The November 2012 Marquee: Part One

November, the eleventh month on the Julian and Gregorian Calendars. The one between October and December–we’re over half way through it and I need to post something. So, accordingly here are what I have viewed in the first half of the month in “mini” encapsulations. It is rather heavy on the Halloween carryover. I think my list is kind of long, so I will make them short.

Les Vampires

French 1915-16; Director, Louis Feuillade

In 1915, while France was in its intensely insane death struggle with Germany on blood-soaked battlefields that stretched from  Belgium to Switzerland, director Louis Feuillade began  his followup to the wildly popular Fantômas, 1913. Les Vampires, a 10 part 6.5 hour serial, ran from November 1915 to June 1916.

Musidora as the infamous “Irma Vep”

The Vampires of the title are not of the undead, blood sucking variety, rather, they are an organization of thieves running a complicated series of robberies, swindles and murder. On their trail is intrepid journalist and the nominal hero, Philipe Guérande (Édouard Mathé) and his semi-comical sidekick Oscar-Cloud Mazamette (Marcel Lévesque.) After the first few episodes it is mainly focused on the inner workings of the criminals (and leaving Philipe and Mazamette almost secondary status.) The most notable of these is Irma Vep, (Musidora) the lead female member of the gang. Parading around in an outfit of black tights crossing nighttime Paris rooftops to perform burglaries, made Irma and Musidora a sensation (and sort of a pinup) in war torn France.

Filmed quickly and largely made up as it went along, with very little written script, Les Vampires plays somewhat like  a fevered dream. This probably accounts for some of the bizarre and abrupt story twists and turns, and for the uneven length of its episodes (the shortest is only 13 minutes long while some of them approach an hour.) But this is not a cliffhanger serial, each episode (so far) have a definite ending. Perhaps I should wait til later to discuss Les Vampires any further, since I have watched only the first 8 episodes. There are two (and almost two hours) to go.

Burke and Hare

2010; Director: John Landis

John Landis’ return to feature film directing is a not totally successful black-comic re-rendering of the infamous Burke and Hare murder/grave robbing scandal from 19th century Scotland. Burke and Hare supply Dr. Robert Knox with fresh cadavers for medical study in Edinburgh, when procuring said cadavers, was quite difficult. No questions asked. They graduate from grave robbing to outright murder.

While based on real characters and events, Burke and Hare departs quite a bit from the known facts. Instead of cold blooded murderers, our heroes stumble somewhat by chance on to their trade. But the film is a comedy, not a documentary, and the film sets that up right from the start with a title (I’m paraphrasing here): Based on true events–except the parts that aren’t.

Pegg and Serkis as “Burke and Hare”

The film has a nice Hammer Horror, Gothic look and feel to it and Landis gets excellent work from his cast: Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis as the titular characters and Jessica Hynes, Isla Fisher, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Curry and Bill Bailey in supporting roles. Christopher Lee pops up for an amusing cameo.  It has a some funny bits and much of the dark, ironical black humor comes through; but overall, the film just did not totally work. I suppose the making a couple of real life cold blooded murderers into loveable, bumbling, cold blooded murderers is not an easy turn of the key. Still, the film has much to recommend it, so I wouldn’t warn anybody away.

Return of the Living Dead

1984; Director: Dan O’Bannon

From serial killing for profit, to mass murder for want of “Brains!!!”

“Braaaiiiinnnnsss!”

John Russo, the screenwriter for The Night of the Living Dead, parted ways with director, George A. Romero, but retained the rights the “Living Dead” part of the title. This film acts as a sort of sequel to the original–but a much more comic one. Director and screenwriter, Dan O’Bannon, concocts a story that, in its way, continues and honors the original and makes fun of it at the same time.

