Zeiram (1991, Amemiya Keita)

Zeiram is a Japanese low budget sci-fi action film. Except it also has a strong slapstick vibe and a real minimalist feel to it. While, visually, the budget might be responsible for some of that minimalism–certainly in concept–the film takes it even further. It’s fight scenes set to Philip Glass, which one needs to see to believe. Whether one goes for that sort of thing or not is a whole different question (my fiancée, for example, did not go for it).

Like many low budget sci-fi films, Zeiram knows how to spend its money. The story’s set in a “zone,” which is just a duplicate of a section of the city, just without people (i.e. paid actors), save the leads. This zone can go from day to night, all depending on when the hero shoots the ceiling with a flare. She only does it a few times, and once to turn it off, so they mustn’t have gotten much filming done during the day. Especially not in exteriors of empty streets. While the low budget nature of the narrative occasionally becomes a little too apparent, for the most part it’s natural and unforced. Occasionally, particularly toward the end, when there’s a lot of stop motion (good work and well-composited), there are these incredibly tight shots and you can just tell they can’t shoot an inch right or left because there are adjoining sets or something.

The direction, by Amemiya Keita, is either deliberately constrained to fit into that minimalist motif or he’s just boring. I’m pretty sure it’s the first, because the latter wouldn’t explain for the music, which would have been done after he composed his shots. His direction of his actors is similarly lax. The comic relief characters, played by Ida Kunihiro and Hotaru Yukijiro, are both great. Hotaru is almost always funny, but Ida gets the great line about the scantily clad hero getting cold. This hero, played by Moriyama Yûko, runs lukewarm and cold. By the end of the film, Amemiya sort of assumes the audience is going to be involved, going to be buying it, so he gives up on any real sense. There wasn’t much sense, character-wise at the beginning, but there was some consistency. It goes, but it really doesn’t matter.

Zeiram reminded me a lot of Trancers, probably because of the budget, and it seemed like something USA used to play on “Up All Night.” There’s an old dubbed version, so maybe it was broadcast there. If you get into it, it’s a neat little cheap movie, with a lot more going on under the hood than it lets on.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Amemiya Keita; written by Amemiya and Matsumoto Hajime; director of photography, Kidokoro Hiroshi; music by Ohta Hirokazu; produced by Takeuchi Shigeki and Ichida Hiroshi; released by Toho Company Ltd.

Starring Moriyama Yûko (Iria), Ida Kunihiro (Teppei), Hotaru Yukijiro (Kamiya), Handa Masakazu (Bob) and Yoshida Mizuho (Zeiram).


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Many Rivers to Cross (1955, Roy Rowland)

If there’s some lost Frontier genre–not a Western, because there aren’t horses or cowboy hats–but a Frontier genre, with trappers and woods and… I don’t know, some other stuff, Many Rivers to Cross is probably not the ideal example of its potential. I realize now, mentioning it, Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans is probably the ideal. Regardless, Many Rivers to Cross is unfortunately not the ideal of much anything. Any film co-starring Alan Hale Jr. and Russell Johnson long before “Gilligan’s Island” ought to offer some comedic value along absurd lines, but this one doesn’t. Many Rivers to Cross is a comedy, however. It’s just not a funny one. Everything in the film–with the exception of a dying baby–is for a laugh. Given the story, with Eleanor Parker’s frontier-woman (the film is dedicated the frontier-women no less) chasing Robert Taylor’s bachelor trapper, it’s a lot like a Road Runner cartoon–except one with really offensive portrayals of American Indians.

The Indian thing bugged me a little bit because it was played so much for laughs. Hollywood had known since, what, 1939, playing Indians as villains was lame and Many Rivers is from 1955. It was so lame, the first mohawked Indian I saw, I thought it was all a joke, like Taylor had this Indian running cons with him or something. I was rather disappointed it turned out to be otherwise; not just because it would have been less offensive, but because it might have been interesting.

The movie’s short–ninety-five or so–and it’s split evenly in two parts. One part has Victor McLaglen as Parker’s father, the other part has Taylor mostly alone (though James Arness shows up for a bit). Both McLaglen and Arness are good. Both Parker and Taylor are good. The film’s just not any good. Without the Indian element, I’d call it inoffensive fare (and I doubt it was intended to be anything more). A programmer, actually–yep, it’s a programmer.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Roy Rowland; screenplay by Harry Brown and Guy Trosper, from a story by Steve Frazee; director of photography, John F. Seitz; edited by Ben Lewis; music by Cyril J. Mockridge; produced by Jack Cummings; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Robert Taylor (Bushrod Gentry), Eleanor Parker (Mary Stuart Cherne), Victor McLaglen (Cadmus Cherne), Jeff Richards (Fremont Cherne), Russ Tamblyn (Shields Cherne), James Arness (Esau Hamilton), Alan Hale Jr. (Luke Radford), John Hudson (Hugh Cherne), Sig Ruman (Spectacle Man) and Russell Johnson (Banks Cherne).


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THIS FILM IS ALSO DISCUSSED IN SUM UP | ELEANOR PARKER, PART 2: TECHNICOLOR.

Dracula (1931, Tod Browning)

I never got Dracula. Even as a kid, I never watched it over and over, like I did the other Universal monster movies. When I went back and saw it in the late 1990s–after Ed Wood–Bela Lugosi’s performance horrified me. He makes funny faces and does Charles Atlas exercises for scary body language and woodenly says his lines. Apparently some blame Lugosi’s English-speaking skills on this performance (the lack thereof), but really, the line’s are just crap and hadn’t Lugosi been on stage in the play version? If so, he should have at least been responsible for inflection.

Regardless, while Lugosi is a major problem with Dracula, he’s hardly the one who breaks it. He might make silly faces, but the whole approach of the film is wrong. Dracula, more than any film I’ve seen, exists solely for the audience. These events aren’t happening to the characters in the film, rather they’re happening so the viewer can see them happen. Characters talk about each other when they’ve never met, nor is there any suggestion they’ve met, but the viewer has met both and so he or she is able to make some kind of connection. This example is indicative of Dracula’s narrative style and it isn’t–in itself–a bad thing. It just isn’t used to any effect. It’s pointless and a sign of some bad writing. The further signs of bad writing–when, for example, Van Helsing promises to deal with the vampiric Lucy–whose been feeding on small children–then does nothing… well, either a scene got cut or no one read the script before they started shooting. Further script problems include the comedy relief, which doesn’t really deserve to be mentioned. Some of the storytelling problems might stem from Dracula coming soon after the change to talkies, as it did have a silent version released at the time, and most of the film is actually silent. I wonder if the silent version, with intertitles, would be better.

The acting ranges from good to awful. Lugosi’s bad, so is leading man David Manners. Helen Chandler’s girl in distress isn’t always bad–when Chandler’s doing a scene with her friend, I almost thought I was wrong about Dracula, since the scene was so good and Chandler so likable (turned out I wasn’t)–but she does occasionally slip between her “British” accent and her native South Carolinian, which is distracting. Dwight Frye is good as Renfield. Only Edward Van Sloan–as Van Helsing–gives a really good performance, interpreting Van Helsing as a severe German, straight out of an Otto von Bismarck biopic. He even mimics some of Lugosi’s mannerisms, which almost sets up a juxtaposition, at least visually, but the story never catches on.

Even with all its defects, Dracula still manages to disappoint overall. The conclusion is hurried and nonsensical, not just leaving me wondering what’s going on in a broad sense, but also in an immediate one. Like, why Manners and Chandler are going up the huge staircase instead of leaving the creepy building? Perhaps it’s a metaphor for watching the film.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Tod Browning; written by Hamilton Dean, John L. Balderston and Garrett Fort, based on their play and the novel by Bram Stoker; director of photography, Karl Freund; edited by Milton Carruth and Maurice Pivar; produced by Browning and Carl Laemmle Jr.; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Bela Lugosi (Count Dracula), Helen Chandler (Mina), David Manners (John Harker), Dwight Frye (Renfield), Edward Van Sloan (Van Helsing), Herbert Bunston (Dr. Jack Seward), Frances Dade (Lucy Weston), Joan Standing (Briggs, a nurse) and Charles K. Gerrard (Martin).


