Thursday, May 31, 2012

May Quick Picks and Pans

Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky (1991) It would be a huge understatement to say that this movie, with its creative gore effects, won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.  Simply stating that Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky is over the top doesn’t begin to do it justice – it goes over the top and keeps on going.  So, what’s it about?  The story (such as it is) takes place in the far-off future date of 2001, when prisons are privatized and run by thugs.  Riki-Oh Saiga (Siu-Wong Fan) is sent away to prison for killing one of the men responsible for his girlfriend’s death.  Every day, thanks to the sadistic assistant warden (Mei Sheng Fan), there’s a new fight and a new opportunity to die, but Riki-Oh is more than up to the challenge.  He continually finds new and increasingly disgusting ways to finish off his opponents, but might have just found his match when he faces off against the Gang of Four, the deadliest killers in the prison.  The non-stop violence and bloodshed might turn some away, but it’s so completely beyond the realm of believability that it enters a whole new surreal universe (think Dead Alive).  Those looking for an inventively warped film experience might find just find their Nirvana here (I had a blast).  Everyone else might want to steer clear.

Rating: *** ½.  Available on DVD

Melancholia (2011) This film starts as a relatively pedestrian family drama, focusing on two sisters Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), on the eve of the former sister’s wedding celebration.  Oh yeah… and it’s the last few days before the recently discovered planet Melancholia will collide with the Earth, ending all life.  Writer/director Lars von Trier’s nihilistic farce is simultaneously pretentious and compelling.  The film is divided into two parts, with the first section focusing on Justine as she drifts through her elaborate wedding ceremony.  Everyone is happy (or at least putting on appearances of being happy), blissfully ignoring the bad omens that loom on the horizon.  Justine, however, is just going through the motions, making plans with her freshly minted husband that will never come to fruition.  Amidst these opening scenes of inner torment, there’s a fun little comic turn by Udo Kier as the self-absorbed wedding planner.  The world is ending, but all he cares about is that she’s making a mockery of his perfect reception.  In the second part, as the planet Melancholia gets closer to Earth, the more “rational” Claire starts to fall apart at the seams and Justine becomes resigned to her fate.  Depending on your point of view, it’s either the darkest of dark comedies or a grim drama with no respite.  With von Trier, either perspective is probably valid.  The end isn’t all that shocking or tragic when we realize that it’s not about the inevitable, but the moments in between.

Rating: *** ½.  Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix Streaming

 Tales From Earthsea (2006) Hayao Miyazaki’s son Goro proves that the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree with his debut feature directorial effort.  While he never quite hits the high notes of the elder Miyazaki’s work, it’s still a quality effort.  The film was a critical disappointment at the time, perhaps due to unrealistic expectations about the Miyazaki name, and reports that Tales From Earthsea author Ursula K. Le Guin was unimpressed with the results.  I can’t comment on the original source material, except that the story seems to be condensed, feeling a bit like The Black Cauldron (which itself was an abbreviated version of the novel).  The character designs also look derivative, compared to other Studio Ghibli films.  Faults aside, Tales From Earthsea works as a moderately enjoyable, if largely forgettable fantasy.  Goro might not exactly be a chip off the old block, but that’s a good and bad thing.  There are hints from this film that he might, in time, establish his own unique style.  Worth a look.

Rating: ***.  Available on Blue-Ray and DVD

Lust for a Vampire (1971) This movie ranks as second-rate Hammer, which still makes it more interesting than a lot of the other stuff out there.  Director Jimmy Sangster’s follow-up to the superior The Vampire Lovers stands as a lesser entry in the Karnstein trilogy.  Yutte Stensgaard is pretty enough in the lead role as the seductive Mircalla (aka: Carmilla Karnstein), but her character is rather dull.  Ralph Bates turns in an amusing performance as the obsequious schoolmaster Giles Barton, who vows his undying allegiance to Mircalla.  The film seems to ignore most of the conventions about vampires (with Mircalla walking around in the daytime), and remembers other rules when it’s convenient to the plot (such as a cross necklace that appears around an intended victim’s neck just in the nick of time).  While it’s not terrible, it isn’t very good either.  Lust for a Vampire is diverting enough, but thoroughly disposable.  There’s not quite enough to make this a must-see, but I suppose you could do worse with your time.

