Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows (2007)

June 27, 2008 § Leave a comment

Produced and narrated by Martin Scorsese, Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows pays tribute to a filmmaker who worked for legendary producer David Selznick for eight years, polishing the script for Anna Karenina or standing around with a stopwatch to determine when Gone With the Wind should have an intermission, before striking out on his own to join RKO and produce low budget films that’d be under his control. Aside from B-movie budgets the studio stuck him with titles like Cat People (not really caring what he did, as long he stayed under budget), but he supervised every aspect of production, rewrote scripts (often without credit) and produced polished films but also “strange, poetic films” that sometimes barely acknowledge the awful titles he was stuck with, films “satisfied the demand for horror, but delivered much more,” a world where “characters slip into a mysterious, troubling grey zone where real life and dream life come face to face.”  He called them his “poor, simple, lucky little films,” and Hollywood never celebrated Lewton during his life — there are no recordings of his voice anywhere — but he made a string of nine films that are all deeply worthwhile, if not small masterpieces that reflect his thoughtful, melancholy nature:

Cat People (1942) is dark and atmospheric, and interesting for having to merely imply so much about passion in 1942.   The 1980 remake has the cat people transforming into leopards after sex, but in 1942 it’s a mere kiss that causes the change. Some of the acting is extremely clunky (and unfortunately, the dork hero is pretty boring) but these performances sit next to some amazing casting of very catlike, elegant people, and the atmosphere is impressive for its tension and great use of shadow.

The Curse of the Cat People (1944) isn’t a sequel as much as an unusual fairy tale from the point of view of a lonely child, with the central character showing up as a pleasant ghost.

I Walked with a Zombie (1943) is incredibly atmospheric, with unforgettable moments, and the zombie in question is simply a sick woman, seemingly oblivious to the presence of others.

The Body Snatcher (1945) is a compelling story about body snatching for medical experiments, with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi together for a final film. Karloff would later say he felt rescued by Lewton, given that he was able to finally demonstrate he could do much more than the Universal horror films he was already famous for, like Frankenstein.

Isle of the Dead (1945) also has Karloff, and an assortment of characters stranded on an island, and as they’re picked off they can’t seem to clarify if it’s a plague, a vampire, or group hysterics.

Bedlam (1946) again has Karloff as the corrupt head of an asylum refusing to make improvements, even as a courageous woman challenges him.

The Leopard Man (1943) has enough atmosphere for several films, as a small New Mexico town isn’t sure it should blame a series of murders on a leopard or a madman.

The Ghost Ship (1943) doesn’t have a ghost at all, it’s a morality tale about a power struggle between a quietly deranged captain and one of his officers, with the idea of a ghost ship used as a metaphor for hopelessness.

The 7th Victim (1943) is an eerie, quietly bizarre film about an innocent woman stumbling across a group of devil-worshippers.

As you can see from the dates, these films were produced quickly, while a particular team that Lewton trusted was allowed to work together. Thanks to a lucky fluke, Cat People was a hit, and allowed Lewton to produce films without much studio harassment for a period of time. Finally, studio changes, evolving trends and a series of heart attacks got in the way of Lewton making many more films he was happy with before he died quite young. It’s a shame he’ll never know how much his films were eventually appreciated, but he’s certainly recognized now for taking charge of a series of small, cheap productions intended only to make money and giving the world far more. There’s a collection out there with all these films in it, and as you may already guess, I’d suggest it’s well worth tracking down.

Kingdom of the Spiders (1977)

June 26, 2008 § Leave a comment

Starring William Shatner and his sideburns, Kingdom of the Spiders is one of those good bad films, like the good bad books Orwell used to talk about sometimes — nothing outstanding but certainly entertaining, or in other words bad in a good way.  In a small town in Arizona, ultra-poisonous tarantulas are coming out in overwhelming numbers to attack humans because we messed them up with too many pesticides, or something.  The lessons aren’t subtle, and like some other horror films, the characters have the first half of the film to join some kind of family unit or find a romance, rather than get bumped off as expendable.  Let’s not get into why that’s vaguely disturbing in favour of accepting it as one of the standards of horror.    

Shatner plays “Rack,” (don’t ask, his nickname came out of a pool game somehow) a local vet who flirts outrageously, grinning like a big kid, and then spends the second half of the film swatting spiders off people and saying things like “Sweet Jesus.”  We also get to hear stuff like “This is our home, and no damn spiders are gonna run us out,” and phones aren’t dead, they’re “graveyard dead.”  These are spiders that know to go for the fuse box, and watch carefully for the spider-cam, because the film simply wouldn’t have been complete without the spider perspective once in a while.  

I grew up watching Shatner in reruns of original Trek, and the man has a way of being immensely watchable — he doesn’t even hang up a phone like another actor would, making him the ultimate good bad actor.  So if the county fair is going to be ruined in a film with a few impressive stunts and a lot of unintentionally hilarious lines, he’s the man to star in it. 

Heartlands (2002)

June 25, 2008 § Leave a comment

Heartlands follows a kind and gentle man — watching characters mistreat him is a little like watching someone kick a dog — as he decides to follow his wife to Blackpool and try to win her back from another man. It’s all a trifle simplistic, given that the other man is a complete wanker, but the film turns out to be a remarkably calm, original and thoughtful road trip film, with a zen central character who not only discovers a whole new life, but the remarkable things a change in perspective can do. The characters he meets along the way are there briefly, but are so well-written they feel completely real, and suddenly the journey is far more interesting than the destination.

The end isn’t quite what you’d expect, but I won’t give it away. And by the time we get there, we’ve been treated to a number of small, excellent moments, some involving no words. A film that’s unpretentious, yet unexpectedly charming and meaningful. Heartlands is easily recommended for anyone.

From Here to Eternity (1953)

June 24, 2008 § Leave a comment

Back when the world was black and white, the war reached a place called Pearl Harbour.  But first, you see some men and women.  Frank Sinatra is small and tough and Burt Lancaster is big and tough and Montgomery Clift is sensitive and tough.  Women walk by and the men say things like “Woo woo!”  Men also say things like “Anybody does any killin’ around here, I’ll do it.”  Men get drunk.  Women watch them.  Both men and women talk, and everyone has a little piece of pain.  The women and men kiss, and there are violins, sometimes lots of violins.  Sometimes men and women get along.  Sometimes they don’t.  One man and one woman go to a beach where there are waves and lots of violins and they pose in front of each other like tense deer.  They are happy at the beach and then they are sad at the beach.  

Some men are cruel and some men are pretty darn OK and just play the harmonica or whatever.  And, it’s a pretty darn sad world when the cruel ones get ahead.  In the final ten minutes or so the enemy invades, and even our best stock footage doesn’t stop them.  Burt Lancaster stands around with a machine-gun on his hip like it’s a giant, well… you know.   And me?  I just felt I’d spent my evening watching an overrated film, because I knew the part already about the cruel ones getting ahead sometimes, and I thought the violins were a bit much.  But Frank was good.  Good job, Frank.

Open Range (2003)

June 17, 2008 § Leave a comment

As a director, Kevin Costner has certainly had his ups and downs. On top of the world for the multiple  award-winning Dances With Wolves (1990), by the time The Postman (1997) arrived, it turned out to be a long post-apocalyptic buildup to two armies sitting on opposite sides of a battlefield, but then instead of a battle the two leaders get off their horses and smack each other around.  In slow motion, if I recall correctly.  I remember thinking “Er, what?”  It’s too bad the film was a misfire, the premise of a man in a post-apocalyptic world putting on the jacket of a dead postal worker and coming to represent hope is an intriguing one (the novel is sexist and full of clunky writing, but the film should have easily sidestepped those elements to  be a slam-dunk).

With Open Range, Costner directs another Western, and it’s a film much more comfortable and confident, slowly building the characters and a story of injustice.  In fact, in an age where some films seem to expect you’ll feel sympathy for a character just because they’ve been immediately put through hell — and I can’t help but feel we should know characters better first — Open Range takes its time with everything, only building to one climactic shootout that doesn’t disappoint, though it can be a trifle confusing, and apparently the force of one bullet with a lot of righteousness behind it can pick a man up off his feet, which was news to me.  The score is impressive, and Costner and Robert Duvall are a pleasure to watch in this one.  Costner also makes the brave and very wise choice of giving his character little to say, so that we listen when he does talk, and he shares the stage admirably with Duvall.

Sherlock Holmes: The Last Vampyre (1992)

June 15, 2008 § Leave a comment

In a small village, a sophisticated local man is either a vampire or an emotionally distant eccentric with ancestors accused of vampirism. Holmes is called in to investigate incidents that might be crimes and might only be local hysteria.

This is an intriguing Sherlock Holmes story, one with solid production values and acting, but it also isn’t a typical Holmes story and seems often misunderstood. One online review says Jeremy Brett (as Holmes) is “waxy, bloated and speaking in nasal murmur,” but this is simply untrue. Fans of Brett will recognize he isn’t perfectly well, but he’s still a magnificent actor and very much in control of the role. Someone else complains of “all the padding inserted” to make the Conan Doyle short story into a film, and while there are a few detours in the plot, they serve to keep the viewer guessing and illustrate that the frantic locals exacerbate the problem, if they don’t create it completely. Elsewhere, someone complains Holmes does very little investigating, and I agree this isnt a typical Holmes story, but by the end of it, Holmes is explaining how a paralyzed dog fits into the picture, along with other details. Finally, someone even complains the title “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire” shouldn’t have been changed to “The Last Vampyre.”

Having read all this moaning, I braced myself for the worst of the five feature-length stories with Brett as Holmes, but was pleasantly surprised. Roy Marsden (as Stockton, accused of being a vampire) is great, walking the line perfectly and preserving the mystery, even as the story and characters discuss both science and superstition. The idea Stockton may or may not be a vampire is still nicely balanced when Holmes meets him, and watching these two characters chatting cautiously is a joy when they’re played by such marvelous, understated actors.

From there, of course the story goes on to reveal its secrets, but I’m not telling them here. Instead, I’m happy to say all five films with the excellent Jeremy Brett as Holmes are well worth seeing, even if they aren’t all necessarily completely faithful to the Conan Doyle stories.

Sunshine (2007)

June 15, 2008 § Leave a comment

From the director who brought us Trainspotting, this is an excellent sci-fi that combines the thoughtfulness of 2001 with some real sounding dialogue like we saw in Alien, all to the tune of an original premise. The concept is that the earth is frozen in the future, and a small group of scientists and astronauts are launched on a mission to re-ignite the sun, without having any idea what happened to the first team after they disappeared. 

There are very human moments (a character walks into a room, stares at a second character until the second characters says “Is that your apology?” The first one replies “Yes,” and they turn away from each other) and with all humanity hanging in the balance one simple decision that doesn’t seem unreasonable begins a chain of events that makes the mission an increasingly desperate one. The end is a little surreal, and not paying close attention can allow you to miss some important information, but it’s nothing that isn’t in keeping with the tone and thoughtfulness of the film. 

Like Blade Runner, this is one of those films that was fairly misunderstood on release (don’t expect a disaster movie, an action film or aliens, this is somewhere between a drama and an art film), but I believe it will eventually gather a following and be considered a classic.

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