Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Keaton & Dracula (1922-1992 versions)

Saw a few films since last week, including Criterion's September release of The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), a few short films from Network's Buster Keaton Chronicles boxset and Terence Fisher's 1958 Hammer adaptation of Dracula which Dave wrote about a couple of weeks ago. I'm hoping to find some time next week to write a bit more on Spirit of the Beehive once I've sampled the extras on the Criterion, so for now just a few words on the other films.

The Network boxset Buster Keaton Chronicles is a very decent and near-comprehensive compilation of the great comedian's body of work: it contains the majority of his short films from 1920 onwards as well as all his feature films including his masterpieces Sherlock Jr (1924) and The General (1926). Network have selected the Thames version of The General which is in watchable condition but doesn't compare to the fully restored prints released by MK2 in France and here in the UK which ought to be the first and only choice for Keaton purists (as it happens, the MK2/BBC DVD is on budget sale here). If The General and for that matter, Keaton's best short films (among them Neighbours and The Haunted House) don't convince those of our readers raised on modern blockbusters that silent cinema can be as flamboyantly entertaining and technically accomplished, then nothing will. Keaton's comic timing and self-performed, often breathtaking and physically extremely dangerous stunts (one of which resulted in his breaking his neck, an injury which wasn't properly diagnosed until years after the incident) are to this day unmatched - Neighbours alone packs more genuine comedy and innovation into its 20 minutes than the great majority of contemporary "comedies" manage in their entire length. Even if The General, College, Three Ages and Steamboat Bill Jr are available in properly restored DVDs and also taking into account the occasional heavy print damage on some of the shorts (One Week for instance), Network's box set is still a solid release (especially if you are keen on the early feature film The Saphead). That said, Masters of Cinema's upcoming collection now scheduled for the 20th of November adds 13 short films shot between 1917 and 1920 to the existing roster as well as an audio commentary for 6 of the films and a 180 page booklet.

Prior to Fisher's Dracula, I'd only seen Murnau's Nosferatu and Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 film (still have to get hold of Tod Browning's 1932 film with Bela Lugosi, Werner Herzog's 1978 Nosferatu remake with Klaus Kinski and, finally, John Badham's version with Frank Langella and Laurence Olivier). Knowing that this is a sort of blanket statement (as I haven't seen the remaining three films), I'd wager that of all the official adaptations of Stoker's book, the Murnau film remains the spookiest (no mean feat given it's over 80 years old now), with the German Expressionist sets and lighting and Max Schreck's (how fitting that his surname should mean fright in German) performance still as chilling as in 1922.

As for the Coppola version, well, I used to love it as a teenager: when it came out, I was too young to be allowed to see it but had read so much about it in advance and had wanted to see it so badly that I was absolutely thrilled and giddy with excitement when I actually succeeded in convincing the manager that I was old enough to see it. But my love affair with it didn't last: with each new viewing, my enthusiasm waned and I became more aware of the film's flaws. Disillusioned, I didn't watch it again until recently and having seen it again, I tend to view the film more sympathetically than I have before. The cinematography by Michael Ballhaus and the set and production design remain absolutely stunning - on a technical level, the 1992 Dracula is among the most impressionably realised films I've seen to date. It's a curious film in which two opposites styles clash with one another; it's as if Coppola, and the actors with him, can't seem to decide whether to play it straight in old-school genre style (Ryder, Reeves, Oldman at times) or to ironically overact (Hopkins). Indeed, it's often not clear when the film, as it occasionally does, degenerates into comedy, whether the effect is unintentional or entirely deliberate. The scenes with Keanu Reeves and especially the denouement to his rape by Dracula's three brides suggest the former but there are equally moments where the effect is ostensibly calculated: consider the horrified and yet amused reaction the film provokes when Coppola, in a bit of unexpected black humour, cuts from Lucy's impalement straight to a shot of Van Helsing slicing meat open for dinner.

