Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Westfront 1918 (1930)

Here we have a German produced World War 1 film from 1930 that I had never even heard of until a few months back, when I noticed it was a part of the Criterion Collection (they officially released it early 2018, I guess on the 100th anniversary of the tail end of the Great War -- which is insane).  World War I has always been a bit underrepresented (or over represented, depending on your perspective) in film.  We've got the great, American produced, All Quiet on the Western Front, based on a book written by a German veteran, which also came out in 1930.  And then...nothing...for years. Nothing that mattered or, I guess stood the test of time is a better way to put that.  There's Kubrick's masterpiece, Paths of Glory, which came out over a quarter of a century later.  As for modern, post MPAA films those are few and far between, and almost all of those use the war as a backdrop to other things  There's War Horse (backdrop to a horse's life), Legends of the Fall (backdrop to Brad Pitt's flowing locks), and....Legend of Bagger Vance (backdrop to.....shit, I didn't see it).

The problem is, World War I isn't very cinematic.  I mean, sure, trench warfare which, for the last year or so of the war was almost exclusively the mode of fighting, is inherently terrifying.  The problem is these guys weren't moving around much.  They were dug in, stationary for days, weeks, months.  They waited...and waited through shellings, gas attacks, etc.  I'm not even sure, based on any of the movies I've seen (or what little I've read) what the strategy was beyond trying to stay alive and wait out the enemy.  So, I guess this is all cinematic in the way an extreme horror picture can be cinematic.  There is tension, there is gore...but also this is the real shit, which does not exactly make for a pleasant afternoon at the picture show. 

So, against all this, we have a picture, a bleak as shit picture, that focuses on a group of German Infantrymen, Western Front, last year of the war, dug in, running out of supplies, trying to survive...if no longer seriously trying to win the war.  There's Karl, the German soldier longing after his wife, back home.  There's the student, who lusts for a French girl, Jacqueline, who happens to live close enough to the Front for him to visit.  Then there's this guy, caught ooh-la-la-la'ing the student and the French peasant.  I'm not sure he'd be able to pull off this look after 1945:

There's also the Bavarian (big burly soldier) and the lieutenant, who in one of the most effective and terrifying scenes of the picture become trapped in their living quarters as the dirt caves in around them.

This is an incredible picture, every bit the equal to All Quiet and possibly, more powerful in its aversion to sentimentality.  The melodrama is toned down here as the picture mostly focuses on the men in the field although Karl's sojourn home (he flees the lines and is eventually able to return to them) almost results in a terrible domestic murder after he finds his wife in bed with the butcher's boy (the war has taken it's toll on those away from the lines as well; widespread starvation has forced those left behind to engage in some untoward activities -- like sleeping with the butcher's boy, for example).

Probably the weirdest part of the picture is when the French villagers perform for the dug in soldiers by singing about blooming daisies (allusion to the peasant girls that the German soldier's -- in particular the student -- pine after).  Then the guy with the violin and the clown come out and everyone shuts the fuck up, it's like an Abbot and Costello routine.  There are a couple of scenes that mercifully, take you out of the battle because when you do get back, that shit is unrelenting.  

These are real soldiers, grunts.  They swear (yes, not an American production so "shit" or "scheisse" get thrown around), they fuck (or, let's be honest here, commit rape, mercifully-again that word-, offscreen).  The battle scenes, like in All Quiet, are terrific, and terrifying.  It's impossible to tell one infantrymen or, more precisely, Germany's infantrymen from the French infantrymen once the shells and artillery start to unload and guys are running and diving in all directions.  At one point, the student engages in hand-to-hand with a French soldier and they both plummet into a flooded trench.  This calls to mind the scene in All Quiet where Paul finds himself stuck in a trench with a wounded French soldier, who will not die.  The stark, horrific poeticism of that scene is contrasted here with a struggle that is not shown onscreen.  All we know is the student is stuck in that submerged trench, wounded or not, shell shocked for sure, calling out for help that will not come.  The picture does not linger on his struggle.  Nothing is explained beyond this is war...and it really sucks.