Rating: ** ½.  Available on DVD

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Once Over Twice: Sleepy Hollow

(1999) Directed by Tim Burton; Written by Andrew Kevin Walker; Based on the story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving; Starring: Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Miranda Richardson and Christopher Walken; Available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Rating: ****

When I learned that Page at the wonderfully nostalgic blog MyLove of Old Hollywood was hosting this first-ever Horseathon, I jumped at the chance to participate (Many thanks to Page for graciously allowing me to join the festivities!).  It didn’t take long for me to decide that my only choice would be Tim Burton’s retelling of Washington Irving’s classic tale about the Headless Horseman. 

Tim Burton has received a bad rap lately.  It’s almost become fashionable to bash Burton for his predictable casting decisions, and recycling the same tired themes and visuals over and over (case in point, the abysmal Alice in Wonderland).  Dwelling on his most recent efforts, however, has made it easy to forget that he created some of the most consistently distinctive and deliciously idiosyncratic mainstream Hollywood films of the 80s and 90s (Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood).  By now, it’s become something of a cliché to expect Johnny Depp to appear in a Tim Burton movie, but when Sleepy Hollow was released in 1999, it had only been their third collaboration.

Sleepy Hollow was based very loosely on Washington Irving’s 1820 short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”  It’s clear that Burton and screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker intended to utilize the source material as a springboard rather than a template.  Johnny Depp hardly matches Irving’s original description of Ichabod Crane as a tall, gangly schoolmaster (refer to the Disney animated version for a more faithful interpretation).  Likewise, Crane’s profession has been revised from teacher to an eccentric police inspector who’s afraid of his own shadow.  Irving’s simple ghost story of dubious veracity (according to the original tale’s narrator) has been transformed to a full-blown mystery with supernatural overtones.  In Burton’s insightful DVD commentary he described his movie as a “Scooby Doo mystery.”

Depp strikes the right notes as consummate skeptic Crane.  He’s tasked by an imposing New York burgomaster (in a cameo by the incomparable Christopher Lee*) to investigate a series of strange murders in the rural town of Sleepy Hollow.  He tries to solve the mystery with dispassionate objectivity and a scientific eye, although his timid nature keeps getting the better of him.  Depp adds some amusing comic flourishes, including an unfortunate tendency to faint and awkwardness on his trusty steed Gunpowder**, to the otherwise somber proceedings.  As he gets closer to the answers, he’s forced to reassess his strict adherence to reason, and accept that rumors of a spectral horseman are more than just delusions.

* Fun fact: Although Christopher Lee and Michael Gough (as Notary Hardenbrook) never shared any screen time in Sleepy Hollow, it served as a reunion of sorts for the two actors, who worked together on Hammer’s The Horror of Dracula 41 years earlier.

** Fun fact number two: In an interesting side story, the real-life horse that portrayed Crane’s horse Gunpowder (real name Goldeneye) was supposed to be euthanized, but Depp decidedto adopt it.

Christopher Walken has a commanding presence as the Headless Horseman, a Hessian soldier who met a nasty demise but refuses to stay dead.  Except for a few well-placed shouts, Walken never utters a word but communicates through facial expressions and movement.  His maniacal appearance, augmented by pasty complexion, wild hair and sharp teeth, completes the portrait of a horseman straight out of hell.  Burton likened Walken’s performance to a silent film star, which seems to be a fair comparison.  The Horseman’s face does bear at least a passing resemblance to Lon Chaney in the famous lost silent flick London After Midnight.  It’s a testament to Walken’s acting ability that he manages to pull off the illusion of confidence on horseback, despite being completely inexperienced with riding prior to this film.  He brings some nice touches to what could have been a one-note performance by less talented performers.  When he’s not mercilessly chopping off heads, he has a surprisingly soft spot for his trusty horse (proving, perhaps, that he couldn’t be all bad).

Sleepy Hollow proudly wears its influences on its sleeve.  Burton consciously created a loving homage to the classic horror films of yesteryear, from the casting of Christopher Lee to the many touches that have become synonymous with Hammer films: splashes of blood, gothic melodrama and heaving bosoms.  Burton also acknowledged how he was influenced by other classic horror films, such as the 1931 Frankenstein (note the climactic showdown in the windmill), Mario Bava’s Black Sunday, and Roger Corman’s The Pit and the Pendulum.  Danny Elfman’s dramatic score, a throwback to decades past, complements the darkly romantic atmosphere of the film.  The cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki sets the gothic tone perfectly, with mostly muted grays and browns, contrasted by vivid splashes of blood red.

