29 May 2012

Madhouse and Theatre of Blood

Madhouse and Theatre of Blood A Twisted Good Time!
By Kristin Battestella

Give me an excuse like a would-be 101st birthday to watch some more Vincent Price!

In the 1974 murder and mayhem tale Madhouse, Price is Paul Toombes, the aging star of the Dr. Death horror movies penned by Toombes’ longtime friend and former actor Herbert Flay (Peter Cushing). Flay has coaxed Toombes out of semi retirement for a new television show produced by the sleazy Oliver Quayle (Robert Quarry). Unfortunately, the suspicious murder of Toombes’ young fiancée and the time he spent institutionalized thereafter continues to haunt ‘Dr. Death’.  Cast and crewmembers on his new series are soon found dead in copycat crimes styled from the Dr. Death films, and Toombs slowly succumbs to a returning mental instability. Can he solve the crafty murders nonetheless? Is he the killer or Dr. Death’s next victim?

Oscar winning editor turned director Jim Clark (The Killing Fields, The Innocents) opens Madhouse with a fun use of footage from The Haunted Palace, solid pre-title festivities, and a juicy crime. In many ways, Clark’s crafty editing experience is perfect for the task at hand. The visual blending of Price’s earlier AIP films, old production photos, nods to other film work, and their intercutting use for this Amicus co-production wonderfully establishes Madhouse’s neat premise. Where does the actor Toombes’ reality end and the fictional killer persona of Dr. Death begin? Are we watching a film about Toombs or the Dr. Death TV show? Did these two great titans of horror “need the work” onscreen and off perhaps? This sly touch of dark comedy and ability to laugh at one’s genre comes across beautifully, and the intermingling with killer viewpoints, seventies zooms, and extreme angles keeps the lines between actuality and stability appropriately askew. It’s not overdone as we lay it on today- there’s just the right amount of stylized play within a play identities, illusions, and good fun.  After all, we’re seeing a horror show within a horror film supported by clips of other horror movies like The Raven, Tales of Terror, and The Pit and the PendulumMadhouse doesn’t take itself so seriously, and neither should we. One should probably be a fan of Big V’s film catalog to appreciate such shrewd killer use of stock footage, yes.  The seventies mixing and sixties styles will seem dated- even obvious in revealing the killer as the picture goes on. The more that you think about the scenes of the crimes; plot holes and confusions become apparent, indeed.  Fortunately, the traditional horror film design, tight photography, and simple smoke and mirrors work their best. The death scenes are first-rate, with creative uses of the set within set themes. The film splicing, fade ins and outs, and great uses of sounds effects and screams from both within the used footage and the film itself create a complete drive-in or late night film experience.  I’m not sure that the title has to do with anything, and the logistics of Madhouse’s inept Scotland Yard men will make your head hurt if you think too hard on it, but who cares?

Naturally, Our Man Price is the classy old pimp we expect, oh yes. He begins Madhouse as a suave Hugh Hefner-esque silver fox with young Bond Girl blonds abound.  Today we might expect this sexy mismatch in horror, but it’s a true guilty pleasure to see Toombes taking down the dames here. Although Price plays the degrading sanity seriously, there are hints of that over the top innuendo and tongue planted firmly in cheek design. Certain scenes are both personal parody and honest homage to his earlier scaries, and we’re meant to enjoy the self-reverent ride.  It’s as if the character of Dr. Death is more alive that the aptly named Toombs.  He’s older, sympathetic- we feel for this terrorized former star- yet the Dr. Death scenery is no less suspicious or sinister in quality.  Besides, many viewers would presume Price himself was spooky onscreen and off, creating another blur between the actors and personas within Madhouse. These dual imageries and creepy soliloquies create quite a haunting portrayal indeed.

At only ninety minutes, fellow horror mavens Peter Cushing (must I?) and Robert Quarry (Count Yorga, Vampire) don’t get too much time to steal the show, but their spooky support is spot on nonetheless. Cushing is so suave, a slick, classy ex-actor turned writer that’s almost too good a friend to be true. Likewise, Quarry is the perfect greasy television executive looking for dames and dollars.  Both men also wear vampire costumes at a celebrity party- again playing on the theme with Quarry’s Yorga and Cushing’s Helsing personas. Basil Rathbone and Boris Karloff are credited for their stock footage uses, which is kind of strange but also a fitting tip of the hat for the bent reality that is Madhouse. Natasha Pyne (Father Dear Father) is also an interesting and unexpected touch as TV assistant Julia.  Blonde and seemingly insignificant like the other ladies, but again, nothing in Madhouse is what it seems.

Adrienne Corri (A Clockwork Orange) is also wonderfully disturbed and loads of fun.  Those spiders of hers, shudder! Madhouse looks both swanky with modern mid-century design and Old Hollywood with fallen graces and decrepit sets. The creepy British locales add on lots of candles, statues, and spooky gardens. Old film projectors, flat phonographs, eerie sixties scoring, ironic music cues sang by Price himself, and a few scary storms layer the frame within a frame nostalgia nicely. Hip London cars, debonair accents, mod turtlenecks and ascots add some flair, too. Not to be outdone of course, 1973’s Theatre of Blood sets its scene with demented and dirty vintage London locations.  Believed dead after his suicide attempt, Edward Lionheart uses thespian facades and Shakespearean inspiration to seek revenge on the critics association who denied him ongoing review praise and their top year-end award.  Inspector Boot (Milo O’Shea, Romeo and Juliet) and the police question Lionheart’s daughter Edwina (Diana Rigg) as one by one Horace Sprout (Arthur Lowe), Chloe Moon (Coral Browne), and the rest of their circle meet their theatrical ends. Will critic Peregrin Devlin (Ian Hendry) be able to stop the deranged actor and his meth drinking street troupe before he’s Lionheart’s next victim?

 Unfortunately, the low and uneven voices- it seems like no one’s microphones worked- create a poor and dated feeling for Theatre of Blood.  If you’re expecting high horror production, the wasted, worn, and depressing dressings can look like a sub par play made on the cheap. Compared to the whimsical homage of Madhouse, Theatre of Blood appears more like a straight crime thriller; and in some ways, I wish it did have some deserving, grandiose, even gaudy psychedelic Corman color.  Longer at almost 1 hour 45 minutes, director Doug Hickox (Brannigan) works with the similar themes of fallen actors, stage facades, play within a play styling, and flashback frameworks. The fun, ye olde silent film opening credits montage suggests the dark humor that is to come, too.  However, Theatre of Blood feels slow to start, with standard stuffy Brit types and more bungling policemen who shockingly don’t realize the Shakespearean connections to the crimes. Some of the foreboding is obvious as well, and revenge kinship to The Abominable Dr. Phibes is evident.  The editing and cutting styles do build suspense, but some of the early death scenes aren’t as theatrical as they could be. The first hour’s melodrama lacks creativity, and these deadly theatre politics can seem too pompous and dry to be believed.  All this just because they gave him a few bad reviews and no trophy?

Theatre of Blood isn’t that scary and feels hollow enough for those expecting a major horror film to tune out.  We always see Lionheart in character and don’t get the essential pieces to his motivation until flashback exposition later in the picture.  Frankly, these lovely over the top establishments should have been the opening to Theatre of Blood, and the poor choice to stick character importance so late can even create some player confusion.  Thankfully, there’s a great ironic use of classic music, and what may appear to be a bland and dark tale slowly builds into a farcical delight. The fun here is in guessing who is going to die next and in what Shakespearean method.  The abnormal build up to the humor, farce, and intentionally exaggerated theatrics increase masterfully as Theatre of Blood goes on, complete with wit, panache, and a hysterical Othello twist.  The low values and weak start may seem like a faulty execution not worth the viewing, yes. Theatre of Blood does take half of the picture to get to it, indeed. Fortunately, once it does step up the mayhem, Theatre of Blood does so wholeheartedly- literally!    

I would say these reduced budget faults necessitate a proper nuHammer remake- if not for the simply irreplaceable Vincent Price that is!  Lionheart begins white haired and crazy- an entertaining, once upon a time high thespian with a marked disconnection from reality.  Some of the makeup is iffy, but most of the disguises are great genius. Price’s voice, position, and stature may give him away, but the joy is in seeing what warped Bard plan he has next. The demented Shakespearean soliloquies are- I must pun- Priceless.  We shouldn’t doubt that Big V could do a straight high-class film by any means, but his pseudo Shakespeare intensity steps up as Theatre of Blood goes on.  The multi-layered performance is laced with wit, sadness, class, and sociopathic grace.  Oh, the sweeping music and forehead dabs as the faux doctor goes to work!  Price is clearly having fun with this man of a thousand faces gone awry, and you can see why this is one of his personal favorite performances.  Love it or hate it, Theatre of Blood is almost worth the ‘Price of admission’ just for the kinky Othello scene!  I mean, he even sports a fake afro- Bob Ross meets Carrot Top, anyone?  Yes, I’ll say it- that burgundy velvet pimp suit is to die for!  Price’s nuanced and well faceted portrayal is both spot on and perfectly ironic. I love the Inspector’s “It’s not a comedy!” claim right before an Austin Powers-esque inept police pursuit and the simply exceptional Titus serve-uppance.  Oh, yes.
She’s up to the challenge and Diana Rigg (The Avengers) looks good, of course; but we don’t see her prettied up much for Theatre of Blood.  Her “amateur actress” Edwina begins dry as well, with some seemingly unimportant playful seduction. Fortunately, her position as the good daughter becomes more ingenious as Lionheart’s plans unfold. There’s not a lot of the famous Emma Peel innuendo to bounce off, naturally, as we have no overt attempt for a sexy young thang here.  Rigg fans, however, will certainly enjoy her almost see through white mini skirt and sans bra potential.  The victimized cast- including future Mrs. Price Coral Browne (Auntie Mame), Arthur Lowe (Dad’s Army), Ian Hendry (Get Carter), Robert Morley (The African Queen), and the rest of the somewhat interchangeable critics – create a very uptight, pompous, and annoying board, indeed. That is partly the point of their latent villainy- they’re asses- but not all of their motivations are explained. We can hate them one by one or enjoy their deaths because we are bemused by Price as Lionheart. Otherwise, the critics aren’t that interesting in themselves, and the audience isn’t given much reason to care.  Perhaps there’s supposed to be another level of sinful humor or irony at work- that would be the opposite of the meaningless, unending buffet of blondes and bosoms usually being diced up in horror film today. However, the secondary support in Theatre of Blood just comes off as too lightweight and underdeveloped. The be-furred meth drinking hepcats working with Lionheart are also just too stupid and weird; the flashback explaining their presence comes too late.  Although, I do confess, I did fall for one of Theatre of Blood’s now fairly obvious twists on my first viewing!

