7 Faces of Dr Lao (1964)

Director: George Pal

George Pal was apparently determined to get his money’s worth out of that Quo Vadis stock footage, cos it’s in this film as well, along with footage from Atlantis and The Time Machine… and he was evidently determined to get full value from Tony Randall as well; not only does he play most of the titular seven faces (the Abominable Snowman was apparently not him after all), he also plays a circus audience member for a few seconds too. I’ve not read the book by Charles Finney it’s based on, though I intend to do so, but I gather the film is only a fairly loose adaptation; in Pal’s hands the story is turned into something of a moralistic fable (courtesy of an additional plot apparently not in the book about a local rancher trying to buy up the small early 20th century town where the story takes place to profit from the impending arrival of the railroad that only he knows about) and transforms the townsfolk for the better, which seems not to be the case with Finney’s book. But there’s still a lot of charm in Pal’s telling, much of which is down to the diverse performance(s) of Randall. What a difficult character Lao would’ve been to cast, cos to do it the way Pal does you’d have a hell of a time avoiding “yellowface” accusations if you cast a non-Asian actor—which Pal clearly didn’t, and I can imagine that being a stumbling block for viewers now, particular when Lao goes into racist stereotype mode—but if you did cast someone Chinese you’d also need them to be able to, well, play white characters (i.e. Lao’s other manifestations) as well. Damned if you do, etc. But Randall is incredible; even just in the part of Lao he has to vary himself quite a bit, let alone what he has to do in the other parts. It’s terribly old-fashioned in its way, but again that’s a lot of its charm too. Enjoyed this very much, though as I said, I can imagine some people these days having trouble with a white actor playing a Chinese man, even if said Chinese man is also at least two other white men among others…

Atlantis, the Lost Continent (1961)

Director: George Pal

Which ties in neatly with the last couple of films reviewed here; it’s about Atlantis (which the good folks in Journey to the Centre of the Earth visit in passing near that film’s end) and it’s directed by George Pal, who obviously produced Destination Moon and who swiped the latter’s “The End of The Beginning” end title card for this one. I’ve written before about films that are in the “wrong” language, and this, by god/dess, is another one; Atlantis, the Lost Continent really should’ve been in Italian rather than English. By which I mean, it’s basically an American sword-and-sandal film, and it clicked as such with me when I read on the film’s Wikipedia page that Pal originally wanted an Italian actor who’d been in the Steve Reeves Hercules for the main role here. This film really should’ve been in Italian with English subtitles. Anyway, the film takes Plato’s myth of Atlantis, adds a touch of H.G. Wells (the beast-men being a twist I don’t suppose Plato thought of), uses a liberal amount of stock footage (infamously from Quo Vadis—regarding which the film’s Wiki page also preserves a nice joke—which I’ve never actually seen, but oh dear, it’s obvious even so), and kind of credits God with the destruction of Atlantis. This religious angle is one of the more curious things about the film, even more so than its fashion sense… when I reviewed When Worlds Collide, which Pal also produced about ten years before this one, I noted the religious angle to that film, and here it is again; the high priest (Edward Platt, one of the few faces I recognised in the film… well, more precisely I recognised his voice first) worships “the one true God”—and we can guess which particular one true God that is—and disavows Atlantis’ other idols, and predicts Atlantis’ impending doom at the hands of the said true God for turning away from him and creating their own idols of science. Which, again, is something I don’t think Plato thought of. The film seems to have been poorly regarded in its day, and it’s certainly no masterpiece of the art—not with acting this cheesy and back-projection this dodgy—but, as I’ve also said before, sometimes a reasonably entertaining non-masterpiece is just what you need on a Saturday night…

Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1959)

