Movie Diary 4/29/2020

The Silent Star (Kurt Maetzig, 1960). Big DEFA sci-fi production from East Germany, about a mission to Venus. The production design is aces, as you would expect, full of zany colors and shapes. Plenty of anti-nuke material, with lots of references to Hiroshima and the foolishness of man creating something he cannot control. The crew of the spaceship is made up of a rainbow coalition (though only one woman, played by Yoko Tani), including an American (Oldrich Lukes) who must defy his suspicious anti-commie U.S. colleagues to join the trek. There’s a great scene where he arrives at the German launch site and he and his Soviet counterpart sit down in a meadow of grass and wildflowers, with the mountains behind them, and contemplate leaving the Earth; it feels very German, somehow. Variable acting, but even with the cheesiness of some of the action, there’s something thoughtful beneath the surface. It was re-cut and dubbed for U.S. release as First Spaceship to Venus.

Movie Diary 4/28/2020

The Long and the Short and the Tall (aka Jungle Fighters, Leslie Norman, 1961). British war movie for a disillusioned moment, about a squad of malcontents thrashing through Malaya. Richard Todd is the bitter leader, Richard Harris his sociopathic corporal, Laurence Harvey a belligerent loudmouth who never stops calling his fellow soldiers “berks,” plus Ronald Fraser and David McCallum. The big debate is what to do with a captured Japanese soldier, which unfolds in exactly the way you’d think for a movie based on a play. There’s a lot of questionable soldiering going on, as the nonstop shouting proceeds while the squad is ostensibly being careful about revealing themselves to nearby enemy troops. The whole thing feels pretty fake, except for the crisp black-and-white shooting by Edwin Hillier. Harris gets your attention by occasionally dropping his voice amid the cacophony, while Harvey is so expansive he looks as though he’s just discovered “acting.” (Peter O’Toole played the part on stage, a replacement for Albert Finney.)

 

Movie Diary 4/27/2020

shecreature2The She-Creature (Edward L. Cahn, 1956). Cheapjack horror picture with a cash-in on the Bridey Murphy craze of the ’50s. Carnival hypnotist Chester Morris makes his subject (Marla English) regress into a 19th-century Englishwoman – none too convincingly – while under his spell. For obscure reasons, this also causes a sea monster (quite a jazzy creation by creature-maker Paul Blaisdell) to ectoplasm its way out of the ocean and kill people. Lance Fuller, the unsettling guy from This Island Earth, plays the hero, and he somehow resembles something that should be floating in a Thanksgiving parade. El Brendel, the Scandinavian-dialect comedian, plays a butler. Tom Conway, star of Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie, is a crafty businessman who seeks to exploit the hypnotism racket; his beach house is a fine example of mid-’50s Americana. Conway will earn your respect, and possibly your love, for his defiant professionalism in the face of absurdity. This is in contrast to Morris, who rarely lets you forget that he shouldn’t be here. Cahn directed many low-budget pictures in this era, including Curse of the Faceless Man and It! The Terror from Beyond Space, but he deserves credit for the excellent 1932 Western Law and Order.

 

Movie Diary 4/26/2020

Pasolini (Abel Ferrara, 2014). An attractively (and intentionally) fragmented view of Pasolini’s final day on Earth, with Willem Dafoe in the title role. For all his commitment to the part, Dafoe provides more of a fascinating physical presence than a hugely illuminating performance. Ferrara’s lush vision of Pasolini’s apartment, various restaurant interiors, and even the inside of an airplane, are vivid, as though filtered through the artist’s (and activist’s) eye belonging to P.P.P. The movie is not designed to please, but it captures something about Pasolini’s drive. After giving an eloquent interview for a reporter, he asks the questioner whether he has a title for the piece, and instantly offers, “What about ‘We’re All in Danger?.'”

The Friday (4/24/2020)

kellygang

Orlando Schwert, Essie Davis: True History of the Kelly Gang (IFC Films)

My review this week for the Scarecrow blog, and etc.

True History of the Kelly Gang. “Think of this film as a kind of upside-down cousin to Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette: It replaces Coppola’s powdered bon-bons with gore-soaked raunch, but both films seek to goose up their historical pageants with modern ’tudes and styles.”

I roll out more of my 1980s reviews at What a Feeling!, this time moving through a bunch of “T”s. So, vintage pieces on: Bud Yorkin’s filmed-in-Seattle midlife crisis picture, Twice in a Lifetime; Peter Douglas’s (son of Kirk) obscure coming-of-age story A Tiger’s Tale, with Ann-Margret and C. Thomas Howell; Carl Schultz’s Aussie flick Travelling North, with a gem of a Leo McKern performance; Thomas J. Wright’s Torchlight, produced by and starring Pamela Sue Martin; and the late John Carl Buechler’s Troll.