Uninhibited Shakespeare fans can have a jolly good tongue in cheek viewing with Theatre of Blood, indeed. Study how the seventies deaths mirror the plays, or test up on Bard Quotes and Know Your Will games. It may see meandering to start and too low quality for anything to matter, but this one is definitely worth the viewing investment. The Netflix streaming subtitles are absolutely necessary in catching all of Price’s stage glory, and a dual DVD edition of Madhouse and Theatre of Blood is available for further warped comparisons. Yes, longtime horror viewers will spot the errors in Madhouse and some predictable twists in Theatre of Blood- some audiences may even be confused by the witty, double play finale in Madhouse or Blood’s OTT endingNevertheless, classic horror and kitschy Price fans can delight in the solid mystery fun and thespian mayhem in both Madhouse and Theatre of Blood.  

22 May 2012

A Mini Robin Gibb Tribute

A Mini Robin Gibb Tribute
By Kristin Battestella

After reading, writing, collecting, and listening to the music of the Brothers Gibb since my own conversion in 1997, I for once, have nothing to say about them.  Or rather, I have a whole lot to say, but can’t quite express myself just yet.

Instead, here’s a complete listing of my past reviews and essays on The Bee Gees, Andy Gibb, and solo work from last brother standing Barry and the now late Robin.  Sniff.

New Bee Gees Comfort Lists!

Robin Gibb Albums

Compilation Sets

Barry Gibb Projects

Gibb Videos

Andy Gibb Works

Songwriting Collaborations

For the original review pages and matching screen capture sets, you can still visit the archived web pages for Bee Gees Chain Reaction, my original Gibb website.

18 May 2012

Merlin Season 4

Merlin Season 4 Steps It Up At Last!
By Kristin Battestella

It’s taken awhile for the BBC series Merlin to grow into its own mythology, but with this fourth season, it has finally stepped up to what it should be.

One year has passed since Morgana (Katie McGrath) fled Camelot and the broken King Uther (Anthony Head).  Though his Uncle Agravaine (Nathaniel Parker) would seem to help Prince Arthur (Bradley James) rule, he secretly supports the exiled Morgana’s intentions against Camelot. Servant Merlin (Colin Morgan) and Court Physician Gaius (Richard Wilson) have their suspicions about Agravaine, but little can be done without proof.  Maid Guinevere (Angel Colby) cares for the ailing Uther and becomes a strong supporter of Arthur at court- much to Agravaine and Morgana’s chagrin. The illegitimate sorceress is determined to never see her former maid upon her throne as Queen of Camelot.

The drama’s been kicked up this season, and we have new credits, too! It peeves me when everyone isn’t listed in the opening, but finally we also have a fine supporting court cast as there always should have been. With positive players like the Knights of the Round Table against the meddling forces of Nathaniel Parker as Agravaine, this year builds nicely towards the Arthurian myths we know, love, and have long expected to see. Old Merlin has a few appearances, the fully villainous Morgana and would be Queen Gwen face their destinies, and Arthur at last rises to the occasion. The fast paced, grown up strides of Series 4 makes an audience wonder why they wasted the first 2 seasons on humor and stupid creatures of the week!  Alice Troughton wonderfully directs the opening two-parter “The Darkest Hour,” a great suspenseful Samhain plot, as well as the third episode “The Wicked Day” and the “Sword in the Stone” two hour finale. Though the intercutting and deaths are a little heavy in the first episode, it’s bemusing to see all the badass knights cowering and afraid of wispy phantoms.  Several scenes throughout the season do erroneously demote the knights towards comedy and overused misuses or further stupidity. However, oft writer Howard Overman also builds on King Uther’s anti-magic stance and finally creates resolutions that take Merlin toward the getting good point of no return in episode 5 “His Father’s Son” and the subsequent “A Servant of Two Masters.”  Arthur’s budding kingship and Merlin versus Morgana turntables take the forefront while the quality humor, humility, and family friendly style remains well balanced amid the increasing perils.

Of course, those perils are depicted with way too much slow motion!  And yet, the heavies come too quickly at times as well- resolved haphazardly or afterwards easily forgotten.  “The Secret Sharer” and “Lamia” almost resort to slapstick and creature feature stylings while “Aithusia” provides another quest for quest’s sake with conveniently knocked out knights allowing magic to happen sight unseen. It’s also odd to again have so many one off episodes when the heavy ongoing storylines could continue.  Why must major material go on hold for the rehashed plot of the week? “A Herald of a New Age” has some great scares and gives Elyan something to do; but it also retreads earlier wet ghost plots, and the major arc change for his sister Gwen in the previous episode “Lancelot du Lac” is hardly mentioned.  Despite serious reflective time for Arthur and maturity for Morgana, “The Hunter’s Heart” also rehashes arranged marriages and new princesses. The improvements on Merlin are great, but it is too easy for the writers to fall into seemingly safer, juvenile trappings. The otherwise fine finale feels slightly rushed, too, with a wasted Tristan and Isolde opportunity.  We finally have all the legends we love happening all at once and they’re sped up for presumed audiences with short attention spans.  Fortunately, great suspense, action, and relationship turns force our players to, you know, act like adults. Excalibur makes its presence known and Merlin at last goes past the point of no return in approaching Series 5.

Although Merlin still uses magic in public too much and no one ever notices, Colin Morgan is perfect at saying all that can’t be said.  He also has some fun as the Old Merlin incarnation, mixing the snarky with a serious and wise reflection. It’s nice to see Merlin take on medical duties in “Lamia,” and there’s even an Evil Merlin in “The Servant of Two Masters.”  As these young men mature, Merlin’s relationship with Arthur also improves greatly. The humor and camaraderie are still there, but as Bradley James rises Arthur to new leadership and strengths, critical events and a lovely begrudging respect replace the crude and previously so often retconned jerky Arthur.  There are some nods to the slash subtext built in this season- a little more emotion and bromance per episode for fans. However, I could do without the weird near butt shots and ab-fest imagery unnecessarily toeing the line of excessiveness.  By contrast, Arthur seems to cry quite a bit this season, and that isn’t a bad thing.  His burdens increase wonderfully through Year 4, creating quality drama in Camelot and much need adult angst on Merlin.

Audiences are finally treated to Katie McGrath’s full on magical and notched up Morgana, too. Her style would seem a little too Potter Bellatrix-black lace, crazy hair, cheap Halloween costume spider web designs- but she does look great! Green eye shadow has replaced that so obviously evil black eyeliner, and Morgana’s little witchy hut is a spooky, elemental place- even if it seems way too close to Camelot to never be found!  McGrath tones down the smirky as well, but she still fronts more evil backtalk dialogue then she successfully does thanks to repeated evil exposition.  Episode 7 “The Secret Sharer” fortunately shows Morgana’s increasing magical connections building heavy towards the finale. Her hooded, dark menace ways grow throughout the season, and Morgana’s ongoing threats to Camelot amplify the tension and create divisions all around. I still hold hope we may have more of the even juicier Emilia Fox as Morgana’s disfigured sister Morgause, too.  

Angel Colby also looks much nicer this season, and Gwen is at last receiving some just Arthurian grace.  This is how she should have been styled all along. Why did they waste all that time on a bumbling servant girl? Where did those boobs come from?!  It is unusual that Gwen would nurse Uther after all he did to her and her late father- like causing him to be late. However, her intelligence, maturity, and compassion lead to a strong standing at Camelot’s court and define the Guinevere we’ve long expected. Her relationship with Arthur has finally gotten realistic, even it if is handled innocently for the family audiences.  Some of the retread with Santiago Cabrera as Lancelot is a waste of his appearances, but his guest episodes fortunately can’t revolve around some stupid puppy love anymore.  Serious consequences and meatier bits happen for all the knights on Merlin this series- and it’s so nice to have court players on Merlin all the time!  Yes, Eoin Macken as Gwaine is especially resorted to mostly comic relief instead of snappy guest spotlights.  Despite being a creature of the week enchantment and subterfuge, “Lamia” does give Gwaine, Leon (Rupert Young), Elyan (Adetomiwa Edun), and Percival (Tom Hopper) a chance to shine. The writers still don’t seem to fully utilize all their wonderful players, but the knights’ moments per episode increase the camaraderie and peril throughout the season. 

The great strides for Merlin this year do deserve praise, but Richard Wilson’s fatherly Gaius finds himself accused of sorcery yet again in “The Secret Sharer.”  Everything is much more serious and the individual tests work because Wilson is so good, but our darling and classy Court Physician is still needed onscreen- even as our younger cast grows up.  Anthony Head also raises the bar as the sickly and humbled Uther in “The Wicked Day.” Strange as it may sound, it’s great to see the anti-magic, mean King broken after such prior nasties!  New regular Nathaniel Parker (Inspector Lynley Mysteries) as Lord Agravaine is equally love to hate worthy as the embittered uncle slithering into Camelot. Again, his kind of subterfuge should have been part of Merlin all along.  Although I’m sorry but I must say it, for there are some potentially dirty vibes coming from Agravaine in scenes with the pretty young ladies! He’s always sneaking off for a secret or suspicious rendezvous with Morgana or trying to trap Gwen into uncomfortable one on one meetings. Youth enjoying Merlin probably won’t notice, but older audiences and adults will see his disturbingly fine brand of creepy!

Though I wish they had extended appearances, mature guest stars Gemma Jones and Miranda Raison (MI-5), Melanie Hill (Stardust), Lindsay Duncan (Rome), Ben Daniels (Law & Order: UK), and the too, too brief Michael Cronin as Geoffrey of Monmouth are perfection. I would rather have actors acting instead of mock battles with thin air and monsters of the week any day. But alas, such action has almost always been the definition of fantasy media, I suppose. Precious time on Merlin is still wasted on creature features, and the Massive CGI effects are somewhat low in quality if compared to big cinema today. Fortunately, the set dressings, forestry and castle locations, and fun costumes invoke superior medieval mood and fantasy atmosphere. Great candelabras, court finery, and spooky ruins do wonders indeed! Sure, it’s colorful and not high end 5th century brooding, but the fanciful for young and old has always been a fine aspect on Merlin.  John Heard and his Great Dragon avatar are also smartly used as needed in poignant, touching moments- especially in the fourth episode spotlight, “Aithusa,” and hopefully the dragon hints and motifs will blossom to the forefront in the upcoming Series 5.

Merlin can still fall victim to weaker juvenile formulas, I grant you. Thankfully, Year 4 has stepped up the pace and maturity immensely, and casual reset buttons can no longer be pressed. Older audiences or Camelot connoisseurs who may have put off the series for its growing pains beginnings can now tune in anew.  After jumping in with this season on the SyFy (still hate that!) Channel’s recent airings, my teen nieces are now addicted!  All lovers of fantasy fun can enjoy Merlin’s strengthened storytelling and approaching Arthurian wonders. Bring on Year 5!

14 May 2012

The Naked Jungle

The Naked Jungle is So Bad It’s Good!
By Kristin Battestella

I mentioned in my Band of Angels analysis earlier this year that I had a bit of a jones for this 1954 tropical romance yarn.  I mean, it’s Charlton Heston, Mail Order Brides, and Killer Ants! So, I ask you, what’s not to love?

Joanna (Eleanor Parker) arrives at the Leiningen cocoa plantation in South America ready to meet her new husband by proxy Christopher Leiningen (Heston).  Unfortunately, the jungle is a savage place, and Leiningen has worked too hard alone to entrust himself or his wealth to Joanna despite her compassion towards him. The refined New Orleans beauty is the perfect ornament to Leiningen’s collection, but she was briefly married and subsequently widowed, and this revelation further drives a wedge between her and her rugged husband.  They agree Joanna should return home on the next available boat- but the oncoming Matabura ant infestation threatens the plantation and unites the couple against nature’s deadly devastation.

Some old films are classic and rightfully so, but older not so stellar films like The Naked Jungle have their all in good fun place, too. Director Byron Haskin (Treasure Island, War of the Worlds) and script writers Ranald MacDougall (Mildred Pierce) and Ben Morrow (The Asphalt Jungle) hinder the basis of Carl Stephenson’s “Leiningen Versus the Ants” short story with an over focus on the romance and an uneven, almost tacked on ant action finale.  Added to expand the adventure into a ninety-minute picture, the sappy love story elements are very of the time kitschy and often downright hokey. Tongue twisting, misogynistic, awkward dialogue and the prudish notion that Joanna’s prior year long marriage is the main division between her and Leiningen just seem too unrealistic- even for the onscreen turn of the century via fifties time portrayed. Though bemusing, the explanations given- “He was very gay, very charming, and very drunk” – don’t help The Naked Jungle’s credibility any. It’s supposed to be juicy and scandalous for its day- long looks at womanly silhouettes complete with swelling music and a mad dash for the brandy before a sudden cut to crackling thunder and lightning!  Her unlocked door, the symbolic white dress dirtied in the mud, the native bug repellant rubdown- we get it. The entire approach is obvious and clichéd, merely going through the motions from one act to another without any room for our players to really know each other- much less give us reason to care.  Audiences today won’t believe the line dropped personal journeys and phantom soul searching from this not so happy couple. Nevertheless, the over the top melodrama can be quite entertaining- just for all the wrong reasons! 

The South American secondary players in The Naked Jungle aren’t given much beyond one offensive turn after another, either. Native workers are stereotypically stupefied before their white masters or lurk as menacing, dirty jungle folk needing “two baths.”  Some are portrayed as comical, simple people who speak the same English phrases poorly and carry cute, funny music cues with their entrances and exits. They paint their faces; bang drums, speak gibberish, and carry out barbaric poison dart rituals too brutal for “Leiningen’s woman” to witness. Some of the responsive gibberish from Charlton Heston is even translated in the subtitles!  “He’s more civilized then the rest, he has Mayan blood,” Chuck says of one loyal worker before asking him to present his “treasure”- a shrunken head Leiningen uses to dupe an angry neighbor.  Some of the ethnic terminology also doesn’t feel correct. They are in South America but all the locals are blanketedly called Indians? Wikipedia says The Naked Jungle takes place is Peru, but no attempt to discern where they are, who the Native peoples are and what they speak is given onscreen. Back then; this was probably okay, even beside the point to all the saucy ambiance. To the contemporary viewer, however, it all comes off very poor, to say the least.  The audience just can’t appreciate the lawless lands or true wilds on display in The Naked Jungle with these unjust portrayals.

The unrealistic, erroneous representation of the Marabunta threat is also mishandled in The Naked Jungle- and this is supposed to be a critical element in the film.  After being tossed in almost as an afterthought way too late in the picture, the man versus nature battle becomes too comical to be properly entertaining.  Natural facts about the troublesome ants are distorted to the likes of jumbo science fiction parasites whilst still being something “no bigger than my thumb” as Big Chuck says.  There is even one shot of these evil little ants on their leaf boats setting off into the water as if it were a carefully orchestrated invasion!  “Sound the alarm! They are trying to cross the river!” I dare say The Naked Jungle might have been better from the ants’ perspective. Which plot is meant to be our story? The romance or the sudden taming and reclaiming of the jungle? Perhaps the two tales mean to parallel each other or intersect together in one sweeping conclusion, but the pace and development on both sides is too far off for either to matter.  

Well then, Charlton Heston was probably very glad that those biblical epics came along when they did!  I confess, I also love the somewhat similar 1956 hokey Heston picture Three Violent People, too.  He’s young and steamy here- not at all like what would become his quintessential onscreen personas. His big horseback introduction is angry, sweaty, and dirty, “Leiningen, Madam”- say that three times fast!  Leiningen is a bit of an ass to start, making the wife he thought he wanted stick to a “schedule” before he feeds her lizard. He wants her, but he doesn’t need anybody. Then why the heck did you bother? Joanna is expected to be the ultimate symbol of his hard working solitary achievements- he only wants her to play the piano. Seriously? Why does he automatically suspect this perfect woman come his way is too good to be true? The awkward tension and character motivations in The Naked Jungle are simply all over the place.  He’s so rough because this land is so raw and wild enough to break a man, yawn. Leiningen says he likes a woman with a temper- so then do something about it already! When things do get naughty, he throws perfume all over Joanna! Goodness gracious, the round and round in The Naked Jungle is so bad it’s giggly!  After all, some of the dialogue also implies Leiningen is a virgin who doesn’t dally with the local ladies.  Are you kidding me? Heston is not bad at all, but every character turn is so left field.  He’s a brute the bad jungle can’t consume- but he’s really a shy virgin who reads poetry? The dialogue is unbelievably MST3K, and in the end, we’re supposed to rally for this man as he defeats killer ants? Yeah. Heston’s persona keeps The Naked Jungle fun and watchable, thankfully. I mean, He’s Chuck Heston!  He can take on a few ants with the voice of God and a shotgun, can’t he?