Speaking of blood, the top notch practical effects work by Kevin Yagher deserve special mention.  I can’t recall another movie where severed heads looked so lifelike (take that as you will).  Reportedly, the fake heads looked so good that they disturbed several of the actors whose characters fell victim to the Horseman, except for Michael Gambon (as Baltus Van Tassel), who once commented that he wanted to keep his head and send it off on auditions.

Sleepy Hollow is a moody, atmospheric take on a classic Halloween tale that’s also an ideal match for Tim Burton’s gothic sensibilities.  If you can get past the fact that it’s not an accurate retelling of Irving’s original story you’ll have a good time.  It achieves a rare balance between horrifying and fun, and pays respect to its numerous influences while never losing sight of its own identity.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Skin I Live In (aka: La piel que habito)

(2011) Directed by Pedro Almodóvar; Written by Pedro Almodóvar and Agustín Almodóvar; Based on the novel Tarantula by Thierry Jonquet; Starring: Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Jan Cornet and Marisa Paredes; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ****

Horror is most effective when it burrows beneath the surface, to prey on our primal fears and insecurities.  The Skin I Live In is such a horror film, more interested in exploring the psychological effects of body modification rather than dwelling on sordid details or jarring imagery.  Director and co-writer Pedro Almodóvar is known for endowing his films with commentary about sexual roles through strong female characters, and this is no exception.  In this film Almodóvar explores skin as a literal concept, but delves into an extended metaphor that examines not only what skin reveals but what it hides.

We are first introduced to Vera Cruz (Elena Anaya) as a patient/prisoner of famed surgeon Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas).  We’re aware that she’s part of some experiment, but can only surmise about the purpose.  Superficially, she appears normal, but we’re left to speculate about what sort of horrible accident led her to this present fate.  Clad in a tan body stocking that looks like a cross between a bandage and leotard, her appearance evokes images of Elsa Lanchester as the Bride of Frankenstein.  Similar to Dr. Frankenstein’s creation, Vera is forcibly kept against her will, and her current predicament is out of her realm of control.  She roams her locked room like a caged wild animal and writes on the walls to pass the hours.  When she puts on the dresses that Dr. Ledgard provides, she proceeds to shred them into strips of cloth.  Anaya’s measured, enigmatic performance as Vera is pitch perfect, as she outwardly presents a visage of  innocence that belies rage about her captivity and manipulation.

Banderas is compelling as Dr. Ledgard, a brilliant researcher who has developed a new form of synthetic skin.  Prompted by the death of his wife in a fiery automobile accident, his new skin is impervious to flame and disease.  When he presents his findings at a medical conference, he conveniently conceals the fact that his research has progressed from mice to humans.  Based on the treatment of his current subject, it’s evident that his intentions are not as altruistic as he would lead everyone else to believe. Ledgard’s housekeeper (who’s more than just a housekeeper) reminds him how closely Vera resembles his deceased wife, implying that shaping Vera into her specific, current form was purely intentional.  He watches Vera intently, through a giant television screen, fascinated but frightened by his handiwork.  Now that he’s taken his artificial skin project to the next level, he’s not quite sure what to do with her.  Ledgard is totally consumed by his obsessions.  As someone who recently lost everything that he loved, he has nothing left to do but carry on with his grand experiment.

The title The Skin I Live In works on a host of different levels.  In Vera’s case, if her new skin is resistant to different types of potentially damaging agents, how much can she really feel?  The title is also a reference to the inner demons that the film’s characters are forced to live with.  Once we choose to follow a certain path, we must accept the consequences of our decisions.  Dr. Ledgard was unable to save his wife, but devoted his research to alleviate the suffering she endured.  His research, however, came at the expense of ethics or concern for Vera’s well-being.  And what about Vera’s secrets?  Underneath Vera’s exterior lies a tormented individual with a shadowy past.  Gradually, through flashback, her past comes to light, and we are able to see her complicity in all of this.  I don’t want to give away too much, since learning the various characters’ secrets is one of the most intriguing aspects of the film.  It’s probably best to see this with as little foreknowledge as possible.  Suffice it to say that nothing is quite as simple as it appears on the surface. 

