The Plague Dogs

August 24, 2011

I usually manage to find a way to avoid going to see full-length animated features. I’m really not sure what it is about the format that holds so little allure for me, but I’ll almost always grab any excuse that will help me steer clear of a 90-minute cartoon.

Perhaps it’s because, although animation methods have improved technically since the days of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the art form does not seem to have grown imaginatively. Snow White still shines as a triumph, and most modern-day animation looks withered next to it.

But an animator named Martin Rosen made a movie a few years ago called Watership Down that was a vibrant rebuke to this sad trend. Seeing his name in the credits of The Plague Dogs made it easier for me to drag myself to this new animated feature.

Like Watership Down, this one is based on a novel by Richard Adams, and has talking animals as its main characters. So I was prepared for a movie where dogs spoke with British accents. Okay.

What I wasn’t prepared for was that The Plague Dogs would be so compelling. It’s not just that the animation is impressive. It is; but the story is startlingly engrossing and uncompromising.

Two dogs at a research laboratory have been undergoing painful tests for some months. One night, they sniff a way out into the English countryside, and delight in their freedom. But they find mere survival quite a struggle, and soon they’re the subject of an intensive search: they may have been exposed to some plague virus at the laboratory.

With the help of an uncharacteristically trustworthy fox, they learn how to scavenge and even kill to survive. The scenes in which they trap and eat sheep are surprisingly graphic.

Indeed, some elements of The Plague Dogs may be disturbing to younger children, especially the harrowing atmosphere of the research center and the accidental death of a hunter caused by one of the dogs.

However, these elements are also what make the film admirable. It is so powerful in large part because it is unflinching. There’s nothing icky or cute about these cartoon characters and situations; the stakes, after all, are life and death, and if a film—even an animated one—is going to deal in those terms, it may as well do it without blinking.

The personalities of the dogs are—pardon the phrase—well-drawn; Snitter, a sharp-witted terrier, is giving to occasional hallucinatory experiences, thanks to the fact that some of his gray matter was lifted out by scientists. Rowf is a skeptical black Labrador who vows not to let the “Whitecoats” take him back alive.

Given that set-up, there is slim chance of the customary happy ending. And The Plague Dogs offers an odd, bold alternative. I won’t say what it is, but I found it strangely moving, and rather courageous—an appropriately offbeat ending for an animated feature made unusual by its quality.

This is the film’s American premiere engagement.

First published in the Herald, December 16, 1983

“May be disturbing for younger children.” Well, I am known for understatement. This is one traumatic movie, and it will be too disturbing for most adults I know. This is from the days when Seattle was a popular market to launch misfit movies, and The Plague Dogs certainly qualifies; a cartoon guaranteed to keep a young audience away—who is this movie for? It was very good, and Martin Rosen went on to make an interesting 1987 live-action picture, Stacking, but I don’t know where he went after that, except for an IMDb listing about a Watership Down TV series. It’s kind of interesting to recall this pre-Little Mermaid moment when feature animation really was in a long period of doldrums, from which it didn’t seem particularly likely the form would recover. Feature animation still interests me less than just about any other kind of moviemaking, but the quality level has gone way, way up.



August 2, 2011

Nowak (Jeremy Irons) suddenly remembers that he must get back to the flat he and his co-workers are remodeling (it is cheaper to send Polish laborers to London to do the job than hire British workers), and he must get back fast. He breaks into a run along the Sunday-quiet London street, unpopulated save for a solitary man walking serenely in Nowak’s direction. When the man spots Nowak coming his way he stutter-steps to try and dodge him, then plants his feet and covers himself in terror. When Nowak runs past him, the man looks up in confusion, hesitates for a moment, then begin to run in the same direction Nowak is running, and goes out of the frame, and out of the movie….

Welcome to the world of Moonlighting, the strange and wondrous new film by Polish émigré Jerzy Skolimowski. As all good directors do in their good movies, Skolimowski creates a cinematic landscape that is all-of-a-piece; everything that happens in Moonlighting is connected to everything else that happens: the tone of the performers stays beautifully controlled, the visual style remains consistent (and consistently right), etc. The funny thing about Moonlighting is that while Skolimowski’s style is perfectly realized, the world he presents to us is anything but—it’s ready to fly off in all directions. Lean a ladder up against a wall, it will fall back again; rest your head against a window for a second, it will swing open; let your dog cross the road at the wrong moment, he will encounter a surly cat who starts to hiss suspiciously (how did Skolimowski direct that?). Skolimowski’s London is an arena of nervous people and bizarre happenstance, and a place in which Nowak is at quite a loss—at first.

