Lawrence Of Arabia (1962), or The Meaning Of Epic

29 12 2009

Hello, all! Another day in this final week, another classic! Some movies are simply part of the vernacular of cinema. They are vibrant, wonderful, and universal in their emotional appeal. They cannot be questioned in their quality, their sterling vision, or their importance to cinema. Such films do not come around very often, but their effect is timeless on the human spirit, and it is really something special to sit down, putting away the modern accouterments and distractions, and just watch one. Lawrence of Arabia is one such movie, an epic that rivals its spiritual predecessor, The Bridge on the River Kwai, of which I did a REVIEW (link here!), in scope and grandeur. It is certainly one of the first films that pop into mind when one thinks of a historical epic, and its legend is only exceeded by the movie itself. I mean in when I say that everything you’ve ever read about this film is true.

Based loosely on the book “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom”, it concerns the real-life exploits of T.E. Lawrence, the British officer who served as a liaison during the Arab revolt during World War I. From his humble beginnings as a misfit Lieutenant during the conflict, we are introduced to a man with few aspirations in the military, but a very deep interest in the nomadic Arabs, known as the Bedouin. He is sent on an assignment to assess the likelihood of an Arab overthrow of the Turkish forces led by a man named Prince Faisal. Lawrence finds in Faisal’s camp to be just what he needed. He decides that the Arabs indeed have a chance against the Turks, and, more than that, he has a plan to help them succeed. He wants to help the Arabs wage war personally; it is a controversial move, one that will not go without repercussions, but Lawrence was anything if not controversial, and his destiny in the conflict will be decided by him and him alone. Outside influences from the British Army try worming their way into his ear, attempting to shove him this way and that way. But Lawrence clearly shows that he is his own man, and the conflict between the Turks and the Arabs may just be decided by the efforts of a white man who has fallen in love with the desert.

David Lean does it again!!! Lawrence of Arabia, based on the real life account of larger-than-life British soldier T.E. Lawrence, is one of the greatest British movies I have ever seen. Lean proposes the most spectacular visions as a director, his camera working like a sweeping mural of a bygone age to bring this historical drama to life. He and constant 60s cinematographer Freddie Young make an Egypt that is as regal and as proud as Mankiewicz’s Rome in the following year’s Cleopatra. The sets are lavish and awesome and the natural beauty of the desert is brought to life with plenty of long, loving shots into the unknowable distance. The visual strength of the haunting desert landscape is put to good use by Lean, who takes the time to show us that even in the midst of modernization, man is no match for the harsh mistress that is the endless sand. The movie’s visually a jaw-dropper, and it is most likely Lean’s finest-shot picture.

The story can’t be sold short for all of its majesty. It begins as merely a story about a military maverick who thinks a little differently than everybody else around him. But T.E. Lawrence was more than that as a person, and so I’m glad Lean decided to tell the more personal story of a man who was torn between his orders and a cause that he thought was genuinely worth fighting for. It’s wondrous to watch his transformation from unassuming British soldier to guerrilla warrior to full-fledged Bedouin leader in the span of 223 minutes. Most people feel that is an inordinate time to spend watching a movie, but if any film can make you feel that nearly 4 hours is not a lot of time, it is this film, I assure you. It breezes by like the wind upon the tip of a curved Arabian scimitar. Good imagery, I know…

Shall I just go ahead and say that Peter O’Toole is the man? Okay, I’ll say it; Peter O’Toole is the fucking man here! T.E. Lawrence could only have been played by an actor who was similarly larger-than-life, and O’Toole was just that. He makes the character veritably vibrate with the vitality of the age. It is a performance that will live in history books as long as they exist. But Lawrence was not an easy man to be; he is attacked, brutalized, beaten senseless by the sun, and, in one particular scene, possibly raped (!!!). There will never be a remake of Lawrence of Arabia, or any re-imagining that could compare to this version, because the blood, sweat, and toil O’Toole invests here is irreplaceable but instantly recognizable to anyone who watches it, and anybody who tries to take up this mantle in the future will look a little foolish trying to fill such large robes. Other actors impress, as well. Alec Guinness again supports David Lean’s wildly British vision as Prince Faisal, a most interesting character indeed. He is the man who entices Lawrence into this battle at the beginning of the film, and it is his character that really influences Lawrence the most. Guinness steals the show once or twice for himself, as is his wont, and gives some great lines that are still insightful and relevant today, like:

Prince Faisal: Young men make wars, and the virtues of war are the virtues of young men: courage, and hope for the future. Then old men make the peace, and the vices of peace are the vices of old men: mistrust and caution.

