Cast a Deadly Spell/Witch Hunt

Cast a Deadly Spell (1991, Martin Campbell)

“Los Angeles, 1948. Everybody used magic.”

Nice enough TV-movie with some good performances and a great premise: a noir detective story in a world where magic exists. Our hardboiled hero Lovecraft (Fred Ward, the year after starring in Henry & June) who doesn’t use magic due to an incident that killed his partner is hired by a rich guy (David Warner, an HP Lovecraft fan judging from his IMDB resume) to retrieve his Necronomicon. Ward runs into ex-flame Julianne Moore (this might count as her first starring movie role), tries to avoid thug Raymond O’Connor and his zombie, and finally protects Warner’s unicorn-hunting daughter from Warner’s own convoluted world-dooming scheme.

Clearly influenced by Who Framed Roger Rabbit with a lower budget, magic creatures and spells popping up in every scene (accompanied by overdone cartoon sound effects). Campbell went on to make some James Bond movies


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Witch Hunt (1994, Paul Schrader)

“For some of hollywood’s biggest stars and studio moguls, it’s time to name names.”

When I heard Schrader had made a sequel starring Dennis Hopper, I couldn’t get a copy fast enough. Unfortunately it’s such a bad movie, it makes me wonder if I didn’t severely overrate the previous one by calling it “nice enough”. This one has fewer puppets, more early (too early) digital effects. And I love Hopper, but he doesn’t seem right for the role, speaking too slowly, looking out of his depth.

Shakespeare is summoned as script doctor:

Eric Bogosian (writer/star of Talk Radio) is a slimy anti-magic senator, starts a literal witch hunt by arresting and arranging to burn Hopper’s witch neighbor (now played by Sheryl Lee Ralph of To Sleep With Anger) for defying “the unnatural activities act”. I don’t know if this is a prequel or what – Hopper has different reasons to avoiding magic than Fred Ward did, and Raymond O’Connor’s zombie is back from the other movie. Penelope Ann Miller (Edna Purviance in Chaplin) is love interest fatale “Kim Hudson”, there’s a movie-star lookalike whorehouse a la L.A. Confidential run by a transvestite lipsync artist, more characters with obvious names (a cop called Bradbury), and Julian Sands with a heavy fake accent. And morphing – remember morphing?

Mouseover to see Hopper vomit a crow:
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The first couple minute are nice though, with clips from 1950′s industrial films recognizable from MST3K and a reference clip of Reagan testifying before HUAC.

The Magician (1958, Ingmar Bergman)

An Ingmar Bergman comedy! I never imagined that such a thing existed. And it is so wonderful, as gorgeously filmed as Monika but altogether more fun. I have not been watching many Bergman films, and maybe it’s time to do something about that.

When Albert Vogler’s “Magnetic Health Theater” rolls into town, all its participants are accosted by the local authorities and challenged to prove themselves a worthwhile entertainment before they’ll be permitted to perform for the public. These participants include Vogler himself (Max von Sydow, even more impressive than usual), the famed mute illusionist, with Mr. Aman (Vogler’s assistant, actually his wife in disguise, Ingrid Thulin), potion-maker Granny (Naima Wifstrand), a young coachman (Lars Ekborg, male lead in Monika) and sideburns-sporting huckster Tubal (Åke Fridell, Monika’s father). Oh, but on the way, they pick up a dying alcoholic actor (Bengt Ekerot, appropriately played Death in The Seventh Seal), who’s a corpse by the time they arrive.

L-R, that’s Tubal, Granny (in the shadows), coachman Simson, Vogler and Aman/Manda:

The challengers – Consul Egerman (Erland Josephson, lead in The Sacrifice) and his wife with police chief Starbeck (under a hilarious wig) and “royal medical adviser” Vergerus (Gunnar Björnstrand, who’d play a character named Vogler in Persona) with a silly intellectual’s beard and armless spectacles – are pitting their science and law against the trickery and deceit of the traveling show, confidently toying with the visitors.

L-R: Vergerus, Starbeck, Egerman:

Also in the house are Sara (Bibi Andersson of Persona) who likes the group’s coachman, young Sanna, cook Sofia (Sif Ruud of Port of Call) who likes Tubal, and violent-tempered Antonsson (Oscar Ljung of The Virgin Spring)

Antonsson, Sanna, Sara, Sofia:

It all gets complicated once night falls. The Magician’s wife is unmasked, he reveals himself not to be mute (this had already been “scientifically” revealed when Vergerus grabbed his tongue), everyone is sleeping around, and the “dead man” charges through the dark kitchen snatching some brandy, then actually dies later on. The next morning the show goes off rather badly, with the men in power pulling back curtains to reveal the trickery. But Vogler succeeds in “hypnotizing” Starbeck’s wife into humiliating him (she relishes the opportunity), then severely freaks out Antonsson, who retaliates by attacking and killing Vogler. This should be a sobering moment for the locals, but the police chief immediately announces Vogler’s death to be nobody’s fault, and Vergerus races upstairs to perform an autopsy on the so-called magician – where Vogler switches bodies with the dead actor and tries to haunt Vergerus out of his rational scientist mind.

