The Return of the Depressed

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on February 27, 2021 by dcairns

I had forgotten there was a film called THE BOOGEYMAN made by Ulli Lommel but a recent project brought it to mind. And quite recently we had watched THE TENDERNESS OF WOLVES and thought it very poor, so hey! Let’s pop it in the Panasonic and say rude things.

I thought the fact that TTOW couldn’t even decide what period it was meant to be set in was a sign that Ulli was an idiot, but now I was hearing that his movies fit into the delirious late-seventies/early-eighties batshit horror cycle of non-Cartesian, as Argento would say, thrillers. Maybe he was an eccentric genius masquerading as an idiot in order to move among his people? We had to find out. The critic’s job, as I see it, is to wilfully misinterpret obvious deficits as cunning flourishes, and I don’t intend to be outdone on that score.

Audacious: the movie begins with thirty seconds of blank screen with Carpenteresque electro-burblings. And then there’s a gel-tinted riff on HALLOWEEN with a kitchen-knife-wielding sprog. But it mixes things up, it’s not a straight rip-off. Where Carpenter has a POV shot that doesn’t make much sense — little Michael keeps looking up at his own hand while he’s raising it to stab — this one has a weird tracking shot in which the lad with the dagger seems curiously tall, and on wheels, and is holding his knife in front of him in a strange way. Serve him right if he tripped and did himself a mischief.

I don’t exactly award bonus points for the scenes of child bondage, but it does suggest a filmmaker who’s not scared of being offensive and horrible.

The film jumps ahead and the two kids (yeah there’s another one) have grown up and one of them is Suzanna Love, Mrs Lommel and the film’s co-writer. Lommel gets extra points by just casually showing another small kid playing on the brim of a well like a fool. Throwaway nervousness.

Lommel has seen HALLOWEEN and THE EXORCIST and some Argento but also, it seems, OF MICE AND MEN — the hulking mute barnstrangles a slattern. The movie moves in lurches, slow and then jumping forward. Here’s John Carradine! As a reassuring shrink. And quite an understated perf, by his barnstorming standards. He could dial it down if you asked him.

Eyebags you could transport mice in.

It’s kind of nice that Love’s character is seemingly crazy but everyone else is far more nuts. Her husband is awful. She freaks out and smashes a mirror after seeing the film’s first victim in it (stocking-masked child-binder) and her man meticulously reconstructs the shards just to be a dick.

But it’s too late — breaking the mirror unleashes everything the mirror has seen! Which inevitably leads to people being killed by their own windows and bathroom cabinets. None of which is scary but some of which is icky or at least surprising. “Boogeyman!” shouts little Timmy, for no reason, before the window descends on his scrawny neck like a guillotine blade.

As far as cheap FX go, I dig the shard of glass glowing red on the carpet, and the levitating pitchfork which rises through frame (held by a crewmember below frame then passed to another above frame). And Ulli is an adherent of the put-scary-music-on-everything school, which is surprisingly effective. Music by Tim Krog (sole credits: this and BOOGEY MAN II. Is Tim is an Ulli preudonym?).

End credits say “Written, produced and directed by Ulli Lommel” but then “Screenplay by Ulli Lommel, David Herschel & Suzanna Love” which is confusing. And maybe a little boastful.

Well, I’m happy I saw it. Love is an interesting presence, un-starry and naturalistic. But I think if you’re going to make an irrational weirdie, you need to have more genuinely startling incidents — since logic does not constrain you, there’s no excuse not to go really nutzoid. TBM only gets partway.

On “Top of the Town”

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 26, 2021 by dcairns

Devoted Shadowplayer Chris Schneider contributes an appreciation of obscure (to me, anyway) thirties musical TOP OF THE TOWN. You can watch the whole film on YouTube (bottom).

Someone was just saying, in connection with the writing of director Jacques Rivette, that the crazier your choice of “best” is, the more you’ve proved your (cinematic) love. This was extrapolation, mind you. Perhaps, then, I should prove my love of Thirties musicals by choosing the decidedly odd TOP OF THE TOWN (1937).