Anthony Quinn is Auda abu Tayi, a ruthless Arab leader whose support become very valuable to Lawrence, and he is a great character. Quinn plays an Arab man rather stiffly, and according to some of the prevailing stereotypes of the day, but it’s not as bad as it could have been, all things considered, and I actually rather enjoyed it at times, mainly because of his rather impressive physical transformation. Omar Sharif plays an excellent supporting role as Sherif Ali, one of the men assigned to Lawrence by Faisal. He is excellent, and added some genuine spice to the mix with his smooth, leading-man presence. Jose Ferrer makes a small appearance as a Turk here, but while his role is small, it is at a terribly crucial scene, and when you see him, you’ll realize that they could not have had anyone else play the part. Great casting all around.

Like the gravitas the amazing Maurice Jarre score suggests, Lawrence of Arabia is a film that will live forever. But it will only breathe deeply if more people take the time to see it. It is a real gem, a classic by which other classics are judged. There is not another film like it, not that I have seen, and it is simply a unique, risky epic that would rather focus on quality than on any preconceived notions of structure or character development.  I have nary met another person in my life who has seen it as well, and I doubt I will meet anyone anytime soon who treasures it like I do. But, perhaps, if you take my advice and check it out, you’ll see what I mean when I speak of its undeniable quality and will not be reticent to give it a full recommendation of your own! I give Lawrence of Arabia 10 Pillars of Wisdom out of 10! My highest recommendation!!!

Tomorrow I discuss what is most likely the greatest film of all time. I think we’re all aware of what I’m talking about. That’s right; you, me, Citizen Kane, tomorrow!

8 1/2 (1963), or The Sordid Life Of The Artist

28 12 2009

Ah, the dulcimer tones of fine Italian cinema! They call to me like a pizza made out of encouragement and long, life-affirming hugs. Today we cull our film from the timeless works of Federico Fellini, the director of La Dolce Vita and Satyricon. This, his most personal and revealing film, is one of the greatest European films of the 1960s. It has a hypnotic, dream-like power that is truly a joy to bask in. And a big part of what makes this film so special is the semi-biographical perspective the film takes. It is a comical, poignant, subversive, and slightly surreal take on Fellini’s life at the time by Fellini himself. It is extremely powerful in its intimacy, and it speaks to us from beyond the gulf of time with a voice that is almost instantly relatable with its portrait of the artist as people as vulnerable as you or I.

The plot is simple. We follow the exploits of famous director Federi- I mean, Guido Anselmi, and his tribulations with finishing his latest film. He’s having creative difficulties, mostly caused by everyone nagging on him all of the time about it. He’s famous and revered, and he’s expected to create something really amazing, but all the pressure is getting to him. It grows ever worse as personal problems at home involving his wife and his various infidelities. Everyone wants a piece of him, everyone wants to talk to him, and he can’t get away from it. He checks himself into a spa, thinking that will alleviate some of the stress, but it soon becomes apparent that he cannot find solace. He begins to retreat into fantasy, waking memories, falling into the nostalgia of his colorful past. Can Guido make the movie come together after all, or is he doomed artistically in this endeavor, enslaved by his own haunting memories and the debasing lack of control in his life?

It is so strange how shared experiences affect us. 8 1/2 speaks to anyone who has been put under pressure to create something, or put through a ringer of high expectations over anything. Guido is the poster child for the overly encumbered, the man living up to unrealistic expectation, and I think anyone can understand that desire to be left to one’s devices. But 8 1/2 speaks at times specifically to the artist, the ones disenchanted with their craft after experiencing some sort of block, who allow the world to eke into the sacred personal world of their art. And yet, simultaneously, 8 1/2 is completely about Fellini, and there is no message to be bequeathed, only a recollection of who Fellini is and his own trials and travails as an auteur. So through his experiences we can project a similarity between us and him, this was an intensely unique scenario that he lived and shared with us. In a way, Fellini makes us discover the meaning of art and storytelling through the dichotomy of 8 1/2.

Fellini creates something edgy, surreal, and hilarious in this virtual cinematic memoir. 8 1/2 takes us into the mind of a man who is cowed in the face of the women he has loved, and so we can look at it as a sort of conquering of the male through his passion. Guido, as a character, is both inspired and driven to distress by all the women in his life; his wife, Luisa, who he loves but has trouble approaching due to her demeanor, his mistress Carla, who is the exact opposite of Luisa, for better or for worse, and the beautiful and enigmatic Claudia, an actress working closely with Guido who he feels is the only one who can pull him through this strange block of his. As he drifts into fantasies, he even recalls other women in his life, in particular an older lady in his youth that first awakened his feelings of sexuality. But it is not an indictment of women in any way, as that does not seem to be Guido’s or Fellini’s intention; it is a celebration of women, how they confound, exasperate, inspire, and terrify the adult and the confused young boy in us all.

