Wednesday, March 30, 2011

HOUSE (1977)

On the box cover, the Criterion Collection tries to prepare viewers for Nobuhiko Obayashi's film by describing it as "a Scooby-Doo episode directed by Mario Bava." I can do better than that. Think instead of Suspiria directed by Sid & Marty Krofft and you get closer to the actuality of House, and I mean that in a "best of both worlds" way. That's not to say I'm the biggest fan of either the Kroffts or Dario Argento, but the work of each has its virtues, and Obayashi's movie will remind those who know of both. For about the first fifteen minutes, however, my reaction was, "What the hell am I watching?" How else can you react to such deliberate cheesiness? I assumed that Obayashi was sending up something, presumably the Japanese teen-girl culture of the Seventies and the sorts of TV shows it favored. But without a firm frame of reference I could just as easily assume that Obayashi is a madman with an idiosyncratically offputting aesthetic sense. In one sense, he is a madman; House was his feature-film debut after a career as a cutting-edge director of commercials. Anywhere on earth, probably, you're playing with fire letting such a person make a feature. But such was Obayashi's reputation, I assume from the trailer, that Japanese audiences were expecting something profoundly weird.

Thanks in part to the director's daughter, who contributed story ideas, that's exactly what everyone got. House (which is the film's original Japanese title, spoken in one's best spooky voice) is the story of two teenage girls, Gorgeous and Fantasy, and their trip with five friends to Gorgeous's aunt's house. Gorgeous lives in a world of blazing colors, artificial skies, and a suspicious new stepmother her dad picked up on the way back from a movie-scoring gig for Sergio Leone in Italy. Eager to steer clear of her new mom, Gorgeous gathers her pals -- Fantasy, Mac (the fat one), Sweet (the helpful one who loves cleaning), Melody (the musical one), Kung Fu (self-explanatory) and Prof (ditto) -- to visit her poor crippled aunt, still pining for her lost lover, a WWII flier (shown in silent-film style footage), after all these years. Normally Auntie has only her ubiquitous white cat Blanche for company. But she brightens up as soon as Gorgeous and her friends show up -- and start disappearing. And soon she's on her feet and dancing, and jumping into refrigerators. Initially, only the tragically-named Fantasy suspects that something's very wrong, but a horror soon emerges that nobody can deny.

House soon turns into a special kind of gorefest. Obayashi isn't aiming for the visceral shocks of his horror-film contemporaries. Instead, he evokes the uncanny in cartoonish ways that underscore the magical nature of the menace threatening the girls. If someone's dismembered, her limbs fly around a room for a while, sometimes retaining some life of their own. The effects have a cut-and-paste look that somehow seems exactly right for the sort of film he made. Those alienating early scenes of deliberate fakery were really building blocks of a unique cinematic idiom into which Obayashi could translate genuine terror while remaining faithful to his corny source-aesthetic. While for someone else the gag might have been to destroy these silly girls with realistic violence and gore, for Obayashi the point was to tell a tale of primal horror (with not a few hints of pubescent rites-of-passage) the way a 13 year old girl raised on TV and manga might envision it. Against all odds, it works, even as Obayashi schemes constantly to break the mood with the cat's silly dance across a keyboard, Kung Fu's outbursts of frenetic action (she has her own authentically cheesy soundtrack motif) and occasional cutaways to the desultory trek of Mr. Togo, the girls' hoped-for savior, toward the dreaded house. Despite it all (and perhaps despite is the wrong word) the cumulative effect is honestly horrific, and the coda ("When my friends wake up, they're hungry") is indisputably chilling.

In House the horror leaps up and bites you in the ass -- literally. It may also literally chop your fingers off, so use House with caution and only after reading the instructions carefully.

While House proved a sleeper hit in Japan, it never played American theaters until the 21st century. I suspect, though, that Obayashi had influence beyond his home islands. It wouldn't surprise me, for instance, if House had some influence on Peter Jackson's early films, since Kung Fu's climactic battle with ghostly forces reminded me slightly of some of the action in Dead Alive. Closer to home, I could believe that Obayashi's use of stop-motion and other gimmickry influenced later Japanese cult spectacles like Tetsuo the Iron Man. I guess I assume it had to have an influence on people because I can't imagine anyone forgetting House once they saw it. You might like it or hate it, but it'll probably be one of the damndest films you've ever seen one way or the other. This subtitled trailer will give you some idea of what Toho calls "the first fantasy horror film" Janusfilmsnyc uploaded this one to YouTube.

Monday, March 28, 2011


Crap makes good fertilizer sometimes. There probably couldn't have been a Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series with all its virtues, for instance, without Fran Rubel Kuzui's craptastic film of Joss Whedon's screenplay, with all its faults. It won't surprise constant readers to learn that the Buffy TV show is one of my friend Wendigo's all-time favorites, but that doesn't make him forgiving toward the movie in any way. Once upon a time, he'd given a second-run film a chance because he thought the title sounded funny. Later, he'd had to overcome his revulsion at the movie to give the show a chance, and it was quite a struggle. Given what Whedon had in him, what went wrong the first time? Wendigo thinks the film is too much an Eighties-style teen comedy, and a Valley Girl comedy at that, on top of being a vampire comedy at the end of a long streak of especially lame vampire comedies. Whedon later figured out how to keep things funny and scary, but that balance is missing in the movie. The direction is unambitious, as are the cinematography, effects and makeup, and the end result is pretty much inept, and hopelessly dated the moment it appeared.

