Friday, February 26, 2016

Room Without a View – or a Gaslight

With the Oscars just around the corner, I recently saw a much-nominated new film, Room, and an real oldie, Gaslight. Darned if they didn’t make a great pairing, with several elements in common. So I’m going to compare and contrast, as my teachers used to say.

Gaslight started as a hit 1938 play by British dramatist Patrick Hamilton. The premise of this period thriller is that a husband who has gotten away with murder tries to convince his young wife of her own insanity so that he can keep on searching for the missing jewels that belonged to his victim. When the play transferred to Broadway, under the title Angel Street, the murderous spouse was played by none other than Vincent Price. A 1940 British film adaptation much admired by critics was suppressed when Hollywood decided to launch its own version.

 In 1944 Gaslight became a major M-G-M release, directed by the great George Cukor. It was nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Screenplay, and Best Black-and-White Cinematography. Charles Boyer was nominated for playing the evil Gregory Anton, as was Angela Lansbury (in her film debut) for her role as a cheeky chambermaid with her own reasons for working against the mistress of the house. That fragile young mistress, Paula, was played by Ingrid Bergman, who won her first Oscar for her pains. Cedric Gibbons’ elegant Victorian art direction was also honored by Oscar voters.

To sum up, Gaslight is the story of a clever but sinister man who marries in order to take advantage of his new wife’s ownership of the house where he believes his victim’s jewels are hidden. While making a great show of being solicitous of Paula’s health, he cuts her off from human companionship and undermines her faith in her own sanity. It’s an ugly story, despite its attractive Victorian surroundings, but Room (adapted by Emma Donoghue from her own prize-winning 2010 novel) is far uglier still. Maybe that fact says something about our troubled age.

In Room there’s no marriage, and no pretense. The character played by Brie Larson, known as Ma, is even more trapped than Paula, but it is not psychological wiles that keep her confined. She is a victim of abduction and rape; for seven years she’s been locked by her captor inside a garden shed fitted out with minimal cooking and toilet facilities. She must look to the man she has labeled “Old Nick” for foodstuffs and other bare necessities; in return she must submit to him sexually, night after night. He even toys with her, when she shows any sign of resistance, by cutting off electricity, leaving her in a physically precarious state. Her situation may have made her distraught, but she’s always fully aware of the horrors afflicted upon her.

Of course, what makes all the difference for Ma is the presence of her five-year-old son, Jack, Though born of rape, he is completely and totally hers, and she devotes all the energy she can muster to nurturing, teaching, and protecting him. Both book and film are essentially told from Jack’s perspective, that of a bright child who has never realized there’s a wide world outside of the place he calls Room. The filmmakers’ challenge, brilliantly achieved, is to create an environment as seen through Jack’s eyes, then allow us to look beyond what Jack can grasp to give us a glimpses of his mother’s very adult challenges. In Gaslight, Paula only comes into her own when a visitor from Scotland Yard fortuitously checks out her situation. Ma, though, must solve her problems on her own.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Of Bicycles, Venice Beach, and Orion Griffiths . . .

It’s February, so of course I spent my SoCal Sunday riding a bike near the ocean. Believe me, Venice Beach presented itself like a movie set, full of skateboarders, bikers, strollers, vendors, and crazies of all descriptions. Not to mention sun, sand, and tall, skinny palm trees. I could imagine hearing Randy Newman belting it out on the soundtrack: “I love L.A.”

My own town, Santa Monica, has a nifty new Breeze bike-share system I was eager (OK, scared but willing) to try it. Fortunately my husband, the technological brains of the family, helped out. You download an app, then use your mobile phone to unlock one of the sturdy lime-green bikes from its resting place. Since Santa Monica abuts Venice, reaching Venice Beach was a simple matter. I came home feeling good, and with my knees and elbows still intact.

Being me, I spent some of my bike-riding time thinking about movies that feature bicycles. Of course there’s Vittorio De Sica’s post-war Italian neo-realist masterpiece, The Bicycle Thief. In this 1948 film, a bicycle is the key to livelihood of a man from the working class. When his bike is stolen, he and his young son desperately search the streets of Rome to track down the thief. Quite a far cry from my Sunday joyride.

Bicycles are also at the center of an inspirational coming-of-age story set in Bloomington, Indiana.  But these aren’t the humble two-wheelers used by workmen to earn their daily bread. Breaking Away (1979) focuses on the sleek bikes that glide along race courses like those in Italy and France. It’s the tale of some appealing young locals who compete against arrogant frat boys at Indiana University’s annual Little 500 bicycle race.

Cycling plays a major role too in The Triplets of Belleville, a wacky French animated film from 2003.  In it (to the extent that anything is clear in this surrealistic delight) a Tour de France competitor is kidnapped by some sinister gamblers, only to be saved by his elderly intrepid grandmother and some nightclub singers who have come along for the ride. Ooh la la!

Venice, California, has had its own share of movie close-ups. Its sparkling beaches, seedy alleys, and unconventional lifestyles have appeared in dozens of Hollywood films. Long ago the arcaded streets of Venice were featured in Orson Welles’ A Touch of Evil, standing in for a Mexican border town. But more recently Venice has played itself, in such varied films as The Doors (1991), White Men Can’t Jump (1992), The Big Lebowski (1998), Thirteen (2003). And Lords of Dogtown (2005).

 In Venice, anything can happen. This past Sunday, while I was on the Venice boardwalk on my lime-green bicycle, I stumbled upon something that was almost better than a movie, because it unfolded right before my eyes. It was a handsome, hunky young Brit gathering passers-by around him so that he could put on a show. His particular skill was balancing: he could do impressive handstands while perched on teetering platforms high above the crowd. But his #1 talent was working that crowd,  keeping up a colorful stream of patter, alternately teasing and cajoling us into paying attention. It was a stellar performance, and I wasn’t surprised to learn that he had Hollywood in his sights. The child of circus performers, he’d come to the U.S. and landed an ensemble role in the recent circus-slanted revival of Broadway’s Pippin. Now he’s in L.A. studying acting and dreaming of his big-screen break. I can’t help with that, but at least I can spread the word. Orion Griffiths, I salute you!

Friday, February 19, 2016

Pray for Zika’s Babies

Just when you thought it was safe to get pregnant, along comes the Zika virus. As everyone has read by now, it’s the newest, scariest plague on the planet. The medical research is still not complete, but there’s the possibility that when the disease affects pregnant women, they’ll give birth to babies with microcephaly: abnormally small heads and brains. In some parts of Latin America, where the outbreak is still unchecked, women are being warned not to get pregnant. (In countries where birth control, not to mention abortion, is strongly discouraged, this is doubtless posing interesting social challenges. I just heard that Pope Francis himself accepts contraception under these circumstances.)

But my job is to write about movies, not disease-of-the-week scenarios. So when I hear about the disturbing possibilities posed by Zika, I think back to films that remind us that carrying an unborn baby for nine months can be hazardous to one’s health. The obvious example, of course, is Rosemary’s Baby, which scared the daylights out of most of us back in 1968. I always thought that Ira Levin, the writer of the 1967 novel that engendered Roman Polanski’s film version, had hit upon a brilliant premise. The idea of a problem pregnancy is something that most women can understand on a visceral level. Even the most benign nine-month gestation period has its moments in which the mom-to-be wonders if, in fact, she’s bearing Satan’s spawn.  

(There’s a grim irony, of course, in what happened a year later to Polanski’s own unborn baby.  He died—about two weeks before his impending birth—along with his mother Sharon Tate, at the hands of Charles Manson’s ominous crew. Not all danger comes from within.)

A 1979 horror film by the very twisted David Cronenberg also makes a comment about pregnancy. I’m thinking of The Brood, a film whose climax is as eerie and disturbing as any I can recall. I’d rather not go into detail, for fear of spoiling the climactic plot twist, but suffice it to say that The Brood dramatically portrays the physically and psychically intimate connection between a mother and her progeny.