The acting is the best you’re likely to see in the Mediterranean during the early 60s (until Godard filmed a movie there, that is…) Marcello Mastroianni, Fellini’s male muse for the second time, blows me away as Guido. At the time, he was seen as a sex symbol, much like the Hugh Jackman of his day, but truly Mastroianni proves here that he’s more than just a pretty face. He plays the struggling artist like it really means something to him, a thing so rare in acting nowadays. He is Guido in the same way that Guido is Fellini; it seems to flow from a very natural place. Even the surreal bath scenes in Guido’s fantasy is very subdued compared to the zaniness that Fellini could have pulled out of him, which is telling of something just below the surface of this awesome performance. The women in Guido’s life are also amazing. Anouk Aimee plays Luisa, the wife, with a glare and a bitter glance that puts an icy chill in my spine. She is very disappointed in Guido for reasons that are both very apparent but never implicitly stated. I like her a lot, especially in the scenes that Guido fantasizes about her, where we see her range. There’s a lot more to take in about this character than we see at first, so pay close attention to her and understand her, she will become much more vivid to you afterwards. Claudia Cardinale plays a movie star named Claudia (NO!) that is Guido’s ideal woman. She really epitomizes the heart of this movie, which exists somewhere between the consternation of Guido and the myriad souls of his muses. I liked her character the best, as she seemed so sweetly earnest, even in the face of Guido’s lecherous behavior.

8 1/2 is a sumptuous feast for the eyes, the ears, and the heart. It is the tale of the artist in distress, the tragedy of failed creativity that anyone can relate to, despite its intensely unique perspective. The fine acting, the astounding script, and the immaculate direction by Fellini himself are simply words to the same lovely song that combine to make something that is more than the sum of its parts. 8 1/2 now resides in the very language of Italian cinema, from the cinematography to the sheer attitude, and it’s not there without good reason. If you go and see this fiercely independent vision of surreal heartache and comedy, you will understand by the end of it all. I give 8 1/2 10 Claudias playing Claudia out of 10! My highest recommendation!

Tomorrow I take in Lawrence of Arabia! Until then!!!!!!!

Jason And The Argonauts (1963), or OH NO! SKELETONS!

3 12 2009

Ah, the rip-roaring adventure of a 60s sword-and-sandal flick! The fit, bronzed men! The supple, vibrant women! The fondly remembered cheesy special effects! This was a time when men were men and broads were broads! When only the lead actor was shouldered with the burden of having to work out! When the budget was blown on parties and drugs rather than the actual finished product! And when the mythical backdrops weren’t constructed with zeroes and ones, but clay and iron and sweat and toil! Jason and the Argonauts was from a time unfamiliar to many people today, and it wasn’t exactly the best time to make fantasy pictures, with the lack of budget that went into special effects back then, but it’s a good feature with only a few problems here and there that will be remembered primarily as stop-motion guru Ray Harryhausen’s special effects masterpiece, although that’s hardly a bad thing…

It starts with a throne in dispute in ancient times. The ruler of Thessaly, King Aristo, has been murdered by scheming conniver Pelias. He is unchallenged in his role, but there is a prophecy that arises saying one of Aristo’s children wearing only one sandal will rise up and end Pelias’s reign. In a fit of paranoia, he kills a daughter of Aristo who had gained the blessing and protection of Hera. This crass murder makes him an enemy of Hera. Years pass, and Aristo’s remaining son Jason has become a man. Serendipitously, he makes a chance encounter with Pelias one day and saves his life, losing a sandal by doing so. Pelias, although at first grateful, sees who this man is, and comes up with a plan to rid himself of the son of Aristo. He encourages him to go on a dangerous quest to rally the people of Thessaly by obtaining the legendary Golden Fleece. Jason obliges, not thinking that Pelias only wants him dead, and sets off to gain the artifact. A group of able men from all over Greece coincide to join Jason, and he picks the ablest of men to go with him on his journey, including Hercules and the son of Pelias, who has been secretly ordered to sabotage the voyage. They dub themselves the Argonauts, after the boat they ride in, the Argos, and they set off to find the Fleece at the risk of great peril. They encounter a number of challenges along the way, including giant walking statues, harpies, reanimated skeletons, perilously low supplies, and meddling gods and goddesses who seem intent on interfering in the ways of men.

Director Don Chaffey set out to make a B-movie for a double feature, but ended up making something grade-A along the way. This was a blast! Why can’t there be more quest movies out there? It’s so simple; just make a movie where a group of people have some sort of goal they’re accomplishing throughout the entire movie and keep us enthralled while they encounter obstacles on the way to said goal. That’s it. Just take us from exotic locale to exotic locale in search of the Platinum Arm Brace or the Obsidian Turtleneck or the Einsteinium Body Wash or whatever. Just make it exciting. Action movies forgot how to be fun along the way to the future, and now they’re boring mottled brown and gun-metal gray super-serious extravaganzas of nothing. Jason and the Argonauts has a definite point, but it’s the snags they hit along the way that are important, and they make for a more rounded, interesting adventure that helps bring the characters closer together as friends instead of just fellow adventurers, which is what you instinctively want in a quest flick.

