61 Days of Halloween: The Asphyx (1973)

Introduction

For an introduction to the concept of 61 Days of Halloween and a list of past titles please go here.

The Asphyx (1973)

As I did with the last post I would like to commend a distributor to start, I got this film also at Monster-Mania but this time at the Kino Lorber table. Kino’s catalogue is fairly diverse and they offer many silent gems, other classic, art house and foreign fare as well as horror. This release is part of a line called Redemption, so named for previously rare titles in the genre. The idea for the line is wonderful, even if this particular selection doesn’t quite work for me in many ways.

I forget where I saw it, and it may have been a later film, but an interest in capturing the exact moment of death is not a new one. However, it is an intriguing concept especially when the possibility exists to cheat it. The Asphyx is the spirit of the death, which is carrying the deceased across the mortal plain when the time comes.If one has no Asphyx, it is found, they can not die.

An obsessive pursuit of immortality is a good angle to play up. Where things start to go wrong occurs quite soon after the film starts, and quite often; such that the film does eventually lose me. It starts with cheats in the motion picture images that seem to show the Asphyx. The researcher having created motion picture recording is a clever plot element but the cuts in the image, that suggest new camera angles, are clearly cheats for we see the camera he used never moved. That’s a nitpicky complaint, but it starts the snowball effect on this film.

Clearly with the setup this story has the Asphyx must be seen, but that creates many of the issues. The effects works is good considering the likely budgetary constraints and the time period, but the design of the Asphyx strikes me and unintentionally comical. Its presence, however, is not but is rather grating and annoying.

Eventually, once the obsession is full blown the pace slows down to a snail’s crawl and why every attempted inducement of death, to lure the Asphyx, needs to be a Rube Goldberg device is beyond me. There are some good building blocks to the film but ultimately the whole is ineffectual.

Americanization: How Le Grand Chemin Became Paradise- Paradise (Part 2 of 3)

Paradise

Directed by Mary Agnes Donoghue 
Touchstone Pictures   Jean Francois Lepetit

Paradise begins at a private school where Willard (Elijah Wood) meets Clay and they talk about where they’re going for the summer. Clay is going to his summer home in Colorado. Willard lies and says he’s going to Africa. We then follow Willard home and see a very conventional scene establishing him as unpopular and lonely when he passes a pick up baseball game and is harassed by bullies. This scene is so common in American cinema (i.e. sports as a proving ground of childhood acceptance) that it fails to achieve its goal: creating sympathy for the protagonist. 
    


We are introduced to Willard’s mother and instantly pass judgment on her. Willard comes home and she is on the phone. She closes the door in his face because she is talking about a private matter. Later, we find Willard is being sent off to the country to stay with her friends as she gives birth to a new baby and can’t take care of him. As we will find later, the American version of the film will become overly-obsessed with justifying why a mother would send her only child to stay with her friends for a few weeks. Ironically, this justification is needed because this version of the film takes place in the present where childbirth is less difficult, thus making it more implausible than in Le Grand chemin.
   


Willard pleads with his mother that his friend’s mother gave birth and he didn’t have to leave but to no avail. The absolute lack of subtlety, which is another problem many American films face because commercial appeal is so crucial, creates some of the worst lines in this film. When the bus arrives at their destination Willard’s mother says ‘We’re here?’ Willard says ‘Where?’ and the response is ‘Paradise.’ This is the reason so many people joke ‘That’s where they got the title from!’ with mock-enthusiasm. Le Grand chemin is not as heavy handed in revealing its title as it’s the bus driver who yells out the stop their making. 
 

Upon leaving the bus Elijah Wood uses quite a good facial expression to show his disappointment with his surroundings. Wood was one of the most talented child actors to ever grace the silver screen, he and Melanie Griffith’s talents were utterly wasted in this poorly directed adaptation, whether or not Wood’s adult career will be as spectacular is yet to be seen. He will be in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy and I found the first film overrated, which means in my opinion, his last great film was Black and White, an ensemble piece in 1999. [Clearly all of this is accurate as of this writing. Since the completion of the trilogy he has done little to live up the promise he showed as a youth, Maniac may change that.] 
   


