what i watched

Quite a mix of things over the last few days, so I'm stuffing them all into one post.

Julius Caesar. We've enjoyed watching our friend Arthur over the years in various plays, but since he moved down south (more jobs!) we only get to see him when he gets a spot on a TV series. So it was fun to watch a production of Julius Caesar by the Evergreen Theatre Collective, which was shown live on Facebook, with Arthur as Marc Antony. The production was quite inventive in using the quarantine effectively, with the cast showing up on the mosaic screen we've all gotten used to in the Zoom-meets-COVID era. Caesar was cut to fit a running time of about 90 minutes, but continuity was always clear. Arthur kicked ass on Antony's famous orations ... as I said, he is the first person I know who played a role previously done by Brando. Caesar was played by an African-American woman, which gave a different spin, more because it was a woman than because she was black. We knew we would like seeing our friend, but the entire production was quite good. [edited to add YouTube video of performance]

Ivan the Terrible, Part II (Sergei M. Eisenstein, 1958). I had watched Part I ten years ago (Ivan the Terrible, Part I), which is to say, I didn't remember much of what happened in that earlier film. I read up a bit and then jumped into Part II. Eisenstein had planned a Part III, but it never happened. He finished Part II in 1946, but the Party didn't like it and it wasn't released. Eisenstein died in 1950, Stalin in 1953, and the film was finally released in 1958. Part II is magnificent to look at, and Prokofiev's score was great, but for me, everything was static. Eisenstein loved his close-ups and his montage, but in this case, I was unimpressed. #228 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

One section of the film is in color, and this dance vibrates with movement. (When you click on the video, you'll be asked to watch on YouTube.)

Creature Feature: The Little Shop of Horrors (Roger Corman, 1960). Has there ever been a more apt example of sublime-to-ridiculous? From Shakespeare and Eisenstein to Roger Corman. This is the original quickie that later spawned the musical. The making of the film has become legendary over time, and who knows what is true and what is exaggeration? The budget was $30,000, give or take a few grand. They shot it in 2 1/2 days, give or take a day. Corman saved money by making full use of Charles B. Griffith, who wrote the screenplay ... Griffith also appeared on screen in two different roles, did the voice for Audrey Jr., and managed to get his grandmother, his father, and other relatives in the picture. Jack Nicholson has a brief role as a pain-loving dental patient. Is it any good? For as cheap as it was to make, sure, it was good. It has become a cult classic, certainly worth a view if you've never seen it and have 72 minutes to spare. But I wouldn't go overboard.


possession (andrzej zulawski, 1981)

Wow.

That first word isn't meant to imply that Possession is a great movie, or even a good one. But see it once, and you won't forget it.

It's so hard to pigeonhole the movie that the best description I've seen has J. Hoberman of the Village Voice essentially throwing up his hands:

Made with an international cast in still-divided Berlin, the movie starts as an unusually violent breakup film, takes an extremely yucky turn toward Repulsion-style psychological breakdown, escalates into the avant-garde splatterific body horror of the ’70s (Eraserhead or The Brood), and ends in the realm of pulp metaphysics as in I Married a Monster From Outer Space.

The violent breakup all by itself is so intense it is often hard to sit through. Isabelle Adjani plays Anna, an unhappy wife married to Sam Neill's Mark. "Unhappy" doesn't really get it, though ... "possessed" is a better word for what Anna is going through, although it takes a long time for Zulawski to get to what that might actually mean. Adjani is one of France's most honored actresses ... she has won five César Best Actress awards, a record (the Césars are the French equivalent of the Oscars ... she has two Oscar nominations as well). She got her first César for Possession, and it's easy to see why. The part is over the top, and she plays it to the hilt ... you can't take your eyes off of her, for better or worse. She's extreme, which isn't necessarily excessive ... Anna is extreme. Next to Adjani, Sam Neill can only look astonished, which is also appropriate for the part.

I expected an incoherent film, which wasn't the case. Zulawski starts in the middle, and doesn't concern himself much with hand-holding, even when the plot turns fantastical. But mostly he runs right past any notion of coherence, just making sure there is never a dull moment, even if it is occasionally incoherent.

Adjani really is amazing, but at a price ... she has said that playing Anna took a long time to get over, and there are rumors that she tried suicide (rumors encouraged by Zulawski, who almost seems proud of the fact). Your opinion of her performance in Possession will depend in large part on how much you appreciate this kind of acting.

The U.S. release was botched ... it's hard to pin down the facts, but about 40 minutes of the 124-minute film were cut, and other changes were made. This made a film which was already complicated into something incomprehensible, and it was pounded by critics. Time has been kinder ... it is now #611 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

Here is the most famous scene from the film. I'd give a Spoiler Alert, but I'm not sure a movie like this can be hurt by spoilers. (Directing the scene, Zulawski helped told Adjani to "fuck the air".)


creature feature: curse of the demon (jacques tourneur, 1957)

I'll let the IMDB explain the variations in the versions of this film:

This film exists in three English language versions: (1) The original British release under the title "Night of the Demon," (2) Columbia's edited version for release in the U.S. under the title "Curse of the Demon" and, (3) over 20 years later, Columbia replaced their edited U.S. version with the original British version but with the title also changed to "Curse of the Demon."

I watched the TCM version, and their explanation is more detailed, but ultimately ironic:

One last comment about Curse of the Demon: the film has existed in two versions ever since its release in 1957. The British release, entitled Night of the Demon, had a running time of approximately 95 minutes. The U.S. version, released as Curse of the Demon, was trimmed by some thirteen minutes, reducing its length to 82 minutes, and placed on a double bill with The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), a Hammer horror production.... The trim 82 version is certainly an entertaining funhouse ride but the "fat" that [American producer Hal E.] Chester pared away makes the original British release a much richer and satisfying experience.

I call this "ironic" because TCM seems to be arguing in favor of the British original, but the version they showed was the U.S. one.

This was nonetheless probably appropriate for the nostalgia angle of watching Curse of the Demon in 2020. I'm sure I saw it more than once as a kid, and the version I saw was certainly the American edit, so TCM did me a favor.

Curse of the Demon is a decent picture with some pedigree. Director Jacques Tourneur had done such pictures as Out of the Past and I Walked with a Zombie. Dana Andrews had appeared in Oscar winners like The Best Years of Our Lives and Laura. Peggy Cummins was great in Gun Crazy. The production design was by Ken Adam, at the beginning of a career that included two films with Kubrick, seven Bond movies, and two Oscars.

All of which helps lift the movie above the usual Creature Feature. It's on a par with The Revenge of Frankenstein. But it is nowhere near the level of an Out of the Past. The demon looks silly, and Tourneur didn't want to show it anyway (he was overruled by the studio). It's a low-key thriller, better than some but not really a classic. #753 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time, which is nonsense.


creature feature: the brides of dracula (terence fisher, 1960)

An early horror effort from Hammer, and a sequel to their very popular Dracula (Horror of Dracula in the States). While the Brides are a staple of Dracula movies, Dracula himself does not appear in this one, despite the title. Explanations vary, but the most common one is that Christopher Lee, who made such a great Dracula in the first film, didn't want to be typecast. (He later changed his mind, and eventually played Dracula another six times.) So Hammer trotted out Peter Cushing to repeat his role as Van Helsing, and hired David Peel to play Baron Meinster, who was the primary vampire in the film. There are various Brides, with the female lead played by French actress Yvonne Monlaur.

The nice things about Hammer in those days was that their movies generally didn't suck. Fairly low standards, sure, but compared to some of the schlock coming out of America in the 50s, Hammer were welcome, especially on TV Creature Feature shows ... the Hammer films were a step above the usual for those shows. As if to illustrate this, when The Brides of Dracula was released in the U.S., it was on a double-bill with The Leech Woman, which later became an episode of Mystery Science Theater.