The acting is tepid. I won’t lie. It’s really kind of stoic and stilted in that heroic 60s trend of machismo. Todd Armstrong is the titular Jason, the picture of 60s manliness and heroism. Unfortunately, he’s rather bland. He’s like instant potatoes without gravy; it’s like I’m watching him read from a majestic and ancient cue card. There are moments when he’s animated, when he springs into action, like the legendary skeleton sequence after battling the Hydra, and those are fun, but other than that he’s about as human as the skeletons themselves. Nancy Kovak plays the love interest Medea, priestess of Hecate. She has that wan strength to her that many 60s female co-stars had; she is fiery and willful when she talks, but they never really allow her to actually do anything. That’s man’s work! The director might as well be saying, “And while you’re at it Nancy, until your part comes up, why don’t you grab me and the crew some god-damn dinner! I’m starving over here!” I like her character, but as an actress, she is good, but not great here.

The real star is Harryhausen, the man behind many of the famous creature effects of the 50s and 60s. This is what he observes to be his masterstroke, and I can believe it. Every creature is just amazing. The giant statue of Talos, the skeletons, the Hydra, the Harpies, all the fantastic stuff that exists in the ancient mythological world is created by Harryhausen. These creatures are beautiful, painstaking creations, that, while not exactly realistic, are artistic expressions of wonder and fantasy that Harryhausen concocted to drive the imagination of the viewer. And it really, really works; my mind was in overdrive, thinking of how cool it would be to live in a time of adventure. My favorite effect? Triton, son of Poseidon, rising from the sea, holding the rock slide long enough for the Argos to pass through on a particularly hairy trip to the Clashing Rocks.

Jason and the Argonauts has character, something you don’t see often enough in modern adventure. It’s amazing what it can accomplish, unlike the matter-of-fact attitude today’s features seems to enjoy. And while the acting is a bit on the poor side, and the budget for anything besides Harryhausen looks a bit uneven (they have loads of extras, but the props look like shit), it’s still an engaging action-adventure that’s fun for the whole family. Watch this one with friends and family; you’ll gleam a lot out of the detailed special effects with more people around to point them out. I give Jason and the Argonauts 7 1/2 Obsidian Turtlenecks out of 10. Hooray!

Tomorrow’s review is a surprise! I’ll make it wonderful! I hope! Until then!

Samurai Rebellion (1967), or Fealty And Bravery

29 11 2009

Toshiro Mifune stars in another samurai movie I love! What are the odds? He’s batting 1000!
Let’s get down to brass tacks. Set, of course, in the Edo period, we follow Isaburo Sasahara, a vassal for a great and powerful clan, the Aisu. He is a powerful man with nary an equal to be found in all the land. One day, however, forces beyond his control pressure him into a corner. His daimyo orders Isaburo’s elder son Yogoro to marry one of his ex-concubines, Ichi. The two fall in love, wed, and have a child together named Tomi. Remarkably, an arranged marriage that works out! But that doesn’t really interest the daimyo, whose eldest heir unexpectedly passes, and orders her back to the palace to take care of the son and heir that they had together before Togoro. The family steadfastly refuses, considering Ichi one of their own now. The daimyo is not pleased, and demands Isaburo and Togoro commit seppuku for not following his orders. Isaburo has another idea; he tells him that he’ll gladly do it as soon as the heads of the daimyo and his top advisors arrive at his home. With the battle lines drawn, it seems that an all-out battle between the samurai clan and Isaburo is inevitable. Can a lone swordsman, even a great one, stand up against a legion of samurai by himself in the name of honor and family?

Masaki Kobayashi directs this tale of familial bonds, fealty, and wide-eyed samurais. It’s an entertaining look into well-worn territory that definitely has its place in the myriad of Edo period dramas that exist. The thing I like about Kobayashi’s endeavor is that his eye is drawn like wild fire to the frames that are the most tense, so whenever something goes down between Isaburo and his foolish daimyo, the camera leaps as ferociously as a jungle cat to get to it. It’s an effect that predominantly started in Italy, but spread quickly to the Eastern world, and it became the staple of martial arts and Edo period pieces for the next decade to bust into a confrontation like a rabid district attorney. It’s a fun style that heightens the urgency of the situation by leaps and bounds. I certainly felt the dire nature of Isaburo’s plight when the music sting erupted and the camera snapped forward.

The legendary Toshiro Mifune again treats us to a performance that is nuanced and moving as Isaburo, the swordsman without equal. Ever notice that he NEVER has an equal in these Edo period pieces? What if all the Mifune characters met each other one day from all the various movies of the 50s, 60s, and 70s? Who would win? Or would Japan just explode from all the mighty blows put forth? Either way, even though he acts with an honor that is deeply connected to his family, you can still tell that it shames him to have to raise arms against his daimyo. Just one of the many reasons why Toshiro Mifune is one of the greatest actors to have ever lived. The other real standout here for me is actually Yoko Tsukasa, who plays the wife, Ichi. Her story is tragic and painful, and it all comes out in Tsukasa’s beautiful, poignant eyes. She looks to be a woman truly in love when she’s with Togoro, played by a young and charismatic Takeshi Kato, and I felt the closest to her and her plight. She is really in the middle of these two great powers, and all she wants to do is love her man and her children, a request that is apparently too great to ask as she is forced into this lose-lose situation.

