creature feature saturday: bedlam (mark robson, 1946)

Another Val Lewton production, his last for RKO, this one "suggested by" a painting by Hogarth. Lewton and director Mark Robson wrote the screenplay, and Boris Karloff joined Lewton for the third and last time. Anna Lee, who had been in films since 1932, and whose career lasted long enough that she was a featured player for many years on General Hospital, was the female lead. Karloff plays Sims, the head of St. Mary's of Bethlehem Asylum, known colloquially as "Bedlam", and Lee plays Nell Bowen, a woman upset with the barbaric treatment of the "patients" (i.e. inmates) at the asylum. Sims manages to get Nell committed to his asylum, and ... well, I'll avoid too many spoilers.

Karloff is great in this one, showing glimpses of the human hiding beneath the sadist. There's a sense that the sick people (not just the patients but Sims as well) are formed in part by society, and at the picture's end, we're told that "Reforms were begun in 1773--a new hospital was erected shortly afterward--and since that time Bedlam--once a by-word for terror and mistreatment--has led the way to enlightened and sensible treatment of the mentally ill."

You don't really watch this for the history, of course. There aren't any shock-scares ... the film relies on a general unease, with Karloff ever-present and ever-creepy and Lee trapped in the asylum. There's all the atmosphere you expect from a Val Lewton movie. The supporting cast includes Ian "Hey, It's That Guy" Wolfe and Jason Robards Sr. Everything is done in a tidy 79 minutes. There were some great movies in 1946 (My Darling Clementine, The Big Sleep, Notorious), but Bedlam is a good a horror movie as any other from that year, at least that I've seen. 7/10.

Here, Sims uses his inmates to put on a show for the rich:

 


it's halloween, so go watch the babadook

Looking for a movie to watch on Halloween? I recommend The Babadook. I wrote about it two years ago:

The Babadook is an Australian horror film, the first feature from director/writer Jennifer Kent (an ex-actor). The cast was unknown to me (Essie Davis, the star, seems to be known mostly for her stage work). The film was partly funded via Kickstarter. You could watch it as a standard horror film about a monster that comes from a book, and it definitely works on that level. But it is also ripe for detailed analysis, particularly from a feminist angle. The main character isn’t the titular monster, nor is it the frightened and disturbed young boy who initially seems to be its target. No, this is a movie about a mother’s grief, and Davis plays the entire spectrum from holding-it-together to flat-out-losing-it in a moving and believable way. Kent’s eye is remarkable for a first-time director (with excellent work from Polish cinematographer Radek Ladczuk and book designed Alex Juhasz). She also worked hard to draw a strong performance from young newcomer Noah Wiseman, while also doing her best to avoid exploiting the child during emotionally intense scenes. The Babadook is better than a simple plot description might suggest, and I recommend it to most people (as the IMDB notes, it includes “Definite trigger warnings for anyone who had a violent or abusive relationship with parents”, so I can’t recommend it to everyone).

The Babadook is currently ranked #563 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

 


by request: marshall (reginald hudlin, 2017)

A couple of weeks ago, writing about Wonder Woman, I questioned the need for the Chris Pine character. It felt timid, as if the audiences wouldn't go to see the movie unless there was a guy in a main role.

I had the same feeling while watching Marshall. There are some who argue that the film is unfair towards Sam Friedman, the Jewish lawyer who works alongside Thurgood Marshall. Whether this is true, my own question was, why choose a case like this, that allows for a lot of screen time for the white guy, in a movie supposed about Thurgood Marshall? Nothing against the real-life Friedman, but at times the movie plays as if it should have been called "Friedman". As Alissa Wilkinson wrote, in a piece titled "Marshall is named for Thurgood Marshall. Why isn’t he the movie’s protagonist?":

The main problem with Marshall, unfortunately, is that the movie’s protagonist isn’t Thurgood Marshall at all. The young lawyer enters the story fully self-possessed and confident in both the rightness of his cause and the justness of insisting on his place in a society that would get rid of him, and everyone like him, if it could. ... The true protagonist of Marshall is Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), a Jewish insurance lawyer in Connecticut who gets roped into helping on an explosive criminal case that touches off racial prejudices and discovers within himself a desire to fight for civil rights, too.

