Friday, September 22, 2006

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1941)

Ten years after Rouben Mamoulian's acclaimed adaptation of the story, MGM had got its hands on the Paramount Picture and all but blotted the film from existence. This stylish 1941 remake plunders the first film for plot, but lacks its progenitor's sophistication. The former had deep theological and philosophical ruminations on the nature of sin and evil; this version chops most of that out and throws in some pseudo-Freudian imagery to compensate.

Still, it's a watchable film. Spencer Tracy has his moments as Hyde - indeed, I've always found Tracy's Hyde more visually effective than March's, although perhaps I'm the exception. Ingrid Bergman is more than a match for Miriam Hopkins as Ivy, the pretty young girl whom Jekyll's devilish alter-ego victimizes. She is stunningly filmed by Joseph Ruttenberg's camera, and brings to the role the same sense of vulnerability and terror that Hopkins had before her.

Franz Waxman's score is a little disappointing, especially the plodding motif in the transformation scenes. Nevertheless, the film boasts some splendid images, especially once Hyde is on the run through a fogbound London.

My rating? * * * * * (4/5)

A few more stills:

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

New MoC website

The Masters of Cinema label have created a new website for their collection which is stylishly designed and gives you the chance to read the booklet essays and to watch newly put together trailers for each film in the series.

PS.: Mike Sutton's review of The Black Dahlia for DVDTimes is a very good read. Sutton is a long-time DePalma fan and makes a strong case for the film.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Black Dahlia

Saw The Black Dahlia earlier today: the film, DePalma's 35th, is based on James Ellroy's novel which in turn was inspired by the real-life investigation into the notorious murder of aspiring actress-turned drifter Betty Short who was found mutilated and cut in two halves in downtown Los Angeles in 1947. Detectives Bucky Bleichert and Leo Blenchard, who are best friends and used to compete against each other in the boxing ring, are assigned to the case. Leo becomes obsessed with the Dahlia case while Bucky is attracted to Leo's wife Kay. Conducting his own investigations, Bucky meets the mysterious high society lady Madeleine Linscott in a lesbian nightclub, and discovers that Linscott is linked with the dead girl.

When Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland adapted James Ellroy's book LA Confidential for film, they removed whole plot strands from the novel to retain the coherence and complexity of the major storyline which partially accounts for why their film is one of the rare screen adaptations of a great novel that measures up to the book. With rumours of a three hour rough cut and the nearly two-and-a-half hour length of the theatrical version, it's hard not to think that Josh Friedman, the scriptwriter of The Black Dahlia, should have been more rigorous with the material and stripped it down to the essentials. The plot feels sluggish and muddled when it ought to be concise: the outlandish twists come thick and fast, and their link to previous events feels a bit too tenuous. Given how deliriously insane the story gets, you'd expect DePalma to relish the opportunity but the film feels so oddly and surprisingly anonymous and detached that it leaves a sour aftertaste.

It's also hurt by the miscasting of the two leads: Mark Wahlberg was originally considered for the part of Bucky Bleichert and he would have been a better choice than Josh Hartnett who hasn't got the gravity to play a hard-boiled, cynical, world-weary detective and who seems lost here; Aaron Eckhart is more convincing but the rage and obsession that defines his character would have been tailor-made for someone like Russell Crowe. Scarlett Johansson looks her part but her performance is too mannered. The best turns come from Hillary Swank as the brunette vamp and Mia Kershner as the murder victim whose auditioning footage begin to haunt the detectives.

What also speaks for the film is that it's shot with an elegance and assurance that is absolutely intoxicating: Vilmos Zsigmond's cinematography is continually fantastic but I particularly loved the following shot in the petshop shooting sequence. The camera crosses the street, then climbs over the building's rooftops, spots a woman in the distance trying to alert others to her discovery of a dead body, follows her for a while as she runs down the street and then continues the pan back to where we originally started. Awesome, just awesome.