Samurai Rebellion is a movie for the samurai movie guy or gal. If you’ve seen the mandatory classics, and are looking for something to put you deeper in the genre, you can’t go wrong with this one. It has the same fell, with more subtleties and fresher faces than the stand-bys. It’s probably not something most people could rush into without having a feel for the Edo period dramas or never having seen one before, because its dynamic is such that it doesn’t cater to newbie interlopers, but if you like Japanese cinema from the 60s and are looking for some fresh material, this is something that you can’t afford to miss. I give Samurai Rebellion 8 1/2 despotic daimyos out of 10. A high recommendation!

Tomorrow I take care of a request from Goregirl with TOKYO! Until then!

Carnival Of Souls (1962), or The Man Of My Dreams

27 10 2009

Carnival of Souls might just be the best thing to come out of an attempt to make a B-movie I’ve ever seen. Shot for a paltry $33,000, this is a very intense, mood-heavy horror that I found to be both mesmerizing and evocative. Compared to most of the films I’ve seen to cost that much from the 60s, I could name maybe zero that were worth 85-90 minutes of your time. This one, though, is a boon to the low-budget American feature, a mind-bender with a palpable terror in it, and just a damn fine feature. If you haven’t seen it, I don’t blame you, but now’s a good time to check it out and scare the tar out of some of your friends.

It all begins on a bridge, similar to the short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”. Three young girls decide to fool around and drag race on a bridge with three young, cute boys. The boys accidentally bump the girls and they plummet off the bridge, presumably to their deaths. But it’s not all cut-and-dry, because one of the girls, an organist named Mary, somehow survives. She emerges from the river, shaken but apparently alive, and tries to get on with her life after the terrible tragedy that befell her. Something’s different, though, after the crash. She can’t shake this horrible vision of a gaunt, pale-faced man staring at her, beckoning to her. She sees him in mirrors, in public places, in the privacy of her apartment. Even when she moves to Salt Lake City to fill a position for a church organist, she sees him silently staring at her, calling to him. And it becomes more than just the Man, as more and more ghoulish figures arise from the ether to torment her while she struggles with the burden of this life without life, this ghastly, lonely existence, where her only tie to reality is an abandoned pavilion that calls to her betwixt the great gulf of reality and the disturbing world of the Man. What does the Man want from her? Where did he come from? Will she ever be able to rid herself of him?

Better evidence that the simple ideas can be the most effective has rarely been found. I went into Carnival of Souls not knowing what to expect, and I came out genuinely unnerved. It’s not a film to be taken lightly, and even fans of modern horror films with the BOO! scares and the loud music can respect its power. It has an ability to frighten that lies in its unknowable, mysterious nature. We don’t know the reason the Man desires for Mary, where he comes from, or why he is tied to the abandoned pavilion, but we  feel that he’s a malevolent spirit that won’t rest until she’s in his grasp. It’s his relentlessness that gets me. Poor Mary is in shambles by the end of this film, because the Man is always popping out at her when she feels she’s safe.

Director Herk Harvey is an innovator, a man truly before his time when it came to making horror. He has such a knack for finding the most visceral shots, the most tingle-inducing scenery, and the most haunting music. It’s very, very impressive for the budget. He also had a knack for make-up, because here he actually plays as the mysterious Man who desperately wants the company of our heroine Mary. And does anyone recognize the name of Herk Harvey from anywhere besides this? Well, if you ever had to watch educational shorts, or if you just like watching those old, antiquated pieces of shit, you’ll remember him as the director of a vast amount of Centron Productions! That’s right, if you were ever instructed on school spirit, choosing industrial arts in high school, peer pressure, or good hygiene by a shaky, disembodied voice, it was probably a film made by Herk Harvey! This was his ONLY feature film, and it leaves me to wonder what might have been if he had continued to make more features throughout his life.

Candace Hilligoss is Mary, our tragic hero. She must face all this terror alone, inside a veneer of stability and control for the outside world. I saw a lot of potential with her as a leading woman here. She’s brave but not afraid to show her vulnerabilities to the camera. When she’s playing the organ, her dainty feet gingerly touching the pedals as the pours her heart into the song with her fingers, I saw a lot of character in that; it’s the only escape she has from the Man and his Carnival of Souls. And when that too is tainted by the otherworldly power of the Man, I felt a genuine tug on my heart strings. She’s a very well-rounded actress, and it’s a god-damn shame she’s not in more films.

So a very frightening film that’s not for laughs (even though Mike Nelson, on a commentary track for the DVD, mocked it soundly). Carnival of Souls is a movie about the unknown. Herk Harvey pulls and twists on the imaginations of the audience with his inexplicable imagery for 85 minutes, and even when the ending is finally revealed to you, you won’t easily forget the eerie build-up to it. I highly recommend Carnival of Souls for any serious horror movie-watching marathon! I give it 9 Centron Productions out of 10! A high recommendation!

