The Seasoned Ticket #7

Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.

 

This weekend sees the release of Mary Shelley, a look at the youthful years of the author of Frankenstein. The film has one admirable touch, which is that Elle Fanning, the actress who plays Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, was still a teenager when the movie was shot, which corresponds with the actual age of the preternaturally gifted writer. Director Haifaa Al-Mansour (whose Wadjda is well worth watching) otherwise takes a fervently female-first approach to the material, a perfectly appropriate choice that doesn’t generate a great deal of storytelling excitement.

The second half of the film revolves around the fabled summer of 1816, when Mary, her companion Percy Shelley, and her half-sister Claire Clairmont went to a villa on Lake Geneva and stayed with Lord Byron and John Polidori. The episode has been heavily mythologized already, and there are a few films we might mention that cover that very turf. To wit:

Gothic, 1986, directed by Ken Russell. I recall the guys at the Egyptian Theatre cranked the volume up really loud when they screened this, but then they always cranked the volume really loud. This tactic fit Russell’s head-splitting treatment of the material, an art-horror approach with lots of crashing thunder and heavy breathing. Natasha Richardson plays Mary, more thoughtfully than the movie seems to notice, and Gabriel Byrne and Julian Sands are Byron and Shelley; Timothy Spall goes full-on grotesque as Polidori. The music is by Thomas Dolby. It’s a crazy watch, and it supports my theory that Russell sometimes needed a little restraint to be at his best. But then he wouldn’t be Ken Russell.

Haunted Summer, 1988, directed by Ivan Passer. I liked this film at the time, although a more recent viewing was a disappointment. Passer creates a romantic, hippie-inflected treatment of the story, and he lucks out by getting the intelligent Alice Krige to play Mary. There’s something about the ensemble that reminds me of Passer’s friend Milos Forman’s approach to casting, which sometimes leaned toward plainness and simplicity; if Tom Hulce could play Mozart, why not Eric Stoltz as Shelley? And yet, maybe this particular group of historical characters needs more madness in its makeup. Laura Dern plays Claire, Alex Winter (yes, of Bill and Ted) is Polidori, and the interesting Philip Anglim is Byron. Anglim has an unusual story—he triumphed at the end of the 1970s in the original Elephant Man Broadway production, then seemed to flame out of an acting career.

Frankenstein Unbound, 1990, directed by Roger Corman. Corman’s latest film as director is a lively riff on a novel by Brian Aldiss. The story follows a time traveler (John Hurt) who drops in at the Villa Diodati in 1816, only to discover the actual Dr. Frankenstein (Raul Julia) on hand, along with Mary (Bridget Fonda), Byron (Jason Patric), and Shelley (Michael Hutchence, the INXS singer). I’m not sure the mish-mash entirely works, but it sure is fun to watch.

Bride of Frankenstein, 1935, directed by James Whale. Here, the opening five minutes give us Byron and Shelley (Gavin Gordon and Douglas Walton) teasing Mary about how such an innocent-looking woman could conjure up a monster. Elsa Lanchester plays—gloriously—both Mary and the bride, an inspired touch that, as Lanchester later reported, underlined Whale’s theory about the monster inside everyone, especially the superficially pretty.

There’s also a very obscure Spanish film, Rowing with the Wind (1988), with Hugh Grant as Byron and Elizabeth Hurley as Claire. I haven’t seen it, but despite its obscurity, Scarecrow has it. Completists, be advised.

 

Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.

The Seasoned Ticket #6

Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.

 

Cate Blanchett is part of the ensemble of Ocean’s 8, the movie that seeks to place women on an even playing field when it comes to the cultural representation of wisecracking burglars. I haven’t seen the movie, but look forward to it, because heist films present a formula I find almost irresistible, and that cast is a doozy. But let’s pause to consider Blanchett for a moment, and some of the early, lesser-seen entries in the filmography of someone who has quietly established herself as one of the best actors around.

The first time I saw Blanchett was the first time most people outside Australia saw Blanchett: the 1997 WWII drama Paradise Road. I still think this is one of Bruce Beresford’s gutsiest films, despite its wobbly moments, but the movie seems to have no public profile at all (it disappeared quickly in 1997, too). For many years, pop culture had a reluctance to acknowledge wartime Japanese atrocities, so Paradise Road may have been ahead of the curve on that point; it certainly doesn’t skimp on portraying the horrors of a Japanese internment camp. The cast of actresses is even more impressive than Ocean’s 8, with Glenn Close, Frances McDormand, Jennifer Ehle, Pauline Collins, Wendy Hughes, and Julianna Margulies crowding the field. In many ways the standout is Blanchett, whose poignant role mysteriously becomes the heart of the movie. Roger Ebert criticized the film for being an anecdote—about how a group of women form a life-sustaining choir while imprisoned—rather than a full-fledged story. I suspect that might be one of the movie’s strengths.