Shakespeare wrote some words for Hamlet that might apply to Nowak, too: “The time is out of joint; O cursed spite/That ever I was born to set it right!” Poor Nowak. He’s the only one of the four workers who speaks English, and thus must deal with the day-to-day survival of the group, and their relations with the British world, by himself. Then he starts worrying about his wife back in Warsaw, and whether or not she might be dallying with his Boss, the man whose house Nowak is renovating.

And then, the time comes out of joint altogether: Nowak discovers, via an uncompletable telephone call, that the government coup of December 1981 has just taken place, and there are no means of communicating with Poland (imperturbable Cockney telephone operator: “There’s been a milit’ry cooo“). Nowak decides not to tell the men; he wants them to concentrate on getting the job done. Meanwhile, the world—and maybe Nowak, too—appears to be coming apart at the seams.

Skolimowski proceeds to fashion a fable that sets Nowak’s embrace of dictatorship (he begins to rule the men to the point of locking them into the flat, and engages in some hair-raising shoplifting to support them when he runs out of money) against the oppression going on in his country. What you may remember even more than this well-spun theme is the way Skolimowski peppers the story with flashes of the absurd—even with Skolimowski’s ultimately serious purpose, this is a diabolically funny movie—and the way these little outbursts seem to indicate a planet that may be starting to slip a few degrees on its axis.

You will also remember Jeremy Irons as Nowak, from his hound’s face, with disappointment, uncertainty, and determination carved into it, to his goofy farewell from a hardware store as a defeated man: “Byee.” Skolimowski and Irons have taken a brilliant parable and pushed it off the deep end—and they’ve come up triumphant.

First published in The Informer, February 1983

A great film, curiously undervalued now. Or at least under-known. With this movie, Skolimowski, director of the amazing Deep End, seemed poised for a good run, yet it never ignited. Or maybe he just preferred to go his own odd way. This film is delicate and biting, and flounces along in its own very specific way. Hurrah for Jeremy Irons for spotting that and getting on board.

Moonlighting‘s spot on my top ten of 1982 revealed here.


July 8, 2011

Steven Spielberg is going to be changing a lot of people’s lives this summer. His E.T. is the kind of movie everyone is going to wish he had seen at the age of ten; and Poltergeist is full of the affection and respect that has been missing from scary movies lately. Actually, Poltergeist was directed by Tobe Hooper and co-written and produced by Spielberg, although it seems Spielberg stepped in to direct some sequences himself (he also supervised the editing and provided the detailed design from which Hooper worked). Hooper is a good director—his Texas Chainsaw Massacre is an interesting movie that is doomed forever to be a reference point for talkshow/cocktail-party critics who have never seen it—but almost everything about Poltergeist is recognizably Spielbergian.

After the first few entries in his disgustingly young career (The brilliant TV-movie Duel; one of the best “Columbo” episodes, Murder by the Book; The Sugarland Express; Jaws), the word on Steven Spielberg was that Yeah, the guy understood cinema, even if his movies were nothing more than well-crafted stimulus-response machines that didn’t really understand or care about people. Despite the disastrous 1941, Spielberg has managed to turn that too-pat analysis around, and in these first weeks of the summer has presented the public with a hugely entertaining pair of People movies.

Both films are set in solid, average suburbia; Poltergeist presents a normal, three-kid, one-dog family that gets hassled by some troubled spirits. Spielberg and Hooper establish their normalcy without any sense of rush or bother; as often happens in a Spielberg movie, scenes around kitchen tables are important in revealing intrafamily dynamics. The only unusual ripple we see is that little Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) has the disturbing tendency to stare into the static TV screen—after the day’s programming has gone off. It isn’t long before this leads us into a series of spaces—a cluttered closet, an unfinished swimming pool, an opening in a tree—that are just as pregnant with terrifying possibility as the humming, busy tube.

“It knows what scares you”—the ad line for Poltergeist is very true; Spielberg and Hooper have quite a knack for selecting objects and events that can turn from innocuous to sinister within seconds. Like the stuffed clown that sits in a chair in the kids’ room. When I was a kid, a clown was about the scariest thing around, and this one gets to be just as horrific as I always suspected. The audience is led to confrontations with other such basic childhood fears as: is that Something outside the window moving, or what? and Something is wrong and I’m going to look under the bed now but Please God don’t let there be anything down there! The filmmakers orchestrate the mayhem so fluidly—and the characters are so well-acted (by JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson as the parents, Oliver Robins as their son, Beatrice Straight as a phemonena expert) and are made to matter so much—that the audience is irresistibly drawn into a heady degree of involvement.

