Monday, August 31, 2015

Look Before You Liebster

Considering it’s my fourth go-round with the Liebster Award, you’d think it’s become old hat, but I’m still awed and humbled that anyone’s paying attention to this little ‘ol blog. Words can’t adequately express my sincere gratitude to Michaël Parent, proprietor of the eclectic movie site, LeMot du Cinephiliaque, and the multi-talented Vern (aka: Jason Hemming), of The Vern’s VideoVortex for nominating me.  

I decided to do things a little differently this time with my nominations. I realize that some folks regard the Liebster and similar awards as the blogging equivalent of a chain letter, albeit, without the horrifying consequences. Therefore, there are no rules, no tasks, or questions to answer. To everyone listed below, feel free to bask in your moment of glory with no strings attached.

Here are my answers to Mr. Parent’s questions:

  1. What is your best film related memory?

In the mid-80s, I was lucky enough to attend a special screening of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure at Burbank Studios, the same location where Pee-Wee’s climactic bike chase scene was shot. It was a truly surreal moment when reality and fiction collided, and a genuine moment of cinematic serendipity.

  1. Citizen Kane or How Green Was My Valley? Why?

I’m ashamed to admit I haven’t seen How Green Was My Valley, yet, so I’ll have to abstain from judging.

  1. Frank Capra or Howard Hawks? Why?

Both filmmakers made movies that are among my favorites, so I’m calling it a tie. Capra wins points for capturing my heart in It’s a Wonderful Life and Lost Horizon, and Hawks scores for engaging my brain in The Big Sleep (watch for my review in November… maybe).

  1. What is your favorite movie genre?

I’ve never minced words about my undying love of science fiction and horror, but it’s important to note some of my all-time favorites fall into neither of these categories. Some of my best experiences have been with films that crossed over multiple genres.

  1. Do you give much importance to lists like AFI’s 100s, the Sight and Sound’s Top 10, etc…?

Not really. My problem with many of these lists is how the arbitrary opinions of “experts” obligate me to like a film, whether I actually enjoyed it or not. Because someone deemed certain films culturally and/or artistically significant, there’s the implication that there’s something wrong with my evaluation if I didn’t care for a particular title. I’m not opposed to referring to these lists as a rough guide, and they can be a terrific gateway to exploring new cinematic territories, but to adhere to these lists as canon seems constraining at best, and borderline obsessive-compulsive at worst.

  1. Is your daytime job related to films in any means?

Nope, and I’m thankful for that. Movies (and by extension, writing about movies) have always been an escape for me, and it’s great to come home after a particularly stressful day and immerse myself in my passion.

  1. How long have you been blogging about films and what keeps you going at it?

I’m not sure where the time went, but October will mark my fifth (!) year with Cinematic Catharsis, blogging about the sort of movies I enjoy the most. Everyone loves to get positive feedback, but the comments that resonate the most are when someone states they need to check out a movie, based on my write-up. That never gets old.

  1. What would be the movie that could define you? Why?

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the Eighth Dimension. The title character is a neurosurgeon, rock star, international crime fighter and fearless adventurer. I don’t think I’ve quite reached those lofty heights, but it’s a worthy goal.

  1. Name a celebrity that could be your doppelganger?

When I was about 19, and in the hospital, a nurse once remarked that I looked like Matthew Broderick. I can’t confirm or deny this, since I was under heavy anesthesia at the time, and only learned about this second-hand from my mother.

  1. What it the best film you’ve watched lately?

Ex Machina. Featuring fine performances, a thought-provoking story, and impressive visuals, it left me contemplating how our days as Earth’s dominant intelligence are numbered.

  1. Recommend a movie that almost no one has ever seen and that should be more recognized.

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. I reviewed this forgotten gem a few years ago, and I consider it a timeless classic. The whimsical designs, song lyrics and dialogue were credited to Dr. Seuss, and the film remains the best live action realization of his work. Inexplicably, it was shunned by its creator and the greater movie-going public. It’s a remarkable achievement, nonetheless.

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Tuesday, August 25, 2015

August Quick Picks and Pans

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness (2013) Mami Sunada’s fascinating, insightful documentary provides a fly-on-the wall glimpse inside Studio Ghibli, and is a must-see for fans of anime and Hayao Miyazaki. We get to see Mr. Miyazaki at work on The Wind Rises, and hear from some of his closest business associates, including producer Toshio Suzuki and production manager Yumiko Miyoshi. Miyazaki waxes philosophical about life and the creative process, and candidly assesses Ghibli’s future in the wake of his retirement. We also see the portrait of a master artist, at the top of his game, but still prone to experiencing periods of self-doubt. Hayao’s son Goro (who’s directed two films for Ghibli) is also heard from, discussing his reluctance to follow in his father’s footsteps.

The film succeeds on so many levels that it’s almost too easy to overlook the conspicuous absence of Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata, who mentored Miyazaki before they built an animation empire. Although it would have been nice to include some interviews with Takahata, his presence is felt throughout, via vintage photographs and recollections from other Ghibli personnel. The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness is a bittersweet love letter to one of the masters of animation. We observe the joys and anguish of creating an animated work, and witness the possible end of an era. After spending two hours with such a formidable assembly of talent, I can only hope this is the latest chapter, and not the studio’s epitaph.

Rating: ****½. Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming

Housebound (2014) This quirky little New Zealand indie film from writer/director Gerard Johnstone subverts your expectations from beginning to end. Repeat offender Kylie Bucknell (Morgana O'Reilly) is sentenced to spend the next several months at her mother’s house, with an electronic ankle bracelet to keep her from wandering away. During her domestic incarceration, she experiences strange phenomena, which might (or might not) be tied to the home’s dark past. Kylie is an unconventional choice for a protagonist, as she starts off as unlikeable, but we gradually come to appreciate her by the film’s conclusion. With the exception of a drawn-out ending, Housebound is full of surprises, and sports a refreshing blend of genre elements that defy easy classification.

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

Inferno (1980) The second installment in writer/director Dario Argento’s loose “Three Mothers” trilogy takes place in New York City and Rome, and is a semi-sequel to 1977’s Suspiria. A young woman discovers an old book about three witches, and tries to investigate the connection between the legend and her old apartment building. Of course, in Argento’s world, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and those that attempt to learn more about the Three Mothers meet their demise in spectacular fashion. None of it makes a whole lot of sense, but that should come as no surprise to fans of the director. Inferno is visually stunning, with sets illuminated in abundant blues, reds and greens, and the suspense is palpable. The film doesn’t quite reach the levels of greatness of its predecessor (Keith Emerson’s score doesn’t hold a candle to Goblin’s work in Suspiria) but there’s still much to like.

Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Hulu (streaming)

Nightbreed (1990) This dark fantasy/horror film was written and directed by Clive Barker, and based on his novel Cabal. Aaron Boone (Craig Sheffer) finds his place among the freakish residents of the secret, subterranean city of Midian. Barker’s movie is full of interesting ideas and unique creatures, but the muddled story makes it tough to appreciate. The extended director’s cut adds little, except for additional running time. Although we see more of Midian and its denizens, we only have a vague notion about the ancient city’s origins. Danny Elfman’s rousing score promises a more epic sweep than the film delivers. David Cronenberg (yes, that David Cronenberg) is interesting as a psychiatrist/serial killer, but it’s unclear why his character is determined to destroy Midian. As the star-crossed lovers Boone and Lori, Sheffer and Anne Bobby fail to ignite sparks. Because of my respect for Barker, I’ve always wanted to like Nightbreed more than I have, perhaps for the film that could have been.

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

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Classics Revisited: The Day the Earth Stood Still

(1951) Directed by: Robert Wise; Written by: Edmund H. North; Based on the story “Farewell to the Master,” by Harry Bates; Starring: Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, Hugh Marlowe, Sam Jaffe and Lock Martin; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: *****

“I'm impatient with stupidity. My people have learned to live without it.” – Klaatu (Michael Rennie)

“...because of its nature, the fact that it was science fiction, and earthbound science fiction, I wanted to make it as believable as every day, and real as possibly could be…”
– Robert Wise (from DVD commentary)

I’m proud to be a participant in the Anti-Damsel Blogathon, a survey of strong women in the cinema, sponsored by Jo Gabriel (aka: Monstergirl) of The Last Drive In and Fritzi Kramer of Movies Silently. Today’s offering is The Day the Earth Stood Still, featuring one of  the most indomitable, yet overlooked heroines of ‘50s sci-fi, Helen Benson, played by Patricia Neal.   

The Day the Earth Stood Still is among the greatest science fiction films of the 1950s, a decade that was distinguished by many notable genre examples. Based on the short story “Farewell to the Master,”* by Harry Bates, it depicts the events that transpire after a flying saucer lands in Washington, D.C. The filmmakers incorporate the sort of fanciful art designs from the cover of pulp magazines, while remaining grounded in a realistic setting, as fear and paranoia take hold. Despite the D.C. setting, only the second unit footage was actually shot there, while the actors shot their scenes on the 20th Century Fox backlot, in Century City, California.

* The film represents a significant reversal from Bates’ original story, in which the alien visitor served his robot master.

According to Wise, Claude Rains was first considered for the role of the humanoid alien
Visitor Klaatu, although producer Darryl F. Zanuck suggested a relative unknown, Michael Rennie. With hindsight being 20-20, it’s hard to imagine anyone other than Rennie playing Klaatu, who’s charming and refined, yet somewhat naïve about the intentions of humans. He emerges from his spacecraft bearing a gift for humanity, but is repaid with aggression. He escapes from a government hospital, and takes up residence in a boarding house to observe human society first hand. Rennie makes a memorable entrance, obscured in shadows, lending a noir-ish feel to the scene. Before the residents can discern his features, his intent seems ambiguous.

Helen Benson stands out as one of the unsung heroes of the movie. She’s bright and perceptive, but tough enough to stand up against Gort, a robot that can level cities. Granted, she lets out a single shriek when she’s cornered by the rampaging automaton, but anyone in her predicament would be suitably warranted. She quickly regains her composure to speaks the famous line, “Klaatu, barada, nikto,” a command for the towering robot to cease further hostility. She displays this same sort of fortitude in her relationship with her boyfriend, insurance salesman Tom Stevens (Hugh Marlowe). She lost her husband several years ago, was left to raise her son alone, and is reluctant to jump into another marriage. The gentle, patient Klaatu (using the assumed name of Carpenter) is the sort of role model for her son Bobby (Billy Gray) that Tom is incapable of being. When Tom tries to convince her that Klaatu is a menace, she decides to make up her own mind. Although Klaatu seems to be a much better choice for her intellect, Wise and writer Edmund H. North sagely choose to keep Helen’s relationship with Klaatu platonic. She’s content with her independence, a far cry from the passive character typified by many female leads in ‘50s genre cinema. Even with Klaatu, she doesn’t let her guard down, however. She remains wary, weighing the consequences of concealing the identity of this mysterious visitor, who may greatly benefit or harm humanity. Filmmaker Nicholas Meyer, who contributed to the DVD commentary, along with Wise, noted about Neal’s performance, “…you can see the wheels going around in this woman.”

Bernard Herrmann’s theremin-infused score does much to set the otherworldly tone of the film. Although this wasn’t the first use of the instrument, it was likely the first time it had been used so extensively. Following The Day the Earth Stood Still, the theremin became a fixture of science fiction films of the 1950s, but arguably, never to better effect as with this film. From a composer responsible for some of cinema’s most memorable soundtracks, this score is among his very best.

Considering the tremendous leap in special effects over the past several decades, the visuals still hold up remarkably well. One of the film’s most indelible images depicts the powerful, mute robot Gort,* emerging from Klaatu’s spacecraft. Gort appears human in silhouette only, with a featureless face, except for a visor that conceals a deadly ray. He’s a truly terrifying creation, wielding almost unimaginable power, and Gort is a truly imposing, frightening creation. His clean lines mimic the flying saucer, which appears to lack any visible seams. The minimalist design of the ship’s exterior carries over to its interior, containing devices whose function we can scarcely fathom.

** Fun fact: Gort was played by the 7-foot-plus tall Lock Martin,* a former doorman at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. Because Martin wasn’t strong enough to carry Neal in one key shot, a rig was constructed with wires to support the actress.

One of the elements that distinguishes a true classic from other films is the timelessness of the story. In a scene, oddly prescient of current trends to garner media soundbites, a reporter asks Klaatu if he’s scared, which prompts the reply, “I am fearful when I see people substituting fear for reason.” When the reporter realizes he’s not getting the response he anticipated, he abruptly moves on before Klaatu can add anything else. The Day the Earth Stood Still takes a dim view of human nature, and our bellicose, fear-driven tendencies, as exemplified by one of the first scenes, when Klaatu, bearing a gift for the U.S. president, is shot by a soldier with an itchy trigger finger. Human selfishness is illustrated by Stevens’ actions later in the film, when he attempts to turn in Klaatu for his own self-aggrandizing ends.

Some other story elements haven’t weathered quite as well. The film has been criticized for the mixed message central to the film. On behalf of his organization, Klaatu sends an ultimatum: if people of the Earth can’t control their warlike endeavors, they will be obliterated. This declaration is made, despite a previous scene that proved the aliens could stop everything mechanical. They could just as easily have rendered all of our machinery and weapons useless, sending humankind back to the Stone Age. This “might makes right” line of thinking could be likened to current policies that dictate only some nations are “responsible” enough to wield weapons of mass destruction (I’ll step down from my soapbox now). Another interpretation, which I’d prefer, is that no one is responsible enough to wield such power, and if we don’t change our ways, we’ll destroy each other without the need of outside intervention. On a different note, the film represents a simpler time that appears suspect to most modern viewers. A day after Klaatu’s arrival at the boarding house, Helen accepts his offer to watch her son when she goes out on a date. It’s hard to imagine any self-respecting mother allowing a strange man to watch her kid, but I suppose these were different times.

Any deficits are more than compensated by a gripping story, compelling visuals, a driving score, and fine performances by Rennie, Neal and  Sam Jaffe (in a small role as an Einstein-like figure). We are left with a hopeful, but cautionary tale, about the promise of alien life (something that Wise felt was an inevitability) tempered by the fear of the unknown. The filmmakers suggest we have less to fear from alien invaders than we do from ourselves. It’s a refreshing dose of cynicism amidst the post-war optimism of the early ‘50s, but told in an accessible, immensely entertaining manner. The Day the Earth Stood Still is one of the greats in any genre.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Devil-Doll

(1936) Directed by Tod Browning; Written by Garrett Fort, Guy Endore and Erich von Stroheim; Based on the novel Burn, Witch, Burn! by Abraham Merritt; Starring: Lionel Barrymore, Maureen O’Sullivan, Frank Lawton and Rafaela Ottiano; Available on DVD

Rating: ***

“You see, when a man saves an ambition in a dirty dungeon for 17 years, it becomes almost an insane obsession. With Marcel, it was science. With me, it was hate. Hate and vengeance.” – Paul Lavond (Lionel Barrymore)

Note: This is an expanded version of a capsule review that originally appeared in August 2014.

Big thanks to Crystal of In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood for inviting me to participate in The Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon. Today, I’m shining the spotlight on Lionel Barrymore, and a forgotten ‘30s curio. Be sure to check out the other entries about one of cinema’s most illustrious and enduring acting families.

Mr. Barrymore collaborated with director Tod Browning several times before; notably on West of Zanzibar and the London After Midnight remake, Mark of the Vampire. 1936’s The Devil-Doll was the prolific director’s penultimate film. The screenplay (based on the novel Burn, Witch, Burn, by Abraham Merritt) was credited to three writers, including Erich von Stroheim, although his involvement doesn’t make the story any less preposterous. Of course, the story’s outlandish nature is arguably part of the charm.

Disgraced former bank president Paul Lavond (Barrymore) and scientist Marcel (Henry B. Walthall) escape from Devil’s Island penitentiary, finding safe haven in the latter’s secluded house/laboratory. Marcel’s wife Malita (Rafaela Ottiano) has continued his work, a process to shrink creatures to one-sixth of their original size. Naturally (as required by all mad scientist movies), there’s a drawback, which results in wiping the subject’s memory clean. What remains is a living husk, “…a creature capable of responding only to the force of another will.” When Marcel and Malita decide to use a lowly servant girl Lachna (Grace Ford)* as their first human test subject, Lavond considers the possibilities of exploiting the process for his own ends. Unfortunately, for Marcel, at the dawn of his success, he drops dead from exhaustion.

* Described by Malita as an “inbred peasant halfwit.” Beyond the obvious absence of informed consent, I’ll leave it to you, dear reader, to ponder the inherent ethical minefield of this experiment.   

Barrymore seemed to be enjoying himself as Lavond, who (borrowing a page from Browning’s The Unholy Three) disguises himself as an old lady to exact his vengeance on the three former business partners who framed him for embezzlement. Depending on your acceptance or denial of this dubious plot device, you’ll either grin or groan by the scenes that follow. Lavond sets up shop as Madame Mandilip, a kindly old toymaker. He’s assisted by Malita, to create human dolls that will carry out his demands. The bulk of the film relies on what Roger Ebert once coined the “idiot plot.”* None of the characters seem capable of seeing through Lavond’s flimsy disguise or stop to question why something about this eccentric old lady seems a bit askew (Perhaps Malita invented a substance that effectively brainwashes anyone in Madame Mandilip’s vicinity?). To make matters worse, Lavond does nothing to keep a low profile, but practically flaunts his disguise in front of the police. Even though the credulity level is stretched beyond the breaking point, you have to admire Barrymore for working through such an absurd premise. We might not believe one minute of it, but we’re willing to follow him to the end.

* According to Ebert’s film glossary, the “idiot plot” refers to “any plot containing problems that would be solved instantly if all of the characters were not idiots.” 

Aside from Barrymore’s bonkers performance are some key supporting roles. Rafaela Ottiano chews up the scenery as the wide-eyed Malita, seizing every opportunity to mug at the camera. She gamely vows to carry on Marcel’s work – because creating miniature people and creatures makes perfect sense. To say that Ottiano overacts a bit would be akin to stating the Titanic was a boating accident. Maureen O’Sullivan is notable for her earnest performance as Lavond’s estranged daughter Lorraine, who ekes out a meager existence at a laundry, and feels only hatred for the man who left his family destitute. Frank Lawton plays her eternally optimistic and long-suffering cabdriver boyfriend Toto. Pedro de Cordoba also deserves an honorable mention as Lavond’s unscrupulous former business associate Matin, who utters the film’s best line (“There’s a certain amusing irony in offering a man’s own money for his capture.”).

It might be a stretch to call The Devil-Doll a genuine classic, but it deserves recognition as an oddity from another era. It’s not in the same league as some of Browning’s other, stronger efforts, such as Freaks or The Unknown, but it carries the same fearless, brazen spirit of these earlier films. Whether you’re a Lionel Barrymore fan, a Browning aficionado, or a ‘30s camp cinema enthusiast, you should find something to like. Or, if you ever had a burning desire to see Mr. Potter in drag, now’s your chance.