Friday, October 25, 2013

The Invisible Man (1933)

In a few weeks it will be the 80th anniversary of the 1933 theatrical release of Universal Pictures' The Invisible Man.  I just revisited it while crashed out on the couch, wrecked by the cold that finally caught up with me this week.  There's way too much to love about this spectacular movie.  But I'll keep it brief. 

Directed by James Whale, who made history with Mae Clarke and Karloff two years before with Universal's Frankenstein, The Invisible Man was Claude Rains' first American film appearance.  For my money, his turn as an obscure chemist become a deranged freak of science gone awry gives us the most charismatic screen villain of all time.  His maniacal rants, explosive rage and giddy, giggly homicidal sprees foreshadow later iconic villains like Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter and Jack Nicholson's and Heath Ledger's Jokers.  That would be enough to earn Rains a place of honor in the annals of cinematic horror.  But I think that, in a way, his performance surmounts what later actors accomplished.  This is largely due to the fact that he gets it all across with only his voice and a pair of pajamas. 

Rains is Jack Griffin, an unknown laboratory researcher whose dreams of scientific prestige lapse into megalomania as the chemical formula responsible for his invisibility -- his intended legacy -- slowly corrupts his mind.  Dangerously unhinged and desperate for an antidote, Rains radiates sinister intensity, alternating between delusional speeches about ruling the world with invisible armies and hysterical mirth as he cavorts in the nude, running amok, compulsively destroying property and wasting innocents left and right in a slapdash reign of terror.  Rains treads a razor-thin line with stupefying nonchalance.  He's funny but really quite disturbing.

Of course I wasn't there in 1933 to join everyone in seeing it for the first time (oh for another of H.G. Wells' fantastic devices, a time machine!), but 80 years of changing trends and conventions somehow take nothing away from the film's eerie energy.  Even through my crass Netflix looking glass and foggy flu goggles, Rains is mesmerizing and his performance feels fresh and surprising.  And it bears repeating: his portrayal would likely have the same impact in a radio format.  We only see Rains' face in the film's tragic final frame.  Virtually everything remarkable that he brings to the film he accomplishes with his voice.  It's hard to overstate what that says about his sheer magnetism.  You can't take your eyes off him.  And it's hard not to find yourself secretly rooting for him.  Maybe that's just me.

Here's a highlight reel.  But if you like nice things, don't spoil the high points and just watch the whole thing instead:

Fun fact: In the film, Griffins' former mentor, a respected chemist and father of The Invisible Man's perpetually hysterical love interest, is played by Henry Travers, the avuncular, earthbound angel in Frank Capra's 1946 It's a Wonderful Life.  But enough about Christmas.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Man of Steel (2013)

I saw Man of Steel last Friday night.  I haven't digested it adequately but I'm happy just to say the following and leave it at that.  There are no overt spoilers below, but I vaguely imply some secret story content.  Fair warning. 

The movie is a testament Hollywood's refinement of the art of making bloated or muddled stories into cinematic experiences so spectacular that they dull your senses and leave you not wanting to think too hard about what you've just been through.  It could just be my starry-eyed infatuation with the character, but I wanted to invest in what was happening.  And I almost did.  There really are some exhilarating and emotionally resonant moments.  The movie is hardly garbage, and that's what ultimately made the experience so frustrating.

However, a catastrophic characterization blunder in the climactic scene and the film's gross weight in every sense ruined what was an otherwise promising reboot.  No one takes these kinds of movies, and this character in particular, more seriously (in every good and bad sense) than I do.  But Man of Steel really makes me doubt whether we haven't finally run the superhero genre into the ground.

The movie buckles under its own excesses: it's too brooding; it's too long; it's (inevitably, these days) too encumbered by CGI; and it makes too many concessions to the dismal century we live in.

Now of course you can "re-imagine" iconic characters like Superman in all sorts of ways, for all sorts of reasons.  Batman, for instance, should keep pace with the world.  The character is made for reinvention.  This is partly because the character is of this world.  He is mortal.  Moreover, he's a tragic character, conceived in senseless violence and essentially belonging to its insane trajectory, destined to ride it right into the grave, even as the symbol he embodies transcends the fate to which the man behind it must be subject.  That's why Christopher Nolan's vision fits so well, why he was the right choice to helm Batman's latest cinematic incarnation, and why he was right to kill the character off at the end (shameful, incredible, perfunctory pandering and ass-covering during the final moments of The Dark Knight Rises notwithstanding).