The special effects are nice—especially a white, long-limbed phantom who hovers outside a doorway and emits a growl not unlike that of the MGM lion who presides over this movie—but the best special effect of all is the levitation effect. That’s the one in which the filmmakers raise the audience members right out of their seats. At one point in Poltergeist a character warns a group of folks to “Get a good hold on yourselves.” Audiences all over would be well-advised to do just that.

First published in The Informer, June 1982

Calling them People movies seems not right, because E.T. and Poltergeist are just as rigorously composed as Spielberg’s previous films. Anyway Jaws is a People movie, too, when it comes to that. Boy, it was a good time seeing this in a theater full of shrieking people that summer. That scene involving a closed door and the slow movement to open it should be shown to all aspiring horror-movie directors as a model for how to stage and cut a scene. By the way, I’m looking at the ads in this issue of The Informer (monthly newsletter magazine of the Seattle Film Society) and both Poltergeist and Star Trek II were playing in 70 mm. (Poltergeist was at the late, not especially lamented Town theater). Remember 70 mm.? Why has that fallen off the movie-format discussion table?


April 22, 2011

Veronika Voss is as appropriate a final film as one could hope for from the late R.W. Fassbinder. It carries a sense of decisiveness about it, a summing-up quality just right for a last statement; it also contains spooky connections to Fassbinder’s real-life demise, since Veronika Voss is a cinematic illusionist who becomes dependent on drugs, as did, tragically, the director. Everything seems elegiac: the exquisite black-and-white photography, the somber tone of the performances, the bleak absence of hope. The clarity, the restraint, the sadness with which Fassbinder presents the story contribute to the sense of desperate finality; and his own brief physical presence in an early scene (peering over the heroine’s shoulder in a moviehouse) certainly seems, in retrospect, like a calculated farewell to the cinema, and to life.

Leave it to Fassbinder—he would go and make one more movie before he ran out of breath last year, and make it as inappropriate a final statement as Veronika Voss is a fitting one. Querelle is a gaudy adaptation of Genet, with a flaming yellow-orange color scheme and determinedly artificial sets; it has the physical appearance of one of the Arthur Freed-Gene Kelly sailor-on-leave musicals as directed by Vincente Minnelli on hallucinogens.

It’s anchors aweigh as Fassbinder brings the psychosexual tensions of the seaside town into seething life, and puts his odd international cast through close encounters of every kind. Brad Davis’s Querelle (and this problematic actor is much better than his on-set interviews in Wizard of Babylon lead one to expect) is the object of lust from every angle; Jeanne Moreau sings in the bar central to the action; Franco Nero smolders as the ship’s captain who must have Querelle. Much of this remains on a fairly enigmatic level, as least on one viewing, even with the guiding intertitles that flash up every so often. Most of it is rapturously heightened, with Fassbinder stubbornly caring about the goings-on in the tacky costumes and loud lighting. Some of it is superb. Maybe Querelle is the appropriate parting shot from Fassbinder after all: Fassbinder seemed to want nothing so much as to disturb us; in his films, when people start feeling comfortable, they start to fade away. Querelle may make you feel many things, but comfortable isn’t one of them. Querelle rocks the boat.

First published in The Informer, May 1983

A zany movie. Can’t imagine watching it again, but I said that about Satan’s Brew too, and darned if it didn’t look better on a second viewing. Maybe Querelle was a new direction for Fassbinder, maybe it was just one of those throwaways he would undertake in the midst of his three-or-four-movies-per-year pace and signifies nothing beyond that. (Except: Each man kills the thing he loves, la-di-da.) In any case, it was rendered with absolute confidence, like every other movie he made.

Rocky III

April 11, 2011

They’re saying TRON is the first computer-generated movie. That may be technically and literally true, but my vote goes to Rocky III. The third segment of the (heaven help us) possibly endless Rocky series is the most lifeless and hollow entry by far. Now, I was one of the millions of people who liked Rocky. (Pause for pet peeve: please don’t call the first movie Rocky I. There are no such titles as Rocky I or Jaws I or Godfather, Part I. These original films do not have numbers attached to them. Referring to them this way only furthers the implication that they are somehow connected with their [usually inferior] sequels. But it ain’t necessarily so.) I even thought Rocky II was okay. Not good, but professional if unimaginative in the plodding exercise of following the original’s formula.