In the end, Tubal and Granny are quitting the troupe and Sara is joining, running away with her coachman, when they are stopped in the driveway. Everyone assumed they’ll be arrested, but in fact the King has requested a performance, so Vogler leaves in triumph. I loved the story, and the characters are distinctive enough that I kept most of ‘em straight. Besides the comic madness, the whole thing is rich in meaning and mystery.

G. Andrew:

The Magician struck some as a little frivolous in comparison to [the films Bergman made just before and after]: much of the film was in the comic register, and what’s more, the sequence that constituted its dramatic climax sounded echoes of the populist horror genre.

…one of Bergman’s portraits of the artist as an all too human, less than wholly honest manipulator of others. Acutely self-critical, he was highly aware that, as a director in the cinema and the theater, he was using tricks of the trade to persuade audiences that they were witnessing something “real” or “truthful.” Vogler, too, under­stands that his demonstrations of bizarre behavior and miraculous phenomena are in the end a matter of smoke and mirrors, and he’s racked by doubt and self-loathing, made all the worse by the gullibility of many spectators—Mrs. Egerman, for instance, her adoration stemming from a forlorn hope that he’ll somehow cure the enduring grief she feels at her daughter’s death. Many people, the film suggests, are to some extent complicit in the deceptions of which art is necessarily composed—though as Mrs. Egerman’s housekeepers, Sara and Sofia, amusingly reveal in their sly responses to the proffering of love potions by, respectively, Vogler’s cocky coachman and his philistine manager, not all those who are told stories are quite as susceptible in their rapid suspension of disbelief as they may first appear. One can never be entirely sure as to who’s most deceitful, who most deceived.

And oh look, the day I’m posting this (but two weeks after I watched the movie) I learned that its cinematographer Gunnar Fischer has just died at age 100. He also worked on Monika, and surprisingly, Tati’s Parade.

Buy from Amazon:
The Magician: Criterion Blu-ray

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1977, Karel Zeman)

Not the Mickey/Fantasia/Nic Cage Sorcerer’s Apprentice, but based on a novel called Krabat: The Satanic Mill, recently filmed again as a post-Twilight live-action feature. Second-to-last film by Zeman, who died in ’89. I’ve only seen one of his earliest shorts, though I’ve been meaning to watch his Baron Prásil for a long time now.

A poor kid named Krabat ends up at an enchanted mill run by an evil one-eyed wizard, with a staff of boys. Every year the wizard challenges the oldest to a duel, beats him by cheating, and then buries him in the grave the boy dug earlier that day. But Krabat has found a reason to live, an enchanting young girl whom he secretly visits, so he teams up with another boy to learn the magical secrets to defeat the evil wizard.

I was not bowled over by the animation at first, which looked like cut-outs with hinged joints, but as the story sucked me in and I started noticing subtle details, like the odd timing of the transformation scenes and the apparently live-action smoke, fire and water effects, I gained a greater appreciation for the movie by the end.

Lord of Illusions (1995, Clive Barker)

“I was born to murder the world.”

Watched for about the fifth time whilst trying to think of something to write about Johnny Guitar. It’s not a great movie, mostly because of pacing problems and dull dialogue scenes, but it’s better than most. Barker shoots plenty of shirtless men in S&M-inspired gear and he’s full of neat visual ideas, but needed about twice the budget (not likely for a Scott Bakula-starring horror) to pull it off. I still enjoyed it significantly more than Capra’s Meet John Doe, which I half-watched with Katy, the poorly-encoded soundtrack burbling out endless long speeches. Detective Scott Bakula was yet to achieve his post-American Beauty comeback, Magician Swann (Kevin J. O’Connor) would play Dr. Mindbender in the G.I. Joe movie, the girl went on to play Jean Grey in the X-Men movies, and evil baddie Daniel von Bargen is best known for having a cheesy line in The Postman.

Tangled (2010, Byron Howard & Nathan Greno)

I think I liked it better than Katy did, but then, she’d seen The Princess and the Frog so I had lower expectations – the most recently-produced Disney animated movie I’d seen was Atlantis (and before that The Lion King). Didn’t find it as edgy and Shrek-like as the poster and trailer promised (which is a Good Thing), just a perfectly-paced, well-animated classic adventure story.

