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Monthly Archives: October 2011

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Prom Night (Lynch)
2. Sansho the Bailiff (Mizoguchi)
3. The Seventh Seal (Bergman)
4. Bridesmaids (Feig)
5. Directed By John Ford (Bogdanovich)
6. Nowhere to Hide (Lee)
7. Rear Window (Hitchcock)
8. Island of Lost Souls (Kenton)
9. The Phantom Carriage (Sjostrom)
10. Bicycle Thieves (de Sica)

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Universal and Timeless

In honor of Halloween, today’s post concerns two of my favorite horror movies – the Universal Studios productions of The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932) and The Black Cat (Edgar Ulmer, 1934).


The Old Dark House and The Black Cat came out just two years apart during the first beloved cycle of horror films produced by Universal in the early sound era, yet neither are as well known today as the studio’s more famous monster movies of the same period (Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, etc.). Instead, The Old Dark House and The Black Cat, which exemplify the “haunted house” subgenre, have attained the status of cult classics while also remaining supremely recognizable works of “star directors” James Whale and Edgar Ulmer. They also both masterfully combine horror and humor, serve as great showcases for the versatility of actor Boris Karloff and clock in at barely more than an hour in length a piece. I therefore can’t imagine a more ideal Halloween double feature than watching these two chillers back to back.

The Old Dark House begins with one of the most charming pre-credits title cards in the history of cinema, one that perfectly captures the film’s spirit of mischievous fun. It is worth quoting in its entirety: “Karloff, the mad butler in this production, is the same Karloff who created the part of the mechanical monster in Frankenstein. We explain this to settle all disputes in advance, even though such disputes are a tribute to his great versatility.” (Gee, kind of makes you wonder how many people left screenings of The Old Dark House on its initial run grateful for this information, lest they might have otherwise lost a tidy sum by making a wager on whether or not Karloff appeared in the movie!)

Karloff’s role is much smaller here than his impressive star turn in the previous year’s Frankenstein, which was also directed by Whale. In The Old Dark House, Karloff again plays the baddie but this time out he is just one of a family of freaks – their butler to be precise – who occupy a gloomy Welsh mansion and spend a night menacing two groups of travelers (including such prominent future stars as Melvyn Douglas, Gloria Stuart, Raymond Massey and Charles Laughton) who are forced to seek refuge there during a thunderstorm. Karloff’s character, Morgan, is a drunken scar-faced mute who spends most of the film chasing Stuart, looking fabulous in a tight-fitting gown, around the mansion. The other family members, who make the family of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre look like sitcom characters, consist of: an eccentric middle-aged deaf woman who badgers Stuart about her alleged promiscuity, a feminine man who is afraid of going upstairs, a crazed pyromaniac locked in an attic, and a one hundred and two year old man with a long white beard (played by a woman!) who is kept locked up in another room. The way these characters run around and bounce off each other like billiard balls produces enough scares (and laughs) to fill two movies.

But the film’s real appeal (and what makes it a kissing cousin of Whale’s other masterpiece The Bride of Frankenstein) is its genuinely unsettling use of wicked humor. This is perfectly illustrated by the scene early on where Eva Moore, the deaf woman, shows Stuart to her room and, even though they’ve only just met, launches into a bizarre monologue about sex and death. Stuart (best known for playing the old Rose in Titanic but young and dishy here) looks on uncomprehendingly while Moore compares her to her sister, a “wicked one” who died at the age of twenty one. We see a series of close-ups of Moore’s face reflected in a distorting mirror as she maniacally says that the house used to be filled with “laughter and sin, laughter and sin.” As Stuart slips out of her wet clothes, Moore offers the observation that Stuart thinks of nothing but her long straight legs, white skin and how to please a man. The scene reaches a delirious climax as Moore grabs hold of Stuart’s negligee and exclaims, “That’s fine stuff but it’ll rot.” She then points to Stuart’s chest and adds, “That’s finer stuff still but it’ll rot too . . . in time!”

