Thursday, July 31, 2008

And Now...

My impression of the latest rant from Orson Scott Card:

My Film Festival

So not too long ago, screenwriter Diablo Cody got the opportunity to program a film festival at L.A.’s New Beverly Theater, and this gave Piper at Lazy Eye Theater the idea for a meme. Pick 12 movies to run at the New Beverly (or really, any movie theater), grouped up as double features, and explain your choices, making sure to link back to Lazy Eye Theatre in the process (done and done.) There was tagging involved, but eventually this just got thrown out to anyone, which is where I come in.

At first I considered doing an Academy of the Underrated film festival, but decided it would be too close to Ebertfest. Instead I’m making the whole thing like a 12-day Club Parnassus tour, highlighting the kinds of films I deal with frequently. Each film runs for two days, and showtime starts at 7:00.

Monday-Tuesday: Academy of the Underrated

DUNE: David Lynch’s epic realization of the Frank Herbert masterpiece is a genuine work of cinematic art, clunky exposition notwithstanding. I’ve never actually seen this on the big screen, so that would be fun.

THE AVENGERS: For the first time since test screenings, we will see the full uncut version of the picture, with over half an hour's footage restored. I can’t NOT show this one.

Wednesday-Thursday: Julia Sawalha Double Feature

Fairly easy as she’s sadly only got really prominent roles in two movies. I will try to arrange for a personal appearance as well.

IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER: a.k.a. A MIDWINTER’S TALE. Kenneth Branagh directed this light and funny story of an amateur production of Hamlet, also featuring Celia Imrie and Joan Collins. Julia plays an eccentric nearsighted Ophelia.

CHICKEN RUN: Julia provides the voice of Ginger, the bold British bird leading her fellow hens in several attempted breakouts in this homage to THE GREAT ESCAPE, STALAG 17 and others, from Aardman Animation. Oh, and Mel Gibson’s in it.

Friday-Saturday: Kaiju Eiga Weekend!

DESTROY ALL MONSTERS: I’d hunt down the American International print of this, the most jam-packed of all the Sixties Toho epics. So many monsters it has to be seen on the big screen.

THE RETURN OF GODZILLA: The high-tech return of Godzilla from the mid-80s, with a more somber tone and great visuals. Despite the poster, I'll be screening the uncut version, with subtitles.

Sunday-Monday: David Cronenberg- Long Live The New Flesh

Again, a personal appearance is in the works.

VIDEODROME: My favorite Cronenberg movie, and another I’d like to see in a theater for once. Perhaps an obvious choice, this film best illustrates the themes and concepts the director likes to revisit, and is arguably his finest work.

DEAD RINGERS: One of his more low-key films for contrast, and another classic. Bring your handkerchiefs, folks.

Tuesday-Wednesday: Retro Sci-Fi Mania

METROPOLIS: Defying convention, I would arrange for and show the 1984 Giorgio Moroder cut, complete with rock soundtrack. I need to blog about this one later, suffice it to say IT IS AWESOME.

FORBIDDEN PLANET: The best of the Fifties space-voyage movies, the most intelligent, and the least cliché ridden. Also an absolute marvel on the big screen, its imagery has become an icon for the decade.

Thursday-Friday: My Favorite Movies

Just two personal loves.

DAWN OF THE DEAD (1979): The best horror movie ever, a big action epic, and my number one favorite film of all time, so yeah, it’s gotta be here.

ED WOOD: And we close out the festival with a heartfelt salute to filmdom’s quirkiest auteur, and symbolically, to all of us who struggle to make our dreams come true regardless of whether or not we have the skills for it. “Visions are worth fighting for. Why spend your life making somebody else’s dreams?”

As mentioned before, anyone who wants in on the memeage is welcome. It’s fun, you’ll see!

(All poster images are taken from the excellent

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Random Movie Report #52: Bug (1975)

Order BUG (1975) from here
You know, sometimes you watch a movie and expect not to have to write anything about it. BUG (no relation to the William Friedkin film which I’ve already covered) was in my Netflix queue, for a while it looked like a perfectly nondescript killer insect movie, and then... it kind of lost its mind, or maybe that was just me. BUG’s major distinction, as such, is that it’s the last film from horror meister William Castle, who produced movies like HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL and THE TINGLER, came up with great in-theatre gimmicks to promote them, and then went on to produce ROSEMARY’S BABY, one of the best horror movies ever made. BUG, not so much, but I’ll give him points for finishing on weirdness.

The film takes place in a small town, where an earthquake opens up a large fissure. Out of that fissure come a number of roach-like insects, harmless looking at first, but with the ability to start fires (they feed on ashes.) They manage to blow up a couple of cars by crawling up the exhaust pipes, and start fires across the countryside, even attaching themselves to and burning animals and people. A local science teacher (Bradford Dillman) discovers some interesting things about the bugs’ behavior, deducing that they must be an entirely subterranean species. He discovers that the pressure differential between their original habitat and the surface may actually kill these creatures off in time, but discovers their weakness too late to save his wife (Joanna Miles), who is burned alive by one of the insects in a scene that’s funnier than it should be. Insane with grief, the professor rescues one of the bugs as they begin to die. He crossbreeds it with a normal roach, creating a new strain of firestarters.

