Published at: Oct. 14, 2008, 6:46 p.m. CST by Moriarty
Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...
I have a particular piece of music stuck in my head right now, and for the first time in two weeks, it’s not Bernard Hermann’s TWISTED NERVE theme. Nope. Now I’ve got the following on auto-repeat: “Eight more days to Halloween... Halloween... Halloween... eight more days to Halloween... Silllllllllver Shamrock!”
And if that doesn’t jar your memory, then chances are the next week or so of the column isn’t going to be your cup of tea. See, it’s October. That means it’s time for one of my favorite cinematic flavors, and plenty of it. Horror films. A genre that is very dear to me. It’s odd, too, because I readily acknowledge that most horror movies are crap. But the ones that aren’t... the ones that add something to the genre or even elevate it... man, those films provoke me in a way that little else manages.
So about two months ago, I decided I was going to put together some horror films to watch in the days counting down to Halloween. As of Wednesday the 22nd, it’s been nothing but horror movies here at the Labs until the stroke of midnight on Halloween.
But before we plunge headlong into that, though, I thought we’d clear a few more recent titles off the shelf. Lots of ground to cover, so let’s get to it...
FROM THE SHELF
The last two weeks, my viewing habits have been all over the place. A lot of the time, I try to pair things up by similar theme, or as a way of contrasting two very different things. Since getting back from vacation, it’s been more like playing catch-up. One right after another.
Sure, there was a “classics” day, where we watched KIM, THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, and YANKEE DOODLE DANDY. KIM didn’t get the same kind of treatment that the other two did. It’s just one of those simple Warner Bros. cardboard sleeves, and there aren’t a whole lot of extras on it. They put a couple of shorts, part of a series called FITZPATRICK TRAVELTALKS, both about India, and they reveal as much about the era in which they were made as they do about the country itself. The film, a 1950 star vehicle for Errol Flynn and then-rising child star Dean Stockwell, is based on the work of Rudyard Kipling, and I’d lay money on it being a childhood favorite of both Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. I get a lot of letters from people calling me crazy for liking Short Round in TEMPLE OF DOOM. Normally, I hate it when there’s a kid in an adventure movie. It automatically lessens the sense of peril. Also, there’s a cloying cuteness to most kid actors that wears on me. They’re too aware of the camera, too aware of themselves. But not with Short Round. And not with Kim. The way Stockwell plays the title character, he’s engaging and funny and always resourceful. He’s a street urchin when we meet him, concerned primarily with survival. By the end of the film, he’s a hero, a better soul, and as adult as anyone in the movie. Flynn was getting older by the time he made this, past his movie-star prime, but his sarcastic sense of humor is in full evidence. He’s darker, more complicated, less interested in being a pure hero.
The film looks great, a nice example of Technicolor caught in amber, a worthwhile transfer for the archives. It’s not the most eye-popping print ever, but it seems fairly close to how it must have looked for audiences in the ‘50s. As good as KIM IS, though, it just can’t compete with the sublime glory that is THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD. The script is an expert distillation of the basic Robin Hood legends, and each incident, each sequence is given humor and drama and genuine old-fashioned swashbuckling excitement. It’s just plain fun to watch, every minute of it. This film is one of those guaranteed smiles for me, like TOY STORY or RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK or RAISING ARIZONA or DUCK SOUP. Pure pleasure. Every performance is gold, the big swordfight at the end between Basil Rathbone and Flynn is one of the best ever, and rumor has it George Lucas was inspired to reference one very famous image from the duel for “The Duel” in EPISODE III. That would be a nice acknowledgement of this film’s continuing hold over the imaginations of all who fall under its spell. Let’s hope this new cheap glorious DVD edition introduces many new viewers to its charms.
They certainly put enough bells and whistles on there. In theory, I’m a big fan of the packaging idea behind this, DANDY, and TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE. You can choose an option on all three of the films called “Warner Night At The Movies,” designed to evoke the way audiences of the era would experience a film in the theater. You get a trailer, a newsreel, a musical short subject, a cartoon, and then ROBIN HOOD. Everything vintage. It’s fun, at least the first time, but I’m concerned about a technical issue. There’s fairly heavy digital noise in all of the extras, and it’s not just for one film. It happened on both HOOD and DANDY, and in both players in the house. Like I said, I really enjoyed the line-up, but it felt like the DVD storage space was pushed just a wee bit further than it could handle. It seems like a fairly major technical goof, and a fairly obvious one. If Warner Bros. is going to continue with this series and this idea, I hope they clear this one issue up.