Predictably, once the Nazi's came into power this film was banned in Germany as unpatriotic, pacifist bullshit.  Of course they banned it.  I'm of the mindset that the only anti-war films are the World War I films.  We rarely see the brass directing troops in open fields, no missions to blow up bridges, or kill some Nazi's in the Eagles Nest.  The closest thing to a mission in this film is when a runner is sent to alert his own forces to stop shelling their own troops.  There's no heroism (well, not movie heroism, anyway.  Just by being here these guys are heroic) and hell, certainly no jingoism.  This movie is as sympathetic to the plight of the French (mainly the villagers) as it is to the Germans.  There's no room in these trenches for John Wayne.  This is, simply put, the must-see war film, nay (War Horse reference) film, of 2018 since I'd imagine we'd all be seeing it for the first time.  If you like your war films bleak as all hell and depicting a miserable mud soaked existence, then look no further.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. (2003)

In honor of the release of the new trailer for the upcoming Godzilla: King of the Monsters (which is not to be confused with the Americanized version of the original film -- from 1954 --  which was also called Godzilla: King of the Monsters) I decided to write up a recently purchased Godzilla film that I had previously not seen.  The winner being the 5th film in Toho's "Millennium" series (1999-2004) called Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. which was preceded by Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla (2002) and followed by Godzilla: Final Wars (2004).  This film is a direct sequel to Mechagodzilla and even, unlike a lot of these films, maintains continuity with original films in, and apart from, Godzilla.  In this case, 1961's Mothra, which doesn't even feature Godzilla.  In that one, Mothra goes on a rampage  and destroys Tokyo because two fairies that are her keeper (or she is theirs?) are stolen by some villainous type.  I don't know, it's been a while since I've seen that one.  Also, not a fan of Mothra.

Anyway, it's the aftermath of the previous film.  Mechagodzilla is being refurbished and Godzilla is out to sea.  Holy shit, the pacing at the beginning of this thing, the first 5 minutes really, is just incredible.  We get location after location (Mecha's service station; deep sea, Pacific, the Caroline Islands, US Pacific Air Base, Hawaii, Japan Air Defense Center or whatever, etc) before finally settling on news of a "UFO heading for Hawaii".  Terrific scenes of Mothra, jutting in and out of cloud cover while being pursued by F-15s.  One of the pilots breaks the tension with "singing...I hear singing."  More dive bombing through the clouds and eventually the TITLE is amazingly slapped onto the screen.  I was jarred awake.

With Mothra active, Godzilla stirs, and the race is on to get Mechagodzilla operational in time.  Essentially, in these films, we get two types of Godzillas.  Destroyer of Tokyo or protector of Tokyo.  This is the former.  Mothra, after her first film, has typically been on the defender spectrum although there is some question here.  Her twin fairies, quite annoyingly, make an appearance and implore the Japanese to not use Mechagodzilla because it's a super weapon created from the bones of Godzilla or some shit like that.  Mothra doesn't like that and, through the twin fairies, threatens to, once again, level Tokyo if they don't deactivate Mecha G.  So, we've got quite the human conundrum here.  1) they can say "fuck it" and put all their eggs in the Mothra basket which is weird, because admittedly, while looking very cool here,

Mothra is still just a fucking moth.  Or, 2) "Fuck you, Mothra, we're fixing Mecha G and when we're finished with Godzilla we'll hurl giant moth balls at you or whatever, you bitch."  They choose "2" (spoiler) and I guess Mothra's threat was mostly empty cause that shit barely comes up again.

Similar to most Godzilla pictures, we get a few slight human type characters in here.  The only ones that affected me in any way were Chujo (mechanic on Mecha G), grandpa (he and Mothra apparently go way back according to the black and white flashback) and pilot, Lt. Asuza, who has a non-sexual love interest thing going on with Chujo.  Also, there's Chujo's nephew, Shun.  The human characters live, they learn, they love, they yearn, some die (not the ones listed above, but I'd imagine some do).