 

Movie Diary 4/22/2020

babytherain

Baby the Rain Must Fall (Robert Mulligan, 1965). A Horton Foote screenplay about a paroled convict (Steve McQueen) who wants to be a famous singer, and the wife (Lee Remick) and kid who join him in a small Texas town. Lots of interesting elements here, and Mulligan’s eye for arranging people in space is evocative (DP Ernest Laszlo gets a few impressive deep-focus shots along the way). The movie’s emphasis is puzzling; the opening and closing suggest Remick’s perspective, but the meat of the film keeps veering in McQueen’s direction, and in fact she’s pretty much a cipher. Remick is in her prime here, and it seems criminal to give her so little to do. The other characters, including sympathetic lawman Don Murray, are sketchy, even if the locations they inhabit are superb. McQueen’s performance is fully lived-in, a character needing a fuller treatment (his singing voice is dubbed, unconvincingly). There are scenes involving McQueen’s fear and loathing of his adoptive mother, currently on her deathbed in a spooky old house, that are bizarrely similar to Psycho (for these scenes, Elmer Bernstein’s music shifts gears to a gothic-suspense harpsichord – a very out-of-place touch). Mulligan’s pacing feels off, and the slow pace a miscalculation. Also, this might seem really obvious, but is Foote’s Tender Mercies a kind of unofficial sequel to this movie? “Mac Sledge” is the sort of stage name McQueen’s character might have come up with for himself.

 

Movie Diary 4/20/2020

True History of the Kelly Gang (Justin Kurzel, 2019). Another movie biopic of the Australian outlaw, previously played by Mick Jagger and Heath Ledger. This time it’s 1917 soldier-boy George MacKay in the role, under the grunge-heavy direction of the guy who did the Fassbender Macbeth and Assassin’s Creed. Russell Crowe is in there, sporting a full-on Evil Santa Claus look, which makes you wonder what exactly he’s doing with his career. (full review 4/24)

Movie Diary 4/19/2020

Uncle Simon and The Self-Improvement of Salvadore Ross (Don Siegel, 1963/64). Working my way through the fifth season of Twilight Zone lately, and these are the two episodes directed by Siegel. Neither is exactly a classic, but both have a very grim foundation, and for auteurist purposes there’s the linked theme of people transforming into something else, a la Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Uncle Simon, written by Rod Serling, is about a wealthy misanthrope (Cedric Hardwicke) whose decades-long bullying of his caregiver-niece (Constance Ford) is about to end with his death. But his will has a poison pill that complicates her inheritance: She will now be the slave of a robot with Uncle Simon’s voice and disposition. The script is full of amazing invective, quite nasty at times, and Siegel gets the most out of the limited spaces. The episode maintains a sour attitude throughout – no TZ silver linings here. Ian Wolfe plays the lawyer, and Robby the Robot plays – you know. The revelation is Constance Ford, who is very smart and tough; she did a lot of golden-age TV and played Richard Egan’s unsympathetic wife in A Summer Place.

The Self-Improvement of Salvadore Ross is from a Henry Slesar story, about an unpleasant young bounder (Don Gordon) who realizes he can exchange qualities – like his own youth – with others, in exchange for money. The story has to move too fast to cover everything, but the ironic ending is pretty satisfying. Siegel has an especially good touch with the main performers, including Gail Kobe and Vaughn Taylor. There’s a specific use of the zoom that makes you appreciate how Siegel holds off using it until the right moment.

The Friday (4/17/2020)

beanpole2

Viktoria Miroshnichenko, Beanpole (Kino Lorber)

My review this week for the Scarecrow Video blog, and etc.

Beanpole. “This movie brings Solzhenitsyn-like seriousness (and the attendant urge to inventory certain government-mandated atrocities), filters it with hints of magical realism, and soaks it in the intense colors and sometimes overbearing style of a horror film. There is no light touch here, but by the time you reach the film’s final 20 minutes, it has earned its fever-dream intensity.”

My review of Beanpole includes a link to purchase a ticket to watch it online, which if you use this site will partly benefit the Northwest Film Forum.

More posts of my ’80s reviews at What a Feeling! this week. Behold: Sidney Lumet’s Running on Empty, with its key, remove-all-doubts-about-this-guy role for River Phoenix; Istvan Szabo’s Colonel Redl, with Klaus Maria Brandauer (currently restored and streaming in a way that benefits SIFF); Daniel Petrie’s Rocket Gibraltar, a Burt Lancaster pet project; Cheech Marin’s fun Born in East L.A., a film that should’ve led to more directing work for its auteur; Robert Wise’s Rooftops, with its echoes of West Side Story.

 

 

Movie Diary 4/14/2020

Beanpole (Kantemir Balagov, 2019). Russian film set in Leningrad in the months after the end of WWII, its focus on two young women living with their very particular kind of grief. A dense canvas, partaking of a fever dream in its visual approach, with two fascinating performances from its leading actresses, both making their film debuts. (full review 4/17)