Wednesday, October 28, 2015

A Werewolf Triple Feature

With Halloween right around the corner, I recently had the opportunity to attend a triple feature screening of "Werewolf" movies at the historic Loew's Jersey theater in Jersey City. For any film enthusiast who has not had the pleasure of seeing a movie in this gorgeous 1929 movie palace, you owe it to yourself to check it out if you're ever in the New York City area. Each Halloween, the Loew's puts on a great program of classic horror films (in years past I've seen such favorites as Nosferatu, The Phantom of the Opera, Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein there).

This year's program included a trio of "werewolf" movies that provide a neat evolution of the genre:

Werewolf of London (1935)
Universal's first attempt at creating a "werewolf" franchise as part of its horror cycle, it's clear why this film failed to take off with audiences in the way the studio's earlier efforts had. The single biggest problem is the rather unremarkable performance of stage actor Henry Hull in the title role. Hull lacked the larger-than-life presence and charisma that had made the performances of Lugosi and Karloff instantly iconic. Apparently, Hull objected to makeup man Jack Pierce's proposed makeup design, as he felt it obscured too much of his face, an attitude which exemplifies the problems with Hull's performance here. Additionally, director Stuart Walker was not a visual stylist on the level of Tod Browning or James Whale, and as a result, the film's look is flat and uninspired. Perhaps the best way to describe the film is "forgettable". It's not bad; it just fails to make much of an impact at all.

The Wolfman (1941)
Everything the studio got wrong in Werewolf of London, it got right in The Wolfman, starting with the inspired casting of Lon Chaney Jr. in the title role. He manages to create a great deal of sympathy in his portrayal of a good-natured everyman who becomes tortured by guilt after committing acts of killing that he cannot control. Director George Waggner was a reliable craftsman who made full use of the studio's resources to create the highly evocative atmosphere that the earlier film lacked. Makeup man Jack Pierce was also allowed to use his original makeup design for the Wolfman, which is far more effective than the compromised look he was forced to settle on before. I had forgotten what a really great supporting cast the film has, too, including Claude Rains, Ralph Bellamy, Warren William, Maria Ouspenskaya, and even Bela Lugosi in a brief but memorable appearance, plus the usual array of great character types who populated the world of the Universal horror film. If the Universal horror cycle was beginning to run out of steam by the early '40s, this film proves that the studio was still capable of turning out a really first-rate, genre-defining classic.

An American Werewolf in London (1981)
John Landis remains one of the most critically-neglected American filmmakers of the post-'70s/New Hollywood era. Perhaps that's because he works in highly commercial genres and directs hit crowd-pleasers, such as Animal House and The Blues Brothers, which -- like the work of his contemporary Steven Spielberg -- can be easy to take for granted. But as a filmmaker, he has a distinct and unique sensibility that provides him with the quite rare gift of being able to make a film that spans the genres of comedy and horror without ever compromising either the laughs or the scares (most recently evidenced by his very funny, and grossly underrated, Burke and Hare). An American Werewolf in London is perhaps his best film, filled with self-aware irony and humor while simultaneously creating a modern "werewolf" classic for a new generation.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Martian (2015)

Note: As this is a current release still in theaters, I am issuing a spoiler warning with this review as it deals with key plot points of the story.

I'm not normally a fan of science fiction, and tend to prefer those films in the genre that deal with larger existential questions about our place in the universe or the attraction of exploration and wondering "what's out there?", such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Contact, along with a few others. When I first learned the premise of The Martian -- based on a hit novel by Andy Weir, which I have not yet read -- about a botanist (played by Matt Damon) stranded on Mars and his ingenious efforts to survive until a rescue mission can arrive, I had hoped that the film would follow in the vein of the aforementioned films in tackling the larger existential themes with which the situation would seem to be ripe.

Because of that, I was mildly disappointed with The Martian upon initial viewing, but after giving it more thought, I realized that I was unfair in my reaction, which amounted to expecting the film to be something it is not. What it is is an solid adventure film, expertly directed with characteristic skill and polish by Ridley Scott, whose earlier Alien and Blade Runner remain two of the most highly influential entries in the genre of the past half century. Compared to those two films, The Martian is decidedly lighter fare. There's none of the dark, brooding tone of Blade Runner, or the horror elements of Alien. Indeed, there's little suspense at all for that matter, as there's never any real doubt that the astronaut will make it safely back to Earth.

A large part of the appeal seems to be the sheer likability of Damon's unflappable astronaut, whose reaction to realizing that he has been abandoned on Mars and left for dead by his crewmates is to make sarcastic comments into his computer's video diary log, more like a smarmy YouTube vlogger rather than a man who has just found himself utterly alone on a foreign planet. To be sure, the incessant dialogue lacks poetry and avoids dealing with the existential implications of the situation, but Damon is undeniably likable in the role, and portrays just the kind of hero the script calls for -- an everyman who also happens to possess nearly superhuman resourcefulness and intelligence.