The Brides of Dracula is sluggish at times, but it was nice to look at. The print we saw had been restored, and the difference was noticeable. Cushing is properly serious throughout. There is a special-effects bat that looks crappy ... the IMDB tells us "The prop department put a lot of effort into making a realistic model bat. It got lost and had to be replaced on short notice. This explains the rather unconvincing look of the model that got actually used in the movie." (We also learn that "The ending was to have originally had the vampires destroyed by a swarm of bats. This ending proved too expensive to stage and shoot." Hammer did well with their low budgets, but some things were just beyond their resources.)

I can't remember when we got our first color TV, so I'm not sure if the first times I saw The Brides of Dracula it was in black-and-white. Also, since our local Creature Feature show was on late on Saturday nights, I often fell asleep halfway through the movie. The Brides of Dracula isn't a great movie by any means, but watching it now was a more enjoyable experience than whatever I put it through when I was a kid.


geezer cinema/film fatales #86: relic (natalie erika james, 2020)

Natalie Erika James has done a little of everything in the film business, and now with Relic, she has directed a feature, as well. She is new enough that she doesn't have a Wikipedia page as of this writing, and her IMDB bio is equally blank. Relic should change all of that.

Relic is a horror movie, I suppose ... depending on your mood, you might be frightened at times. (At one point, I told my wife that the movie was scary because nothing was happening. She said no, it's simply that nothing is happening. Yes, replied, that's what makes it scary ... you don't know what is coming! I liked it a lot more than she did.) It is a slow movie, but it's also brief (89 minutes) and it picks up in the last half hour, where it most resembles a typical horror film.

There are three generations of women in the family that appears in the film: Edna, her daughter Kay, and Kay's grown-up daughter Sam. While the film doesn't tell us their ages, the ages of the actors suffices, I think: Robyn Nevin (77), Emily Mortimer (48), and Bella Heathcote (33). Edna lives along in a big house in the woods. There are mysteries about that house, but James doesn't get specific, and for most of the film, Kay and Sam just assume Edna is suffering from dementia (which may be true, but which doesn't necessarily explain events).

We in the audience are always disoriented. James and cinematographer Charlie Sarroff accomplish this mostly by using odd angles, with mirrors turning up in unusual places. We don't always realize we are looking at a reflection. And more than once, there is a shift in perspective that throws us off. A person opens a door, and we never know if the next shot will be from their point of view, or from the view on the other side of the door. It's very subtle, but it works, perhaps more so because we don't really recognize it as it's happening.

James draws a parallel between our unease and that of a person with dementia, never sure what is real or what actually happened. But, as with everything in Relic, James isn't about to state anything clearly and obviously. Thus, when the movie was over, my wife still thought nothing happened, and I couldn't really argue with her. It's not that kind of horror movie. But it insinuates itself into the viewer. James is a talent to watch.

(Here is a letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)

This marks the 50th movie Robin and I have watched during our We're Retired Geezers, Let's Go to the Movies Once a Week program. We saw 32 in a theater before the quarantine began, 18 at home. Here is a letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema movies.


revisiting train to busan (yeon sang-ho, 2016)

Nothing was going right. I tried to order dinner for delivery and kept failing. We decided to watch a movie, picked Martha Marcy May Marlene, and the Blu-ray didn't work. I threw up my hands and watched Train to Busan again.

I wrote about it three years ago, and I'll cut-and-paste some here:

Train to Busan is constructed like a classic thriller. Right from the start, there are intimations of the horrors to come, but they are only intimations. Still, the suspense is serious (after all, we know the zombies are coming). And once the zombies arrive (fairly quickly), the suspense is replaced with open-jawed thrills.

Two things in particular make Train to Busan impressive. First, there is a dedication to the characters, who are painted in quick scenes but who always feel slightly more than stock from the genre's closet. We care about the characters, which isn't a necessary component to a zombie thriller, but it does lift this movie a bit above the rest. Second, the zombies really are impressive. It's not just that they are fast, it's that they feel real. I don't know how much, if any, CGI Yeon used, but it's very old-school in its presentation, as if instead of going straight to the computer, they actually hired a bunch of extras. Yeon's previous work was in animation, and the zombies have the kind of physics-defying qualities you'll see in cartoons.

The tension is mostly non-stop, with little time to take a breath. I don't suppose Train to Busan will appeal to people who don't like zombie movies, but it certainly ranks high within the genre.