Using a classical editing (wipes, dissolves and straight cuts) and lighting style (Johansson is filmed in soft focus in some scenes) and shooting with muted, brown colours, the picture alluringly evokes expressionistic studio era filmmaking, but it lacks the sense of urgency, suspense and narrative momentum of the crime genre's best efforts. DePalma seems to reign himself in as if his heart wasn't in it. He seems to imply as much in the Guardian interview which we linked to last week: "But I didn't put my particular storytelling ellipses in it. I'm doing Ellroy here. My basic thing that I had in my head was that I'm going to tell the story the way Ellroy tells it. This is James Ellroy's Black Dahlia, don't ever forget. I mainly bring out what he put on paper." Too often, The Black Dahlia feels too much like a workman's effort, gracefully and inventively shot but impersonal nonetheless. * * (out of five)

Masters of Cinema 2006/07 line-up

Got the September issue of Sight & Sound today and it included a booklet from the Masters of Cinema label with upcoming titles for this year and early 2007. These include the Buster Keaton and Mikio Naruse boxsets which we wrote about a while ago and which are still on schedule for the 23rd of October. The Keaton set will include a 212 page-booklet and a commentary by Joseph McBride on six of the shorts. The Naruse set containing Repast, Sound of the Mountain and Flowing (see our earlier link to SlantMagazine's Naruse feature) will come with a 72-page booklet and audio commentaries for each film.

The new titles for December and 2007 are as follows:

F for Fake (Orson Welles, 1974) (December 2006)

Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1985) (4 disc set) (January 2007)

Salesman (Albert & David Maysles, 1968) (January 2007)

Diary of a Lost Girl (G.W. Pabst, Germany 1929) (January 2007)

Woman in the Moon (Fritz Lang, Germany 1929) (March 2007)

Nosferatu - A Symphony of Horror (F.W. Murnau, Germany 1923) (2007)

Die Niebelungen (Fritz Lang, Germany 1924) (2-disc set) (2007)

Tabu - A Story of the South Seas (F.W. Murnau, USA 1931) (2007)

Grey Gardens (Albert & David Maysles, USA 1975) (2007)

Silence (Masahiro Shinoda, Japan 1971) (2007)

The Blue Angel (Josef von Sternberg, Germany 1930) (2007)

as well as the following eight films by Kenji Mizoguchi:

Miss Oyu (Japan 1951)
Ugetsu Monogatari (Japan 1953)
Gion Festival Music (Japan 1953)
Sansho the Bailiff (Japan 1954)
The Woman of Rumour (Japan 1954)
Chikamatsu Monogatari (Japan 1954)
The Empress Yang Kwei Fei (Japan 1955)
Street of Shame (Japan 1956)

The booklet's cover art and synopsises for the new titles is in such small print that we'll update with full-page artwork instead once it's available. With its mixture of German silents, US independent films and the best of Japanese cinema, the new MoC lineup is reason to rejoice for serious film buffs. We'll link to imdb entries for each title later in the day.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Kevin Smith on Clerks 2

Today's Guardian runs an interview with Kevin Smith (done while the director was in Edinburgh for the EIFF) on Clerks II which opens next Friday.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931)

The first horror film I ever saw was Victor Fleming's 1941 Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde with Spencer Tracy. I was eight years old. I pleaded with my dad to let me watch it, and to my surprise he did. And there began my obsession with that film and with the horror genre.

So it has always been with a sense of loyalty to the 1941 film that I have approached the earlier, and more critically successful, film by Rouben Mamoulian. It is not hard to see why this has fared better with the critics: It's far more thematically complex than the '41 version, whose sub-Freudian nonsense got in the way of what was really just a jolly good yarn in Hollywood's best style. This '31 film probes deeper into the Jekyll-Hyde myth, exploring God, evil and the human condition on a fairly epic scale.

Universal's Dracula and Frankenstein, both released earlier the same year, went straight into the horror action - all graveyards and bats and eerie lighting. Not so with Jekyll, made by Paramount. It doesn't feel like a horror film in the same sense at all, and there is little in the first reel to suggest any horror. We're on quite different territory.

The movie starts as it means to go on - by placing us firmly in Jekyll's shoes. The battle between good and evil we are about to watch is not happening in some other place, with some other person, but in us. We are Jekyll and Hyde. I confess to finding the prolonged point-of-view sequence a little laboured, but once it's out of the way, Mamoulian's approach is altogether more subtle.

From now on, the film will be constantly implicating everyone in the picture - and the audience - in the fate of Jekyll. Mamoulian does this by frequently matching shots between scenes, by juxtaposing and layering images in order to create an association, by using split-screen to suggest identification between characters, and by shooting from Jekyll and Hyde's points-of-view.