Another under-seen Blanchett picture is Barry Levinson’s Bandits (2001), a very odd item. Like Ocean’s 8, it’s about thieves, this time a three-hander for Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton, and Blanchett, partners in crime and shared affection. When the film is able to ignore the need to keep the story moving, it thrives; the stuff that works is all about behavior and outsider-ness and how actors can create a multiplicity of moods through sheer presence. Willis and Thornton were both in a groove they haven’t often captured since, and up-and-comer Blanchett is right there with them. But then this actress never seemed especially daunted by the stakes.

In this litany of early Blanchetts, I’d love to be more excited about two films directed by Gillian Armstrong, Oscar and Lucinda (with Ralph Fiennes, based on a Peter Carey novel) and Charlotte Gray, but although the latter contains a potent Blanchett turn, I can’t quite see how either movie comes to full, breathing life. Instead I’ll point in the direction of Tom Tykwer’s Heaven (2002). Like Eyes Wide Shut, it’s a project begun by one world-class filmmaker and completed by another—in this case, planned by Krzysztof Kieslowski, but shot by Tykwer after Kieslowski’s death. Blanchett plays an enigmatic woman who appears guilty of a monstrous crime. Giovanni Ribisi—bearable here in a way he rarely is—plays a policeman whose fascination with her leads the film to an unexpected, admittedly arty, but transcendent conclusion. Tykwer seems entranced by the Blanchett’s sharp intelligence and the architecture of her face (her head is shaved for part of the movie), and you can’t blame him. As these early appearances prove, she’s always been that good.

 

Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.

Shriek Presents: CRUISING

SHRIEK: Women of Horror is back! Since you last saw us, we’ve expanded and moved days and venues, but we’ve always been proudly sponsored by Scarecrow Video.

Continuing our annual Pride screenings, in June SHRIEK becomes SLASH: LGBTQ Horror! Join us June 17th to watch CRUISING at Naked City Brewery (all-day Sunday happy hour!), with special guest host Jeffrey Robert of Gay Uncle Time.

In CRUISING, a young cop (Al Pacino) must go undercover to catch a serial killer—in New York City’s gay leather community. Discomfort ensues; read more below.

Read More

The Seasoned Ticket #5

Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.

 

SIFF is bringing in Jean Renoir’s superb 1936 film The Crime of Monsieur Lange for a single screening on June 3. You should see it. It’s not terribly well known in Renoir’s filmography, doubtless because JR knocked off a couple of swell pictures called Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game over the following three years. But it’s a wonderful picture, and reportedly newly restored, although it would look good in 16 mm, frankly.

Scarecrow, of course, has a wealth of Renoir in stock. Too much to cover here, but just to pluck a couple of recommendations from the 1930s: Check out Toni (1935), a tale of provincial crime, a film that has long been applauded for its landmark location shooting and neo-realist approach to storytelling. It’s more than a historical footnote, however. Renoir has already developed a way of seeing, a casual-seeming but precisely observed way of treating people and situations. For Toni, Renoir said that he took an inherently dramatic story and tried to “avoid the dramatic,” which is, in its own way, a radical approach.

And if you’ve never seen La Chienne (1931), do that. Here is a very different tale of murder, taken from the same source novel that birthed the Fritz Lang masterpiece Scarlet Street (1945). And thus we have an opportunity to see how the vision of a great director shapes similar material—in this case, the directing signatures of these two giants are fascinating to trace along parallel lines. (You can also do this—same two directors—with La Bete Humaine and Human Desire, which share the Zola source novel, but those are not among the best films of Renoir and Lang.) La Chienne came early in the sound era, and you can see/hear Renoir pushing the possibilities of what was technically achievable at that time, all of which becomes part of the evocative mood of the film.

Incidentally, when The Crime of Monsieur Lange played in New York in 1964 it was championed by Andrew Sarris at the Village Voice, then in the midst of his push to bring the auteur theory to America. His piece on the film is reprinted here, and is a splendid example of how you do it.

 

Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.