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“Kiss Me Deadly” – Film Noir Apocalypse, Then and Now

Kiss Me Deadly (Criterion)

Robert Aldrich’s 1955 film noir apocalypse Kiss Me Deadly is unlike any other noir ever made. From the opening scene, where Cloris Leachman (naked under a trenchcoat) runs barefoot down a coastal highway flagging down cars, to the Pandora’s Box scream of destruction unleashed in the finale, it pushes the conventions past the breaking point.

Ostensibly based on Mickey Spillane’s hugely successful pulp novel, Aldrich and screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides turned the story inside, transforming it into a white-hot blast of tawdry pulp and film noir cynicism for the atomic age. Aldrich had just come off of Vera Cruz, a mercenary western that looks forward to the cynical opportunism of the spaghetti westerns, and that tone carries over to Kiss Me Deadly. Mike Hammer is turned into a blithely amoral opportunist, a corrupt private detective who specializes in divorce cases (a “bedroom dick,” in the parlance) and stumbles into a conspiracy that he thinks he can parlay into a payoff, and Ralph Meeker plays him with a perpetual sneer of a smile and an arrogance that is rarely justified. This is a guy who pimps out it secretary/lover Velda (Maxine Cooper) between smooches and makes a play for almost every beauty who crosses his path.

Kiss Me Deadly delivers a pulp punch while it savagely satirizes the entire hardboiled mythos with its bare-knuckle brutality, flights of purple prose dialogue and the sheer he-man chauvinism of its dogged hero of scar tissue and street smarts, who isn’t nearly as smart as he thinks he is. Quentin Tarantino paid tribute to it in Pulp Fiction (and, before that, so did Alex Cox in Repo Man). Mickey Spillane hated the film. I love it. Va-va-voom! Pow!

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“Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen” – The Cannibalization of an Icon

Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen (Well Go)

Ostensibly a sequel to the 1972 martial arts classic Fist of Fury, with the talented but far less furious Donnie Yen in the role created by Bruce Lee (and recreated by Jet Li in the 1994 remake Fist of Legend), Legend of the Fist is a colorful and largely incoherent mess, less a movie than a collection of cannibalized ideas stitched together into something resembling a plot.

Set largely in the decadent splendor of 1925 Shanghai, where gangsters made money off the chaos as Japan and Britain made their plays for control of China, it opens with a World War I prologue on the French front lines, takes a turn into Chinese a Casablanca reworked a quasi-musical costume spectacle, and then transforms into a resistance thriller. Yen shucks off the grace and restraint of his Ip Man films to play Chen Zhen as an intent patriot posing as a sleek lounge lizard, his cover as he infiltrates the club, and then take on yet another identity to protect Chinese patriots from Japanese assassins: a costumed superhero that recalls Bruce Lee as Kato in The Green Hornet. Shu Qui wobbles through it all as a nightclub chanteuse playing drunk in every other scene and Anthony Wong maintains a level of modest dignity as the Triad nightclub owner, the film’s answer to Rick Blaine, providing neutral territory for enemies to rub elbows while a nationalist mob war builds in the streets.

Donnie Yen channels Kato

The entire film, directed by Andrew Lau (of Infernal Affairs fame), seems borrowed (if not blatantly lifted) from one movie or another without bothering to integrate the ideas in any coherent way. There are needlessly complicated layers of hidden identities and double agents, brazen assassinations and a culture of intimidation that gets nary a reaction from the bumbling Chinese cops under corrupt British oversight (are they bought off by the Triads, secretly Japanese collaborationists or simply incompetent?) and all sorts of arcane plots hatched by the occupying Japanese military.

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The “Barry Lyndon” Conspiracy!

The works of Stanley Kubrick never failed to generate debate and, at times, deep-seeded controversy when they arrived in theaters, so it’s no surprise that they have generated almost as much debate (though for entirely different reasons) in their home video releases.

Kubrick was a perfectionist in all areas of his filmmaking, including presentation, the one arena over which he had very little control. He could and did set the desired specifications for proper projection but couldn’t enforce them or, given the realities of projection standards in the U.S. and elsewhere, even always count on theaters being conducive to following them. His preferred aspect ratio for his post-2001 releases was 1.66:1, a standard format in Europe but not in the U.S., where most theaters routinely set non-anamorphic films at the 1.85:1 standard.

While Kubrick was alive, he insisted that the DVD releases of his films be formatted at his preferred specifications. Even so, Warner Bros. was raked over the coals for their initial DVD release of his films, which simply reused old laserdisc transfers rather than freshly-mastered high-definition editions. Now there is a hue and cry from a small but vocal sector of the critical community over the Blu-ray release of Barry Lyndon. And the debate, not surprisingly, has gotten very passionate and a little personal.

The whole thing was kicked off when Jeffrey Wells at Hollywood Elsewhere (always good for explosions of indignation) blew a gasket over the specs on the Blu-ray cover, which listed the aspect ratio at 1.85:1: “storm the barricades!” Glenn Kenny, on his blog Some Came Running, tried to slow the rush to judgment by looking at the disc itself, which he found at first glance to be 1:66:1.

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Profundo Argento: “The Cat O’Nine Tails” and “Deep Red”

The Cat O’Nine Tails (Blue Underground)
Deep Red: Uncensored English Version (Blue Underground)

It’s official: Blu-ray has redefined my home repertory schedule. DVD is the format of home video debuts and rarities unearthed, but the Blu-ray release calendar has become my guide for revival screenings of films not seen in years, maybe decades, and sometimes for classics that I never got around to seeing in other forms.

David Hemmings stares down his nightmares in “Deep Red”

Thanks to Blue Underground, Dario Argento’s number has been coming up with some frequency (see my review of Inferno here). This month, two early Argento gialli (that’s plural for giallo) debut on Blu-ray, neither of them among his masterpieces but both showing a young director exploring the possibilities of play within genre filmmaking and perfecting his technical skills and expressive talents. I reviewed the English language versions of each film, in my first viewing of the films since Anchor Bay first released them to VHS at the end of the nineties.

The Cat O’Nine Tails (1971), Argento’s second feature, follows up his directorial debut The Bird With the Crystal Plumage in genre, style and “animal” theme (stretched into a trilogy with Four Flies on Gray Velvet). In Bird, Argento explores, pushes at and plays with the mechanics of suspense and murder mystery spectacle in a psychodrama thriller (an uncredited adaptation of Fredric Brown’s “The Screaming Mimi”). Developed with novelist and screenwriter Bryan Edgar Wallace, one of the godfathers of the German “krimi” genre of gruesome body-count murder mysteries, flamboyant killers and creative murders, with stylistic inspiration from Mario Bava’s elegant dances of death. The Cat O’Nine Tails continues down the same twin paths, but this time he also starts to play with the conventions and tropes of the genre, not defying or overturning them, simply bouncing them around with buoyant sense of play as he turns them into opportunities for style.

James Franciscus (under a blonde dye job) is a reporter chasing down a mysterious break-in at a genetics lab, where nothing was apparently stolen, and Karl Malden is a blind man who overhears a conversation that appears to tie in to the mystery. Their meeting is a narrative contrivance to team them up (what reporter rushing to a scoop would take the time to explain what’s going on to a blind bystander?), the hot-shot reporter with all-access to crime scenes and police officials and the retired journalist, blinded years ago, who spends his days caring for an orphan and solving puzzles. Malden comes off as the cheerfully amateur detective of British cozies, smiling as he checks off the clues and bounces ideas off of Franciscus, himself a fairly animated and buoyant presence. Only when the little girl is kidnapped does Malden falter, the fun tipped into danger and the stakes become personal.

There’s nothing unique or daring in this handsome CinemaScope production, and little of the bravura flights of style that will define his later, more flamboyant exercises in color and camera movement and the fine art of murder. Even the spare score by Ennio Morricone looks back to traditional Italian horror, which Argento left behind for the pounding prog rock scores of his subsequent films. But he has a flair for juicing up characters with personality quirk (not subtly or even all that convincingly, but with a certain sense of fun) and he keeps the film moving ahead or bouncing around characters as they dole out the exposition and a mystery that twists and turns with almost arbitrary direction.

Partners in crime solving look for clues in a mausoleum

The beginnings of his trademark style can be glimpsed in the POV sequences of the killer at work, begun with a close-up of the eyes so tight all you see is iris and whites and continuing through the stalking and dispatching of characters intercut with the fragments of murder mosaics, the most obvious evidence of his debt to Hitchcock. The shower scene from Psycho is his touchstone, only Argento’s mini-symphonies of murder aren’t about fooling viewers into thinking they’ve seen more than is actually onscreen. He uses the discreet shots to foreground the assault on the flesh and the shedding of blood and impress audiences with his spectacle. A body pushed in front of a speeding train is punctuated with a close-up of the engine colliding with the skull and the freefall of another victim is just the prologue to the desperate grasping for purchase before the crush of impact, complete with the crumple of the body. It’s not exactly sadistic—Argento is like Malden’s character in the movie, delighting in the design and execution of his set pieces like a puzzle—and he doesn’t revel in their suffering. It’s all rather dispassionate, a matter of cinematic engineering.

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“Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno” – Portrait of the Artist as a Mad Man

Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno (Flicker Alley)

Serge Bromberg is one of the most dedicated film preservationists in the world today. Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno, his documentary on the legendary unfinished film, represents a different kind of detective work but the same spirit of discovery, preservation and presentation of cinema saved from neglect.

Romy Schneider in one of Clouzot's fantasy images

In 1964, French director Henri-George Clouzot—a man at the top of his game and his fame for such films as The Wages of Fear, Diabolique and La vérité (though largely forgotten today, it was an Oscar nominee and a Golden Globe winner for Best Foreign Language Film)—was given carte-blanche by Columbia Pictures to make a dream project. His film, a portrait of obsessive jealousy in a husband (Sergio Reggiani) who becomes insanely paranoid and maniacally controlling of his beautiful young wife (Romy Schneider, then one of the most luminous stars in Europe), collapsed in the director’s own obsessive camera tests and experiments, increasingly demanding direction and endless reshoots. He pushed the production overbudget and over schedule, drove his leading man to quit in exasperation and became distracted in exacting minutiae at the cost of the big picture. When a heart attack leveled him, the producers to pull the plug. It’s like Hearts of Darkness as reconceived by Werner Herzog as an epic failure: one man’s vision and creative ambition fueled by obsession and growing megalomania and laid low by the limits of physical reality, production economics and the limits of his own body.

Serge Bromberg’s documentary (co-directed with Ruxandra Medrea Annonier) is a peek into a film that never was through a rich collection of rushes and camera tests, unseen and forgotten for decades until Bromberg tracked it down and negotiated access to the preserved and protected reels. The footage (some of it in raw, undeveloped form until Bromberg’s involvement) reveals an artist searching for new expressive ways to explore jealousy and madness on film, but also a relentlessly ambitious artist looking for new ways to express himself. When Clouzot began production, it had been four years since he had made a film and the freewheeling directors of nouvelle vague had become the young turks of film art in the meantime. He had something to prove to them, to the critics and to the public. And possibly to himself.

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Blow Out: De Palma, Down to Earth in Conspiracyland

Blow Out (Criterion)

Is it too sweeping to call Jack Terry, the B-movie soundman of Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, John Travolta’s best performance ever? So be it. Who knew that De Palma—a director still more often than not dismissed as a technician with a Hitchcock obsession, a facility for bravura camerawork and a penchant for split screens—would be the director to best showcase Travolta’s talents? Or that Travolta would help bring out the best in De Palma? Fresh off the success of his psycho-sexual dream cinema of Dressed to Kill, Blow Out takes us out of the sleek, stylish, rarified worlds of the affluent and drops us into the working class and street culture of urban Philadelphia, where the flag-waving bash surrounding the Liberty Bell Bicentennial comes off like a small town civic celebration blown up by a big city budget.

John Travolta as soundman Jack Terry with the tool of his trade

Blow Out arrived in 1981 as the end of the seventies run of political conspiracy thrillers like an aftershock. Critics were quick to jump on the connections to Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup (it’s not like the title or the premise made it hard to come to that conclusion) and the echoes of Chappaquiddick, Watergate and various political assassinations of recent history. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation was brought up far less frequently, though it’s easily as important a wellspring for De Palma’s transformative work, and Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, perhaps not so much an inspiration as a fellow traveler in the underside of conspiracy cinema, not at all

De Palma’s story is built on Jack Terry, the B-movie soundman played with easy amiability and modest professionalism by John Travolta. Front and center is the actor’s easy likability and screen warmth, a regular guy in the right place at the wrong time as an earwitness to a car accident and a gunshot. What was to be a humiliating scandal involving a political candidate veered into assassination, with our hero saving a hooker (Nancy Allen) from a drowning car and the police hushing the entire incident up. Not out of knowing complicity, mind you, simply playing ball to protect a political reputation in death. At first it galls Jack, and then, as evidence is destroyed and witnesses murdered, it scares him. He’s the blue collar everyman, less an idealistic champion of justice than a guy tired of being lied to. Plus, as long as the truth is buried, he’s a target of the self-styled “Liberty Bell Killer,” the façade our sinister and unstable political operative (a slim, unsettlingly non-descript John Lithgow) appropriates to cover up his real endgame.

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Ken Loach’s “Kes”

The story of a boy and his bird, Kes is something of a small cinematic treasure in Britain.

Set and shot in the North of England and cast overwhelming with non-professional locals from the area, it cast its lens on the dreary life and hopeless future of a scrawny, fatherless teenager, Billy Casper (David Bradley), grinding out his last days in a miserable public school where discipline and regimentation trumps education and encouragement. Bored and bullied (by students, teachers and his bitter older brother), this curious, restless boy is inspired to capture and train a young kestrel that he captures from a nest in a nearby ruin, all that’s left from a medieval castle in a nearby field, and the film soars with Billy’s joy and exhilaration as he trains and exercises the young kestrel.

Though considered uncommercial by British distributors, it was a surprise hit embraced by the public when it was finally released in 1970 and, more recently, it was voted as one of the ten greatest British films of all time in a poll conducted by the BFI.

Kes is second theatrical feature by director Ken Loach, who came out of British television as a socially and politically committed filmmaker who now as then focuses his lens on the poor, the working class and the disenfranchised. In this film, based on the novel “A Kestrel For A Knave” by Barry Hines, he immerses us in the culture of a coal town where the kids have little hope of escape. Billy swears that he will not go “into the pits” like his brother but he has no illusions that he’ll end up in some dead end job he hates. Yet for all the misery around Billy, from his chilly home and the bed he shares with his bullying older brother to the tyrant of a principal who gives out corporal punishments like its part of the daily schedule, and the often impenetrable Yorkshire accents and dialects of the soundtrack, Kes is a lovely and touching film. Loach appreciates the cheeky wit and energy of its scruffy, scrappy hero and, in a classroom scene where he’s roused to tell this classmates about training the bird, he brings Billy  to life with an outpouring of excitement and love.

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White Material – DVD of the Week

White Material (Criterion)

Claire Denis’s debut feature, Chocolate (1988), took on the legacy of French colonialism in the West African country of Cameroon through the eyes of a young French woman recalling her childhood growing up in the tensions of race, class and dislocation. Thirty years later she returned for White Material, which takes on many of the same issues from an older, more experienced perspective, both in terms of the artist and our protagonist.