Eleanor Parker deserves more respect, indeed. Unfortunately, The Naked Jungle goes for a bit of an Anna and The King of Siam juicy wannabe angle for Joanna. Tossed aside lines aren’t enough to find out why she was so willing to come all the way down to South America ready, willing, and able to love her unseen husband. She’s kind to start, but has airs, graces, no tact, and demands Leiningen count her teeth like a good bought horse. Huh? I’m sure her fans will love it as Parker gets fifties scandalous and spends a lot of the film in her corset and petticoat. She even meets Leiningen disrobed! “You’re not dressed, madam,” ba donk a donk.  Joanna is bold and sassy with a sense of humor and a knack for irritating interruptions, but all her signals are mixed. Often, she belittles and seems arrogant instead of sympathetic. Even when our spouses warm to each other and the audience should be so endeared, Joanna still comes off a little bitchy. She isn’t personally all that interesting, and neither is the back and forth tug and pull dominating The Naked Jungle.  At some point, we don’t care if these people really get together or not- whom else would have them anyway- but the cheesy conversations and over the top faux desire create a lot of laugh aloud moments.  It’s not a distinguishing film for our leads by any means, but the quotes from this one are a riot. “There are men and there are women. They are like spoons… Then tell me about spoons.”  I don’t know how they kept a straight face!

Much of these B poor subpar ways show in The Naked Jungle’s design. The music is typical scary tribal, not rousing and swift. The Edith Head costumes are fitting and fitting on Eleanor Parker, but the simple cut is too fifties fashion. If you tuned in late and missed the “South America 1901” opening tag, one wouldn’t know when this takes place. I love the candelabras, and the interior dressings are pleasant enough.  Unfortunately, the style just looks more bright and breezing mid century modern before plantation Victorian. The Florida scenery is nice, but all the action and explosions are small scale. The Naked Jungle simply isn’t as sweeping Old World and exotic as should be. Make no mistake, the colorful craftsmanship is there; but the DVD release isn’t the fully restored best quality possible we expect today. Thankfully, at least there are subtitles for that great, ridiculously embarrassing dialogue!  I must say, if you look too deeply into The Naked Jungle, there are some ironic prophetic touches, too. Heston says monkeys have more brains than ants but less than people, alluding to his later Planet of the Apes glory, and the big flood finale harkens thoughts of his The Ten Commandments triumph. Heck, Leiningen ends up the last man standing ala The Omega Man as well.  One’s mind has that much time to wander here.

It’s hokey, flawed, sometimes ignorant, and downright laughable, but fans of Charlton Heston can certainly enjoy The Naked Jungle. He’s smeared in goop, covered in bugs, and then hosed down for goodness sake! Eleanor Parker lovers will also most definitely delight in her shocking undressings, too. Old film connoisseurs who adore dated and sappy adventure yarns can treat themselves to the errors and cheesy here.  This is not a classic on merit, but nonetheless a bemusing good time for a drinking game or a corny late night alone. Although anyone with a bug phobia might want to steer clear of The Naked Jungle.  Dun dun dun!

10 May 2012

A Dangerous Method

Performances Make and Break A Dangerous Method
By Kristin Battestella

I was quite keen to see director David Cronenberg’s 2011 psychoanalysis opus starring Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud and Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung.  Unfortunately, the all-star cast of A Dangerous Method both helps and hinders the period psychology panache here.

Disturbed patient Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightly) is brought to Burgholzli Hospital under Dr. Carl Jung’s (Michael Fassbender) ‘talking cure’ treatment.  As Jung discusses his theories on psychology with his wife Emma (Sarah Gabon), Sabina improves enough to help him in his studies- for she wishes to become a doctor herself.  Jung corresponds with and eventually meets Dr. Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) who also encourages Jung to both treat and learn from the committed Dr. Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel). The radical Gross opens Jung up to new possibilities in philosophy and patient care, and the growing attractions between Jung and Sabina will have long-term affects on both their personal lives and the future of psychoanalysis.

Cronenberg (Shivers, The Fly, Spider) jumps right into the mental juiciness with lots of dialogue stemming from writer Christopher Hampton’s (Dangerous Liaisons, Atonement) The Talking Cure play, which is itself based upon John Kerr’s A Dangerous Method book. This focus on conversation may seem disinteresting, but the speech and banter is quick and well paced.  A lot is said in the frank conversation on top and unsaid in the hidden subtext beneath, too. The photography matches this inward out examination as well, with intimate filming, full and tight close ups, and quick editing. We don’t have much time to stop or get bored in the stream of consciousness in media res flow. Although some of the split screen visuals are slightly imperfect- lens blurs linger in the background when alternating focus- it is critical to the players and the plot to see both doctor and patient in one camera shot as the ‘talking cure’ takes place.  I can see why some audiences might find purely dialogue based storytelling unusual, old-fashioned, or slow. However, I don’t see the hindrance in A Dangerous Method.  The fast moving debates, saucy conversations, and action within the frame via the players, camera cuts, and steady zooms perhaps move too fast in some frames. Onscreen times and places appear sporadically, and years seem to pass from scene to scene- Sabina’s treatment and Jung’s correspondences with Freud appear to happen overnight.  Intercutting pregnancies pass and children and grow up in minutes, and these time changes may certainly be confusing on the first viewing. 