For example, early on in the film, Jekyll (Fredric March) is caught kissing a dancing girl (Miriam Hopkins), to whom he has attended after an assault. It's an incredibly sexual scene for its era, and we are left with a shot of her naked leg dangling suggestively. This then dissolves into the next shot of Jekyll and Lanyon (Holmes Herbert), but the two images are layered for a few seconds, thus associating Lanyon also with sexual desire. Lanyon is later to reprimand Jekyll for his behaviour, but Jekyll's response is to charge Lanyon with having the same desires inside him - as the earlier shot suggested.

An example of the split-screen is when Jekyll's fiancee, Muriel (Rose Hobart), is shown alongside Ivy (the dancing girl) - one refined and respectable, the other licentious and immoral - two sides of the same character.

One of my favourite instances of the point-of-view shot was in the final scene, when Lanyon points directly into the camera as he accuses Jekyll. It's quite an unnerving effect, and cements the charge that the evil resident in Mr Hyde is resident in all of us.

March became the first actor to win an Oscar for a horror performance. Looking back, it is hard to deny he is pretty hammy in the role at times. Occasionally this works brilliantly - Jekyll's agony as he wrestles with his evil deeds and begs for God's forgiveness comes off effectively - but at other times, such as in the transformation scenes, it raises a few unintended laughs. The make-up, which becomes uglier as the film goes on, is generally effective, and is complemented by March's performance. By the end of the film, his movements are positively ape-like, as he swings furiously from the shelves of his laboratory.

Hopkins is oustanding as Ivy, the role taken by Ingrid Bergman in the remake. Her scenes with Hyde elicit genuine terror, and her strong performance nicely makes up for Hobart's dullness as the fiancee.

I have yet to watch the film again with Greg Mank's commentary, which no doubt will enhance my appreciation of the film. I shall also revisit the 1941 version, which makes up in lush visuals and atmosphere what it lacks in sophistication.

My rating (1931): * * * * *

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The History Boys

The big-screen adaptation of Alan Bennett's hit play The History Boys is out in October. I look forward to it. You can watch the trailer online here. I thought the moment at around 1:11 was particularly sweet.

The House That Dripped Blood (1970)

I've never been an Amicus fan the way I've been devoted to the Hammer 'House of Horror'. It has only been in the last year or two that I've begun to appreciate the Amicus films on their own terms, beginning with films such as Dr Terror's House of Horrors (1965) and Torture Garden (1967), both in the studio's trademark 'portmanteau' style.

Where Hammer concentrated on gothic horrors in period settings, Amicus usually opted for contemporary settings, and their films typically featured four macabre stories linked by a common thread. In this film, we witness the bizarre fates that claim four residents of a single house. I found them mostly quite contrived, but not without their moments.

The first segment had as its main asset the impressive Denholm Elliot as an author who becomes obsessed with one of his characters. The second featured Peter Cushing and Joss Ackland as two friends enraptured by a waxwork of the biblical Salome. This part boasted a nicely lit nightmare sequence, which the accompanying documentary (R2 DVD) revealed was the idea of director Peter Duffel. The third brought in Christopher Lee as a stern father who seems determined to keep his distance from his daughter; and the fourth (and possibly the most fun) was a camp comedy about a horror film actor (Jon Pertwee, pictured) driven mad by a vampire's cloak. This last segment also featured upcoming horror queen Ingrid Pitt. There are some great gothic touches in this part, including haunting cobbled streets and a camped-up Geoffrey Bayldon in an Ernest-Thesiger-inspired turn as a theatrical costumier. I also liked the in-jokes such as (possibly a sly dig at Hammer) when Pertwee laments that horror films aren't like they used to be: "Frankenstein, the Phantom of the Opera, Dracula - Bela Lugosi, I mean, not that new chap"!

Like several other Amicus portmanteau films, this was scripted by Robert Bloch from his own stories.

I'll never trade in my Hammers, but this is still a pleasing effort from their main rivals.

My rating? * * * * *

Monday, September 11, 2006

Curse of the Fly (1965)

I bought this film on DVD for two reasons: First, I am a fan of British horror; second, I am a big admirer of director Don Sharp. Sharp made several excellent films for Hammer, including the exquisite sub-Hitchcockian horror The Kiss of the Vampire, and later on directed the memorable remake of The 39 Steps (1978) with Robert Powell. Sharp is nothing if not a polished craftsman.