Full disclosure, I've never been a big fan of Mechagodzilla or Mothra.  Mecha G always just seemed like a way to get the human characters to be more involved in the actual monster battles, as opposed to simply observing and fleeing.  I'm fine with that, in theory, but I've always preferred kaiju (Japanese for giant monster) on kaiju fighting.  Mecha G always seemed like a bit of a stiff to me.  As for Mothra, she was just always too kitschy.  She never appeared formidable though she does have a a weapon or two at her disposal (the key weapon here being the ability to shoot her scales which I guess works to immobilize Godzilla -- of course that particular weapon is considered a "last resort" and only used when Mothra knows she's finished).  And then there are the twins.

A couple of mini faeries that, as previously mentioned, take care of Mothra (or vice versa).  I don't know, this shit is too cute (also kitschy), delves too far into fantasy land.   Whatever, I dealt with it well enough.   Finally, we also have Mothra's children...a couple of fucking larvae that swim from Mothra's home island after hatching, mid movie, to come and join the fight against Godzilla.  Their weapon of choice is the ability to spew webbing at Godzilla, again the power of immobilization.  Neither they, nor their mother, have a weapon that could be considered a kill shot.  They're lovers, not fighters, I guess, except when it comes to Tokyo back in 1961.  Here they are swimming.  They leave mid-battle and arrive just in time to help Mothra.  These god damned things should be in the Olympics.

Again, I'm in a truth telling mood.  This is not my favorite Godzilla picture (and certainly not my favorite of the Millennium series -- that would be Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah!  Giant Monsters All-Out Attack, which is probably a top 2 or 3 Godzilla picture.  It's incredible).  The main issue I have, besides Godzilla's opponents, is just that Godzilla is not very interesting.  A lot of these movies don't do a lot with the guy as far as personality but, when they do, the material is elevated astronomically.  Here Godzilla wakes, he makes his way to a city, he destroys the city, he fights his opponent(s), and then he usually gets tired, let's them immobilize him and gets carried out to sea.  Shit, I guess he was fine.  This movie was fine.  I think I just prefer Godzilla as savior which is why I tend to enjoy when the monsters he fights are on his level.  Mothra and a couple of babies doesn't really cut it (though she does get an incredibly moving death scene -- sorry for the spoiler).

Regarding, Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019):  TAKE MY MONEY, NOW PLEASE.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

The Spiral Staircase (1946)

Well damn, I figured I'd give this thing a shot again.  I watch movies.  I watch a lot of movies, though not as many as I used to.  I guess I'm getting old.   Not as old as this movie I watched called The Spiral Staircase.  This picture was good, possibly great, certainly unique.  Set in early 20th century, in a small New England town.  A talkie set during the silent film era featuring a protagonist who can't talk.  She's mute as a result of some trauma or other.  I wonder if not being able to vocally communicate plays into this particular story about a murderer who stalks disabled women?  Also, this film's views on disabled women is......interesting?  The first victim is described as "dim witted"?  I think one victim was described as "lame" which is a thing people used to say about people that....couldn't walk well?  Now they just say it about horses and this blog, any blog.  Also, I think one victim had a scar or something.  So, this killer targets women that are vulnerable is the point.

The picture opens in the screening room at some Inn where a projectionist cranks a lever and projects a silent film on a wall.  The crowd gasps, gawks, oohs and ahhs.  There's an old lady providing live piano accompaniment.  It's not unlike most arthouse theaters today.  The movie they're watching is called "The Kiss".  It looks bad, but was probably the highlight of the year for most of these hicks in the year of our lord 1906.  Anyway, while the picture plays downstairs a poor, "lame", woman is murdered in her room upstairs.  We see the killer's eye peering out from the closet as she changes.  He descends, she screams, the crowd downstairs reacts and moves upstairs to check out the ruckus.  This was a silent film after all...and also it wasn't called "The Scream".  Missed opportunity.