And this is where the movie takes a bit of a left turn. The first half of the picture is more or less your standard nature-gone-bad story, albeit slightly condensed. When the professor starts his experiments, however it becomes a first person portrait of a descent into madness with sci-fi elements. Some characters from the first half of the film disappear completely, and the professor becomes increasingly unhinged. He gets attacked by the bugs at least twice as a result of leaving their terrarium unlocked, feeds them raw meat, and starts to think they can understand English. It helps that Dillman convincingly plays crazy, going over the top at times (especially in the scenes before he’s supposed to start going insane) but not really given what’s happening.

Suffice it to say we get lots of extreme close-ups of roach behavior (actual cockroaches seem to have been used for most of it) and increasingly bizarre narration. Some treats I don’t want to spoil since they need to be seen on their own, but the firebugs develop a hive mind and start laying eggs on their own (the pouches resemble stylish leather purses for some reason.)

The picture fails in one key respect, in that it never seems like the bugs are that big of a threat. Whenever they attack people, it’s rarely in large numbers, and it seems like it should be pitifully easy to pick them off. It doesn’t actually make sense why they would go after people in particular, since there has to be plenty of food elsewhere. Your mileage may vary, but while I find roaches genuinely unpleasant, they’re not really frightening. While the ability to set things on fire makes this breed more dangerous than most, they don’t project menace like they should. They’re too easy to deal with, or at least they would be had they not attacked a town where 50% of the inhabitants evidently lack basic motor skills.

I can’t really call this a good movie. It’s too disjointed, for one, and the growing abstract insanity is more amusing than terrifying. But amusing it is indeed, and the climax is so fucking surreal that I’m still not entirely sure I saw it. I’m not often prone to using profanity on this blog, but there is no better way to talk about the end of the film: it is batshit. It makes no fucking sense but is both garishly beautiful and totally hilarious.

William Castle was a great influence on future horror notables, specifically underrated director Joe Dante (who inserted a film break gag into GREMLINS 2 specifically in homage to the producer.) BUG isn’t his best film, it’s not even one for which I can make a general recommendation, but it does show some of his mad genius. The guy always valued shock over coherence, and the end is definitely some kind of sensationalism. This gets the guilty pleasure grade; it’s not good but I liked it.

From the novel “The Hephasteus Plague” by Thomas Page
Screenplay by William Castle and Thomas Page
Directed by Jeannot Szwarc

Grade: C+

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Random Who Report: Arc of Infinity (1983)

Order ARC OF INFINITY from Amazon here
I’ve wanted to write more about DOCTOR WHO on this blog for a bit, and with new series reviews being taken care of, I’ve decided to go for old school. It actually isn’t a big stretch from reviewing movies; the classic series was built around the serial format, with episodes of 25 minutes each linking together to form larger discrete stories (though they tried 45 minute shows for one season.) Stories would tend to be around 3, 4, or 6 episodes long, meaning that the average WHO story is about the same length as a feature film. So it’s possible to treat these like mini-movies and discuss each one on its own merits, not bothering with any kind of chronological or thematic order. Enjoy.

I rented ARC OF INFINITY for a couple of reasons. It comes from the Peter Davison era, which I’ve always personally regarded as a high point for the show; his three seasons were slickly made (for the most part), and had an energy and assurance to them, like producer John Nathan Turner had found his feet and knew what he wanted to do. On top of that, it’s a Gallifrey story, and I kind of like those. I understand why the new series had the Time Lords and their home world blown up off camera, clearing away years of continuity baggage in the process, but I miss the pretentious bastards nonetheless. The Time Lords are an ambiguous race, corrupt but not really evil, just stuffy and shifty. They have the powers of gods but the flaws of regular human beings, and their world is a mixture of shiny new technology and ancient myth and legend. Gallifrey stories are hard to do well, because of the aforementioned stuffiness and a way of getting bogged down in technospeak, but there’s something to the concept that grabs me.

Anyway, ARC OF INFINITY, written by Johnny Byrne (no relation to the comics artist), is about the efforts of a powerful being from an antimatter universe trying to possess the good Doctor. After one failed attempt, aided by an unidentified Time Lord, the High Council of Gallifrey decides to call in the Doctor to see what’s going on. Apparently the kind of merging that the being is trying to do runs a risk of bringing antimatter into our universe, which would blow up a substantial part of it. Some of the Time Lords get it in their heads that the safest way to prevent this is to execute the Doctor outright, so he and companion Nyssa (Sarah Sutton) have to solve the mystery before that. Meanwhile, in Amsterdam, a couple of travelling youths try to sleep in a crypt and are attacked by a goofy looking alien who makes one of them into a zombie slave. The unfortunate fellow happens to be the cousin of recently departed companion Tegan Jovanka (Janet Fielding), who shows up in Amsterdam to try and find out what happened, and yes this is related to the main story.