I believe the main reason why many critics and viewers don't buy into Coppola's film and take the obvious route of dismissing it outright, is that it's because the picture is so at odds with itself, tonally fluctuating wildly and often within single scenes between austerity and comedy. It's as if the film is stuck between the stringent tone of the horror films before it and the post-modernist, ironic slant of the Scream era that followed. If Coppola's Dracula is a failure (and in many ways it is; it's never remotely scary; the romance between the count and Mina humanises the vampire too much, robbing him of much of his menace; some parts are badly miscast), the least you can say is that it does so on terms which engage the open-minded and perceptive viewer in an ongoing conversation and provoke further reflection. The pic also gets points for Tom Waits' superb performance as the deranged Renfield and the brilliant scene in which Dracula, in wolf's form, kills Lucy: that moment is very effectively cross-cut with Mina's marriage to Harker, and it's neatly reminiscent of the climatic baptism sequence in The Godfather Part One which employs parallel editing to identical effect. *** (out of five)

Initial impressions of the Fisher version? Very good if not necessarily what I expected. One of the things that struck me was how they handled Dracula's introduction in the Hammer film compared to the expressionist style in the Murnau and Coppola's imitation of it in 1992: I may be misremembering it from the other films but from what I can recall, the build-up to his entrance and his actual appearance seemed longer whereas in the Hammer the comparatively swift and matter-of-fact manner of his entrance achieves a very different effect (the gong heard on Bernard's score in that moment is a nice touch). Coincidentally, I happen to think that the first third of the film, set at Dracula's castle, feels a bit unbalanced next to the more measured, perceptibly calmer pacing of the main bulk of the film when Van Helsing comes into play. Here, too, the Fisher version differs significantly from any other adaptation I'd seen to date: anyone new to the film and unspoiled by reviews and further reading is likely to be caught by surprise at just how strongly Van Helsing features in this version. The first hint is dropped when Peter Cushing gets first billing in the opening credits (Christopher Lee astonishingly comes fourth!) but it only becomes clear midway through that this really is Van Helsing's film.

Partially necessitated by Cushing's star status at the time, this change of emphasis and point of view works exceedingly well for the picture: firstly, it's simply refreshingly different and secondly, it also afforded Peter Cushing the opportunity to make the character his own, and he rose to the challenge in a commanding performance that demonstrates a perfect understanding of the character, and embodies Van Helsing's sternness, his commitment and his humanity. It's an iconic performance that is respectful of the character and elicits our respect in return. Couple this with Christopher Lee's portrayal of Dracula as a sensual seductor and handsome predator (this is the first film to acknowledge the sensual, sexual character of the vampire's bite), and it's easy to see why the Hammer version is by common consensus regarded in conjunction with the 1922 Nosferatu as the best adaptation of Stoker's novel. The cinematography and lighting by Jack Asher and Bernard Robinson's production design belie and transcend the limitations of Hammer's low budgets (as in the later Brides of Dracula), enhancing the film with often lush visuals (Dave tells me Asher was eventually replaced for later productions as his shooting methods proved too costly; more's the pity). Bernard's score contains effective cues but I found it a touch overbearing still, and Michael Gough is rather dull in the role of Holmwood but the overall achievement of Fisher's richly atmospheric film is not diminished by it. ***** (out of five)

Last but not least as a late addendum to Halloween, my list of favourite horror films. At the top Ridley Scott's Alien for a number of reasons: it was my first ever first horror film (at the age of eight, I think) and it has stayed with me ever since (in fact, I'm certain that over the years, I've seen Alien more times than any other film, horror or otherwise). What also clinched it for Alien is that James Whale's Bride of Frankenstein coming in at No 2 is intentionally funny as opposed to scary. Whale is strongly represented in the list also with The Invisible Man which is so deliciously creepy and blackly funny that if I were to revise the list at some point in the future, it could possibly replace Bride in second spot. Also mentioned: the brilliant Japanese supernatural folklore horror Kuroneko with shades of Edgar Allan Poe and William Friedkin's The Exorcist which made a lasting impression on me and which I might write about in the future.. here's the list as it stands now (definite entries in bold):