The only thing I'd add is that it fit right in with our times. The zombie breakout is like a virus, and the government pretends everything is OK. It's not. I really like this movie, and enjoyed a second visit.


a quiet place (john krasinski, 2018)

A Quiet Place is very good at what it tries to do: scare the shit out of you. Oddly, though, this is not only what makes the movie good, it's what makes the movie almost unbearable to watch.

I suppose the same could be said of any good horror movie. It's almost a definition of horror that works. If it didn't scare us, we would laugh at it. But something different is happening with A Quiet Place. There is none of the anticipatory glee when you know another scare is right around the corner. In this film, there is no around the corner ... you are always already there.

The film wastes little time in set up. The beginning is ominous ... I settled in for some of that glee. Apparently, everyone is trying to be quiet. There's no explanation. Anticipation builds, and that lasts nine minutes. After that, we know what the stakes are. Here is that opening (spoilers, obviously):

It's a great premise for horror: make a noise, and a monster will eat you. Gradually we learn a little more about the situation and the monsters, but not a lot. The premise is what the rest of the movie addresses.

And when the problem is that you can't make a noise, there is no time for anticipation. I spent the next 80 minutes in fear. Silence is very difficult (in fact, it's hard to figure out how these people have stayed alive as long as they have). Every time someone steps on a leaf, or bumps against a wall, or anything else that might make the tiniest noise, that monster from the first scene is in our minds. As I say, every good horror movie strives for this. But the premise and the execution is so excellent that for me it went beyond the glee of watching something scary. The proper word for what I felt was dread.

In the 1953 movie version of The War of the Worlds, there is a scene inside a basement that is so suspenseful and so frightening that Spielberg copied it for his 2005 remake. But the way that film was constructed, you had the long buildup that grew to something of an explanation, you had some examples of Martian technology, you learned what people were up against, and only then did you get the scene in the basement. After which, the story continued to its apocalyptic ending. A Quiet Place is like that basement scene, extended for the final 80 minutes of the movie. Erik Aadahl and Ethan Van der Ryn received an Oscar nomination for Best Sound Editing, and that was deserved and very appropriate.

So you've got a movie that accomplishes what it sets out to do, and that's a good thing. But I'm still nervous about watching the sequel.


geezer cinema: us (jordan peele, 2019)

Jordan Peele surprised us all with his first directorial effort, Get Out. It was terrific, it was inventive, and it came from a man best known for sketch comedy. Get Out was so good, Peele lost any chance of ever surprising us in the same way again. Now we expect his movies to be good.

Us makes Peele two-for-two. Apparently Peele set out to make a straight horror film. Of course, Us is not just a straight horror film. And to the extent it is a horror film, it's a kitchen sink of horror. Peele piles it on: zombie apocalypse, home invasion, childhood terrors come back to haunt us. It also has its hilarious moments ... Peele can't seem to resist. (My favorite: when the family under attack tells their Alexa-thing to call the police, and it replied, "OK. Playing "Fuck the Police" by N.W.A.")

Peele doesn't get explicit with his social commentary here, which won't stop people from trying to find it. (This was much easier in Get Out, which was more obvious.) In fact, there is a certain vagueness to Us, and that actually makes it creepier ... the unexplained becomes frightening. In some ways, it is similar to Parasite, which was also a take on home invasions, only there, the invaders were the nominal "good guys". Parasite made its class consciousness unavoidable ... you couldn't miss it if you tried. Peele sneaks it in.

The entire film is uplifted by the incredible performance of Lupita Nyong'o. She is completely believable as both dopplegangers of her character. We see their connection, yet also experience them as separate. #653 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

Finally, I had a couple of personal connections to the movie. For one thing, it takes place mostly in and near Santa Cruz. I lived in the area once, and my wife and I go there every year to celebrate our anniversary. (During the prologue, which takes place in 1986, she said, "Just think, we'd only been married 13 years then!") And there's the use of "I Got 5 on It". The song was a pretty big hit in its day, and it was unavoidable in the Bay Area. But we knew it from the "Bay Ballas Remix". Honestly, I didn't know there was an "original" for the longest time.