Backstory: the kingdom’s magical rejuvenating flower is used to heal the pregnant queen, so her daughter’s hair takes on the flower’s powers. Evil stepmom witch kidnaps the young princess so that the hair will keep her forever young (by that logic, why doesn’t Rapunzel’s own hair keep her from growing past the age of five?) but Rapunzel yearns to escape in order to see up close the lanterns released in the kingdom each year in memory of the missing princess. That accounts for the classic fairy-tale part, then the thief, a royal guard’s white horse, Rap’s pet chameleon, and the tough bar patrons who wish to be mimes represent the hyperactive post-Aladdin Disney.

Actors: I didn’t recognize Southland Tales star Mandy Moore as Rapunzel, nor the Voice of Chuck as the thief, nor Doc Ock’s wife in Spider-man 2 as the old witch, nor Ron Perlman as the thief’s twin thug associates, nor Pixar regular Brad Garrett, nor Jeffrey Tambor, etc, etc.

Pedigree: One of the directors did Bolt, the writer worked on Cars, and supervising animator Glen Keane (the Family Circus author’s son), who sounds like the main man behind the look of the film, has been a Disney guy since the 70′s.

Donkey Skin (1970, Jacques Demy)

I think most Jacques Demy studies begin with The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and end with The Young Girls of Rochefort, pausing to mention that he died young and was married to Agnes Varda. I enjoyed those two so much that I figured his other films couldn’t be that bad, so I checked this out since the video store didn’t have Lola. Not only is it not-bad, but I challenge anybody to find anything wrong with it.

Catherine Deneuve (the same year as Tristana) plays a young princess. A few months after her mother passes away, the king (Jean Marais, not looking too different 25 years after his other fairy-tale film, Beauty and the Beast), with no other attractive princesses in the land, decides to marry Catherine.

Funeral for a queen:
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Catherine, a sheltered princess who spends her days with parrots and blue-painted dwarfs sees nothing wrong with this – after all, she loves her father. Fortunately, her fairy godmother Delphine Seyrig (the year after Mr. Freedom, and looking much classier) knows it’s a problem so gives Catherine a series of costume-design challenges to pose to her father to delay the wedding. When he passes them all, making her dresses the color of the sky, the moon and the sun, she asks for a dress made from the skin of the prize donkey which shits gold and jewels. Seems like a cruel slap at the kingdom, but he does it, and she flees for the country wearing the freshly-killed donkey.

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Doing small-town drudge work in public, but secretly sleeping comfortably in her shack with some magical fairy help, Cath attracts the attention of Prince Charming (Jacques Perrin, who starred in Z after playing the military poet who is driving away in the final shot of Rochefort). He meets her, loses her, then does the Cinderella thing with all the girls in the land, only instead of a slipper it’s a ring that fits only her hand, and announces they are to be married.

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Just then, a helicopter (!) drops in carrying the king, who is going to marry the fairy godmother – a hilarious ending to a story that started pretty dark (death, incest, donkey-killing).

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Demy (in homage to Cocteau?) uses slow motion and reverse effects as cheap movie magic to enhance the fairy-tale atmosphere. Hmmm, and painted people hiding in the walls and Cocteau’s name in the credits and his leading man in the cast – I guess he was an influence after all.

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Lovely music by Michel Legrand and lovely cinematography by Ghislain Cloquet, both returning from The Young Girls of Rochefort.

Dialogue that prefigures the helicopter:
CD: “Can a spell wear out like a dress?”
fairy godmother: “No, but it can weaken like a battery.”
“A battery? What is that?
“Nothing – I’m getting old!”
“But fairies don’t get old.”
“You’re right. I had forgotten.”

Also: birds galore… a giant stuffed white cat as a king’s throne… iris-fades to solid colors a la Le Bonheur… force fields… talking flowers… horses painted red… pretty much a must-see movie.

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Katy, Jan 2013: “I mostly liked it.”

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001, Chris Columbus)

Yep, they put the most beloved children’s book franchise in generations into the hands of the director of Bicentennial Man and Stepmom. Why… because he’d made Home Alone a decade earlier? Anyway, everyone knows good filmmaking doesn’t matter when it comes to franchise entertainment. And since I’d been watching all things Potter, with works by Sally (Orlando), H.C. (Hellzapoppin’) and Dennis (Secret Friends), figured it was time we gave old Harry another chance.

Sadly, Katy agreed that it’s pretty crap overall. Good scene where Hagrid busts down a door is the last good scene in the movie. There’s something about a traitorous teacher (who was it?) resurrecting the main evil dude using the titular stone, but I was ignoring most of that and wondering why they couldn’t hire kids who could act. Nice to see John Cleese and Alan Rickman anyway. I’m sure Richard Harris was a very fine performer, but I prefer Michael Gambon’s less-boring Dumbledore.

Judex (1963, Georges Franju)

Don’t know why I assumed this was not a good movie. I’d seen screen captures from the DVD (some of the same ones I’ve got below) and somehow I still thought it was possible to make a bad movie using those images. It is not. This was astounding.

