Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Nanny

(1965) Directed by Seth Holt; Written by Jimmy Sangster; Based on the novel The Nanny by Marryam Modell (writing as Evelyn Piper); Starring: Bette Davis, Wendy Craig, Jill Bennett, James Villiers and William Dix; Available on DVD

Rating:  *** ½

One of the attributes of a good psychological thriller is that the obvious answers are not usually the correct ones.  Hitchcock exploited this conceit to great effect, with his use of MacGuffins to lead us on a false path.  While director Seth Holt didn’t necessarily employ red herrings to move the plot of The Nanny along, he took his time setting up the premise, revealing more about the title character, played by Bette Davis, a little at a time. This Hammer film is a slow-burn examination of mental illness and its infectious ramifications on one household. 

During the film’s production, the 57-year-old Davis more than lived up to her reputation as a temperamental performer.  This was likely a difficult transitional phase for the aging actress, who had to cope with trading in the glamour roles for roles that were less than complimentary.  In The Hammer Story by Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes, Holt recalled how she frequently disagreed with his directorial choices: “When I did it her way, she was scornful; when I stood up to her, she was hysterical…”  Despite the chaotic events behind the scenes, Davis created a compelling onscreen presence as the ambiguous Nanny (her true name is never established).  Something is very wrong in the Fane household, where she works and resides.  Over the decades that she’s been with the family, an odd symbiosis has taken hold.  The matriarch, Virginia (Wendy Craig), has made herself dependent on Nanny’s care, and likewise, Nanny has become so entrenched in the family’s everyday life, that she has nowhere else to go.  Davis portrays a suitably enigmatic character that’s neither evil nor entirely likable.  While her culpability remains in question, she’s not entirely unsympathetic

William Dix shines in his performance as Virginia’s troubled, melancholy 10-year-old son Joey.  He returns to the Fane household following a two-year absence, having been sent away to a children’s residential facility for refusing to eat or sleep.  Joey was implicated in his sister’s drowning death, while Nanny was apparently never regarded as a suspect.  His subsequent fear of becoming Nanny’s next victim was the catalyst for his behavior.  Naturally, his contentious relationship with Nanny picks up where it left off, and the dysfunctional cycle repeats.  Joey refuses to eat anything that Nanny prepares, and takes precautions to ensure that she’s not in a position to harm him, such as selecting a room with a lock.  His requests to have Nanny fired fall on deaf ears.  In an early scene he stages his own hanging (a scene that prefigures Harold & Maude).  His acting out is a desperate cry for attention that goes unheeded.  Only his 14-year-old neighbor Bobbie Medman (Pamela Franklin) takes him seriously, or at least seems willing to entertain his take on events. 

Virginia, consumed by the loss of her daughter, is ambivalent about Joey’s return.  At first, she can’t bear to face him, obviously conflicted about his (alleged) complicity in the death of his sibling.  She loves her son, but can’t let go of the loss of her daughter, and pines away for a normalcy that will never be restored.  Craig’s performance is rather one-note, compared to Davis or Dix, lacking the complexity that her unique situation dictates as a woman grappling with affection and animosity toward her son.

One of The Nanny’s biggest flaws is that the entire premise rests on the conceit that no one believes Joey, or ever stops to ask him what’s wrong.  The pink elephant in the room is never addressed by the obtuse adults, who simply scratch their heads and wonder why he’s behaving so erratically.  Joey’s straight-laced father Bill (James Villiers) is completely detached from his wife and son as human beings – everything should run like a well-oiled machine, and any squeaks will not be tolerated.  In Bill’s eyes, Joey is just being insubordinate and disruptive.  He’s similarly oblivious to his wife’s pain and loss, seemingly more invested in his career than his family’s happiness.  For her part, Virginia is too caught up in her own depression to see what’s going on.  While she can’t be held entirely accountable for her actions, her lack of sensitivity contributes to the family’s dysfunction.

Many key shots of the adults in The Nanny are from a low angle, suggesting a child’s perspective, but also implying that there’s a silent conspiracy among the adults.  The filmmakers are careful to avoid labeling characters as discrete antagonists or protagonists.  We’re left to guess about Nanny and her relationship with Joey until the very end (Is she or isn’t she the monster that we’re led to believe?).  Holt and Sangster choose a more leisurely pace to tell their story, relying on character and suspense to move the plot along, rather than flashy action sequences.  Most of the film never leaves the confines of the house where Nanny spends most of her time.  We are left to observe Nanny’s interactions with one very smart kid and two stupid parents, and arrive at to our own conclusions, which will eventually be refuted or confirmed.

