Monday, November 30, 2009

Wendigo Meets SON OF DRACULA (1943)

This past weekend Wendigo wanted to clean his palate after watching a wretched cheapo vampire picture from 2008, The Thirst: Blood War. I asked him for a comment on that one, but he says simply, "It's too horrible for words, amateur hour all over the place -- worse than Subspecies or Vampire Journals! People like C. Thomas Howell and Tony Todd must have been hard up to take the money the producers of that one were offering. It was a depressing experience with some of the lamest vampires and lamest actors ever." After watching that one, Wendigo wonders how anyone can question Lon Chaney Jr.'s performance in Robert Siodmak's film for Universal.

Actually, he knows how. Creighton has been lambasted for being miscast, for looking like Farmer Greenjeans playing a vampire, for being stiff, uncomfortable, incompetent in the role. Wendigo sees things a little differently. He can't deny Junior's awkwardness and discomfort, but he thinks that "Count Alucard" should seem uncomfortable as he finds his way in a new land. He should seem alien if not hostile on his predatory mission to steal America's younger, stronger, more virile blood. He's obviously not a seductive vampire, and only goes after one woman in the entire picture. But this story presents him as more of a Mephistopholes than a macho seducer, a partner in a Faustian bargain rather than a ravisher.

What's the point of the "Alucard" gambit when you've already identified Lon Chaney as "Count Dracula" in the opening credits? But because Universal did that, they felt a need to clarify the whole Alucard problem as quickly as possible, as soon as the Count's luggage arrives.

Even given all that, Chaney's clearly trying hard to keep his speech measured and mannered. If anything, he comes across less like a European aristocrat and more like the Southern plantation owner he aspires to be -- the grooming, the grey hair and the moustache help that. He has the commanding manner of someone accustomed to dominating thralls or slaves -- ironic given his ultimate role in the story. Overall, Wendigo thinks that Junior did a good job. He has a strong presence and is almost at his best in scenes when he simply stands still and stares balefully at people. He's no Lugosi, nor even a Carradine, but then again those two weren't making the kind of film Lon was.

Vamp vs. vamp: Louise Allbritton and Lon Chaney Jr. Below, Allbritton suffers a temporary setback, but doesn't seem to hold the gunshots against her boyfriend later.

Most people will agree that Count Alucard is damn far from a master vampire. He comes on strong early but as the plot develops Alucard is exposed as a dupe and set up as a victim. Automatically Chaney is going to look weak compared to Lugosi, even the Lugosi of Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein who still doesn't take crap from women. But remember: it's Alucard who is made to look weak, and Chaney's just stuck with the role as it's written. And it's not as if Carradine was exactly masterful in House of Frankenstein; as Wendigo says, Dracula was Karloff's bitch in that film, and a pretty hapless one at that.

Kay makes Frank (Robert Paige) an offer he can't refuse -- so she says.

Speaking for myself, the fact that Son of Dracula isn't a conventional vampire movie is all in its favor. But what is it, exactly? Wendigo and I have a slight difference in emphasis. Noting Robert Siodmak in the director's chair and Louise Allbritton's staggering femme fatale performance, I call this film a film noir. Poor Alucard is being set up for a Postman Always Rings Twice scenario by the master female he thinks he's seduced -- the sap! -- and he never sees it coming. And Frank Stanley, as played by Robert Paige in what must be a career-best turn, is a perfect noir dupe of a hero, not to mention a kind of Renfield elevated to the status of hysterical protagonist.

"I'm a sane man fighting for his soul!" Robert Paige never says this in the film, but if he did, who would blame him?

Wendigo, on the other hand, acknowledges the noir or proto-noir elements, but thinks I should empasize Son's Southern gothic elements. It has a profoundly dysfunctional family at its heart and a doomed, obsessive romance between Kay Caldwell and Frank Stanley that started in childhood and probably has something to do with an early loss. I can't deny that a love so obsessive that you, the femme fatale, are going to seduce frickin' DRACULA so he'll turn you into a vampire, just so you can turn your real boyfriend into one after he throws the Count into the sunlight, so you lovebirds can be together preying on the living forever, is kind of on the gothic side. The genre blend gives the finale, when Frank has to decide whether to follow through on Kay's bargain, an honest tragic weight.

Wendigo also notes echoes of Bram Stoker's own Dracula (referenced in the film itself!) in certain scenes, particularly his attempted intimidation of the newly-made band of vampire hunters, as well as details that continued in later Universal films. Those include Dracula's moustache (see Carradine), his pretensions to scientific study, and those animated transformation scenes that impressed me as a kid. Robert Siodmak's brother Curt got away from his brain obsession enough to come up with a story (adapted by Eric Taylor) that evokes what came before (including his own concern with gypsies) while aiming the genre toward a new direction. Robert S brings a fresh eye to the proceedings and adds stylistic touches (with major help from the art department, including above-average bat effects) that virtually lift the film from B-movie status. If anything, some of the genre trappings (the need for expert vampire hunters in the fuddy-duddy Van Helsing mold, recitations of lore, etc.) weigh it down.

Lon Chaney Jr's case isn't helped by his being obliged to do really dumb things in his vampire character, especially his attempt to put out a fire by pounding it with a wooden plank. I'd heard that vampires have infantile minds, but this is ridiculous.

Maybe it's inevitable that Son of Dracula will disappoint people looking for a Dracula movie, but the qualities that may leave it less satisfactory as that kind of film are the same ones that redeem it for many viewers. Wendigo acknowledges that it's a flawed experiment (it does rather waste Evelyn Ankers, after all), but embraces Son as a fine vampire movie and a good film, period.