Marshall is an entertaining movie, especially if you like courtroom dramas, and if you accept it for what it is, rather than what you might hope it will be, you should be fine. Chadwick Boseman and Josh Gad are fine in the leads, Sterling K. Brown and Kate Hudson do well in secondary roles, and Marshall's old buddies Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston show up. While I was watching it, I liked it more than the above might suggest, and even after the post-mortem, I don't hate it. 7/10.

 


creature feature saturday: the amazing mr. x (bernard vorhaus, 1948)

There was a great SCTV sketch featuring Count Floyd and Monster Chiller Horror Theatre. The movie was one Count Floyd hadn't seen before, Whispers of the Wolf, but he can just tell by the title that we're going to be "scared right out of our pants". It turns out the film is directed by "Ingmar Burgman" and if there's any horror in it, it's of an existential nature.

I can imagine a Creature Features program back in the day running The Amazing Mr. X based solely on the title. Mr. X is Alexis, a psychic who can communicate with dead people. The movie is a hybrid horror/noir, and it seems like the noir aficionados like it more than the horror fans. In truth, there isn't a lot of horror in The Amazing Mr. X, and it is also true that most of its effectiveness comes from the atmospheric setting, which may make it seem more noirish. But other than the look of the film, there isn't much noir in this movie. It's mostly just a well-made B-picture that surprises with decent performances and a plot twist or two. If you caught it late on a Saturday night, you might struggle to stay awake, but if you watch it at a reasonable hour, you'll find a solid little film that gets its work done in 78 minutes.

The excellent cinematography is by John Alton, who won an Oscar a few years later for An American in Paris. Sadly, the movie fell into the public domain, meaning there are a lot of bad prints out there (including the one I watched on Amazon), which does a great disservice to Alton's work.

The cast includes Turhan Bey, once known as "The Turkish Delight", as Alexis, and Lynn Bari, a former WWII pinup girl known as "The Woo Woo Girl", as Christine, the woman he tries to sucker. Cathy O'Donnell, who made They Live by Night the same year, turns up as Christine's younger sister. Toss in 50s sci-fi regulars Richard Carlson and Donald Curtis, and Virginia Gregg, one the great voices of old-time radio who also did the voice of the mother in Psycho, and you have a better-than-average group for a B-movie. 7/10

 


film fatales #32: persepolis (marjane satrapi and vincent paronnaud, 2007)

I revisited this movie in honor of Danielle Darrieux, who died a few days ago at the age of 100. She does the voice for the grandmother. Darrieux was 90 when they made the film. Catherine Deneuve played her daughter (not for the first time), Marjane's mother, and Chiara Mastroianni, Deneuve's real-life daughter, played Marjane.

Satrapi and Paronnaud decided to record the voices of the main characters before they did the drawings (Satrapi, of course, did the drawings in the original graphic novel), which was interesting. I hadn't thought of the implications for the English-language dub until I watched a making-of featurette. Those voices were done in the usual fashion, with the voice actors speaking in time to the animated characters. I've never seen the English version, and while I'm sure it's good, the point here was to watch Darrieux. (Deneuve and Mastroianni did the English voices, too.)

Darrieux said of the grandmother, "She's an uninhibited character, who's not afraid of anything. She's politically incorrect and a straight talker. I love talking dirty, so I felt really comfortable with the character!" 

