Ernest Borgnine) informs him that the child is alive but the girl is dead. Pedro pushes the baby into John's clueless arms and sends them both away.
Friday, February 25, 2011
Wendigo Meets JOHN CARPENTER'S VAMPIRES (1998)
To me, it's really just a crap movie. But to Wendigo, it's worse: a travesty of an above-average vampire novel, John Steakley's Vampire$. Steakley wrote a book about the toll vampire hunting might take on a person, how killing undead creatures for a living would affect how you live with yourself and other people. Vampire$ is a character study above all and a sort of speculative sociological study of the kind of people who might end up vampire hunters. Think of any number of movies about war veterans and their difficulties dealing with civilians or coping with civilian life and you'll get a sense of what Steakley wrote. The dollar sign signifies that vampire hunting is less a crusade and more a high-risk, low-satisfaction job for the characters, though all of them feel some kind of moral imperative to carry on the work.
Hawksian professionals who gotta do what they gotta do, but Valek promptly massacres all of them but Crow and the oafish Montoya (Daniel Baldwin). He wastes a motel full of perfectly good prostitutes except for one (Sheryl Lee) whom the smitten Montoya tends to and dotes on despite an obvious vampire bite and an inevitable turning. This mistranslates a subplot of Vampire$, Wendigo says, in which one of the hunters falls for a girl who is a thrall of a master vampire, though not one herself. The attack itself is ineptly filmed, a supposedly chaotic moment of terror portrayed through a slow-motion montage of dissolves. The lack of appropriate pacing is typical of the whole film.
Our challenge is to limit ourselves to the key ways in which John Carpenter's Vampires sucked. It's biggest offense, as far as Wendigo is concerned, is how it took an idiosyncratic novel and turned it into an utterly generic mid-90s vampire picture. The acting is bad all around. Sheryl Lee has a thankless, career-crippling role and Daniel Baldwin is a Baldwin. Acting with him, Wendigo says, is like talking to a hamburger. On the other hand, her body is one of the film's few real assets. James Woods seems to be making up his role as he goes alone. Carpenter and Jakoby seem to have no idea for the Jack Crow character except that he's a badass. Woods's performances ranges from mindless badass stoicism to self-righteous temper tantrums and thuggishness (unlike the more decent Crow of the novel) to Bruce Willis-like Die Hard -style fight-scene invective. Schell's performance is a disgrace for an Oscar winner; was F. Murray Abraham unavailable? Thomas Ian Griffith as Valek is a cookie-cutter villain in what Wendigo calls the "Count Chocula von Vampire" mode. If you've seen any B-movie vampire of the mid-to-late Nineties, he claims, you've seen Griffith's performance already. Actually, if you've seen any Griffith movie, you've seen this performance already.
Oh so special effects. Below, vampires brought into the sunlight die of supernatural forearm flatulence.
Thursday, February 24, 2011
PRINCESS OF THE NILE (1954)
Let's face it. Princess of the Nile is the sort of film a studio orders you to act in. For someone like Michael (Klaatu) Rennie, it might look like a break from benign typecasting, but he makes a bland villain despite backup from an always welcome Michael Ansara. For Jeffrey Hunter, this was dues paying of the sort Tony Curtis and Rock Hudson were doing at Universal in similar material, and it was apparently part of a studio effort to make him and Debra Paget into a romantic team. But it's Debra Paget's show; she's the only reason imaginable for anyone but a camp completist to sit through this mostly uninspired claptrap. If anyone went to this movie in the summer of 1954, it was to see her do some sexy dancing. The gossip columnists made it known that one of her scenes had to be edited after complaints from the Breen Office; what was left could be presumed to skirt the edge of acceptability. What remains does seem pretty risque for 1954. Paget could do the exotic dance bit, as she would prove again several years later in Fritz Lang's Indian Tomb. For Harmon Jones and Panoramic Productions she goes just one step beyond what she'd do for Lang. In Princess of the Nile she's the title character and nominal heroine of the picture, and for one short, wonderful, ahead-of-its-time moment she and the filmmakers live up to the potential of that role. That's when, in the middle of a brawl between Prince Haidi and some Bedouins, she picks up a sword while wearing her skimpiest costume and fights.
