The Hell Plaza Oktober-Minifest 2017: House

When the average moviegoer thinks of Japanese horror movies, the first (and possibly only) thing that pops to mind is likely the Godzilla series. If you ask the more Criterion Collection-obsessed fan about the subject, they might bring up the sublimely creepy supernatural thrills of Kwaidan or Ringu. All of these movies have their merits and deserve their places in the horror pantheon. But if you continue to explore the country’s genre efforts, eventually you’ll get to Nobuhiko Obayashi’s delirious 1977 film House. And once you do, you’re never gonna forget it. There are plenty of horror movies but there aren’t a whole lot from any country that are quite like House.

The plot itself is relatively straightforward. A teenage girl (named Gorgeous, your first indication of the broad strokes this movie is painted in) is disappointed to learn that her summer vacation with her film composer dad is going to be crashed by his new fiancée. Still mourning the death of her mother, Gorgeous contacts her estranged aunt, who lives alone in a remote country house. The aunt responds that she’d love a visit, so Gorgeous and her six friends (Sweet, Prof, Mac, Melody, Fantasy and Kung Fu) head off alone for the country, their school-teacher chaperone promising to follow right behind.

It takes a little while for things to get spooky once the girls arrive at the house. At first, the wheelchair-bound aunt is a gracious host, overjoyed to have company after all these years. The girls take turns cleaning up, cooking, and giggling over inside jokes and crushes. But eventually, they start disappearing one by one and as they do, the aunt grows steadily more youthful and invigorated. No points for guessing the source of her new vitality.

Even though it takes a little while to get to the horror parts of House, the movie is pretty unhinged right from the get-go. The cinematography is bathed in lurid colors and composed of wildly disorienting camera angles, disassociating even the most ordinary scene from any sense of realism. There’s already a sense that anything can happen even before the girls’ heads start turning up in wells and pianos start to devour them. And just as you’re thinking, “This movie is bananas,” a character literally transforms into a pile of bananas, as if Obayashi was reading your mind and decided to see your bet and raise it.

This was Obayashi’s feature directing debut and he threw everything up to and including the kitchen sink into it. The result is absolutely exhilarating, a haunted house ride like none other. The only other thing I can compare it to is Takashi Miike’s equally insane The Happiness Of The Katakuris. I could easily see House being an influence on Miike’s most free-wheeling projects. This is the perfect Halloween movie for the jaded horror fan who thinks they’ve seen everything. House is proof that there is always something new under the sun just waiting to be discovered.

An Honor To Be Nominated: Tootsie

THE CONTENDER: Tootsie (1982)

Number of Nominations: 10 – Picture, Actor (Dustin Hoffman), Supporting Actress (Teri Garr and Jessica Lange), Director (Sydney Pollack), Original Screenplay (Larry Gelbart, Murray Schisgal & Don McGuire), Cinematography (Owen Roizman), Sound (Arthur Piantadosi, Les Fresholtz, Dick Alexander & Les Lazarowitz), Original Song (“It Might Be You,” music by Dave Grusin, lyrics by Alan & Marilyn Bergman), Film Editing (Fredric Steinkamp & William Steinkamp)

Number of Wins: 1 (Supporting Actress, Jessica Lange)

It’s a commonly held belief that when it comes to the Academy Awards, comedies get no respect. There’s an element of truth to that. Comedic actors are rarely recognized for their performances, at least in comedies. The best way for a comedian to nab an Oscar is to get serious, as in the cases of Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, and Mo’Nique. There are a handful of examples of actors winning for a comedy, Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda leaps to mind, but these are rare.

When it comes to Best Picture, comedies are infrequently nominated and almost never win. The last comedies to win were The Artist in 2012 and Shakespeare In Love back in 1999. Neither of those movies are exactly what you’d consider typical contemporary comedies. Prior to them, comedy winners included Annie Hall, The Sting, Tom Jones, The Apartment, You Can’t Take It With You, and It Happened One Night. You might be able to make a case for a couple others but not many.