But Rocky III is the worst: scenes—and sometimes even shots within scenes—are not connected by any kind of logic, in terms of space and sometimes in terms of plot. The movie has a dead, flat look as though a series of paintings (by LeRoy Neiman) had been hung and photographed. (In the last shot of the film—after an amazingly limp finish—that is exactly what happens.) I’m not really a boxing aficionado, but I know enough to see that the fights are ridiculously staged; one guy hits steadily for a couple of rounds, then the tide turns abruptly and the other guy has the next few minutes—I mean, Sylvester Stallone has it so carefully arranged not to confuse the audience about whether or not they should boo or cheer, he has one guy unable to land a single punch while the fight is going against him.

If the boxing is bad, the story is nonexistent, and the regular crew of actors is required to go through their usual Rocky mannerisms: Burt Young shambles, Burgess Meredith growls, and Talia Shire carries on with what must be the wimpiest characterization in talking pictures. The new cast member—Mr. T as Clubber Lang, Rocky Balboa’s major challenger—can’t really act, but he is pretty scary. Hovering over it all is writer-director-star Stallone, who seems more bizarrely physically overdeveloped in this Rocky. I think he’s done a bad job this time out, but a lot of people seem to disagree. So Rocky may still be a box-office champion, but as far as I’m concerned, he’s really not even a contendah.

First published in The Informer, July 1982

“Bizarrely physically overdeveloped”? I had no idea what was coming in Rocky IV or Rambo—Clubber Lang, all is forgiven. This movie looks innocent by comparison. As lousy as the sequels are, they did get to people; when Rocky Balboa came out, the movie became a surprise hit and generated a lot of online comments about how important these films had been to kids growing up and seeing the Rockys with their dads over the years. More ritual than movie, then: and the formulaic nature of the films becomes part of the point.

Hanky Panky

March 23, 2011

I realized going in to Hanky Panky that I had never seen one of Sidney Poitier’s half-dozen-or-so directed films. Having seen it, I still feel like disqualifying myself, for surely Hanky Panky has not been directed by anyone, and if it has, who on earth would want to take credit for such a fiasco? Poitier had a monster hit with his previous film, Stir Crazy, which I’ve always managed to avoid seeing, even on its Showtime run; did he use his clout and riding-high status to make this?

The screenplay presents a bald ripoff of North by Northwest that could conceivably have been polished and livened up by a great director, but Sidney Poitier doesn’t seem to be that. The opening sequence, of a crazed suicide, is so inept that it seems to have been directed by a high-school film buff who has some very clichéd ideas about suspense. The movie is cheap-looking, and the cast is poorly handled, too. Of course Richard Widmark can always curl a lip when playing a villain, but that’s all he does here; and Kathleen Quinlan acts as though she were in a different movie from the other actors, although in Hanky Panky that’s perfectly all right.

Gene Wilder does his Gene Wilder thing, which has provided many moments of pleasure in films past, but there is the sense here that it’s being extended over one film too many (and his director has nothing new to add to Wilder’s shtick this time round). The movie camera does not like Gilda Radner, and she is playing someone who is supposed to be normal; whereas anyone who has ever seen Radner’s “Judy Miller Show” on “Saturday Night Live” knows that this is no normal person and should not be treated like one.

Even the much-celebrated real-life romance between Wilder and Radner does not come across on the screen; there are no To Have and Have Not-like frissons during which we glimpse two people falling in love in real life even as they are in the movie. But maybe Sidney Poitier didn’t notice. He doesn’t translate any behavioral idiosyncrasy to the screen, and maybe he doesn’t see any in the world around him. I mean, we’re talking about a director who zooms into a candleflame at the end of a love scene so he can dissolve to a crackling blaze in the fireplace. And with that kind of directorial sensibility at work, it’s the audience that winds up getting burned.

First published in The Informer, June 1982

Sheesh. I suppose “audience getting burned” is just as labored a transition as the flame-to-the-fireplace bit. Well, it’s understood, I hope, that saying Radner should not be treated like a normal person is a compliment to a very special comedian; she was frequently uncanny on “SNL.” Poitier, a splendid actor, of course notices behavioral idiosyncrasy in the world around him, despite my comment, but this is a really badly directed movie. In the Wilder-Radner canon, Haunted Honeymoon was no prize either, unfortunately. It’s hard to believe two glorious performers could team up to create such inert movies. And yet there they are.