But Superman's strength consists in being fundamentally different.  As the archetypal "strange visitor from another planet," he is not of this world.  We permit him the moral absolutes that the world as we actually find it won't permit of us.  We can do this because there should be a place for indulging our impossible ideals.  Their impossibility is less poisonous and confounding when it can be given free reign in an escapist fantasy.  An icon that dirties his hands to the extent that Nolan/Snyder's Man of Steel does cannot be the symbol of hope the film sets him up to be.  His uniqueness is lost, which is bad enough, but so is his therapeutic value to people exhausted by moral and spiritual compromise. 

Introduced in 1938, Superman is a creature of the American Century.  To me, anyway, he belongs alongside Norman Rockwell and New Deal civic idealism.  And if "alongside" is too close for comfort, he ought to stay in the neighborhood.

Of course, these are quaint artifacts of a naivety we've supposedly outgrown.  And we can't recapture that time and its way of expressing its guiding ideals.  It's gone and we shouldn't nurture the silly hope of recovering the lost innocence of a pristine, golden age.  That kind of romanticism is unhealthy if anything is.  So I don't mean to suggest that the character of Superman should be reverently preserved.  The plain fact is that changes in how our shared icons are expressed inevitably reflect changes in our own collective self-understanding.  So it's never a question of whether to alter an icon, only a question of how far and why.

But we need untimely heroes in our popular mythology, if only as a counterpoint to the prevailing cynicism and weary resignation of an age of rabid state surveillance, shrill, talking-point politics, class polarization, austerity, child soldiering, drone warfare, and a host of other demoralizing horrors brought home by the daily headlines.  We may have to settle for Weber's iron cage, in the end, but we should not be so eager to allow Nolan's grim, ashen ambiance to colonize every corner of our imagination along the way.  We should resist it, but we need help.  And far from helping to cultivate hope in this enterprise, Man of Steel all but ignores the moral stakes of responding to "terror" and apocalyptic violence in kind.

This is irresponsible.  Of all our modern mythological figures, Superman is perhaps best suited to mobilize a defiant idealism in the face of the world as we find it.  This is so given his star-spangled, insouciant and optimistic origins.  The film abandons these qualities at super-speed, and that's where it misses the mark by the widest margin with the worst consequences for us.

Nolan's Dark Knight films helpfully suggest that our highest and most uncompromising ideals, say those of "truth and justice," may not be able to withstand a careful, realistic accounting.  Maybe The Dark Knight is right to suggest that our world isn't ready for "the hero we deserve," that "the truth isn't good enough--sometimes people deserve more."  Or maybe The Dark Knight Rises is right to suggest instead that the truth should be allowed to "have its day," however ugly and destructive it turns out to be.

The Dark Knight films take these difficult possibilities seriously by showing how much is at stake in the questions they raise.  Batman and Jim Gordon pay a high price for the gut-wrenching decisions they make, and the cost is personal.  They agonize over them long after the deeds are done.  This is because, like real actions undertaken by real people, they have lasting and unpredictable consequences.  Man of Steel ends with a gut-wrenching decision followed by a vacant smile, some cheap laughs and a shrug. 

This review gets a lot of things right.  The movie was indeed joyless.  But this one really nails it, right down to calling out Snyder's utter failure to learn anything from Alan Moore, and hence from the best of the storytelling medium he's cashed in on, not just once (with Watchmen) but, now, twice, with his handling of Superman.

What a disappointment, partly because the film really does get a lot right.  The casting, for instance, was exceptional overall.  But even here there's a fatal flaw: Amy Adams was really uninspiring as Lois Lane, a character with as much potential for dignity, style, humor and brass as any you'll find in our pop culture pantheon.  And her onscreen chemistry with Cavill's Kal-El/Clark Kent rivals this for non-starterdom, which is saying a lot.

There's been a lot of enthusiastic talk about how much Henry Cavill looks the part of Superman.  There's no denying that, and he does fine as the troubled loner and reluctant savior that a lot of modern comics make the character out to be.  It's cool when he punches shit over and over.  And to me it ends up being about as thoughtful and inspiring as that sounds.

I recall Christopher Reeve's remark that, from his point of view, Superman is a pacifist, and I can't help wondering how many tickets you could sell to modern audiences with that approach to the violence and destruction to which the character is inevitably forced.  I don't know what John Q. Public deserves these days, particularly given how happy he seems to be to settle for movies like this.  But at the risk of overusing the reference, I wonder whether Nolan/Snyder's Man of Steel is the Superman we really need, or just the one we think we do.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Batman (1943)

“BAT-MAN, yes BAT-MAN: clad in the sombre costume which has struck terror into the heart of many a swaggering denizen of the underworld!”