Cushing97380 uploaded the Realart trailer for Son of Dracula to YouTube. Here it is:

Sunday, November 29, 2009

ONE DOLLAR TOO MANY (I Tre Che Sconvolsero il West, 1968)

Here's the fourth film and fourth Spaghetti western by the young Enzo G. Castellari, who'll go on in the 1970s to be identified with tough-cop movies and earn a once-removed place in film history as the director of The Inglorious Bastards. In 10,000 Ways to Die Alex Cox gives Castellari a thumbs-up for his next film, Johnny Hamlet, but this one is the sort of thing Cox doesn't care for as a rule: a comedy western. As such, it doesn't even rate a mention in Cox's survey, but it turns out to be fairly entertaining, thanks to Castellari's dynamic direction and the enthusiasm of his three stars.

Frank Wolff plays Edmund Kean, an actor like his English namesake who has turned to crime in the Old West. Disguised as a preacher, he's won the confidence of a stagecoach team who'll be carrying a big shipment of money out of town to the Springwood Bank. The harmless minister asks them to carry along a Bible for the congregation in Springwood. Inside is a time-bomb set to blow somewhere outside town; afterwards, Kean plans to collect the strongbox from the ruins. But he hasn't reckoned on Moses (Antonio Sabato), the generic lone Mexican bandit who holds up the stage before the bomb goes off. Not knowing about the cash shipment, he takes the mailbag (containing the bomb) and sends the stage on its way. Moses rifles through the bag impatiently, finding a few bills and a necklace, and tosses the Book away moments before it blows. Kean arrives moments later and decides to hang Moses for ruining his plans. But once Moses understands the situation he tells Kean that he knows how to break into the Springwood Bank and get at the money.

Kean spares Moses and the film briefly becomes a caper movie. While the actor distracts the populace outside the bank with an impromptu morning sermon, Moses gets the cash after tunneling into the bank overnight and surprising the bank president. When Kean's suddenly dragged off to officiate at a funeral, Moses absconds with all the loot. Kean prepares to give chase but has his plans complicated by Clay (John Saxon), a gambler whom the bank president owes a fortune after a night at the card table. The way Clay sees it, a good chunk of that money belongs to him, so he wants to join the chase for Moses. Kean doesn't want more partners and is willing to fight for his principles, but the arrival of a posse compels the men to join forces to get out of Springwood.

The stars of One Dollar Too Many all have gimmick weapons, but you're meant to laugh at them. John Saxon's gun (below) has a built-in music box that plays after he shoots. "It's a German tune," he explains.

A pattern emerges. As the trail leads to a Mexican village, a train station, a raging river, etc., our three protagonists will switch sides and form different two-vs-one factions depending on who's got the money. Ultimately they have to team up to keep the loot out of the hands of a bandit band and the U.S. Army while making sure not to confuse the valise it's in with a lookalike bag belonging to a comedy-relief henpecked tourist. This gives Castellari plenty of chances to film sprawling, brawling action scenes. Some work better than others. The best is Saxon's battle to escape the Mexican village. He leaps, dives and climbs walls in the manner of Douglas Fairbanks while slugging anyone in his way. Saxon certainly didn't do any of the jumping, but he can throw a punch like a cinema champion.

Saxon slugs Hercules Cortez (above, playing the Bolo Yeung of Mexico) while fighting his way through an angry village.

Less successful is a fight pitting Kean and Moses vs the bandits in a cantina kitchen. Some of the action is good, but the scene simply goes on too long with too many gags about people getting covered with flour or soot. Also overdone, or simply misconceived, is a climactic struggle for the loot on the river that ends up looking like a game of water polo. Castellari was clearly trying to do something original here, but the water simply doesn't give him a good stage for stunts or comedy, and his stuntmen simply flail about in it. He must have realized that he'd botched the climax, because he brings his three stars back for one more running fight scene that at least has plenty of energy before closing the film with the addition of a fourth partner for the team.

The ending still doesn't seem right. The theme of One Dollar Too Many (also known as Vado, Vedo e Sparo -- "I came, I shot and I stole," while the original title translates to "The Three Who Upset the West") is greed, and the characters exhibit greed on a near- epic, Mad Mad Mad Mad World level. Given the cartoonish antics of our protagonists, it might have made more sense for their chase never to end rather than letting them all finally win as Castellari does. But the movie runs on such high spirits, and the actors look to be having such a good time, that you can't hold these debatable failings against it. I can hold Carlo Rustichelli's goofy score against it, but after a while I could tolerate that, too. It's no masterpiece, but it's simply too much fun to dislike.

Videoasia goes too far in proclaiming One Dollar "the first comedy of the genre" on the box cover for Spaghetti Western Bible Vol. 3: The Fast, The Saved and the Damned. Cox reports Franco and Ciccio had already done a parody of the Leone films by 1966. It's possible that Castellari's was the first one (or even the last one) to be good, but I'd need to see more spaghettis before drawing that conclusion. In any event, the Videoasia copy could be sharper, but it looks to be letterboxed correctly. It's one of ten films in the new set (I've already reviewed The Price of Power), and you shall hear from it again before long.

Earlier this month, Mr. Spaghetti Western posted the original Italian-language trailer to YouTube. The picture quality is actually better than the DVD.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

IP MAN (2008)

Wilson Yip's biopic about the real-life Wing Chun master and mentor to Bruce Lee beat out John Woo's vaunted Red Cliff for Best Picture at the 28th Hong Kong Film Awards, though the only other award it won was for Sammo Hung's action choreography. That's a category conspicuously absent from American film awards, but no matter. I haven't seen Red Cliff yet (and in U.S. theaters it won't be the full-length movie anyway) so I don't know if I should consider this a rip-off, or if Chinese audiences felt that way. I do know that I liked Ip Man quite a bit.