Perhaps more frustrating are the long stretches of screen time spent back on Earth, where the team at NASA is running a race against the clock to bring the astronaut home before he runs out of food. These scenes are all perfectly well-handled, helped by such fine performers as Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, Chiwetel Ejiorfor and Kristen Wiig, but they can't help feeling a little dull compared to the scenes detailing Damon's ingenious methods of survival, which seem rushed and glossed over in comparison.

Similarly, the scenes on board the spaceship, with Damon's loyal crewmates deciding to take matters into their own hands to attempt a risky rescue procedure, are weakened by being a little too pat in their handling of the complexities between the characters' responsibilities to their families and their original mission, and their sense of duty toward a fellow astronaut. Rather than delving deeper into these conflicts, Scott pads the rescue scenes out with the expected eleventh-hour complications and repeated shots of large crowds across the world, gathered in recognizable locations and watching with bated breath as the rescue mission plays out live on TV.

But to harp on these weaknesses is to ignore where the film really succeeds, which is on the strength of its brash, rich images (especially stunning when seen in the 3-D presentation), its vivid evocation of Mars, and above all, in telling a splendid, escapist adventure story about an intrepid individual trapped in a most unusual situation, and the people dedicated to bringing him home safely.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Bridge of Spies (2015)

Spielberg is in top form with this Cold War-era political drama about a Brooklyn attorney (Tom Hanks) who is recruited by the CIA to negotiate the return of an imprisoned Soviet spy (Mark Rylance) in exchange for a captured American pilot. The plot itself is fairly predictable and familiar, which works against the dramatic potential of key scenes, but Spielberg's skillful handling of the material is typically assured, involved, and exceptionally well-paced, even if the writing (by Matt Charman and the Coen brothers) and performances are a bit too mannered at times. There really aren't any surprises here, but it's always worth seeing Spielberg at the top of his game.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

1941 (1979)

A rare comic effort from Steven Spielberg, 1941 is also one of the director's rare misfires. A big, loud spectacle that recalls an earlier generation of comedy epics like It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World and The Great Race, 1941 unevenly combines the broad physical gags of those films with the equally broad satire of wartime paranoia in films such as The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! The premise involves a Japanese sub that surfaces off the coast of California shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, inspiring mass hysteria among the citizens.

The ensemble cast includes such names as Tim Matheson and Nancy Allen as the nominal romantic leads whose amorous escapades in a runaway airplane over Los Angeles precipitate a hysterical reaction from the military and townspeople, John Belushi as crazed fighter pilot Wild Bill Kelso, Dan Aykroyd as no-nonsense Sgt. Frank Tree, Ned Beatty as a meek family man whose backyard is commandeered as the site of anti-aircraft gun, Lorraine Gary as his long-suffering wife, Toshiro Mifune as the Japanese sub commander, Christopher Lee as the German officer, Murray Hamilton and Eddie Deezen as a couple of goofy civilians put on guard duty atop a Ferris wheel, Slim Pickens as the unsuspecting hick who discovers the Japanese sub, and in one of the film's most inspired bits of casting, Robert Stack as Major General Stilwell, who would rather take care of more important business like watching Disney's Dumbo than deal with distractions such as the pending invasion of Los Angeles and riots in the streets. As with his performance in the following year's Airplane!, Stack's stoical, straight man characterization is the perfect complement to the zany goings-on around him.

Unfortunately, none of the performers are ever really on-screen long enough, or given enough to do individually, to make much of an impression. Because of the structure of the script -- by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale (who also wrote the story along with John Milius) -- the zany situations piled on top of one another don't add up to much of anything, since the escalating comic chaos is never given much of a chance to build naturally. Instead, it's one forced, manic set-piece after another, with gratuitous slapstick violence that eventually just begins to drag the pace down and feel repetitive. The plane chase scenes through LA are undoubtedly impressively-staged, and are a remarkable achievement for their scale and execution. But as comedy, it quickly begins to feel like overkill.

Spielberg's direction feels unsure and even uncomfortable working with the broad comedy material, which was certainly never his forte in any case. It's difficult to pinpoint just where his direction goes wrong here, but perhaps it is simply too heavy-handed, which works against the lightning-paced cartoon antics called for by the script and even dilutes the effectiveness of the satire due to the total lack of subtlety. John Landis, or the team of Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker, would have been ideal choices for this material, since they could have perhaps reigned in some of the more extravagant excesses that tend to swamp the comedy (even the non-stop parade of sight gags in Airplane! are handled in such a way that the viewer is rewarded for paying attention to the kinds of small jokes which are virtually non-existent here).

As one of our greatest filmmakers, even a lesser Spielberg effort like 1941 is still of interest, if only for an example of the director working outside his comfort zone, exploring new material and trying something different. Even if the result is ultimately a failure, it is an interesting failure.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Sabotage (1936)

Sabotage was the first of Hitchcock's British films that I had the opportunity to see, though it was not a film that I especially sought out for itself. Instead, I came across it rather by chance. In the days of VHS, the local Best Buy had a shelf consisting of nothing but the "Hollywood Classics" tapes from Madacy home video. Madacy was notorious as perhaps the worst of the bargain-basement video dealers at that time, with cassettes mastered from sub-par elements in the low-quality EP speed. Their selection of public domain titles littered the shelves at numerous video stores I frequented.