The Academy seems to think that making comedies is easy. After all, they’re fun, right? They look like everyone was having fun. So making them is a lot simpler than recreating World War II or showing someone suffering from a debilitating disease. The reality is that making a great comedy is extraordinarily difficult. Every single element has to work in perfect harmony, from the script to the performances to the direction to the cinematography to the editing. If just one thing is out of sync, the whole operation falls apart.

In 1982, the Academy momentarily recognized how much work went into crafting a great contemporary comedy and honored Tootsie with 10 nominations. If you haven’t seen the movie in a while, that may seem excessive. But rewatching it again recently, it struck me as entirely appropriate. Tootsie is indeed a great comedy, one of the best of its decade, and it more than holds up over 30 years later.

The movie was a passion project for Dustin Hoffman and he spent several years developing the script with playwright Murray Schisgal and Larry Gelbart, among other, uncredited writers. The attention to detail pays off. The movie could easily have been an unbelievable, cross-dressing farce. But the characters are so richly developed that the movie strikes a chord. You never for one second question Hoffman’s decision as difficult actor Michael Dorsey to put on a dress and audition for a role on a soap opera as Dorothy Michaels.

Both of Hoffman’s performances are relaxed, engaging, and hilarious. The movie cannily plays off the star’s own reputation as an intense, difficult method actor. Tootsie features him at his warmest and most sympathetic. Hoffman takes what could have been a broad caricature and creates a wholly relatable human being.

The film’s supporting cast is no less perfect. Stalwart character actor Dabney Coleman has one of his juiciest roles as the lecherous TV director. Bill Murray graciously removed his name from the opening credits and advertising so audiences wouldn’t expect a Bill Murray movie along the lines of Stripes. But his appearance is crucial. Hoffman needs a foil that’s his equal and the two of them have an easy rapport that immediately conveys the characters’ history.

Perhaps the movie’s shrewdest casting was director Sydney Pollack’s appearance as Michael’s agent. Hoffman had to persuade Pollack into taking on the role. In fact, Dabney Coleman was originally cast in the part. But Pollack turned out to be the right choice. His incredulous reaction upon meeting Dorothy Michaels for the first time is worth the price of admission.

In particular, Tootsie was a tremendous vindication for Jessica Lange. She’d made her film debut in Dino De Laurentiis’ disastrous 1976 remake of King Kong. After that debacle, she found it almost impossible to find work. She subsequently made only a few film appearances until returning with a vengeance in 1982 with acclaimed performances in both Tootsie and Frances, eventually winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

Her win was not without controversy. After all, her role in Tootsie was the leading lady. It was widely assumed she was promoted in the Supporting Actress category so she wouldn’t be competing with her own work in Frances for Best Actress. Sure enough, she was nominated in both categories, much to the annoyance of costar Teri Garr. When both women were nominated for Best Supporting Actress, Garr resigned herself to the fact that she would probably lose to Lange, especially since it was widely (and correctly) assumed that the Best Actress race already belonged to Meryl Streep for Sophie’s Choice.

Sydney Pollack would go on to win Best Picture and Director a few years later for Out Of Africa, an interminable slog of a movie which is nevertheless exactly the kind of prestigious, sweeping epic the Academy loves to throw Oscars at. Tootsie is a far superior movie but despite its many nominations, it never had much of a shot. It’s funny, it’s contemporary, and it makes it all look easy. That isn’t the kind of movie that wins awards. But it is the kind of movie that has a legacy far beyond its initial run.

Tootsie is available on Blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

An Honor To Be Nominated: Traffic

THE CONTENDER: Traffic (2000)

Number of Nominations: 5 – Picture, Supporting Actor (Benicio Del Toro), Director (Steven Soderbergh), Adapted Screenplay (Stephen Gaghan), Film Editing (Stephen Mirrione)

Number of Wins: 4 (Supporting Actor, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing)

Steven Soderbergh released two films in 2000, Erin Brockovich and Traffic. Both were critically acclaimed. Both were hits at the box office, each one making over $100 million. And when Oscar time rolled around, both received multiple nominations. In fact, Soderbergh became the first filmmaker since 1938 to receive two nominations in the same year for Best Director. But while the previous record-holder, Michael Curtiz, went home that night empty handed, Soderbergh actually won.