Buffy (Kristy Swanson) must master many weapons for the struggle against the undead, no matter how long it takes.

It may be unfair to judge Kristy Swanson against Sarah Michelle Gellar, but it can't be helped either. Swanson is vapidly pretty, but that seems like all the shooting script demanded. Donald Sutherland pretty much phones it in, while Rutger Hauer is clueless as the master vampire. That's a shame when you recall that Anne Rice once described the young Hauer as her ideal movie Lestat. For David Arquette and Hilary Swank, this film is just a skeleton in the closet. It says something about a movie if you can say, as Wendigo does, that Luke Perry actually gave the best performance.

With a cast of quirky actors including (from top) David Arquette, Paul Ruebens and Rutger Hauer, why do Buffy's vampires come across as simply stupid?

Whedon reportedly pleads innocent due to directorial and studio interference, but it's not as if he had the core of the later series anywhere in his original screenplay. You have to do a lot of worldbuilding for a genre TV show that wouldn't have seemed necessary in a movie. Nor does a movie need to introduce the ensemble cast that made the TV Buffy a trend setter. So there's no hellmouth, no "scooby gang," no Angel and only the implicit hint of the Watchers in the form of the Sutherland character. There's so little conceptualization going on that Buffy doesn't even have a last name. Were all of these left on the cutting room floor? Unlikely. Apart from the concept of a lineage of physically gifted "slayers" (rather than "hunters" armed primarily with knowledge) the Buffy movie makes no real contribution to modern vampire lore. But Whedon's screenplay probably did have a different tone that was lost, if he had any individuality at the time. He may have needed time to distance the concept from its Valley Girl roots. Had the movie been made in 1996, it may have been more like the show, all else being equal -- or equally bad.

Kuzui occasionally aims for a sensual, dreamlike effect (above) but most often goes straight for the cheese (below).

What irritates Wendigo the most about the Buffy movie is the sense that nobody really cared about making a good or really funny movie. In its lack of ambition Kazui's movie reminds him more of a Saturday night SyFy movie than the series that rose from its ashes. The word is that the movie's being remade without Whedon's participation, Wendigo's advice for the remakers is: don't bother even looking at this movie.

While you contemplate the future of the lineage, let's look back with neo93612 at this Perry-narrated, Ruebens-centric trailer from 1992.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

CERTIFIED COPY (Copie conforme, 2010)

Overheard outside the theater, after the show: "It was very French." Mais non, it was written and directed by an Iranian, Abbas Kiarostami, working away from home for the first time. As far as I know, he was a tourist, not an exile, and in a way Certified Copy is a tourist's film, though Kiarostami's less concerned with landscape than with the human-scale experience of tourism. He uses lots of long takes and tracking shots through Tuscany during his characters' allegedly random trip. His style, which has set the tone for much of the Iranian film industry, has been called a kind of neorealism. It's mimetic and immersive rather than conventionally dramatic, though this film will seem more dramatic than his others because much of the dialogue is in English. As a rule, Kiarostami gives you a strong sense of place and time, and that remains true here.

Maybe the confused cinemagoer quoted above gets to the issue of the film. Identifying the Iranian's effort as "very French" may mean he was successful at evoking if not copying the sensibility and alleged difficulty of French film. It helps to have Juliette Binoche involved. She seems to be the Meryl Streep of the rest of the world, the go-to actress for globally ambitious directors. When Hou Hsiao-Hsien ventured outside Taiwan to film in Europe, he hired Binoche for The Flight of the Red Balloon. The actress is fluent in English, has an Oscar to her credit, and may be the nearest thing we have today to a globally-recognized star who doesn't pretend to fight for a living. She won an award for her work here at last year's Cannes Film Festival, while the film itself got a more mixed reception. Kiarostami has been panned for derivativeness and obscurity but praised for allusiveness and playfulness. His style is definitely an acquired taste because he doesn't employ conventional attention-grabbing dramatic devices. Most American viewers will depend on the actors to carry them through the rough patches, but Kiarostami has paired Binoche with a movie novice, the British opera singer William Shimmel. I think he did all right but his work was cut out for him by an initially deliberate vagueness about his actual relationship to the Binoche character. That vagueness may prove fatal for the film for many people.

Shimmel plays a British author promoting his new book, Certified Copy, in Italy. Binoche attends his lecture (and has a reserved seat) and later brings him multiple copies of the book to sign when he visits her art shop. Since he has time to kill before his train leaves, they decide to take a purportedly random road trip that soon proves less than spontaneous. While critics feel obliged to ruminate upon the significance of copies and the meaning of the author's thesis on copies, as if this were a film by Walter Benjamin, there's only one "copy" that really means anything to the story. Explaining this may spoil things, so read cautiously. It emerges eventually that the protagonists are an estranged couple, and that their ultimate destination is the town where they were married 15 years ago, the object being to rekindle that initial spark. The author's thesis is that a copy is just as good as the original depending on its meaning for the owner or viewer, but the film's thesis is more ambivalent. Experience isn't the same as art, nor repetition the same as reproduction. You can't expect a do-over to have the same result, though different may not necessarily mean worse. Kiarostami actually ends the film with a kind of cliffhanger, a will he or won't he moment whose unpredictability may be part of the director's point.

