Film Review – The Bad Seed

The Bad Seed (1956, dir. Mervyn LeRoy)
Starring Patty McCormack, Nancy Kelly, Eileen Heckart, Evelyn Varden, Henry Jones

Contemporary audiences would probably be bored and not find this film scary. Contemporary audiences are dopes on the whole, though. This piece of pernicious, regressive cinema is one of the tightest horror pics I’ve seen. What makes it such a juicy little piece of evil is the context. Its the repressive Red Scare 1950s where wholesomeness and purity is slathered on suburban streets like whitewash. Children especially are angelic and your neighbors can pop in when ever they choose. ┬áThis is also the height of psycho-analysis, where Freud’s phallic fantasies are holy and it becomes acceptable, and encouraged to visit the shrink. Into this tense situation, we’re given Rhoda Penmark (McCormack), the sweetest little blonde in pigtails you ever did see. Rhoda is absolutely perfect, her parents and teacher agree. But Rhoda doesn’t like having what she wants withheld and she will take it, no matter the cost.

Continue reading “Film Review – The Bad Seed”

Advertisements

Hypothetical Film Festival – Unreliable Narrators

There’s a very interesting plot device called the Unreliable Narrator, wherein the point of view you are getting the story from comes from a person who is possibly skewing the facts in their favor, creating a story that is not quite true. Here’s some films that use that idea to great effect.



Rashomon (1950, dir. Akira Kurosawa)
Rashomon was the introduction of Kurosawa and post-war Japanese cinema to the world. The framing of the story was unlike anything that had really been seen in cinema, but had roots in older literature, particularly Shakespeare (whose works would be a major influence on Kurosawa throughout his career). A woodcutter and priest are seeking shelter in the husk of an old building while it storms outside. A passerby enters and they explain a strange murder of a samurai and the court case in which his wife, the bandit being accused, and the spirit of the samurai himself all testify. Through the three differing viewpoints we get three different pictures, with the added framing of these figures telling us the story. It’s a like a hedge maze of narrative.

Amadeus (1984, dir. Milos Forman)
The elderly composer Salieri tries to kill himself but is stopped. Later he is visited by a young priest and the old man tells the tale of his rivalry with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and how Salieri believes he killed the virtuoso. Salieri of course frames himself as pious and obedient, devoted to tradtion. Amadeus is seen a lewd and bawdy figure. Salieri sees his craft as a gift from God and cannot comprehend how someone as heathen and ribald as Amadeus was given a gift that far surpasses his own. The question we must ask is, how honest is this portrayal of the composer, and is this Salieri’s attempt to justify his hand in Amadeus’ death?



Memento (2001, dir. Christopher Nolan)
Both the film that introduced us to director Nolan (The Prestige, The Dark Knight) and what presents probably the most unreliable of unreliable narrators. Leonard is a man without the ability to form new memories. This was the result of a break-in at his home years prior that also resulted in the death of his wife. Now Leonard is on a hunt for the man responsible. Because of his lack of new memory he has tattooed key facts about the assailant on his body. Beyond that, he carries a Polaroid camera where ever he goes, photographing acquaintances and scribbling notes about them on the pictures. But what does Leonard really know? As we experience time in the same way Leonard does, we will ask lots of questions and when the disturbing conclusion comes about we will be left questioning Leonard himself.

Spider (2002, dir. David Cronenberg)
Dennis Cleg (Ralph Fiennes) has just been released from a mental asylum. The reason why he was there in the first place is not revealed at first, instead we follow him to the work home he has been assigned to in an attempt to transition back into society. He immediately draws the ire of the housekeeper and befriends housemate Terrence (John Neville). Mixed into his day to day life are nightmarish flashbacks to his childhood, focusing on his alcoholic father (Gabriel Byrne) and his beaten down mother (. The story of their tumultuous relationship is what forms Dennis and ultimately drives him to the asylum. The reason behind his nickname, Spider, is tied directly to this childhood incident. But then you must ask yourself, how reliable are the childhood flashbacks of a psychopath?