Bride of Frankenstein
The Invisible Man
The Innocents
The Exorcist
Don't Look Now
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Back on air

It's been a while since I last posted: I had meant to write a bit on Martin Scorsese's The Departed (which I loved) after returning from a family wedding last week but got diagnosed with a kidney stone and got hospitalised for six days. With it being my second hospital stay in as many years and being in heavy intermittent pain, it brought home to me how much we take our health for granted and how fragile and vulnerable we suddenly feel when it hits you out of the blue. On the plus side, I got to watch a few films that I hadn't seen before or wanted to watch again. The first was Escape from New York which, to me, falls in terms of quality somewhere in between the brilliant Halloween and Carpenter's weak mid-to-late 90s films like the shallow and misogynist Vampires: bookended by an excellent opening half-hour and a neat epilogue twist, the film, which only cost $5m to make, is very atmospheric and totally convincing in its depiction of an island prison state in whose confines the Duke reigns over the inmates. Kurt Russell's Snake Plissken, a former war veteran-turned criminal, is sent in by Lee Van Cleef's police chief to locate and rescue the US President (Donald Pleasance) who has managed to drop off into the city after his plane was hijacked by terrorists (made in 1980, the picture feels chillingly prophetic in our post-9/11 era). The bulk of the film is highly entertaining and often witty but it's never particularly suspenseful and the narrative feels a bit too episodic, held together just about by the thread of Snake's rescue mission. Was pleasantly surprised to see so many iconic names in the cast (Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine and Harry Dean Stanton) and each of them turning in strong performances - in contrast, I found Snake Plissken as a character a bit disappointing, too one-note, after seeing so much reverence for the character on the net. To be honest, I had hoped for more - the final twist is too little, too late in that respect. Still, I enjoyed the film a great deal. ***1/2 (out of five).

Revisited three films, the first being Lost in Translation. I had high expectations for the film when it came out in 2003 and I remember leaving the screening with a great sense of disappointment. I was wanting to love the film but only came away sort of liking it and with major reservations. Having now seen it a second time, I'm afraid to say that while I liked it marginally better this time round, my issues with the film remain. Looking at this and her debut, The Virgin Suicides, I think it's indisputable that Sofia Coppola is very adept at mood-driven filmmaking in which the tone of the scene and a character's feelings are evoked and underlined by a dream-like score and understated performances. And yet, I find the story too slight: even for a film that ostensibly is about the feeling of going nowhere in life, about alienation and isolation, it feels too stagnant and repetitive. I never felt that the film ever quite justified its indulgent length and I'm among those to whom the humour (decidedly hit-and-miss) and the overall attitude of the film towards its characters smacks of snide condescension. I didn't think that Charlotte and Bob Harris really invited our sympathy and that the film resorted to the long-discredited trick of making everyone else so unlikable, even creepy (Bob's estranged wife) that these two seem a very charming bunch in comparison. I'm by no means in favour of sickly all-sweetness-and-light romcoms but to make a romance about two relatively unsympathetic people seems self-defeatist to me. The comedy works as long as Bill Murray is asked to improvise on the spot (the shooting of the second Whisky advert is pure gold) but as soon as it involves any of the Japanese characters, it reeks of condescension (in the sense of us Westerners giggling narrow- and simple-mindedly at the otherness and exoticism of the Japanese and Asians at large) and even racism. Walter Chaw once wrote on FilmFreakCentral how Asians and gays are about the only minority groups it's still ok to laugh at and condescend to, and as far as I'm concerned, Lost in Translation is among those films that have something to answer for it. So far, I've found Coppola's films all style and surface with no depth underneath - how fitting (and reassuring) that this is exactly the kind of criticism levelled at her new film Marie Antoinette... *** (out of five)