For a while, it seemed as though Traffic might also win Best Picture. But the Oscars played out differently that year. The year’s biggest prize went to Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, making it one of the few Best Picture winners not to be honored in either the directing or writing categories. Even so, Traffic did extremely well, winning four of the five categories for which it was nominated.

Perhaps it isn’t surprising that Traffic won accolades and awards. But it is somewhat surprising that it was a hit. This is a complex, multilayered story with a sprawling cast of characters that rarely intersect in obvious ways.

Michael Douglas plays the newly-appointed drug czar whose new job takes a back seat when he discovers his daughter (Erika Christensen) is herself heavily addicted. Benicio Del Toro is a mildly corrupt Tijuana cop who finds his own limits when recruited by General Salazar (Tomas Milian), who wants to break the Tijuana cartel for reasons of his own. Catherine Zeta-Jones is a wealthy mother-to-be who only discovers her “legitimate businessman” husband (Steven Bauer) is a trafficker after he’s dragged to prison by the DEA. Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman are DEA agents assigned to protect the key witness in Bauer’s case. And those are just the main plot threads.

But Soderbergh, who almost always acts as his own cinematographer under the pseudonym Peter Andrews, developed a unique visual shorthand to keep the various stories clear. Working with color, different film stocks, and post-production tricks, Soderbergh gives each story its own individual style. It’s a brilliant move. The film runs slightly over two hours but never feels long. There’s simply too much story to tell for your interest to flag. But it’s also never confusing, a charge I’ve heard leveled at screenwriter Stephen Gaghan’s similar follow-up, Syriana.

It’s fair to say that Traffic hit a nerve with the public that Syriana would never have been able to find. I admire Syriana quite a bit but the labyrinthine machinations of the oil industry are a lot more abstract to most people than the war on drugs. I imagine everyone has a story to tell about how drugs have affected their lives or someone close to them. One of Traffic’s great strengths is its ability to make us see not only our own story reflected back but the bigger picture we never dreamed existed.

If Soderbergh and Gaghan deserve credit for economy of storytelling, the ensemble cast earns most of the kudos for making us believe in these characters. We learn almost nothing about the personal lives of Cheadle and Guzman. But we can fill in the blanks thanks to their effortless chemistry. Zeta-Jones makes a thoroughly believable transformation from idle rich wife to a ruthless Lady Macbeth. And the Oscar-winning Del Toro is a smart, soulful survivor. The moment when he half apologetically confirms to a pair of American tourists that their “stolen car” is a police scam speaks volumes.

Traffic seems to view the war on drugs as futile but surprisingly ends on a note of some hope. The smile on Cheadle’s face as he walks away from Bauer’s home and the contented look Del Toro has as he watches a baseball game suggest that all is not lost. But there is a good chance that this “war” is being fought all wrong.

The world has changed a lot in the years since Traffic debuted. Drug cartels have turned Mexico into a war zone. The director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, or the so-called “drug czar,” is no longer a Cabinet-level position. Yet, Traffic remains relevant. No doubt it will continue to as long as illegal drugs are bought, sold, and abused. Rather than the screeching anti-drug harangue it could have been, Soderbergh made a quietly powerful, thoughtful film examining the problem from multiple perspectives. Whether or not it’s his crowning achievement is debatable. But it’s a high-water mark that brilliantly displays Soderbergh’s ambitions and confidence as a storyteller.

Traffic is available as on Blu-ray and DVD from both The Criterion Collection and Universal.

An Honor To Be Nominated: Nashville

THE CONTENDER: Nashville (1975)

Number of Nominations: 5 – Picture, Supporting Actress (Ronee Blakley & Lily Tomlin), Director (Robert Altman), Original Song (“I’m Easy,” music and lyrics by Keith Carradine)

Number of Wins: 1 (Original Song)

In my Honor To Be Nominated column on Jaws, I wrote that 1975 was the year the Academy got it right. Every single film up for Best Picture that year can make a legitimate claim to greatness. And just look at some of the movies that weren’t up for the big prize: The Man Who Would Be King, The Day Of The Locust, Night Moves, The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Yes, 1975 was a very good year.

But if I were forced to pick just one movie from 1975 as my favorite, it would have to be Robert Altman’s Nashville. Don’t get me wrong. I’m crazy about a lot of these other movies, especially Jaws. But Nashville has a scope and ambition few other films have ever come close to replicating. It aims high, weaving 24 characters into a beautiful tapestry that forms a microcosm of America, and hits the mark.

The massive project began innocuously enough. Country-western music was enjoying a surge in popularity and United Artists wanted to make a movie capitalizing on it. They approached Altman and while he wasn’t interested in their idea, he agreed to develop his own country-western movie.

He sent writer Joan Tewkesbury to Nashville to get a feel for the place and its people, instructing her to keep a journal of her visit. The journal became the basis for Tewkesbury’s screenplay. United Artists didn’t know what to make of the sprawling script and passed on the project. So Altman was forced to raise funds independently, not for the first time in his career and far from the last.

When the film was released, it failed to impress one key demographic: the actual people of Nashville. Country stars complained that the movie completely misrepresented them and their city. Not only that, they hated the music, almost all of which was written for the film, often by the actors themselves. In an interview on the DVD, Altman quips that their complaint about the music really meant they were just upset that he hadn’t used any of their tunes.

Altman is probably correct about that. The music feels authentic, from the patriotic bombast of “200 Years” as performed by Henry Gibson’s pompous superstar Haven Hamilton to Keith Carradine’s Oscar-winning “I’m Easy”. The soundtrack is a key element to the film’s success. If the music didn’t work, nothing in the movie would work.

Even though Nashville captures a very specific time and place, it’s eerie how much of the film remains relevant, even prescient today. One of the key threads running through the picture is the organization of a fundraiser for presidential candidate Hal Phillip Walker.

Walker is running on the “Replacement Party” and his campaign van appears throughout, broadcasting populist messages about running lawyers out of Congress and changing the national anthem to something ordinary people can sing. By the time the fundraiser begins, you half expect Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, and other Tea Party favorites to show up.

Altman ties politics and fame together in another way that would come true a short time later: (Spoiler alert for those of you who haven’t seen this) the assassination of a celebrity. After John Lennon’s murder, Altman was contacted by a reporter from the Washington Post who asked if he felt responsible. Altman turned the tables and suggested the media should feel responsible for not heeding his warning.

Despite its Oscar nominations and critical acclaim, Nashville was not a popular success. Altman finished the ’70s with movies that met with mixed reviews and little box office before embarking on Popeye, the multi-million dollar disaster that effectively ended his Hollywood career for over a decade. Nashville would be Altman’s last trip to the Academy Awards until he was welcomed back into the fold in 1992 with The Player.

In some ways, it’s just as well that Robert Altman’s only Oscar was an honorary one. Even by the New Hollywood standards of the 1970s, his movies were too iconoclastic. Altman often worked within the system but he always did it his own way, refusing to be reigned in by the demands of the studios. Rewarding him for a specific achievement would have been tantamount to giving an unruly child an extra helping of dessert.

Robert Altman left behind an extraordinary body of work, one of the most impressive filmographies of any filmmaker who ever lived. But Nashville remains his masterpiece, a movie that continues to inspire and amaze audiences even today. It’s the closest to a cinematic equivalent of a novel I’ve ever seen. Like a good book, it’s worth revisiting again and again.

Nashville is available on Blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

An Honor To Be Nominated: Barry Lyndon

THE CONTENDER: Barry Lyndon (1975)

Number of Nominations: 7 – Picture, Director (Stanley Kubrick), Adapted Screenplay (Stanley Kubrick), Cinematography (John Alcott), Art Direction-Set Direction (Ken Adam, Roy Walker, Vernon Dixon), Original Song Score and/or Adaptation (Leonard Rosenman), Costume Design (Ulla-Britt Soderlund, Milena Canonero)

Number of Wins: 4 (Cinematography, Art Direction-Set Direction, Original Song Score and/or Adaptation & Costume Design)

After the success of 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968, Stanley Kubrick turned his complete attention to a mammoth epic based on the life of Napoleon. He spent years researching both the man and the period, going into meticulous detail. In his notes, he modestly claimed it would be “the best movie ever made.”

As the proposed budget for Kubrick’s Napoleon went ever higher, Sergei Bondarchuk’s Waterloo starring Rod Steiger as Napoleon was released. The big-budget epic flopped at the box office, causing Kubrick’s financiers to back out of his project. Kubrick went on to make A Clockwork Orange but Napoleon remained a dream project. The entire story can be found in the beautifully designed book Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon: The Greatest Movie Never Made from Taschen.

All that research didn’t go to waste, however. It would inform a different period epic, 1975’s Barry Lyndon. Based on a novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, the film follows an Irish cad (played by Ryan O’Neal) as he makes his way in the world by any means necessary. The movie was not an immediate success but today is widely considered one of Kubrick’s most underrated works.

As usual, Kubrick kept the production shrouded in secrecy. Ryan O’Neal seemed an odd choice for a Kubrick project but it wasn’t as if the director had much choice. One of Warner Bros.’ only conditions for bankrolling the project was the casting of an A-list star in the lead and the studio provided Kubrick with a very short list of names. After Robert Redford passed, Kubrick turned to O’Neal, riding high after the blockbuster success of Love Story.

Apart from casting suggestions, the studio was so eager to keep Kubrick in the Warner Bros. family that they let him go and hoped for the best. Principal photography stretched on to a whopping 300 days and the film’s budget eventually hit $11 million. When executives visited Kubrick in London to prepare for the marketing campaign, the filmmaker refused to show them any footage but assured them Oscars were in their future.

As it turned out, Kubrick was right. The film essentially swept the technical awards in 1975, a decision that even the movie’s harshest critics wouldn’t be able to argue with. Barry Lyndon is undeniably gorgeous, featuring some of the most sumptuous set and costume design you’ll see in any period film.

But if anyone deserved their Oscar, it was cinematographer John Alcott. Despite popular belief, it isn’t true that no artificial light was used during filming. However, it is true that the candlelit interiors were shot using only the light provided by the hundreds of candles. Not only did this require the development of special super-fast lenses and experimentation with film stock, it also prohibited much movement on the part of the actors during these scenes. The entire film is simply astonishing to look at. Kubrick more than succeeded at capturing the look of 18th century painters like William Hogarth.

Even though everyone agreed that Barry Lyndon was a remarkable technical achievement, critics and audiences weren’t entirely convinced it succeeded as a movie. The film is slow-moving and the usual arguments that Kubrick was too cold and detached a filmmaker to make a movie about actual human beings were rehashed.

But I’m often surprised how many people fail to see the comedy in Barry Lyndon. Thackeray was first and foremost a satirist and the film succeeds in capturing that, particularly through the droll narration of Michael Hordern. But another element that captures the book’s wit is the oft-criticized performance of Ryan O’Neal.

True, O’Neal is a bit of an empty canvas in the film and his Irish brogue is indifferent at best. But Barry is a character who never quite fits in with his surroundings. He’s an opportunist but not a particularly ambitious or active one. He’s a man in constant need of a patron or a protector. In many ways, O’Neal is the perfect actor for the part. He grows into the role as the film goes along and thanks to him, Barry never seems too weak or too unlikable.

Barry Lyndon has received a critical reappraisal since its release in 1975. In 2005, Time Magazine listed it as one of the 100 best films ever made and Kubrick fans have latched on to it as one of the director’s best works. Barry Lyndon isn’t an easy movie to embrace but it’s impossible not to admire. The first time you see it, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by its technical genius. But the second or third time, you’ll likely get caught up in the strangely charmed life of Barry Lyndon.

Barry Lyndon is currently available on Blu-ray and DVD from Warner Home Video. It is due to be re-released on both formats October 17, 2017, as part of The Criterion Collection.