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In a daring but successful shout-out to Feuillade, the story (set in 1910 or 20) is ridiculous. Plot threads do not weave together as in a tapestry of grand design. Each scene seems to have been thought up after the last one was finished filming. This is not a weakness, but adds to the movie’s dreamlike effect.

Master criminal Judex’s evil plans aren’t very broad-ranging in this story. He’s stalking rich guy Favraux acting as his servant, sends a letter demanding Favraux surrender half his fortune or he will die the next night. Next night at the costume ball (seen above), Favraux does die.

But he’s not dead! Imprisoned by Judex!

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Daughter Jacqueline is left alone in the house!

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She is easy prey for Marie, the swinding ex-governess of the house who returns to steal Favraux’s valuable papers and kidnaps Jac. when she interferes.

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But Jac. is rescued by Judex’s dogs!

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There’s a private eye named Cocantin (seen below reading Fantomas), originally hired by Favraux, and somehow still involved.

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Can he stop Marie?!? Who can??

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Judex!

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Ha, not really. Marie has captured Jac again, has her tied up atop a building along with Marie’s accomplice, a man who found his long-lost father earlier after Favraux tried to have the father killed, but that’s another story. Highlight of the movie here, Cocantin is wondering how to get atop that building when a circus caravan rolls past. Why, it’s the circus of his old friend Daisy, an acrobat who easily climbs the building!

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Rooftop fight! Marie grabs the gutter! Will she fall??

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Yes!

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I think the only actor I knew was Edith Scob as Jacqueline – just saw her as Mary in The Milky Way. Sylva Koscina (Daisy) was in some MST3K-approved Hercules films. Francine Bergé (Marie) was later in Mr. Klein, Rivette’s The Nun and Roger Vadim’s La Ronde remake. Channing Pollock (Judex) was a magician with only a few other film roles. René Génin (Pierre Kerjean) had appeared in Renoir and Carné films in the 30′s. This movie was co-written by Feuillade’s grandson, heh.

G. Gardner with Senses of Cinema:

Franju sought in particular to recapture Feuillade’s sense of documentary and his playfulness. He reproduced with as much exactitude as possible the costumes and settings which Feuillade filmed in scrupulous detail. Feuillade’s street-scapes are now an invaluable documentary record, but Franju also paid particular attention to reproducing the elaborate interior designs and furnishings of the day, resulting in settings of quite extraordinary detail and clutter. Franju also sought, despite the playfulness, to avoid any camp satire of these elements by over-emphasis or any special attention being paid to them.

In the title role, Franju pulled off his most brilliant coup by casting the master prestidigator of his day, near godlike in his handsomeness, Channing Pollock. Pollock’s skills as a magician were employed to produce a dazzling array of apparent magical occurrences involving, most particularly, disappearing doves, a plot device that Feuillade uses to enable the regular rescue of the heroine and others by Judex. Franju’s Judex is a far livelier, less sombre, more inventive and more mysterious character than that of Feuillade.

Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors (1964, Sergei Parajanov)

Supposed to be the first great work by Para(d)janov, whose other work I haven’t seen yet.

young Ivan:
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Film is divided into sections. At the end of each one the world turns red, then a bold title card introduces the next. Time is fluid here, sometimes passing slowly, sometimes quickly, and it’s hard to tell how much of it has passed… this is because Parajanov refuses to film anything that is not awesome for purpose of story or character clarification. This is a cine-poem, a work of art, not even the same medium as the David Schwimmer and Jim Carrey and Neil Marshall movies playing in theaters right now.

grown Ivan discovering Marichka’s body:
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Only a minute into the film we have a shot from a falling tree’s POV. Later, we see naked children, multiple axe-fights, a long-take shot travelling from a giant raft over an unseen bridge onto shore. Vodka. No sex, but suggested sex. A sorcerer and voodoo dolls, many deaths.

Palagna:
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Story is divided in half. When he is young, Ivan(ko)’s brother and father are killed in the same week, he meets a girl (Marichka, daughter of his father’s killer), they grow up in love but she drowns before they can wed. Second half, Ivan is depressed, brightens up enough to marry Palagna, then goes back to being depressed. She just wants to be rid of him, eventually gets her wish.

Actually sounds kind of depressing, but it is so beautifully told (and Ivan meets Marichka in a death dream at the finale, so it’s sort of a happy ending), a pleasure to watch.

Marichka reborn:
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There was a movie a few years later, The White Bird Marked with Black, directed by this film’s cinematographer, with the same lead actress (Marichka), written-scored-and-starring our Ivanko.

One tiny little complaint: I wish movies would not blatantly show characters biting into apples when they are about to give in to temptation.

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