My multi-volume VHS copy of this Columbia Pictures chapter play, released eighteen months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, kept me from offing myself throughout middle school.  The Batman mythos was still embryonic only four years after the character’s comic debut.  But this serialized tale, his earliest celluloid incarnation, shoehorns it into the war effort.  The results are mixed, but so are my feelings about everything.

The Dynamic Duo appear as operatives for the U.S. government rather than independent vigilantes.  Their daunting task: to foil a sinister agent of Emperor Hirohito, mad scientist and would-be Japanese Colonel Sanders lookalike “Dr. Daka,” whose evil ministrations reduce high-profile Americans to freakishly strong but mindless playthings christened as “Zombies” in his electronic laboratory.  His ultimate aim: to acquire vast quantities of radium for the construction of an atomic “lethal mechanism so destructive as to make retaliation by [the enemy] impossible,” thereby ensuring his nation’s victory in the war (sound familiar?).

The series is notable in part for introducing story elements that later became iconic.  Most importantly, it was here that the public first encountered “The Bat’s Cave,” Batman’s subterranean headquarters whose secret entrance is Wayne Manor’s grandfather clock.  Prior to these films, Batman housed his vehicles and equipment either in an “underground hangar” never actually depicted in the magazine or comic strip, or in a dusty old barn somewhere on the Wayne estate grounds.

This earliest version of the Batcave is pretty modest, consisting of a small stone room “hewn from the living rock of the mountain,” featuring a single desk, some filing cabinets and a bat emblem mounted on the wall.  This “strange, dimly-lighted, mysteriously secret Bat’s Cave” (quoth the narrator) is basically a study, though in later episodes an adjoining crime lab is revealed.  At any rate, great things have small beginnings.  And it’s better than a damn barn.

Other artifacts from the era have aged more gracefully, but the show has a certain charm.  At any rate, its shortcomings were entirely lost on me after I discovered it on a dusty Suncoast shelf in the mid 90s, so I refuse to acknowledge them now.  And I think the main theme prefigures Danny Elfman’s brooding score for the 1989 film.  I won’t say what nocturnal capers were inspired by my adolescent infatuation with it.  Just know that if you do not watch it, we’re finished.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Atlas Shrugged II: The Strike (2012)

 So, using internet magic, I digitally borrowed the sequel to that Atlas Shrugged movie that came out in 2011.  Evidently this one, subtitled "The Strike," was released last October.  Who knew?  I guess the AV Club did, because they wrote this in late December:

The irony of Part II’s mere existence is rich enough: The free market is a religion for Rand acolytes, and it emphatically rejected Part I at the height of the Tea Party movement.

The version of the sequel I acquired has Swedish subtitles, which is the part of the story that I found makes the most sense from the point of view of philosophy and economics. The production values approach TV miniseries grade. From an ideological standpoint, it's even more laughably infantile than the first one, which is saying a lot. But it departs from, and improves upon, the first installment in that not all the villains are played by hideously ugly and disheveled actors, though the heroes are still uniformly sexy and well-groomed.

Also in the plus column: the digital effects aren't half as bad as reviewers made them out to be. But the complete casting turnover and the obvious budgetary nosedive in this sequel do draw an awkward amount of attention to how defiled everyone associated with the first film must have felt.

But if you can keep your lunch down, for all its staggering irresponsibility and hilarious inadequacies, there's something almost quaint about this comforting escapist fantasy of entitlement.  Beyond the infomercial ambiance, something about it recalls the bygone smut of a simpler time, when prodigious bush and a hirsute, nude male ass were more then enough to get you sprung.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Bat (1959)

The Bat is a 1959 crime thriller directed by Crane Wilbur and starring Vincent Price and Agnes Moorehead  It's the third film adaptation of a 1920 broadway production of the same name that was first adapted as a silent film in 1926 by Roland West, then again by West in 1930 as a talkie entitled The Bat Whispers.  It's worth noting that Bob Kane credited the masked villain of the 1930 film as an inspiration for the comic book character of the Batman that he co-created in 1939.

The story follows the efforts of the authorities and Cornelia Van Gorder, a popular mystery novelist, to apprehend a mysterious costumed killer known only as "The Bat."  The masked fiend leaves a trail of mutilated corpses in his wake as he prowls the night in search of stolen loot rumored to be hidden somewhere in the country home occupied by Van Gorder and her entourage.

Price turns in a typically charismatic, quietly sinister performance as a doctor drawn into the hunt for the buried treasure, but it is Moorehead's Mrs. Van Gorder, or "Miss Corny" as she is affectionately known by her loyal but petrified maid Lizzy (played by Lenita Lane), who steals the show.

As the bodies pile up, the cops get involved but they are revealed to be bumbling and useless at practically every turn.  Only Van Gorder, a fearless, unflappable, self-fashioned sleuth, proves to be a match for the ruthless Bat in this chilling game of death with a cool million in unclaimed bank securities up for grabs. 

Watch the film immediately or we are finished.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

comments about the forthcoming remake of Evil Dead (2013) & some idle speculation

So there's a forthcoming remake of Sam Raimi's classic cult horror film Evil Dead.  Watch the red band trailer here.  Obviously the original is iconic and great.  And the remake will probably be fun to watch and I will probably see it when it comes out.  But it represents an obvious trend in Hollywood that is wearing on a lot of people's nerves, including mine.

There are simply too many remakes and sequels these days.  Often they're half or most of what's on offer in major theaters (here are some illustrative figures).  It's lazy and proof that audiences will settle for anything that is effectively packaged as a "major event" or "epic cinematic experience," however unoriginal or derivative it is.  Movies should not have to be "epic" viral phenomena, cynical exercises in pure commercial nostalgia or the visual equivalent of an amusement park ride. 

It's no mystery to anyone why this trend has become so pronounced.  Major studios invest millions into these fucking movies.  Producing something with proven market viability by tapping into the nostalgia or brand loyalty of an existing audience tends to be an extremely safe and reliable play, notwithstanding the occasional flop.  But it sucks for people who want new stories -- and yes, i mean *really* new stories, with unfamiliar dramatic situations and characters -- or who recognize that many of the greatest stories ever told (by Hollywood) were really nothing like the live action video games that pass for movie storytelling now. 

I'll only offer one example to illustrate what I mean.  Consider the classic film noir thriller Night of the Hunter (1955), directed by Charles Laughton and starring Robert Mitchum and Lillian Gish:

Night of the Hunter is a literary adaptation, so in a sense, it's not original, either.  That is, the story didn't originate with a screenplay writer, but with a novelist.  In fact, the novel was inspired by the true story of a man hanged in 1932 for murdering two widows and three children.  Literary adaptations have been big business in movies from the very outset, but they don't qualify as "remakes" or "sequels" in the sense I mean here.  They don't essentially reproduce movies already made or expand an existing film franchise.  While literary adaptations tell stories that are already in circulation among the general public, those stories are new to moviegoers.

I won't go on at length eulogizing Night of the Hunter, but suffice it to say that its standing as one of the great thrillers is well-deserved.  Mitchum depicts a malevolent huckster and predatory killer masquerading as a genteel preacher, the archetypal wolf in sheep's clothing who ends up stalking defenseless children in the night over a large sum of money buried by their dead father.

The movie is suspenseful and the characters are compelling.  Mitchum's portrayal of the twisted 'preacher' is chilling, not least of all because he appears to believe that he is really acting with some sort of divine authorization.  Gish, who plays a voluntary caregiver of lost children, eventually squares off against the preacher.  Her character is staid but shrewd and projects maternal dignity and strength.  She provides an ideal counterweight to Mitchum's obsessive, feral intensity.

The movie's atmosphere is forbidding and dreamlike.  The scenes of the children in flight from their pursuer portray their natural surroundings as dark and menacing; the river which bears them away is almost Stygian.  One feels the threatening presence of the preacher loom large like a shadow over everything, especially when he is absent.

The stark opposition between the characters of Mitchum and Gish, with the fate of three children ultimately hanging in the balance, provides the center of gravity for a story that unfolds ominously and haunts you long after the film is over.

All of this is achieved with a handful of actors and no pants-shitting pyrotechnics concocted for millions by a doughy computer animator.  In fact, none of it could be achieved by any amount of "epic visuals."  That is not the point.  You are drawn into what is happening because the story is good and the performances are powerful and finely observed.

Something you might hear a lot is that the decline of Hollywood for these reasons and others is not a death knell for moviegoers but for the big studios and theater chains.  Roger Ebert has taken this line.  After all, increasingly many of us are spending most of our movie-watching lives on Netflix or some other streaming venue, often watching shit that would never show at a big cineplex.  Plus big theater chains gouge you on overpriced, suicidally super-sized concessions and exorbitant ticket prices that their typically shallow, narrow offerings cannot really justify.  But despite all this, I still love going to the movies.  I've been doing and loving it since I was a small child and probably always will.

So I'll probably watch the shitty Evil Dead remake.  But still.

Monday, October 22, 2012

To the Devil...a Daughter (1976)

There are few things I love more than classic Hammer Horror.  For those who aren't familiar with Hammer Film Productions, it is a British production company founded in 1934 that flourished from the late 1950s through the middle 70s.  Hammer made all sorts of films, but specialized in the fantastic and sensational genres ranging from swashbucklers and prehistoric epics to opulent period pieces, literary adaptations and supernatural thrillers.  