High-conceptwise, think of Ip Man as a cross between Fist of Fury and Cinderella Man. Our title character is an independently wealthy landowner who stays amiably aloof from the highly-competitive martial-arts community in Foshan, though not aloof enough for the neglected Mrs. Ip. When one of the masters from "Martial Arts Street" comes over to challenge him to a duel, Ip Man invites him to share dinner before getting down to business. He's a model of courtesy; after manhandling his rival with little difficulty, he thanks the man for being lenient with him. Master Ip is civic-minded, however. When Master Jin storms the neighborhood with a band of bandits to prove the superiority of Northern boxing, it's up Ip to slap some respect into the barbarian with a devastating feather-duster attack. The fight is a joy to watch, something out of classic slapstick right down to Donnie Yen's taciturn Buster Keaton-like expression. He can be violent and non-violent at the same time. When a local cop scoffs at the masters, claiming that China needs arms and guns, not martial arts, Ip disputes his point by slapping the barrel out of the officer's pistol. But even the embarrassed officer cheers him on when he drives Jin out of town and becomes the hero of Foshan.

Choose your weapons: Ip Man (Donnie Yen, right) dusts off Master Jin (Fan Siu-Wong)

Like Kung Fu Hustle, Ip Man is set in an idyllic 1930s that must be seen as a sort of golden age by many Chinese, but inevitably 1937 rolls around and the Japanese arrive in force. These predatory invaders devastate the Foshan economy, confiscate Ip Man's property, and force him and his little family out onto the street. This is the Cinderella Man part of the movie as Master Ip learns to use his hands for manual labor rather than martial arts practice in order to keep his wife and son from starving. He gives up Wing Chun, explaining that practice makes him hungry when there isn't much food to go around.

Nevertheless, once he lands work spreading coal (after turning down an offer from a textile mill he'd invested in in better days) his ears prick up along with those of other ex-masters when the Japanese occupiers issue a challenge: their karate men vs. Chinese martial artists, with a bag of rice for any Chinese who can beat a Jap. This show is run by General Miura, a genuine martial-arts enthusiast who is the nearest thing this patriotic film will allow to a "good Jap." He has a definite code of honor compared to his underlings, and doesn't like his dojo being used for summary executions. When word reaches Master Ip that the Japs have shot down one of his old buddies, he demands to fight ten karate guys at once. He defeats them easily with attacks that are heavy with rapid-fire pummeling and limb snapping, but refuses to accept his ten bags of rice as a reward. Instead, he delivers his pal's bloodstained bag of rice to his grieving family.

That's gotta hurt! (above and below)

The Japanese aren't the only problem in Foshan. Jin's bandits are still lurking in the countryside, hijacking trucks and running an extortion racket on the textile mill Ip had invested in. Concerned about Japanese retaliation for his humiliation of their karate men, Ip tries to lay low, but news of the textile mill's distress draws him there to train the employees in Wing Chun. Under his leadership, they rout Jin's gang, but in an offscreen development Jin rats out Ip to the Japs. At first, Gen. Miura isn't that menacing. He just wants Ip to teach him and his soldiers Wing Chun. When Ip refuses, Miura's underlings start torturing people to find the master. Ip gives himself up to save his friends at the textile mill, on the condition that Miura meet him in a martial-arts duel. Miura accepts despite his minions' reservations and their readiness to shoot Ip if the fight goes his way. The stage is set for a peaceful cultural exchange demonstrating the eternal friendship of Japan and China -- yeah, right....

Gen. Miura (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi, standing) makes Ip Man an offer he can't refuse without a fight (below).

When it comes to Millennial Chinese martial-arts cinema I prefer the old-school kung fu movies to the often-overblown, FX-ridden stuff. Ip Man is a solid human-scale martial-arts film in the mold of Fearless, with lavish art direction and genuinely award-worthy action choreography from the honored Mr. Hung. Donnie Yen was nominated for Best Actor and I was genuinely impressed with his acting as well as his fighting. He handles the comedy of the first act adeptly, never blowing his cool, and his stoicism keeps the middle section from getting maudlin. He has a very good scene after his one-vs.-ten battle when he tells his wife that he now feels useless because he had never been more than a dilettante, had never really done anything useful with his talent before. It's an unusual moment of introspection in a kung fu movie and Yen makes it work.

From the set design to the fighting I found Ip Man a treat to watch, and I'd recommend it to any martial-arts fan who likes dynamic action with wirework kept to a reasonable minimum. For everyone else it's an unpretentious treat that doesn't go overboard with gore or CGI but gives you a genuine hero standing up to occupation and oppression. It's a pretty common story around the world but you can't tell it enough.

This English-subtitled trailer, uploaded to YouTube by freedomlover7, includes some authentic shots of the real Ip Man, including some money-shot photos of him with protege Bruce Lee.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

KATYN (2007)

Poland has been partitioned between Germans and Russians four times in its history, thrice in the 18th century, finally resulting in the extinction of the country, and once in 1939, after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact freed Hitler to invade from the west. Days later, Stalin invaded from the east. Andrzej Wajda's film opens on a bridge as refugees from the German assault head east, only to be warned by people on the other side that the Russians are coming. Among those who cross anyway are Anna and her daughter Nika. Anna's husband Andrzej is a Polish officer recently captured by the Russians. Security is still pretty lax, so Anna can walk her bike over to where the captured officers are being kept and invite Andrzej to escape. He refuses. His oath to Poland outweighs his oath to remain with Anna 'til death do them part.

Bolsheviks and Nazis share the spoils of Poland in the early scens of Katyn.

The first act of Katyn traces the ruin of Andrzej's family between the millstones of Hitler and Stalin. His father is a college professor whose university in the German occupation zone is closed down by the Nazis for holding unauthorized classes. The professors are packed onto trucks and taken to Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Some months later, Andrzej's mother receives a package in the mail along with a polite message of regret from the German authorities. The professor died of heart disease, and his captors have done the courtesy of mailing his ashes home. It's a chilling moment and typical of Katyn's approach to the terror of World War II. We're used to images of industrialized mass killing as perfected on Jewish prisoners: mass gassings, mass shootings. The Poles don't suffer that way in this film. They're eliminated one at a time, albeit with just as much remorseless efficiency, and the horror of it is that it makes every killing seem more personal, more vicious.