(Here is a letterboxd list of movies with African-American directors.)


geezer cinema: the invisible man (leigh whannell, 2020)

The Invisible Man starts with an escape. We know nothing of the situation, except that a woman, Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss), is terrified, and she is sneaking out of her house. She succeeds, and we gradually learn the story of her life with an abusive husband. By focusing on her escape, Leigh Whannell puts us on Cecilia's side from the beginning. When her husband is found dead of a suicide, it seems like a happy ending, although Cecilia is still paranoid, not wanting to go outside. At this point, we are rooting for Cecilia to move on with her life.

All of the subsequent plot twists grow out of this. We feel empathy for Cecilia, but she starts noticing things that don't make sense, and for a moment we might question Cecilia's grasp of reality. She concludes that her husband is somehow still alive, and that he has figured out a way to be invisible.

Whannell doesn't keep us in suspense ... we "see" the evidence of the invisible man's presence, as does Cecilia. Our empathy returns, twofold, for Cecilia has to deal not only with her apparently living, invisible husband, but with a world that thinks she is deluded.

Whannell relies heavily on Moss. His plot has more than a few holes that are best ignored until after the movie, but meanwhile, Moss is up to everything asked of her. Over the course of the movie she has to portray a variety of emotions, sometimes hiding her true emotions behind a mask. It's an award-worthy performance that will likely be forgotten by next year's Oscars.

Whannell reportedly brought the movie in for only $7 million. The "Invisible" effects are good ... you don't notice how it is done. The sound carries a lot of impact ... you hear every punch (granted, I was watching in a Dolby Cinema theater, where loud sounds can make your seat rumble). It's not clear who to credit for the sound ... the IMDB lists 20 people under "Sound Department" ... my best guess is Chris Terhune and P.K. Hooker, who are credited as "sound designers".

The Invisible Man provides enough thrills to satisfy, and Moss in particular makes it worth watching. I wouldn't go any further than that, though ... it's no Babadook.


the beast of yucca flats (coleman francis, 1961)

Another movie for "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is out of order. Week 20 is called "Alternate Oscars Week", but I had seen most of the possible selections, and was unable to find the others. So I substituted Week 32, "366 Weird Movies Week", since I'll be in Spain when that one is on the calendar.

As this year's Season Challenge nears its end, I figured I'd try to leave you all with something...memorable. Let's get weird, folks.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen 366 Weird Movies film.

Well, this certainly was a weird movie. Terrible, but weird. Actually, it's not weird as much as it is incompetent, but at times it's hard to tell the difference. It appears regularly on Worst Movies Ever lists, but for my money, it never makes it to "so bad it's good". It's just simply bad. Against the gold standard (which I continue to believe is Robot Monster, not Plan 9 from Outer Space), The Beast of Yucca Flats is merely unwatchable. There is no use reviewing a movie like this. Best to just resort to a list of, OK, weird things.

1) The biggest name in the cast (no pun intended) was Tor Johnson, an enormous pro rassler from Sweden who in later years became a staple in grade-Z movies, best known for the films he made with Ed Wood (Bride of the Monster, Plan 9 from Outer Space, Night of the Ghouls). In The Beast of Yucca Flats, Johnson plays a noted Soviet scientist (don't worry, he soon turns into the title character).

2) There is a pre-credits scene featuring a woman who has just showered, who is strangled to death by a mysterious bad guy (as we later see, he dresses like The Beast). While many prints are edited, the one I watched on Amazon featured the entire scene, which includes the woman, bare-breasted ... in a 1961 movie! The scene was shot after filming was done, and it appears to have nothing to do with the rest of the movie. Legend is that director Coleman Francis liked nude scenes.

3) The movie was shot without sound. When people speak (which is rare), they are looking away from the camera so we can't see if they are synced. Mostly, all we hear is an incessant musical score, sound effects, and an endless and truly bizarre voice-over narration. Someone did us the favor of making a super-cut of all the narration:

Here's the trailer, so you don't have to watch the actual movie: