28 February 2009


William Castle took over (unofficially) for Curt Siodmak in the campy horror genre in the late 1950s. Castle directed such pictures as 13 Ghosts, Mr. Sardonicus, and The Tingler. All his films of this type were alike in that they featured some sort of audience participation gimmick. 13 Ghosts was shown in something called "Illusion-O", a sister to 3-D, that required flimsy glasses to create the desired effect. Patrons of The Tingler no doubt remember being "pinched" by the specially installed seats, made to make the audience yelp during the film.
Strait-Jacket seems to be an attempt to make legitimate fare out of clearly gory thriller elements (although patrons were given cardboard axes to swing during the movie). Joan Crawford, having just come off of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, signed on to work with Castle on this picture. She retained most of the control, however, getting final cast and script approval, and bringing her own light crew and hair and makeup department.
The story revolves around Lucy (Crawford) who finds her no-good husband (Lee Majors, uncredited) in bed with another woman. Overcome with anger, she grabs a wood axe and chops them to pieces while they sleep. Her daughter Carol (Diane Baker), about age 7, witnesses the gruesome scene. After her mother is sent to an asylum, she goes to live with her aunt and uncle in the country. 20 years later, Lucy is released and goes to live with the happy three on the farm. Not surprisingly, Lucy has trouble adjusting to society, particularly to her daughter's soon-to-be fiance, Michael, and his family. Then, people start dying and disappearing and Lucy is suspected.
Anyone who has seen Hitchcock's Psycho will recognize this contains similar tropes -- because it shares the screenwriter. Dr. Anderson (Mitchell Cox, president of Pepsi at the time), her rehabilitation specialist, is just like Detective Arbogast. Michael is similar to Janet Leigh's boyfriend. Even Carol resembles Vera Miles in her gentle, sweet demeanor. Down to the last moment, with the tacked-on clumsy, expositional ending, it echoes of Psycho. But the quietness of Hitchcock's film is nowhere to be found. Strait-Jacket is choppy, brazen and ragged. Out of place theramin music punctuates at odd moments - as if the sight of Crawford's falling face, starkly lit, wielding an axe needed accentuating.
As much as this film pretends to be a gore fest, it is really about people desperately clinging to something that is slipping away. Carol is holding onto the idea of a lost mother, adn her chance of happiness with her finace. The aunt and uncle want to see life continue as it was before Lucy arrived. Michael's parents are determined to keep their son away from such a low-brow family. Lucy is trying to cling to her last bit of sanity, and hope for a normal life.
Most of all, it is clear that Joan Crawford is clinging to a level of stardomthat began to crumble as her age began to creep across her face. She is desperate to prove her staying power as an A-list actress in a B movie. She brings the same gravity that she showed in Mildred Pierce and Harriet Craig. But in her eyes, the fraility is not just her character's. Her struggle and determination are evident. Strait-Jacket is an enjoyable, is not perfect, picture -- for its campiness and to see Crawford fighting to stay on top.

26 February 2009

Gran Torino

It seems every year the Oscars get further and further from the most deserving movies.  
Clint Eastwood directed, starred, and co-wrote the theme song in this quietly growling, gritty film.  He plays the grumpy old widower Walt who is a hold out for his way of life.  
Often seen sitting on his porch, cracking a beer and petting his dog, he simply wants to be left alone.  He still takes immaculate care of his home and yard, while the neighborhood disintegrates around him.  He owns a mint Gran Torino, that sits in his garage while he drives a beat-up old truck.  He is a contradiction to himself.  Yet, his own strict moral code prevents him from standing by when he witnesses neighborhood violence.   Despite himself, he gets involved -- and begins to care.  He finds purpose, even with the recent death of his wife and the distance of his children.
Eastwood could have easily made this character gruff and uninteresting.  Instead he found the layers embedded in the script, and pieced together a complicated patchwork of elements.  Walt is gruff, but he is more than that.  He is tender, stubborn, frustrated, tired, soulful, exacting, and determined.  One can't help thinking of it as a bit of an elegy for Eastwood himself - marrying his own sentiments with the rough and tumble characters he has portrayed.
The otherwise rookie cast holds their own, particularly the neighbors.  In fact their relative anonymity is essential to the palpable realism they create.
Eastwood has mentioned this will be his last acting gig, but let's hope this is not his last outing as a director.  He delicate touch, even with violent topics, is a welcome sight in a glut of flashy Hollywood products.

19 February 2009


This Edward Zwick film bases its main details on the true stories of the Bielski brothers. The Jewish family lived in Poland in the late 1930s and was terrorized by the SS. This particular chapter chronicles their decision to live in the forest (again) but this time as a community. They take in stragglers, older folks, and children. The struggle comes not just in their survival, but the difference of philosophies among the brothers. Tuvia (Daniel Craig), is the oldest and clearly demands the most respect. This films portrays him as a general who must make difficult decisions that may mean hardship, but also means the best chance for enduring. They building homes and defenses, and learn to shoot. Just one of the many such images that stands out is Craig, slumped with illness and hunger, atop of a white horse in the snowy woods. No presence is more commanding, except perhaps Washington at Valley Forge.
In addition to his responsibility to his wards, he must also look after his younger brothers, both more hot-headed (and idealistic) than he. Zus (Liev Schreiber) has a more hardened approach to dealing with the strenuous circumstances. Never thinking they do enough to make the Germans hurt, Zus leaves the forest and goes to fight with the Russian resistance. Schreiber portrays this ambivalence well. He is caught between his family and his principles (which makes it all the more stunning when he makes a final stand).
The most implusive of all is Asael (Jamie Bell). Seeing this youngest brother and parents get killed, he is the most angry. From his anger, and naivete, comes courage that proves invaluable.
Defiance does a very fine job of displaying a portrait of life. Of being forced to live in the woods or face certain death, Tuvia says, “We may live like animals, but we will not become animals.” The film, brilliantly acted, certainly shows this to be true, despite the many hardships. The brothers, and other characters are constantly tested. Their morals, their convictions, and their humanity are always being tried.
Ultimately, the film is about balance. When do you stay, and when do you go? When to you risk all for the temporary safety of the few? When do you run and when do you fight back? When do you cross your own line and how do you come home?