As far as YANKEE DOODLE DANDY goes, I’ve always had mixed feelings about the film. There is no denying the sheer giddy joy of James Cagney’s performance as George M. Cohan, just like there’s no denying how powerfully corny the film feels when viewed through the filter of a post-Watergate world. It was made under rather extreme circumstances, starting production just after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Cohan was an unbridled patriot, and his songs frequently waved the flag with two hands. Combine the subject matter with the moment when it was made, and what you end up with may be one of the most deliriously unironic pro-American films ever made. It’s funny... my memories of this film from childhood are of a film in color. I remember the vivid reds, whites, and blues. It’s a black-and-white film, of course, but I guess the sheer energy of the thing made it practically pop off the screen. Watching it now, the film’s biggest enduring attraction is Cagney dancing. There are times it almost looks like wire work, like gravity barely seems to matter to him. This is one of those performances that explains someone’s Hollywood legend status, one of those moments where everything comes together and their charisma shines bright as the sun, an undeniably great moment in movies, and any fan of the film should be thrilled with the transfer here and the wealth of extra features.
Another themed day turned out to be a tremendously unpleasant endurance test when my co-writer picked both STRAW DOGS and IRREVERSIBLE. I never got around to writing about my theatrical experience with IRREVERSIBLE when it came out. Basically, the nasty trick played by Noe in the film’s opening (he laid a sonic track down that consisted of a frequency used to break up riots by French police) made me physically ill, and I sat through the rest of the film miserable. I think there is some great work by Vincent Cassel and Monica Bellucci in the film, and I think Gaspar Noe did exactly what he set out to do with the movie. He makes his point with all the subtle sophistication of someone shitting their pants. The hauntingly lovely ending feels like a cruel joke after everything that comes before, not like a transcendent delivery. I’m not sure IRREVERSIBLE really has much of a shelf life. It’ll always be notorious to some degree. That death-by-fire-extinguisher guarantees at least that much. But there’s a hermetic, experimental, sealed-off quality that keeps the film from being as brutal and as affecting as it wants to be. Still, Lions Gate did a nice job with the DVD. The transfer is impeccable, with great sound and picture quality. Why, it’s so clear it’s like having Monica Bellucci get raped on your living room floor!
I think the Criterion Collection STRAW DOGS disc makes a heck of a case for this film’s classic status, though, and watching the film, there’s nothing about it that feels dated. It’s just as provocative now as it must have been in 1971 when it was first released. From the first uneasy moments when David (Dustin Hoffman) and his wife Amy (Susan George) arrive in a small village in the Cornish countryside, there’s a near-suffocating tension that Peckinpah is building. Amy grew up in the village, and it’s an uneasy homecoming for her. Hints are dropped about unsavory encounters in her past with some of the local men, and she has to deal with the constant leering attention of these same people when David hires them to work on the house. Eventually, the combination of this near-constant attention and her boredom over David’s work (he’s a mathematician, a scholar, engrossed in a project) leads to an antagonism, a deep disquiet that she takes out on everyone and anyone, most of all David. She starts to challenge his masculinity, belittling him, undermining him in every way she can.
For all the hype about IRREVERSIBLE, its centerpiece is nowhere near as disturbing or unsettling as either of the extended sequences of violence in STRAW DOGS. Sam Peckinpah only made Westerns prior to this film, and there’s something about the dramatic opportunity of a Western that encouraged directors to become rather nimble moralists. One of the things that made Peckinpah so much more interesting than many of his peers was the way he pushed into difficult and ambiguous territory where black hats and white hats didn’t mean much. You look at RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY or his episodic TV work, and he was able to work in the traditional form. But by the time he reached THE WILD BUNCH, Peckinpah seemed to be on the verge of either some sort of breakdown or a breakthrough. He was sickened by the real violence infecting the culture, but more sickened by the way movies refused to reflect the real world. He didn’t push the envelope for the sake of cheap thrills, although there was definitely the sense that he was rubbing our noses in something. It was a visceral response, and whatever effect it had on filmgoers was nothing compared to the toll it took on the director. You don’t make a film like STRAW DOGS because of your sunny disposition and your positive outlook on the world. It’s a film about the definitions of manhood, and the primal urges at battle in each of us.
By the end of the film, every notion of typical audience sympathy has been challenged, and Peckinpah dares to echo one of the great last shots of any film, one which also starred Dustin Hoffman. As in THE GRADUATE, Hoffman finds himself heading somewhere, running from something, changed by what has just occurred. Peckinpah’s ending is one without room for hope, though, and much harder to take as a result. The presentation on the Criterion DVD is nothing short of amazing. I had no idea how beautifully crafted this film was until I saw this print. There’s a great feature-length documentary about Peckinpah on the second disc, and despite the always-steep sticker price on Criterion titles, I’d say the quality makes this one a worthy addition to any serious cinephile’s library.
The original MATRIX is, of course, one of those DVDs that everyone has. The release of MATRIX RELOADED recently led to much grumbling, a lot of it in my e-mail, about how we’re sure to be double-dipped down the road on this whole trilogy. Truth be told, that’s probably not such a bad thing. The first film’s been out for four years now. Looking at the transfer for the sequel, the obvious improvements in sound and picture quality are evident. True, it’s not the most comprehensive disc ever produced, but I thought it was a well-constructed look at the production of this ambitious and controversial middle chapter.
I’ll say this... I like MATRIX RELOADED a hell of a lot more on DVD. I like the first act. The whole thing. I like Link and his wife. I like Zion. No... I take that back... I love Zion. I want Zion to live. It’s that simple. Either you invest or you don’t. I don’t know what happens in REVOLUTIONS yet. I don’t want to know. For now, it’s enough that this is a human place, maybe the last human place. And if you do know what happens in REVOLUTIONS and if my statements about it being “a human place” make you snicker ironically, then maybe the Wachowskis did their job right. If anything, the celebration at Zion should have been more carnal, more sensual. I think Trinity and Neo are very sweet together in the first act. She’s softer than in the first film, an interesting inversion of the arc that Sarah Connor took in the TERMINATOR films. She started as a soft and squooshy LA girl and became polished steel, all knotted muscles and hard angles, in the sequel. By letting Trinity become softer thanks to Neo’s love, there are real philosophical underpinnings to his impact on the world around him. The personal transformation in Trinity mirrors the larger changes in the world. Neo may pack a mean kung-fun punch, but Thomas Anderson is a decent man, first and foremost, with a gentle heart. It’s his inquisitive nature that makes him the One, not the way he throws a punch. Casting Keanu was a masterstroke, and cannot be overestimated. He is exactly the same sort of lucky casting that Mark Hamill was in the STAR WARS films. Hamill wasn’t playing Luke Skywalker... he WAS Luke Skywalker. He believed it. He believed in the world around him. He never looked like an actor. He was so comfortable, so at home in this fantastic environment. That comfort is what made me believe when I was a kid, and the more FX epics I’ve seen over the years, the more I appreciate just what a particular skill it is. Hamill believed. Elijah Wood and Sean Astin definitely believe. And Keanu, bless him, believes.
People who grumble about the teahouse scene with Seraph are missing the point. It’s not meant to be a fight scene. It’s an encounter. Neo has to deal with all sorts of spook shit on his journey, and his senses are totally different than ours. The Wachowskis don’t hammer us with this, but the way they remind us – that one POV shot of a world made of code and a single seated glowing figure – is beautiful and eerie. Appropriate, I think, for Neo’s first meeting with an angel. True, it’s a digital kung-fu angel, but it is still an agent for the Powers That Be, a bridge to the divine. And if that’s what Seraph is, then what is The Oracle? She is a program, yes, as she explains... but her nature... her purpose... that’s the tricky part. She is part of the fabric of The Matrix, and her whole purpose seems to be to help the One and to guide him towards the choices he has to make. She encourages him to question everything. “How can I trust you?” he asks. “Bingo.” Even if there is some programmed malice in her design, asking the questions makes Neo question everything, and that’s crucial.
Have I mentioned that Geoff Darrow and Steve Skroce and Gods? Giants? Geniuses? Because they are.
I’m convinced The Kid is important. Trinity’s first comment when he appears is, “How does he always know?” She’s not exaggerating, either, I don’t think. The Kid always somehow senses Neo. He’s connected to him somehow. Trinity makes a comment about how Neo saved the Kid’s life, but Neo denies this. And he means it. If you’ve seen “Kid’s Story” on THE ANIMATRIX, you know what happened to him. He credits Neo with waking him up. “You’re the reason I’m here, Neo.” But Neo knows that he didn’t do anything. “You found me. I didn’t find you.” No matter what Neo says, the Kid wants to credit him, but Neo won’t let him. “You saved yourself.” This scene is written so carefully to set something up for REVOLUTIONS, I think. Again... I haven’t seen REVOLUTIONS or read it or whatever, so I’m just guessing based on what I’ve seen. I think that the Kid might be like Neo... special.
I could spend another 2000 words on RELOADED probably, or I could write a different piece on it each day this week. There’s so much here for those who want to go digging. I think the movie ultimately fails as a non-stop rollercoaster or as empty spectacle, but I don’t think it was meant to be either of those things. The MATRIX series is designed to give your mind a real workout, and the eye candy is secondary. The eye candy is what makes it so much fun, but the brain candy makes it count. Don’t consider this a reversal on my original review, either, since I was pretty positive on it after the first viewing, too. It’s just that now, I’d give the film an upgrade to a greatish review. Sometimes, films grow on us through repeat viewings, becoming richer and more engrossing, and RELOADED is, for me, that sort of a film.
When I went by the Virgin Megastore on Monday night at midnight, I was surprised to see BATMAN: MYSTERY OF THE BATWOMAN on the new release cart. I’d heard a little bit about the film, but I wasn’t really paying attention. I love BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES, and I’m so pleased they’re still working with that creative team to give us great new BATMAN stories on film, and while it’s not as powerful as RETURN OF THE JOKER (my fave) or MASK OF THE PHANTASM (many people’s fave), this new (barely) feature-length story is still still better than any of the Warner live-action BATMAN films. One of the things that really makes it work is the vocal performances, top-notch as always. Kevin Conroy’s Batman/Bruce Wayne is definitive as far as I’m concerned. That’s the best interpretation I’ve seen so far, and I love the various shades he brings to the character. He gets the humor, the pain, and the conflict, and he never overplays any of it. Efram Zimbalist Jr. does a great job, as always, as Alfred, and he’s given many of the best lines. There’s a lot of new voices in this one, like Kimberly Brooks as Cathy Duquesne, Kelly Ripa as Rocky Ballentine, and Elisa Gabrielli as Sonia Alcana. These three women are all suspects in the mysterious appearance of a new masked crusader in Gotham City, the mysterious Batwoman (voiced by Kyra Sedgwick in a clever move that makes it impossible to guess the character’s true identity until the writers want you to know). It’s a clever script that manages to make The Penguin (David Ogden Stiers), Rupert Thorne (John Vernon) and Carlton Duquesne (Kevin Michael Richardson) a solid springboard for everything that happens. Normally, more than one villain ends up being a creative nightmare, but these three make sense together, and when they bring in Bane (Hector Elizondo), it works. Overall, the thing I enjoyed most about the film is how it actually does keep the viewer guessing, and the red herrings are effective, convincing you several times that you’ve got everything figured out. Once they reveal the mystery of the Batwoman, there’s still almost half the film to go, and things pay off really well in the end. There are actual ramifications to what happens here, and I like the idea that this is set mid-continuity. It’s an interesting choice, and it allows director Curt Geda and writer Michael Reaves to tell a classic BATMAN story without having to reinvent the timeline in some radical way.
The extras for the disc are really well-produced, and the highlight has got to be “Chase Me,” an original short cartoon produced just for this disc. Also directed by Geda, it was written by Alan Burnett & Paul Dini, and it tells a great Batman/Catwoman story without ever using a single line of dialogue. As a result, the score by Lolita Ritmanis becomes very important, and she rises to the occasion, really making the short film hum. There are also several good production featurettes like “Behind The Mystery,” which focuses on the voice actors, “Batman POV,” which goes inside the writing room, and “The Making Of A Scene,” which is actually the weakest of the bunch, clocking in at just over 2 minutes. If you’re like me, and you miss this show, this new film will more than remind you of what it is you liked so much in the first place.
That’s it for tonight. I’ll be back almost immediately with my first report on the Horrorthon, which began, appropriately enough, with CHARLIE’S ANGELS: FULL THROTTLE. Have you seen the film? Positively chilling. Set on another planet where physics obviously don’t matter, this is the story of two very hot girls who are friends with a girl who’s been told she’s hot, but really isn’t. Together, they randomly beat, brutalize, and sexually belittle their male victims while wearing as many different fetish-themed outfits as possible. As uninterested in narrative coherence as even the strangest David Lynch film, CHARLIE’S ANGELS: FULL THROTTLE should scare a whole generation of 12 year old boys off heterosexuality once and for all.
And, oh yeah... there are dance numbers!
Okay... now I mean it. I’m going. When we dig into Horrorthon, expect a mix of old and new titles, things I found in bargain bins, recent reissues, and some stuff that’s out of print now, along with titles I’ve had in my library for a while. There are films in the marathon I’ve never seen, and others that I’ve watched so many times I practically have them memorized. So far, we’ve screened 13 titles, and we’re having a blast.
Have I mentioned how much I love this time of the year? Because I do. I really, honestly do.
QUESTION FOR DISCUSSION
What was the first film to really scare the hell out of you?