Willard then meets Ben, played by Don Johnson, who pretty much only knows two emotions (straight and angry) and can’t act in either of them. And we get the same game of deception as we did in the French version. Remaking a film is truly a catch-22. When scenes were simply translated from the French I wanted new material and where there were new wrinkles added I thought they were covering the wrong ground. A perfect example is when we are introduced to Sally Pike (Sheila McCarthy) who is a waitress in a local dinner who is talking to Lily (Melanie Griffith) about how she has decided to get married. Sally’s marriage proposition will be one of two flimsy, underdeveloped and unnecessary subplots that Donoghue thrusts upon this once simple and beautiful film.
 

At the Reed home, we see Lily chop the head off a dead chicken. This scene is a microcosm of the difficulty in remaking a film that was originally the product of another culture. In Le Grand chemin Marcelle (Anémone) skins a rabbit which shocks the young Louis. Here it’s a chicken getting its head chopped off, while animal rights activists might not allow for an animal to be skinned French audiences wouldn’t be as queasy as to disallow even a simulation of the event. The context in which the action occurs justifies it whether you agree with it or not. They live in the country, thus, don’t buy clean pre-prepared chicken. However, just that little change when having the original niggling at the back of your head makes it an annoying occurrence. It makes you realize this movie is French. It was told from a French perspective yet something about that experience made it universal, by transplanting and Americanizing it we are ruining what made it wonderful. While certain cinematic experiences are ‘indigenous,’ meaning they have a greater significance to the culture that created it (i.e. Central do Brasil [Central Station]) there is still something about the film that made it renowned worldwide. The formulizing and studiofication of Le Grand chemin is sadly not the worst English translation but the fact that it was made at all is bad enough. Why couldn’t the general public just go to see the original? It makes Americans seem not only elitist but ignorant that we can’t go en masse to hear a new language and read while at the theatre. Read in the movies? God forbid!
   

The lack of subtlety strikes again when Willard meets Billie Pike (Thora Birch). Her first line is ‘Have you ever seen a dead body?’ This is a blunt insertion of the theme of death that runs throughout this and the original, again Jean-Loup Hubert handled the subject with much more delicacy than did Donoghue. We also then get the introduction of love and sex as themes in an equally amateur way when Billie asks if Willard would like to see her sister with ‘her clothes… off’ (Emphasis from film). This line shows the director’s fault in so many ways. First, this is terrible acting on Birch’s part (She would go on to be decent in her later films such as Now and Then and American Beauty). Second, this is obviously in the director’s opinion the best take of the line which I don’t find in the least bit amusing. Thus, Donoghue is also at fault for having emphasis added in the script. It might have worked on paper but when she realized what she was dealing with the line should’ve been re-written. 

And lastly, this also tends to point out the glaring yet unexplainable phenomena that many American directors have such a difficult time getting quality performances out of child actors whereas we see many fine performances by youths from all around the world. I believe part of the problem is that we as Americans coddle the child actor and view them as inferior giving them stupid and/or annoying roles and the directors seldom have enough understanding of these performers to guide them when a role does require more out of them.
   

Rosemary (Eve Gordon) is talking to Lily on the stairs about how her husband has left her and she doesn’t know how to tell Willard. This is implied in the original and its insertion here further divides our attention away from what the two main storylines really are and they are the relationship between Lily and Ben and between Billie and Willard. We do then switch to them and hear another gem (For some reason most of the poor dialogue in the film, if not all, is reserved for Billie). They are up in the tree and she says ‘I come here when I’m mad which, is most of the time.’ This is such lazy writing we get two major pieces of information which can be conveyed, and is conveyed, through the action of the film at various points. We understand this very quickly in Le Grand chemin mostly because Vanessa Guedj’s performance is much better than Thora Birch’s; the casting director of the French version also deserves kudos for a wise decision.    
 

In this version of the film we also get Billie being somewhat more ignorant than Willard on matters of sex. This coming from the use of a modern setting combined with the switch in what kids from the country and city know depending on country and on time period. We then go to a somewhat of a bonding moment between Willard and Lily in which they are picking string beans and preparing them for dinner. When Ben comes home he utters dialogue that is transplanted and meaningless given the context and Johnson’s lack of talent. His being cast makes me start to wonder if the casting was a marketing gimmick pairing real life spouses at the time (Johnson & Griffith). Ironically, on screen they were as mismatched as in real life.

