Monday, February 23, 2015

Capsule Reviews For You and For Me

I watched some movies recently and I haven't posted anything in a while. So here we are.

Annabelle (d. John R. Leonetti) - The reaction to this spin-off prequel (I guess) to 2013's massively successful haunted house/possession film The Conjuring was, well I'll just say it, kind of negative. My reaction to The Conjuring was kind of negative, so I feel like everyone else is getting on this elevator on the fifth floor at minimum, but the truth is that while I did not exactly like Annabelle, I don't feel as compelled to hiss and spit at it as many have been. The reason for this is probably simply that Annabelle, while being worse than The Conjuring, isn't that much worse, and actually has one or two effective sequences. Which is nice.

The titular evil doll, which is ostensibly "based" on a "real" "doll", had a cameo in The Conjuring, in a ghost story prologue to the ghost story, in much the same way James Bond movies have a prologue action scene, and Annabelle tells the story of how that doll became so very wicked. Mia and John, a married couple played by Annabelle Wallis and Ward Horton is expecting their first child, and Mia is given the doll by John, and then, long story short, a Satanist bleeds on it. But the sequence that leads to that bleeding ain't bad, as far as suspense and such things go. Eventually Annabelle becomes another skim milk pseudo-exorcism movie, one which drags Alfre Woodard into the tedium, and frankly, though I watched the film yesterday, details are draining from my mind even as I write this. So I suppose my point is, The Conjuring had some nice moments too, and I can't really see the difference.

Robinson Crusoe (d. Luis Bunuel) - The last time I watched a Bunuel film that was (mostly) free of his brand of surrealism (and listen, this is a capsule review, I'm not going to try and describe Bunuel beyond that) it was Death in the Garden, his excellent 1956 adventure about the motley survivors of a plane crash in the South American jungle. Now I've finally caught up to his 1954 adaptation of Daniel Defoe's 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe, and I'll be darned if the two films aren't somewhat similar! Defoe's story, of course, is about the title character's life alone as the survivor of a shipwreck on an anonymous, secluded island. In Bunuel's film, Crusoe is played by Dan O'Herlihy, previously of Orson Welles's Macbeth and later of Robocop, and unlike contemporary films about lone men struggling to survive, like Castaway and All is Lost, O'Herlihy talks a lot -- to animals, himself, mirages, and in narration as a man who is telling his story from some time in the future. The problem with that being that O'Herlihy is not, to my mind, very good here. He seems to be one of those actors who was most at home existing in his own time -- his version of an 18th century sailor is all ramrod posture, booming voice, and big-eyed mugging when taken by surprise.

However, and you'd think this would be impossible for any film version of Robinson Crusoe to manage, the rest of Bunuel's movie somehow overcomes this. It's the second half when it all really comes alive, sometime around a turning point involving Crusoe's animal companions. This is beautifully sad, and begins a kind of understandable breakdown, the cinematic effectiveness of which must be credited more to Bunuel than O'Herlihy. Bunuel pulls back when O'Herlihy's instinct, I suspect, would have been to go huge. Soon, there are cannibals, Jaime Fernandez arrives as Friday, and the drama and adventure crank way up. It's good stuff.

Genocide (d. Kazui Nihonmatsu) - The Japanese film studio Shochiku boasted a who's who of major filmmakers back in its heyday -- Ozu, Mizoguhi, Kinoshita, etc. -- and, for a brief period in the 1960s they also produced horror films. Only four, as it happened, but they're a goony bunch of movies worth just about anyone's time. That doesn't mean I have to necessarily like all of them, though, 1968's Genocide -- whose director Nihonmatsu would only make one other film, The X from Outer Space, also for Shochiku -- is a deeply frustrating piece of work because by all reason I should love it. A swarm of super bees takes down an American bomber. The three crewmen bail out, and the H-bomb they were carrying goes missing. The action from there takes place on a small island in Japan, in a little seaside town.

So what's up with those bees? everyone asks. Their stings are deadly and hallucinogenic. And what's up with the American woman the married resident bug expert is having an affair with? Plus the American military, what a bunch of jerks, right? Those first two are good questions, but that last one causes some problems. Of all the Japanese films that have been made that deal in some way with World War II but which possibly don't acknowledge the extent of the war atrocities for which that country was responsible, Genocide (and what a title, under these circumstances) has to be the most galling. The Japanese heroes all wonder why anyone should ever wish to wage war, especially these American madmen who've lost their precious atomic bomb. Don't they remember that last war? This "Who, us?" attitude goes so far in its obliviousness that the Holocaust becomes a major plot point, as well as a symbol, yet it's never once mentioned that the Holocaust was perpetrated by Japan's main ally during the war. Nihonmatsu seemed to believe viewers would just accept the notion that Imperial Japan in the 30s and 40s stood by incredulously wondering what the world was coming to. Which is ridiculous, and I won't do it.

Five Came Back (d. John Farrow) - So you I do a horror movie, then I do a movie about survival, then another horror movie, and now look at this, another one about survival! In this one, a small commercial airliner, carrying a small load of about ten passengers and a few crewmen, crashes in the Amazon rain forest on the way to Panama City. One thing and another throws the rescue party off the scent and if the survivors -- including the lovely young Lucille Ball as a woman kind of fed up with everything, Joseph Calleia as a murderer being transported for execution and John Carradine as the man doing the transporting, plus others -- are going to get out alive, they're going to have to do it themselves.

Five Came Back is classic Golden Age filmmaking, and it's also one of the more picked-clean-by-buzzards films you'll see. I don't know how many films before it toyed with the idea of a small group of characters in crisis banding together to form modern society in microcosm, one which brings out the best and worst in people, but this came out in 1939 so there couldn't have been that many, and I doubt there were any better -- there certainly haven't been many better since, although the premise has been put to work dozens of times in subsequent years. Farrow, whose best known film is probably the cock-eyed noir His Kind of Woman with Robert Mitchum, is very elegant in his staging of violence, when it occurs, and he also does a terrific job of making the survivors eventual encampment look both habitable, and like something most of us would want to get away from. On that note, the screenwriters, which include Dalton Trumbo and Nathanael West, pile on the hardships and infuriating (if you have to deal with them, I mean) moral quandaries that eventually separate the good from the bad. In its simple way, Five Came Back is brutally powerful, and finally moving. It packs most things you might want out of a film in 75 minutes. Terrific.

Digging Up the Marrow (d. Adam Green) - And now another horror film! So why am I still watching Adam Green movies? He made his name with Hatchet, one of those intensely violent and horribly knowing, as if this is somehow a plus, slasher comedies from the mid 2000s. Rather than sinking his dreams early, as you might hope would happen, Green now had a career. Four years after Hatchet he made Frozen, no not that one, about three friends stranded on a ski lift. And that one I thought was pretty good. If I watched it today, who knows, but at the time I appreciated that Green winked far less, that he was able to sustain that premise to feature length, and that one character's death, partly due to the performance, actually had an impact. All of this I thought added up to a good sign. But then Green made Hatchet II, which is appallingly shitty beyond all reason. The way my mind works, even though I've ignored Green's cable TV show Holliston and the anthology film Chillerama to which he contributed and which sounds utterly unbearable to me, I'm at the stage with Green where as a discouraged horror fan I think "Let's see what else this prick makes."

Which is called Digging Up the Marrow, and which is Green's first found footage horror film, so that makes you want to poke out your own eyes right there, and which, for a while, seems like a commercial for and misguided celebration of Green's work up to this point. For you see Green plays himself in the film, and he's making a documentary. By way of an introduction we're filled in on Green's credits and his relationship with his fans -- eventually, Digging Up the Marrow, which is partly comedy, will take on that air of self-deprecation the secret goal of which is to puff up its target. So that's obnoxious, but the subject of the "documentary" is William Dekker (Ray Wise), an ex-cop who believes that monsters are real and that he's found where they live. Is he a crackpot? There's a payoff to Green and crew's bumbling investigations, and they take the form of creature designs inspired by the work of artist Alex Pardee.  This, and Ray Wise, make the film worth seeing. Or in the interest of covering my ass, at least make me not regret seeing it. Pardee's work is solidly unusual and his creations generate actual unease. Wise, meanwhile, is wonderful, as he always is, because it doesn't matter what job Ray Wise takes, he's going to make damn sure he shows up for work. So he's a joy to watch. But the found footage could have life in it, I suppose, if the people who worked within it were willing to take on not just the form's benefits but its limitations, as well. In Digging Up the Marrow it's established that Green has one cameraman, but he edits the film as though he has as many as he needed, because in reality he did. In addition to being lazy and unimaginative, it's frankly insulting.


John said...

True, the "Conjuring" association would be enough by itself to kill any possible interest I might have in that movie. But taking for its subject the wooden malice of AN EEEEVIL DOLL is the poison icing on the cake. Unless, maybe, we're talking that '70s bit from the Richard Matheson story, there's no stale horror archetype in the canon of clichés that I have less interest in wasting my time on.

Five Came Back sounds promising. You've seen Lost Horizon, I take it? Maybe not quite the same thing, but from the same remarkable era and powerful in its own, hauntingly lovely way.

Genocide sounds dumb, and Hatchet was something beneath garbage in my experience ("intensely" violent isn't how I'd describe it--"cartoonishly but ineffectually" would be more like it) so I'm already inclined to steer clear of Digging the Marrow. But, dammit, you've got me mildly interested with your comments about the monsters or whatever they are, so I suppose I'll have to see what the deal is at some point.

bill r. said...

I'm worried about overselling the monsters in DIGGING UP THE MARROW. They're cool, but I honestly think the main reason to see the film, if you're so inclined, is Ray Wise. If you're not inclined to see it, I think you'll be fine skipping it.