Sunday, December 10, 2017

My Best Fiend

(1999) Written and directed by Werner Herzog; Starring: Klaus Kinski, Werner Herzog, Claudia Cardinale and Eva Mattes; Available on DVD

Rating: ****

“Towards the end of shooting, the Indians offered to kill Kinski for me. They said: ‘Shall we kill him for you?’ And I said: ‘No, for God’s sake! I still need him for shooting. Leave him to me.’ I declined at the time, but they were dead serious. They would have killed him, undoubtedly, if I had wanted it.” – Werner Herzog (on working with Klaus Kinski during the filming of Fitzcarraldo)

We’ve all probably had friendships in one point of our life that started out with excitement and promise, only to end up toxic and bitter. Arguably few personal/professional relationships can compare with filmmaker Werner Herzog’s contentious association with the volatile actor, Klaus Kinski. Herzog’s entertaining documentary, My Best Fiend, chronicles the director’s troubled, yet fruitful association with a performer unparalleled in his reputation for being difficult. It’s a complex portrait of a gifted actor and an intense man, plagued by moments of lapsed sanity, and punctuated by fits of rage.

The opening scene is a fitting introduction to Kinski, with footage from his ill-fated “Jesus Christ” tour. The actor goes on a protracted rant, accompanied by jeers and laughter from the audience. The negative response only serves to antagonize him further, as he hurls insults and a litany of expletives at the crowd. Herzog traces his early days with Kinski, as they briefly occupied a boarding house together, where he observed the mercurial actor’s destructive tendencies. The majority of the film discusses their first professional collaborations, Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982),* two productions that presented enormous challenges for the cast and crew.

* In addition to contending with Kinski’s mood swings, Herzog endured the trials of dragging a small ship up a mountainside. Bonus Fact: Jason Robards was originally cast in the title role, as Fitzcarraldo, with Mick Jagger as his assistant. We’re treated to some of the incomplete footage, which was scrapped when Robards became too ill to continue filming, and was replaced by Kinski. Les Blank’s excellent documentary Burden of Dreams covers how Herzog’s wildly ambitious production went awry in greater detail, and is highly recommended.   

We’re never quite sure how much is fact and how much is fabrication in My Best Fiend. Herzog recounts how Kinski threatened to leave Aguirre before it was completed, which prompted the director to threaten his star (“I told him, I had a rifle and by the time he’d reach the next bend there’d be eight bullets in his head and the ninth would be mine.”), although he dispelled rumors that he completed the film with Kinski at gunpoint. In another instance, Herzog, in his customary dry delivery, explains how he once plotted to firebomb Kinski’s house, with the actor inside. Another case in point is Kinski’s autobiography, which Herzog attests was intentionally filled with inaccuracies. According to Herzog, the two conspired to stretch the truth for the sake of giving readers what they wanted, inventing all sorts of wild accusations and slurs against the director. Although Herzog confides, “Every gray hair on my head I call Kinski,” we’re left to speculate how much of their friction was illusory.

As the audience, we’re expected to accept Herzog’s narrative that Klaus Kinski was a megalomaniac, standing on the precipice of sanity by the thinnest margin, but it’s a dubious recounting of events. My Best Fiend is as much a tell-all about Kinski as it’s a confession of the madness that propels Herzog to make films. Herzog pointed to an instance when the actor called the filmmaker a megalomaniac, which prompted the response, “That makes two of us.” Madness and genius are strange bedfellows with the two artists, who were in some ways two sides of the same coin, willing to suffer for their art and ready to take everyone along for the ride. Both are intensely passionate about their artistic visions, with strong convictions about what should be. By the same token, they are at odds with each other because of those same convictions.

To Herzog’s credit, he balances out Kinski’s less savory aspects with some more favorable recollections. He interviews two actresses that reveal additional facets of the actor’s personality. Eva Mattes, who appeared with Kinski in Woyzeck (1979) recalled a very different portrait of Kinski, compared to his reputation, as a sensitive, fragile man. Likewise, Claudia Cardinale, who co-starred in Fitzcarraldo, recalled his professionalism and “capacity of transformation” as an actor. Herzog speaks of the actor’s perfectionistic tendencies and considerable knowledge of filmmaking, and his awareness of how to appear for the camera.

If one truth is to be gleaned from My Best Fiend, it’s that Herzog and Kinski shared a symbiotic relationship (“Kinski and I complemented each other in a strange way. I think he needed me just as much as I needed him.”). Their relationship was ephemeral, a case of capturing lightning in a bottle for a short time, which was fated to burn out. Herzog has often been accused of blurring fact and fiction, creating a narrative to suit his purpose, and I believe Herzog would agree. In his own way, he’s having fun with manipulating the audience and subverting our expectations. In the context of My Best Fiend, myth is as important as objective truth, and Kinski occupied both realms quite comfortably.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

November Quick Picks and Pans – Film Noir Edition

The Stranger (1946) Director Orson Welles’ tense examination of the evil that lies under our noses resonates long after the final scene. Welles stars as Charles Rankin, aka: Franz Kindler, escaped Nazi war criminal and one of the masterminds behind the concentration camps. He’s settled away from prying eyes in the small Connecticut town of Harper as a college history professor, and is poised to wed his naïve new bride, Mary (Loretta Young).

Edward G. Robinson (in a nice turn in a protagonist role) co-stars as government-appointed Nazi hunter Mr. Wilson, who is determined to bring Kindler to justice. In one disturbing scene, he attempts to convince Mary that her new husband isn’t the man he claims to be with a montage of clips depicting the atrocities in the Nazi concentration camps (Welles included actual concentration camp footage, adding a painful level of verisimilitude to the film). Welles masterfully depicts the behavior of a sociopath as his veneer of respectability is stripped away, and reduced to a cornered animal, thinking of nothing but self-preservation. The story comes to a memorable conclusion in a clock tower.

Note: A huge thanks to Olive Films for providing a Blu-ray screener for this review. You can find it here.

Rating: ****½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

The Dark Corner (1946) Someone has it in for private detective Bradford Galt (Mark Stevens), and Galt’s former partner and con-man Tony Jardine (Kurt Kreuger) is the prime suspect. Jardine’s latest target is a wealthy art dealer and his trophy wife (Clifton Webb and Cathy Downs). The real surprise in this fast-paced potboiler is Lucille Ball, in a dramatic role as Galt’s plucky assistant Kathleen. She’s loyal to a fault, resourceful, and knows how to think on her feet. Ball and Stevens share some good chemistry as their characters’ relationship becomes something more than professional. Also watch for a great supporting performance by William Bendix as Stauffer, a sleazy thug for hire.

Rating: ****. Available on DVD

I Wake Up Screaming (1941) Victor Mature plays talent scout Frankie Christopher, who’s in over his head when his latest discovery, Vicky (Carole Landis) ends up murdered. To complicate matters, he’s become involved with Vicky’s cynical sister Jill (Betty Grable). He’s dogged by Ed Cornell (Laird Cregar, in a deliciously enigmatic role), a tenacious police detective who’s convinced about Frankie’s guilt. It’s a race against time as he attempts to prove his innocence before Cornell can snare him in a trap. The film also features Elijah Cook, Jr., terrific, as always, as a shifty desk clerk at an apartment building. It’s certainly lighter in tone than the provocative title would suggest, but riveting nonetheless.   

Rating: **** Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Shock (1946) Janet Stewart (Anabel Shaw) witnesses a man murdering his wife, which sends her into a catatonic state. Unfortunately for Janet, her psychiatrist, Dr. Richard Cross (Vincent Price) is also the assailant. Price captivates as the conflicted Dr. Cross, who wrestles with his conscience about killing his wife, and torn between a doctor’s oath to heal and his desire to avoid getting caught. Lynn Bari plays his remorseless lover, Nurse Elaine Jordan, who keeps him wrapped around her finger. The two conspire to keep Janet sedated and out of the picture. The plot may have more holes than a wheel of Swiss cheese, but it scarcely matters, watching the interplay between Price and Bari in this underrated noir thriller.

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD

Quicksand (1950) Mickey Rooney stars as Dan, a ne’er-do-well auto mechanic up to his neck in problems. Dan arranges a date with Vera (Jeanne Cagney), a waitress at a diner with an eye for expensive things, but looks before he leaps (a recurring theme). Without a cent to his name, and unable to borrow funds, he takes matters into his own hands, pilfering a $20 bill from the repair shop cash register. The petty theft is only the start of his troubles, which continue to cascade, as he tries to replace the money, and only gets deeper in debt. Quicksand features a nice supporting performance by Peter Lorre as Nick, a seedy penny arcade owner. Unfortunately, Rooney just isn’t charismatic enough to carry the movie, and Dan, as written, is too self-centered and obtuse for his own good. By the time we’ve reached the film’s climax, our sympathy for his predicament has worn thin. It’s well worth a look for the atmosphere though, and Lorre is fine as always.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD and Amazon Video                       

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Resident

(2011) Directed by Antti Jokinen; Written by Antti Jokinen and Robert Orr; Starring: Hillary Swank, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Lee Pace, Aunjanue Ellis and Christopher Lee; Available on Blu-ray, DVD, and Hulu