What we then get is perhaps the biggest fumble of this film which is the exposition of the Reed’s dead child. One of the problems that haunt this version is that in the American version we find this information out too early in the film. This comes from our cultural imperative that films must be about ‘something’ right away. While there’s nothing wrong with that in theory, in this instance we ruin the simplicity of the film and also create a paltry melodrama by making Lily go into the baby’s room to hold things and cry. This makes all the emotions we feel in this film absolutely manipulated and contrived. Whereas in the French version all we see is Pello going into the room after a fight to destroy it. This is our first exposure to the room and we instantly see that is a museum of sorts for their dead child. The emotions elicited by his actions are real because as soon as we see it: 1) We know why Marcelle kept it unchanged. 2) we see Pello trying to destroy it to hurt her. This is the fault of the American studio because they underestimated the audience’s intelligence, which is always a sinful act by a filmmaker which sadly is committed all too often.
 

Billie at one point insists on finding her father who it turns out works at a roller skating rink. She goes there and is rejected. Paradise also on a few occasions tries to make Billie’s mother, the waitress, a central character. These are two inventions of the American version of this film which water down and show weakness in their filmmaking. Not only are the makers of Paradise unwilling to tell a simple story but they cannot even be subtle and they throw in unnecessary scenes of expositions amongst newly created adult characters who have never existed in the framework of this story. Even when a child actor is given a large role in an American film here we still find reticence to let the weight of the film rest on his/her shoulders. Something the French are extremely adept at doing. 
   

Paradise is not a bad film. Considering it is a remake of a French film I saw prior, it’s decent. It is, however, nothing to write home about. It misses the elusive magic and perhaps indigenous uniqueness that Le Grand chemin had. And it was doomed to be inferior from the start taking that into account which makes me wonder why a remake was allowed to happen in the first place.

Thankful for World Cinema- The Green Room

When looking for a theme in which to select films from the start of November until Thanksgiving being literal is not the best option. Films centered around Thanksgiving tend to be overly obsessed with dysfunctional families. So in thinking about the nature of the day which was initially a celebration of survival in the New World, I thought why not focus on foreign films.

The Green Room

François Truffaut in The Green Room (Le Films du Carrosse)

Truffaut’s The Green Room may be his great over-looked gem. It is a film that I think still deserves the Criterion treatment even though it was saved from the Land of the Out of Print by the wonderful new On Demand services.

It is a film that sees Francois Truffaut make a rare trip in front of camera, not only as an actor but one playing a character unlike himself to a large extent. Unlike his turn in Day for Night in this film he is not a director but a journalist who after World War I starts to detach himself from the world lamenting all those he has lost.

The film is a fascinating examination of how to reconcile the fact that even as we live we are amidst death. It examines a character who is overly-preoccupied with those who have passed such that he forgets how to live. Perhaps what is most impressive is that it takes an noble and relatable premise, respecting and honoring the dead, and takes it to an extreme such that we se how detached from reality one can become.

It is also a refreshingly intimate piece. There aren’t many players concerned in the drama here. There is the home nucleus: Julien, Georges and Mme Rambaud. Then Julien also interacts with his boss on a few occasions and Cecilia most of all. This allows the drama to be very focused on the protagonist and his obsession.

This film is a sparkling example of Truffaut’s simplicity shining through. It’s an examination of character and theme where all is very apparent and he wants you to delve deeper and search for more within the film. It is often hypnotic, always fascinating and a must see no matter how you manage to obtain it.

9/10

Review- Hereafter

Cécile De France and Matt Damon in Hereafter (Warner Bros.)

Clint Eastwood over the last decade has emerged as one of the pre-eminent American filmmakers on the cinematic landscape. Part of the reason behind his emergence is his belief in tried and true classical storytelling techniques. They are the kind of techniques that form the foundation of film and have become almost outdated due to their simplicity. This straightforward approach is avoided by most not only for aesthetic reasons but also because you have little to no margin for error when you are this direct. Some may call it ham-handed or on the head but that just indicates a personal disconnect with the material what best describes it is direct.

