Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Movie of the Day: The Bermuda Depths

As a child I was extremely terrified of horror movies, and yet I was intensely interested in all things supernatural or creepy. Although I ran into another room on the rare occassions when my mom would watch a horror film(she isn't a horror fan, but I distinctly remember hiding in my bedroom during Friday the 13th part 2 and Fright Night), I thrilled whenever my braver friends would describe films like Alien or The Stuff. I read a ton of horror books, and scoured the library for books about 'real' supernatural phenomena, from Bigfoot to UFO's to voodoo(in 6th grade I became quite obsessed with voodoo, or at least the mostly fictionalized version you find in western entertainment). I pored over books ABOUT horror or science fiction movies, particularly the ones with a large middle section devoted to photographs. Although I wasn't ready for the films themselves, I memorized the alien landscapes from plenty of those movies.

The main problem wasn't that I was a particularly frightened child, but that I startled easy. Ask Amber, I jump at any goddamn thing, in any goddamn movie. Romantic comedies, family films, melodramas; if it has a loud noise and sudden movie I involuntarily react by jumping out of my skin. Thankfully I can only think of two instances where I screamed aloud(Audition at home, and The Others in the theatre). This intense nervousness, coupled with my love of all things paranormal, goes a long way towards explaining my fondness for The Bermuda Depths, a live action television movie by Rankin/Bass(the people behind most of the stop-motion Christmas specials you remember from your childhood) first aired two weeks before my birth. It was supernatural and slightly creepy without ever trying to be scary, so it was safe for me to sit through.

I can't remember exactly when I first saw The Bermuda Depths, but it was certainly in the mid-80s, and my memory tells me that it was hosted by Elvira. I can't find any proof that Elvira actually presented this movie on one of her shows, but I'm pretty sure I'm correct. Although I only saw it once in elementary school, the film stuck with me for decades, and stayed with me in a very deep, personal way that most films never did, eve superior films that I enjoy more. The film represented some tragic, romantic ideal that haunted me for years, to the point that whenever I heard the sound of Humpback Whales I'd feel an intense longing for something indefinable that I knew I would never reach, or even know what it was.

My rhapsodic comments here are probably giving you the idea that this is some lost classic that fell through the cracks unjustly, but you'd be wrong. The Bermuda Depths is by no means awful - watching it recently for the first time in at least 20 years, it actually surpassed meager expectations- but it is really, really cheesy. Leigh McCloskey plays Magnus, who returns to his childhood home troubled by memories of a vague accident at his old home, which now lies in a crumbling ruin on a cliff overlooking the ocean. He meets up with Eric(Carl Weathers), an old friend now working as a grad student researching marine life, and Jenny(Connie Seleca), a mysterious, possibly dead woman he remembers playing with as a child, but who most people believe doesn't exist. And there's a giant turtle. Big. Gamera big, although this one doesn't fly.

Describing the movie more would do no good; either you saw it years ago and fell in love, or you've never seen it and watching it now would do nothing for you. The Bermuda Depths is not a very well known film, so you probably never saw it. It doesn't have much in the way of critical discussion, and the only two sources I found that weren't anonymous internet bloggers did not speak highly of it. There's a fairly intense group of people who love this movie(look up the discussions on IMDb, some people are writing poetry about it!), and I have to admit I'm one of them, but I'm assuming that, like me, they all saw this movie at a formative point in their lives. I'm glad that I now own the movie on DVD(through Warner's DVD On Demand service), and I'm glad Amber watched it with me. It's something I actually look forward to visiting again, but mainly I'm glad to have had those memories, haunting me for my adult life.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 with the understanding that it'd probably be lower if without the nostalgia factor.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Movie of the Day: Libeled Lady

Personally, I would have been just fine if every comedy of the 30s and 40s starred William Powell and Myrna Loy. They epitomize for me the suave, witty, droll attitudes I find so entertaining in many movies from that era. I love their manner of bickering, that can never mask the affection beneath, but also never becomes as trite and treacly as their more modern counterparts. Their constant boozing in the Thin Man series never strikes me as alcoholic in nature(which, if anyone tried to replicate it in real life, it most certainly would be), but is instead charming and lovable. And speaking of drinking, has there ever been a better on-screen drunk than William Powell? Possibly, but I can't think of any right now. He only has one scene in My Man Godfrey where he gets really drunk, but his glowering, sudden appearance as he comes home sloshed in that film makes me laugh just thinking about it. Counting the Thin Man series as one movie, William Powell and Myrna Loy made 9 movies together(counting the Thin Man series that number rises to 14!), and Libeled Lady was their 6th pairing.

The basic plot is anything but basic, so try to keep up: a newspaper prints a false story about rich socialite Connie Allenbury(Myrna Loy) breaking up a marriage. Connie then sues the paper for libel for 5 million dollars. The newspaper hires libel expert(and ladies man) Bill Chandler(William Powell) to find a way out of the suit. His solution; to marry Gladys Benton(Jean Harlow, William Powell's girlfriend at the time), the long suffering girlfriend of newspaperman Warren Haggerty(Spencer Tracy, and let's take a moment to admire this cast). After getting fake-married, Bill would ingratiate himself into Connie's favor, and find some way of getting into a compromising position with her just in time for his fake-wife to burst in. Then, the story would be true, and Connie would be a home-wrecker after all. Predictably, Connie and Bill fall in love, and Gladys falls for her fake husband Bill. Got it? Yes, the plot is horribly convoluted beyond any logical point, even for a screwball comedy. The producers here were hoping to complicate the original screwball template not by changing the formula, but by doubling it with two mismatched pairings.

I hate to borrow directly from another person's review of a movie I'm trying to write about, but in this case I just have to quote from Variety's original review from 1936: "Even though Libeled Lady goes overboard on plot and its pace snags badly in several spots, Metro has brought in a sockeroo of a comedy." I quote that mainly because I like the dated slang in the review, but also because it's surprisingly accurate. The plot eventually leads to all sorts of door slamming and racing this way and that, but getting there can be a bit of a slog. The pacing IS a bit weak, and a lot of the humor is distressingly broad, like in a scene where William Powell has to pretend to be a master fly-fisherman to impress Myrna Loy's father. The exaggerated pratfalls may be par for the course, but aren't exactly what I look for in these films.

Although the finale piles complication on top of complication, the solution is distressingly sudden and fades to black in less than a minute. Still, with those(actually fairly minor) problems aside, the film has plenty to recommend it. The rapport between Powell and Loy is as acidic and endearing as usual, and the fast-paced dialogue holds plenty of zingers.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Monday, March 29, 2010

Movie of the Day: Scream of Fear

Scream of Fear(also released as Taste of Fear) opens with a scene of Scottish policemen dragging a lake and coming up with the body of a young girl. This scene will go unexplained for a short while, as the post credits sequence starts with a different young woman in a wheelchair arriving in France to live with her father(who she hasn't seen in over ten years) and stepmother(who she has never met). It turns out the drowned girl was her roommate, and she committed suicide, leaving our heroine, Penny, severely shaken and seeking the comfort and support of home and family. She is met at the airport by her father's chauffeur, Bob, and taken to meet her stepmother, who informs her that her father has gone away on some private affair. Soon, however, Penny begins seeing her father's corpse in various disused rooms of the house, and although everyone is quick to blame the visions on stress, Bob starts helping her research her father's disappearance and a sinister plot takes form.

This is one of those movies I recorded from TCM not because I'd heard anything special about it(in fact, until I saw it on my TV guide I'd never even heard of it), but because it was one of the earlier horror films produced by Hammer Studios, produced on the heels of their big success reinterpreting the old Universal mainstays(Frankenstein, Dracula and the Wolf Man). With a Hammer film from that era your pretty much guaranteed to run into Christopher Lee and/or Peter Cushing, and sure enough, Scream of Fear features an impossibly young Christopher Lee in one of the better acting jobs he's done. That's no slight on Mr. Lee, I find him enjoyable in everything he's done, but he usually plays the same character in each film. He has immense gravity, but very little range. He actually stretches a bit in here, and even tries on a French accent!

The best thing about watching movies with no prior knowledge is the fact that you never know what your going to get. While the plot of Scream of Fear features a main twist that most viewers will likely see coming very early, particular those who have seen Gaslight, it still has a few twists and turns in store. I can honestly say that although I saw through the villains' nefarious plot, a few late minute reveals genuinely caught me by surprise. Scream of Fear is one of Hammer's more masterful productions, combining some low-key, eerie direction with a pretty solid story and performances.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Movie of the Day: A Bit of Throat Clearing

One of the many questions that have arisen because of modern technology is; how the hell have I lasted so long without a DVR?! We got our DVR around Christmastime, and within a week it was over 50% full. For the past few months it hasn't once dropped below 80%, as I frantically try to keep up with the ever increasing amount of movies I need to see. The television shows are easy; I have a handful that I watch weekly, but Amber also watches them with me so they're easy to knock out in the few hours between our daughter's bedtime and when we finally pass out. The hours and hours of movies are a bit more problematic, because most of these films don't particularly interest Amber, and I have to find time for them; watching some in bits and pieces while on my lunch break. The majority of the films are from TCM, and run the gamut from stone classics(Sunset Boulevard) to minor affairs featuring a star or director who's work I enjoyed in other films(A Libeled Lady, featuring another pairing between Myrna Loy and William Powell). It's a fantastic opportunity which, along with Netflix, is allowing me to increase my knowledge of film history in leaps and bounds.

The minor problem here is that I find myself relating to the movies I see in a slightly different way, or at least the way I process them is different. I find that they don't stick with me quite as well as they used to, and in part I think that's because I've stopped writing about them regularly. For me, writing about something has always been a way to explore certain ideas and opinions and help fix the topic in my mind. I can talk much more knowledgeably on a subject if I've written a few paragraphs about it than if I'd read a book or two and then gone on with my life. So here we come to Movie of the Day. I can't guarantee that this(possibly endless) project will actually be daily, but I can guarantee I'm going to try and stick to it. The posts will also probably not be very long; some of them, like today's, may be two-or-three paragraph 'pellet' reviews, only slightly longer than the short rundown I post on facebook about said movie. But then again, some of them may be multi-page monsters(although if I want to keep this close to daily, I doubt they'll get very long). The point isn't to break new critical ground, but to keep my writing muscles in shape, and try to appreciate the movies I watch in a more well rounded way.

This last month saw what would have been the 100th birthday of Akira Kurosawa, one of the most famous and influential of Japanese directors, and a personal favorite of mine since I stumbled upon Yojimbo in my freshman year at UAA. In honor of his birthday, TCM has been airing weekly marathons of Kurosawa's work, and not just the famous ones like Seven Samurai and Rashomon, but a lot of his lesser known early works as well. Right now a large chunk of my DVR is devoted to every Kurosawa movie TCM aired that I hadn't already watched multiple times. This is wonderful news for me, because despite the fact that I frequently cite Kurosawa as one of the best director's to ever live, I'd previously only seen 9 of his 32 surviving films(several of his early films are forever lost to shoddy archiving and the ravages of time). I watched a few of them over the last week, and look forward to possibly spending an upcoming weekend on the couch catching up with the rest.

One of the movies I've watched so far is Sanshiro Sugata, Kurosawa's first film as director. The title character is a man who goes to town hoping to learn Jujitsu but trains instead in Judo after being impressed by the teacher's skill and attitude. Although it doesn't quite rival the majority of Kurosawa's films I've seen so far, it is surprising in how good it is, particularly for a first-time director. The film is assured and competent in a way that never quite becomes showy, and showcases an early form of the style that would influence so many. While a pretty scratchy print mars some scenes(more on this below), it's still easy to see Kurosawa's skill at framing a shot. During an early scene Yano-sensei, the Judo master, is ambushed by a rival school. Before the fight begins, there is a tracking shot where his attackers pace, and the camera follows one walking towards the right of the frame, and then another walking towards the left. Through this shot we see the various attitudes and poses of the assailants, and we see an example of Kurosawa's defining trait as a director; conciseness. Even when his movies tip the 3 hour mark, there isn't a wasted frame. Every shot conveys multiple pieces of information.

The tale is never more than mere popcorn entertainment, owing to the government censorship of postwar Japan that strictly regulated the film industry and allowed mainly for innocuous melodramas and discouraged political or social relevance. In fact, 17 minutes were excised from this film by the Japanese government, which may account for a couple of oddly chosen title cards that give information about events that logically should have been shown to us(including a hilariously cavalier mention of the title character's crippling depression and long struggle back into the world of the living).

The picture quality for this film(which comes from the Criterion print, meaning it's the best one in existence that they know about so far) is at times lacking, though rarely distractingly so. In fact it only really becomes a problem during an early fight scene that takes place at night. The scene loses a lot of it's power due to the fact that you can't really see what's happening half the time. Overall the movie may be best for Kurosawa devotees, but I'd still recommend it to anyone with an interest in Japanese cinema, particularly from a historical standpoint.