Thursday, May 28, 2020
Wednesday, May 20, 2020
The City of Lost Children
(1995) Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro; Written by Gilles Adrien, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro; Starring: Ron Perlman, Daniel Emilfork, Judith Vittet, Dominique Pinon, Jean-Claude Dreyfus, and Mireille Mossé; Available on Blu-ray and DVD
“This film is about dreams, and maybe in dreams, we need to see dreams that would awaken us, our imagination… We’ve always been supporting fantasy cinema, and this is what this film is about: If we don’t dream, it’ll kill us. It’ll age us very quickly. It’s as simple as that. It’s what the movie is about.” – Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Fairy tales, in a traditional sense, are enduring stories told in broad strokes, set in an ambiguously distant time. They may possess many (if not all) of these classic elements: strongly delineated protagonists (with the requisite hero’s quest), appropriately loathsome villains, and universally relatable themes, often with a strong moral attached. The City of Lost Children (aka: La Cité des Enfants Perdus)* is a contemporary fairy tale, set in an unspecified seaside city in a mythical era, which borrows designs from yesteryear (think 1930s urban sprawl, blended with touches of post-industrial Victorian steampunk). Filmed almost entirely on a French soundstage for $18 million, The City of Lost Children looks like it cost much more, featuring expansive city sets, meticulously detailed interiors, and a massive wharf complete with ships and seagulls.
* Fun Fact #1: Watch for co-writer/co-director Marc Caro in a cameo as a blind beggar in an early scene, and as a Cyclops cult member.
The genius but emotionally stunted villain Krank (Daniel Emilfork)* resides in a towering offshore oil derrick guarded by mines. He lacks the ability to dream, so he steals children for his nefarious experiments, where he can experience and infiltrate their dreams. He resides with his more even-tempered brother, who exists as a disembodied brain in an aquarium tank, serving as a mediating influence. He’s assisted by four clone henchmen (all played by Dominique Pinon, thanks to some clever effects trickery), along with diminutive researcher, Mademoiselle Bismuth (Mireille Mossé), who keeps the clones in check.
* Not So Fun Fact: In his DVD commentary, Jeunet described Emilfork as a “diva,” who was difficult to work with. He was quick to note, however, how he admired the actor’s performance in the film.
A hero’s journey can’t be accomplished without a solid protagonist, and virtuous circus strongman One (Ron Perlman) rises to the challenge. One* may be deficient in intellect, but he possesses a heart as big as his physique. He takes a young orphan boy, Denree (Joseph Lucien), under his wing, referring to him as his “little brother.” When Denree is abducted by a group of fanatics, One resolves to get him back. He meets up with a scrappy band of orphan thieves led by crafty street urchin Miette (Judith Vittet). The orphans are under the watchful eye of conjoined twins and former sideshow performers known collectively as La Pieuvre, or “The Octopus” (played by real-life twin sisters Geneviève Brunet and Odile Mallet), a sort of Fagin (multiplied twice) to Miette’s Oliver Twist. Perlman described the film as “the exploration of innocence.” I would probably replace “exploration” with “exploitation,” since none of the kids in this film have an easy life. One stands as the one nurturing, compassionate influence in Denree’s (and later Miette’s) life, as a pseudo-paternal figure. We’re never in doubt, however, who’s really in charge.
* Fun Fact #2: Why was his character called “One?” According to Perlman, after he initially read the script, he asked Jeunet, whose only reply was “Why not?”
A predominant theme in The City of Lost Children is individualism versus conformity. One stands alone, as a force of good among a cruel and unyielding city. Miette, hardened by her experiences, gets by on her wits alone. On the flipside, the four clones bicker endlessly about which one is the original (SPOILER: It’s someone else, also played by Dominique Pinon). Much like the clones, the unscrupulous twin sisters scheme together as one criminal mind. Similarly, an ascetic cult of “Cyclops” (who shun their organic vision in favor of a third, electronic eye) function as a hive mind, roaming the city streets, searching for more to convert to their order.
The gorgeous production design/art direction by Marco Caro and Jean Rabasse takes center stage, employing an intentional color palette, in which reds and greens dominate.* The beautifully detailed sets masterfully create the illusion of a city made of bricks and steel, while Krank’s oil derrick lair (a convincing large-scale model) resembles something out of Jules Verne’s nightmares. Somewhat less effective is the cartoonish CGI flea, which stands out amidst the intricate three-dimensional set pieces. In defense of computer-generated imagery, it’s utilized to much better effect to create the distorted perspectives of the dream sequences, or a glowing green cloud of dreams trapped in a brass cannister.
* Fun Fact #3: According to Jeunet, the filmmakers were inspired by the work of painter Giorgio de Chirico for the look of the film.
The City of Lost Children is delightfully weird in all the right ways. Directors Jeunet and Caro somehow manage to rein in the eccentric characters and colorful surroundings without seeming distancing or overwhelmingly busy. The visuals create the narrative. Much like its predecessor, Delicatessen (1991), Jeunet and Caro have created an immersive world made enjoyable through innovative, playful visuals and Rube Goldberg-inspired gags. A mesmeric street organ-tinged score by frequent David Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti fits the dark carnival tone of the film perfectly. The City of Lost Children emulates a dream, where the rules of reality only superficially apply. It’s a buoyant, funhouse experience only something truly magical can produce, and couldn’t we all use a little magic right now?
Monday, May 11, 2020
(1932) Directed by Michael Curtiz; Written by Robert Tasker and Earl Baldwin; Based on a play by Howard W. Comstock and Allen C. Miller; Starring: Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Lee Tracy, Preston Foster, John Wray, Harry Beresford and Dr. Rowitz; Available on DVD (in the “Hollywood Legends of Horror Collection”)
Rating: ***½ stars
Although Universal was the undisputed leader in horror in the 1930s, it wasn’t the only game in town. Hollywood rival First National had something up its sleeve, with Doctor X, filmed in “Two-Strip” Technicolor, an expensive*/** early color process that combined red and green film strips to create a color image. To today’s viewers, the film has a surreal, otherworldly appearance, resembling something from a comic book or a dream state.*** The screenplay was derived from a 1930 stage production, which originated from an unproduced 1928 play, Terror. The film version was initially conceived as a horror vehicle starring Bela Lugosi, but First National eventually changed its tune, deciding to produce a mystery/thriller with comic overtones. Prolific director Michael Curtiz filmed Doctor X over a grueling 20-day schedule, requiring 15 to 20-hour days.
* Fun Fact #1: According to film historian Scott MacQueen in the DVD commentary, the “Two-Strip” process cost two-and-a-half times the amount of black and white film, requiring high-speed cameras that needed four times the amount of lighting.
** Fun Fact #2: Doctor X was simultaneously filmed in color and black and white. The black and white prints, which included different takes from the color version, were intended for international release.
*** Fun Fact #3: Due to the limitations of the film process, blues, purples, or yellows could not be accurately duplicated. See the EastmanMuseum website for more details.
After a series of murders near a medical school run by Dr. Jerry Xavier (Lionel Atwill), the police have set their sights on the school’s staff. Further signs point to Xavier’s school when Xavier’s examination of a victim’s body reveals an incision that appears to have been perpetrated with a precision scalpel. Adding to the mystery, he discovers that a sizable chunk has been cut out of the body, suggesting cannibalism. Concerned about the potential bad press that the investigation will cause, Dr. Xavier resolves to mitigate the scrutiny by conducting his own investigation, using scientific methods. Unfortunately for the good doctor, things are not as hush, hush as he intended, on account of a snooping reporter, Lee Taylor (Lee Tracy).
We’re introduced to the eccentric suspects, all researchers employed by Dr. Xavier. One-armed Dr. Wells (Preston Foster) conducts research on reanimation of body parts, and is also an ardent student of cannibalistic practices. Dr. Haines (John Wray) studies brain grafting, and has a fondness for erotica (the filmmakers were careful to tiptoe around the censors, by avoiding too many details). Dr. Rowitz (Arthur Edmund Carewe) researches the moon’s effects on the mind. Both Haines and Rowitz were involved in a shipwreck, where a third survivor vanished under mysterious circumstances (Could it have been…cannibalism?). Dr. Duke (Harry Beresford), the fourth researcher, is confined to a wheelchair, appearing the least likely to have perpetrated the murders. Dr. Xavier puts his plan into action, in an overly elaborate scheme to ferret out the killer. In what seems an awful long way to go on such short notice, the suspects are subjected to a re-enactment of the murders at his spooky cliffside mansion (under the full moon), with wax figures and live actors. Meanwhile, the suspects are confined to chairs connected to special equipment designed to measure their physiological response (Don’t hurt your brain trying to determine the science behind this experiment).
Doctor X balances horror and comedy (emphasizing the comedy), with mixed results. Goofy, go-getting reporter Lee Taylor provides the lion’s share of the comic relief, with a little going a long way. He’s obnoxious and overbearing at every turn, wearing out his welcome long before we’ve reached the midpoint. Taylor has more on his mind than landing a juicy story when he falls for Xavier’s aloof daughter Joanne (Fay Wray, in an underwritten role). Perhaps the biggest stretch, in a film full of contrivances, is that Joanne eventually falls for him, as the script dictates. Much more effective is George Rosener’s* quirky/creepy performance as Dr. Xavier’s enthusiastic butler with a morbid streak, Otto. He enjoys tormenting Mamie the maid, played by Leila Bennett (it would be easy to see her contemporary, Una O’Connor, in the same role). She’s prone to bouts of hysteria, keeping a bottle of booze under her pillow to keep the demons at bay.
* Fun Fact #4: Roesener wrote the first draft of the screenplay, which was mostly discarded.
A humorous scene, applied with care, can help defuse tension in horror. In this case, however, less comedy would have been an asset. The film betrays its theatrical roots with scenes that are a bit too stagey and static. The basic whodunit story isn’t anything you haven’t seen before, but the morbid premise breathes new life into the proceedings, especially when the boogeyman is revealed in the climactic payoff. In the movie’s most distinctive scene (with makeup effects credited to Max Factor), the mad scientist undergoes a hideous transformation,* slathering on the clay-like artificial skin like a demonic Mummenschanz performer. It’s a scene that continues to mesmerize today, and likely caused a stir or two when it first played. Creaky plot elements and irritating characters notwithstanding, Doctor X remains a minor classic, a milestone in horror, and a must-see for any film fan.
* Fun Fact #5: According to the DVD commentary, British film censors deemed the transformation scene too horrifying, omitting it from prints at the time.
Note: Doctor X spawned a sequel, albeit in name only, The Return of Doctor X (1939), starring Humphrey Bogart, in a role he despised (but I quite enjoyed).
Source for this article: DVD commentary by Scott MacQueen, Eastman Museum website: https://www.eastman.org/