Copie conforme could seem like a film about nothing to some people, and it's not as if everyone's obliged to see significance in the couple's troubles. I was entertained because the main characters impressed me as intelligent people and the actors did their jobs well. My only hangup is with the early vagueness about their relationship. The fact that the Binoche character takes a reserved seat for the lecture implies a close relationship with the author, but their encounter at the store comes across like a first meeting of strangers. Later, at a restaurant, Binoche "pretends" to a waitress that Schimmel is her husband, and at times it seems like the couple is engaged in a questionably-motivated role-playing exercise. Maybe I'm misinterpreting these scenes but it also felt as if Kiarostami was trying to trick the audience for a while. Fortunately, the film gets stronger once the trickery is set aside and Kiarostami grounds himself in emotional truth. He's a humane director even if his style seems pretentious or off-putting. He's interested in inspiring empathy, and if you're interested in experiencing it, Certified Copy should prove a mostly rewarding experience.

The trailer was uploaded to YouTube by trailers.

Friday, March 25, 2011

DON'T TOUCH THE WHITE WOMAN! (Touche pas la femme blanche!, 1974)

In the book 10,000 Ways to Die, Alex Cox treats Marco Ferreri's mock-epic as a spaghetti western. The director and star Marcello Mastroianni are Italian, after all. Cox notes that it lacks a key element of spaghettis, a revenge angle, but in doing so misses the point of the film for a moment. If the film stands for anything, Don't Touch the White Woman! is a call for collective action, and the Indian victory at the end is collective revenge for numberless massacres at the hands of the white man.

But I get ahead of myself. Let's go back to Cox for a second. His inclusion of the Ferreri in his book must have startled many readers because its standing as a western is very open to question. Like nearly all spaghetti westerns, Don't Touch was filmed in Europe, but Ferreri took the substitution of Europe for America to an absurd extreme by shooting it in the middle of Paris, where a massive demolition project was under way in which the director got to take part. He re-enacts the Custer legend against a 19th century cityscape that looks more appropriate for a film about the Paris Commune -- and that's probably no accident.

It's not as if Paris had never been a battleground before.

20th century elements pervade the film. U.S. Cavalry officers await their leader at a modern train station as people in modern dress walk past. A character who interacts with the soldiers throughout is a modern-day professor of anthropology who wears a different institutional sweatshirt in every scene, representing everything from the University of Hartford to the CIA. In one scene he shows off a photo of Che Guevara's corpse. Custer's commander-in-chief is Richard M. Nixon.

Nixon's spirit (and his "magnetic gaze") preside over Don't Touch the White Woman!

It's tempting to label all of this "surrealism," but we needn't be that pretentious about it. Let's call it burlesque instead, in the sense of the word I favor: an exploitation of art's innate unreality. It's also burlesque in the sense of parody, mocking both conventional American westerns and spaghettis. The main characters are clowns. Custer (Mastroianni) is childishly vain and petulantly pompous. He has a habit of stomping his heels to salute a woman or a superior officer, no matter how annoying it proves to his superior, General Terry (Phillipe Noiret). He also does the stomp in the middle of the final battle, whenever he kills an Indian. His rival, Buffalo Bill (Michel Piccoli, who seems to be trying for an American accent) is an egotistical blowhard who proves not to have the stomach for combat. They're creatures out of vaudeville who nearly convince you that Ferreri has made the first Marx brothers movie without a Marx in it -- unless you assume that Karl is in there somewhere.

Above, a dark-haired Custer (Marcello Mastroianni) and his lady (Catherine Deneuve).Below, "the madman" (Serge Reggiani) serves up sound advice along with some slop to Chief Sitting Bull (Alan Cuny)

Is there a point to it beyond the absurdity? Don't Touch is assumed to be anti-American, and I suppose it is, but not in any way that compels this American to take offense. The American villains quite clearly symbolize more than America, however. In the opening scenes, until the name of Custer is spoken, you could assume that the film is about reactionary Frenchmen trying to deal with the problem of urban anarchy. European audiences probably found the symbolism pretty transparent, while Americans, from what I can tell, never saw the film in theaters. A shamelessly loinclothed Serge Reggiani ranting in favor of collectivism is only the most obvious tip-off that the film's primary subject is not the oppression of Native Americans. Don't Touch is really a primer on the flexibility of archetypes. Put the Seventh Cavalry in the middle of Paris and people should get your point.

In the climactic battle scene, Ferreri out-gores most spaghetti westerns.

Ferreri's film also testifies to the director's luck exploiting found objects. Later in the decade, he'd go to New York and build Bye Bye Monkey around a discarded King Kong from the 1976 remake. In Don't Touch he makes inspired use of his once-in-a-lifetime location opportunity with the help of cinematographer Etienne Becker, creating indelible images that are no less epic for being mock-epic. The comedy may be too broad to be cool for some viewers, but the pictorial juxtapositions are nearly apocalyptic in the old sense of a revelation, and in some ways anticipate the tropes of post-apocalyptic cinema. Take or leave the story, but Don't Touch the White Woman is one of the most visually striking films of the 1970s.

Here's a trailer that avoids the money shots of the urban locations, as if trying not to scare off viewers. It was uploaded to YouTube by LindbergSWDB.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


What's the big obstacle to Apichatpong Weerasethakul becoming a household name for the global arthouse crowd? I've just said it. Has any contender for cine-canonization had such a jawbreaking moniker? I question whether even Thais have an easy time with it. Look at what another Thai did for comparison's sake. Panom Yeerum is more modestly named for starters. He might even have gotten by abroad with that tag, but as Tony Jaa he's instantly recognizable by martial-arts buffs around the world. But I suppose an auteur representing the high end of the Thai film industry shouldn't be expected to make such compromises. And in any event Weerasethakul has his shot now after his latest film, Lung Bunmi Raluek Chat, won the Palm d'Or at last year's Cannes film festival. He'd had a kind of cult following already, with some people regarding his Syndromes and a Century as one of the best films of the last decade. I'd given that film a shot, but I regret to admit that I quit a little past the halfway point, once it seemed determined to go nowhere. By now I think I'm a little less impatient for every film to "go" someplace, and the Golden Palm entitled Weerasethakul to another chance from me.

Tim Burton chaired last year's Cannes jury, and the supernatural content of Uncle Boonmee may have influenced his choice, though Weerasethakul's approach to such material isn't entirely like Burton's. In the Thai film, Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) is a widowed farmer dying of kidney failure, tended by an assistant who may be, like many of Boonmee's workers, an illegal immigrant from Laos. As an opening title explains, while contemplating his imminent death, Boonmee does, in fact, recall some past lives. A pre-credits sequence illustrates the power of suggestion. We see a water buffalo wandering the landscape after escaping from a noose and likely slaughter. Because we've been prompted to assume that this is Boonmee in a past life, we're more attentive to the beast's adventure, if it can be called that, than we would be otherwise.

Boonmee doesn't actually do much past-life recalling afterward as Weerasethakul focuses on a present-day visit by the farmer's sister-in-law Jen and her son Thong. There's a lot of realistically banal small talk as the visitors unpack and Boonmee gets his kindey drained. The director's approach is neorealistic, favoring long takes to create the illusion of immersion in authentic life. The family regathers at the dinner table and chatters away while a woman slowly materializes beside them.

The woman is Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwong), Boonmee's late wife. She isn't Boonmee's delusion; his relatives react to her appearance and join him in striking up a fresh conversation with the new visitor, none of them alarmed by the presence of a ghost among them. They're hardly more fazed when a noise from downstairs is followed by the appearance of a pair of glowing red eyes in the dark stairwell. A wookie-looking fellow appears and announces himself as Boonsong (Jeerasak Kulhong), Boonmee's long-lost son who disappeared in the forest years ago. He brings his father up to date, explaining that he turned into a monkey man after falling in love with a monkey woman. Mother and son were both drawn home, presumably, by Dad's own impending demise. Like a good host, Boonmee breaks out the photo album to get his guests up to date on life on the farm.

This is probably the make-or-break scene for most viewers. I was intrigued (as I suspect Burton was) by the utterly matter-of-fact way in which Boonmee receives his spectral guests, but I felt that I didn't have enough information about Thai culture to guess the point of the apparently purposeful banality of the scene. Wikipedia informs me that Boonmee is part of an ongoing project in which Weerasethakul will chronicle in depth the northeastern Isan region of Thailand, but what, if anything, does the characters' reaction to the ghosts and monsters tell us about Isan? Would the people there really react that way if they saw ghosts? Do they claim to have seen ghosts, and to have reacted that way? Don't know, don't know and don't know.

Fortunately, enough's going on in Boonmee to invite alternate readings of the ghost scenes. For instance, I inferred a parallel between the character's bland welcome to the supernatural and Boonmee's blithe indifference to the legal status of a different class of strangers, the illegal immigrants who work for him. Later in the movie, Weerasethakul seems to invite a comparison of the spirit world from which Huay and Boonsong come with the spirit world of television that captivates Jen in a hotel room. Jen herself becomes a kind of spirit in a late scene when she splits in two, one Jen going out with an AWOL monk, the other staying in the hotel room to watch TV. Something is probably being said here about our divided consciousness and the different planes of existence we inhabit simultaneously, but that's just a guess I'm making.

Weerasethakul has said that Boonmee is a film purposefully made in a medley of cinematic styles. That explains some of the gratuitous elements in it, including the movie's most artistically ambitious sequence, a mythological episode in which a princess makes love with a catfish in the middle of a stream. Is Boonmee the princess or the fish? Search me, but the sequence is brilliantly done, revealing that the relatively primitive approach of other episodes is a conscious directorial choice. More gratuitous still is an anecdote told by Boonsong of his capture by a mysterious band of soldiers. Related entirely through stills, it's an obvious homage to Chris Marker's La Jetee, but to what purpose?