This is an odd one. John Nathan Turner specifically wanted to film in Amsterdam, and had also promised that each story in the twentieth season would feature the return of an old monster. The old monster in this case is Omega (Ian Collings), an ancient Time Lord who helped discover time travel and in the course of his experiments managed to catapult himself into the aforementioned antimatter world, where the isolation and not-quite-existence drove him mad. He showed up ten seasons ago in THE THREE DOCTORS, so there’s a nice symmetry there. JNT was sometimes criticized for going back to the well on old monsters so often, but this was an interesting choice.

As I’ve said, the reason I like Gallifrey-related stories is the weird grandeur of the place- at least, conceptually, since old-school DOCTOR WHO could manage visual grandeur maybe once per season if you squinted. The actual meat of the story- that Orion wants not only to pass back into existence but to control the power of an entire rift between dimensions (the titular Arc of Infinity), and to control the power of the Matrix, Gallifrey’s repository of knowledge which acts as a giant virtual mindscape (though here we only see a bunch of glittery lines.)

There’s a lot of nice epic background material here, which would have been more effective if the structure weren’t so choppy. The business in Amsterdam takes a long time to go a short distance, and the constant cutting back to it only seems to pad things out. To be fair, the actual Amsterdam locations look a bit better than the strangely drab grey sets used to represent Gallifrey, but it’s a less-than-perfect mixture.

On the upside, though, there’s some especially good acting in this installment. Nyssa, often pushed aside in her time on the series due to the TARDIS being unusually crowded, gets some great scenes as she rushes to and fro to prevent the Doctor’s execution; Sarah Sutton shows some good emotional range here. Peter Davison is as intensely gentle as ever, and gets to stretch his acting legs when Omega briefly takes on the Doctor’s form. Collings is good even when kept behind a (cool looking) mask for almost the whole of the proceedings. And Colin Baker, soon to play the Doctor himself, is nicely stentorian as a Gallifreyan guard captain with the silliest hat on what is essentially the planet of silly hats. To top it all off we have Michael Gough (who had appeared on the series back in the sixties) as Chancellor Hedlin, an old friend of the Doctor’s but also one of the potential traitors.

As weird as the pacing is on this one, I found there to be some redeeming elements. At heart it’s a good storyline, one with a lot of neat ideas and a few curveballs here and there to throw us off guard. We frequently fall back on running up and down corridors, but this is something the show did very well and the climactic chase through Amsterdam is downright fun. The production values are a mixed bag. Omega looks cool, his chickenlike Ergon construct not so much, Gallifrey’s too grey but still sort of atmospheric, etc.

Before I give a final grade I’ll have to explain how I’m doing the grades for this one. DOCTOR WHO is a very good show, and the kind that is good enough that even its worst episodes tend to have some redeeming element. So you’re probably not going to see many Fs or Ds, and even for the non-passing grades you might have to append “by the show’s standards”. But basically, C+ and below means it’s really only worth watching if you’re already a WHO fan.

Anyway, this gets a general recommendation, albeit sort of a marginal one. It’s awkard but worthy, good concepts and classic sci-fi scope pulling us through the slower parts. It’s also always good to see a companion do neat things, and here Byrne was able to do justice to the character of Nyssa (whom he created) not long before she left the TARDIS crew. ARC OF INFINITY holds up, and the DVD has some fun extra features that are worth seeing. A solid kick-off to the show’s twentieth season, if not the most memorable one.

Directed by Ron Jones
Written by Johnny Byrne

Grade: B-

Sunday, July 20, 2008

In Theaters: The Dark Knight

Dark Knight poster from
For a long time, I’ve thought that a Batman movie styled after THE FRENCH CONNECTION and its ilk was a good idea. I’m not entirely sure how I arrived at this premise, but with THE DARK KNIGHT I seem to have gotten my wish. This is a superhero movie which feels unlike any to arise previously, even including its immediate predecessor BATMAN BEGINS. In what is very much at risk of becoming an oversaturated genre, THE DARK KNIGHT is fresh, unpredictable, new. It may be the film of the year, though putting it next to WALL-E and SPEED RACER makes for an apples and anti-apples situation. It’s easily the best of the Batman movies, though, and one of the best superhero movies ever made. I’m hesitant to call it the best, partly because it feels wrong to put something so relentlessly grim at the top of what still strikes me as a basically optimistic genre, but it’s definitely in contention. Time will tell.

The story initially revolves around separate attempts by Batman (Christian Bale again) and District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) to take down the three major crime families plaguing Gotham City. Batman, with a little help from Wayne Enterprises partner and gadget designer Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), manages to unofficially extradite from Hong Kong the accountant (Chin Han) who pooled all their money, and Dent triumphantly levys Rico charges against an entire courtroomfull of mobsters. The gangsters, however, have decided to enlist the services of a scarred and deranged hood known as the Joker (Heath Ledger), who promises to kill the Batman in exchange for half of, well, everything. He begins a campaign of terror and murder against the city, saying it will only end if Batman reveals himself and is handed over to him. Bruce Wayne, obviously, is stuck in a dilemma, but this isn’t the only twisted game the Joker is interested in playing; Dent is a target too, and his idealism is quickly tested.