By the time they make it upstairs, the woman is dead (strangled) and the assailant has vanished.  Our main character was at the picture show.  Her name's Helen.  She's a mute.  She gets a ride home with Dr. Parry who tended to the dead woman.  Her home is the Warren estate, where she works tending to the bedridden matriarch Mrs. Warren.  On the ride home (horse and buggy style) they encounter, who I immediately deemed suspect #1, Freddy.  Freddy's a young lad who stops the doctor in hopes he'll stop to check in on his ailing father.  Dr. Parry takes a rain check.  He's too busy being smitten with Helen.  Freddy's a creepy little kid.  I forgot to snap a picture of my television screen so you'll just have to take my word for it.  He's definitely suspect material.  We don't see him again.  I wonder what happened to his papa?  Also, everyone's ailing in this fucking town.  His pa was probably in his 30s, but I imagine he looked to be about 65.

So, they finally reach the Warren home and this is where the movie decides to stay for the duration.  It's a big house, gothic as shit.  There's even a spiral staircase in there somewhere.  It's an incredible location.  The house contains a cast of characters and the rest of our suspects.  We've got Professor Albert Warren, the oldest son.  We've got Steven Warren, the youngest son recently back from Paris.  His arrival home correlates precisely with the start of the murders.  Maybe too obvious.  There's Nurse Barker, the cantankerous care provider for Mrs Warren that everyone seems to hate, especially Carlton the Bull Dog.  We've got Blanche, the young woman the two Warren brothers fight over.  And then there's Mr and Mrs Oates who I had trouble placing in the context of what was happening.  As far as I could tell, they lived at the estate (maybe caretakers?) and Mrs Oates was drinking all of Mrs Warren's brandy (and possibly her ether too).  And then there's this guy, Nurse Barker's arch nemesis and an obvious suspect.

Nurse Barker trips over him constantly and refers to him more than once as a "useless loaf".  At this point, I can't be positive that the eye I saw staring at victim #1 from her bedroom closet wasn't a dog's eye.

So, we got an old fashioned whodunit with some decidedly modern trappings.  It's almost a proto-slasher or even a proto-giallo.  Women die while the killer remains unknown until the end.  There's even the old person (Mrs Warren) telling the young woman (Helen) to leave and never come back if she knows what's good for her which is not that far off from the old coot at the gas station warning the kids away from Camp Crystal Lake in whatever Friday the 13th film that happened in.  Probably all of them.  Helen not being able to speak must have seemed like a masterstroke at the time but if you hired the wrong actress it could be a disaster.  Luckily, this actress has an expressive enough face and vintage silent era eyes.

Truthfully, I'm not really sure how to categorize this movie.  It's a mashup.  We've got a horror picture.  Light and shadow used to creepy perfection, especially when characters descend down the stairway or into the basement.  There's a film noir buried in here somewhere as well.  Consider this wonderful line from Dr. Parry (did I mention he's lusting after Helen?) in response to Stephen making a lewd comment directed towards her:  "The only thing keeping me from striking you in the jaw is the absolute certainty that it will break your neck".  He's a doctor so we kinda believe him.  There's also a bit of a love story which culminates when Helen has a fucking bizarre waking dream where she is getting married to the doctor but gets stuck on the "I do" part.  The men in this picture also say things like "run along now" to the women after they've grown tired of them.  Imagine that line making it's way into a picture today?  That would be weird.

This was made 20+ years prior to Wait Until Dark and in that one at least Audrey Hepburn could speak.  I won't spoil the finale or the reveal of the killer only to say it was (the finale) and wasn't (the reveal) shocking.  I can't imagine what audiences must have thought.  The film grossed under $900,000 at the time but doesn't that translate into something like 8 billion dollars today?  I have no idea.  Whatever, this is a good one.