Director: Henry Levin

Jules Verne has been a late discovery of mine; only this year have I started reading his books (though given how bad most of the old translations of his works seem to be, it’s probably a good thing I waited so long for better ones to emerge). But I have seen films of those books before, indeed this is now the second one I’ve actually reviewed on here… and I must admit to liking this rather more than the previous one. Much as the 1954 20,000 Leagues took liberties with the book, so did this film, although this time I’ve actually read the book and so the changes (added romantic interest, new characters including a duck) were rather more immediately obvious. Verne would, of course, have recognised the broad outline of his story—scientist goes on foolhardy expedition to the centre of the Earth with assistant, they experience assorted wonders—but I suspect he might’ve raised an eyebrow at some of the changes, which make the film a bit more of a conventional adventure thriller than the book is. One must assume 20th C. Fox felt the book had insufficient conflict or something. The primary conflict in the film, of course, is between the characters’ duelling accents; Hamburg-based professor Lidenbrock and his nephew Axel now become Edinburgh-based professor Lindenbrook (James Mason, no stranger to Verne on film of course) and his student Alec McEwan (Pat Boone—who, obviously, also had to be given a song to sing that’s not in the book either). Mason’s fine, though sounding more English than Scottish, but Boone is… wobbly and his accent sounds much more obviously (and not terribly well) put on. The narrative conflict, though, is ramped up by adding a new character, a descendant of the original explorer Lindenbrook is following who isn’t happy with these people entering “his” domain. On its own terms, though, it’s actually pretty good; it was an expensive film at the time but it looks it on-screen, especially once we go below the surface, with good use made of the Cinemascope screen. It’s perhaps even more quaint now than Verne’s book, but it’s still a pretty decent example of late classic Hollywood “big” filmmaking. Plus it’s not every 1950s Hollywood film that has one of the cast members eaten by one of the others…

Destination Moon (1950)

Director: Irving Pichel

Strictly speaking, this wasn’t the first film of its kind, indeed it wasn’t even the first film of its kind in the year it came out; after the pre-release hype surrounding this George Pal production, Robert Lippert managed to get his cheaper and faster-made knock-off Rocketship XM into cinemas ahead of Pal’s film. In spite of that, this still represents a landmark in the SF film genre; it had a real SF author on board (Robert Heinlein being one of the screenwriters; one of his books was a partial source for the film) and it looked like a serious attempt to elevate the genre—such as it was by that time—above the B-grade serial level. In spite of which, Destination Moon is not exactly without its own pulp elements; there is a bit of a “boy’s own adventure” aspect to the plot (and it most definitely is “boy’s own”; no one of the female persuasion in this crew!), involving the first rocket to the Moon, which is actually kind of underlined—intentionally or not—by what I presume was intended as the “adult” libertarian subtext (I’ll bet that was Heinlein at work), the railing against government and the insistence that only good old private enterprise can be relied upon to get us—more particularly, the US—to the Moon. And, of course, just look at how the rocket takes off in brazen defiance of government orders not to. (At least by being an independent production, the film did kind of live up to its own political stance.) The cardboardness of the characters, too, is perhaps another pulp hangover, and it’s a more problematic; the characters are so ho-hum it’s hard to invest much in the way of emotion into their plight when they get to the Moon but find they’re going to have trouble getting away from it again. (Good old American optimism and the need for a happy ending presumably meant copying the ending of Fritz Lang’s Woman in the Moon wasn’t an option.) Still, though I have quite some reservations about Destination Moon, I’ll give it its due respect as a genre landmark, and I will applaud the inspired use of a Woody Woodpecker cartoon to explain the art of rocket science both to the private investors being asked to back the project and to us in the audience. It’s an unusually blunt bit of exposition, but a very clever way in which to present it.