Of course, all this mature, naughty talk is meant for a comfortable and intelligent audience, so I’m not surprised A Dangerous Method didn’t fair well in stateside cinemas or awards voting.  This unfortunately creates an uphill battle for the film. We know where its players are going; even if the viewer follows the ‘journey not the destination’ design, it’s still somewhat obvious in the approach. For such a heavy subject matter- doctors on the fringe of science building the foundation of minds based on dreams and sex with patients!- A Dangerous Method should have been darker somehow. Step it up, raise the ante.  Instead, the ninety-minute picture feels too short and lightweight, merely a quick gander into these people’s lives. These are critical moments for all the characters involved, but it isn’t really entertaining to watch relationships fall apart. Honestly, it becomes kind of dry. After all, we only have four people going round and round- things will get either hairy or dull, and A Dangerous Method seems to take the easy way out. This is a damn decent case study, yes, with more going on then can be found in one viewing. Spiritual comparisons, religion, medical ideologies, id, ego, mind versus self, battles of the sexes, marital life- perhaps it is all too involved and complicated for this precious generic 18 to 34 demographic. Yet A Dangerous Method feels too watered down in an attempt to chase this basic audience when it could have been bigger, better, and completely worthy of itself.

Sure, the too tame or talks too much styles may not work for all viewers, but the major problem with A Dangerous Method is unfortunately it’s would be female star Keira Knightly. I confess I’m already not so beholden of Knightly (Atonement, Pride and Prejudice), and she is very annoying to start here. Whether it was her design or Cronenberg encouraged it, that jaw thing is too dang weird! Rather than gaining sympathy for the abused and sick Sabina, the over the top ticks take the audience completely out of the picture.  One wonders if Knightly can just do that jut jaw any old time or if she discovered her face can do wacky things only recently.  Her accent wavers, yes, but the voice is not nearly as distracting as the contortionist introduction.  Forgive me, but I couldn’t help but think, “Dr. Jung becomes attracted to this?”  Why does Sabina only flip out when Jung isn’t around anyway? Sabina seems too childish early on, but Knightly does improve once she has something more constructive to do.  Again, you expect more complexity, energy, abandonment even.  For such sexual topics, I find it weird there’s essentially no nudity from Knightly. It is as if she’s going out of her way to keep it clean rather than be willing to throw her whole self into the character without reservations.  There are two nip slips for fans, but there isn’t any scandal or achievement to put the viewer on Sabina’s side. She starts dirty and unkempt, slowly graduating into Edwardian grace and sophisticated debates, but this isn’t Knightly’s best.  She never fully embraces Sabina and makes it tough to root for her. So, there’s nothing wrong with a doctor/patient affair?  But writing exposing blackmail letters is okay?  Sabina comes off as a scorned jealous bitch- yet she initiated the naughty offerings and comes to Jung later with her dissertation. Knightly’s scenes go round about Freud and Jung’s debates, and it leaves the audience wondering what the point of it all was.  Were there any answers?  In the end, did anything so life shattering happen? The flipside is that this is life. We divide, rectify.  It’s dirty, messy, conflicted with imperfect people and no easy answers.  I don’t mean to be so harsh, but Knightly is definitely off the mark and her scenes make A Dangerous Method un-entertaining enough to change the channel. Saying ‘Fraulein Spielrein,’ however, is very bemusing!

Fortunately, the male cast makes A Dangerous Method worthwhile.  Michael Fassbender (Shame, X-Men: First Class, Prometheus) presents a cool voice with great German touches and international style for Carl Jung.  It’s a nice mix of old fashioned proper- the accent seems strict and buttoned up despite the casual and pleasant psychologist’s demeanor. Of course, the boundaries between doctor and patient become a little too casual for currently hot stuff Fassbender, but the quaint glasses and tight mustache transform him from it boy status to an old last century intellectual.  Fassbender hasn’t made many contemporary-set pictures, probably because he is one of a very talented few today who don’t just look like a modern actor pretending to be old school.  He physically seeps into being Jung seamlessly with a cane, hat, and finite mannerisms.  Unlike Knightly- who in comparison seems a tame, non-entity- it is very easy to buy into Fassbender’s young, friendly doctor. Perhaps Jung doesn’t know what he’s doing to start- he loves to eat and talk about sex.  He’s pent up no doubt, even small and dorky complete with a milk mustache! However, Jung is charming, bemusing, and there is an idea, a mission and passion he must explore.  More and more weighs upon his mind, body, and soul, and Jung becomes very serious as the picture unfolds. Ironically, these conflicts open him up more to the taboo experiences. We know there is something nasty going on even when A Dangerous Method keeps up the Edwardian behind closed doors sensibilities, and Fassbender is damn good in this within/without portrayal of Jung. Placed in tandem with his other recent performances as the brooding Rochester in Jane Eyre, the powerful young Magneto, and of course an extreme and exposed sex addict in Shame, and one further sees how well Fassbender plays the tables turned restraint. The glasses come off, Jung makes mistakes, he denies, admits, lives.  