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Frankenstein: The True Story (1973, Jack Smight)

While Frankenstein: The True Story singularly credits Mary Shelley as source material, the actuality is a little more complicated. A Universal-produced TV mini-series, True Story actually mixes some of the Shelley (basically, the end in the Arctic and a brother for Frankenstein), with Universal’s 1930s films, Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein (with a little of The Ghost of Frankenstein thrown in too). It also goes so far as to play Frankenstein as a bit of the patsy–he’s not particularly smart, just an assistant to a couple mad scientists. There’s also a serious homoerotic subtext to the film–first, Frankenstein rejects his fiancée for his mad scientist buddy, then becomes obsessed with the Creature’s physical beauty, rejecting it once it becomes ugly. The subtext disappears around the first hour mark, which is incidentally when Leonard Whiting, as Frankenstein, starts acting well. Until the point of betraying the Creature, he really doesn’t do anything but plead with his mad scientist friend to let him play too. However, once there’s some conflict, Whiting has something to work with, so much so, by the end, I was wishing True Story was a better story, just so Whiting’s acting wouldn’t be wasted.

There are a lot of good performances in True Story, but most of them follow the same pattern as Whiting’s. Slight in the first part, better and great in the rest. For example, Nicola Pagett was annoying as could be as Elizabeth (Frankenstein’s fiancée) in the beginning, but then she went from good to great in about twenty minutes. David McCallum as the first mad scientist is amusing, but nothing more. As the Creature, Michael Sarrazin is good once he starts getting ugly. When Frankenstein’s primping him around London (yes, True Story moves the setting to England for some ludicrous reason), Sarrazin looks like David Bowie glammed out. Once he gets ugly, he gets to show some emotion. Agnes Moorehead, unfortunately, gets stuck with this terrible housekeeper role with an awful accent. Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud both turn in small cameos (Richardson as the blind woodsman). Richardson’s terrible, but Gielgud’s great. However, whenever he’s onscreen, True Story belongs to James Mason. He’s playing this absurd, handless mad scientist (based on the one from Bride) but this time he’s got Chinese assistants and plans to takeover Europe. Mason realizes how crazy it is and he thoroughly enjoys it.

Unfortunately, True Story is a technical mess. The costumes seem to be intended to emphasis the men’s butts (given Whiting’s famous butt shot in Romeo and Juliet, I doubt it’s unintentional), while the set decoration looks like something out of the 1930s… at the latest. As True Story should be set in the late 1700s, I doubt I should recognize a chair as one I’ve sat in. Some of the sets are mildly interesting–like the lab–but once Mason’s pseudo-Chinese mysticism lab shows up, True Story‘s sets look like a farce. Jack Smight’s direction is, unsurprisingly, uninspired, but rarely bad.

For a mediocre three-hour film, True Story is actually pretty good. It moves fast and when it doesn’t have good performances, it has moments (the sets, the homoeroticism) to amuse the viewer in other ways. At times, in small ways, it comes close to being something special, particularly with Frankenstein and Elizabeth’s relationship, but more often than not, the writing stomps the life out of those moments.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jack Smight; screenplay by Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, based on the novel by Mary Shelley; director of photography, Arthur Ibbetson; edited by Richard Marden; music by Gil Melle; production designer, Wilfred Shingleton; produced by Hunt Stromberg Jr.; released by the National Broadcasting Company.

Starring James Mason (Dr. Polidori), Leonard Whiting (Victor Frankenstein), David McCallum (Henry Clerval), Jane Seymour (Agatha), Nicola Pagett (Elizabeth), Michael Sarrazin (The Creature), Agnes Moorehead (Mrs. Blair), John Gielgud (the chief constable), Tom Baker (the sea captain) and Ralph Richardson (Mr. Lacey).


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