The Thing

February 16, 2011

A couple of years ago, John Carpenter looked like the most exciting young director in Hollywood. His successes included the sleek suspense film, Assault on Precinct 13; the excellent TV movies, Somebody is Watching Me and Elvis; and the masterly horror films, Halloween and The Fog. Carpenter appeared to be a natural stylist who had a rare understanding of how moving pictures should move.

But it’s been a bad year for Carpenter. Last summer’s Escape from New York was one of those frustrating movies that sets up a great idea in the first few minutes and then lets the story dribble away. Halloween II (which Carpenter co-wrote and co-produced but definitely did not direct), released a few months later, managed to be more offensive than the usual Halloween rip-offs.

Then came word that Carpenter was working on a semi-remake of Howard Hawks’ 1951 science-fiction classic, The Thing. This was promising news: Not only does the original Thing seem to be one of Carpenter’s favorite movies (Jamie Lee Curtis watches it on television on that fateful Halloween night), but reportedly Carpenter was planning to stick more closely to the spooky short story (“Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell) that served loosely as the basis for the first version of The Thing.

Unfortunately, this Thing is one of the big disappointments of the year. Somewhere on the way from an Antarctic glacier (where The Thing is set) to the massive special-effects facilities of Hollywood, Carpenter seems to have contracted a case of snow blindness.

He has returned to the short story’s frightening premise: An alien visitor, trapped and frozen in snow for many thousands of years, is thawed out and let loose among a group of research scientists. This extraterrestrial displays the terrifying ability to reproduce itself as any earthly life form—including man. Thus, despite the fact that all the men at the isolated station look, act and sound the same way they did before the creature got loose, there is no way to tell the men from the monsters.

Carpenter seems impressed by this metaphor for our paranoid and suspicious times, but that’s about all; he doesn’t deepen the idea. And he bypasses character development (though some of the men do go through pretty violent changes) even though he has selected a fine troupe of character answers.

Kurt Russell, playing the group’s eventual leader, has a smoldering quality that is interesting and watchable, but he’s such an inner-directed performer that he never illuminates anything around him. This worked perfectly when he played Elvis Presley for Carpenter, but it almost shuts off audience involvement in The Thing. He seems just as closed-off in the beginning of the movie as he does later, when he has good reason to be suspicious.

Instead of developing the characters, Carpenter has concentrated on producing some spectacular (and gory) special effects. For the most part the effects are astonishingly good, but it’s hard to care when we don’t have much interest in the person the Thing is devouring…or becoming. Carpenter also shoots two autopsies—one human, one alien—in revolting close-up.

The Thing is not without some superb touches. The first scene poses a tantalizing mystery: A lone husky dog lopes across the Antarctic wasteland followed by a helicopter that suddenly begins to shoot at the dog for no apparent reason. This sequence is tightly, crisply realized on the bleak terrain (the locations actually were shot in Alaska and British Columbia). And there’s a blackly funny scene later that involves a bunch of men tied to a bench who writhe in helpless horror when one of them begins to transform into the Thing.

Carpenter’s overall conception of how to treat the story is the problem, and flashes of brilliance cannot redeem this fundamental miscalculation. (It should be noted that the press kit for The Thing reports a “tentative” running time of 127 minutes as of two months ago; the film is at least 10 minutes shorter than that. This may have some significance, but we’ll probably never know.) In choosing to emphasize technical wizardry over human conflict, Carpenter sidesteps the most intriguing challenges of the story. He seems to have forgotten—may we hope temporarily?—that man himself can be as fascinating as any thing.

First published in the Seattle Times, June 25, 1982

I understand. This movie has a large and devoted following now. I saw it again sometime after it opened and yes, it was better than my first impression. But this is a completely accurate impression of seeing it at a midnight preview screening a week before it opened, and actually the impression mostly holds up (although I should give Russell more credit for doing exactly what the character requires). I remember being puzzled by a contradiction: Carpenter’s previous films had been impeccably Hawksian , and then when he actually goes and remakes a Howard Hawks picture, it comes out like this. I’ll watch it again, and probably like it more, but I have a feeling I’m going to stick with my general sense of let-down.