Tomorrow we’ll be taking a gander at The Devils! Until then!

Black Sunday (1960), or Moldavian Fiend

19 10 2009

All right! It’s almost time for Halloween, one of my favorite holidays, and one of the only ones I approve of ideologically. To get you guys all in the mood for the spooky festivities, I’m going to try some horror movies out so you don’t have to!!! From here until October 31st, I’m going to be busting out the scary flicks for your enjoyment, and tonight we’ll be beginning with a classic. Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Eric, I don’t wanna watch some old black and white movie from the 60s! They didn’t even know what scary WAS back then! Grumble grumble grumble…” Well, Mr. Grumps, let me preface by saying that not only is old horror not lame and un-scary, but it can be just as potent as today’s Boo!-addled torture porn or grisly chop-em-ups. Black Sunday may not jump out at you and just scare the fluids out of you, but if you let it, it will get inside of your head and your heart for a long time after you put it away.

So we’re in Moldavia. If you’re not sure where that used to be, parts of it are now Romania, the Ukraine, and the Republic of Moldova. So it’s 1630, and there’s a sexpot of a witch roaming around the area named Asa Vajda. She has a lover named Javuto, and they have a small-time reign of terror going on in Eastern Europe until Asa’s own brother (a ruler!) puts a stop to it. He executes both o them gruesomely for their crimes against his domain and also against the will of God. But before her brother kills her, she vows vengeance against his future descendants, making it clear that they will be cursed. Oops! So, after that horrible debacle, 200 years pass, and a couple of fellows, a Dr. Kruvajan and his assistant Dr. Gorobec, are on their way to a medical conference in Moldavia when CRACK! One of the wheels on their carriage breaks, so they’re temporarily detained. While they’re waiting by the road, they spy the ancient crypt in which Asa was executed. They discover her corpse inside behind a glass panel, which Dr. Kruvajan breaks at the expense of cutting himself. They leave, a little freaked out, but end up meeting a beautiful young girl named Katia, who lives in a castle not too far away, and can give them room and board for the night. The two accept, not knowing what lay in store for them. The nearby villagers have legends about the castle, saying it is haunted and cursed. And perhaps it wasn’t before, but it certainly is now that Dr. Kruvajan has revived Asa from the blood dropped from his cut! Dunh-Dunh-Dunh!!!And her first order of business is to seek her revenge on the residents of the castle Dr. Kruvajan will be staying in for the night! Oh no!

This is the debut of Mario Bava as a director (credited), and this is quite a way to start things off. Black Sunday has that eerie presence that most movies only dreamed they had. It’s a dark European nightmare filled with intense imagery, a romantic, powerful 60s score, and one of the most intriguing horror plots I’ve seen in some time. You know what really gets me? The witch aspect. You almost NEVER see witches in movies; out of all the stereotypical Halloween staples, witches come dead last. Perhaps it’s the blatant sexism in the media, or perhaps it’s the fact that witchcraft as a concept is so wishy-washy that nobody wants to mess with it too much, but the witch movies are few and far between. They even did me one better here, though, and made a movie about a voluptuous, undead witch that takes place in the most mysterious locales in Europe, Moldavia. Nice.

Bava had an eye for surreal, haunting, lyrical images, and this is the beginning of a career that would be defined by the beauty of his horror as much as its ability to frighten. The opening frames, showing Asa’s terrifying execution, are not only visceral, but have a grace to them that reminds me of modern-day Tarsem in their elegance. It also helps that Barbara Steele, who plays both Asa and Katia, is a total buxom beauty. Her presence is pretty palpable here, and I feel like she was made for horror, with her dark features and her temperament shifting like the sands. Especially what I like to call the “Steele-y Eye” she gives when she’s ready for blood; it’s quite intense.

Oh, and my favorite effect; near the beginning, when the blood revives Asa, and you see her face rejuvenate after centuries of grotesque and painful death. The eyes reform, the skin appears hydrated and renewed, and her hair, uh, re-coifs. It’s highly imaginative, and it’s very evocative of my idea of a witch.

This is Bava at the beginning of his career, and he would go on to make many more films in the genre, but never would he recreate the magic and the mystery that lie in Black Sunday. It’s something in the eyes of the villain, Asa, that creates a nameless sense of dread in the viewer. Dark, romantic, horrifying, it’s a great start to this Halloween horror-movie-watching thing I’m doing, and I think you’ll like it, even though it’s not here to punish your heart with loud musical stings and splatter spooks. I give Black Sunday 8 1/2 re-coifs out of 10!

Tomorrow we continue our sojourn into the dark and the terrifying with The Brood! Until then!