I've written about the movie before, and didn't see anything in particular to change my mind, other than enjoying Darrieux a bit more knowing she had finally died. #177 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 8/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

 


creature feature saturday: i walked with a zombie (jacques tourneur, 1943)

The writing credits for I Walked with a Zombie on IMDB include the following: "Charlotte Brontë (novel) (uncredited)". The story is that producer Val Lewton didn't like the title, or the story on which the film was to be based, so he instructed his writers to use Jane Eyre as a basis for the story. (Wikipedia lists I Walked with a Zombie on its page dedicated to "Adaptations of Jane Eyre".)

Frances Dee plays a nurse from Canada (she's the Jane Eyre stand-in, I guess) who takes a job caring for a woman (Jessica Holland ... Mr. Rochester's wife?) who lives on a Caribbean island. The woman is a "zombie" due to a fever she acquired ... she has no willpower of her own, so she needs full-time care. There's a romance involved (the nurse falls in love with "Rochester"), and a backstory that explains that the Hollands brought slavery to the island. The treatment of zombies is intriguing. For the natives, voodoo is a part of life, and to some extent, the film adopts this stance. There is a careful refusal to come down on the side of either rationalism or mysticism. The supernatural elements might be "real" ... they might be brought on by the Holland family's connection with slavery. This, combined with the smart use of shadows, make for an atmosphere full of portent, all done on a tiny budget. While the acting is adequate, that atmosphere is what puts I Walked with a Zombie among the classics of horror. And it's all done in 68 minutes.

It should be obvious that this is not a typical zombie movie. It's easy to understand why Lewton didn't like the title. #580 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time, 8/10.

 


danielle darrieux

Danielle Darrieux has died at the age of 100. I once called The Earrings of Madame de ... my 14th-favorite movie of all time. Here is what I wrote about it:

Charles Boyer’s description of his marriage to Danielle Darrieux’s Madame de (we never learn her last name) is also a perfect description of the film: “superficially superficial.” Nothing could seem less interesting to me on the surface: a period romance about the rich, where people go to balls and flirt and wear fabulous clothes. But the milieu actually works to focus us on love; as Kael wrote, “By removing love from the real world of ugliness and incoherence and vulgarity, Ophüls was able to distill the essences of love.” I was reminded throughout the film of Renoir’s Grand Illusion, another film that showed us how honor worked amongst the upper classes. In Renoir’s film, class was the spanner in the works, but here, it’s gender: Madame de doesn’t operate under the same strictures of honor that her husband and her lover do, and eventually, no one trusts anyone else.

Madame de can’t be trusted because she lives outside the code that directs the men in her life. As long as she merely flirts, she’s playing her proper role. When she falls in love, though, she oversteps her boundaries. She doesn’t realize this at first, and she tells what seem to her to be little white lies, not understanding that lies of any kind exist outside of the men’s code of honor.

It’s a remarkable achievement, to take a shallow character like this Countess and make us understand her suffering. Early in the movie, she suffers only from the need to cover her gambling debts. Falling in love with a Baron played by Vittorio De Sica changes her, but when she blossoms, her men want only to clip her petals.

Ophüls is sympathetic to the men, as well, recognizing that the roles they are forced to play constrict their lives. Boyer’s admission late in the film, “I’m not particularly fond of the person you’ve made me out to be,” implicates both his wife and himself. He falters because of his attachment to his code, she because she doesn’t accept the code.

The main performances by Boyer, Darrieux, and De Sica are exquisite, individually and as they work together. And Ophüls’ trademark tracking camerawork draws us into the story, its lushness revealing as it entices.

I've also written about La Ronde, The Young Girls of Rochefort, and Persepolis, although I don't mention Darrieux in the latter.


by request/film fatales #31: spielberg (susan lacy, 2017)

A friend pointed out that if a documentary about Steven Spielberg makes it into the Film Fatales category, there may be something wrong with the selection process.

There is a lot to like here. The interviews are interesting and, at times, revealing ... Lacy has made a career out of interviews, she's great. And Spielberg is one of my favorite directors. I've always liked Close Encounters the most of all his movies, and I love that it's a "personal" blockbuster. Something like Star Wars is only personal to the extent it reflects George Lucas' connection to the movies of his youth, but Close Encounters is "about" Spielberg.