Bubba Ho-Tep (2002, dir. Don Coscarelli)
The film is told from the perspective of Elvis Presley (played brilliantly by Bruce Campbell), or it could be mechanic Sebastian Haff. Presley explains that he traded places with Haff in the 1970s to get away from the business, and for some reason the staff of his nursing home doesn’t believe him. Also living in this home is a black man who claims to be President Kennedy (Ossie Davis), explaining that he was dyed black and abandoned in the nursing home after the assassination attempt. Terrorizing the elderly at night in this home is an ancient Egyptian mummy who, for some reason, has taken on the garb of a cowboy. The two men, unable to get the staff on their side, take matters into their own hands and battle the mummy. But what if they are simply just two crazy people?

Charlie Chaplin Month – Limelight



Limelight (1952)
Starring Charlie Chaplin, Claire Bloom, Nigel Bruce, Buster Keaton, Norman Lloyd, Sydney Earle Chaplin

During Chaplin’s trip to Europe to promote this film, he had his re-entry to the Unites States revoked (he always legally remained a British citizen). It was the height of Red Panic at the time in the US and Chaplin had never been shy about voicing his personal opinions on the treatment of the working class. Chaplin’s long standing tensions with J. Edgar Hoover led to his re-entry papers being revoked and he decided to set up his home in Switzerland. This would be where he would live for the rest of his days and this film (while not his last) would stand as his symbolic goodbye to cinema.

It’s 1914,  and Calvero (Chaplin) is a former performer on the East End stages. He now comes home drunk out of his mind in the middle of the day, slowly weathering away in his flat. One afternoon he returns and finds his downstairs neighbor, Teri (Bloom) unconscious holding a bottle of pills and letting gas from her stove fill her apartment. He saves her life and afterwards learns she became suicidal when her dreams of performing ballet were slowly crushed. Calvero nurses her back to health as she suffers from psychosomatic paralysis. Eventually, she regains her confidence and becomes the prima ballerina of a great company. Teri meets and falls in love with composer Neville (played by Chaplin’s own son, Sydney Earle). She goes onto secure a part for Calvero in the show as a clown and he eventually gets his own showcase which is to be his final, great performance.

1914 is an incredibly significant year in the life of Chaplin. It was in that year he made a small appearance in the Keystone short Kid Auto Races at Venice. The character he played was called The Little Tramp. The birth of one of the most iconic film characters means the death of the stage variety that brought Chaplin up. As Calvero he recognizes both the twilight of his own career and how his rise to fame was responsible for the end of many East End performers’ careers. It’s made even more significant that Buster Keaton plays Calvero’s old partner who joins him in the final stage performance. Here we have the two men who birthed cinematic comedy taking one last bow in an era that no longer had room for their style.

Despite the symbolic significance of much of the film it is still a very self-indulgent picture. Chaplin made his film’s independently meaning he got to make final cut. Limelight clocks in at 2 hours, 11 minutes and it is a real stretch. Much like The Great Dictator, another over 2 hour picture, the middle sections sag painfully. The bits Chaplin performs are never all that funny either. The two man piece he does with Keaton at the end of the film is pretty decent but never lives up to his old films.

Film 2010 #35 – Shutter Island


Shutter Island (2010, dir. Martin Scorsese)
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams, Max von Sydow, Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, Jackie Earle Haley, Elias Koteas