Also rewatched River of no Return by Otto Preminger (who never made a Western before or afterwards again, and on the evidence of this it was a wise decision). It's diverting while it lasts and just as quickly forgotten but I give credit to Robert Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe and the often impressive camera work (if you choose to overlook the hideous backprojection in some of the raft scenes). ** (out of five) On the other hand, The Hustler was as riveting as I remember it from the first viewing many years ago: it grips you right from the beginning and never lets go until the devastating, poignant finale; a marvellously photographed and edited, deeply felt film in love with the sport and simultaneously an indictment of it and the addictive, destructive lure of success.. One of Paul Newman's best-ever performances, with supporting turns by George C Scott, Jackie Gleason and Piper Laurie that support and enhance the film further. ****1/2 (out of five)

PS.: A DVD our readers should look out for is the BFI's upcoming release of Jack Clayton's rather brilliant ghost story The Innocents with Deborah Kerr, with awesome cinematography by DoP Freddie Francis. The film is available on a barebones Region 1 DVD from Fox (who shockingly saw fit to include a fullscreen version at the expense of any substantial extras) with a good widescreen transfer but according to play.com the new Region 2 comes with a making of, a commentary and a trailer. The BFI release is due on the 27th of November.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

The Earth Dies Screaming (1965)

The great Terence Fisher, whom regular readers will have figured out is one of my alltime favourite directors, only very occasionally forayed onto non-Hammer territory. One of those times was in the mid-1960s, when he had fallen temporarily out of favour with Hammer, due to financial failures like The Phantom of the Opera (1962) and The Gorgon (1964). From 1965 to 1967, he made a handful of science-fiction films for low-budget companies. The Earth Dies Screaming was made in 1965 for Lippert Films, whose other main contribution to '60s horror was Curse of the Fly, earlier the same year.

The Earth Dies Screaming is an enjoyable yarn which, at not much over an hour, is the perfect length for a movie of its era and genre. It opens in a way that recalls the wonderful Village of the Damned (1960), with people up and down the country mysteriously collapsing - commuters crumple to the ground where they stand, trains leave their tracks. A few survivors are holed up in the local pub (as happens again in Fisher's 1967 Night of the Big Heat), and must battle an onslaught from alien visitors.

The cast is mostly unknown, at least to me. I enjoyed Dennis Price's rather shifty turn; it was not long before he fell on hard times and was reduced to appearing in some very seedy rubbish. Hammer regular Thorley Walters also has a small part, which I found strikingly sympathetic.

Perhaps one of the film's finest features is Elisabeth Lutyens's haunting score. Lutyens was an avant-garde composer who, like many "serious" composers, regarded her film music as a necessary evil. However, she produced brilliant scores for British horrors such as Dr Terror's House of Horrors and The Skull. The music here is pivotal to the tension; combined with Fisher's usual expert direction, the film has some genuinely scary moments.

My rating? * * * * *

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Two sixties Sherlocks

I settled down earlier this week to watch two enjoyable outings for Sherlock Holmes from the 1960s. Both fall roughly into the "British horror" genre, although the first was made in Germany, and was a co-production with France and Italy. They were Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace (1962) and A Study in Terror (1965).

Deadly Necklace is a very bizarre film. It was shot in Germany in English, but the audio was recorded separately by a different cast. And the dubbing is truly awful. It boasts British horror stalwarts Christopher Lee and Thorley Walters as Holmes and Watson, although they are sadly never heard. Lee dons a false nose to play the famous sleuth; I get the impression he did a fairly good job, but it's sadly hard to tell when a third-rate American actor is providing the voice.

It was directed by Terence Fisher and some obscure German called Frank Winterstein, who I assume did some minor work, since the film is almost always credited exclusively to Fisher. The script is by Curt Siodmak, best-known for horror films in the '40s, such as The Wolf Man. I gather the story is a loose adaptation of Conan Doyle's The Valley of Fear.