Viggo Mortenson (Lord of the Rings, A History of Violence and Eastern Promises with Cronenberg) is of course classic and witty wonderful. Freud’s cigar, the posture and dialect- Mortensen looks obviously Viggo whilst also being perfectly in character as Freud. There’s something transparent yet wise; Freud almost sees through Jung from the start, and hints of resentment over Jung’s married wealth and social and religious positions add unspoken dimension. The stuffed up debates between the doctors are the highlight of the picture- great verbal smack downs carrying psychological weight delivered with an effortless post-Victorian strike on the cheek or drop of the glove.  Angry letters are a ‘violent break’ to these people! Thanks to Knightly’s not coming to play, the Freud versus Jung element here is far more interesting than Sabina’s story. Finding the balance between self and ideas, the father figures building up and giving way to sons, those sons breaking away against authority- these intriguing larger debates hinted upon by Freud are never fully explored in A Dangerous Method at the expense of the pseudo love triangle with Sabina. However, I would love, love to see Viggo in a picture dedicated entirely to him as Freud.  His too brief, underutilized angel on Jung’s shoulder is the perfect support to Vincent Cassel’s devil as Otto Gross. I want to say Cassel (Black Swan) is a riot as the scandalous free loving doctor! Gross is dressed down for the period, almost a city bum in comparison to the sophisticated style of others onscreen.  It would be visually obvious except for Cassel’s lovely, unapologetic embodiment of such of the time radical and wild notions. Oh, the shock of people who regularly discuss sex and talk of mistresses!  Gross is supposed to be disturbed and himself institutionalized, but he gives Jung the educational push he needs to pursue his ideas.  Again, another fine supporting player shortchanged in A Dangerous Method.

Where disappoint in Knightly can create a detrimental viewing experience, Sara Gadon (Cosmopolis) is pleasantly surprising as Emma Jung. The rich and often pregnant wife of our conflicted doctor is pleasing and classy, a proper warm and supportive old-fashioned lady who stands in for the would-be rigid societal yoke entrapping Jung. It isn’t a thankless or completely ‘stand by your man’ role, however. Gadon handles the performance well, but the marriage is meant to be forced, old school, strained, distant and one sided.  Thanks to the honestly and somewhat overlooked focus for Emma, it’s easy to like her and feel for this woman who is obviously not a priority to her husband.  The poor thing spends most of A Dangerous Method faux- pregnant yet still looks gloriously done up in the finest early 20th century hats and white lace. Again, it is a little too symbolic of her purity, goodness, and high collar stoic wealth. But it’s visually smashing fashion and we need to see these Freudian representations and choices. Emma’s one scene with Sabina is also onscreen awkward perfection. Mrs. Jung is quiet and classy while Sabina still comes off as unstable and intrusive. Is one stifling and the other freeing? One maternal and submissive, the other masculine and dominant? With the one sided focus on Sabina and only one reference to Jung’s long time mistress Toni Wolff, these female gives and takes are never fully explored.

Even when the saucy talk would have viewers think A Dangerous Method exposes the naughty of a such a pretty time, the look and style is too lovely! Again, the costumes handle a lot of the symbolism needed for the players, but that visual dimension does so much. The music is also wonderful, both contemporary edgy scoring from Howard Shore and the onscreen Wagner allusions and Siegfried references. The blend and inspiration of the two is internally foreboding yet done in pleasant of the time arrangements.  And of course, the fun phonographs, turn of the century accessories, and scientific gizmos create a sweet attention to detail- the carriages, cars, canes, hats, spats! Old World Austria locations are also divine, with lovely architecture and great boating and water scenery.  I must also say the pretty penmanship and letter writing campaigns are also so classy. Good cursive is a foreign language to youth today!  Though the rental blu-ray is filled with commercials and preview crap as always, the photography looks delightful. The disc skipped a few times, too, and the older design black blocked subtitles were a bit weird, but the menus were quite easy to navigate. It seems it should go without saying that an interface actually works, but the old-fashioned scrolling simplicity does much compared to all the BD Live mumbo jumbo access most discs have these days. The commentary and half hour AFI Master Seminar with Cronenberg were very deep and involved, but the behind the scenes videos seemed too quick for the topics at hand. Biographies or Freudian versus Jungian debate and analysis panels might have been nice.

Of course, there are a few juicy scenes in A Dangerous Method, naturally, and one particularly good naughty from Cassel definitely places this one in the ‘not for kids’ category. However, for all the repeated bumping and grinding trailer and highly publicized spanking themes between Knightly and Fassbender, A Dangerous Method is actually fairly subdued and mostly fully clothed. What you see in the trailer is pretty much what you get. It might have been easy to take the sex romp, tawdry melodrama road, but the witty touches of Cronenberg’s dry humor keep this film more high brow. Indeed, A Dangerous Method is simply a saucy play onscreen, and strangely, I find it quite pleasing just to listen to it.  All this deep dream and sex talk and yet the elegant voice and style feels like a mellow Sunday afternoon stroll!   Some audiences may definitely find fault with the dialogue based performances or uneven character pace and focus, yes.  Fans of Cronenberg’s more creepy work and horror films might be reluctant in watching A Dangerous Method, understandably. However, his cerebral panache is here for smart, mature viewers and psychologists or older students of Freud and Jung. Fans of the cast can dive in as well with history buffs or period piece lovers, too. So long as you aren’t too prudish over the sexual subtext and allow room for a few performance faults, A Dangerous Method is an intriguing little film conversation.