My immediate reaction after seeing the first trailer for Shutter Island was that it would be interesting to see Scorsese tackle a film with horror elements. After thinking about this for a little while longer, I realized he already had in Taxi Driver, a film I think of as an urban horror picture more than anything else. Upon further contemplation, I realized we found similarly paranoid protagonists in many Scorsese pictures: The King of Comedy, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and of course, The Aviator. This is why Shutter Island, while stylistically a departure for the directing legend, is thematically at home in his body of work.
The premise brings U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) to the Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane located on Shutter Island. Rachel Solando, a patient at the asylum has vanished so Daniels, and his new partner Chuck Aule (Ruffalo) have come to investigate. Daniels is introduced to the facilities by Dr. John Cawley (Kingsley) and eventually meets the head of the hospital, Dr. Naehring (Sydow), a German who brings back Daniels animosity for the Nazi atrocities he witnessed during World War II. This combined with strange nightmares about Daniels’ late wife intensify his paranoia while on the Island and he begins to formulate what he believes is the real horror going on behind the scenes on Shutter Island.
What hits you first about this film is the score. The music was designed and chosen by long-time friend of Scorsese and former member of The Band, Robbie Robertson and he proves he has an ear for some powerful modernist compositions. There are elements of Bernard Hermann yet never played to the point of absurdity. Because of the strong musical elements they create a balance with the unscored moments. An encounter in a cave among the cliffs of the island goes unscored, despite there being revelations made there that would have received a crescendo of strings in an older picture. It’s those choices of presence and absence that strike the right balance in the film.
At its core, this is simply a variation on the haunted house trope. What sets it apart from a B-movie are the very powerful artistic masterstrokes Scorsese uses. The dream/nightmare sequences Daniels experiences, whether they be in sleep or in the middle of the day, inform the audience with the clues the investigator fails to find in the conscious world. I was particularly intrigued by the cultural paranoias of the day that seeped into the fiber of the film. We have Daniels haunted by the sights of Jews frozen to death at Dachau and his unit subsequent expunging of the camp’s guards in an era where PTSD was not something remotely thought about. In addition, characters mention the fears of atomic annihilation as a result of the Cold War, the idea of Nazi scientist-torturers being granted pardons for service to the US military, and brainwashing techniques of HUAC. This constant atmosphere of not-knowing and being watched makes Shutter a perfect companion piece to The Aviator.
Shutter Island may not end on the most satisfying of notes, but there really is no other way for it to end. Such a story can’t deliver any true sense of justice and still remain true to its film noir and horror roots. From the first time we see Daniels, hunched over a toilet as the ferry rocks around him, it is apparent this character is in bad shape. An odyssey to an island of madness can never make such a condition better.

Film 2010 #21 – A Face in the Crowd


A Face in the Crowd (1957, dir. Elia Kazan)

Starring Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, Walter Matthau
Sheriff Andy Taylor this ain’t. If you familiarity with the acting of Andy Griffith doesn’t expand much further than The Andy Griffith Show then prepare to be shocked by this picture. Released three years prior to the television series, the role Griffith plays is that of a scoundrel, liar, womanizer, emotionally abusive drunk. The character’s profession as a television personality delivering blues-based country music and humorous monologues about his upbringing in North Carolina is remarkably similar to how Griffith made his start in show business. However, the darker aspects of the character are believed to be inspired by television and radio personalities Arthur Godfrey (who fired an employee on air in 1953, revealing his controlling personality) and Uncle Don, a child TV personality who was caught calling his audience “little bastards” on air.
The story begins with Marcia Jeffries, the niece of a radio station owner in North Arkansas who hosts a series called “A Face in the Crowd”, whose focus is finding everyman figures with dynamic personalities. She comes across Larry Rhodes, a drifter picked up for public drunkenness. Larry is a very charismatic person who pulls people in and Marcia decided to make him a regular on the station, nicknaming him Lonesome Rhodes. Lonesome rises up through a local television station in Memphis and is eventually picked by a national network in New York City. All the while, he reveals his true nature to Marcia as someone not truly as “salt of the earth” as he claims.
The film feels prophetic, but when its based on personalities and hosts of the past it reveals how cyclical the fame and media machine truly is. It is inevitable that parallels would be drawn between this film and Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and countless other politically driven svegalis who emphasize their simple roots and connection to the common man. Lonesome Rhodes is a sympathetic character at points in the film, but never an admirable one. The theatrical audience could easily be pulled in by Lonesome’s grin and “fuck you” to the Man take on his earlier career.
The film is a pretty standard cautionary tale and director Kazan knows how to use his camera to accentuate the madness that begins to overtake Lonesome. I absolutely loved a montage that shows how Lonesome’s national television series becomes a hit. It was the perfect example of how to use montage in an effective way that isn’t simply cheating on the part of a screenwriter. I also loved a sequence near the end where Lonesome is taking an elevator down to the limo waiting for him. The camera cuts between the elevator buttons lighting as he descends and simultaneous descent of his approval in the eyes of the public and his sponsors. Brilliant, classic piece of cinema.

The James Dean Trilogy – Rebel Without a Cause


Rebel Without a Cause (1955, dir. Nicholas Ray)
Starring James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, Jim Backus, Dennis Hopper

Where in East of Eden, we have the contorting and convulsing Dean, here we have a more muted and subtle performance, and the one that made Dean the icon that he is today. The film was helmed by director Nicholas Ray, who would not find much more cinematic prominence in his career after this picture. It’s also notable that James Dean was only alive for the release of one of his films, the aforementioned East of Eden. Both this film and Giant were released posthumously and caused many fans to read into bits of dialogue here and there in hopes of gaining some insight into the actor’s psyche.