The film is also long enough that Lacy can cover most of Spielberg's career, from stuff he made as a kid to Bridge of Spies. And we hear from enough different people ... fellow directors, crew members, critics ... that you get a good sense of what it is like on a Spielberg set (while he can seemingly picture and entire movie in his mind, he is also open to suggestions from co-workers).

It really is a solid overview of Spielberg's career, with the interview format (and Lacy's skills, and Spielberg's willingness to go the extra step in his participation) working well to attach Spielberg-as-person to Spielberg-as-artist. I'm convinced now that Close Encounters was not Spielberg's only "personal" movie.

With all of this, I feel I'm being picky to note that despite Lacy's proclamations that she didn't intend to make a lovefest, Spielberg doesn't always stand on the better side of hagiography. Lacy seems to know this. As Greg Braxton noted, "The tone of the documentary is primarily positive — it is clear that Lacy is a huge admirer of Spielberg’s work. ... Lacy acknowledged that some viewers and observers of Spielberg may find fault with the tone of the documentary. 'I am proud of the film,' Lacy said. 'Now I’m just nervous on how people will react. I know there will be those who will feel I wasn’t critical enough. But, hopefully, people will get past that.'" Braxton then adds a telling anecdote: "What matters most to her is Spielberg’s stamp of approval. When he called and said he loved it, 'I felt myself shaking. I was in tears and said, ‘You have to know what this conversation means to me.’"

I certainly sympathize. I am a big fan of his movies, and I don't know that I'd have the whatever to be anything other than praiseworthy in his presence. But I think that admiration detracts some from Spielberg. 7/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

 


by request/film fatales #30: wonder woman (patty jenkins, 2017)

I realized when watching Wonder Woman that I knew very little about the character, beyond the "Wonder Woman!" song in the TV show. I also hadn't thought about any useful contextual things. The one thing that occurred to me as I watched was, why is Captain Kirk in this movie? It really didn't need a man in the role. Chris Pine was OK, and given his character was unnecessary, they did a decent job of making sure he never took over the action or the movie from Wonder Woman.
 
The casting of Gal Gadot was somewhat controversial, although the real controversy revolved around the way Wonder Woman was presented. Did she need to wear such a revealing outfit? I barely noticed, to be honest ... she didn't seem much different than Chris Hemsworth as Thor.
 
A lot of attention was paid to Gadot's thighs ... perhaps because it was easier to single out one body part than to discuss her as a complete human. In one brief moment, Wonder Woman's thigh jiggled, and this set off a complicated discussion about the importance of that jiggle. One Tumblr user spoke for many:

There were absolutely NO eye candy shots of Diana. There were Amazons with ageing skin and crows feet and not ONE of them wore armor that was a glorified corset. When Diana did the superhero landing, her thigh jiggled onscreen.

Did you hear me? HER FUCKING THIGH JIGGLED. Wonder Woman’s thigh jiggled on a 20-foot tall screen in front of everyone.

Because she wasn’t there to make men drool. She wasn’t there to be sexy and alluring and flirt her way to victory, and that means she has big, muscular thighs, and when they absorb the impact of a superhero landing, they jiggle, and.that’s.WONDERFUL.

Or, as Zoe Williams wrote, "Yes, she is sort of naked a lot of the time, but this isn’t objectification so much as a cultural reset: having thighs, actual thighs you can kick things with, not thighs that look like arms, is a feminist act."

What I liked about Gadot was her believability ... much as I love characters like Buffy and Starbuck, it was good to see a woman who actually looked like she could kick butt. More than that, I thought intelligence showed on her face ... unlike some amateur actors, she didn't look like a deer in the headlights. She underplayed the humor, which I found perfect. She made me inclined to like the movie. I admit to being surprised. I didn't expect anything from her. My mistake.
 