Princess of the Nile is currently available on-demand from the Fox Movie Channel. For those without access to that service, Northbreed1 has created a highlight reel of Paget's performance. The big dance number starts at approximately 4:23, and Taura's fight scene starts around the 7:29 mark. Harmon Jones doesn't really do the opportunity justice, and the swords are pretty ridiculous, but it's the thought -- Debra Paget, Action Hero -- that counts.
Sunday, February 20, 2011
RED ANGEL (1966)
Red Angel is a curious film for an American to watch. Its serious-minded juxtaposition of war and sex takes it close to camp territory, but I don't know if the Japanese themselves have such a category that would make the story seem laughable in any way. As it is, Masumura and his writers have a provocative point to make about masculinity in wartime that shouldn't be dismissed by the seemingly soapy elements of their narrative.
Nishi (Ayako Wakao) fends off one soldier's advances (above), but proves more friendly when a double amputation makes another fighter less grabby and more needy (below).
Saturday, February 19, 2011
On the Big Screen: THE ILLUSIONIST (L'Illusioniste, 2010)
Sylvain Chomet. According to biographers, Tati was apparently working out some family issues through this screenplay, which would have had him playing a character quite different from Hulot. He put it away to make another Hulot film, Mon Oncle, which became his greatest global hit. Chomet has revised the 1956 screenplay to set it in 1959, the time when the real Tati was at the peak of his fame, while his cartoon analogue, the magician Tatischeff (the comedian's real name), is near the end of his tether. Chomet even has a scene in which Tatischeff briefly blunders into a theater where Mon Oncle -- the real film, in live action -- is playing, just so he can stage an eerie moment in which the filmed Tati on the screen within a screen appears to recognize and react to the appearance of the cartoon Tatischeff in the movie house. The choice of time seems to be Chomet's comment on the contrast between the troubled Tati who wrote the original Illusionist script and the triumphant onscreen Tati of roughly the same period.
Jacques Tati was usually rendered in caricature in the advertising for his films. Turning him into a cartoon character was probably a natural next step.
Leaving Tati's biography aside, there's a more obvious and more stark contrast here for his fans and fans of the comedy tradition in general. Assuming that Chomet's adaptation faithfully reproduces what Tati wrote, the comedian isn't just not doing Hulot; he's doing someone else. He's doing Charlie Chaplin.
However much Chomet has tinkered with the script, The Illusionist inescapably reflects the influence of Chaplin's 1952 film Limelight on Tati. In Limelight Chaplin is a washed-up vaudevillian who becomes a mentor for a suicidal ballerina. The sixtysomething Chaplin flatters himself enough to imagine the girl having a crush on the old man, whose renunciation in favor of youth takes the indirect form of death on stage at a moment of redemptive triumph. Tati/Chomet strips the Limelight formula of the romance (and the mortality) while adding a City Lights inspired litany of amusing odd jobs for Tatischeff to perform for the girl's sake. Illusionist aims at Chaplinesque pathos in a way Tati never does in his Hulot movies, but achieves something closer to the bleak, self-pitying pathos of Harry Langdon, refusing to offer audiences the uplift of never-say-die perseverance on the metaphorical road of life. It ends, not with the clown-hero's apotheosis, but with utter defeat and the promise of nothing but oblivion for the protagonist. This is a comedy with the moral, "Magicians do not exist." It's so funny I forgot to laugh.
Actually, I laughed quite a bit at the slapstick parts of the picture and the moments of period parody. On top of that, I admired the audacity, impossible to imagine in America, of someone making such a soul-crushing spectacle the subject of an animated cartoon. Better still, The Illusionist is a triumph of old-school line animation, though there are several obvious CGI assists along the way. As an artist, Chomet has made a beautiful film. As an animation director, he has created a wonderful homage to Tati. The cartoon Tatischeff is hardly an exaggeration of Tati's own physical schtick. The real Tati was a tall man with storklike legs and a rocking, off-balance gait. Were he to come to a sudden stop, you'd worry that he'd fall forward on his face. Chomet nails this. The other characters seem artistically rather than generically conceived and realized, as far from Disney as you could want. Whatever Tati's intentions, Chomet turns The Illusionist into a showcase for the narrative power of animation. Because so much of the dialogue is Tati-esque gibberish, Chomet can't depend on the glib jokiness on which even the best American animation relies to keep audiences interested. What I'm getting at is, I'm not sure what people who know nothing about Jacques Tati will get out of Chomet's film -- most likely they'll find it a colossal downer, if an extremely pretty one. But as far as I'm concerned, as a technical and artistic achievement it just knocked Toy Story 3 off the throne I'd put it on. That film is still a tremendous effort in its own right, but The Illusionist is the best animated film of 2010 -- though it has about nil chance of beating the Pixar for the Oscar -- and one of that year's best movies of any kind.