Alphaville (1965), or The Most And Least Sci-Fi

7 08 2009

Anybody who’s followed this site knows of my distinct love for one particular French director. Jean-Luc Godard knows how to move me. It feels like every movie he ever made was made just for me. There’s something so personal about the journey of an auteur, and Godard is an auteur whose personal journey and unique vision are really close to my heart. As an artist, he evokes feelings with unusual dialog and images, much like a poet would with unusual beats and vocabulary. He also evokes feelings by dissecting different genres of film and turning them on their head to show us what makes them tick and why they affect us. Today’s feature is Godard’s crack at science fiction, and it might be the most experimental sci-fi film I’ve ever seen. There are no fancy sets, no big budgets, not even many indications that it is a sci-fi film. But that’s the whole point, really; to see just how far a film can go beyond the norm, to push the boundaries and explore the genre a little. And, after all, isn’t exploration one of the most powerful themes of science fiction?

Sometime in the future (or the present; it’s hard to tell with the strange architecture mixed with 60s-style cars and dress), an agent named Lemmy Caution has a series of missions to complete in the futuristic (?) city of Alphaville. First, he must find another agent named Dickson who has disappeared within the last few weeks. Next, he must capture the creator of Alphaville, Prof. Von Braun, dead or alive. And lastly, he must destroy the evil computer that runs the town, Alpha 60. Along the way, he meets the inhabitants of this strange future world; a cold, emotionless lot who have been worn down by their computer master to worship logic above all things. This secret agent must dig deeper than any have dared to destroy the power of Alpha 60, and he must also deal with its living disciples/police, who will do whatever it takes to keep the status quo. Can Lemmy do it all without dying or, perhaps worse yet, falling in love with the Professor’s cold but beautiful daughter Natacha?

This movie will test your tolerance for bizarre imagery. This is one of the most vividly unsound films I have experienced. Out of all his entire body of work I’ve seen so far, this one demands the most from me, and it is so invigorating! I really enjoyed not being able to lay back and let the movie just happen to me. It tested me, and I think I passed, albeit with some points counted off (but that’s just first-time jitters!). You will absolutely NEVER see another film like this. I swear on my life that this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. How unique is it? Well, here’s 3 minutes of the film. Just 3 minutes!

Was that not incredible? Was that not insane? Now, it all makes sense in context, in a way, so don’t be ashamed at your confusion. And don’t be afraid to laugh if you thought the fighting was hilarious; that was intentional. It’s not your typical sci-fi, where laughing is a cardinal sin. Godard is actually a very funny director, when he wants to be, so the mock-noir violence was a hilarious homage to movies like The Big Sleep, where all the action was VERY blocked.

But it is so much more. There are the philosophical questions asked throughout the film about life without emotions and the ramifications of a logical machine imposing its will over wildly illogical humans. There are the scenes where Lemmy tries to break through Natacha’s frozen heart with a logic all his own. There is a wealth of priceless dialog and interaction between Lemmy and the denizens of Alphaville. It is a Surrealist movie about the domination of logic over imagination, and how one should never be allowed to have control over the other. It’s wonderful, beguiling, and not easily understood the first time viewing it.

The acting is superb! Lemmy Caution is played by Eddie Constantine. In another bit of “Where in time is Alphaville?”, Lemmy Caution is actually a character that had been around for years before in Noir movies of the 50s, even played by Eddie Constantine every time, but Godard used him in this movie as a template for a hard-boiled detective that could be the foil to Alpha 60. It sets the movie into time-zone limbo again, but Constantine’s straight-man performance is just what this film needs. Anna Karina is beautiful as Natacha, in one of the last Karina-Godard pair-ups. She is amazing, as usual, and never let anyone say that she has no depth. Through the veil of despondence, Natacha says a lot about human relationships without saying much at all, and I deeply respect that quality in such a role. My other favorite character was one I’m sure you heard in the clip, Alpha 60. The strange voice of Alphaville’s mastermind was created by hiring a voice actor with a mechanical voice box due to throat cancer, and it makes for quite a performance that must have been very difficult for the actor, but very intriguing for the audience.

Alphaville is unlike any sci-fi movie you’ll ever see. It is a movie with a lot to say, but it never says it directly. It’s spoken in Surrealist code that must be broken down by an inquisitive viewer in order to fully digest it. It’s funny, tragic, suspenseful, and satisfying. If they could make more sci-fi movies like this, the genre wouldn’t be such a stagnant mess right now. But, as it stands, Alphaville exists alone and apart from the genre it both epitomizes and alienates. You might find it pretentious and off-putting, as some indeed do, but true cinephiles cannot deny its potency and its originality. I give this one-of-a-kind movie my highest rating of 10 slow-motion fights out of 10. My highest recommendation!
Tomorrow I don’t know what I’ll watch! But you can bet that I’ll watch something, whatever it is! Until then!!!