Dean plays Jim Stark, a young man who has frustrated his parents and forced them to move multiple times because of his anti-social behavior. Jim is not a “bad boy”, as the iconography of Dean has informed pop culture, but more of a quiet, troubled young man. And Jim doesn’t have an issue with figures of authority as long as they show him respect. One of the most remarkable characters in the film is Officer Ray Fremick, who genuinely wants to help Jim and offers him an ear any time he needs to talk. In turn, Jim’s parents are an utter mess attempting to hide this to public.

A scene early on sets of the thesis of the film: Jim and his classmates are attending a planetarium show at Griffith Observatory where the presenter tells them of the sun’s eventual implosion and the earth’s destruction, utter the phrase “Through the infinite reaches of space, the problems of man seem trivial and naive indeed, and man existing alone seems himself an episode of little consequence.”. This is why Jim is a rebel without a cause, he fights against a system for no reason other than to fight. At one point in the film, Jim is challenged to a game of chicken by school bad boy Buzz. As they prepare to race, Buzz tells Jim he likes him, Jim asks why they are doing this then, and Buzz replies “Well, what else are we gonna do?”

Another interesting aspect of the film is Plato (Sal Mineo), a fellow student of Jim’s whose father has left and whose mother is little involved in her child’s life. The family’s housekeeper is the most concerned person about Plato, as the boy tortures small animals and grows increasingly aggressive and upset. Plato immediately clings to Jim and, as it wouldn’t have been apparent to audiences in the 1950s, has homosexual feelings for the new boy in school. There are scenes where Plato reaches out simply to touch Jim’s shoulder, and when Jim heads home for the night, Plato informs him that there’s no one at his house and that he and Jim could hang out there if he’d like. I found it to be tremendously progressive for a film of this period to feature a character to so blatantly gay and not make him a villainous figure.

The film shows major growth in Dean’s acting ability, as this character chooses to simmer instead of explode. It’s definitely not his best performance, which I believe is in Giant.

The James Dean Trilogy – East of Eden

East of Eden (1955, dir. Elia Kazan)
Starring James Dean, Raymond Massey, Burl Ives

This month, I’ll be looking at the three core works of James Dean’s sadly short career. I didn’t see any of these films until 2007 when, while living in Washington state, I decided to check out Giant from the public library. What I discovered was the reason behind an icon. So often a pop culture figure’s work has been so far removed from our contemporary experiences that it is hard to understand exactly how they became so iconic. I have found that Dean was indeed a brilliant actor with a potential I don’t see in many others.

Dean made his starring role debut in Elia Kazan’s East of Eden (based on the novel of John Steinbeck), playing the tragic loner Cal Trask. Cal is the son of Adam, a farmer and brother to Aron. Throughout his life, Cal has been overshadowed by Aron’s accomplishments and looked at as the black sheep of the family. The mother mysteriously disappeared when the boys were children and Cal remembers little of her. The story is a reworking of the Cain and Abel story and mixes it with the gorgeous landscape of Salinas and Monterey, California.

The filmmaking at work here is a unique artifact of its time. Kazan is a deft director who is responsible for such masterpieces as On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire. And it was Kazan’s keen eye who discovered James Dean as he was performing on Broadway. Dean was a major proponent of method acting, a technique that transitioned from the more classical theatrical style of acting into a more psychological and physically interpretive method. Method acting bridges a sort of gap between acting and dance. This is seen in the way Dean almost spasms through his performance, he twists and contorts his body in unison with the psychological torment. The character of Cal is stunted mentally and Dean chooses to express that through his movement. Cal is constantly jamming his hands into his pockets, kicking at the dirt nervously, just like an awkward adolescent.

Dean was reportedly very uncooperative on set, and Kazan admitted he would encourage this by antagonizing the actor. Kazan believed that keeping Dean in such a mentally upset state would, in turn, enhance the anger and frustration of Cal on the screen. Dean’s co-star, Julie Harris is credited with truly enhancing the performance by adjusting her own to become more low-key and further highlight the distinction of what Dean was doing. For a first major film performance, Dean delivers in an astonishing way. Method acting was a new and exciting development in theater and its no wonder audiences were entranced with Dean.

Coming up next: I take a look at the film that made Dean an icon, Rebel Without A Cause.