Wednesday, February 16, 2011
THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT (2010)
Paul (Ruffalo) was the donor for both of Nic (Bening) and Jules's (Moore) children, each woman bearing one. The eldest, Joni (Mia Wasikowska), is preparing to go to college, while Laser (Josh Hutcherson) has dubious taste in friends and a growing curiosity about where he came from. He convinces Joni to call the sperm bank and find out about their "donor," but his name can't be revealed without his permission. Paul is curious about his tangental heritage and agrees to meet the kids. He's a restaurant owner (the place is called WYSIWYG, the name being a kind of warning flag) and organic farmer, but not quite the achiever "Moms" had imagined when reading his profile way back when. Inevitably Paul meets the parents, and as inevitably complications ensue. With perhaps equal inevitability, the complications resolve themselves in time for a sort of happy ending with the family dispersed but also restored.
I've now seen seven of the ten Best Picture nominees. While none of them is the actual best picture I saw from 2010 -- that's still Oliver Assayas's Carlos -- Fincher's The Social Network leads the Oscar field in my book. I'd put The Kids fifth out of the seven I've seen, ahead of Inception and Black Swan. That may not sound like a high ranking, but it's at least an honorable mention.
Monday, February 14, 2011
Wendigo Meets THE RETURN OF DRACULA (1958)
The Vampire, were part of a short-lived American trend of modern vampire movies that was apparently aborted by the arrival on our shores of Hammer's Horror of Dracula. Wendigo feels that this promising evolution of vampire cinema was nipped in the bud by Hammer, which re-established the vampire as a gothic, period creature for another decade. What he likes about the fifties vampire films were their attempts to creatively integrate vampires in modern settings and tie them into modern concerns. In The Vampire it was the dangers of scientific experimentation. In Blood of Dracula, to an extent, it was juvenile delinquency. Wendigo likes the Hammers as much as any vampire fan, but they often fall short when it comes to thematic creativity, compared to the American efforts -- however they fare as films in their own right.
In The Return of Dracula the context, in a subtle way, is the Cold War. Its vampire, whose real name we never learn, is a refugee from behind the Iron Curtain. The film opens with a gang of five gathering at a Hungarian graveyard. Their mustachioed ringleader distributes crosses and stakes. They break into a mausoleum and take positions around a coffin, waiting for the sun to rise. As the sunlight fills the chamber, they throw the lid off the coffin, but find it empty.
Hungary is actually our best guess as to the setting of this scene, since the film itself is silent on the subject. I've found at least one contemporary newspaper review that claims that the vampire is Czech. In any event, he's on the run from a Warsaw Pact country, implicitly pursued by cross-wielding Communists, though the man with the moustache is never identified as such. Having managed to board a train, the vampire (whose face we haven't seen yet) attacks a newly boarded passenger outside a station. The victim is Bellac Gordal, an artist who's been allowed to go to America. He'll be staying with American relatives in a small California town, and his relatives at home wish him well with the assurance that now he'll be free. Since I know that Hungary allowed some people to leave the country following the 1956 uprising, this bit helps convince me that the setting is Hungary. The director confuses things, however, by having the vampire read a German newspaper (the Berliner Tageblatt) in one shot, but a Hungarian paper (the Magyar something) in the very next shot, which is supposed to be the very next moment, as the doomed painter Gordal joins him in the passenger car.
Artist at work
It's the vampire who greets the Mayberry family at the train station and sets up housekeeping in their upstairs bedroom and in a nearby cave, where he kills the Mayberry boy's nosy cat for a snack before getting down to real hunting. Because Bellac Gordal is an artist, he's indulged in his eccentricities, including an aversion to mirrors and odd sleeping habits.
"Wheee, I'm a vampire!" Jennie (Virginia Vincent) romps through a graveyard (above) and pounces on a prowler (below).
As Meyerman explains his belief that an undead has escaped from his country, Bellac starts to put the moves on Rachel. He has hypnotic charisma, all in the eyes, but he's always getting interrupted by Rachel's boyfriend Tim. When he gets a chance, Bellac plies Rachel with a harsher variation on the late-Universal "strange twilight world" patter. "The only truth," he tells Rachel, "is death." Flesh is but an illusion; "the heart only beats when it is drunk with blood." It never quite works -- there are always interruptions -- but she still ends up in his cave with only a cross around her neck, and later Tim, to protect her from Bellac's power....
Wendigo considers Return of Dracula the best of the the Fifties modern-vampire films -- the best written with the best performances, and with slightly above-average production values. It has good cinematography by Jack McKenzie that emphasizes Bellac's menacing hat-and-coat silhouette amid the general darkness. The special effects (heavy on the mist) are modest but both effective and evocative. Gerald Fried's score is a little heavy on the Dies Irae sometimes, but makes more menacing use of Russian style muffled gongs as Bellac stalks the night.
Wendigo also feels that the script by Pat Fielder takes the Cold War angle a step further than the subtle satire I perceived and invites us to equate the vampire with the Communist menace as an alien infiltrator subverting small-town America and spreading his influence person by person. He does recognize a blind spot in its portrait of America: Rachel and Tim seem to be the only teenagers, not counting the invalid Jennie, in the entire picture. Rachel doesn't seem to be part of teen culture, apparently spending all of her time helping Jennie and other unfortunates at the parish house. That lack of a teen milieu may have hurt Return with contemporary audiences, but it lets us focus on the vampire.
The Meyerman character adds an intriguing twist to the story. As it turns out, he belongs to a European Police Commission, a presumed counterpart to INTERPOL, but his supernatural knowledge on top of whatever official standing he has in his homeland make him a paradoxical figure. You feel like there's more to be explored about the apparent collaboration of Cold War enemies against an undead menace, and it made us wonder whether anyone's ever done a spies-vs-vampires story set in this period.
"In Hungary, or wherever I come from, the saying is: Speak softly and carry
a sharp stick. " John Wengraf as Mr. Meyerman.
Here's a neat little trailer with an exclusive speech by Lederer, uploaded to YouTube by CrowTRobot1313.
Sunday, February 13, 2011
VALLEY OF THE BEES (Udoli Vcel, 1967)
In Vlkov, the Bohemian valley of the bees, the lord of the manor is getting married. It's his second marriage, at least, and the bride is practically a child, not much older, it looks, than the lord's son Ondrej. The boy is, perhaps understandably, resentful of a stranger taking the place of his mother. His idea of a wedding gift to her is a basket of flowers with live bats at the bottom. The insult enrages Dad, who grabs Ondrej and throws him face first into a stone wall. He repents his rage at once, praying for his son's recovery, and promising him to one of the militant religious orders if he does recover. He does.
Ondrej returns to the valley of the bees, where his father had long since died. He sets himself up as the lord of the manor, eventually claiming his erstwhile stepmother Lenora (Vera Galatikova) as his own bride. But in a creepy echo of the opening wedding scene, Arnim appears at the gate as young Ondrej had years earlier, and Ondrej steps over the table to confront him as his father had. But he manages to defuse the situation with his new wife's help, inviting the reluctant warrior to stay the night. It's a nice gesture, but not necessarily a wise one....
Primal passions are in play here, despite the characters' extreme efforts to overcome them. The end products are moments of startling cruelty. Vlacil can get as violent as any of his European peers of the period, and his film is of a piece with films from all over the continent (including the Czech Witches' Hammer) that contemplate or wallow in the brutality of pre-modern life. At least it seems more tasteful in black and white. The cinematography by Frantisek Uldrich offers the starkest contrasts of earthy everyday life and the immaculate austerity aspired to be religion. Invariably, however, the film reverts to violence and moral horror, with religion exacerbating rather than alleviating the upheavals of Arnim's troubled soul.
Lenora and Ondrej try to cheer up Arnim, but some people are incapable of cheer. You can usually tell them by the crusader gear and the crosses on their capes.
Armin and Lenora both struggle with unnatural-seeming feelings for Ondrej. The effort doesn't work well for either of them.
I thought the echoing of the first wedding in the second was a bit heavy handed, and the finish was pretty predictable once Arnim was invited to stay, but in sum I was impressed by Vlacil's direction and his construction of a convincingly dingy and decadent past. I'll be willing to give him another try, and now that I know the name, I think my local library may have a copy of Adelheid, the film that followed Bees. If so, my own private Vlacil festival will go on.