And I'm happy for Patty Jenkins, whose career is a microcosm of the difficulties women are up against. Her first feature had an Oscar-winning performance from Charlize Theron. It had a budget of $8 million and grossed $60 million worldwide. Jenkins didn't direct another feature until Wonder Woman, 14 years later. (In fairness, she worked a lot in television, and her work was highly-regarded.) Now she's on track to direct the Wonder Woman sequel. 7/10.
 
(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)
 




the dreamers (bernardo bertolucci, 2003)

I love Eva Green so much from Penny Dreadful that I assumed I've seen her in lots of movies, but in fact, The Dreamers, which was her film debut, is only the second one I've seen (Casino Royale being the other). When the movie was released, it was noteworthy as the latest film from Oscar-winner Bernardo Bertolucci. Until the film was complete, at which point the resemblance to Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris was evident. Most of the film takes place indoors, with people hanging out naked, having sex, with enough explicit shots to result in an NC-17 rating. Even now, the nudity seems to be on the edge, featuring not just full frontal but closeups of genitalia. For the first, but not the last time, Eva Green's sexuality smolders on the screen.

Yet some punches were pulled. The Dreamers is a story of 1968, with two Parisians, twins (Theo and Isabelle), and an American (Matthew, played by Michael Pitt) Most of the physical interaction is between Pitt and Green. The film hints at an incestual relationship between the twins, but a possible sexual relationship between the two men is only subtext. Bertolucci decided not to film scenes from the script that made that relationship more explicit, and given the openness of the presentation of the three, that decision is odd.

The three young people are infatuated with film, and viewers with a deep knowledge of film history will enjoy the references to that history. Asked if she is from Paris, Isabelle announces, "I entered this world on the Champs-Elysées, 1959. La trottoir du Champs Elysées. And do you know what my very first words were? New York Herald Tribune! New York Herald Tribune!" Non-film buffs may be confused ... Eva Green is clearly not nine years old. But Bertolucci is quoting from Godard's Breathless, and to make his point more clear (and to help the non-buffs), he tosses in a brief clip of Jean Seberg in that movie selling that paper. These connections pop up throughout the film ... the twins like to play trivia games that require knowledge of film trivia. There are probably too many of those clips of other movies ... we get the point ... but the connections are meaningful, showing how the twins (and Matthew) are engulfed in film, perhaps at the expense of the "real" world.

The trivia games also connect to the sexual currents in the film. If you don't know the trivia, you have to perform some act. The first time we see this, Isabelle makes Theo masturbate in front of the other two to a photo of Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel. Later, Theo makes Matthew and Isabelle have sex while he watches. The construct (film trivia, then sex) is odd, but the sexual freedoms of the three are so natural that we believe in them. There is no denying the erotic power, but Bertolucci takes it further, and his actors are perfect. In particular, much of the nudity is almost commonplace, co-existing with the erotic.

The irony is that all of this takes place in Paris in 1968, when revolution was in the air. Theo and Isabelle are half-hearted participants ... they'd rather watch movies. Matthew is like an American in one of Henry James' novels, seemingly innocent. The three of them live in the house of the twins' parents. One of the best scenes comes when the parents, who have been on holiday, turn up and find a completely messy house and three naked people sleeping together. The parents leave.

Of course, the innocent American must be abandoned in the end. Theo and Isabelle leave him to return to revolution. It is at this time, if we haven't already figured it out, that we realize the twins are playing at revolution, that, in fact, Bertolucci is only playing at revolution. Paris 1968 is a prop ... you wouldn't go to The Dreamers to learn about that time.

The Dreamers is as good as its spiritual parent, Last Tango, if just a bit below The Conformist. And I love Eva Green even more after seeing it. #989 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 8/10.

This scene, in which Isabelle extends the "Name That Film" game to sculptures, includes one of the film's most remarkable images: