Friday, February 12, 2010

Ryan's Daughter (Analysis)

Ryan's Daughter is one of those films that has been mostly forgotten despite it being one of David Lean's strongest films. Due changing popular tastes at the time, David Lean films had become a bit passé. It came out in 1970 during the early days of the "New Hollywood" where gritty contemporary films like Easy Rider had changed the movie landscape a year earlier.

This film was the third film in a loose trilogy of personal stories taking place during World War I but doesn't directly deal with the main conflict in Europe. Lawrence of Arabia dealt with the fight with the Turks and how it reshaped the Middle East, Doctor Zhivago dealt with the Russian revolution and Ryan's Daughter deals with Ireland on the eve of its independence from England. All three stories are very personal stories on the backdrop on 3 major political shifts of the 20th century.

Loosely based on Madame Bovary, Ryan's Daughter tells the story of Rosy Ryan (Sarah Miles), a day dreaming romantic that marries the local school teacher, Charles Shaughnessy (Robert Mitchum). Her marriage is pleasant but lacks passion which leads to her having an affair with a stationed British soldier (Christopher Jones). The small Irish town figures out that she is having an affair and she is ostracized from the community, not only for breaking her wedding vows but for "sleeping with the enemy".

Ryan's Daughter was criticized at the time for telling such a small story on such a large canvas. I disagree with this assessment because it misses the entire point of the film. We are affected by our environment and our place in the world can have a direct affect on how we see it. Rosy is dreamer, so she spends most of her time on the beach reading and wandering. She rarely seen in the town itself and looks out of place when she does enter the town. The townspeople themselves are very small minded and very bored. Most of them don't ever seem to have jobs and they tend to just hang around on the main street taunting the mentally disabled, "village idiot" Michael (John Mills). The local schoolmaster is the most educated and worldly person in the village, so naturally Rosy is drawn to him. He is an outsider himself that also is rarely seen in the town and his house and schoolhouse is overlooking the Irish coastline.

The vast Irish coastline in contrast with the dirty small town is critical to the story in showing the dirty human world against the large natural beauty of the landscape. A perfect example of this are the two love making scenes in the film. During Rosy's honeymoon night with Charles, it takes place in grungy room above the hall where the townspeople are getting drunk and dancing below. It illustrates not just the lack of passion but also Rosy's realization that her marriage to Charles won't escape her to another world and that she is stuck as she ever was. In contrast to this, her encounters with the British soldier are almost always outside and the first time they make love it is in woods surrounded by nature.

John Mills' portrayal of Michael won him the Best Supporting Actor Oscar that year, but to me the most fascinating character is of Father Hugh Collins played by Trevor Howard. Alec Guinness was suppose to be the first choice for this role but I think Trevor Howard gives such a gritty performance to this role that would have been missed if it had been played by someone else.

Father Collins is the bridge between all the worlds within this film. He is equally comfortable on the beach looking for Rosy or in the town breaking up a fight. His preaching style is on one of a street thug. He knows how simple the townspeople that he serves are and he knows that slap to the head it the easiest and quickest way to knock some sense into them. When he learns of Rosy's betrayal to her husband he doesn't react in judgment but in sadness. These little touches make for fascinating viewing and one of the great pleasures of this film is seeing the priest react to these different situations.

The background of the story of Ryan's Daughter is of a small group of IRA fighters that are in the town to gather arms from a shipment that had been washed ashore. The townspeople get directly involved with the rescue of the arms. When it foiled by the British they blame Rosy and assume she is British spy. The pageantry of the rescue of these arms is critical to the story because it puts you in the point of view of how the villagers must have felt by shaking away their boredom and has given them purpose for the first time in their life. Their anger towards Rosy isn't just about adultery or treason. She (according to them) has taken away their meaning and purpose in life - which in itself was what Rosy was looking for all along too.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Bad Sleep Well (Kurosawa)

Back in the Samurai days of Japan, Samurai warriors were hired by lords to defend their lands and help expand their territories. They were expected to have full and complete dedication to their master and be willing to die for them at a moments notice. That is why samurai warriors always carried two swords, a large one for fighting and a smaller one for Seppuku (ritual suicide). After the samurai died off in the 19th century, a new national movement started (the Meiji period to the Shōwa era) to modernize the country and to build up the nations military. This changed the focus from serving one's lord to serving one's country. So much so, that there were great worries that at the end of World War II, there might be national suicide committed in the shame of losing the war. Oh course this thankfully never happened but the culture once again shifted. This time the dedication moved from loyalty to the nation to loyalty to one's company.

Akira Kurosawa made 30 films in his 55 year career. Although known for his samurai films, only 9 of those take place in samurai times. Most of Kurosawa films were contemporary films that dealt with the struggles of post-war Japan. The Bad Sleep Well was made in 1960 at the peak of his creative and commercial appeal but it is not as well known as his other masterpieces like Seven Samurai, The Hidden Fortress and Yojimbo.