I don’t want to say any more, because one of the really amazing things about this film is that it is unpredictable. With Batman’s origins out of the way and the Joker’s perpetually shrouded in mystery (he tells at least two entirely incompatible accounts of how he got his scars), the film lacks most of the familiar beats of the superhero story, leaving us uncertain about where it’s going to go at any given moment. Early on the picture works like a crime drama, full of scenes of investigation and espionage and good old-fashioned heisting. But as the Joker steps up his war against the civility and perceived order of Gotham, even this unravels. The sheer brutality of the character is unmatched by any previous comic-to-movie supervillain, and the comedic tone serves to emphasize the horror rather than ironically distance us from it. Even his motives aren’t addressed until some ways in, and then only in a way that leaves plenty of ambiguity.

Buzz was circulating about Heath Ledger’s performance as the villain early on, and this was unfortunately amplified by his sudden and senseless death early this year. Some people morbidly speculated on a link between the dark and twisted role he played and his death, though everyone who worked on the film has attested that he wasn’t that strongly affected by his work on set.

It’s easy enough to think that he was truly inhabiting the character, as his performance never slips for a moment; his Joker is the most believably human interpretation of the role I’ve ever seen, even counting his uncountable comic book appearances. All prior versions of the Joker seem to have shared a kind of iconic distance, but this is a truly intimate kind of insanity. Ledger’s Joker comes off as authentically psychopathic, a bundle of nerves and tremors that somehow are kept under just enough control to form a brilliant criminal mind. He’s not the Clown Prince of Crime, he’s a lunatic. Ledger doesn’t leave any hint that he’s acting, which is where the confusion and rumormongering arise, but there’s no doubt in my mind that this is a triumph of skill. If he were still alive- heck, if we didn’t even know who Heath Ledger was- I have a feeling most of us would still be raving, because this is just one of the great performances. It will be looked at for years.

Christian Bale threatens to be acted off the screen entirely, and it’s to his credit that he isn’t. I have some problems with his voice as Batman; he takes on a very affected growl that ironically feels more cartoonish than Kevin Conroy’s work on the Animated Series so many years ago. Still, he has the physicality of the character and particularly the fake smugness of Bruce Wayne down pat, and carries a lot of scenes. Aaron Eckhart is the film’s other standout performance; Harvey Dent’s bright optimism conceals a harder edge that the events of the film threaten to expose, and Eckhart provides the character with authentic emotional depth. As Rachel Dawes, Dent’s girlfriend and Bruce Wayne’s ex, Maggie Gyllenhall is sharp and convincing, an improvement over Katie Holmes’ unspectacular turn. Gary Oldman as Lieutenant James Gordon, Morgan Freeman as Fox, and Michael Caine as Alfred are all in great form, and the film has the feel of an ensemble piece at times.

The action here is a great improvement over that of BATMAN BEGINS; the first time around, Christopher Nolan was limited by the Batsuit’s limited mobility and settled for a lot of quick cuts that weren’t really easy to follow. Here, the suit is actually improved as part of the story, and the action is cleanly blocked and comprehensibly edited while still packing a visceral kick. Despite the relative complexity of the story and the ambiguity of its themes, the Batman still kicks plenty of ass. Shooting so much of the film in Chicago was an inspired choice; not only does Gotham take on some of that city’s unique character (as with New York’s standing in for Metropolis in the SUPERMAN movies), it feels more like a real place as opposed to a comic book world. (The amount of material shot in broad daylight enhances this feel.)

One of the unfortunate things about the times we live in (though low on the scale to be sure) is that any film involving terrorist-like characters, people standing for law and order, and so on, is that we will see parallels to current events and be compelled to work out which political side the film is taking. To be fair, it’s not like the filmmakers shrink from the implications of the story. Batman works out an ethically questionable method of surveillance for the entire city, Alfred tells a story about an undisciplined and unreasonable bandit he had to deal with back when he was a colonial soldier.

At first it seems like the story is playing into right wing talking points: our enemies cannot be negotiated with, we cannot hold back in our fight against them or grant any concessions, the ends justify the means. But that’s only the expectation of how many of these subplots will be resolved; the reality of what unfolds is murkier. Indeed, the Joker is interested specifically in bringing people down to his level, forcing them to make unethical choices, and every time they do he succeeds a little more. The question of how much our ends can justify our means is particularly relevant to current politics, and no doubt the film will be co-opted by many, many people. But the intelligence with which THE DARK KNIGHT handles these questions should keep it relevant long after the world’s situation has hopefully improved.