Still, as a budding cinephile on a tight budget, their affordable price tag (about $5 a pop, if I recall) made them an attractive option, especially for films that were not out in any other edition, and I'd frequently check out their selection on trips to Best Buy. Scouring the shelf on one such trip, I came across Sabotage, which caught my attention because it was a Hitchcock film, and I was making it a point to see all the Hitchcock films I could find in order to check them off my list. I knew little about Sabotage, other than that it was one of his early, British films, a period of his career with which I was woefully inexperienced. Watching the film in that low-quality, blurry tape, I was nonetheless gripped by the suspenseful plot, and impressed by the imaginative techniques (especially in the editing) that appealed to me as an aspiring filmmaker.

Later, as I read more critical appreciations of Hitchcock's body of work, I was surprised to learn that Sabotage had its detractors, including Hitchcock himself, who had misgivings about his decision to include what would become the film's most memorable and suspenseful scene, involving a young boy who unknowingly carries a bomb onto a London bus and is blown to bits. That particular scene is indeed deeply disturbing, all the more so as it is followed immediately by a shot of other characters laughing at something unrelated, which still cannot help but leave a sour taste, as if the whole incident is being treated as a sick joke (Hitchcock used a similar device to greater effect in The 39 Steps). But it is also so expertly handled, such a tour-de-force of editing and structure, that I couldn't help but marvel at the sheer brilliance of its execution. I studied Hitchcock's shot selection and editing, watching the scene multiple times.

It is certainly one of Hitchcock's darkest films, both in terms of its subject matter but also in terms of its shadowy, claustrophobic atmosphere, and a sense of despair hangs over the characters, who seem trapped in a humdrum existence that borders on the oppressive. Mrs. Verloc's marriage to the much older, emotionally distant Mr. Verloc (Oscar Homolka) isn't exactly an unhappy one, though it's certainly not conventionally happy, either. It seems to be more a case of mutual dependence. Mrs. Verloc also takes care of her awkward, gangly adolescent brother (Desmond Tester), with whom she moved from America to England some years before, ostensibly to look for better employment opportunities, but hinting at something more complicated.

As the film opens, London is in the midst of a blackout, the result of an act of sabotage perpetrated by Mr. Verloc. It is unclear whether Mrs. Verloc is genuinely oblivious to her husband's involvement in the blackout, or whether she might be in denial about it, but in any case, Mr. Verloc the attention of a Scotland Yard detective (John Loder), who uses Mrs. Verloc as a conduit to investigate her husband's activities. In the end, Mrs. Verloc loses her brother, and is betrayed, or at least deceived, by both her husband and by the young detective (though the latter does stand by her and protect her in the film's final moments).

While it is an uncharacteristically grim film from Hitchcock, the mood never feels artificially imposed, and it makes for an interesting contrast with the director's usual approach. There is only one scene that employs Hitchcock's playfully morbid sense of humor: after learning of her brother's demise, Mrs. Verloc, in a state of shock, wanders into the cinema, where a Disney cartoon ("Who Killed Cock Robin?") is playing on the screen, and whose plot offers an ironic commentary on the events of the film. Hitchcock excels in his juxtaposition of the familiar with the sinister.

Friday, October 02, 2015

The Night Has Eyes (1942)

Sometimes you can stumble upon a movie in the most unlikely of circumstances. I came across this one for the first time about 20 years ago, when I found a VHS copy from Goodtimes Home Video at a tent sale in a shopping mall parking lot in Pennsylvania. It sounded interesting enough from the description on the box cover copy, but I decided not to buy it (probably due to a lack of allowance money -- I was only 12 or 13!) and came away empty handed.

The description of the film stuck in my mind, and over the years I would try to find a copy, but to no avail. Recently, however, thanks to the magic of the Internet, I finally had the opportunity to see it for the first time, and was pleasantly surprised by what a really entertaining, tightly-constructed little thriller it is. The premise involves a couple of young schoolteachers on vacation in the Yorkshire Moors, where one of their colleagues had recently disappeared under mysterious circumstances. When they become stranded on the moor on a dark and stormy night, the women seek shelter in an old house belonging to a brilliant but troubled pianist (James Mason), with whom one of the women falls instantly, madly in love. But when it becomes apparent that Mason is harboring dark secrets from his past, and is given to violent episodes, the two women begin to fear that they are in danger, especially when they learn that their colleague had also been staying in the house at the time of her disappearance.

Directed by Leslie Arliss, from a script by Arliss and John Argyle adapted from a novel by Alan Kennington, with Gunther Krampf's stylish, high-contrast cinematography giving it just the right look, and a colorful supporting cast including Joyce Howard, Tucker McGuire, Mary Clare, Wilfrid Lawson and John Fernald, this is a superb wartime British thriller, oozing mystery and atmosphere, and perfect viewing for a cold, gray, rainy night.