Why this analysis of his style is even worth mentioning is because he has now applied it to many different genres and/or styles of tale within close proximity to one another. In this tale, however, there is a little something missing from it. It’s almost as if the subject of the hereafter needs a little bit of an arcane approach to be as effective on screen as it could be.

There is, of course, also the concern of the limited omniscience that is rendered this tale. We are left examining people who are touched by death but none who actually die. We don’t follow them we follow the living, which makes it a much more mundane human drama, which can be as interesting if not more so. Of course, it ends up being a tale about life but there is no major insight or revelation offered save for some reassurance that there is something to look forward to in the big sleep.

It tells a three-pronged tale which will predictably intertwine and much like You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger it could’ve used some more judicious edits to make the story it tells just a bit tighter. One example is the trip that Marie, played wonderfully by Cécile De France, takes to Switzerland. She is only there to get files from a doctor. Yet there is quite a bit of her walking about and witnessing melodramatic deathbed scenes before she meets with the doctor. In tandem with that both her scenes with her publisher run a bit long and could’ve been shortened. The eventuality of the intertwining becomes apparent at some point so the journey needs to be truncated somewhat.

The acting overall is very strong and carried the movie through its doldrums. Matt Damon in particular is quite effective especially when he is doing readings on people which he approaches tentatively.

This film is also proof that films don’t necessarily need to be replete with incident but at least information such that the story moves on. Both Marie and Marcus have their very clear inciting incidents which are huge but the rest of their respective journeys are filled with a lot less fireworks but no less interesting just a bit longer than necessary.

Eastwood in this film is tackling a bigger subject with much the same approach he has faced others except musically. If there’s one thing that sets Eastwood apart from most is that he typically also scores his own films. In this film, however, the score is never noticeable. Which is good because it doesn’t call attention to itself but it also doesn’t enhance the film greatly.

All that said this film does have its moments of surpassing quality. Particularly the ending and the much anticipated reading. It does give us wonderful visuals in the rare glimpses of the afterlife we do get and does acknowledge the enormity of its subject matter and gives you some food for thought.

6/10

Hereafter is available on home video starting today.

Theme Thursday #1

OK, here I go again late again.

In watching films in rapid succession at time whether by design or purely by accident you’ll find themes whether they be narrative, visual or otherwise. For my first sojourn I decided to be rather clear and picked a narrative theme, while the films are very different: one is a modern French film and the other an American film made at the dawn of the sound era, they both to extent deal with death.

The French film is François Ozon’s Time to Leave. The American film is the 1935 cinematic rendition of Louisa May Alcott‘s Little Men, her much interpreted follow-up to Little Women in which Jo runs a boys’ school with her husband. Now the importance of death in each film and how it is handled is drastically different.

Ozon’s film has the occasional moment of truly striking beauty, which is undermined by the fact that our protagonist, Romain (Melvil Poupaud), who is diagnosed with a terminal case of cancer almost immediately never really lets his guard down, which is fine, however, the story could’ve had even more resonance than it does if we were allowed to see the family’s reaction to his death that they didn’t see coming. Aside from that it is a well-made film with some very great touches in it. The flashbacks are particularly strong. The theme of Romain wanting to take pictures of things and people he’s seeing for the last time is effective. Jeanne Moureau’s scenes are also quite good. However, in the end this film ends up being more impressive in its dealing with death than its American counterpart.

Now the indirectness and hastiness with which the death, which I won’t talk about in great detail to avoid spoilers, in Little Men (1935) has little to do with when it was made. Some of the all time great tragedies and tear-jerkers of cinema come from the Golden Age. However, there were some films back then who briskly rushed through their endings to get to happy resolution to shave minutes off running time to squeeze more showings in per day. This is one good thing that multiplexes have brought on, you can stretch your film out if needed and not worry as much about lost opportunity for profit.

The death here is quickly dealt with and bypassed and we rush toward the ending. Not to say that this is a horrible adaptation of the story. It’s just not quite up to snuff with the 1997 version starring Mariel Hemingway which I attribute mostly to direction and writing as the cast assembled amongst the kids anyway should be able to rival if not trump the modern rendition. Soon I will check out the 1940 version online but I think 97s will stand strong in my eyes as the best cinematic rendition- if you are already familiar with this tale, or even if you’re not I strongly recommend the TV series as well.