Ong-Bak (2003)

Director: Prachya Pinkaew

This was on SBS2 after Crouching Tiger, and it made for a fairly instructive double bill; if Lee’s film inspired the making of a lot of bigger, more expensive wu xia, the Thai film seems blithely unconcerned by such competition, clearly convinced there was still a market for unsophisticated but jaw-dropping B-grade mass destruction of people and things. Ong-Bak is so enamoured of star Tony Jaa and his frankly implausible athleticism that we get to see most of his stunts from at least two angles; mind you, the phenomenal how-the-fuck-is-that-even-possible skill with which he goes about his work means you’d probably do the same thing if you were the director to get your value out of him. The action scenes are pretty much on a “fucking hell” level throughout—not least the bit where Jaa’s pants are literally on fire—as is the general ludicrousness of the whole thing… The plot revolves around the theft of the head of Ong-Bak, the ancient Buddha statue belonging to a rather nondescript little rural village in Thailand; Ong-Bak’s head has forcibly parted company with his body courtesy of a Bangkok drug dealer looking to sell it for cash from a local crime boss with a taste for old Buddhas. Little did either of them count on the village’s favourite kickass son, Ting, coming after it. What follows is, as I’ve indicated, overkill. There’s something oddly old-fashioned about the plot, however dressed up in modern camera and editing tricks, to the point where the modern-day setting of the story is almost a bit incongruous; it’s the sort of thing that might’ve been made in Hong Kong (probably with a period setting though) three decades earlier. Given the film seems to have been made to try and sell Tony Jaa as a modern-day successor to Bruce Lee—the same sort of damn near invincible warrior, albeit without Lee’s charisma—I’m sure that feeling of throwback was intentional. Ong-Bak is certainly relatively primitive compared to the Ang Lee film we saw earlier tonight, but there’s something appealing about its sheer brutal vigour and it’s rarely dull as such; terrific late night viewing.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

Director: Ang Lee

As the 1001 Movies tells it, Lee’s intention with this film was to make the best martial arts movie possible. The extent to which he achieved this is, obviously, is a matter of individual judgement, but the ambition cannot be faulted, and—at least in my opinion—neither can much of the execution. Obviously a shitload of people felt the same back in the day, when it became a surprise megahit in the US where it soon became the highest-earning foreign film ever (is it still?) and took out Best Foreign Film at the Oscars (plus a Best Picture nomination, among several others), although I do recall back then some people were sniffy about its success; they were hardened Asian action fans who’d been watching films like this for years, and while the uninitiated were oohing and aahing at the flying swordfights and stuff, they were grumbling that Lee wasn’t really doing anything they hadn’t seen before. Which isn’t actually entirely unfair, I suppose, Lee wasn’t really doing much that was new even if most of the people watching this film hadn’t seen it done before. But he was doing these things with probably more resources than any wu xia film had ever had thrown at it before, plus the film did have the relative novelty of an already internationally recognised arthouse filmmaker being the director… indeed, on rewatching it tonight, I got a real sense of self-consciousness about the film, as if it knew it were the martial arts film (cf. what I said recently about Stagecoach and the western), which I suppose is how many people must see it. But also I was struck by how much of the story I’d forgotten, probably because there’s an awful lot of story to keep track of. In some respects you can sum it up as “sisters doing it for themselves”; Jade Fox has killed Li Mubai’s master for refusing to teach a woman his sword skills, and now her disciple has taught herself many of the skills in order to outdo her own master. But there is obviously more to it than just that, and CTHD excels where a martial arts film really should, i.e. the frequency and quality of the fights. Beautifully photographed, well choreographed, it’s not really surprising the film was the hit that it was; the time was obviously right for this sort of thing to go big, and I won’t complain about this being the one that did.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Director: Wes Craven

As you may observe, it’s not all documentaries and factual stuff this month, it’s also cinema visits to fill holes in my horror film knowledge… yeah, I’ve never actually seen this until now for some reason, which baffles me as much as it may baffle you, my legion of readers. Is it ironic that I’ve seen Wes Craven’s Scream, which rips on the slasher genre, but hitherto not his own major contribution to the genre itself? Anyway, young master Steven Savona announced the other day he’d be going to see it tonight, cos Dendy Newtown were showing it as part of this year’s cult classics series, so I decided I’d go along as well. I suspect I was distinctly in the minority in the not awfully large crowd, most of whom I assume would have been well acquainted with the film already. What sort of experience would it be for me, the newbie on Elm Street, among all these other folks? Steven, at any rate, seemed slightly let down by it, which is interesting considering he has it as one of his top 20 films, but we both pondered how much of the other audience members’ reactions to the film affected ours. Cos as the film progressed, just about every appearance of Ronee Blakley (the then-Mrs Wim Wenders) and her bottle of vodka caused the crowd great mirth despite not really being, you know, inherently funny. (Neither is the “introducing Johnny Depp” credit, but I found that quite funny for some reason.) It’s interesting how other people’s reception of something impacts on your own, which is why I normally prefer to watch films by myself.

If Steven’s fondness of the film was perhaps dimmed slightly, I’m actually not sure of my own response. I was actually a bit surprised by how, well, undeveloped Freddy Krueger actually is in this film (IMDB says he only has a total of seven minutes actual on-screen time); there’s not actually much here to suggest an icon in the making. It was some of the other effects work—particularly the astounding geyser of blood following Depp’s murder—that really struck me more than Freddy’s own limited on-screen presence. Steven’s said on Twitter that he felt for the first time Nightmare hadn’t aged well, and to some extent I feel he may be right; it’s very obviously an 80s film in many respects, and it occupies a very particular place in 80s horror (and cinema in general, having basically saved New Line Cinema from implosion in its infancy), revitalising the already tired slasher film and giving Craven the big box office hit he kind of badly needed by this time. It’s good. I just don’t know that it’s the great classic it’s usually hailed as… mind you, I still liked it a lot more than most of the other big horror franchise initiators I’ve seen; maybe a second viewing at home by myself might be what it needs…

In the Year of the Pig (1968)

Director: Emile de Antonio

This film still seems to get criticised for being anti-American, which is, in my opinion, only a valid reason to judge a thing negatively if you believe being pro-American is the only acceptable position to take. Which I do not, and therefore I won’t criticise it on those grounds but on others. This makes for interesting comparison material after Point of Order, in that de Antonio is still taking pre-existing material and shaping it to a particular political point without adding explicit narration, but this time the political point is much more blunt (if you’ll pardon the expression) and the range of material—which also includes this time a fair proportion of newly shot interview footage—far wider. Because the topic is a lot wider, i.e. the Vietnam War and how America got involved and why hadn’t it got out yet; the US army vs the Viet Cong is a different proposition the US army vs Joe McCarthy. There’s another fundamental difference: when de Antonio made the earlier film, he was dealing with a closed chapter, a piece of recent history with a definite end, but when this appeared in late 1968 the Vietnam War was a long way from being resolved. There’s an old issue of Jump Cut in which de Antonio himself characterises it as “an organising weapon”, so evidently it was meant as a kind of rallying point for political activity against the war, to inspire people to get actively involved. And as such, that probably makes the film appear more dated now than Point of Order does, more of a period piece. The specific circumstances leading to the Vietnam War may or may not ever arise again, but McCarthy’s paranoia is a much more universal prospect; governments always need someone for the people to be afraid of, and all that changes there is the specific target of that fear… communists in the 1950s, Muslims in the oughts. Plus, being still an open topic, Year of the Pig doesn’t have the same sense of dramatic structure as Point of Order; while the approach is essentially chronological, there’s less sense of drive and direction. Not really de Antonio’s fault as such, of course—it’s hard to build to a climax when none is in sight—but it’s still probably the key thing that makes Point of Order the better film for me; I think I’d rather see that in the 1001 movies list than this.