This is the first comic book superhero film in which I can recall being genuinely scared. It’s one of the few wherein I was uncertain of the fates of certain characters, and it’s possibly the only one where the outcome is a genuine surprise. THE DARK KNIGHT is apparently on track to make huge piles of money AND get great reviews and possibly even win awards, so my recommendation is just another drop in the ocean. But really, this is an amazingly good picture. See it if you like Batman, if you don’t like Batman, if you’re vaguely familiar with the fact that there is a character called Batman. This is superb filmmaking that pushes beyond the limitations of its genre to tell a rich and gripping story, and the fact that I’m not yet sure if it is the best film of the year only says how good the rest of the year has been. THE DARK KNIGHT may well be a masterpiece.

Based on the character created by Bill Finger and Bob Kane
Story by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer
Screenplay by Johnathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan
Directed by Christopher Nolan

Grade: A

Thursday, July 17, 2008

In Theaters: Hellboy II: The Golden Army

Poster image found at
I was planning to maybe do something bigger for post number two hundred (which this is), but there are too many other things I want to do first. I'll get to what I was planning later, it's not really time sensitive, but I want to deal with the backlog first.

An unlikely sequel to a film that didn’t make a lot of money to start with, HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY delivers just about everything the first movie did, and a bit more. I liked HELLBOY when I first saw it, and subsequent viewings made me see how well put together a film it really is. This second cinematic outing for Mike Mignola’s unique comics hero is just as entertaining, possibly more so, and after SPEED RACER’s hasty departure from theaters it’s good to have another kind of wild imaginative fantasy to entertain us. There’s a lot to love in this movie, one which manages to be rich and colorful and action-packed while still doing right by its characters.

The film revolves around the legend of the faerie folk, who used to live alongside mankind but have since been forced into the shadows. A long time ago there was a war, which the fey fought with an army of indestructible robotic soldiers who were, you guessed it, gold. A truce was called, and the faerie king (Roy Dotrice) broke up the crown which controlled the army into three pieces. Cut to the present day, where faerie prince Nuada (Luke Goss) has had enough of humanity’s encroachment on their kind, and sets out to retrieve the pieces of the crown- starting with one being sold at auction in Manhattan, which he purloins by killing everyone present.

Enter Hellboy (Ron Perlman). He’s a demon by birth, but was raised from infancy by a human professor (John Hurt) as a result of a transdimensional incident back in WWII, and is now an agent for the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, working under the exasperated Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor.) He lives with his fellow agent and girlfriend Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), who can immolate things in a wide radius, sometimes without even trying. They’ve been having relationship difficulties, which don’t dissipate when an investigation of the Manhattan incident suddenly makes the top secret bureau not so secret. As they get dragged further into the investigation, the noncorporeal but highly authoritarian Johann Krauss (voiced by FAMILY GUY creator Seth MacFarlane) is brought in to try and keep Hellboy under control (it doesn’t work so well), and intellectual amphibian Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) finds himself falling for Nuada’s twin sister Nuala (Anna Walton), who holds a piece of the crown.

This is both a superhero movie of sorts and a monster movie of an entirely different sort, Hellboy himself having been created in a nexus between genres. Influenced in equal parts by H. P. Lovecraft and Marvel comics, Hellboy’s world is one full of nasty squiggly things out to destroy humanity and ancient horrors whose names have been lost to recorded history. Meanwhile, the character himself is a gruff, cigar-chomping bruiser who solves most problems with his stone-like right hand, or if that’s not enough, really big guns.

Having mostly done battle with a horde of tentacled hounds in the first movie, Hellboy now faces a much wider variety of monsters in the employ of the Prince. There’s a horde of carnivorous fairies with huge teeth, a troll looking like he’s stepped out of Middle Earth, a giant forest god, and a few other surprises. It’s almost like a Ray Harryhausen film, where the plot is geared to introduce as many strange creatures as the budget will allow. However, the story isn’t weak because of this; Hellboy continues to crave acceptance from the world around him and Liz in particular, a plotline that diverges significantly from the comics (wherein the BPRD has been public knowledge from the start and Hellboy is a beloved figure) but provides a good character arc without bogging the proceedings down in angst. Abe’s affection for Nuala- who like him, can sense people on a deeper level than us mortals- is played with a similar light touch. Some bits of the plot are kind of predictable, but others do genuinely manage to take us by surprise.

The casting of Ron Perlman as Hellboy was inspired from the start, and the attitude he brings with him helps define the tenor of the whole film. He’s a straightforward and unpretentious kind of guy, fond of TV, beer, jazz LPs, 8-track tapes and other pop culture miscellany. He’s got a messy room and an inclination to punch first and ask questions later. Despite being a demon (who regularly files his horns down into circular stumps), he’s a working joe who isn’t fazed by much, and this helps keep the film grounded. Guillermo Del Toro can give us flights of fancy, show us the wonders of a troll market, the pomp of a faerie court, and moments that are downright poetic, but lest the film take anything too seriously Hellboy and his misfit teammates are there to pop any pretension. Perlman is as on form as ever, and Doug Jones, fresh of an amazing tour de force in Del Toro’s PAN’S LABYRINTH, finally gets to provide the voice of Abe Sapien as well as the body. (In the first film he was dubbed over by David Hyde Pierce at the studio’s insistence, though Pierce, to his credit, refused to be credited.)