Even better (and quirkier) than The Old Dark House is Universal’s The Black Cat from two years later, a film noteworthy for being the only A-list project ever helmed by B-movie king Edgar G. Ulmer. (Ulmer would shortly thereafter be blacklisted for having an affair with the wife of a well-connected producer and never again worked for a major studio.) The Black Cat is credited as an adaptation of the Edgar Allen Poe story with the same name although the two in fact have nothing in common. It is more notable as the first and best pairing of co-leads Karloff and Bela Lugosi (who would have seven more go-rounds together after this one). Since both were fresh off of career-defining performances (Frankenstein for Karloff and Dracula for Lugosi), pitting them against each other was a big deal, kind of like one of those comic book crossovers where Superman squares off against Spiderman or what have you.

Like The Old Dark House, The Black Cat is also set in Europe (Hungary this time) and also follows the misadventures of travelers (a honeymooning American couple) forced to seek refuge in a gothic mansion inhabited by a madman. Once there, the innocent couple (David Manners and Julie Bishop) become unwitting pawns in a life-or-death chess game between Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff), the architect/war criminal who owns the mansion, and his adversary Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi), who is seeking revenge on Poelzig for the murder of his wife some years earlier. But the film unfolds less like a linear narrative and more like a troubling dream as scenes involving Satanic rituals, beautiful female corpses showcased in glass coffins, Werdegast’s irrational fear of cats and a literal chess game between Poelzig and Werdegast all demand to be put together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Binding these disparate narrative elements is Ulmer’s suitably dark and moody Germanic sensibility, which is reflected in the film’s Expressionist lighting, the Bauhaus architecture of the set design and a superb classical music score that prominently features Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7.

The best piece of critical writing on The Black Cat that I’ve come across belongs to filmmaker and theoretician Raul Ruiz (RIP!), who only got around to watching the movie after having heard himself compared to Ulmer by Jonathan Rosenbaum and other critics. In a brain-twisting and witty essay in the indispensable collection Projections 4 1/2, Ruiz writes:

“(The Black Cat) presents itself as a series of situations, each of which has an independent existence of its own: a game of chess, Bela Lugosi’s cat phobia, allusions to an allegorical battle (Europe as a field of corpses), Bauhaus design. All these elements are stories that the film could do without, and which in the end stifle and obscure the central story. A bad critic would call these extraneous fragments ‘decorative’. Instead of helping to gradually reveal that narrative, as in a film which tells one single story, each of these stories dies outside the area of fiction that surrounds the narrative.”

In a cheeky post-script, Ruiz notes that after watching the film, “. . . as in a melodrama, I exclaimed ‘Father!’ and (Ulmer) replied ‘My son!'” Writing as someone who counts many living and dead movie directors as “extended family” (including Whale, Ulmer and Ruiz), I know exactly what he means.

The Old Dark House and The Black Cat are available separately in serviceable standard-def DVD editions (the former via Kino, the latter via Universal). Along with many other things that I fantasize about large corporations doing that will probably never come to pass due to rights issues, I would love to see them both put together on a single Blu-ray disc (preferably with Criterion-like remastered sound and picture quality, thank you very much.)


Happy Halloween Weekend From White City Cinema (and Count Orlok)


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. City That Never Sleeps (Auer)
2. Ikiru (Kurosawa)
3. Resident Evil (Anderson)
4. The Old Dark House (Whale)
5. Outskirts (Barnet)
6. The Girl with the Hatbox (Barnet)
7. Bicycle Thieves (de Sica)
8. JSA: Joint Security Area (Park)
9. The Cigarette Girl of Mosselprom (Zhelyabuzhsky)
10. Ugetsu (Mizoguchi)