Still, for all its cult appeal, Curse of the Fly is a patchy affair. It picks up after a slow first third. It opens most bizarrely like a Russ Meyer movie, with an underwear-clad Carole Gray (whose few other films include Terence Fisher's excellent 1966 sci-fi Island of Terror) running through a forest accompanied by a rather schmaltzy main theme on piano. It transpires she is escaping from a mental asylum, and it is just her luck to bump into George Baker (later TV's Inspector Wexford in the Ruth Rendell Mysteries). He drives her to Montreal, and they fall in love. She neglects to tell him she just broke out of the psycho ward; he neglects to tell her he is engaged in highly dangerous experiments in teleportation with his father, a hammy Brian Donlevy.

There are a few great moments. My favourite was late on when Donlevy is teletransported to his (other) son in London. I won't spoil what happens, but it is quite a jarring moment.

It is certainly one of Sharp's lesser efforts, although a die-hard British horror fan won't regret having it on his DVD shelf. I'd watch it again on a rainy day.

As regards the DVD itself (R2), it's a bare-bones release, not brilliant quality, and with pretty crap sound, most noticeable in the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare before the main titles. You can snap it up for £5.99, however, so it's not all bad news.

My rating? * * * * * (2/5)

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Summer Palace (EIFF screening) - Update: Lou Ye interview

Update: Following Lou Ye's ban from making films in China for five years, the director discusses his situation and plans for the future in this extensive interview here.

Attended a virtually sold out public screening of Lou Ye's 140 min Beijing-set love story Summer Palace at the Cameo on Tuesday night: the film tells the story of Yu Hong who leaves her hometown and boyfriend Xiao behind to study at the university of Beijing in 1988. There she falls in love with Zhou Wei, a friend of her roommate Li Ti, and both begin a passionate but volatile and short-lived relationship. Their break-up coincides with the student protests on Tiananmen Square in 1989. Xiao comes to Beijing and both leave for Tunan while Zhou Wei is seeing Li Ti. The paths of the four characters cross several times as they travel between Wuhan and the German capital Berlin in the years afterwards until a personal tragedy causes Zhou Wei to return to China in 2000.

Summer Palace doesn't shed much light on the political events on Tiananmen Square that form the historical background to the love story at the film's core; in fact, the film makes so little of it that, as in Bertolucci's The Dreamers, it makes me wonder why some directors place their stories in cultural and political contexts in the first place. Instead, Lou Ye beguilingy captures the restlessness that defines Yu Hong's personality, and the emotional intensity with which she chooses to live her life; he also touches upon the sometimes random nature of life when the two couples go separate ways and travel back and forth between China and Europe over the following decade. Comprising much of the first half, the romance between Yu Hong and Zhou Wei benefits greatly from the sensitive performances, the sensuality and the light touch that the director brings to it, showing empathy for the passionate and yet conflicting feelings that the couple have for each other. With the second half, this eventually gives way to a pronounced feeling of loss, melacholy and loneliness when Yu Hong appears to resign herself to her fate. Summer Palace is one of the most desperately lonesome films I've seen this year, and it eloquently expresses what it feels like to love, wanting to love and to be loved in return and yet not being able to do so. The film's length has been balked at in some quarters but I found it a rather breezy two-and-a-half hours. I look forward to seeing it again on theatrical release and first impressions are that it's a strong, intermittently excellent picture with lasting value. Provisional rating is a **** (out of five)

After the screening, Lou Ye and his translator came on and took part in a brief Q&A session in which he touched on the difficulties his film faces with the Chinese censors; he said the talks were still ongoing and that he was be prepared to make some cuts to get the picture released at home. Asked whether the film contained autobiographical elements, he wouldn't go further than saying it was partly fictional partly autobiographical, and that this was reflected in the characters of Yu Hong and Zhou Wei. He had some familiarity with the setting since he completed a film studies degree at the academy in Beijing around the time the film is set. Shooting was prolonged by three months due to financial problems during the setup of the Berlin sequences and lasted eight months altogether. Finally, he said that there was great interest in the film from UK distributors and that a deal was likely to be done soon (Artificial Eye distributed his last film Suzhou River and have a strong track record with world cinema releases so we wouldn't be surprised if they pick this one up as well).

Friday, September 08, 2006

Brian DePalma interview

Prior to the release of his James Ellroy adaptation The Black Dahlia next Friday, Brian DePalma talks about his career and plans for future projects.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Darren Aronofsky on The Fountain & early impressions of Lynch's lNLAND EMPIRE

Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream) responds to the hostile press reaction to his science fiction film The Fountain at the Venice film festival in the Guardian here.

