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2017-10-02 02:02 pm
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Arrival

Finally got around to seeing this on my own, since Kestrell wasn’t very interested. And, as it happens, I think she was right: the film was not very blind-friendly. In addition to having many scenes which would have been challenging to verbally describe, the sound mix was often needlessly confusing. Dramatic music led into – or played over? – alien speech, muddying which was which. There were a few junctures where, even after rewinding and re-listening, I couldn’t quite make out what seemed to be important dialogue. It’s possible that all this was deliberate on the director’s part, to make some sort of point about the difficulties of communication; if so, I can only say that I strongly disagree with that choice. Reading a little about the film afterwards, I was frankly shocked that it won an Oscar for sound editing.

That said, I did think it was quite a good movie on its own merits. As an adaptation of one of my favorite stories – it did better than I thought Hollywood could have (an admittedly low bar). They added explosions, guns, and large-scale political angst. They significantly reduced the amount of science and philosophy. On the other hand, the remaining quantities of science and philosophy were still super-high by Hollywood standards. Perhaps most importantly, they retained the emotional heart of the story.

Amy Adams was excellent in the lead role. I was a bit distracted for the first half of the film, trying to figure out where I’d seen her before. Then, from a certain angle, it clicked into focus: I wasn’t actually recognizing her, she just looked a lot like my friend Libby Beyreis!
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2017-08-22 08:20 pm

Viy (1967)

This film is based on a Nikolai Gogol short story from 1835. I had never previously heard of the story, but it was apparently influential enough to inspire about half a dozen film adaptations, of which it would seem that this 1967 one, from Russia, was the most faithful. It’s also a pretty good example of the folktale sub genre of horror.

It opens in a silly mode, with a Kiev seminary about to let the students out for a holiday break. The students appear to be young men in their 20s – at least physically; mentally, they act a lot like boys in junior high. Lots of pranks and little respect for authority. The local town folk view the students, quite correctly, as an emergency on par with a small army invasion.

As the student mob gets further and further from Kiev, it splits and shrinks at every crossroad. Soon, we are left with a trio, the “philosopher” Khoma Brutus and his two friends. They, not too surprisingly, find themselves lost in the wilderness with night coming on. Coming across a farm, they pound on the gates until an old lady reluctantly agrees to give them shelter for the night, albeit in three separate resting places.

Brutus beds down on some hay in the barn, but doesn’t get to sleep very much. The old woman comes in and approaches him with an extremely suggestively leer. Brutus attempts to put her off from what he assumes our sexual advances. He’s in for a surprise, though. She hypnotizes him, climbs on his shoulders, forces him to run through the countryside – and then to fly above it! Yes, the wizened old crone who looks like a witch actually IS a witch.

After some time of this, the flight is interrupted (I think by a black cat crossing their path) and they fall to earth. Brutus picks up a stick and proceeds to cudgel the witch within an inch of her life. At which, the old crone transforms into a beautiful maiden, who continues to lie on the ground moaning. This is too much for Brutus, and he flees back to the seminary, even though holiday has just begun.

The seminary proves to be no refuge for him. A wealthy landowner (and patron of the seminary) sends word that his beautiful daughter is mysteriously ill and has specifically requested Brutus to say prayers over her for three nights. Brutus does NOT want to go along with this, but no one involved is interested in giving him any choice. So, a bunch of peasants from the farm head back with him, pausing along the way to spend a night in a pub and drink a lot of vodka. There is a LOT of vodka drunk in this movie. (Digression: It reminded me of an old storyteller meeting where one of our number was discussing the lessons she had learned from reading a tome of Russian folk tales. “In a Russian folktale, if you have lost everything you own in the world, the first thing you must do is get blind stinking drunk. Corollary: in Russia, vodka is cheaper than dirt.)

Arriving at the farm, Brutus finds that the aristocrat’s daughter looks suspiciously similar to the transformed which he beat up. Oh, and by the way, before he got here, she died. Not that that lets Brutus off the hook. The nobleman insists that he will pray three nights over her corpse in the nearby church. (As Kestrell says, one of the great things about the horror genre is that you can die early in the story, but still be a major character.) If Brutus complies with this demand, he will receive 1000 gold pieces; if he refuses, 1000 lashes. And to make doubly sure, he will be locked inside the church.

The first night arrives. The church has some beautiful artwork, but on the whole is fairly run down, with lots of cobwebs in the corners. It is also infested with cats, leading to a few well done literal cat-scares. But Brutus gets over his skittishness, lights a bunch of candles, sets up his Bible on the lectern, and begins to pray aloud.

He hasn’t been praying for very long before the lid flies off of the coffin, and the beautiful but pale-as-death woman sits up, in a manner presaging Michael Myers. Brutus is understandably terrified, but it transpires that he has learned a thing or two in the seminary. He very quickly draws a chalk circle about his lectern, and proceeds with his (panicked) prayers. The circle seems to protect him both physically and visually. The witch cannot see him, though she eventually tracks him down by touch – to the extent that she hits the invisible force field of the circle. She pounds upon it with all her might, but to no avail. Brutus prays and prays and prays, and at last the cock crows, the witch returns to her coffin, and the farmhands unlock the church.