47th Chicago International Film Festival Report Card

The line-up for the 47th Chicago International Film Festival wasn’t as exciting as the 46th (which saw the local debuts of the most anticipated offerings from Cannes, Certified Copy and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, and brought Guillermo del Toro to town besides). This year, they curiously failed to nab even the highly buzzed top prize winners from Berlin (A Separation) and Venice (Faust). Still, while the CIFF isn’t perfect, it is the best festival Chicago has to offer; and with a hundred and fifty movies from fifty countries to choose from, there was still plenty to get excited about. I intentionally tried to make my selections as varied as possible and managed to take in eight films from eight different countries – from hardcore art films to escapist genre fare to things that fell somewhere in between. Several of the below titles will feature prominently on my “ten best” list of 2011.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Ceylan, Turkey)
Grade: A+ / 9.7

Is there a contemporary director with a keener compositional eye than Nuri Bilge Ceylan? This haunting drama, a journey to the end of a long Turkish night, concerns the efforts of police officers, a prosecutor, and a doctor to lead a confessed murderer to the rural site where he allegedly buried his victim. The movie’s mesmerizing first two thirds feature gorgeous landscape photography that captures the Turkish countryside in stunningly composed long shots illuminated primarily by the yellow headlights of the police convoy. But like the great recent Romanian film Police, Adjective, Ceylan merely uses the “police procedural” as a pretext to investigate what might be termed the soul of his country. The final third, which takes place the following morning at an autopsy in a nearby town, reveals Anatolia‘s hidden moral center (the dialogue exchanges between the doctor and the prosecutor take on an increasing symbolic importance) and establishes this as one of the key movies of the 21st century.

The Turin Horse (Tarr/Hranitzky, Hungary)
Grade: A / 9.5

Or a speculative biography of the cabman whose whipping of a horse allegedly drove Nietzche mad. Bela Tarr’s final film, co-directed by his editor Agnes Hranitzky, covers six days in the life of the cabman ostensibly right after the famous anecdote took place. There is very little dialogue in this slowly paced, minimalist, amazingly photographed study of the cabman’s life. Instead, we see him and his daughter (played by Erika Bok, the little girl from Satantango) prepare meals and perform household chores in real time, a la Jeanne Dielman, as their lives spiral increasingly downward into a mysteriously apocalyptic despair. Like Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Tarr is sometimes unfairly labelled an austere “miserabilist” (let us not forget that Satantango actually contains a fart joke) and, like Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, there is a vein of mordant deadpan humor running through this movie that did not elude the packed house I saw it with. Eliciting the most chuckles was a scene where the cabman gives a curt response to a long-winded and pretentious monologue by a visiting neighbor, which mirrors Tarr’s own responses to those who attempt to analyze his work. I can’t wait to see this again.

Le Havre (Kaurismaki, France/Finland)
Grade: A- / 8.2

In this sweet and quirky comedy from Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki an elderly shoe shiner defies immigration authorities by helping a young African refugee in the French port town of the title. As the shoe shiner, Andre Wilms reprises his “Marcel Marx” character from Kaurismaki’s terrific 1992 tragicomedy La Vie de Boheme. If Le Havre isn’t quite as good as that earlier film (which I still think is the director’s best), it nonetheless resonates as a humane and refreshingly optimistic portrait of a neighborhood full of decent people coming together for a common good. I especially liked the unexpectedly touching relationship that develops between Marcel and an adversarial police inspector, which put me in the mind of the friendship between Rick Blaine and Captain Renault in Casablanca. This has added appeal for fans of pre-nouvelle vague French cinema as it is studded with references to classic movies from that era (e.g., important characters are named Arletty and Becker). Like most of the director’s work, this is nothing more or less than a good small film.

Goodbye (Rasoulof, Iran)
Grade: B+ / 7.6

A recently disbarred female lawyer living in Tehran must cope with her husband’s imprisonment and the decision of whether to have an illegal abortion, all while attempting to bribe the necessary officials in order to leave the country. It is impossible to separate this raw and harrowing portrait of Ahmadinejad’s Iran from the story of its making: it was directed under semi-clandestine conditions by Mohammad Rasoulof, a filmmaker facing a six year prison sentence on trumped up treason charges, and then smuggled out of the country for international distribution. The tone is undeniably (and understandably) bleak and despairing but this has an urgency that few contemporary movies can match.

Turn Me On, Dammit! (Jacobsen, Norway)
Grade: B / 7.4

Turn Me On, Dammit!, which premiered as Turn Me On, Goddammit! at the Tribeca Film Festival before receiving a title modification, is the best coming-of-age teen-sex comedy I’ve seen in ages, perhaps because it’s so truthful and frank in its depiction of teenage sexuality (with all of the awkwardness and confusion that implies), a quality with which its Hollywood counterparts cannot compete. Alma is a 15 year old sex-obsessed girl living in a small Norwegian town. After becoming embroiled in a local scandal (she claims Artur, a popular boy, poked his erect dick against her hip, a charge he denies), she finds herself becoming a pariah at her school. Meanwhile, her best friend Saralou dreams of moving to Texas so that she can protest capital punishment. This is the first fiction feature by Jannicke Jacobsen, a young director known previously for her documentaries, and she shows an impressive feel for childhood (the cast of non-professional performers is amazing) while painting a deft, universally relatable portrait of small town boredom.

Rabies (Keshales/Papushado, Israel)
Grade: B / 7.0

A quartet of young, attractive people cross paths with a knife-wielding maniac while traveling through a rural area. Think you’ve seen this movie before? Actually, you haven’t. The first ever horror film from Israel (made by first time writer/directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado) is a nasty, darkly funny exercise in subverting the viewer’s expectations of the slasher genre. Even more so than most horror movies, Rabies is best seen without knowing too much in advance; let me just say that the title is metaphorical rather than literal, positing violence itself as an infectious disease, and that the full allegorical implications of the film (one could argue it would not be as effective had it been made anywhere but Israel) only gradually become clear as the scenario unfolds. An unusually creative employment of cross-cutting and some eardrum-bursting sound effects made my heart stop repeatedly during the 90 minute running time. Not for the faint of heart but horror fans should seek this out.

A Lonely Place to Die (Gilbey, UK)
Grade: C+ / 6.2

This low-budget but well-made British thriller begins like a horror film (mountain climbers accidentally stumble across a little girl imprisoned underground by unseen villains) before transitioning into an urban action movie revolving around a kidnap and ransom plot. Along the way there is some breathtaking scenery of the Scottish Highlands, a few tense, crisply edited set pieces and a commanding lead performance by Melissa George. As far as genre material goes, this lacks the originality (not to mention the bat-shit crazy quality) of something like Rabies and consequently isn’t as much fun. But as an exercise in suspense-building, it’s a solid piece of craftsmanship that marks its young director, Julian Gilbey, as someone to keep an eye on.

The Last Rites of Joe May (Maggio, USA)
Grade: C- / 5.1

The Last Rites of Joe May begins with the title character, an aging “short money” hustler, being released from hospital after a lengthy stay only to find that his landlord has rented his apartment to someone else. From there, Joe’s luck only gets worse as he is unable to find work or repair a broken relationship with his estranged son. Can he find redemption in the unlikely friendship he forges with a young single mother who is being abused by her scumbag cop-boyfriend? Writer/director Joe Maggio has cited influences as disparate as Umberto D and The Friends of Eddie Coyle and yet this mostly feels like an uninspired mash-up of more recent films like The Wrestler, Crazy Heart and Gran Torino. Dennis Farina, a great character actor who isn’t often given leading roles, and the Chicago locations both shine. They also deserve much better than the cliched story that envelops them.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. The Ward (Carpenter)
2. Humanity and Paper Balloons (Yamanaka)
3. The Lady from Shanghai (Welles)
4. Turn Me On, Dammit! (Jacobsen)
5. The Turin Horse (Tarr/Hranitzky)
6. Psycho (Hitchcock)
7. A Lonely Place to Die (Gilbey)
8. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Ceylan)
9. Failan (Song)
10. Rome, Open City (Rossellini)


A Pre-War Japanese Cinema Primer

For most of the past year I’ve been on a big Japanese cinema kick, and that includes checking out a healthy dose of movies made there before the Second World War – a period much less well known than what was to come afterwards. Thanks to recent efforts by enterprising home video distributors like The Criterion Collection, it has become much easier to plumb what Dave Kehr has aptly described as the “oceanic depth and diversity” of this rich era in Japanese film history. Western cinephiles can now profitably study previously unknown directors like Hiroshi Shimizu (and directors known primarily for their more famous later movies like Mikio Naruse) alongside the great early work of Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi. Once again, I am by no means an expert when it comes to this period (and of course I’m at the mercy of what distributors have deemed worthy of making available with English subtitles) but here is a list of pre-war Japanese films that have, in one way or another, knocked my proverbial socks off.

A Page of Madness (Kinugasa, 1926)

Director Teinosuke Kinugasa was a member of a group of avant-garde Japanese artists known as Shinkankaku-ha (“the school of new perceptions”) and this experimental film, written in collaboration with future Nobel Prize winning author Yasunari Kawabata, is a good representation of their rebellion against realistic representation. Apparently not influenced by The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (which Kinugasa claimed not to have seen at the time), this nonetheless tells a similarly mind-bending story of subjectivity set within an insane asylum. Silent Japanese films have had an even smaller survival rate than their American and European counterparts, which makes a startling, non-commercial work of cinematic poetry like this all the more valuable.

I Was Born, But . . . (Ozu, 1932)

The silent era continued in Japan for many years after it ended in the United States. Therefore a lot of the best Japanese films of the 1930s were silents, including this powerful tragicomedy by the great Yasujiro Ozu. The pointed social satire shows how two young brothers lord it over the other neighborhood children but are humiliated when they discover their own father has to kowtow to his boss at work. Like a lot of early Ozu movies, this was loosely remade later in the director’s career – as the equally great Good Morning in 1959.

Apart from You (Naruse, 1933)

Mikio Naruse had perhaps the most dynamic visual style of any Japanese director of the pre-war era. The penchant he showed in his early films for frequent camera movement and rapid cutting is evident in Apart from You, a masterful silent melodrama about a boy being raised by a single mother who works as a geisha to support him. The boy’s anger and shame over his mother’s profession lead him into a life of delinquency until the mother’s friend, a younger geisha played by the lovely Sumiko Mizukubo (“the Sylvia Sydney of Japan”), takes him to visit her own impoverished family to illustrate that “everyone has her reasons.”

Our Neighbor, Miss Yae (Shimazu, 1934)

The one and only film I’ve been able to track down by the esteemed Yasujiro Shimazu is this delightful comedy/drama about the friendship between two neighboring families set in contemporary suburban Japan. The plot concerns a love triangle between a law student who “looks like Frederic March” and the two sisters next door, one of whom is newly separated from her husband. In a lot of ways, this feels like the most modern (and westernized) Japanese movie of its era – the characters play baseball, watch a Betty Boop cartoon and engage in hilarious, flirtatious banter. The exchanges between the law student and the younger sister in particular (the Miss Yae of the title) are highly memorable and infectiously fun.

A Story of Floating Weeds (Ozu, 1934)

A traveling kabuki troupe on the verge of packing it in passes through a town where the troupe’s leader had a love affair many years before. The reunion between the actor and his former lover – and their illegitimate teenaged son (who believes his father to be an “uncle”) – raises the ire of the actor’s current mistress, who jealously plots her revenge. An early masterpiece by Ozu that foreshadows many of the themes and visual motifs of his more famous later work.

Mr. Thank You (Shimizu, 1936)

Like Yasujiro Ozu, Hiroshi Shimizu was one of the top directors at Shochiku Studios in the 1930s – although his work was virtually unknown in the West until the 21st century. Mr. Thank You is an astonishing film about a bus driver known for his politeness who travels from town to town through rural Japan. It takes place virtually in real time and was shot on a real bus traveling through the countryside (no rear projection was used), which makes it an important stylistic precursor to both Italian Neorealism and the road movies of Abbas Kiarostami. Shimizu’s film is both universal (a bus journey as a metaphor for life – a series of sad, funny, ephemeral encounters between fellow travelers) and specifically rooted in Depression-era Japan (a woman sells her daughter into prostitution, a Korean laborer helps to build a road that she herself cannot afford to travel on by bus).

The Only Son (Ozu, 1936)

My favorite pre-war Ozu film is also his first sound movie, an exceedingly poignant story of the relationship between a single mother who slaves away in a silk factory to give her son the best possible education only to be disappointed when he doesn’t grow up to fulfill her lofty expectations. Exquisite direction, including a signature use of cutaways to seemingly random exteriors, nuanced performances and a simple, unsentimental plot combine for a unique and deeply moving experience.

Osaka Elegy (Mizoguchi, 1936)

Kenji Mizoguchi is my favorite Japanese director and Osaka Elegy is a good early example of his genius. It tells the story of a female switchboard operator who is forced into a life of prostitution in order to pay off the debts of her father. Ironically, she is ostracized by her family for becoming a “fallen woman” even though the sole aim of her self-sacrifice was to save them. Mizoguchi combines immaculately choreographed long takes with a characteristic empathy for the plight of his heroine, which is seen as inextricably bound to the strict and hypocritical social codes of the time.

Sisters of the Gion (Mizoguchi, 1936)

Kenji Mizoguchi’s second movie of 1936 also tells what might be termed a prototypical feminist story of oppression although the focus here is on a pair of women, geishas eking out a living in the red light district of Kyoto. The older of the two “sisters” supports a broke boyfriend while the younger hatches a scheme to lift them up into a more comfortable existence, a plan that results in tragedy. Clocking in at a mere 69 minutes, this jewel of a film features excellent performances and an unforgettably despairing ending.

Humanity and Paper Balloons (Yamanaka, 1937)

Sadao Yamanaka is considered a major figure in Japanese movies of the early sound era. He died tragically before reaching his thirtieth birthday and only three of the twenty-plus films he directed in his brief, prolific career survive today. This is cause for bitter regret because Humanity and Paper Balloons is probably my favorite Japanese movie of the entire pre-war era, a film I would rank ahead of the greatest early work of the more well-known directors on this list. Set in the Tokugawa era, this story of a kidnap and ransom plot across class lines is a jidai-geki (period piece) that feels like a gendai-geki (contemporary story). Indeed, it’s fascinating to see such an unromanticized view of the samurai class, which went against cinematic trends of the pre-war years. This flawlessly directed portrait of 18th century village life is alternately tragic and funny and brimming with unforgettable characters.

The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (Mizoguchi, 1939)

The first major masterpiece of Kenji Mizoguchi’s career is this towering period drama about the taboo relationship between a wealthy young actor and his family’s wet nurse. The formal precision of Mizoguchi’s exquisitely calibrated camera movements, combined with his signature use of long takes and long shots (there are literally no close-ups in the movie), is perfectly suited to his twin themes of doomed love and female sacrifice. This may have been a routine melodrama in the hands of any other director but Mizoguchi, the consummate perfectionist, knew that his rigorous visual style would touch and elevate the viewer. The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums ranks alongside of Mizoguchi’s best post-war films (The Life of Oharu, Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff) as one of the greatest achievements in cinema.

The Ornamental Hairpin (Shimizu, 1941)

Hiroshi Shimizu’s film about a disparate group of vacationers staying at a hot springs resort for the summer starts off as a comedy and then wondrously, imperceptibly morphs into a poignant drama. The great Chishu Ryu (best known for his work with Ozu) plays a soldier who badly injures his foot when he steps on a hairpin in the communal bath. He later discovers that it was left behind by a beautiful young woman played by Kinuya Tanaka (best known for her work with Mizoguchi). When she returns to the resort to apologize, all of the guests speculate that love must be in the cards. But Shimizu, a master of subtlety, decides to steer the material in a more interesting direction. Released less than four months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, The Ornamental Hairpin contains fleeting references to to the war and the fact that Tanaka’s character is a geisha, lending touches of gravitas to another deceptively light Shimizu masterwork.


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