The effects in this film are worth remarking upon, if only because they look about twice as good as they cost. The film’s budget was around seventy-five million dollars, which sadly is not that much for a genre film anymore, but not only is there an awful lot of effects work in this picture, it looks brilliant. The combination of CGI and practical work is very smooth, and the look of the film is utterly splendid, rich in reds and golds. The battle with the forest giant has a particularly elegiac ending, of the sort you don’t expect to see.

Flaws crop up here and there, the biggest of which is that Selma Blair as Liz does not get a whole lot to do. She apparently got the short straw as far as character development, and though she has a couple of good scenes her characterization actually feels less consistent than it was in the previous film. I’m not sure how that works. I’m not entirely sure all of the plot holds together, and a couple of story elements- well, they’ll make HELLBOY III complicated if/when that gets made.

My overall impression of this film, though, is that it’s just packed with entertaining things. You have monster fights. You have ancient cities and sinister fairy tale creatures entering the world. You have a love story between an albino and a fish. You have a man made of gas living inside a pressure suit trying to give orders to a surly reformed demon. You have relationship troubles between said demon and a woman who catches fire. And when you think they’ve run out of tricks, we get a song.

In short, this is quality. It’s high on imagination and low on anything that would dilute it, even writing out the “viewpoint” character from the last movie (an agreeable but ultimately redundant figure played by Rupert Evans.) There’s very little of it that doesn’t work, and what doesn’t is quickly glossed over in the mix. It may be a while before we see HELLBOY III, as Del Toro is planning an extended visit to Hobbiton in the near future, but I can’t say we’ve been left unsatisfied.

Based on the comic book created by Mike Mignola
Story by Mike Mignola and Guillermo Del Toro
Written for the screen and directed by Guillermo Del Toro

Grade: A-

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Random Movie Report #51: The Man Who Laughs

This is unfortunate. Because this blog’s had a spate of perhaps unusually positive reviews as of late, I suppose you’re all wondering where the vitriol went if there ever was any. Some of it has gone into another project, where it’ll have to wait, but that’s not my decision. And I really didn’t want it to be this movie.

Make no mistake, I am not the sort of person who cannot appreciate silent films. I enjoy a lot of them; the pure visual storytelling and the creative freedom of pre-sound cinema (which took decades to recover) have a unique appeal, and though you have to roll the dice when it comes to whatever the distributor has put on the soundtrack sometimes you get lucky. (Goodtimes Home Video, of all places, put a really evocative score on an old VHS release of THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD which I treasure dearly.) My problems with THE MAN WHO LAUGHS don’t entirely stem from its age, either. It’s a melodrama, of course, so it hasn’t aged that well, but beyond that there’s a narrative clumsiness that works against the film’s visual style and fine performances, and really makes it hard to get absorbed at all. Perhaps audiences of the day expected this sort of thing or were willing to look beyond it to enjoy the spectacle, but THE MAN WHO LAUGHS simply places too many obstacles in front of what should be a compelling story.

Conrad Veidt stars as Gwynplaine, the lost heir of English nobility, his face carved into a perpetual grin by gypsy surgeons under the order of King James II (Sam De Grasse) and his scheming jester Barkilphedro (Brandon Hurst.) He’s raised by a philosopher named Ursus (Cesare Gravina), and travels with him and the blind, beautiful Dea (Mary Philbin), an orphaned blind girl whom our hero brought to Ursus’ door. They follow carnivals and such, Gwynplaine appearing as The Laughing Man, an acclaimed clown. One of the gypsy surgeon people (George Siegmann) who abandoned Gwynplaine in the rush to get out of England before sees him at the carnival, and this information gets into the hands of Barkilphedro again, who this time is working for the Duchess Josiana (Olga Baclanova), who inherited the lands that rightfully belong to Gwynplaine. She happens to see the Man Who Laughs at the carnival and even tries to seduce him, but when word gets back that she’ll have to marry this man to keep her fortune, she breaks down and shuns him. He, meanwhile, is really in love with Dea, but is ashamed of his deformity which she can’t see. Meanwhile, Barkilphedro is planning... something, and complications abound.

The whole film starts promisingly enough, and the basic premise is a good one. But Victor Hugo was writing at a time when the novel was expected to pile on as many complications as the manuscript could contain, and very little seems to have been cut. There is so much going on here, which I would usually class under “good”, but so little of it actually adds anything. The characters remain two-dimensional at best; the Duchess is spoiled and shallow, Dea is sweet and pure, Barkilphedro is Just Plain Evil, etc. The whole virgin/whore thing works against the “don’t judge people by their appearances” moral, at least in the sense that we’re told we don’t have to extend our empathy to those bastards and really only need care about our protagonist and his one true love.

The major problem of all the pageantry and coming and going from court to carnival is simply this: for huge stretches of time the film fails to be about Gwynplaine at all. Now, I understand Conrad Veidt had to apply a pretty painful appliance to keep his face locked in a grotesque toothy grin, and it shows to great effect. Perhaps this limited how much they could actually show him- not to mention, contemporary audiences were easily disturbed by anything freakish, as Tod Browning would discover a few years later. But Gwynplaine is off screen so much that we genuinely run the risk of forgetting about him, and the sense of his loneliness and anxiety, which should be the focus, is diluted by everything else going on.

The first encounter between him and Josiana takes place nearly halfway into the film, and then she disappears until the third act. Particularly maddening, and probably the breaking point for me, is a stretch of film after Gwynplaine is hauled off to jail for some reason. Ursus follows him there, sees a coffin carried out of the prison, and assumes without asking anyone who might know anything that they’ve killed his adopted son. On this assumption he runs distraught back to the carnival, and in some attempt to keep from breaking the news to Dea, he pretends to put on the show with the other clowns impersonating audience members and cheering for Gwynplaine. This is actually a very well-staged scene in some ways, with great acting and some neat camera tricks (including the multiple fade technique popular at the time, superimposing transparent faces on the background as they tell for Gwynplaine), but it’s undermined by the fact that in order for it to happen you have to assume that A) Ursus is prone to leaping to wild conclusions and not bothering to double-check anything and B) Dea is not only blind but possesses the IQ of a pigeon.

Not helping anything is the soundtrack. This is for all intents and purposes a silent picture, but in 1928 those were starting to go out of fashion, and for this and future releases Universal added a sort of psuedo-track including the score, a number of sound effects, some indistinct voices (including many calling for Gwynplaine in the scene mentioned above), and a song. The kind of really slow boring love song that became a SIMPSONS joke, and which I instantly muted. And really, little of the sound works; the carnival sequences become insufferable because the track is full of high pitched bells and yells and other shrill tones that take the whole thing from “potentially good montage” to “DEAR GOD MAKE IT STOP.” The music is nondescript at best and at worst just as shrill as the sound effects- all quavering strings and the occasional hit of brass, it runs wall to wall without ever adding anything. Perhaps my viewing experience would have been improved if I’d muted the sound and put on something I liked better, but this is what Universal wanted us to hear and I can’t give the film a pass for this.

Of course, I’m looking at this logically. Perhaps this is my problem. Most of the praise for this film is for the material that has nothing to do with the plot. To be sure, director Paul Leni knows what he is doing. The film looks great, it’s well-shot and sumptuously produced. Leni was of the Expressionist school and the film was at times criticized for being the most German-looking film ever set in England, but that’s okay. And he’s good with the actors too- Veidt is marvelous, Baclanova is so sultry and compelling I wish the story didn’t hate her character so much, and Philbin doesn’t get much to do but embodies that ancient kind of movie star glamour where just sitting in place and being photographed was enough to astound anyone setting foot inside a cinema. For me, all the moodiness wasn’t quite enough, because the clunky story kept intruding (whereas in similarly story-light and melodramatic silent films like METROPOLIS or CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI the plot knows well enough to step back and let us be dazzled.)

What Leni and writer J. Grubb Alexander ought to have done at an early stage is gone in and taken an axe to the story. Some really merciless hacking and rearranging would possibly result in a compelling narrative focused on the travails of a man made a freak and his search for love and happiness in the world. It would have been just as melodramatic and shameless in its tearjerking- more so, even, because there’d be less in the way. At an hour and fifty minutes the film was easily long enough and some of the complications of the final act are so arbitrary and require not just Dea but Gwynplaine to so completely lack all powers of perception that it’s obvious they’re just trying to drag this out. A good melodrama does not have to do this, or at least if it does, the audience doesn’t notice because the writers have retroactively made these complications natural and intuitive. I actually have to say that in the last fifteen minutes or so the film does actually get going; Gwynplaine gets a nice speech (or the closest you can get to a speech in a silent), suddenly action and swashbuckling breaks out, townsfolk get in a huff, it’s the sort of thing Old Hollywood was really good at. It’s just not enough to redeem the movie.

I was a bit shocked to find out that the acclaim for this film was as unanimous as it is, and again, I see where everyone else is coming from. There’s a lot of skill on display here, from Paul Leni, from the actors, from the cinematographer and editor, etc. Now, of course, when I defend an underrated film I will hold to the premise that I am right and everyone else is Wrong Wrong Wrong because that sort of argument requires conviction. Going after a film everyone likes is harder, I feel like a bastard doing it and in this case, I’m dealing with an old classic and have to wonder if I’m not too modern-minded to get it. But of course, THE MAN WHO LAUGHS doesn’t need my support and if you like silent movies you’ve either seen this already or you’ll want to for reference. (Also, this movie is apparently where they got the idea for Batman’s archnemesis the Joker, so respect for that is due.)