Uncle Boonmee is like a portfolio of Weerasethakul's virtuosity submitted for global acceptance. There's a showiness to some of it at the cost of a greater rigor that I recognized, though I didn't exactly appreciate it, in Syndromes and a Century. The director's strategy dooms Boonmee to be less than the sum of its parts, but the sum is actually pretty impressive on its own. You do get the sense that you've been let into an alien culture, even if you don't comprehend it fully, and Weerasethakul's default long-take, immobile-camera approach works to achieve verisimilitude amid the phantasmagoria. If you can enjoy a movie, like I can, as an opportunity for virtual tourism, you'll probably dig a lot of Boonmee, and it may give you some food for thought as well. It's not a great film in my opinion, but an interesting film will often do just fine.

Thanks to Cannes, Uncle Boonmee may be playing in a big city near you. Here's a trailer for it uploaded to YouTube, appropriately enough, by trailers.

Ave Atque Vale

And the Roman asked, "Was this well done of your lady?"

And the servant answered, "Extremely well, as befits the last of so many noble rulers."

Conversations With Scorsese

Martin Scorsese's motormouthed enthusiasm for movies can be grating sometimes, but the man often has interesting observations to make. That makes Richard Schickel's new collection of conversations a promising volume: you get the observations in reasonable doses without the cartoonish voice. The book is a survey of Scorsese's career up to the surprise hit of Shutter Island (a public endorsement Schickel and to a lesser extent Scorsese himself find "astonishing"), bracketed by reflections on the director's upbringing and education and general comments on his techniques and artistic principles. Memories being what they are, and the earlier canonical works having been well gone over elsewhere, there's less talk about Taxi Driver or Goodfellas than about The Aviator and The Departed. This book is no substitute for a comprehensive artistic autobiography, and the nature of the format makes the book a hit-and-miss proposition, but it's an entertaining read.

With such a project the whole is inevitably less than the sum of its parts, but you probably read it for the flashes of insight (or their opposites) and the odd bits of trivia. You learn here, for instance, that Leonardo DiCaprio considered Out of the Past "the coolest film I've ever seen" when Scorsese screened it for him prior to The Departed. You also learn that Akira Kurosawa panned The Age of Innocence, complaining that "I do not like movies about romances" while chiding Scorsese for using too much music in his films. That news reminded me that I missed a discussion of Scorsese's career as a character actor, including his role as Vincent Van Gogh in Kurosawa's Dreams. The two directors clearly had some sort of artistic relationship that barely gets touched on here.

On his own work Scorsese is most interesting when most critical of himself. Shutter Island is clearly a touchy subject for him, especially since Schickel doesn't seem to have liked it. Scorsese was still smarting from a perceived betrayal by the studio that pushed the release date from Fall 2009 to February 2010, even though he has to admit that they must have had the right idea based on box office. Going back a few years, it seems that Scorsese still doesn't understand what went wrong with Gangs of New York. He tells Schickel that his dream project might have gone over better had he not run out of money while staging the New York Draft Riots. That sounds like a way to blame the money men for his own story problem. He could have filmed the riots with thousands of extras, but it would not have helped the picture as long as the riots remained irrelevant to the final showdown between DiCaprio and Daniel Day-Lewis's gangs. The deeper flaw in the often-brilliant Gangs is its insistence on a hero implausibly innocent of bigotry in such a bigoted age, its option for a generic revenge storyline instead of something more challenging.

Taking a larger view, I was intrigued by Scorsese's acknowledgment that Bringing Out the Dead marked the end of something for him. I didn't think much of the 1999 film, but I'd agree that there remains something essentially Scorsesean about that project that's missing from his films of the new millennium. While he still clearly has a creative passion about the making of images, the passion often seems to have gone out of his stories, leaving them the work of a master craftsman, but without his signature drive. Shutter Island is probably his best film of this period, but it's Dennis Lehane's story, not Scorsese's. While the director says nothing to confirm my hunch, I still feel that he hasn't been the same since 1995, when the public rejected Casino because it seemed too much like Goodfellas, which was like saying you'd allow John Ford only one cavalry movie. The most interesting thing Scorsese says about Casino is that he considers Joe Pesci's death scene the most brutal thing he's ever shot, and doesn't want to do anything like that again.

By the end, I recognized kindred spirits in both Scorsese and Schickel. I mean that almost literally, since it's on page 356 when the following exchange occurs regarding a film I haven't yet seen. I could hardly express better the value of film beyond its aesthetic or literary merit as a mirror of its time and place in history.

Schickel: The artifacts of history in film are terribly important. I mean, the worst movie in the world will contain clues to how we lived, how we dressed, how we talked.

Scorsese: That is what I was pointing out in 1979. There was a film called The Creeping Terror, a silly sci-fi film shot in the Midwest. They got everybody in some town to act in it. So you actually saw the way people dressed. And you saw how they behaved in everyday life. They were 'acting,' but they really weren't. The plot was not the point. What was important to me was what it said about America, and about our culture. It was very moving.

And sometimes so is this book.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Wendigo Meets DAYBREAKERS (2010)

My friend Wendigo is entertained by ideas and concepts. If a movie takes a novel noteworthy approach in building a fictional world, whether intellectually or aesthetically, he's more likely to be forgiving of any shortcomings in narrative or direction. If he can take an idea away that he can ponder afterward, or if he can see where the creators are getting their ideas or how they're adapting or evolving them, he considers the time spent worth his while. It's sometimes enough for a movie to be interesting, especially if a vampire movie takes the vampire motif in a new direction.

Michael and Peter Spierig's Daybreakers is the kind of film where imagination redeems other creative flaws in Wendigo's eyes. Its drastically different approach to vampires takes the concept out of the realm of horror and into the uncomfortable domain of dystopian science fiction. For that reason, presumably, Lionsgate treated the movie like a hot potato, letting it sit on the shelf for two years before dumping it in theaters in January 2010. Like Let Me In later in that year, it was a vampire film that didn't cater to currently popular fantasies of vampirism, and that doomed it at the American box office. What's cool about being a vampire when the world's full of them, after all? So much for Daybreakers, but while the film has its problems, but it deserved a better fate.

The time is 2019, ten years after a random bat bite started a global pandemic that transformed the great majority of humans into vampires. While some people opted for suicide, most did not find this fate worse than death. By the time of the story, vampire is the new human. Bloodsucking has been normalized to an alarming degree as humanity's new condition created new opportunities for businesses (subwalk platforms for daytime pedestrian travel, digital screens to take the place of mirrors and windshields, etc.). What may surprise viewers is that Daybreakers is dystopian, not post-apocalyptic. Society hasn't collapsed into the clans of fantasy or all-against-all warfare. The normality of it all is really the most horrific element of the movie, making it something like an evil Hanna Barbera cartoon.

Apocalypse is in the cards, however, because the supply of uninfected humans, who are herded and farmed for blood in the film's most dystopian images, is inevitably running out. For big business, crisis equals opportunity, and the Bromley Marks pharmaceutical firm is in the race to develop an artificial blood substitute. Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke) is part of the team experimenting on substitutes, often with explosively bloody results. Ed has a personal motive to work hard. A reluctant vampire in the first place (he was turned by his military brother to save his life), he's been abstaining from human blood, just as society is starting to discover that forced abstention due to shortages can have dangerous consequences. Stay off the juice too long and you start mutating; Ed's ears start to get pointy, for instance. Things get worse if you get desperate and start drinking your own blood or another vampire's. Then you're on the short track to becoming a "subsider," one of the feral, batlike vampire underclass whose numbers are growing as shortages get worse. One interesting thing about Daybreakers is how "normal" most vampires are. While they can't see themselves in mirrors and are vulnerable to sunlight, they don't have super strength unless they turn into subsiders, and they seem to be on even terms with humans in fights, both sides resorting to weapons adapted to their strengths and weaknesses.

Subsiders, the lowest of the low among vampires (above), are the physically strongest as well, while normal vampires have to wear special clothes (below right) just to have a fighting chance against humans in the daytime.

When a traffic accident gives him a chance to rescue a band of fugitive humans from the vampire military, Ed is rewarded with an opportunity to meet an extraordinary person. Lionel "Elvis" Cormac (Willem Dafoe -- I said extraordinary, right?) is a former vampire. Through his own freak accident, Elvis learned that a cure for vampirism was possible.


First you starve yourself like Ed has. Then you expose yourself to sunlight for a very limited time. The vampirism will literally burn off you in very painful fashion, and as long as you have some means of dousing the flames (Elvis was pitched through the windshield of his car and into a river) you'll be a new person. While steering clear of the military, including Ed's brother, the gang figures out a way to recreate the conditions of Elvis's cure in a more controlled environment. Ed subjects himself to an excruciating but successful treatment.

Once upon a time, Ed was scared by a little shaft of light. Look how brave he becomes!

You'd think a cure for vampirism would be the ideal resolution of the blood shortage issue, but some people, like Ed's boss (Sam Neill) like being vampires and the money they can make off vampirism. Daybreakers hammers home the point that greed is really the worst form of vampirism, and entrepreneurs the most dangerous vampires. Not even the discovery of a second cure mode (Elvis's purified blood cures Ed's brother) guarantees humanity's redemption as long as the alternative is wealth and power for someone else....

For almost the full length of the film, Frankie Dalton (Michael Dorman) is the only vampire who bites humans in the neck. Why is that?

In its portrait of a society unsustainably dependent on a finite resource, Daybreakers has some obvious contemporary relevance. Wendigo admires the depth of the Spierig's imagination, but he sees some holes in the concept. The crisis seems to come too suddenly, in his view, with no one having anticipated the crisis and taken steps beyond blood farming. Hadn't anyone thought of cloning humans? For my part, I thought that a vampire majority might resort to p.r. to redefine themselves as the "real" humans, while the actual human minority might get stuck with some dehumanizing nickname to make their exploitation easier. There are bigger holes in the narrative. For instance, a group of humans are traveling in a convoy toward a rendezvous with Elvis's band, but against all common sense, they travel at night, when they'd be most vulnerable to vampires. Wendigo also thought that the entire idea of gathering all the humans together was a dubious idea, since it'd allow them all to be taken in one fell swoop.