"Hammer Horror" productions are legendary for their Gothic pageantry, moody and macabre set pieces, lavish costumes, theatrical ambiance and colorful dramatic palette.  The studio is probably best known for its stable of remakes and reworkings of classic horror stories, most notably those first popularized by Universal Studios in the 1930s such as Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy.  A great many British actors who later came to be known outside the U.K. got their start with Hammer, including Sir Christoper Lee and Peter Cushing (the latter having gone on to depict Grand Moff Tarkin in the first Star Wars film).

I won't turn this post into a precis on Hammer, but I might do a Hammer series in the near future.  Maybe this post will be the first in that series.

My friend Andee was recently looking for something to watch that's fun and scary but not a slasher flick.  I'm fond of some slasher stuff, but my primary interests in the horror genre lie elsewhere.  Slasher films are essentially high-dollar exploitation films.  Like a lot of horror, they're very formulaic, but the slasher formula isn't as fun for me.  I love exploitation movies, but I prefer the earlier stuff that was made on a pitiful budget and was not so self-consciously directed at a massive audience.  There's something naive and refreshing about the work of Herschell Gordon Lewis and Ted V. Mikels that's lost in any of Wes Craven's or John Carpenter's franchise films.  So I thought a Hammer flick might be of interest to my friend.  One of her friends suggested something with satanic themes.  So I suggested Hammer's 1976 occult thriller, To the Devil...a Daughter.  

To the Devil... is pretty notorious and there are a number of reasons why.  The biggest reason is that, since it was a critical flop and a commercial disaster, the film is widely credited with ruining Hammer studios.  The film was an adaptation of a popular novel by occult writer Dennis Wheatley.  It was the second of Wheatley's novels to receive the Hammer treatment, and it was to be the last.  Wheatley had been pleased with Hammer's handling of his work in 1968 with the success of their film The Devil Rides Out, based on his novel of the same name.  But he was outraged by the script of To the Devil...  He felt that it departed too much from his story, whereas he attributed the success of The Devil Rides Out to the film's faithfulness to the letter of the novel.  Indeed, the climactic scene in the film version of To the Devil... is rather awkward and was the result of a last-minute compromise over disagreement within Hammer about how to conclude the movie.  Wheatley refused to allow Hammer to adapt any more of his stories after To the Devil...'s critical and commercial failure.  It ended up being the final horror film Hammer made until the late 2000s when they finally began clawing their way out of financial oblivion. 

Nevertheless, Christopher Lee turns in a fabulous performance as Father Michael Rayner, a demented priest-turned-occult Svengali-figure in service to Satan.  An aging Richard Widmark plays John Verney, an occult writer (and Wheatley's obvious alter ego) who is drawn into the web of treachery, heresy and demonic machinations set in motion by Father Michael.  Widmark's Verney becomes the reluctant protector of a fifteen-year-old Nastassja Kinski, who plays Catherine Beddows, a cloistered, nubile lady of the cloth in thrall to Lee's Father Michael, whose dread purpose is to transform the unsuspecting girl into the Canaanite avatar of hubris, Astaroth.  

To the Devil... was Hammer's misguided attempt to cash in on the occult trend in movies that had worked so well for Rosemary's Baby (1968) and The Exorcist (1973) It can't hold a candle to its competitors, but it's not a worthless effort.  Its greatest strengths are the performances of Widmark and Lee.  These are fine actors doing their best with what they were given, which was a half-baked turd.  For instance, the script was still being reworked throughout the making of the movie.  Widmark was given his revised lines during makeup at the beginning of each day.  He threatened to walk off the set and fly home to the U.S. during shootingScreenplay co-writer Roy Skeggs sat on the edge of his bed in the middle of the night several times, persuading Widmark to stay the course, before finally giving up and ignoring his threats to take the first flight back to L.A.  

Beyond the lead performances, there's some implicit conservative commentary on the spiritually rudderless youth of the day, lots of frontal nudity and plenty of fucked up visuals during the several scenes depicting bizarre and grotesquely eroticized Satanic rituals.  Perhaps the film's greatest perversity is that you're made to think you get to see Christopher Lee's finely sculpted derriere.  But alas, it's a bare-assed body double.  

For all its faults, To the Devil... is classic nunsploitation schlock.  It's comfort food for fans of kinky occult mumbo-jumbo and shameless shock cinema, and well worth the time of anyone with a well-developed taste for the tasteless in film.