Nonetheless, as far as I can see, this is a bad film. A bad film made by very talented people, mind you, at some expense, but with a storyline that feels free to completely leave its most interesting character out for long stretches of time and lead him by the nose at others. It is the natural inclination of the melodramatic tearjerker to have a number of really important things going on all at once, but this time the point of the picture gets lost in the confusion. Sometimes great acting or great visuals can indeed make up for problems in a film’s story; here, the problems are just too fundamental. I’d love a movie with the same characters, same actors, same director, etc. in a plot that could do them all justice. This isn’t it.

From the novel by Victor Hugo
Adaptation by J. Grubb Alexander
Directed by Paul Leni

Grade: D+

Monday, July 07, 2008

In Theaters: Wall-E

Poster from IMPAwards.comWALL-E is not only possibly the best picture of the year, it’s the best science fiction film in a year and a half at least. It’s getting kind of boring to talk about Pixar delivering yet another great animated epic, but even by their standards they may have created something special here. It’s a film that’s almost as dialogue-thin as 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, that tugs on the heartstrings as much as E.T., and that manages the level of social commentary of just about every science fiction film of the early Seventies, but without the unbearable preachiness. Despite all these comparisons, it’s unique. It’s original, something we don’t see enough of from the major studios, and it even defies some of the conventions that Pixar itself is associated with. Above all, though- look at ‘im! He’s adorable! Aww!

Wall-E (voiced, in a sense, by veteran sound effects creator Ben Burtt) is the last of a group of clean-up robots tasked with squaring away the litter of a terminally polluted Earth. Mankind has long since abandoned the planet, and Wall-E is left alone to crush garbage into cubes and stack it in giant towers. In his isolation he has gone a little eccentric; he preserves objects he finds interesting, makes friends with a cockroach, and listens to showtunes as he works. One day, however, his routine is disrupted by the arrival of an Apple-sleek, vaguely feminine robot named EVE (voiced by Elissa Knight), whose mysterious directive involves zooming around scanning the landscape. A friendship of sorts is kindled, and Wall-E has often longed for someone to hold hands with, but when he shows her a plant he discovered, her directive kicks in. A probe ship takes her and the plant away, Wall-E in tow, heading towards the Axiom, a giant worldship carrying all of humanity. They’ve been waiting for Earth to become habitable again for 700 years- at least that’s the mission statement, but in the meantime the species has become entirely fat and sedentary, whizzing about on floating chairs and cared for by the ship’s computer and countless helper robots who really run the Axiom. Worse, when Eve is brought up to the computer to make her report, the plant has gone missing. Eve and Wall-E get carted off as malfunctioning robots, and an unintended prison break has them chased by robot security guards and still trying to find out the fate of the missing plant.

Critics so far have expressed a preference for the film’s first act, in its wordless simplicity and desolate beauty as Wall-E and EVE form a relationship. To be sure, it works brilliantly in and of itself. But the rest of the film shouldn’t be dismissed as lesser, not by a long shot. The shift of tone when we reach the Axiom is jarring, but we end up in the midst of a sparkly, shiny dystopia dominated by consumerism and inactivity, a surprisingly sharp bit of social criticism for a children’s film. But here’s where it gets interesting; the film is not callous towards humanity, even after it’s trashed its home and locked itself in stasis. During his visit Wall-E manages to knock a few people out of their slumber, and when they wake up and look around, they’re not scared by reality, they embrace it. The people in this film aren’t selfish, and as a matter of fact, I’m not sure any character in the film fits that description. What they are is locked in a pattern, and this holds for the robots as well. It takes a force like Wall-E, a new element, to shake them out of it.

The animation continues to extend Pixar’s high standards, with a number of shots that would work perfectly well for a live action feature. The level of detail is utterly amazing, whether we’re dealing with the junk-encrusted Earth or the sparkling Axiom. Weirdly enough, there’s even some live action in the picture, seen on electronic video screens and billboards.

The film mostly forgoes the familiar tradition of having well-known actors and actresses voice the major parts. Burtt “voices” the main character (and several other robots) through his use of sound effects and voice modulation, and the ship’s autopilot is voiced by Apple’s Macintalk text-to-speech system. Sigourney Weaver, Kathy Najimy, and Pixar vet John Ratzenberger all have parts, but they’re outshone by the nearly wordless protagonists. There’s also the immortal Fred Willard appearing in the live action pieces as the President of the world-dominating Buy-N-Large corporation.

Of course, much of what makes Wall-E work is in the simple appeal of the main character. He’s cute, he’s humble, he’s friendly and curious. He’s attracted to EVE first out of his loneliness, but soon sees the virtue of her “directive” and works to preserve the life of the little plant that holds the key to mankind’s future. I’m not sure he ever fully understands what this is all about, but he knows that it’s EVE’s mission and seems to have a respect for all living things.

WALL-E is an extremely intelligent picture that manages to be very simple and fun at the same time. It’s a film with many layers, but it can be engaged with on the most basic level as the story of a lonely robot in love. It has just the right combination of passion and elegance, sweetness and sophistication. Definitely the picture to beat for overall excellence this year.

Written and Directed by Andrew Stanton

Grade: A