Robinson Crusoe On Mars (1964), Everybody’s Got Something To Hide, Except For Me And My Monkey

23 07 2009

All right, Hollywood, we’ve all heard or seen the story of Robinson Crusoe. How droll, how banal! I’m done with your 19th century bullshit! Give me something fresh, give me something NEW! Something for my Mod lifestyle, wherein I run around town taking various sundries into my shopping cart in South London while listening to the sounds of Small Faces in my tailored bright-blue Italian suit while waiting for the trolley to take me to see a rude boy reggae concert inside a coffee shop. I’m no grandpa, goddamnit! They’d have to do something PRETTY astute and Mod and hip and awesome to get me to even CONSIDER watching a fuddy-duddy, dusty-balls, saggy-assed Robinson Crusoe movie! Well, luckily for Hollywood, they came up with just the right sensibility to get someone like me into the theater. Robinson Crusoe on Mars is the perfect cure for 19th century boredom. It gives us the same basic story, but instead of stranding us on a desert island, we find ourselves isolated on the red planet, unmoored in the vast expansion of an entire world. Despite a goofy and gimmicky title, as well as some minor gripes, I find that this movie has a lot to offer, and I couldn’t get enough of it, personally.

It all begins with a simple mission to Mars (should be easy, right?). Christopher “Kit” Draper, his Colonel, Dan “Batman” McCready, and a delightful monkey named Mona are going to the planet on a fact-finding mission for good ol’ planet Earth. Everything’s going fine UNTIL a meteor runs into their projected course. To avoid it, they end up expending the last of their fuel (???). This leaves them at a precarious position hovering in the Martian orbit. With no choice left to them for survival, they decide to eject from their cool yellow spacecraft and go to the surface. Draper makes it, along with plucky Mona, but McCready is killed by the landing. All alone, Draper and the monkey walk around the planet looking for shelter and food while they await rescue. During this time, which goes on for pitiless months, Draper becomes Crusoe in the truest sense; a hardened survivor making the best of a tough situation, sustaining on what he can scrounge and inventing contraptions with what little resources he has to make his tough life just an ounce more convenient. He longs for company, though, and it seems at one point like he might have some, although he soon finds out that it is not the kind of company he had hoped for. Aliens from another world, mining for minerals on Mars, are keeping humanoids as slaves to help with their mining progress. One of the slaves escapes, running into Draper and Mona as he does so. The three then go into hiding as the aliens scour the area for the missing worker. Can Draper wait it out on Mars while waiting for rescue? Can he find friendship with his new man Friday, who doesn’t speak a lick of English? Or will the aliens fry him up like a Bloomin’ Onion?

Now, to be honest, I never cared for Robinson Crusoe. The thinly-veiled allegory for European imperialism was a downright offensive look at how superior the white man is, and how industrious Caucasians are compared to the rest of the world. I never appreciated the sentiment, the attitude, and most especially the treatment of poor, forlorn Friday. It’s all very exasperating, and it makes for an adventure story about anything BUT adventure. But I’m not reviewing books here (yet), I’m reviewing movies, and as a movie, I can say that I enjoyed it. By the time the 60s rolled around, the sentiment of the age was anti-imperialism, so they stripped as much of that out as possible. Inherent to the story there still is the master-slave relationship of Draper and Friday (compounded by the fact that Friday is ACTUALLY a slave), but there is a lot more to experience here besides that.

Robinson Crusoe on Mars is a story about adventure and survival. Like the action serials of the previous generation, RCoM pits a lone man against an entire uncaring world and leaves it to him to save himself and the day. It’s about the romance of exploration and the drive to survive, something that gets me right in my inner Kid. It doesn’t hurt that the Technoscopic beauty is VERY easy on the eyes. It’s way ahead of its time in the special effects department, stirring up images of Forbidden Planet and War of The Worlds. It’s a lush and strangely beautiful movie that, when combined with patient pacing, takes one back to a bygone age of filmmaking.

The acting is a point of contention with many people. Some say that Paul Mantee as Draper was an excellent choice, and that he lent the movie an air of excitement. I personally think, however, that perhaps the roles should have been reversed. Because the Colonel at the beginning of the movie? That was none other than Adam West! DAMN IT, would I have liked to see Adam West as Draper! Not taking away anything from Mantee, but Adam would have been so perfect for the role. His debonair charm emanating from every pore as he force-fed Friday English phrases. The extra dash of class added to Draper’s character as he cursed his ship for being an inaccessible supermarket up in the sky while he slowly starved! MMMM! It just makes you wonder. But, all in all, Mantee is very good. Not great, like Adam West might have been, but very good.

So I recommend this movie. RCoM is the kind of film that they just don’t make anymore. With CG, it’s too expensive to linger at the awesome details of it all, and they simply don’t use as many real props and effects as they used to. Plus, it’s chock-full of the old adventure romance that you don’t see as much nowadays. It’s just a grand-old sci-fi odyssey into our last frontier, and I thoroughly enjoyed it almost all the way through. I give Robinson Crusoe on Mars 8 Mod gentlemen out of 10. Check it out!

Tomorrow we go head to head with Over The Top!!!