Somewhere past the halfway point, Daybreakers turns into a more conventional if not cliched action thriller with too many predictable plot twists. It also becomes more redundant, with a repetitive succession of vamp-on-vamp attacks to supposedly spread Cure No. 2. It becomes redundantly gory, too, as if the Spierigs needed to square up for a relative lack of it earlier. Once starving vampires tear into Sam Neill and other actors, the film comes closest to being a kind of horror film. Wendigo wasn't really bothered by the repetition, but felt that the actual effects, including a flying Neill head, left something to be desired. The various appearances of subsiders are handled better; they're scarier for the depths to which they've sunk than for how they look or act. The directors make a point of reminding us that the subsiders were all people once, though they're less successful with a subplot that takes the Neill character's daughter on a rapid arc from fugitive human to executed subsider.

There's a tragic grandeur to the fiery demise (above) of Charles Bromley's daughter, and a farcical fakeness to Charles's own undoing.

Wendigo approached this film with a little trepidation because he isn't an Ethan Hawke fan. Ever since Reality Bites he hasn't really cared for the actor, but this time out Hawke impressed him as a personable and sympathetic hero. Willem Dafoe is Willem Dafoe, but that's a good thing. Sam Neill is too obviously a villain from the onset and doesn't hide it with his performance, though he has one good scene when he actually seems to regret what he's put his daughter through. The rest of the actors, including Michael Dorman as Ed's brother and Claudia Karvan as the human heroine, are underdeveloped, the brother especially given how important his changing motives are to the story.

The Spierigs are at their best as satirists and manipulators of suspense. Wendigo singles out two scenes for praise: a riot at a coffee stand when consumers discover that the blood content has been cut and Ed's daytime drive into the shade of a large tree for a meeting with fugitive humans. The first exemplifies the satiric, dystopian element of the film, how the artificial normality of the vampire majority can fall apart over petty things and turn purported people into battling animals. The second, an early episode, is convincingly tense because the directors have put over their concept and made clear what a huge risk Ed is taking by traveling to the middle of nowhere in broad daylight, with only the shade to save him from burning death. Whenever the action follows from the concept, Daybreakers is on sure ground. When there's action for action's sake, the film is less sure. But for a concept man like Wendigo, the film is a unique enough take on vampires to earn a bloody thumb up.

Sunday, March 20, 2011


Nikkatsu noir this isn't. It's the same studio, and a lot of the same personnel, but Seijun Suzuki's film takes us about as far from noir -- or its putative Japanese equivalent -- as a crime film fan can imagine. Designed to launch a series (there was only one sequel), it presents Suzuki protege Jo Shishido as Tajima, a private detective who convinces the cops to let him infiltrate a new gang that's been robbing yakuza weapons smugglers. Our chipmunk cheeked protagonist (frequent readers will recall that Shishido had himself surgically, er, enhanced to make himself more distinctive looking) is given the identity of a prisoner, with all the resources of the police dedicated to backing it up. That's a good thing, since the gang proves quite diligent about background checks.

Jo Shishido (right) gets pretty cheeky with the cops, as only he can.

Tajima attempts to ingratiate himself to the gang by rescuing an imprisoned member from a yakuza lynch mob lurking outside the local jail, but the crooks never fully trust him. Complicating things further is his budding romance with the gang leader's moll and the fact that the star performer at the nightclub frequented by the gang is Tajima's ex-girlfriend. She's in the picture to justify some song-and-dance numbers, one of which our hero joins in. It's that kind of film.

Christmas in Japan

To be more precise, there's a kind of Rat Pack vibe to the whole project. If they remade it in America I could see Dean Martin as the detective. No one really takes it seriously, and the picture is pretty overtly comic, anyway. Tajima has a couple of comic sidekicks, one of which is a mannish female who doubles as a scandal-sheet publisher. The production numbers are purposefully tacky, all the more so given the Christmastime setting. The Japanese celebrate the holiday with one of the world's ugliest trees and a chorine performance of "When the Saints Go Marching In." There's a bemused engagement with Christian culture throughout, as when Tajima must explain why his alter ego "Tanaka Ichiro" lives in a Catholic church. The priest there is his father, he explains, and no one bats an eye.

Did I mention that there was violence in this movie? Hell yes there is!

The story isn't really that engaging once you realize you can't take it seriously, but if style trumps substance you can still enjoy the movie. Suzuki toes the line between taste and tackiness, and his strong sense of color keeps him in a state of candy-colored balance. The urban locations are an added attraction for time-traveling tourists like me. Detective Bureau 2-3 gives you a definite feel for a specific moment in Japan's pop-culture history. It's not in the same league with Suzuki's more intensely dramatic films like Youth of the Beast or Gate of Flesh, nor is it as nuttily inspired as his bridge-burning Branded to Kill, but it'll do for a 90 minute pop diversion to an exotic stop in the wild world of cinema.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Anthony Mann's THE LAST FRONTIER (1955)