For a while, Andrzej continues to write heavily-censored letters from his Soviet-run prison camp, where his fellow officers maintain discipline and are treated relatively well. By the spring of 1940 the letters stop coming, and eventually the Russians start rounding up the officers' wives and children. One Russian officer is being quartered in Anna's home. He has a crush on her and wants her to marry him. He urges this on her as much for her own sake as for his; he speaks cryptically about being unable to save loved ones of his own at home, and wants to atone for that here. When Anna reminds him that she's married to Andrzej, he blurts out that he and the other officers are "no more," but Anna doesn't follow up on that hint and refuses the officer's offer. Nevertheless, when the soldiers come for her he hides her and Nika and bullies his own men away. He then advises her to escape into the German sector.

Maja Ostaszewska as Anna

Cut to 1943, in German-occupied Krakow. Loudspeakers recite a litany of names, and it settles in gradually that these are the names of Polish officers whose bodies have been exhumed by the Germans from mass graves in the Katyn Forest. The list is also published in newspapers, and we find Anna scanning one eagerly for news of Andrzej. Improbably, his name is not there. He may still be alive, Anna believes, and Andrzej's mother feels certain that she couldn't lose both her husband and her son to the war. Meanwhile, the Germans want the widow of Andrzej's commanding general to record a denunciation of the Soviets, whom the Germans blame for the massacre. She's unwilling to collaborate with the occupier, despite the bullying of a Nazi officer, until she's taken into a private room and shown newsreel footage of the exhumation. She can barely stand afterward, though it isn't clear whether this persuaded her to make the propaganda recording.

Danuta Stenka as the General's widow studies a tape recorder suspiciously.

Notice that Wajda has jumped in time past the actual deaths of the officers. His focus is on the survivors reaction to the news of the massacre and the changing narratives that different occupiers impose on events. He also creates something of a mystery, though that effect may be felt more by non-Polish viewers. For us, Wajda's avoidance (so far) of showing the massacre leaves open the question of who killed the officers. The Germans say the Russians did it, but they are Nazis, after all. They could be lying -- and this is exactly what the Russians say when they "liberate" Krakow and occupy Poland. They show the same exhumation footage the Germans used, but what the Nazis called the typical Bolshevik execution method -- a bullet in the back of the head -- the Russians call the typical Gestapo method. They also claim that forensics prove that the officers were killed in the summer of 1941, when the Germans would have overrun the camp during their invasion of Russia.

Once we get to the postwar period, the focus moves away from Andrzej's family for a while as we follow characters who refuse to accept the new party line on Katyn. Agnieszka, the sister of an air force pilot who died there, is determined to erect a headstone in her local church in his memory. The stone gives his date of death as Spring 1940. The authorities, including a complacent Catholic Church, refuse permission. The 1940 date is a provocation and a slander on Poland's Soviet allies and protectors. She erects the headstone in a cemetery instead; it is almost immediately smashed by the occupiers, and Agnieszka is brought in for questioning. She refuses to play ball, preferring, as she tells her collaborationist sister, to take the side of the murdered against the murderers. For her trouble, she's taken into a basement and never seen again. For Wajda Agnieszka is a modern Antigone, and he makes the archetype obvious to everyone when she gets her hair cut to donate it as a wig for a performance of the Greek play starring a concentration-camp survivor.

Above, Magdalena Cielecka as Agnieszka. Below, the broken headstone.

Meanwhile, Andrzej's old friend Jerzy, a fellow imprisoned officer, returns to Krakow as part of the Soviet occupying force. People are surprised to see him because his name was on the original Katyn list. But as he explains to Anna, that's because he had a name tag attached to a sweater that we saw him lend to Andrzej. It's almost certain, then, that Andrzej died in Jerzy's place, while Jerzy managed never to be transported to the execution ground. He knows quite well what happened to Andrzej, but his job is to uphold the party line for the good of fraternal Polish-Soviet relations. He can't take it. After making arrangements to have Andrzej's remaining personal effects delivered to Anna, he gets roaring drunk, staggers out onto the street, and blows his brains out.

Finally, Anna receives the material Jerzy requested for her. The most important possession is Andrzej's diary, which records his movements up to his final transport to Katyn. Obviously he can't tell what happened there, but Wajda can. He has saved the crucial event for the end, and the effect is more terrible than anyone could anticipate. One by one, starting with the General, the officers are taken from their prison trucks and taken into a nondescript building where Soviet officers standing in front of a red flag and a portrait of Stalin matter-of-factly sentence each one to death by checking off their names. It takes place with primitive efficiency. A man whose face we never see gets up from a stool and shoots each Pole in the back of the head. As the body is dumped through a chute out a window and into a dump truck, and the pooling blood is washed away with pails of water, the executioner hands his pistol to a second for reloading and receives a loaded weapon for the next job.

Other officers, including Andrzej, are taken to an outdoor killing ground where each has his hands tied behind him before the bullet in the head. The scene is repeated oppressively, and Wajda goes a little overboard with sentimentality as each officer recites a snippet of the Lord's Prayer before going down, the next man picking up where the last was cut off before all are dumped into mass graves and covered with bulldozed earth. This is not a "Eureka" in which a character in the story has discovered the truth and can tell the world about it. All Anna has to work with is a battered journal that conveys the horror of what happened through its numerous empty pages, and once we see the earth cover the victims, the film is over.

Wajda has covered some of this territory before in disguised form in his French Revolution movie, Danton. Katyn reminds me very much of the French film in its first act, which concentrates on people anticipating certain destruction at the hands of merciless power, and that makes me wonder whether Wajda already had the Katyn story in mind and was using Danton as an indirect dry run at it. But Danton won't prepare anyone for the relentless atrocity that closes Katyn. The one-at-a-time slaughter makes this film look less like a war movie or Holocaust film (comparisons may be inevitable) and more like a horror film. Wajda doesn't go overboard with gore effects, but the final scenes of this movie will still be hard for sensitive people to watch.