Isabelle Huppert plays Maria Vial, French by ancestry, African by birth. Denis was raised in Cameroon until the age of 13 and the experience still clearly haunts her, but Maria is no stand-in for Denis. Maria is a woman in an unnamed West African trying to hold on to her family coffee plantation that her family no longer cares about while a civil war rages around her.

Isabelle Huppert as Maria Vial

The film opens in the midst of chaos and fear as rebels advance on this dusty patch of country and Maria defies the tide of evacuation to return to her farm. Huppert’s incarnation of the intensity and will of Maria, beyond logic or safety, powers the film. She is maddeningly single-minded, risking not just her life but her family and the day workers she rounds up to help harvest the crop when her employees run off. She refuses to acknowledge the danger and hides the truth of the situation from everyone else. Meanwhile armed child soldiers wander the property, looting the “white material” of European habitation, and rebels close in as one rebel leader (Isaach de Bankolé) bleeds out in a corner of the plantation.

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“Taxi Driver” – Restored, Remastered and Brilliant on Blu-ray

Taxi Driver (Sony)

Martin Scorsese’ incendiary masterpiece of alienation and anger and urban anxiety may be the most maverick vision in all of seventies American cinema. It is certainly one of the most courageous and passionate portraits of the American underbelly ever put on film, a movie bathed in blood as much as in light, and revisiting the film on its Blu-ray debut, mastered from the brand new digital restoration currently making the rounds on the festival and repertory cinema circuit, only confirms the power of the film to, after all these years, sink the audience into the mind and filthy, fetid world of Travis Bickle.

Directed by the ambitious young Scorsese, who confesses that he was driven to make this silent scream turned psychotic explosion of a script by Paul Schrader, and starring Robert DeNiro as Travis Bickle, it is a primal portrait and uncompromising vision carved out of the New York night, the summer heat and the garbage of the Times Square cesspool. Bickle, a character inspired by would-be assassin Arthur Bremer and Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel “La Naussee” as well as Schrader’s own spiral into self-obsessed urban loneliness, is no hero. The restless, insomniac Vietnam veteran who takes a job driving a taxi on the night shift and muses over the urban cesspool that he wanders through in his nocturnal prowlings in a hateful gutter poetry has convinced himself that he’s “God’s lonely man,” the self-appointed avenging angel out to clean up the garbage on the streets.

DeNiro reads his journal entries in a near monotone voice-over, a matter-of-fact racism and homophobia and contempt for wide swathes of the human race creeping into his unexamined musings. His unacknowledged racism and intolerance (seen in his reflexive expression of contempt every time he catches sight of an African American on the street) becomes his excuse to unleash his anger in a violent spree under the guise of heroism and vigilante justice. And film’s final, sour irony is that the world believes his delusions of chivalry as much as he does.

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Dario Argento’s Inferno: Abandon logic, all ye who enter here

Argento color in Blu-ray glory

Abandon logic, all ye who enter Dario Argento’s Inferno (1982). The second film of his “Three Mothers” trilogy (the first was Suspiria, the biggest American success of the Italian director’s career) opens with a deluge of exposition on the perhaps-not-so-mythical Three Mothers, which Rose (Irene Miracle), an American girl in a very stylized version of New York, reads from an ancient text. As she turns detective, suspecting that one of the evil figures lives in her very own apartment house (an elegant old building with impossibly lavish spaces), a mysterious, black-gloved figure (unseen but for those hands, which prove to be wizened like a fairy-tale witch beneath the black cloth) goes about collecting copies of the ancient book and killing everyone connected with them. Jump to Rome, where her brother Mark (Leigh McCloskey), a music student, receives a letter where she shares her suspicions and discoveries. Before he can finish reading it, a gray-eyed beauty with a white cat distracts his attention and a freak windstorm blows the letter into the hands of another student (and a entirely new subplot), and he flies back to New York to find that she has disappeared, spurring him to embark on his own investigation.

This is a mystery with the logic of a dream. Vague clues (“The key is under the souls of your feet”) send characters in impulsive journeys through mysterious, maze-like passages. A trip down into the building basement sends Rose on a midnight swim through an underwater ballroom, where a gruesome corpse floats through nearly crystal-clear water. A chance reading of her letter sends one girl searching for the rare tome in a library and into what appears to be an alchemist’s laboratory hidden in building’s basement labyrinth. A bent old bookseller with a distaste for cats (which prowl and growl all through the film) is attacked by rats in a Central Park that looks more like a haunted fairy tale forest. A seemingly innocent bystander is suddenly inspired to turn homicidal maniac. It’s a world touched by malevolent magic, which transforms everyday locations into hostile environments of spikes, splinters, knife edges and broken glass, all conjured to pierce flesh, draw blood and take lives.

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Embodiment of Evil: Coffin Joe Returns after 40 Years

Jose Mojica Marins created Ze do Caixao (Jose of the Grave), known to English speakers as Coffin Joe, in 1963 with At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul. This bizarre figure, a darkly fascinating mix of Dracula, demon, and Nietzschean superman who became kind of horror folk hero in his native Brazil, appeared in a number of films through 1979 but was the protagonist of only two films: Midnight and This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse (1967).

Embodiment of Evil (2008) is Marins’ belated conclusion of what is being called the “Coffin Joe Trilogy,” following the mad killer as he’s freed from the psych ward of a high security prison after serving 40 years. Now he’s also the dark priest of a Manson-like cult and, aided by hunchback assistant Bruno (Rui Resende), he picks up where he left off, looking for a perfect woman to bear his child. Taking up residence ostensibly in a favela on the outskirts of Rio (which looks more like an inner-city slum than the honeycombed hills of shacks and stairs of the crime-infested favelas seen in City of God), the film at first looks like he’s going to go all Walking Tall as he stands up to both the gangsters and the corrupt cops of his new home. But soon enough he’s back to spreading his terror and torture to anyone in his orbit. Coffin Joe is indeed an equal opportunity predator.

Imagine Aleister Crowley by way of the Marquis de Sade with a theatrical flamboyance, a voracious blasphemer in a Catholic culture who torments and tortures women (both willing and unwilling) ostensibly to test their worthiness to bear his spawn but probably more because he’s just a sick SOB. He sews one woman up in a corpse of a pig, feeds another a raw steak sliced off her own naked flank which she devours eagerly (that may just be a drug-induced hallucination, but then you could say that about the whole film) and sews their eyes and mouths shut. And those are the members of his cabal. His enemies he hangs from flesh-piercing hooks and skins alive.

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Silents Please! The Ten Commandments 1923

Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 The Ten Commandments is quite the landmark for the director. While not technically his first historical epic (that was the 1916 Joan the Woman), it was his first Biblical pageant and his first financially successful epic.

DeMille's original biblical epic

But it is also DeMille in the midst of his transition from the lively, witty director of sex farces and sexy romantic comedies with jazz-age sensibilities to the humorless director of white elephant epics, where he’s simultaneously become both more lurid and more pious, reveling in the sins of his characters and then punishing their excess to provide a lesson for us all.

DeMille spends a mere 45 minutes (of the film’s 135-minute running time) in ancient Egypt with Moses the Law Giver, who has already unleashed nine plagues as the film opens and exits after destroying the tablets in face of the blasphemy of his followers. For the rest, we dissolve to the present (circa early 1920s) to find a white-haired old mother reads from the good book to her two sons, one lost in the glory of the lesson (the all-American Richard Dix as John, a humble carpenter, of course), the other a restless, modern and cynical jazz-age kid (Rod La Rocque as Dan), bored with all “that bunk” of the Bible lessons. “No one believes in these commandment things anymore,” he sneers to his shocked old mother, and he marries another modern girl (Leatrice Joy as Mary, naturally) with a pledge to “live our life in our own heathen way.”

There’s plenty of decadence in both sides of this split identity production, from the orgiastic sin spectacle of hysterical partying and blaspheming with a false idol of the ancient section to Dan systematically breaking all ten commandments in his rapid rise to wealth (and, naturally, his precipitous fall) as a corrupt contractor whose reckoning comes when he builds a church with rotten concrete.

But DeMille’s trademark sensibility (revel in sin for the spectacle, then punish the transgressors for a moral lesson) aside, they two sections illustrate what the director gave up in his transformation into epic moviemaker. The section with Moses in the Holy Land is, dramatically speaking, little more than an epic version of a biblical pageant. Stodgy and stiff and as old fashioned as an early D.W. Griffith spectacle, it’s a series of tableaux with old man Moses (Theodore Roberts), in flowing white hair and madman beard, doing a lot of posing and pointing as he threatens the Pharaoh, leads his people into the desert and brings the wrath of God upon the Egyptian slavers and soldiers. But DeMille is a showman and he makes a show of this otherwise moving illustrations of bible stories with stunning special effects: the parting of the Red Sea (using the very same techniques as he did thirty years later in his 1956 edition), the wall of fire, the great balls of fire pyrotechnics for the will of God as he delivers the commandments to Moses.

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Excalibur Blu-ray and A Film Unfinished – DVDs of the Week

Excalibur (Warner)

The myth and legend of King Arthur has long been a favorite fascination of popular culture, the source of countless novels and movies and the inspiration for an iconic Broadway musical that became the nickname for John F. Kennedy’s too-short inspirational time as American President: “Camelot.” Forget the real-life history, the very mention of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table conjures up images and ideals of chivalry and honor, of magic and myth, of the shining light of hope in the midst of the Dark Ages. It’s a rousing tale of a lowly boy rising to become beloved King, a tragic love story, a thrilling adventure and an inspirational spiritual quest to heal the wounds of war and hate by finding the Holy Grail.

Arthur, Excalibur and the Lady of the Lake

John Boorman’s magnificent and magical Excalibur is, to my mind, the greatest and the richest of screen incarnation of the oft-told tale. Filmed on the rocky coasts and in the emerald forests of Ireland, Boorman turns this landscape into a primal world hewn out of stone and wood and mud by blood and iron. The primordial quality hits us from the opening scenes, as Merlin (Nicol Williamson), part ancient sage and part court sorcerer, draws the magic out of the dragon that is earth from a Stonehenge-looking monument on a hill overlooking a battleground of clashing knights in armor. It’s beautiful yet brutal and Merlin’s attempts at civilization are thwarted by the primal drives of the primitive Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne), but from his blood and flesh is born the once and future King Arthur (Nigel Terry), raised a squire but destined to be king.

This is the Arthur legend at its most primal, romantic and tragic, human and supernatural, set on the cusp between the old gods and the Christian God. Boorman and writing partner Rospo Pallenberg rework Thomas Mallory’s tale into an ur-myth of magic and men in the transformation of the world into the age of mankind’s dominion over the Earth through laws and reason and ideals. Every frame suggests the ancient world of wonder and primeval power; even the Christian wedding of Arthur and Guenevere (Cherie Lunghi) is set in the midst of a forest, the power of nature overwhelming the Christian imagery while the cloaked religious figures look as much like Druid priests as Christian soldiers.

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Excalibur

[First published in 1982, in “This Sceptr’d Isle” Autumn Quarter Film Series, Office of Cinema Studies, University of Washington.]

Bob Peak's original artwork for "Excalibur"

The Quarry, a 75-minute film for the BBC (early 1960s): A sculptor named Arthur quests for a very particular kind of stone, amid many references to King Arthur, Merlin, and magic.

Point Blank (1967): On some level, a conventional tale about betrayal and revenge among corporate gangsters and their women. This strange film, in which time slides backwards and forwards, begins in a deserted, decaying Alcatraz, where a man named Walker (provocative name for a quester) is doublecrossed and seemingly murdered by his wife and best friend. Reborn or resurrected in the waters of San Francisco Bay, he sets out to pay them back and to find out who ultimately “runs things.” Guided by Yost, a Merlin-like figure, Walker passes through a sterile city encased in plastic, metal, concrete, and glass. Nature is buried, love and friendship dead, and only the greedy accumulation of “things” and sensations a thriving concern. The film comes full circle back to its beginning, at a disused San Francisco landmark described as “safe as a church” and used for a gangland money-drop. Walker finally discovers the identity of the corporate puppetmaster: Yost/Merlin himself. Walker, a mindless, primitive force—perhaps a zombie—recedes into the shadows, back into his own dream, thwarted by a world in which the unconscious is an anachronism.

The Lord of the Rings (1969): An abortive project in which Frodo was conceived as a young King Arthur and Gandolf as Merlin. (Boorman’s Merlin script deemed “too expensive” to film by United Artists.)

Deliverance (1972): Four city men trek into a Southern forest and down river rapids with the notion that nature can test a man benignly. Where the land is to be “drowned” into a lake by the construction of a dam, primitive forces and emotions are loosed, and the four friends fall into terrible knowledge of themselves and their environment. They try to bury that knowledge, but the corpse’s hand that thrusts up out of the dark lake at the end of the film signals the futility of such repression.

Zardoz (1974): Its title an elision of The Wizard of Oz, this film takes place in a 23rd-century wasteland devastated by nuclear war. Survivors who have regressed into brutality are kept in check and occasionally exterminated by the Eternals, sexless, immortal intellectuals who cannot sleep and therefore never dream, but consider themselves the “custodians of the past for an unknown future.” A hand—holding a gun—explodes out of a heap of golden grain: thus Zed, a time-bound catalyst of evolution, is “born.” Three women assist Zed in his quest for the Creator—a scientist, a visionary, and his eventual mate. May, the scientist, warns him when he opens his mind to her knowledge, “It will burn you”; he replies, like Excalibur’s Morgana, “Then burn me.” The “wizard,” only a lesser god, turns out to be one Arthur Frayn, part show business con-artist, part magician, who professes admiration for Merlin and T.S. Eliot. Paradoxically, Arthur insists that he has “invented” Zed even as his intelligent primitive wrecks the godhead, kills the Eternals, and flees into the natural world, a new Adam with his Eve, promising to be fruitful and to multiply. In the last moments of the film, the couple make love in a cave and then, in a series of dissolves as they stare at the camera, at us, they pass from youth to age to death, and finally into dust. The cycle of birth and death, frozen by the Eternals, moves again and the earth is satisfied. All that remains of Zed is a hand painted on the cave wall and a rusted gun, symbols of making and destroying.

Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977): A child once possessed by the Devil becomes the best hope of salvation for humankind. This strange messiah is guided by a lapsed priest who must journey to Africa, where man began, to seek renewed faith and knowledge from a scientist who, in visions, sometimes becomes a primitive and powerful native priest.

***

The above is offered in evidence that John Boorman did not come to Excalibur unfamiliar with archetypal patterns of myth, especially as they are embodied in the legend of King Arthur, Merlin, and the Knights of the Round Table. Boorman is a literate man who has actually read those literary, philosophical, and critical works that inform, directly or by allusion, nearly all his films. Sometimes that’s made for a problem: too much self-consciousness about mythic ideas and images can retard the movement and impact of a visual narrative. People begin to say things so Significantly and take action that is so Fraught with Symbolic Weight that after a while there isn’t any life left in the old story—and myths are nothing if they aren’t alive and kicking us into new ways of seeing and being. Boorman has said that he wanted to make Excalibur “as if it is the story—not a retelling of the myth, but the very events on which the legend was based.” In this, I believe, he succeeded—as he had not done so completely in any of his previous films.

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