Monday, July 23, 2012

July Quick Picks and Pans

Some Guy Who Kills People (2011) This black comedy from director Jack Perez and writer Ryan Levin proves that direct to video isn’t always a bad thing.  Kevin Corrigan stars as Ken Boyd, a socially inept 34-year-old who works at an ice cream parlor and lives with his mom.  He’s been trying to put his life back together since suffering a mental breakdown.  After his subsequent release from a local mental ward, Ken finds solace in his comic book illustrations and wandering off at night following his shift. 

Things get complicated when he reconnects with his teenage daughter.  Oh, and he might or might not be responsible for the deaths of several high school classmates who had tormented him in the past.  There are some surprisingly good supporting performances by Barry Bostwick as the eccentric Sheriff Walt Fuller and Karen Black as Ken’s mother Ruth.  Bostwick steals the show whenever he’s on screen, with an insatiable oral fixation (He never stops eating or drinking, even when investigating grisly crime scenes.).  Black also seems to be having a lot of fun as Ruth, who just wishes her son would get a life.  Who would’ve thought that the director of Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus was capable of something good?   Some Guy Who Kills People is well worth a look. 

Rating: *** ½.  Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

The Secret World of Arrietty (2010) Ho-hum, it’s another beautifully animated film from Studio Ghibli.  Screenwriters Hayao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa, along with director Hiromasa Yonebayashi, bring Mary Norton’s novel The Borrowers to life.  It’s a visual delight, providing a bug’s eye view of a house in the country, filtered through the perspective of a family of tiny people living under the floorboards (The plucky 14-year-old heroine Arrietty, her laconic father Pod, and histrionic mother Homily).  The diminutive humans call themselves “Borrowers,” although it’s kind of misnomer, considering the fact that they never actually return anything.  Their way of life is endangered when they’re discovered by an inquisitive boy with a heart condition named Shô.  The boy eventually proves to be their ally, but not before exposing them to undue peril.  It’s too bad that the story and characters can’t quite live up to the stunning visuals.  Most of the characters are fairly bland and two-dimensional, compared to many other Studio Ghibli films, but the animation never fails to impress.  Even if it’s not quite up to the standards of co-writer Miyazaki’s own films, it’s still an enjoyable, if slight, romp.

Rating: *** ½.  Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974) Hammer’s last Frankenstein film, and Peter Cushing’s final outing as the eponymous baron (known here as Dr. Victor), is a somewhat lackluster affair.  It’s not as terrible as some reviews would lead you to believe, but it’s not very good either.  Cushing and director Terence Fisher were probably just in it for the paycheck at this point, but Cushing is still fun to watch as the morally bankrupt doctor.  The apelike creature (played by David Prowse) is the biggest departure from other depictions of the Frankenstein monster – whether that’s a good thing is debatable.   While Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell probably won’t be anyone’s favorite of the series, it’s mildly recommended if you’re a Cushing fan or a Hammer completist.  Be sure to lower your expectations a notch, though.

Rating: ***.  Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming.

Return of the Ape Man (1944) This cheapie from Monogram films stars Bela Lugosi as the unscrupulous Dr. Dexter.  His groundbreaking research involves reviving humans from a frozen state.  After freezing and successfully reviving a homeless man after four months (Hey, ethics schmethtics!), he concludes that he can revive someone who’s been frozen for much longer, such as a caveman frozen in the ice for tens of thousands of years.  No sooner than you can say “plot convenience,” he locates his specimen and proceeds to revive him.  There’s only one problem.  The caveman is so bewildered by his new surroundings that he becomes homicidal.  Only fire seems to deter the man-beast (Witness priceless dialogue, such as “Fire is your master.  You probably never understood it!”).  Dexter concludes that a partial brain transplant will enable the caveman to relate to the modern day and be able to communicate with the doctor (Huh?).  His colleague Professor Gilmore (John Carradine) opposes his plan, but unwittingly becomes a part of it.  With a scant 59-minute running time, Return of the Ape Man doesn’t stick around long enough to wear out its welcome.  It’s so bad, it’s almost good.

Rating: ** ½.  Available on Netflix Streaming

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Classics Revisited: The Night of the Hunter

(1955) Directed by Charles Laughton; Written by James Agee; Based on the novel by Davis Grubb; Starring: Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish and Billy Chapin; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: *****

“It’s a hard world for little things” – Rachel Cooper

Unless our faith in human nature has been jaded beyond repair, we want to think the best of people.  Most of us have been brought up to believe that people are basically good, even if their actions are not.  The Night of the Hunter chooses to take a more cynical perspective – that some individuals will always see this optimistic viewpoint as a weakness to exploit.  This was probably a bitter pill for audiences and critics to swallow in 1955, when the film was dismissed as a failure.  Charles Laughton’s first and only feature directorial effort wasn’t recognized as a classic until decades later.  It’s been alternately described as a horror film or gothic drama, but neither of these tags really seem particularly suitable.  Perhaps Laughton’s self-described “nightmarish mother goose story” is best regarded as a social horror film, a cautionary fable about those who trust unconditionally and those who choose to violate that trust.

Robert Mitchum stars in one of his greatest roles, as well as one of cinema’s most fascinating portrayals of evil, as the faux preacher Harry Powell.  There’s something fundamentally primal about his performance, which he imbues with animalistic, predatory qualities.  We get a sense of his true nature when his plans are thwarted, and he responds with guttural howls and yips.  His smooth talking exterior hides the monster that lurks just beneath the surface, embodied by the words “love” and “hate,” which are tattooed on his knuckles.  In an early scene he provides an impromptu sermon on this emotional duality (a scene that would be mirrored many years later in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing).  Powell moves from town to town, finding young widows with money to exploit.  He’s the consummate sociopath, possessing the ability to manipulate the emotions of others, yet incapable of experiencing empathy.  He ensnares people with his sweet talk and pious demeanor, which masks a soulless, calculating machine.

In a transparent effort to emulate D.W. Giffith’s style, Laughton went so far as to hire Griffith’s leading lady Lillian Gish.  Gish portrays the matronly Rachel Cooper, serving as counterpoint to Powell’s character.  She’s as genuine and altruistic as he’s deceitful and selfish.  She immediately sees through Powell and his schemes, oblivious to his bullying tactics.  Rachel has witnessed the ills of the world, and is determined to shelter her small part of it from her group of orphaned children. 

Shelley Winters plays the recently widowed Willa Harper.  She’s almost instantly smitten by Powell’s charismatic ploy for her affections, and fails to see his motivating impulses.  Unfortunately, her naïveté will prove to be her undoing, as she persists in the notion that this mysterious interloper only has honorable intentions.  She remains blissfully unaware that her children, John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) are nothing more than pawns in Powell’s shameless manipulations.  By the time it dawns on Willa that her new husband is not the man she took him to be, it’s too late.  The trap has been set, and her fate is sealed. 

Chapin turns in a powerful performance as John Harper, one of the few individuals who can see Powell for who he is from the beginning.  He’s introduced at the beginning of the film, making a promise to his bank robber father, Ben Harper (Peter Graves), before he’s dragged away by the police.  Ben entrusts John with hiding $10,000* (which is promptly hidden in Pearl’s doll), fully aware of the burden that he’s placing on his young son.  It’s clear that the good-intentioned but obtuse Willa wouldn’t be capable of keeping the stolen cash a secret for long.  When Powell enters the scene, sniffing around for the money, it’s up to John to protect his family’s interests.  He refuses to accept Powell as his new father, and opposes him in a battle of wills.  But there’s only so much that John can do, as he stands powerless against Powell’s efforts to take everything away that he values.  

* Fun fact: At the time, real U.S. currency could not be filmed.  As a result, the money hidden in the doll was actually Mexican pesos.

One of the most stunning aspects of The Night of the Hunter, is Stanley Cortez’ gorgeous cinematography.  Cortez had a (sometimes infamous) reputation for taking an inordinate amount of time to set up his shots, and it shows.  Virtually any still taken from the film is an example of the care that went into his composition, which masterfully employed light and shadow to convey small town menace.  One of the most striking examples occurs when Powell first arrives in front of the Harper house.  His silhouette looms over Billy, as a harbinger of doom for the Harper family.  In a later scene, we are treated to a ghastly, but oddly serene image of a corpse at the bottom of a lake, with her hair billowing in the currents.  John and Pearl’s subsequent escape from Powell in a rowboat takes on a dreamlike quality as they float down a serene river.  Animals look on dispassionately as an indifferent moon and stars (courtesy of effects masters Louis De Witt and Jack Rabin) preside over their exodus.

It’s difficult to imagine that there was a time, not so long ago, when The Night of the Hunter wasn’t appreciated as a masterpiece.  Unlike some classics, it somehow seems more accessible to modern audiences, with its themes about unrelenting evil and cynicism about human nature.  By the time the townspeople realize that they’ve been taken for a ride by Powell, it’s too late to regain the innocence that they’ve lost.  Their abrupt turn against him only seems capricious, considering that they unquestioningly accepted him in the beginning.  These themes went largely unnoticed during the film’s initial release.  Laughton was devastated when The Night of the Hunter was poorly received, and never directed again.  His tentatively scheduled second film, The Naked and the Dead, was eventually directed by Raoul Walsh at another studio.  It’s sad to ponder what might have been, but at least we have this one tantalizing example of what was.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Brood

(1979) Written and directed by David Cronenberg; Starring: Oliver Reed, Samantha Eggar and Art Hindle; Available on DVD

Rating: ****

Perhaps no other director can depict being uncomfortable in one’s own skin as effectively as David Cronenberg.  In Cronenberg’s case, this isn’t simply a metaphor but a physical reality – with all of the nasty implications that go along.  In many ways, The Brood is the archetypal Cronenberg film, displaying many of the recurrent themes that he would refine and revisit throughout the subsequent years.  Mental illness, bodily deformities, and physical transformation are all part of the miasma that emerges from Cronenberg’s mind and infects our unconscious.

Oliver Reed plays Dr. Hal Raglan, a psychiatrist* with a new radical therapy program, and author of the book The Shape of Rage.  He has established the Somafree Institute of Psychoplasmics, a residence facility where he can conduct his experimental therapy in private.  He’s developed a cult-like following among his patients, who view him as a paternal figure.  In an early scene he bullies one man to regress into a childlike state.  The patient suffers a breakdown, which is seen as a breakthrough by his colleagues.  But something else is occurring.  The man’s anger takes on physical properties, with numerous sores appearing over his body.  One of his star clients is Nola Carveth (played with over-the-top conviction by Samantha Eggar).  Of all of his subjects, she exhibits the most extreme effects of her treatment.  It becomes clear that she’s a means to an end for Raglan and his novel therapy.  It’s a credit to Reed’s performance that Raglan remains three-dimensional, and not entirely unsympathetic.  He’s narcissistic (as evidenced by the attention he diverts to his hair in one scene) and self-serving, but he’s also aware of the psychological damage that Nola has experienced.  Raglan is unable to control what he’s unleashed, but despite the consequences to Nola and others he’s compelled to see it to the end.

* Cronenberg gets kudos for actually making the distinction between psychiatrists and psychologists.  Most filmmakers seem to use the labels interchangeably – one of my pet peeves.

Nola’s ex-husband Frank (Art Hindle) takes a vested interest in Nola’s treatment after he picks up his five-year-old daughter and notices bruises on her back.  When he attempts to confront Nola about the abuse, Dr. Raglan stands in the way, claiming that Frank would just hinder her recovery.  Raglan’s stonewalling only strengthens Frank’s resolve to take over custody of his daughter, away from the influence of her disturbed mother. 

(The next paragraph contains some spoilers. Read at your own risk)

Anyone in Nola’s periphery becomes a potential threat, and thus a target for her unbridled anger.  Her mother is the first to die a brutal death, at the hand of a vaguely seen assailant.  It slowly dawns on Frank that the killer and its companions (which reminded me of a cross between the murderous dwarf in Don’t Look Now, mixed with the baby creature from It’s Alive) are physical manifestations of her rage – monsters that spring from her unconscious.  If you ever wondered what Forbidden Planet would look like if it had been directed by David Cronenberg instead of Fred M. Wilcox, it might look something like this.  We get a tantalizing peek into the humanoid creatures’ strange lifecycle after a doctor performs an autopsy.   We learn that the creatures can only see things in black and white – a perfect reflection of Nola’s current mental state.  She appears to suffer from borderline personality disorder, typified by regarding others in terms of polarities, vacillating between love and intense hate.  Frank is sheltered from her outbursts, protected by her delusions of getting back together and restoring their family unity.

This film was Cronenberg’s first collaboration with composer and fellow Toronto native Howard Shore.  His somber, brooding score (I couldn’t resist) goes a long way to create tension throughout the film, maintaining a relentless sense of unease.  Shore has continued to work with Cronenberg over the years, with his music a perfect match for his sensibilities

The Brood works on multiple levels.  It could be seen as an extended metaphor for the dangers of over-dependency on therapy, or the potential for ill effects inflicted by some of the less-than-ethical practitioners that foster such dependency.  It could just as easily be regarded as a commentary on the damage left in the wake of a failed marriage.  The characters and situations in The Brood were purportedly influenced by Cronenberg’s real-life experiences with a messy divorce. 

The Brood was well-acted and disturbing – much better than I expected.  In less capable hands its premise about the physical manifestations of rage would have been silly, but Cronenberg sells it.  There’s a deliberate, measured buildup, without showing too much of his hand too soon.  For most of its running time, the film is surprisingly restrained.  The makeup effects are used sparingly, until the truly disturbing, bloody climax.  Cronenberg seems to argue that mind and body are not distinct, mutually exclusive entities, but inseparable.  The Brood suggests what we all might be capable of, given the proper stimuli, and implies what the next, terrible stage of our evolution could look like.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Once Over Twice: Repo Man

(1984) Written and directed by Alex Cox; Starring: Harry Dean Stanton, Emilio Estevez, Sy Richardson, Fox Harris and Tracey Walter; Available on DVD.

Rating: ****

“A repo man is always intense.” – Bud

Maybe it’s my L.A. roots, or my affection for punk rock, or the quirky mishmash of social commentary and comedy, but Repo Man keeps drawing me back into its hypnotic trance.  Unlike some of its contemporaries, Repo Man didn’t take years to cultivate its cult status, but earned its reputation practically out of the gate.  It was almost as if it had been engineered to attract a group of loyal devotees and leave the general movie-going public scratching their collective heads.  British screenwriter/director Alex Cox wove in his observations about society (including televangelists, conspiracy theories and generic supermarket food*), based on his experiences living in Los Angeles as a film student.  Producer (and ex-Monkee) Mike Nesmith had the unenviable task of selling this strange brew to studio executives who just didn’t get it and failed to see its potential appeal.

* One of the brilliant running gags in Repo Man is the extensive use of real and fake generic food, including cans simply marked “food” and “drink,” suggesting our culture’s focus on sustenance rather than nourishment.

Emilio Estevez, stars in his best film role as Otto, a directionless punk who’s disgusted and bored by everyone and everything.  Cox commented that the Otto character was a “blank page” that was influenced by outside events.  Otto serves the function of a postmodern everyman, viewing the rest of humanity through his flawed lens.  He’s the most “normal” character amongst a band of misfits who probably wouldn’t function outside the confines of their individual contexts.  His apathetic hippie parents leave him to his own devices as they sit in front of their TV in a zombielike stupor.  Otto stumbles into the auto repossession business by accident, instantly becoming embroiled in their dangerous and bizarre world.  The repo company employees have become his new surrogate family (albeit a dysfunctional one).  He’s not very good at his new job, however, managing to get beaten up, shot at, and maced – all within the space of a couple days.

The ever-reliable Harry Dean Stanton plays the perpetually buzzed veteran repo man Bud.  He assigns himself as Otto’s mentor, extoling the virtues of the repo man way of life while proselytizing about the ills of society.  He thrives off of situations that others would find distasteful, stating that repo men are always getting themselves into tense situations.  Bud lives by the “repo man creed,” which sounds suspiciously like Isaac Asimov’s first law of robotics (just replace “robot” with “repo man”).  Stanton’s grizzled appearance perfectly fits his character, looking as if he hasn’t had a decent night’s sleep in 30 years, and could keep this behavior up for another 30 years.  Cox commented that he was attracted to Stanton’s “Old West cadaver look,” when casting the role of Bud, and it’s easy to see how Bud wouldn’t look out of place in a western as an undertaker (if that undertaker happened to be hopped up on crank). 

Tracey Walter stands out in a memorable supporting role as Miller, an employee of the repo yard.  He serves as the resident wise man, dispensing cockeyed wisdom such as, “The more you drive, the less intelligent you are.”  He seems to have a theory about everything, which he unabashedly shares with Otto.  Miller espouses his beliefs about cosmic coincidences, UFO phenomena and the significance of tree-shaped air fresheners, all of which prove to be true within the context of the film.

Repo Man’s central plot concerns a 1964 Chevy Malibu from New Mexico with dead aliens in the trunk.  Its driver is the lobotomized scientist J. Frank Parnell (played with eccentric aplomb by Fox Harris), blissfully unaware that he’s being pursued by two competing repo agencies and the feds.  The repo men want the Malibu for its $20,000 bounty, while the feds desire its precious cargo.  With an obvious nod to Kiss Me Deadly, the glowing whatsit in the trunk spells certain death for anyone foolhardy enough to take a peek. 

Nothing really adds up to much, but that’s not the point.  Repo Man is a picaresque trip through the filthy underbelly of L.A., with Otto as your unwitting guide. Cox’s film possesses an undeniable sense of energy, propelled by the promise of illicit thrills and a driving punk rock soundtrack (with Iggy Pop providing the title song and atmospheric surf rock incidental music by The Plugz).  The final scene is reminiscent of the climactic, transformative sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey, suggesting that everything we believe is wrong.  Otto is taken for a literal and figurative ride through a bewildering series of trials and oddly connected events.  And we’re all invited to watch from our backseat vantage point.