Also, a brief (and mostly positive) capsule review of David Lynch's new film Inland Empire (his first in five years after 2001's Mulholland Drive, and at three hours one of his longest) which was shown out of competition, prior to Lynch's press conference and his receiption of a Golden Lion for lifetime achievements.

Update: Blade Runner Director's Cut (Comparison link added)

Update (7/09): DVDBeaver Comparison of the restored Director's Cut with the first DVD release from 1997 online now.

Warner have announced a restored and remastered DVD release of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner The Director's Cut (1992) for the 12th of September. This DVD will contain just the film with no extras and will accordingly be sold at a lower price (a 3 disc set with the Director's Cut, the original theatrical cut and Ridley Scott's new "final cut" will appear in 2007 with extensive bonus material). Update: The Region 2 release has been confirmed by Warner, and it will hit shelves on the 9th of October.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Masters of Cinema lineup for Oct/Nov

The Masters of Cinema series have announced their line-up for October and November, and both are boxsets: the first is The Complete Buster Keaton Short Films spanning from 1915 to 1923, with a combined length of 700 mins. The 32 shorts, spread over four discs, are:

The Butcher Boy
The Rough House
His Wedding Night
Oh Doctor!
Coney Island
Out West
The Bellboy
Good Night, Nurse!
The Cook
Back Stage
The Hayseed
The Garage
The High Sign
One Week
Convict 13
The Scarecrow
The Haunted House
Hard Luck
The Goat
The Playhouse
The Boat
The Paleface
My Wife's Relations
The Blacksmith
The Frozen North
The Electric House
The Balloonatic
The Love Nest

The second set comprises three films by the Japanese filmmaker Mikio Naruse (unknown to us at B&J but regarded as one of the country's all-time greats alongside Ozu, Kurosawa and Mizoguchi; nice essay can be found here), Repast (1951), Sound of the Mountain (1954) and Flowing (1956). It will be the first time that these films have ever been released on home video in Britain.

The Buster Keaton set is tentatively scheduled for release on the 23rd of October; Three Films by Mikio Naruse is to street on the 20th of November.

Artwork and extra features updates to follow. In the meantime, have a look at Slant Magazine's excellent and thorough feature on Naruse and his films, including reviews of the three titles above.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Helen Mirren interview

Helen Mirren talks at length to The Guardian about her new film The Queen directed by Stephen Frears, opening in mid-September.

Friday, September 01, 2006

BBFC interview

With the MPAA-critical documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated opening today, The Guardian is running an interesting interview with the British counterpart, the BBFC, about the decision-making and reasoning behind recent film ratings and the changes Britain's rating board went through in the past years.

RIP Glenn Ford

Glenn Ford, Canadian-born actor, 1916 -2006. Best known for his parts in the Rita Hayworth musical Gilda (1946), the two Fritz Lang's The Big Heat (1953) and Human Desire (1954), and The Blackboard Jungle (1956).

edited to add this obituary by Ronald Bergan.

The Brides of Dracula (1960)

The Brides of Dracula (1960) is generally acknowledged as the finest of Hammer's Dracula movies, with the exception of the original Dracula aka Horror of Dracula (1958).

Christopher Lee declined to appear in this sequel, so it is rather curiously a Dracula movie without a Dracula. The never-less-than-wonderful Peter Cushing makes a return as Dr Van Helsing, however. The little-known David Peel plays Baron Meinster, a disciple of Count Dracula, and the pretty Yvonne Monlaur is his unwitting victim. There is also an appearance from the great Martita Hunt, with more than a shade of her earlier Miss Havisham (in David Lean's 1948 sub-horror Great Expectations).

The movie's success with the critics can generally be attributed to the high production values. Bernard Robinson's sets never looked more lavish, and Jack Asher's lighting and photography is stunning, the picture filled with lush, fantastical greens, reds and purples. (Incidentally, this method was costly, and Hammer were soon to replace Asher with the more restrained Arthur Grant.)

Regular Hammer composer James Bernard is missing from the ensemble; the score is by Malcolm Williamson. It's fine music in its own right, but in the film it comes across as overblown: Every time a crucifix is whipped out, the orchestra thunders in like Indiana Jones has just discovered the Holy Grail.

Still, this is a very neatly crafted and enjoyable horror film laden with memorable moments and striking images, a great testament to Hammer's capabilities.

My rating? * * * * *