Critics around the world have been tempted to read a political message into Katyn. The Koch Lorber DVD invites such a reading by describing the subject as "The Crime Stalin Couldn't Hide." Wajda's been accused of making an anti-Communist or anti-Russian movie, and in the latter capacity the film has been labelled propaganda for Poland's current right-wing anti-Russian government. I honestly didn't see it. There's nothing Communist or communistic about the Soviets' treatment of their Polish prisoners or their attempts to suppress the truth about Katyn. It's simply what any tyrannical occupying power (and arguably any occupying power, leaving adjectives out of it) would do. It so happens that the Nazis stumbled upon the truth, but you get the impression that they would have just as happily lied and blamed a massacre of their own on the Russians. The scene with the General's widow shows that the Germans were interested less in the objective historic truth than in the propaganda advantage they could get from it. The German-Russian collaboration at the start of the film suffices to establish Wajda's point that Nazis and Soviets were two of a kind. The Poles are interested in the truth because their loved ones are involved, but they can't necessarily handle it. Anna lingers in denial long after Jerzy sets her straight, still assuming that the next knock on her door will be Andrzej finally making it home. Other Poles like Agnieszka's sister are willing to forget history in order to get on with the present and build the future, and who's to say that if the truth is just a reason to hold grudges, some truths should be forgotten for the future's sake? In Poland's case, however, insisting on the truth was a form of resistance to occupation. Poland's present-day sovereignty consists in part in being able to tell their version of the Katyn story without worrying what the Russians think, and doing so is about as political as Wajda's Katyn gets.

It's a film of undeniable power, underscored with Krzysztof Penderecki's ominous music and introduced amid swirling clouds during the opening credits that suggest the mists of history parting at Wajda's command. There's a self-conscious epic quality to it that's probably appropriate for a subject that must rank among Poland's greatest tragedies. Structurally it digresses a bit in the middle by introducing new characters to take the struggle for truth in directions Anna won't follow. Anna's story is tangentially related to Agnieszka's because the former works in a photo studio that provides the image that the latter wants to use on her brother's headstone, but the two women don't interact beyond that. There's another even briefer subplot involving an unruly student who ends up getting run down by a truck that makes the movie feel more erratically episodic than it should. But once we come back to Anna and she receives Andrzej's journal Wajda closes the movie with scenes of unforgettable power that make most objections to his story structure trivial. Katyn is one of those films that fits Woodrow Wilson's description of Birth of A Nation as "history written with lightning." It's one of the best European films of the decade.

Here's a trailer with English subtitles, uploaded to YouTube by Kiedra666

Monday, November 23, 2009


At first glance, this was one of the more enticing films in Mill Creek Entertainment's Drive-In Classics box set because it was one of the few titles in it to be letterboxed. But it's taken me a while to look at it because the subject matter sounded rather mundane. It's a once-in-a-lifetime triple threat performance by Jack Conrad, who wrote and directed the film and plays the lead role of Bobby Lee Dixon, a drifter out of jail on parole who comes back to his old haunt in Georgia near the Florida border and renews his romance with Ruthie (Rita George, who is profoundly misidentified by IMDB as a Berlin-born actress whose career began in 1919). Ruthie has been faithful to Bobby, but she's been faithful to her husband also, and that disappoints our hero, who was hoping she'd divorce the man we never see. We do get to see his trailer, where Ruthie and Bobby hold a tryst and Bobby expresses his disgust with a cramped small-town existence of grease-monkeying after just two days of freedom. He wants Ruthie to make a commitment to breaking out of their rut by joining him in robbing a bank in nearby Havana. That's pronounced "HAY-vana," by the way.

Country Blue is a movie with a split personality. For two-thirds of its present length it's a slow-paced atmospheric account of small-town Southern poverty with lots of Seventies details to hold my attention. It also gives us two young people taking up the ways of country bandits, but Conrad refrains from romanticizing their exploits. Their initial bank robbery is utterly inept, as Ruthie removes her mask almost immediately, Bobby constantly calls her by name, and she finally does the same for him. All the while a fast-talking bank president (David "the Big Lebowski" Huddleston) poor-mouths his own establishment to convince them that their haul from the tellers' cash drawers is all they're going to get. They leave with less than $2,000 when $40,000, they later learn, was within easy reach. When Bobby reads about it, he can't stand the humiliation, so he robs the bank again and gets the rest of the money. We can give him credit for perseverance, but little else apart from that Southern knack for driving fast and avoiding the police -- and even that fails our pair when they're stopped by a roadblock, chased down on foot and arrested. Up to this point I was debating whether Conrad meant us to see Bobby and Ruthie as pathetic small-timers or whether their ineptitude was really his as a writer-director. I'd decided on the former, in favor of Conrad, until the film's last half-hour, when it suddenly occurred to our auteur that he was supposed to be making an exploitation film for regional drive-ins, but hadn't really been doing much in that line yet apart from having Ruthie take her top off once.

So once we get our young lovers in prison the jailers set about beating the piss out of Bobby while Ruthie must endure the attentions of one or two lesbians in a cell. There's nothing explicit about that part and the lesbianism is all talk, and given the way the women look that's probably for the best. It's the thought that counts. Meanwhile, word of their imprisonment reaches Bobby's good friend Arneda Johnson, a local madam and bar owner in the black neighborhood. Bobby may be white trash, but he's no redneck if that means racism, apparently. Arneda comes to the rescue, visiting the jail with one of her employees in order to blackjack a jailer and free Bobby. Having also freed the less-lesbian of Ruthie's cellmates, the gang finds Ruthie being raped by the head jailer, to whom Bobby administers a sound thrashing. That done, the fugitives pile into a getaway car, only to have the jailers blast a big ol' hole in Ruthie's cellmate. Then Arneda's assistant goes down with a bullet in the head. In a panicky rage, Ruthie grabs a gun and blasts the head jailer (I should say blasts the jailer's head), then finally pushes the two corpses aside so she can close the car door and the survivors can escape. The escalation of brutality is so sudden that it really does seem like a different movie.