It seems that a sealed canister from original zombie outbreak has been stored and then forgotten in the basement of a medical supply warehouse run by Burt (Clu Gulager.) When old hand, Frank (James Karen) is showing new hire Freddie (Thom Mathews) the ropes of his new job, he accidentally crack opens the canister, releasing whatever deadly, gas, virus, infection was inside. Needless to say, this evolves into a mass uprising of the dead courtesy of convenient cemetery across the way and a sudden thunderstorm that rains the gas down upon all of those graves. Oh, and there is a group of punk rockers, who happen to be partying in the cemetery and an oddball embalmer, Eddie (Don Calfa) that Burt brings bring his problem to. It all ends in a siege of the living holding back the brain seeking, undead zombies.

It is all rather silly but, the whole thing is done with a rather droll old EC Comics vibe. Return of the Living Dead is quite a fun ride with performances that carry just enough of the real to make us care but are also just enough on the far side to make them fun. James Karen and Don Calfa, in different ways really deliver terrific performances.

Certainly trashy with a fair gross out quotient, the MGM blu-ray is not a thing of beauty but Return is a Halloween time staple.

A Man There Was  (Terje Vigen) 1917

Ingeborg Holm 1913

Swedish; Director: Victor Sjöström

A Kino double feature from the Swedish director who has been called both the “Father of Swedish Cinema” and the “Swedish Griffith” both of which, I suppose, are somewhat unfair, and unnecessarily burdensome. At any rate, Sjöström was an early, great filmmaker both in Sweden and then in the United States.

A Man There Was (Swedish title: Terje Vigen) is a melancholy tale of the sea, from a poem by Henrik Ibsen. A carefree sailor becomes a loving family man but when war comes and the harbor is blockaded he tries to smuggle provisions for his family and is taken prisoner of war. When he is finally freed, five years later, Terje Vigen returns home to find his wife and child dead. He becomes a gnarly seaside hermit, then chance brings him face to face with the man who imprisoned him.

“A Man There Was”

Ingeborg Holm, which is considered the first classic of Swedish cinema, is a stark social drama that critically looks a Sweden’s welfare system. When Ingeborg Holm’s husband suddenly dies and leaves her with a large debt, she is forced into a workhouse and obliged to have her children fostered to other families.

Ingeborg Holm, although often filmed in scenes with a single lock down camera, is not flatly staged.  Filmed at a slight angle, instead of flat, there is a sense of depth and life as the players don’t simply move parallel to the camera, but look to inhabit the real world.

The film seems to move at a rather slow pace, but that may be due to my modern sensibility. The film has an accumulative power that finally swept me up. Hilda Borgström, in the title role gives a magnificent performance considering that she is never shown in closer than a medium full shot.

A Man There Was, benefits greatly from being largely shot out of doors on location. The Scandinavian seacoast scenery  is a character unto itself.  For a film made in 1917, it is quite astounding. The visuals, the inner cutting, the framing are stunning. The condition of the Kino print and its tinting are wonderful.  Sjöström, playing the title part himself, is quite dynamic and charismatic.

In the 1920’s, Victor Sjöström moved to the United States and made He Who Gets Slapped (1924) with Lon Chaney, The Scarlett Letter (1926) and the great The Wind (1928) both with Lillian Gish. With the coming of sound he moved back to Sweden and mostly returned the theatre. Today, most know him from his lead in Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries.

Dark Shadows

2012; Director: Tim Burton

Ah now, Tim Burton. He, really, is a genre all of his own.

This very loosely adaptation from the old hoary television soap opera (although I remember the original show and did see a number of episodes, I can’t say that I know its in and outs very well), did not much excite critics or viewers when it was released earlier this year. I was rather charmed. Like many of Burton’s films, I think it sometimes takes getting used to, in order to enjoy it. (Though, I still don’t like his  Alice in Wonderland)  I can see where many might have felt underwhelmed by the film–there are some lame, predictable bits and the story line and some of the characters did get rather the short shrift, and it HAD to have a big “action” climax. But I still greatly like Johnny Depp and his performance as Barnabas was both touching, detailed and very funny. Any film with Michelle Pfeiffer and Eva Green in major roles is a plus for me. They are both very good (meaning, quite funny and very sexy.) Michelle is really good at this kind of of comedy. And Eva Green, well now, she is wonderfully evil and well, you know, at the same time. (If you don’t know, then I can not explain it to you.) No, it it not Dan Curtis’ Dark Shadows, it’s Tim Burton’s.

The Killer

1989, Hong Kong;  Director: John Woo

John Woo, another director that is a veritable genre unto himself.

I had never seen this classic Hong Kong actioner before. Whew.  Woo expends more bullets than Sam Peckinpah.  John Woo, and his films are something that one either takes to or does not. They are over the top, with much extended, stylized violence mixed with equal amounts of sentiment.

During a gang assassination in a restaurant, professional killer Ah Jong (Chow Yun-fat) accidentally blinds the lounge singer Jenny (Sally Yeh).  Conscious stricken and intrigued, he be friends her. When he learns that she needs an operation, or will go permanently blind, Jong decides to do “one last job.” But one does not simply retire from the Triad, so, instead of paying him after the job, they try to kill him. Bad move.  On Jong’s trail is detective Li Ying (Danny Lee.)

A Mexican Standoff for Jong and Ying.

Influenced by the crime films of Jean-Pierre Melville and Martin Scorsese, especially Melville’s Le Samourai, The Killer is knockout.  A fair number of people have called The Killer the “greatest action film ever.” I will not go there, but it is definitely a heady mixture. Themes of friendship, honor and responsibility are deeply woven into the film’s fabric. There is a fair amount of Christian iconography throughout the film, but it is not overly pressed. Woo certainly has his influences, but this film returns the favor, over and over; because The Killer, itself has heavily influenced filmmakers since it release. Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino, Luc Besson anyone?

To Catch a Thief

1955; Director: Alfred Hitchcock

An Affair to Remember

1957; Director: Leo McCarey

A Cary Grant double feature weekend! Hitchcock’s souffle of a romantic comedy thriller and McCarey’s screwball, romantic comedy-drama.

Cary and Grace
Cary and Deborah

To Catch a Thief is often described as “Hitchcock Lite” or “minor Hitchcock.” I strongly disagree. That the Master used it as an excuse to spend time in the south of France, or that it does not scale the heights of Rear Window or Vertigo (two of the greatest films ever made), I will not deny. But To Catch a Thief was made by a man at the height of his creative powers. It does exactly what it was designed to do–entertain. Cary Grant is a reformed cat burglar who much catch a thief that is emulating his former style–because the police are breathing down his neck thinking that he is back in business. Grace Kelly is the daughter of a wealthy oil baroness, with lots of expensive ice, vacationing on the Riviera. The scenery, the players and the suspense are all just right. It is all quite delicious.

An Affair to Remember is Leo McCarey remaking his own 1937 classic Love Affair.  On a cruise ship headed from the Continent to New York, a notoriously frivolous,  international playboy (Cary Grant) meets a more serious and level headed songstress heading home from a European vacation. Despite being attached to others, they fall in love. To make sure that their love is real, they agree to meet at the top of the Empire State Building in six months. Of course, things don’t exactly go as planned.

I think I like the remake better than the original–an opinion not held by everyone. The newer version has a lighter and more even touch. But I think that largely comes down to Cary Grant over Charles Boyer. When the choice is between Irene Dunne and Deborah Kerr, I would hate to make a decision. I love them both dearly. The only thing is–Irene Dunne sang her own songs, Deborah Kerr is dubbed.  That brings me to the music/singing scenes. There are a couple of scenes involving children and singing that I found quite excruciating. The date very badly. The whole film is very much of the 1950s and I roll right along with that–but those kid choirs . . .

To Catch a Thief is Vista-Vision and An Affair to Remember is CinemaScope. Both look great on blu-ray, but I have to give the edge to the Vista-Vision. The CinemaScope has some softness and there is definitely some fuzziness occurring in the dissolves. But both of these films are highly recommended.

Kelly’s Heroes

1971; Director: Brian Hutton

The movie I watched on Armistice Day (aka. Veteran’s Day). Not exactly straight forward military/war film. This Clint Eastwood action-comedy has been kind of a favorite of mine since I first saw it on its original run. It fit my mood for the day.  A mixture of Sgt. Bilko-esque  characters, heist and war film, this Troy Kennedy Martin scripted movie is a good time.

Oddball, Kelly and Big Joe

Kelly’s Heroes, like An Affair to Remember is from the 50’s, is definitely a film from its time–the early 1970’s.  Where else are you going to find a World War II soldier like Donald Sutherland’s Oddball. Stop givin’ with the negative waves, man.  Like, I can dig that.  While Eastwood’s Kelly is the center piece, there is a whole group of character actors orbiting around him. Like I said, it’s a personal favorite. I revisit it.

Foolish Wives

1922; Director: Erich von Stroheim

The Man You Loved to Hate

1972; Director Peter Montgomery

Another Kino double feature disc, the former is the fullest available reconstruction of von Stroheim’s much chopped up film, the latter a so-so television documentary on von Stroheim.

Foolish Wives is the film where Erich von Stroheim began his reputation for extravagance, obsession to detail and not knowing how to self edit. Building massive and expensively detailed sets and taking lots of time and lots of takes, this film became promoted as the first million dollar production.

Von Stroheim had produced his first two directorial efforts (Blind Husbands and The Devil’s Pass Key, both 1920) on schedule and budget, for his third, he was given almost cart-blanch. He took it and ran with it. The story about a trio of expatriate Russian swindler in Monte Carlo trying to take advantage of the new American Ambassador and his wife was provocative enough, but von Stroheim made it positively creepy. His character of the fake Count is shown to be a quite the user and abuser of women, not to mention perverse.

It is hard to totally judge Foolish Wives, since it’s intended 30 reel version was cut down to 14 reels for its opening and then successively cut down by the studio to about seven reels. The version on the Kino DVD is about eight reels. Von Stroheim had intended the film to be shown in two parts on successive days–a rather unrealistic expectation. And one that would follow him through his truncated directorial career. The film is thereby missing a lot of the meat from its bones.

I will say this, what is there is often stunning visually. In camera placement and lighting effects, von Stroheim was far ahead of his time. But as was said in another film: a man’s got to know his limitations–and Erich von Stroheim didn’t. Not a single film he directed afterwards was ever presented in the form he envisioned, or in one case even completed.

Texas Rangers

2001; Director: Steve Miner

I like Westerns. I really like Westerns, even a lot of not so great Westerns. Texas Rangers does not even fit into that arena. It is not awful in the sense that it is BAD. It is awful because it is a pale carbon copy of a Western. It is made up of old tropes, cliches and stereotypes (not a death sentence) without a bit of blood, belief or conviction in its veins. It is, for all the shooting and hollering, DOA.  James Van Der Beek and Ashton Kutcher don’t make for very convincing westerners and Usher as the angry young black guy is way too modern.  I like Dylan McDermott, but the script and direction don’t help him much, and he looks way to hale and hearty to be as consumptive (I am guessing here, as the film never actually says what the Captain is ill with) as he is supposed to be. The great Alfred Molina is totally wasted as a cardboard bad guy. Tom Skerritt barely shows up and is also wasted. Skerritt has been so underused and undervalued so often, it is literally a crime. Only Robert Patrick, as a conflicted Ranger develops much as a character; it’s not much, but it is something. Anyway, I suppose you have guessed that, I didn’t much like Texas Rangers. I only watched it because it was on a double feature blu-ray that has Jim Jaramusch’s Dead Man on it. I can only hope that the transfer of Dead Man is at least reasonable for the five bucks I paid for the disc.

C’est la vie.

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