Rating: **½

“I know everything that goes on in this building. I know everything that goes on in your head. You think I don’t know how your brain works? Just like your father... Your mother, she was beautiful. She married a weak man. Then she gave birth to another.” – August (Christopher Lee)

A super-big thanks to Gill from ReelWeegieMidget Reviews and Cat from Thoughts All Sorts for hosting the Then and Now Blogathon, featuring a look at the work of our favorite classic actors in the past and present. My guest of honor is the late great Christopher Lee. You can read my recycled review of his “then” feature, Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966) here. But what about “now” (or in this case, recent)? Why, I’m glad you asked, because my film du jour is The Resident (2011). Reviewing this film affords me the unique opportunity to examine a modern role from this amazing thespian, as well as look at a new Hammer production.

Hammer Films enjoyed a modicum of success in the1950s and 1960s, particularly in the horror genre, building a reputation for movies done on a shoestring budget, but always with an eye on quality. Hammer’s success was short-lived, however, as the company became increasingly cash strapped, productions became more threadbare, and the movies stopped coming by the mid-1970s. But the final nail had not been driven into Hammer’s coffin. After a decades-long absence, the Hammer name re-emerged in the 2000s, with new productions, starting with an English language remake of the Swedish film Let the Right One In (Let Me In) and The Resident, featuring Hammer stalwart Christopher Lee, and writer/director Antti Jokinen.

Dr. Juliet Devereau (Hillary Swank), recently separated from her husband, is on the market for a new place to live, but finding an affordable (well, for an MD at least) apartment in New York City is a Herculean task. After some trial and error, she locates what appears to be the ideal apartment, with an expansive view of the Brooklyn Bridge and a rental price that won’t break the bank. To sweeten the deal, her landlord is a single handsome guy who might just be a good candidate for boyfriend material while she’s on the rebound from her cheating husband. As any savvy consumer will tell you, however, if it looks too good to be true, it probably is. Strange things are afoot in her new apartment home, as she begins to suspect that her privacy is being invaded, and the landlord’s friendly overtures become a little too close for comfort.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan is very good as Juliet’s landlord Max, who may not be the nice guy he appears to be. He seems amiable at first, but as Juliet gradually discovers, there’s more about him, lurking beneath the surface. The good vibes begin to wear off as he loses patience with her ambivalence about entering a new relationship. The cracks in his perfect façade begin to form when she pulls away, and he starts taking things in uncomfortable directions, spying on her and making unexpected visits. Morgan takes us along for a disturbing ride as his character’s sanity erodes.

Christopher Lee does a lot with very little screen time As Max’s enigmatic grandfather August. Juliet is unsure how to interpret the elderly man, peering at her down the hall (his gift basket takes on ominous tones). From the audience’s perspective, we’re similarly perplexed about where he stands. But as we soon discover, neither August nor his grandson are what they may seem to be. August harbors a dark family secret, which manifests itself in Max. Aside from being a major selling point, Lee’s brief appearance is an essential bridge to the Hammer films of the past, serving as the film company’s spiritual ambassador of sorts. Even if he didn’t have a single line (and his lines are relatively scarce), Lee carries enough gravitas to make his character work.

The Resident falls into the same trap as many modern thrillers, counting on the main character doing stupid things to move the plot along. After a string of mornings in which she oversleeps, she has her blood analyzed, and learns there’s a cocktail of sedatives circulating in her bloodstream. Why she would return home after learning this disturbing information is anyone’s guess. Also, the film misses the opportunity to draw a parallel between her husband Jack’s obsessive behavior and Max’s growing paranoia. Despite Jack’s admission that he’s been stalking her, along with his constant phone calls, she decides to give him a second chance (Perhaps she concludes he’s slightly less creepy than her weird landlord?). Juliet installs a high-tech security system in her apartment, and then proceeds to ignore video records of the intrusions. When it finally dawns on her what’s occurring, nothing is ever reported (why she didn’t just dial 911 immediately is beyond me). Of course, the breach in security is another contrivance for the predictable cat and mouse game between Max and Juliet during the film’s climax.

As a contemporary thriller, The Resident is competent, if unremarkable. As a Hammer film, that’s another story. It lacks the gothic atmosphere of many of Hammer’s best horror/thriller movies, or maybe it was the paucity of English accents, but it didn’t have that signature Hammer “feel.”. As I watched the movie, it occurred to me the story could have easily been transplanted to a manor in the English countryside – the New York setting doesn’t suit a Hammer production. Faults aside, The Resident proves nothing with Christopher Lee can be a total loss. Lee makes up for the lack of quantity screen time with a quality supporting performance. If only the rest of the film could measure up.