No one in The Skin I Live In is entirely unsympathetic, even though each of the main characters has done terrible things.  Almodóvar doesn’t afford us the comfort of providing a distinct divide between good and evil.  We are forced to see both points of view, of victim and monster, and decide for ourselves where we draw the moral/ethical line.  No one leaves this film completely unscathed.  Dr. Ledgard is more than just a modern version of the archetypal mad scientist.  Anyone who has ever experienced a devastating loss could understand his point of view, up to a point (there is certainly more to Ledgard’s story than the loss of his wife).  And while Vera does not ultimately deserve her fate, it is she who has inadvertently brought it upon herself.  The Skin I Live In is an unconventional horror film that will likely provoke debate and discussion long after its secrets are revealed.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Unknown

(1927) Directed by Tod Browning; Written by Waldemar Young; Starring: Lon Chaney, Norman Kerry and Joan Crawford; Available on DVD

Rating: **** ½

How far would you go to win over the love of your life?  The Unknown takes this premise to its logical, awful extreme, thanks to the collaborative efforts of director Tod Browning and star Lon Chaney.  While Browning and Chaney worked together on eight fascinating films, this one is generally regarded as their best.

The Unknown (its working title was Alonzo the Armless) was thought to be lost until a print was discovered in France in the early 1970s.  Its original 63-minute running time has been trimmed over the years, with the surviving version clocking in at a spare 49 minutes.  While The Unknown is barely feature length, it packs a lot into that short span.  Nothing essential seems to be missing from the deleted footage, and any perceived omissions do little to diminish the impact of this singularly unconventional drama.

Browning returned to his favorite motif, the circus, to tell his lurid tale of obsession.  The story is set in a traveling gypsy circus in Spain, and focuses on a love triangle between three performers: Alonzo (Chaney), an armless knife thrower/marksman, Malabar (Norman Kerry), the strongman, and Nanon (Joan Crawford, in an early role), the object of their affections.  In the world of the circus (as in life), things are not entirely as they seem.  We learn that Alonzo is not actually armless, but wears a straightjacket to simulate this apparent affliction.  Alonzo, however, possesses another physical anomaly, two thumbs on his left hand.  Only his sidekick Cojo (John George) knows his secret, and is sworn to silence partially out of loyalty and partially out of fear for his life. 

Chaney, born to deaf-mute parents, was the consummate actor for silent films, possessing the ability to convey every emotion through body language coupled with a formidable array of facial expressions.  Although Alonzo does awful things throughout The Unknown, Chaney never fails to generate pathos for his character.  Instead of loathing him, we only feel sorry for his predicament.  With the assistance of Cojo, Alonzo must hide his arms and double thumb from the world, especially Nanon, who is disgusted by the prospect of being held by men.  Hoping to get closer to the woman that he loves, Alonzo makes the fateful decision to have his arms amputated.  In a career that was distinguished by many memorable roles, the portrayal as Alonzo the Armless is among Chaney’s greatest (eclipsed only by his work in The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame).

One widely believed misconception (undoubtedly perpetuated by Browning himself) about The Unknown is that Chaney did all of his own stunts to appear armless, such as smoking and knife throwing, with his own feet.  These stunts were in fact performed by his double, Peter Dismuki, an armless circus performer.  To the untrained eye, the illusion is fairly seamless.  In most of the scenes where Dismuki appears, his back is to the camera, or Chaney’s upper half is integrated with the Dismuki’s lower half.

Joan Crawford is effective as the alluring Nanon, daughter of circus owner Antonio Zanzi (Nick De Ruiz).  She exhibits a raw energy that has an irresistible effect on the men around her, namely Alonzo and Malabar.  Alonzo misconstrues her compassion and sisterly affection as sexual attraction, leading him to arrive at an erroneous conclusion.  Meanwhile, she views Malabar with ambivalence, thwarting his advances but fascinated nonetheless.  Crawford does a nice job of conveying Nanon as a walking contradiction, conveying a licentious persona but fearing male relationships on a physical level (In one early scene she exclaims, “Hands! Men's hands! How I hate them!”).

The music that accompanies many silent films, at least as they’ve been presented on home video, could charitably be described as generic, full of tinkling piano keys or a repetitive organ.  This is not the case with the DVD for The Unknown, which included musical accompaniment by the three-man musical ensemble Alloy Orchestra.  Their musical choices might seem to be a bit of an anachronism, but it works.  Their choice of traditional and non-traditional instruments brings a decidedly contemporary edge, but not distractingly so.  Their ominous, vaguely industrial sound compliments Browning’s unusual story.

The Unknown’s grotesque overtones with a circus backdrop have influenced many other filmmakers’ visions over the ensuing 85 years.  It’s not too hard to spot Tod Browning’s inspiration for the horrific love triangle depicted in Álex de la Iglesia’s satirical The Last Circus (2010).  The Psychotronic Video Guide also cited The Unknown as an influence for Jodorowsky’s beautifully deranged Santa Sangre (1989).  While there have been many fantastic and bizarre imitations over the years, nothing compares to the original film, which stands as Browning’s masterpiece.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Cinematic Dregs: The Car

 (1977) Directed by Elliot Silverstein; Written by Michael Butler, Dennis Shryack and Lane Slate; Starring: James Brolin, Kathleen Lloyd, John Marley and Ronny Cox; Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming.

Rating: ** ½

April showers bring May flowers and… another semi-regular feature!  Enter Cinematic Dregs, an ongoing exploration of questionable films from decades past.  What will I find when I subject myself to this continuing barrage of box office bombs and movie misfires?  Will I discover that history has been unkind, or suitably just?  Will these misunderstood films take on a new level of profundity?  Today, let’s take a closer look at a rusty artifact from the glorious 70s…

The Car was reviled by critics upon its initial 1977 release.  Released the same year as Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Annie Hall, there was little love from the film-going public for this bizarre little supernatural flick, and it sank, seemingly without a trace.  Despite its less than stellar reputation, The Car steadily gained a cult following over the years, likely due to its inherently goofy plot.  The small Utah town of Santa Ynez is terrorized by a mysterious black, hulking sedan, controlled by an unseen driver.  No explanation is provided about its origin, but it’s clearly implied that The Car is an embodiment of evil.  Why did it choose this particular town?   What does it want?  Who sent it?  The Car is conspicuously short on answers.  Maybe the best answer comes from the movie Rubber, which is simply, “No reason.”  A little ambiguity can heighten the mood and increase the tension.  If a film can deliver on the terror and suspense without an explanation (consider another errant vehicle flick, Duel), so be it.  Does The Car ultimately deliver as a horror film?  Nope, not really.

Borrowing its cues from Jaws, The Car takes the mindless killing machine motif and transplants it from the ocean to the desert.  Sheriff Parent (James Brolin) stands in as the poor man’s Sheriff Brody, trading in Amity Island for Santa Ynez.  Instead of chasing Independence Day revelers off the beach, however, he’s canceling a junior high marching band rehearsal (maybe they should have practiced in the school’s gymnasium instead).  No one stops to think that it might be a good idea to get out of the road, and move to higher ground.  I suppose if the menace had been a demonic helicopter, you’d have fewer options.

The Car itself is easily the most interesting character.  George Barris, responsible for a number of iconic vehicles (including the original 1960s Batmobile), created the title machine, which was based on a 1971 Lincoln Mark III.  Four of the cars were constructed for the film.  The Car’s appearance is the epitome of American automotive design from the 1970s, as an exaggeration of the bloated land yachts that roamed the highways of the day.  A low roofline, oversized chrome bumpers, and menacing eyelike headlamps help define its sinister visage.  Unlike many of the humans featured in the movie, The Car has a distinct personality, revving its engine and honking as it closes in on the kill.  It’s an unstoppable force that yields to no one, and never seems to run out of gas.  Neither bullets nor roadblocks can stop The Car.  In one especially logic-bending scene, The Car spontaneously flips over, wrecking two police cruisers that are in hot pursuit.  While the movie it originated from is less than memorable, The Car left a lasting impression on subsequent generations of filmgoers and filmmakers.  In fact, the titular vehicle inspired writer/director Guillermo Del Toro enough to have a replica of The Car built for his personal transportation.

Perhaps realizing that their idea was pretty thin for a feature-length film, screenwriters Butler, Shryack and Slate padded out the film with unnecessary subplots.  While we’re counting off the minutes before another unprovoked car attack, we’re treated to pointless scenes involving an alcoholic cop (Ronny Cox), abusive Amos (R.G. Armstrong) and his battered wife, and recently divorced Sheriff Wade and his family.  Will his daughters accept his new girlfriend Lauren (Kathleen Lloyd)?  Does anyone care?  It’s not surprising that The Car never resolves most of these loose threads.  The most frustrating subplot concerns Amos, who becomes a reluctant hero by the end of the film.  Everything seems to lead up to some sort of karmic retribution for his character, but he sadly never gets the comeuppance he so richly deserves. 

It’s hard to imagine that the filmmakers were unaware of how silly the material was.  The performances are completely deadpan, without a trace of irony.  If it had been released today, it would probably be viewed as a “meta” film, a brilliant deconstruction of the horror genre.  Those looking for such self-awareness should probably look elsewhere, however.  So, is The Car worth your time?  It depends on your tolerance for ridiculous stories and unintentional comedy.  It’s a horror film that’s never truly scary, but its whacked-out premise and unbelievable situations demonstrate how general ineptitude can also be entertaining.