TOP OF THE TOWN is a dog’s-dinner of a picture, let’s be clear, but it’s not without interest. For one thing, it can be cited as the first Universal picture to employ the “twirling stars” studio logo. Secondly, it has a score by a very decent pair of songwriters — Jimmy McHugh (music), Harold Adamson (words) — which contains a genuine, soon-to-be “standard,” “Where Are You?” See recordings by Frank Sinatra and Chris Connor and Mildred Bailey.

Also of note is the historical oddity that TOP OF THE TOWN is one of that handful of pre-WW2 films, films like the Barbara Stanwyck/Robert Young comedy RED SALUTE, using interest in the Soviet Union as a source for comedy. What that means, here, is a flighty heiress (Doris Nolan) who has returned from the USSR with a tendency to call people “comrade” and now wants the nightclub on top of the family-owned skyscraper, the famed Moonbeam Club, to produce Important Art. This places her in conflict with the boyish musician (George Murphy) who simply wants to lead the club’s band and put on a good show. 

You might know Doris Nolan as Katherine Hepburn’s sister in HOLIDAY. She gets no songs here, only attitude. George Murphy, a talented yet not especially appealing dancer, was Astaire’s rival in BROADWAY MELODY OF 1940. He only gets one chance to dance, toward the end. Since nothing much happens between Nolan and Murphy, the strategy is to distract the audience with character performers like Hugh Herbert (as Murphy’s friend) and Gregory Ratoff (as his manager) and Ella Logan (as a diminutive song-belter) and Peggy Ryan (as a child doing an Eleanor Powell dance impersonation). Gertrude Niesen, as the band’s torch-singer, goes missing, but manages to sing “Where Are You?” And did we mention the trio of contortionists in sailor suits who do animal imitations?

Coherence is, shall we say, not one of the strengths of TOP OF THE TOWN. The director is Ralph Murphy, whose one notable film might be THE NOTORIOUS SOPHIE LANG. The script, allegedly, has uncredited contributions by Robert Benchley and Morrie Ryskind.

Another famous name, Mischa Auer, does put in an appearance. As part of the Moonbeam Club’s new Significant Entertainment, Auer shows up and does the “To be or not to be …” in full Hamlet drag — tn the accompaniment of a moaning choir in blackface. This is, um, problematic, as is a dance number involving salt-mine laborers being whipped. Luckily, the show is saved and the club patrons satisfied when a spontaneous jazz “jamboree” breaks out. Sorta like the number at the end of La Cava’s HALF-NAKED TRUTH.

TOP OF THE TOWN has its good points, to go with its silly or offensive ones. Notable among the plusses are the film’s gleaming look, in accord with its *moderne* title lettering, and Glasgow’s own Ella Logan scat-singing and dancing. This is the woman, let us remember, who later created the female lead in FINIAN’S RAINBOW.

And how can you say no to a film, I ask you, featuring Mischa Auer in his Hamlet Drag doing a conga-style pelvic thrust?

Surely Jacques Rivette would understand.

The Big Fight

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , on February 25, 2021 by dcairns

THE GREAT WHITE HOPE alternates wildly between the source play — big scenes with action artificially compressed to fit, which is the whole art of the theatrical drama — and vast cinematic spectacle — Martin Ritt and his expert team seem determined to spend as much money as possible. It rarely quite finds a happy middle of actual filmic drama. But there are moments:

It’s held together by James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander. Strong support too, but Jones is incredible.

Ritt himself advised against adapting plays for the screen: the playwright goes to the trouble of compressing all the action into a few rooms as possible, the filmmaker blasts the walls away and everything fades when the fresh air hits it, or else you get something like this where the “true story” claim, only halfheartedly made at the start (in a gag borrowed from BUTCH AND SUNDANCE: “Most of what follows is true”) gets undercut by all the furious contrivance devoted to lining up the balls for the Big Scenes, and then you get a huge set-piece in which hardly anything occurs. A bumpy ride. But worth taking.

THE GREAT WHITE HOPE stars Thulsa Doom; Bookkeeper; Rabbi Jacobs; Boston Blackie; Juror 12; Laureen Hobbs; Pruneface; Deep Throat; Mama Caleba; Booker T. Washington; Walter Winchell; Kemosabe; Rabbi Jacob; Superman; and Hong Kong Phooey.