Which leads me to a Concorde-New Horizons film to which I contributed, in my position as Roger Corman’s story editor. The Unborn (1991) takes its genuine power from the anxiety that a women can naturally feel when her body has been invaded by a mysteriously evolving creature. Interestingly enough, it was written by two young men , John Brancato and Michael Ferris, who (to fool the union watchdogs at the Writers’ Guild) used as a pseudonym a combination of their middle names, Henry Dominic. These guys were Harvard Lampoon buddies of my Concorde colleague, Rodman Flender, who had finally gotten the opportunity to direct his first feature. It’s the tale of a young married woman  (Brooke Adams) who—unable to get pregnant—resorts to experimental in vitro fertilization at the hands of the inevitable mad scientist (the creepy and wonderful James Karen). The pregnancy is painful and difficult, and the birth . . . well, I don’t want to spoil the ending.

Trivia about The Unborn: for this film my friend Rodman cast (Friends’ ) Lisa Kudrow in one of her very first professional roles. And when Roger Corman hired Brooke Adams to write and direct as well as star in a sequel, we struggled with the impossibility of putting this particular child on screen. Eventually, there would be The Unborn II, though it’s only remotely connected to the first film. Leave it to Roger to find a way to save the franchise.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

A Night at the Opera: Mozart Meets Salvador Dalí in The Magic Flute

I went to the opera this past weekend, trying to absorb a bit of “kulcha.” It was the perfect production for movie-mad me, one that wed the magic of Mozart’s music to some fancy-pants cinematography, in which live performers constantly interacted with animated images of which Salvador Dalí might have been proud. Dalí, the Spanish surrealist with the weirdly upturned mustache, of course tried his own hand at moviemaking. Back in 1929, he and countryman Luis Buñuel collaborated on a short, silent film, Un Chien Andalou, that featured bizarre images like the slicing open of a woman’s eye with a razor blade. Much later, Dalí actually worked with the artists at Walt Disney Animation on a short project, Destino, that was finally finished and released (and Oscar nominated) in 2003, fifteen years after his death.  

Mozart’s The Magic Flute is an opera full of mystery and magic: it boasts such neverlandish elements as a giant serpent, a wizard, an antic bird-catcher, and a dangerous Queen of the Night. It’s chockful of symbolism reminiscent of Masonic ritual, and the basic plotline doesn’t make any sort of real sense. In 1975, the great Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman directed a full-length TV version of the opera that was more or less traditional in its staging.  More than thirty years later, Kenneth Branagh attempted to give the filmed opera a more 20th century context. But the current production I saw at LA Opera is distinctive in taking its cues from the silent movie era, thanks to the work of a British team (Suzanne Andrade and Paul Barritt) who call themselves 1927, in reference to the year when talking pictures first made their Hollywood debut. Their mandate is to enhance stage productions by way of film.
 In their version of The Magic Flute, characters seem spawned by silent movies. The heroine, Pamina, has the dark bob of Louise Brooks. The comic bird-catcher Papageno looks and moves a lot like that sad-faced clown, Buster Keaton. The slave Monostatos, with his creepy bald head and elongated fingers, seems borrowed from the classic German horror film, Nosferatu. And the live singers make their entrances and exits through doors in a huge screen on which are projected images both happy (butterflies, fairies, rosy-red hearts) and disturbing (spiders, skulls, flying monkeys, staring eyes, giant hands). There are ominous-looking clocks and giant gears too, for a trendy steampunk effect. The challenge for the performers is to coordinate their movement with the screen images: shooting at the hearts to make them disappear, being chased by huge animated hounds, riding on the back of a very strange pink elephant with human-style legs.

Those elephants, in particular, made me think of the freakiest scene in any Disney movie, the “Pink Elephants on Parade” number from Dumbo (1941), which simulates the effects of alcohol on a small, confused circus animal. (Those Disney animators, no strangers to drink themselves, must have had a ball with that one!) The visual oddities in the stage presentation also are certainly reminiscent of what the Disney folks did with offbeat visuals in the still-remarkable Fantasia (1940).

  This Magic Flute also has an undersea segment featuring an Esther Williams parade of giant squids and other strange, watery critters. It brings to mind an animated feature that dates back to the heady (oh so heady!) Sixties. Yellow Submarine , with its parade of weird and wonderful fishies, is still one of my favorite animated films. Whenever I watch it, it makes me feel young again, as did my most recent night at the opera.