Anthony Mann is widely regarded as the best directors of westerns during the 1950s, the golden age of the genre in America. But while his run of films with Jimmy Stewart have entered the canon, and his one film with Gary Cooper, Man of the West, is often ranked on the same level, The Last Frontier is for some reason the neglected cousin of the Mann western family. To be more specific, the reason it's neglected is Victor Mature. Compared to Stewart and Cooper, not to mention Henry Fonda (The Tin Star) or Glenn Ford (Cimarron), Mature is a much less credible actor. He remains identified with Cecil B. DeMille's Samson and Delilah, which despite its blockbuster popularity made Mature a laughingstock as legends spread of his cowardice on set and Groucho Marx's comment that Mature's breasts were bigger than Hedy Lamarr's. If he's remembered at all now, it's as a bad actor, but I've liked some of his performances, from the film noir Kiss of Death to another sword-and-sandal saga, Delmer Daves's Demetrius and the Gladiators. It might help Last Frontier's reputation if more people knew that it features one of Mature's best performances, but the film has problems of its own that aren't the actor's fault.

Mature plays Jed Cooper, a trapper who works the Sioux country with his mentor Gus (James Whitmore) and his full-blooded Indian pal Mungo (Pat Hogan). They get a cool introduction in which they react to the menacing arrival of a war band by sitting down for a snack to show that they're not scared. They may not be scared, but it's not like they can face down these suddenly hostile warriors. Instead, they're compelled to give up the furs they've accumulated, the horses they're loaded on, and their guns, now that Chief Red Cloud has decided that white men are no longer welcome on tribal land. They're no longer welcome because the bluecoats have built a fort, and it's to the fort that Jed and his crew head in search of compensation, despite Gus's reservations.

The cavalry can't repay them for what the Indians took, but it can pay them to become scouts. Jed likes the idea of the power and status that comes with a uniform, while Mungo is happy as long as he can get booze. Jed is also turned on by the lady of the fort, Corinna Marston (Anne Bancroft), the commanding colonel's wife. Like his men, or most of them, Col. Marston (Robert Preston) is stationed on the frontier because he's not good enough to fight in the Civil War. He'd had his chance, actually, and earned the nickname "the Butcher of Shiloh" with it. It wasn't Rebs he butchered, but his own men through reckless leadership. Marston is unrepentant, telling anyone who'll listen that he'd take the same chance again, and wants redemption through a decisive victory over Red Cloud. With typical bluecoat arrogance, he underrates "savages" as strategists and makes arrangements to lead his men into a Little Bighorn style slaughter.

Jed confronts the Marstons: Corrina (Anne Bancroft, above) and the Colonel (Robert Preston, trapped below).

Jed recognizes Marston for a fool but is torn between a growing sense of responsibility to the fort and a desire to be rid of the Colonel in order to have Corinna for himself. He claims to have nothing against Marston personally, but he'd plainly be happy to see him dead. The feeling eventually becomes mutual as Jed leaves Marston in a bear trap, only to be guilt-tripped by Corinna into going back and rescuing him. Annoyed by her mixed signals, Jed slaps her before he leaves. Afterward, he becomes increasingly disruptive, finally quitting the fort after Marston's henchman tries to kill him. He knows that Marston will lead his men to destruction, despite the efforts of a lone sensible officer (Guy Madison), but that's none of his business anymore, except that Gus is still with them (Mungo followed Jed out but went his own way) and the opinion of at least one other person at the fort still matters to him....

Mature gives his all in a boisterous, swaggering performance -- at least it's a lot more than he often gave in movies. Jed symbolizes the eventual civilization of the Last Frontier as he gradually learns loyalty to things larger than himself and disciplines himself accordingly. He's not unlike the typical conflicted Mann protagonist, but without Stewart's cool grimness; Mature's a wild man by comparison and the best thing in the movie.

Mann makes the most of his locations, of course, as does cinematographer William C. Mellor. The fort setting and the frontier warfare with "barbarians" anticipates what Mann would do on a larger scale, if not with much more success, in The Fall of the Roman Empire nearly a decade later. What hurts him here is a romance angle that has no good reason to exist, except that Columbia Pictures probably insisted on it. If there's a weakness in Mature's performance, it's that he has no chemistry whatsoever with Anne Bancroft, who doesn't seem herself in this episode from her first, failed tour of duty in Hollywood. Jed's affair with Corinna is an artificial complication that his conflict with Col. Marston doesn't need. We know it doesn't need the extra stuff because it's been done before. The conflict between Mature and Robert Preston is basically the conflict between John Wayne and Henry Fonda in John Ford's Fort Apache, only more forcefully expressed across a greater social gulf.

In the end, however, The Last Frontier is a strange synthesis of Fort Apache and, of all things, Gunga Din. Imagine a Gunga Din remake in which the title character not only survives but wins, and you have the finish of Mann's movie. A lone figure is about to ride into an ambush that'll preface a general slaughter of unsuspecting troops. The uncivilized Jed can save the day (and his friend) and alert the troops by firing his rifle. In the end he saves neither Gus nor Marston, but instead of a dead honorary corporal, Jed ends up a live sergeant. Mann usually opts for the redemptive happy ending in his westerns, but this time it seems too neat and too convenient for the hero. The film is simply too romantic to rank among Mann's best work or the great westerns of the decade, but even an inferior Mann western has a lot going for it. Between Mann and Mature, this one has enough to justify a look.