Loosely based on Hamlet, it tells the story of Koichi Nishi (Toshirō Mifune) that is out to seek revenge of the death of his father. It is a scathing expose of the corruption of big business in Japanese companies. Western audiences in particular have never warmed up to this picture due to many cultural differences in the film. Many of characters of the story have an unwavering loyalty to their company and many of the employees in the film are willing to steal, cover-up and even kill themselves to protect the company and their employer. This can be a little jarring to understand why employees would be so loyal, when their bosses are so corrupt.

So to best understand it, is good to look at this film as modern samurai film. The President of the company is the feudal lord, the upper and middle management are the samurai and the workers are the farmers. In this context The Bad Sleep Well is a fantastic film that not only makes a commentary of modern Japan but also the social structure that has remained in place regardless of the changes in history.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Madhouse (Analysis)

Madhouse was the final film that Vincent Price was ever the sole lead of and the last film he did for the independent studio AIP (American International Pictures) during is 14 year rein there. Vincent Price continued to be a star of stage and screen but this was his last outing as the king of horror.

Vincent Price was unhappy at the time in this career. He was feeling he was being type-cased in violent horror films with bad scripts and was on the verge of ending his relationship with AIP. Its co-star, Robert Quarry was already being groomed as Vincent Price's replacement so his memories of this film have not been kind and has added to his dismissal of the film as being it being a lesser work.
The film also suffered because it come out very shortly after the Dr. Phibes series and Theater of Blood which had an art direction and budget that this film lacks. Because of all these factors, Madhouse is mostly forgotten, which is unfortunate because along with Witchfinder General, it one of his stronger films after his work with Roger Corman in the early 60's. It has one of the stronger story lines of any of his 1970's work and it avoids the slasher film episodic style of his last few horror films.

Based on the 1969 novel Devilday, it tells the story of Paul Toombes (Price) who is an aging horror star known as 'Dr. Death". He is wrongfully framed for a series of real life murders that lead to his own mental collapse. The film uses real clips of his work in the Poe/Corman series as clips from the "Dr. Death" series. Naturally this was used to help the budget of this film but it also conveniently creates the parallel of Price's actual problem at this point in his career of being type cased and "haunted" by the Poe films that made him so famous a decade earlier. Either by design or accident, this film turns out to very autobiographical to Vincent Price's career. Peter Cushing is cast as an acting friend that is basically a back-up to Price's character in case he can't play the role. In real life, Peter Cushing was good friends with Price but his career in the horror genre always cast him as a "second banana" (mostly to his Hammer Horror co-star Christopher Lee). The character of Paul Toombes is also in the strange position of being somewhat famous, with young starlets vying for him but still has to deal with the headaches of low budget films, in-experienced actors and directors – which was also a source of real life frustration of Vincent Price during this period in his career.

The film was directed by new director Jim Clark who later went on to acclaim as an editor on such highly regarded films as The Killing Fields (1984) and The Mission (1986). His directorial style has never been highly regarded here but I think he does a fine job in this picture keeping them emphasis on story and scares rather than atmosphere and art direction.

At the end of the film, Paul Toombes goes into hiding as someone else. In real life, Vincent Price also walked away from starring in horror films but turned his attention to primarily stage acting. Vincent Price was a big fan of his 1973 film Theater of Blood because of all the different types of Shakespeare roles he got to play and it generally pointed to where he wanted to go as an actor. Madhouse on the other hand addressed where he recently came from as an actor. This made it hard for Vincent Price to look at but it makes for fascinating viewing for us now.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Best of the 2000's

Here is my list of the 10 best pictures of 2000 to 2009
1. BAADASSSSS! (Van Peebles) 2003
From the opening chorus of "I bled your momma, I bled your papa..." to the final frame of Melvin Van Peebles winking at the camera, Mario Van Peebles' tribute to his father is nothing short of a masterpiece. The story of the first independently produced black film in 1971, is not only a history lesson, it explores what to takes to be an artist and an uncompromising filmmaker. This is an independent film made about what it takes to make an independent film. It is also a compelling story of father and sons. Mario plays Melvin in the film and you can't help but feel that he is working out his own demons of his relationship with his father. Its conclusions are both harsh and heartwarming. Melvin's Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song might have started the revolution but Mario's BAADASSSSS! won the war.

2. Far from Heaven (Haynes) 2002
Todd Hayne's beautifully shot film is not only a tribute to the Douglas Sirk melodramas of the 1950's it tells a haunting story that could only be told in the 21st Century of what life was really like in the Eisenhower America of the 1950's.

3. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Lee) 2000
This is the film that revised the Wuxia martial art film in North America and around the world. Its use of action is like poetry and its story is both a throwback to another time as well as a modern feminist statement that is current now.

4. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Gondry) 2004
A beautiful, sad journey into the fate of memory and love. It technically a journey into the mind but it really is a journey into the soul.

5. The Dark Knight (Nolan) 2008
The second in the Chris Nolan Batman movies is simply the best comic book film ever created.

6. Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (Jackson) 2002
This is where the apex of the drama hits its peak. Characters introduced in the Fellowship of the Ring are more fully developed here. It is also a more "human' story than the first film focusing more on the story of Gollum and the people of Rohan. What Empire was for Star Wars, Two Towers is for Lord of the Rings.

7. Sideways (Payne) 2004
What better way to have a boy's weekend: hook up, fall in love, get beaten up and get over your ex...all over a bottle (or two) of wine. This film increased Pinot Noir sales and destroyed Merlot sales forever in California.

8. Grindhouse (Rodriguez/Tarantino) 2007
The double bill of Planet Terror and Death Proof is the most entertaining ride that people skipped when it came out in 2007.

9. Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Allen) 2008
Best film about threesomes and art ever made.

10. 24 Hour Party People (Winterbottom) 2002
View the Madchester scene in the 1980's with Tony Wilson exactly how he THINKS it all happened.

Honourable mentions: The Departed, House of Flying Daggers, Pan's Labyrinth, Kill Bill (1 & 2), Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, Best in Show, City of God, Nixon/Frost, Sin City, Gosford Park, No Country for Old Men, In the Mood for Love, Being John Malkovich, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Casino Royale, Team America: World Police & Unbreakable.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Poe/Corman Film Cycle (1960 - 1964)

One of the most influential era's of Gothic horror films to be created was the film series in the 1960's on Edgar Alan Poe created by Roger Corman. Not only was it the most successful series that the studio American Pictures International (AIP) ever produced but it was the most exploited.

Poe/Corman cycle
The 'Poe/Corman cycle' is the original 7 Poe films directed by Roger Corman between 1960 and 1964. Except for The Premature Burial, they all starred Vincent Price.

Despite the smaller $250,000 budgets and a 14 day shooting schedule, the Poe films always had a high degree of artistry and thought put into each of the films. Floyd Crosby (High Noon), his Director of Photography put together some amazing cinematography and created an incredible colour palette for each of the film: House of Usher (reds), Pit and the Pendulum (blues), Premature Burial (greens), The Raven (yellows) etc...

The primary writers for each of the movies was Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson that had great success in writing for the Twilight Zone. The full credit has to go to Roger Corman himself, that who incorporated his own theories and views based on Sigmund Freud into each of the movies. These subconscious aspects I believe also helped the large appeal to teenagers when these were released that normally wouldn't want to sit through what was essentially a talky costume picture.

The Fall of the House of Usher (1960) is the first film in the series. Shot entirely in one large house set with a cast of only 4 people. This film set the standard for Gothic horror films in the next 14 years.

The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) is the second in the series and is my personal favorite of any of the Poe films and to me is the defining film of Vincent Price's career.

The Premature Burial (1962) stars Ray Milland instead of Vincent Price in the lead. He was cast primarily because of Corman's dispute with AIP (who had Price under contract at the time) but puts in a great performance of man paranoid of being buried alive.

Tales of Terror (1962) is the only one of the Poe films that was an anthology of 3 short stories all starring and narrated by Vincent Price. The first story Morella starts off with the same formula as House of Usher and Pit and the Pendulum. The Second story is The Black Cat a humorous tale that co-stars Peter Lorre. The final story, The Case of M. Valdema co-stars Basil Rathbone.

The Raven (1963) was the final of the original Poe films to be filmed in America. Corman was feeling that the series was starting to repeat itself so they mixed things up and made it into a comedy. This one is one of my favorites in the series. The banter between Price, Karloff, Nicholson and Lorre is excellent and you get the feeling that everyone is in on the joke and you are just in for a fun ride.

The Masque of the Red Death (1964) is Corman's Poe first film shot in England and has a look and feel that is completely different than any of the other Poe films. It lacks the humour and tongue in cheek feel to the other films but that is its strength. In its essence, the story is about death and how it is stronger than anything else earth. The main character decides that the best way to cheat death is to make a pack with the devil. This movie isn't about Satan but it shows the lengths than man thinks he can do to cheat death. The final shot in this film is one of the most powerful in all of 1960's cinema.

The Tomb of Ligeia (1964) was the final Poe film that Corman directed and the second one shot in England. For this film, Corman really changed up the style to be different than any of the other Poe films in its look. It was shot mostly outside using real settings (instead of the usual studio setting that are made to look outside). What also is unique is that there is more emphasis on the love story between Vincent Price and Elizabeth Sheperd.

Everything is reversed from the original film (House of Usher). Price has black vs white hair, sensitive eyes vs sensitive ears and everything is outdoors instead of being claustrophobic. This stays in keeping with the circular concept of the entire Poe series but doesn't feel like it is repeating itself like the others do sometimes.

I like Price in the role but I do know that Ray Milland was the original choice for the role and I think he would have been more suited as the romantic lead. My other issue with the film is that the ending
is too similar to the other Poe films and it would have been more suiting to come up with a different style of ending. (Snow storm perhaps?) Having said that, it is still a marvelous film and a great way to end the series.