Brutus doesn’t actually tell them what happened. Perhaps he’s worried they won’t believe him. Perhaps he’s worried that they’ll blame him for beating the witch in the first place. Probably, though, just doesn’t want them to think he’s scared. After all, he is a Cossack by blood, and Cossacks fear nothing! They DO, however, indulge in a great deal more vodka before going back for night two, as well as hiding a bottle in their robe.

The second night starts in a fairly similar fashion. Only this time, instead of getting out of her coffin, the witch levitates her coffin and rides around it. After a while, she even stands up in it, thus looking a bit like an undead Silver Surfer. She alternates between zooming around the church in dizzying circles, and RAMMING the chalk circle force field with the coffin. Brutus does a lot more gibbering then praying, but manages to hold out until cock-crow. The witch has tried to curse him, with partial success. He does not go blind, but his hair does turn instantly white.

On his way back to the farm, Brutus dons a goofy fur hat, so people don’t immediately realize what’s happened to him. On arrival, he demands music at once! A peasant pulls out a pipe, and Brutus begins to do a goofy Cossack dance, presumably to prove to himself how not-afraid he is. But his hat falls off, and all the peasantry are shocked to see his white hair.

For night three, the witch pulls out ALL the stops. If he can’t beat him alone, she’ll bring help. She summons forth disembodied gray arms that emerge from the walls and the floor. She summons vampires, werewolves, skeletons, ghouls, gargoyles and all manner of unpleasantries. The level of special-effects technology is not very advanced, but the artistry with which that tech is used is pretty great. As are the practical makeup effects; no two of the monsters are identical. This out-in-the-country church is not very big, and now it is FULL of revenants. But they still can’t break the protective circle.

At last, the witch decides to summon… VIY! Even the other monsters are scared when they hear his name! The thumps of his footsteps are audible as he approaches the church door. It opens, and he strides in – an immensely broad humanoid figure, with a huge head but no neck as such. Notably, his huge eyeballs are covered with enormous flaps of skin that reach down to his chin. “I cannot see anything. Lift up my eyebrows.” Two of the vampires do so. Brutus, against his better judgment, looks at Viy. When he sees Viy, Viy sees him, which apparently breaks the power of the circle. Monsters leap upon Brutus from all sides, burying him completely beneath them.

Sadly for them, however, the monsters are having so much fun that they lost track of time. The cock crows. The monsters flee for the windows, but mostly die half out of them. The witch reverts to her crone form, and lies back upon the altar, hopefully never to rise again. Since this is a RUSSIAN story, Brutus also fails to rise, having apparently died of fright.

That’s the main outline, though I’ve certainly left out a bunch of detail. There’s some great scenery, nifty historical costumes and scenes of peasant life. The lead actors are fantastic; even without subtitles I’m sure one could follow the plot from the action and facial expressions. And the final night has some virtuoso (if low-tech) effects work. Recommended.
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2017-07-31 08:44 pm

The Ballad of Tam Lin (1970)

This is one of the sub genre that Kestrell refers to as “two islands over from Summerisle”. Like The Wicker Man, it’s a 70s British film that was (mis-)marketed as horror for want of any better category, contains some cool folk music, and has an ambiguous relationship with the supernatural.

Ava Gardner, then 47 years old but still glamorous, plays “Mickey”, an aging billionaire who surrounds herself with a court of young hippies in order to keep herself young. (Literally? Metaphorically? Take your pick.) Her current lover, amateur photographer Tom Lynn, is played by Ian McShane, far younger, handsomer, and less craggy than his recent portrayal of Mister Wednesday. (Digression: while this movie contains no bare breasts, McShane’s shapely bum is handsomely displayed on a few occasions.) Tom is perfectly content in this decadent, dissipated existence – until he happens to meet the vicar’s daughter, Janet (Stephanie Beacham). Tom decides to run away with Janet, even after being warned of the way many of Mickey’s ex-lovers have met with fatal accidents. Mickey eventually accepts his departure – if he will play one final game with her…

As you may have noticed, the plot hews well to the well-known ballad. It continues to do so right up until the end, though how it manages to do so without explicit magic, I will not spoil. (Every so often, in the background music, Pentangle will sing a few verses appropriate to the current action.) Despite this hewing to the classic plot, the movie is very much of its time, often in surprising ways. At one point Janet, having “gotten in trouble” pays a visit to the local wise woman who, these days, gives referrals to a London abortionist without passing any moral judgment.

The film is also a visual feast. Beautiful Scottish countryside, beautiful sets and set decorations, beautiful people, and 70s high fashion which ranges from the beautiful to the astounding. I strained my vocabulary to the limit to describe the clothes of the Fairy Queen, leading Kestrell to conclude that she wanted all of it. Also some interesting directorial choices, such as playing the meeting between Tom and Janet largely as a series of still images with no dialogue.

Speaking of directorial choices, the director of this gem was none other than Roddy McDowall (in between Planet of the Apes films). This was his sole stint behind the camera, and was excellent enough I wish there had been more. Sadly, like Charles Laughton, his initial foray bombed and he never did any more.

It’s got some rough edges and I wouldn’t rate it as an all-time fave, but it’s a very good film that deserves more than the obscurity it has received. If you wish to check it out, it is available on YouTube.
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2017-07-23 07:32 pm

Girl Asleep (2015)

Girl Asleep is a delightful recent entry in the sub genre “girl on the cusp of womanhood who is confused by her changing life (and body) and learns to deal with it via a fantasy universe”, like Labyrinth and Mirror Mask. (I’m sure there must be more examples, but I’m having difficulty recalling them. Anyone want to add to the list?)

This particular girl, Greta, is growing up in Australia in the late 1970s. This is, in itself, more than a little fantastical, and the boundaries between the real and the visionary remain porous throughout the film. (I particularly liked the “integrated captions” for the scene changes, such as focusing on a bucket of fried chicken with a logo on the side reading “later that day”.) Her mother means well, but doesn’t understand her introvert daughter. Her father is little better, and over indulges in dad jokes (and an impressively 70s ‘stache). Her older sister is clearly thinking about moving out and has a dangerously sexy boyfriend. The family has moved to a new town, so Greta has to deal with the new school and all that entails. The only kid at school who seems to want to be friends with her is incredibly dorky (and adorbs). But a gang of archetypical “mean girls” also offers her membership – with unclear but intimidating strings attached. And then mom takes it into her head to invite all her little classmates to Greta’s 15th birthday party. The horror, the horror!

The party starts out okay, but piles stress upon stress until either reality or sanity fractures (there’s enough ambiguity that you may have your pick). Greta becomes lost in the woods, which are inhabited by wonders, but also by Big Bad Wolves. (And a friendly huldra. Don’t see too many of them around…) It all comes to a head in a climactic battle that I was quite charmed by, alternating seamlessly between hair pulling and pillow fights on the one hand, and advanced martial arts movie moves on the other.

The story had its genesis as a stage play, but the film fully embraces the possibilities of its new medium. While the film doesn’t seem to have a huge budget, it used that budget to excellent effect, creating many beautiful and memorable images. What I think it brings most from the stage is a “theatrical” sensibility, where the creative staff are willing to trust the audience’s suspension of disbelief, presenting images that work on multiple levels simultaneously, and respecting the audience’s ability to interpret. Both Kestrell and I were reminded of the excellent work of Lifeline Theater in Chicago.

It’s available on DVD and on Amazon video. Highly recommended.

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2017-06-11 06:39 pm

The Eternal (1998)

Kestrell and I watched a nifty movie yesterday, an obscure Gothic horror from 1998, written and directed by Michael Almereyda. “The Eternal” is the name we saw it under, but as often seems to be the case with low-budget horror movies, it had several other titles as well: Trance, The Mummy, and Eternal: Kiss of the Mummy – possibly others.

All this mention of a mummy is perhaps deceptive, though not false. Our setting is not Egypt, but Ireland; the body emerging not from a pyramid, but an ancient peat bog. Also featured are Druids, witchcraft, transmigration of souls, terrorists, guns, explosives, whiskey, broken glass, broken hearts, broken promises… Plus most of your traditional Gothic elements: the creepy, isolated old house, the family secrets, the madwoman in the attic, the creepy girl, the thunderstorms. No individual ingredient was anything we hadn’t seen a million times before, but the sheer quantity of volatile moving parts meant that we had NO idea where the plot was going to go next.

The film ended up on our radar because it has Christopher Walken in it. As is often the case, his role was relatively small, though important to the plot. His faltering attempt at an Irish accent was perhaps the weakest element of the film, but that didn’t get in the way of my enjoyment.

So, what’s the basic set up? A loving couple of alcoholics bring their son to Ireland and the ancestral house. Ostensibly, so he can meet his grandmother, but possibly also to try and stop drinking. (The script does acknowledge that going to Ireland to dry out is perhaps not the wisest choice.) Such family as remains alive within the ancestral house mostly accuse each other of having “lost the bucket” (apparently the Irish equivalent of losing one’s marbles – there seems to be a series bucket shortage in their neighborhood). Uncle Bill (Walken) is perhaps most obviously bonkers, since he’s spending a lot of his time hanging out in the basement with a remarkably well preserved 2000 year old corpse that he seems to think might be able to be revived.

One thing that particularly pleased me about this movie was that the script did not depend on anyone holding the idiot ball. At various times, characters are inattentive and miss details that one wishes they had not, and there are no shortage of poor life choices, BUT no one wastes any time denying the evidence of their senses (once they notice the weird shit), and they make reasonable efforts to get out of danger, even if these don’t always work. There is a character who looks for a while as if he will be a traditional Fatal Boy, but he does not fall into that trap, and even makes effective use of his one real life-skill (partying hard) before the end.

Many reviewers panned this on the sadly-traditional basis that it is a horror movie without a huge amount of blood, or even that large a body count. For those (like me) who like their horror with a lot of atmosphere and characterization, it’s an overlooked gem. Recommended.
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2017-05-01 07:14 pm

Follow Thru (1930)

I found this film on YouTube (split into 12 parts, not sure why) as part of my great Thelma Todd binge. She’s only got a supporting role in this one as “the bad girl rival”, but does quite well in it. The film stars Charles “Buddy” Rogers, one of Todd’s classmates in acting school, and the only other member of her class to have a significant Hollywood career. Nancy Carroll plays the female lead, a local golf champion in competition with Thelma Todd for both trophies and for Rogers’s affection. The lead couple aren’t called upon to do much of a dramatic range, but do carry out their roles pleasingly. Also notable in the cast is a pre-Tin Woodsman Jack Haley, whose face I did not recognize but whose voice I did, in an extremely silly role. Matching him in silliness is Zelma O’Neal; the romance between her and Haley is delightfully off-kilter.

O’Neal and Haley had both been in the Broadway show that this film was based on. With a well tested story, and some of the actors already very familiar with their roles, I found the film more successful than the average of this era.

Of technical interest, this is one of the very first Technicolor films. They were still working the kinks out, so the whole thing has a fairly muted palette, but the history-of-technology geek in me found that neat to see.

In addition to the romantic comedy, it’s also a musical, mostly using pre-existing pop music of that era. The songs are well sung, if not enduring classics. Most of the choreography is either quite restrained, or looking very much like a stage number that was filmed. That said, there is one bizarre exception. A production number late in the film (section 8 of the split up YouTube version) “I Want to be Bad” starts out with some fairly nifty pyrotechnics and what could plausibly be practical effects. But it just keeps going more and more over the top, with angels descending literally from heaven and getting caught in the flames of hell, cupids in the clouds summoning astral fire engines, and things like that. I have to wonder if they borrowed young Busby Berkeley to choreograph that section. If they didn’t, I have to believe it was an influence on him.

Overall, a pleasant bit of fluff, and mildly recommended. But Sovay, you should at least check out that one song.
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2017-04-14 11:27 am

IEHEU (1977??)

Yesterday, Kestrell and I watched a bunch of YouTube videos from the British Film Institute, mostly ones connected with their “GOTHIC” film festival from a few years ago. Which may have had something to do with the incredibly odd film I dreamed last night.

I was at a… party? At any rate, there were a lot of friends around, and we were snowed in. I was channel surfing looking for something interesting to watch. I eventually landed on a PBS station from out of state, which seemed to be showing this movie repeatedly and/or in random order. I can’t be quite sure, because the snowstorm was intermittently knocking out the signal, so what bits I did see were in random order at any rate.

The overall antagonist of the piece was Godzilla, but he was attacking Victorian England. In order to combat this threat, Sherlock Holmes had enlisted the help of Dracula, Jack the Ripper, and others (maybe Frankenstein’s Monster?). Near the end of the film, Jack had a speech about how he envied Godzilla for having spent most of its life in a world without humans.

Much earlier in the film (probably the opening scene) a prehistoric tribe of white furred hominids are about to be trampled by rampaging woolly mammoths. We focus in on one of them as he closes his eyes and prepares to die – but he doesn’t die, though blood splatters across him. A ghastly roar is heard above the noise of the trampling mammoths. He opens his eyes and sees (though we do not) the towering form of Godzilla, chomping down on the mammoths, inadvertently saving the ape man’s life. His name is Zaius, and he will become the shaman of his tribe.

Meanwhile, in Victorian England, criminals are taking advantage of the chaos of a Godzilla attack at night to break into a bank vault – but Sherlock Holmes has anticipated this! Sadly, his near-superhuman speed is not sufficient to stop the criminals, who escape in a waiting coach. Several of them were dressed as cowboys (Including Billy the Kid?) but most of them were uniformed Bobbies. Some sort of government conspiracy at work?

I was telling someone else at the party about this incredible film I’d been watching, when I woke up enough to realize I wanted to tell all of YOU about it. And now I have.
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2017-03-04 07:01 pm

Call Her Savage (1932)

Thelma Todd has a fairly small, thankless role in this as a tough society dame who has the misfortune of not being nearly AS tough as headliner Clara Bow. But Bow, in her apparently-best talkie role, is riveting. In this, her penultimate film role, she demonstrates that she definitely still has IT.

The story is purely melodrama, but it is pre-code melodrama, with lots of room for implied salaciousness. Bow plays a young lady named Nasa, who has a fiery temper and a wide emotional range. By the time she’s out of finishing school, the tabloids have nicknamed her “Dynamite”, and she’s earned it. Her character arc brings her all over the map; from rich society girl, to destitute single mother prostitute, back to riches, and finally (perhaps) true happiness with the one who quietly loved her all along. Along the way, she rides horses (and men), whips rattlesnakes (and men), has knock-down drag-out fights with Thelma Todd (and men), and enjoys lots of offscreen sex with men (just men, though I gather the original novel had rather more range).

One notable historic tidbit: this film apparently contains the first not-even-coded depiction of gayness. At one point, Bow goes slumming to a cabaret with mincing waiters singing a saucy song about sailors! Like many incidents in the film, it’s hideously offensive by modern standards, but historically interesting.

I can’t say it’s a GOOD film, but I mostly enjoyed it.
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2017-02-25 08:08 pm

Seven Footsteps to Satan (1929)

Seven Footsteps to Satan (1929) is the earliest Thelma Todd film I have found. Indeed, it is so early that it is a silent movie (apparently one of the last silent horror films).

While I found it interesting enough to finish watching and to write about, let me be clear up front: this is not a good movie. Not much plot, unevenly paced, poorly directed. The acting is passable. And, though this is not a fault of the original makers, the existing print that this was restored from is incredibly washed out, lacking nearly all visual detail. The ending is a narrative cheat that is only half a step above “it was all a dream”.

The story begins with a somewhat nebbishy leading man who is practicing marksmanship in his secret lab, so that he will be well prepared to go exploring in “darkest Africa”. Soon, he gets tangled up with robbers and then he and his girlfriend are suddenly kidnapped. So far, so pulp.

But then the film takes a sharp left into dream logic. Our heroes find themselves in a huge mansion that seems not unrelated to Castle Frank-N-Furter. It is packed to the rafters with secret passages, thugs in tuxedos, tortured damsels in distress, mysterious dwarfs, screeching apes, inscrutable Orientals, men with Exceedingly Strange facial hair, femmes fatales, ominous shadows, groping hands, and orgiastic cultists whose cult leader is named Satan. This is not a complete list.

Our hero keeps insisting that he just wants to go home, in the apparent belief that this will have any positive effect. But things keep happening. It’s never really clear why he has been brought there at all, what Satan wants with him, which of the weird characters are actually on his side, or much of anything really. (At least until the last few minutes, whose existence I deny.) It’s very nearly Lynch-ian. If you’re a fan of the surreal, I recommend starting at the 20 minute mark, and turning it off at 1:10 (just as the clapping starts).
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2017-02-15 10:56 pm

The Maltese Falcon (1931)

This is the FIRST movie version of the Hammett novel, now known basically as a footnote to the legendary classic remake in 1941 starring Humphrey Bogart. I watched it because of a Thelma Todd part, which turned out to be a poor reason, as her part is small and without much scope (Mrs. Archer). On the other hand, as a piece of comparative storytelling it was FASCINATING!

In this case, the interesting comparisons are largely to be found in the acting and direction. Both sets of writers wisely realized that the source material was sufficiently strong that it didn’t so much need to be adapted as transcribed.* The screenplays are not identical, but each of them takes about 90% of their plot, and even dialogue, directly from the novel. With so much the same, the differences are starkly highlighted.

The biggest difference is in the character of Sam Spade himself. While Bogart would focus on a cynical world-weariness, Ricardo Cortez spends more time grinning than not. He seemed to me to be saying, “YOU characters may think you’re in a gritty crime novel, but I’M in a romantic sex comedy!” Emphasis on the sex; this pre-Code Spade is a complete slut. He spends a lot more time getting laid (and thinking about getting laid) then Bogart. Our first view of this Spade is in silhouette, through his office door, smooching a VERY satisfied client; he then returns to his inner office and straightens up the disarranged pillows of his sofa. Bogart may have slept with Mrs. Archer, but he gave the impression that it was under duress; Cortez also breaks off with Mrs. Archer, but only because she has become inconvenient, not because he has any objection whatsoever to sleeping with his partner’s wife. Cortez is certainly capable of being tough or serious; he just does so as little as possible.

This lighter-hearted Spade plays excellently well against Bebe Daniels as Ruth Wonderly (this version dispenses with the multiple aliases of the femme fatale). In fact, Daniels is the one actor who I would say did a distinctly better job than their 1941 counterpart. This is no great surprise, as I think Mary Astor is the weakest element of that version. Daniels is more obvious in her duplicity, but also significantly more vivacious and seductive. Cortez’s Spade knows enough not to trust her from the start, but obviously also thinks that she is sufficiently hot that he is more than willing to go along with her for the time being. It’s tawdry, but it makes obvious sense, something that their relationship in the 1941 movie never did for me.

On its own merits, as a pre-Code proto-noir, this is a fine little film. It’s not an enduring classic like the 1941 version, but you knew that.

Of course, having watched two versions, now I’m going to have to go watch the in-between 1936 version, Satan Met a Lady, starring Bette Davis. No doubt I shall report back…

* Kestrell and I refer to these as “gift stories”. As in, “You were given this as a gift; all you had to do was not throw it away.” I’m not always a purist when it comes to adaptations, but when you’re given perfect source material, have the sense to recognize it. Case in point being Treasure Island, which is been filmed a dozen times at least, but only a couple of them had the sense to just tell the story they were given.
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2017-02-11 09:31 pm

“So you wanna play pirate?” Corsair (1931)

My latest kick is the films of Thelma Todd. I first developed a crush on her decades ago from the Marx Brothers films Monkey Business and Horse Feathers. Having been recently reminded that she actually did a huge amount of work (in a tragically short life), I’ve been seeking out more of it. While far from a complete filmography, a surprisingly large amount of her work is available on YouTube. The first two I tried, I didn’t stick with long enough to see her part, but the third was worth completing, and then talking about.

Corsair (1931), directed by Todd’s boyfriend Roland West, was surprising in a number of ways. For a start, the title, combined with an opening shot of a sailing ship, led me to believe I was getting a classic pirate movie. Piracy does eventually feature, but we START with… a contemporary (to 1931) football game?

Chester Morris plays John Hawks, an all American quarterback from the Midwest, and a rising star. He’s planning on a steady job as a football coach, when he has the misfortune of catching the eye of spoiled heiress Allison Corning (Thelma Todd). She knows what she wants, and she usually gets it. Hawks’s resistance to her charms only makes her want him more. (Speaking as a Guy, I feel compelled to note that those charms include a very nice translucent shirt with no bra under it – pre-Code for the win!)

Allison arranges for John to be employed in her father’s Wall Street financial firm. He adapts well at first, but after a year, decides that he can no longer stomach selling junk bonds to widows (literally). Instead, using some contacts he has picked up over that year, he’s going into a much more straightforward profession: piracy on the high seas!

Well, sort of. He’s found out that his former boss, in addition to his other unethical dealings, wholesales a lot of booze from criminals (these are Prohibition times). A rich friend provides a boat, and some criminals on the inside provide information on delivery times. John hijacks the booze, then sells it BACK to Allison’s father for both financial gain and the satisfaction of cheating the old skinflint.

There is an extended subplot involving the two criminals who are working with John, during which the film ventures into what I would have to call proto-noir territory. Lots of sharp shadows and murky morals. The relationship between the two frays under the extreme stress and danger of their doublecross, but even as they cynically snipe, their love for each other shines through. Especially good work here by actress Mayo Methot.

Sadly, once that subplot is over, the film seems to settle in to a fairly conventional final act. The final confrontation between John and the criminals is serviceable, but little more than that. Allison’s father turns out to be slightly less slimy then he looked, and hires John back as a company president.

We end on a kiss between John and Allison, though a somewhat ambiguous one. It is certainly possible to stick with the surface reading that she is renouncing her wild ways for properly meek womanhood and True Love. On the other hand, it seems equally valid to read the scene as Allison using her devious feminine wiles to finally overcome John’s resistance. I expect they will have an interestingly stormy marriage, regardless.

While I can’t recommend it unreservedly, the early scenes with Thelma Todd are great, as are the noir-ish sequences in the middle.
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2017-01-14 06:53 pm
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Zoom (2015)

What a delightfully odd film! When I first read the Netflix summary, I thought it contained grammar errors. But no, it was merely a case of trying to describe an extremely convoluted structure in a small number of words. Luckily, I have no such space restriction here.Read more... )
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2016-12-20 11:43 pm
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A Tumbleweed of Tombstones

Alan Moore’s story in Cinema Purgatorio, “After Tombstone”, is pretty complex for the roughly 6 pages it takes to vivisect the gunfight at the OK Corral. I’m no expert on the subject, but I’m a lot closer now than I was a month ago, having spent a lot of time reading Wikipedia and watched the three main movies that Moore seems to be drawing on for this story (in order to annotate). None of these four sources agree with each other about what was really going on. And then, the clearly unreliable narrator of Moore’s story has yet a fifth account.

It seems to me that what Moore is getting at here is not just the now-familiar concept that history is another kind of fiction. Rather, that fiction overwrites history, often repeatedly. History becomes palimpsest, a hologram of all the different versions refracting with each other at once. As Dave Sim once quoted Moore as saying, “All stories are true.”

Of course, as we see in “After Tombstone”, this process of overwriting is an extremely violent one. Corpses are left on the street whenever it happens. In Moore’s eternalist view of the universe, however, being shot full of holes in no way prevents (or allows) those bodies to not continually repeat their roles. Dead (line) or not, the show must go on.

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alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
2016-11-21 02:06 pm
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Pimpernel Smith (1941)

I meant to write about this film after Kestrell and I watched it together several months ago, but was distracted by Life. But now seems like a more important time than ever to talk about the power of Art to inspire Deeds.

As you might have guessed from the title, the plot is loosely based on The Scarlet Pimpernel. But instead of Revolutionary France, we are in Nazi Germany. Leslie Howard (who also produced and directed the film) stars as Horatio Smith, an English archaeology professor who is using the cover of an archaeological dig in Germany to rescue “intellectuals” and smuggle them to safety. (Heroic archaeologist versus Nazis – was this an influence on Indiana Jones?)

It’s an exciting and suspenseful adventure film. You could call it a propaganda film, which is accurate, but misleading. The characters are moral, but not preachy. There is a bit of speechifying at the end, but as [livejournal.com profile] sovay points out:
…this is no comfortable re-enactment of settled history. The film is set in 1939, made in 1940—Britain is under the Blitz, America is not yet even in the war; there are no hindsight assurances. So it must be prophecy … sympathetic magic, summoning. Imago. And Howard's ghost is still speaking out of that dark.
But the real reason that I feel compelled to write about Pimpernel Smith today is to point out the inspiring effect it had on one person in particular. Quoting Wikipedia:
When Pimpernel Smith reached Sweden in November 1943, the Swedish Film Censorship Board decided to ban it from public viewing, as it was feared that such a critical portrayal of Nazi Germany could harm Sweden's relationship with Germany and thus jeopardise the country's neutrality in the Second World War. Raoul Wallenberg did, however, manage to see it at a private screening, together with his half-sister, Nina Lagergren.[11]

She later recalled that on their way home after the screening, "he told me this was the kind of thing he would like to do."[12] Since 1941, Wallenberg had made frequent trips to Hungary, and knew how oppressed the Hungarian Jews were. He travelled as a representative and later joint owner of an export-import company that was trading with central Europe and was owned by a Hungarian Jew.

Following the mass deportations that had started in April 1944, Wallenberg was sent to Budapest in August 1944, as First Secretary to the Swedish legation, assigned under secret agreement between the US and Swedish governments to organise a rescue programme for the Jews. By issuing "protective passports", which identified the bearer as Swedish, and housing them in 32 buildings that he rented and declared Swedish territory, he managed to rescue tens of thousands from the German death camps.

Tens of thousands saved. Leslie Howard didn’t live long enough to hear about it, but I’m sure it would have pleased him.

Pimpernel Smith is available on Youtube. I highly recommend it.
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
2016-10-12 02:02 pm

Black Widow observation

In the game Marvel Puzzle Quest, I've recently spent a lot of time playing both with and against a particular version of Black Widow (gray suit). When used strategically by the player, she is a *considerable* badass. The opponent AI, however, has no idea how to properly apply her powers.

I take this as an accidental-but-apt commentary on the character's recent treatment in the movies. The actors and directors make her badass, but none of the money people know what to do with her.
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
2016-10-09 06:33 pm
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The Hallow (2015)

Kes wanted to see this movie because it seemed to be in the sub genre “evil trees”. It wasn’t EXACTLY that, but it satisfied, nonetheless.

A young English couple moves to a remote forest in Ireland, to help prepare for an upcoming logging operation. The locals warn them that these woods belong to “The Hallow”, fearsome faery-like beings. Our protagonists, sadly, do not appear to have any genre-savvy, and write this off as rural superstition. Viewers who ARE genre-savvy, especially fans of real-world biological horror, will see a lot of what’s coming as soon as the word “Cordyceps” is uttered.

Plot-wise, there aren’t a lot of surprises, but the direction and acting are excellent. Stylistically, the film moves through a half dozen or so classic horror sub genres, frequently adding a new bit of spin to what our not-so-heroic protagonists have to deal with. It starts calm and slow, but there’s some truly disturbing body horror by the end of it.

Speaking of ends, if you do watch this movie, stay for the very end of the credits. Several of the last few credits are amusing in and of themselves. And in the final 90 seconds or so, music plays over them which slyly re-contextualizes the entire film that came before it. Recommended for horror fans.
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
2016-09-08 10:53 pm
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Julia’s Eyes (2010)

Kestrell and I watched this Spanish-language horror movie today. It was of obvious interest to her since it featured not one but two characters suffering from visual impairment. Sturgeon’s Law applies even to such niche categories as “horror movies about blind women”, so it was a pleasant surprise to find one that was well made and not overly clichéd.

Our protagonist, Julia, appears to be in her 30s, is happily married, and works in an observatory. Her twin sister, Sara, and she both suffer from a degenerative condition that is slowly driving them blind. Sara goes completely blind first, and as the movie opens, appears to commit suicide. Julia, however, remains unconvinced, and insists on looking for a deeper motive, despite the objections of both the police and her own husband. Naturally, she discovers more than a few secrets that Sara was keeping, and before long finds herself targeted by a killer whom no one else believes exists…

As the plot develops, there are quite a number of interesting twists, only a few of which even Kestrell saw coming. Reading some reviews of the movie later, I noticed that some people complained about plot holes; I honestly didn’t see any. To be sure, there were places where in order to understand what was going on, you had to be observant and put the pieces together yourself; this was not a film that wanted a big exposition scene after the climax.

In fact, I was impressed with how little explicit exposition there was. A lot of information was delivered, but generally through very naturalistic dialogue, or through clever camera movements and NO dialogue. The director makes frequent use of POV shots, and they usually reveal aspects of character as well as plot. One of my favorite things that the movie does is, during the sections where Julia is nearly or completely blind, they subtly indicate the impact on her by never showing any character’s face EXCEPT for her own. Other people are viewed from the back, or are standing out of frame, or what have you. In this way, you feel viscerally the manner in which she is no longer able to gain information from facial expressions – or, indeed, facial recognition!

While I greatly enjoyed this film, I’m afraid that relatively few people reading this review would also like it. It is slower paced and less violent than a typical giallo movie, but has considerably more violence and action than your typical psychological thriller. Also, be warned that there are some fairly significant invocations of the old Injury-To-Eye Motif, so if that’s a squick point for you, stay away.
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
2016-09-03 05:40 pm
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Movie review: "The Last of Sheila"

Originally posted by [livejournal.com profile] kestrell at Movie review: "The Last of Sheila"
THE LAST OF SHEILA Dir. Herbert Ross, (1973)

Directed by Herbert Ross ("The Seven Percent Solution") and with a script written by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins, this is a fun and fast-paced murder mystery.

James Coburn plays a meglomaniacal Hollywood producer who invites a group of friends, which includes Richard Benjamin as a down-on-his-luck screenwriter and James Mason as a down-on-his-luck director, for a weeklong cruise on his yacht.

Once they arrive, the group discovers that a murder game has been arranged, and you don't have to be a mystery fan in expecting that pretend murder will soon turn into real murder.

What you might not be expecting is how wildly and wittily the story goes off the rails in the final act.

This is an incredibly fun movie that seems to start off simply but continues to accumalate surprising twists and turns right through to the very end. Highly recommended.

This entry was originally posted at http://kestrell.dreamwidth.org/257158.html. Please comment there using OpenID.


Alexx adds:
The mystery is not just surprising, but surprisingly Fair. I noticed about half the important clues as they happened, but didn't put them all together until the reveal(s). I also recommend this.
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
2016-05-01 08:10 pm
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Simon, King of the Witches (1967)

Kestrell and I recently watched this very odd movie. It’s likely you haven’t heard of it, as even among cult circles it has a very small following. It doesn’t fit into neat genre categories, so was inevitably mis-marketed. Horror is as close to a standard genre as it gets, but it doesn’t approach it very closely at all. Using genre-by-comparison, I would put this in the same category as Marlowe’s Faust; they are both fundamentally about the relationship between magic and power (though the plots are completely different), and they’re both willing to be completely silly at times, despite the heavy thematic load.

(Kestrell chimes in: “it’s Marlowe’s Faust plus Marlow’s _The Long Goodbye_. I don’t actually agree, but I felt the wordplay was too good not to share.)

Andrew Prine plays the titular Simon, a ceremonial magician seemingly built from contradictions. He never actually refers to himself as “King of the witches”, but is certainly arrogant enough that one could see him doing so. His goal is not enlightenment, per se, but to become one of the gods himself, in a very real and literal sense. On the other hand, when we first meet him, he is living in a storm drain; in the first few minutes, the cops arrest him for vagrancy. Simon clearly understands how magic works – and yet is foolish enough to invoke magical harm on his enemies, not once but twice!

This film has the most accurate depiction of ritual ceremonial magic that I think I have ever seen. The scriptwriter clearly knew his stuff. It’s not always a flattering portrait, but it has the ring of truth.

They didn’t seem to have a huge budget, and the production values are very low. There’s often something going on in the cinematography that I’ve never seen before and found incredibly distracting at first. I suspect it comes from some camera fault they discovered by accident, but then used (at least occasionally) with intention. In these shots, the actor stays conventionally in focus, but the background behind them wavers strangely. If you look at the scene that starts about 17 minutes in, all the shots looking at Simon are normal, but the shots of Linda all have that weird wavering effect behind her. Does anyone reading this know enough about how (cheap 1960s) cameras work to guess how this effect could’ve happened? Or know someone who might know? I’m really curious!

I can’t really say it was a good film, but it was certainly different, and I was never bored. If you want to check it out, the YouTube link above has the entire film for your perusal.
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
2016-04-19 11:02 am
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It Follows (2015)

I really like this indie horror film (though Kestrell was “meh”). It’s sort of a mix of M.R. James’ “Casting the Runes” and an 80s slasher flick. The protagonist is being followed by an implacable monster that is guaranteed to kill them unless they passed this curse on to someone else first – by having sex with them. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen a sexually transmitted CURSE.

I thought it worked well on a number of levels. It’s a scary horror movie, obviously. It’s also in some ways a meditation on inevitable mortality, and the ways in which we try to avoid it; In a move that reverses the 80s trope that sex equals death, in this film sex is the only mechanism by which you can (temporarily) avert death. And it’s a great example of rules-based storytelling.

Being who I am, I feel compelled to analyze the rules in some detail. Naturally, this involves heavy spoilers.Read more... )