Point of Order (1964)

Director: Emile de Antonio

If the Soviets were right about editing being the defining characteristic of cinema, then I’ve long felt this was especially true of documentary, which is really about taking raw material and cutting it to shape it in a way that isn’t quite the case even with fiction. This film illustrates that principle in spectacular fashion, comprised entirely as it is of kinescoped TV footage; Emile de Antonio had some 188 hours of the stuff to work with, and it evidently took a few years to actually boil down to its final 97-minute condensation. The footage in question was of the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings, which played a key role in the fiery destruction of Senator Joe McCarthy’s corrosive political career. I don’t suppose McCarthy’s fixation on communists needs any introduction; suffice to say he bit off a bit more than he could chew when it came to taking on the US Army. The story is all in the Wiki entry so I won’t repeat it; what matters is the film de Antonio made of it, which is far more interesting and less dry than it might sound on the surface. The remarkable thing is how much it felt like a fiction film, despite obviously not being one, but the entire thing was shown on TV and the participants were well aware of this fact; not only were they playing to the people actually at the hearings, they were playing to an audience of up to twenty million at any one time. At times I got the impression some of the people involved were almost acting like they’d seen people act in films; perhaps ironically, the Army’s special counsel Joseph Welch actually scored an acting role as the judge in Anatomy of a Murder on the basis of this “performance”. De Antonio shapes all this business with a pretty strong feeling for the dramatic, too, which kind of adds to the “fictional” feeling; initially feeling a bit random and artless but gradually building until it reaches the famous showdown between Welch and McCarthy (don’t you love how Roy Cohn does everything but outright facepalm as McCarthy refuses to give up on a point after Welch has already torn him a new one?), and culminating with McCarthy’s bitter enemy Stuart Symington getting the final word before McCarthy sputters into irrelevance as proceedings end. De Antonio lets all this footage speak for itself, with his only narration being a concise outlining of the case at the very beginning, though some might argue his loathing of the by-then deceased senator from Wisconsin comes across in his editing choices even without needing to be explicitly said. By the same token, of course, it’s not like McCarthy himself gave him anything better to work with. Amazing.

Koyaanisqatsi (1982)

Director: Godfrey Reggio

Quoth the IMDB description of the film: “A movie with no conventional plot: merely a collection of expertly photographed scenes. Subject matter has a highly environmental theme.” Well, that’s damning with faint praise if ever there was. The scenes are certainly expertly photographed; cinematographer Ron Fricke had a gift for capturing this sort of imagery (given the latter’s later work in IMAX and 65mm, it’s kind of amusing that he had to start out in 16mm here). Still, surely there’s more to it than just that. A bit like A Tale of the Wind from the other day, Koyaanisqatsi defies easy description: if it’s a documentary, what is it documenting? If it’s an essay film, what’s the thesis of the essay? Not until the credits roll at the end do we even get an explanation of the film’s title… and what on Earth would people have made of the film if Reggio had gone with his initial idea to release it without a title at all?

The first time I saw the film on VHS, I remember being impressed without being blown away. Later revisits on digital media have been a lot happier experiences, particularly this evening’s high-definition encounter. Technically, it relies on two of the oldest cinematic tricks there are, i.e. slow motion and time lapse (the latter seems to have been the key discovery for Reggio and Fricke in deciding what they were going to make). I found a review I did for my old radio show a number of years ago when I checked out the old MGM DVD, at which time I said the film’s combination of specially shot new footage and carefully deployed stock “it all adds up to an overriding sense of obliquely existential horror”. I’ll stand by those words, cos I got the same feeling tonight, and largely because of those same old techniques; the slow motion stuff is kind of exultant but also implacable, while the time lapse business is so frenetic at times it actually becomes kind of frightening. Especially when the film abruptly jumps from one to the other (you notice how little of it seems to have been filmed at normal speed). And the rocket-exploding climax isn’t the most uplifting end. Reggio has said he was fairly hands off during the production, trusting in Fricke to get the images and later editing the film around Philip Glass’ music, which is of course the other most notable thing about the film. The whole thing is quite stunning; as an attempt at taking avant-garde cinema “mainstream”, Koyaanisqatsi is remarkable.

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