We have time for one more car chase and a fiery death for the pursuers, and from there it looks like Bobby, Ruthie and Arneda are in the clear. But this is the 1970s, when the deus ex machina is likely to stomp on a film's heroes like Monty Python's foot. In Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, for instance, the lovers are in the clear only to be annihilated by a train. In Country Blue one wrong turn sends our protagonists into the drink. In another era it might be a way of saying Crime Does Not Pay. But in the Seventies the message more often was Nothing Pays.

But this is not The End. Bobby escapes the watery grave, but the women don't. He limps back home for one final chat with his mentor Jumpy. You might think that Jumpy is the main character of the story, for Conrad generously gave top billing to the biggest name he could hire, longtime western character actor Dub Taylor, who had just done The Getaway and would follow this with a Love, American Style episode. Conrad's generosity didn't extend to a generous wardrobe budget; Taylor wears the same filthy Ex-Lax t-shirt through the entire picture, at home, at work, and at the race track. Jumpy advises Bobby that he's going to have to cope with adversity just like he did once (???), and so off the boy goes in a fresh vehicle. We see him heading down a road, and we see a police car turn a corner to follow him. We get one more shot of a lone car on the road, and the actors appear for the closing credits.

Country Blue is one of those films that makes a minor virtue of its impoverishment. Since poverty is its subject, it achieves authenticity negatively through lack of budget. Conrad found a good place to film in, and the broken-down locations give him all the art direction he needs. He's not a good writer nor a particularly good actor, but he seems right for his self-assigned role as a hapless self-pitying bandit. The main problem with the film is that he doesn't really strike a balance between the more character-driven first part of the film and the slam-bang crash-and-bleed final act. The more violent action shouldn't look like an afterthought the way it does here, where it has almost a square-up quality of compensating for a non-violent first hour. In Conrad's defense, I have to note that Mill Creek's copy of the film is about ten minutes short of its announced running time of 103 minutes, while IMDB claims that Country Blue was originally 110 minutes long. We may be missing footage that would have given the film a more consistent tone, but how likely is it that violent action scenes were cut out of this movie?

Overall, I found Country Blue interesting, if not exactly good, as an example of regional Seventies cinema that tried to say something about the environment it came from while trying at the same time to be a poor man's Bonnie and Clyde or Badlands. It has a historical value apart from its cinematic qualities, such as they are, that might make it worth a look for all-out Seventies buffs -- and the last half hour may make it worthwhile for fans of white-trash mayhem in general. It is definitely a more ambitious film than much of the stuff in Drive-In Classics, but I'd say that box set is probably where posterity would put it anyway.

10,000 WAYS TO DIE

Alex Cox will probably be remembered, whether he likes it or not, as the director of Repo Man. He's a well known fan of spaghetti westerns and wrote a thesis on the subject in college. His new book, "A Director's Take on the Spaghetti Western," is a book of criticism rather than a history of the genre, but it proceeds in chronological order from 1963, when Sergio Corbucci made his first western, Red Pastures, to 1977, when the last great spaghetti (according to Cox), Michele Lupo's California, was released. Along the way he offers detailed reviews of 51 key films. Appropriately, many are good, some are bad, and some are ugly in interesting ways.

Cox has some interesting insights on the genre's evolution. He sees Marlon Brando's One-Eyed Jacks, with its revenge-minded, serape-wearing hero, as just an important precursor of the genre as Kurosawa's Yojimbo, and notes that both 1961 films have in common heroes who waste time going about their business and get their butts kicked badly in mid-story. He traces the idea of the "tardy" avenger back to Hamlet, and sees the spaghettis as a modern version of the 16-17th century English revenge-tragedy genre, which he's adapted into film in Revenger's Tragedy. Cox likes both genres because their violence challenges official mythologies of social order and offer audiences models for rebellion against injustice. They have in common a way of disguising contemporary context by setting stories in alien locations. The English tolerated revenge tragedies as long as they were set in Italy, while Italian moviemakers could invoke social conflicts at home by disguising them as American westerns.

What makes a good spaghetti western for Alex Cox?

1. Social consciousness. This is most obvious in the "tortilla westerns" set during the Mexican revolution, but it's also increasingly apparent in American-set films where the villains are bankers or big landowners. This sets spaghettis apart from the decrepitude of American westerns as of the 1960s, which Cox identifies with patriarchal ranch-based TV shows like Bonanza, where the landowner is the hero. He points out something I hadn't really noticed: when spaghetti heroes are Civil War veterans, they are almost always Union rather than Confederate vets. That's because Europe never romanticized the Confederacy the way Americans did until rather recently, and because Confederates symbolized the highly-publicized racial violence in Sixties America. I was surprised, however, that Cox describes a recurring spaghetti motif of Confederates hoping to restart the Civil War without noting a U.S. film that beat the Italians to the punch: Gordon Douglas's underrated Rio Conchos, a product of the same year as A Fistful of Dollars that is very brutal by American standards of the time and may have set a standard for the Italians to match.

2. "Sadistic" violence. Cox is all for creative ways of making people suffer, up to a point. Violence is cathartic for him, but it shouldn't be sugar-coated or romanticized. It's important to show people suffering (while again avoiding the temptation toward misogyny in rape scenes) and spaghettis start to go wrong for Cox when they start emphasizing creative ways to kill people rather than the raw violence of death or torture. He cites If You Meet Sartana Pray For Your Death as the advent of what he calls the "circus western," which trivializes violence through gimmickry and acrobatics. For Cox, cruelty underscores the injustice of the spaghetti world and should remind viewers that the struggle against injustice will be no tea party. He likes those films like Quien Sabe? that portray revolutionary violence warts and all without idealizing the leaders.

3. Anticlerical violence. Cox is only half-joking, if that, whenever he applauds a film for showing priests being killed. He notes that the original target audience for spaghettis, the poor people of southern Italy, saw the clergy as part of an oppressive social structure. If you see any sentimentality expressed toward priests in an Italian western, Cox suggests, it probably represents a compromise with American distributors. Merely sacrilegious violence (e.g. crucifixions) also counts. On the other hand, Cox is happy to see radical priests take up arms for the revolution (e.g. Klaus Kinski in Quien Sabe?), though I think he'd still like them to end up dead. In any event, pacifism is not an option.

Sergio Corbucci is the hero of this book. Appropriately, he's a flawed and finally defeated hero. Cox shows sympathy for an underdog here, since Corbucci remains overshadowed by Sergio Leone. It's also been long known by spaghetti fans that Cox considers Corbucci's The Great Silence (he prefers The Big Silence) the genre's greatest achievement. He credits Corbucci with raising the bar of sadism and "baroque" violence, but he also sees the title character of Silence as the most genuinely heroic character in the entire genre. That's because he goes to certain death with no real hope of success, but because he knows it's the right thing for him to do. Overall, Corbucci is a more cynical filmmaker than Leone, a fact that almost guaranteed his decline in the Seventies as he grew disgusted with the genre, but Cox sees him as somehow a more authentic figure than the anxiety-ridden Leone. Cox admires Leone's films (For A Few Dollars More most of all) but for him Corbucci gets to the essence that distinguishes spaghettis from their American precursors.

A book like this is supposed to be opinionated, so I shouldn't have been surprised to find some disagreeable opinions inside. Cox has something against Clint Eastwood. It may be director's envy in part (in that role Cox finds him "uniquely uninspired"), but he also indirectly blames Eastwood for The Great Silence never getting released in the U.S. and implies that Joe Kidd is the remnant of what was once meant as an American remake of Corbucci's film. He goes on about Eastwood's supposed obsession with mercy killing, dating back to a scene from Fistful of Dollars, the punchline being a pretty uncharitable description of the climax of Million Dollar Baby. I don't know if Cox's animus toward Eastwood has a political motive, but his own radical beliefs lead him, in an admiring review of The Price of Power, to endorse a hare-brained LBJ-did-it conspiracy theory of the Kennedy assassination. As someone who's read Vincent Bugliosi's Reclaiming History (which Cox dismisses as "parroting" the Warren Commission line), Cox's commentary on a tangential topic insults my intelligence, but now I also digress.

In fairness, I should note my pleasure in his endorsement of two spaghettis I like a lot: Blood at Sundown (a.k.a. $1,000 on the Black, the proto-Sartana movie with Gianni Garko as the villain) and a once-guilty pleasure of mine that Cox deems a late treat, To Kill or Die, i.e. The Fighting Fists of Shanghai Joe. Remind me to review that genre-mix masterpiece sometime.
Most importantly, Cox has pointed me towards numerous spaghettis that I hadn't heard much about but now want to see fairly urgently, like Requiescant, Tepepa, Cemetery Without Crosses and that last-mentioned California. That's what'll define the book's ultimate worth for any given reader. You may not agree with his opinions, whether on the movies themselves or on other topics, but he gives you detailed descriptions of the films and knowledgable commentary on a lot more than the direction. You can accept his recommendations or you can decide from the information he gives you that you want to see something whether he liked it or not. While I wouldn't recommend this as a history of the genre, I think it's a worthwhile supplement to the major English-language studies of Christopher Frayling and Howard Hughes. Maybe the highest recommendation I can give is that 10,000 Ways to Die now has me interested in seeing Walker and Straight to Hell -- Cox's most spaghetti-inspired films -- to see if he lived up to his own ideals.

Sunday, November 22, 2009


This weekend I invited my friend Wendigo, the vampire-cinema fan, to enter the avant-garde. He was not otherwise disposed; he is disabled in a way that makes it painful for him to sit in a chair without a footrest, so it will be just about impossible for him to see New Moon in a theater. At least he now has our weekly experiments to compensate a little, and this time I hit him with Guy Maddin's black-&-white (with exceptions), silent (with musical score) adaptation of a balletic interpretation of Bram Stoker's story.
Actually, this was not as alien an experience to him as readers might expect. He is, in fact, the proud owner of a copy of the decade's other great neo-silent horror film, Andrew Leman's The Call of Cthulhu (2005). That small-budget miracle was as stylized, in its way, as Maddin's film is, and in any event as a fan of German Expressionist horror Wendigo isn't averse to stylization -- a good thing in this case.

We are at two removes from Stoker's original. The choreographer, Mark Godden, has broken the novel down into two acts, eliminating the opening scenes with Jonathan Harker in order to begin with Lucy Westenra's seduction, corruption and destruction.

With admirable symmetry, the Harkers are introduced in the second act, which takes place entirely in Europe, beginning at the convent where Jonathan recovers from his ordeal at Castle Dracula. Van Helsing and his gang (the whole crew: Holmwood, Morris and Seward) head there after they torture Renfield into divulging Dracula's plans, and Dracula is already on his way there after Lucy is exorcised and destroyed. Inevitably you lose the multiple-narrator format of the novel, but most adaptations have no use for that either. There are nods to the format; both Lucy and Jonathan keep diaries. The latter is so hot that reading it has Mina ready to bang Jonathan right in the convent. So whose is the singular Virgin's Diary of the title? Search me.

Above, Renfield is a relatively minor player in this version of Dracula who has to be tortured to provide some needed exposition. Below, the magic of dance injects a minor note of nunsploitation into Stoker's classic tale.

Wendigo wasn't as skeptical as some people might be about whether Dracula can be told through ballet, except for the geographic sweep of the climactic hunt. He took for granted that some parts of the story would be lost (including the Piccadilly Circus scene that is always lost in adaptations). He took an expressionistic approach for granted, as well as a romantic approach over Gothic horror. Whether dance can frighten you is debatable, but there are many deeper, arguably more horrific aspects of the story that fit the ballet's romantic format fairly well. Dance definitely draws out the sensual aspect of Dracula's domination of Lucy and Mina, which ties into Maddin's subtext of male sexual anxiety and xenophobia. The sexual awakening of both characters is an obvious subject for dance, and Maddin directs the action to emphasize the power of Dracula and the sort of bullying fear of the men that finds violent expression in their attacks on women and/or vampires.

Pages From a Virgin's Diary is a pretty obvious critique of the misogynist culture from which Dracula emerged. Women are treated as property by vampire and hunters alike, the latter being as outraged by the discovery that Dracula has stolen money from England as by the fact that he has polluted the women's blood. The group transfusion in which the hunters all offer blood to the ailing Lucy, and Seward complains that Holmwood gave her more blood, turns in Maddin's filming into a kind of tribal gang rape. Wendigo gets that same vibe from a later scene when the hunters slaughter Dracula's brides with stakes that are more like lances. The meaning is hard to miss when Maddin captions Holmwood staking a vamp with "Cuckold's Counter-Blow!" And this film strongly suggests that the hunters get perverse thrills from destroying females. That includes dear old Van Helsing, who is last seen stuffing a piece of Mina's petticoat into his vest, having sniffed it earlier when Dracula threw it at him.

Also obvious is Maddin's reading of Dracula as an expression of xenophobia, though I've always felt that critics overstate that angle. Again, title cards make the threat "From the East!" pretty blatant as a poll of black blood spreads west from the Carpathians toward England. The most obvious form the threat takes is the casting of a Chinese dancer, Zhang Wei-Qiang, as Dracula. There's nothing Asiatic about his interpretation of Dracula, but there's no easier way to identify Dracula as The Other than to make him non-European. As a virtuoso dancer he lives up to the romantic ideal of the vampire, but his brandishing of money and his apparent offer to buy Mina's love belies the smooth moves. This is most clear in the Lucy episode, in which it looks like he's vampirized her in order to feed off her after she bites babies. This Dracula is a seductive parasite, and Wendigo thinks that Zhang conveys that well.

Maddin seems to want to eat his cake and have it too, critiquing the politically incorrect patriarchal attitudes he finds in the original text while seeming to confirm the literal threats portrayed by Stoker. This is most perplexing in the Lucy sequence. She's shown as a monstrous baby killer, and yet you can't help but think that there's something wrong with the way the hunters finish her. They take too much pleasure in it, and it struck Wendigo as if they're punishing her, not for killing babies, but for losing her honor to the foreigner. He worries that there's no way anymore to portray the hunters as the sympathetic heroes Stoker meant them to be, because we now automatically see them as patriarchal oppressors. In our less religious age we're less likely to see the situation as putting the women's souls in jeopardy, or vampirism as the Fate Worse Than Death, and more about female sexuality being punished by society. To tell Dracula straight today you would have to deglamourize vampirism totally, or make it clear to the audience that the vampirized person is no longer the person you knew, and can be killed with impunity. Wendigo thinks feminist vampire stories that put positive spins on female empowerment or sexual awakening are perfectly fine -- he couldn't be a fan of urban-fantasy literature otherwise -- but even though he likes Pages From A Virgin's Diary very much he has to note the slightly troubling contradiction.

The hunters wash their hands of Lucy's blood. You be the judge.

Wendigo was impressed by Maddin's selective, symbolic use of color. Blood runs red for the most part, but money glows green and Dracula "bleeds" gold coins when you stab him. The use of color hints at an equivalence of these elements; gold and green paper, arguably, are the blood or life force of the West Dracula has invaded, and we see he's been gorging himself on bills and coins as well as virgins' blood.

We have our theories about the color of money in Maddin's film, but we're not sure exactly why that cross glows blue in one shot and no others.

Interestingly, Dracula bleeds money at one point to signify his invulnerability (the coins rush back into his wound) before Mina submits to him Nosferatu style, but afterward he bleeds blood like the rest of us. Likewise, Van Helsing's cross is ineffective in Round One, after Dracula, using Mina as a hostage, has convinced him to cover a sun-exposing hole in his castle wall so they can duke it out vampire to hunter.

A brave vampire this one isn't. A standoff from Maddin's Dracula.

Afterward, after she's bitten, Mina's cross has the expected potency. Wendigo wants to contrast that potency of female empowerment (for Mina resists Dracula a lot more than Lucy did) with the impotence of all the hunters, all of them (not just Holmwood) being cuckolded by the Other running amok among their women. Because she can now withhold what she had given, she can exploit Dracula's dependency in a way the guys couldn't.

Maddin's direction is anything but stagy. He gets his camera all over his sets, filming from all angles and editing quite furiously sometimes. Some of the action scenes are actually well staged and edited, and I suppose it shouldn't surprise us to see dancers capable of taking falls and doing other stunts. He also throws in some horror homages: Van Helsing's arrival at a steamy train station (above) is a nod to The Exorcist (most apropos, Wendigo says) while the business with exposing Dracula to sunlight in his castle is pretty much lifted from Horror of Dracula. But Maddin is naturally more concerned with putting his personal visual stamp on the story, and despite some occasionally arbitrary editing for its own sake, he succeeds admirably. Wendigo has one quibble about the copperplate font Maddin uses for his intertitles, thinking that something more expressionistic was in order for authenticity's sake, but he can live with that. Overall, he recommends it to vampire buffs who may have steered clear of the high concept. It's a worthy addition to the vampire-cinema canon.

And here's a French-language trailer, uploaded to YouTube by EDDISTRIBUTION. Never mind the words, anyway; it's a silent film.