It is shot in black-and-white, and feels curiously like a 1930s thriller. I felt I was watching a Charlie Chan or a Universal horror, not a sixties film. The film had a jazz score by bandleader Martin Slavin, which didn't match the setting at all, but somehow added to the film's quirkiness. I did enjoy it - perhaps it fell into the "so bad it's good" category. It was entertaining, if strangely out-of-place for its era.

A Study in Terror is a much more polished film, made in England, and fortunate enough to have all the voices matched to the right actors. John Neville is a likeable Holmes who combines gravitas with humour. Donald Houston is likeable enough as Watson, but not particularly interesting - the characterization is in the same vein as that of Nigel Bruce in the Basil Rathbone films, as was Thorley Walters in Deadly Necklace. The film has a grand supporting cast including Anthony Quayle, Frank Finlay (as Inspector Lestrade) and Robert Morley (as Sherlock's brother, Mycroft).

Again, it is an entertaining film, with plenty of pleasing, if familiar touches - fogbound London streets, dank alleyways, smokey pubs etc. The story is an original one, which has Holmes on the trail of Jack the Ripper (an idea later taken up in Murder by Decree). The main problem with the script is that, in common with almost any film that tries to transplant Conan Doyle's detective into a new story, Sherlock Holmes becomes a bit of a self-caricature at times, who can't seem to open his mouth without being a total smart-aleck, like he never stops making clever deductions to entertain Watson.

Nevertheless, a good film. In common with Deadly Necklace, A Study in Terror too has a score by a jazz bandleader (namely, John Scott), although the jazz influences are less subtle.

My ratings?

Sherlock Holmes and the Necklace of Death * * * * *
A Study in Terror * * * * *

Friday, October 06, 2006

Scorsese interview

Martin Scorsese talks about his new film The Departed to the Guardian (the paper gives the film a four star review); there's also a fun quiz about his films.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

What might have been if...?

While browsing during my break from work, I found this short-but-fun-to-read article on original casting choices. Makes you alternately wonder how the films in question might have turned out (Emma Thompson as Starling would have been a curious choice) or thank the heavens that things turned out as they did (it beggars belief that Ang Lee originally considered Ben Affleck for Brokeback Mountain).

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Clerks II (capsule review)

Apologies for the silence on my end but real life caught up with me in the last weeks. Will try my best to update our blog more regularly again in the future; for now, a very late capsule review of Clerks II, an enjoyable yet inferior follow-up to the 1994 film that put Kevin Smith on the map: Dante and Randall, now in their early thirties, have ended up serving burgers and chiops at the Mooby fast food chain after Randall has accidentally burned down the grocery store where they have worked for the last ten years. Dante's about to move to Florida to get married to his fiancee who calls the shots in their relationship.

As in the first film, Smith's low-brow humour is just glossing over the fact that at heart he is an old-fashioned romanticist, and enough jokes hit their target but Clerks II nevertheless is a step backwards: the colour cinematography is too clean and smacks of Smith caving in to mainstream tastes without much resistance; the minor characters featuring here are not as intriguing as in the first film, and surely Smith could have thought of something wittier than the lame cameos by Ben Affleck and Jason Lee? The larger budget is most evident in a few elaborate shots (which are, firstly, jarringly at odds with the low-key setups that the film resorts to otherwise, and, secondly, they can be downright awful, like the shoddily executed 360 degree shot around Dante and Randall), brief musical interludes and a setpiece in which a donkey gets the full oral and anal treatment. Rosario Dawson gives a spirited and very touching performance as Becky (Smith acknowledges as much in the end credits), the commitment-phobic girl who runs Mooby's and who is drawn to Dante. Towards the end, the film dwells on its duo's restlessness and life passing them by longer than it ought to, but it's noteworthy for Randall's advice to Dante to defy outside expectations and to live his life in a way that is meaningful to him. In a way Smith seems to be torn between staying true to his roots and wanting to move on and gain greater respectability, as his critics have implored him to. Let's see where he goes next. * * (out of five)