Thursday, December 24, 2009
For anyone who doubts that the awesomeness that is Jeremy Irons, he needs only to watch “Die Hard with a Vengeance” to see the actor at the pinnacle of his career. But as hard as it may be to believe, Irons does outdo his stellar performance as the brother of Alan Rickman (oh, if only they really were brothers, what an awesome family that would be…). Irons assumes the roles of twin gynecologists in David Cronenberg’s dark tale of mutant women and the men who pine for them.
Elliot and Beverly act as a yin and yang for one another – Elliot is the extroverted of the two, making the majority of the public appearances for the duo and conquering women with the slightest of ease, while Beverly is quiet, intellectual and shy, creating the majority of the innovations the two are known for and humbly accepting the females that Twin A has spurned. When Beverly falls in love with movie actress Claire Niveau (Genevieve Bujold), yet another reject of Elliot, and he finds himself rejected by her, his world collapses. He regresses into a realm of drug-addiction and depression to the point that he creates custom gynecological tools that look more like torture devices. It’s evident that Beverly can only regard all women as mutants as his sense of alienation grows out of control, and soon Elliot finds himself spiraling in a similar downfall, for the two are interlinked through emotion and experience. Irons was nominated for an Oscar for his performance and deservedly so. He portrays the identical twins in such contrasting ways that not even the viewer has trouble distinguishing between the two. As time has passed, I’ve found myself repeatedly reflecting back upon this film, leading me to the conclusion that this is definitely one of Cronenberg’s best (though certainly not the most pleasant to watch).
Watch the Trailer
Here’s Cary Grant in yet another screwball comedy that’s reminiscent of “Brining Up, Baby.” Once again, the tale is occurring on the cusp of a wedding, though Rosalind Russell is the bride-to-be. She’s on the verge of departing on her honeymoon when she’s roped into an execution/jailbreak story by her old editor and flame, (Grant). Grant stirs the embers of her newshound ways and ropes her back into his life under the guise that he needs her to assist him with the scoop of the century.
The series of shenanigans that are tied together loosely with a plot are entertaining enough, though they start to feel flat about halfway in. I feel as if at one stage, the writer thought, “Damn it, this story’s getting too absurd for its own good” and so he roped back in some of the more rational characters to tone down the antics, leaving the film feeling a little uneven at points. However, Cary Grant still delivers his trademark, befuddled charm like only Hugh Grant desperately wishes he could.
Watch the Trailer
What can I say here? The fourth installment of the “Friday the Thirteenth” trilogy is filled with all the pathos, metaphorical imagery and subtle character development that one would expect from the fourth installment of any horror franchise. The killings that take place throughout the film are merely incidental to the plot which focuses on a group of young teenagers who want nothing more than to embrace life. Their inebriated revelry and debaucherous, sexual escapades are representative of the freedom of youth. Jason, then, could correctly be interpreted as an allegory for adulthood and responsibility.
Jason strikes down every adolescent he can the moment that they begin to revel in the pleasures of fleshly love. It is only the actions of a young Corey Feldman that quell the beast. His soothing gesture is to shave his head and make himself appear as the deliverer of swift, machete justice. While the ending can be interpreted in a multitude of manners, it’s clear that the filmmakers have one moral they wish to convey: the appearance of early maturity is advantageous during the annals of adolescence. Feldman survives by donning the attire of the representation of authority. Truly, if we all wish to escape the persecution of our oppressors, we must live under the guise that we are like they. But, don’t be fooled, for as the film demonstrates, only the façade is necessary to dupe the antagonist, not the alteration of one’s morals. Perhaps this is the most dangerous message of all then, for the story seems to say: convince you superiors that you are one of them and when their vengeance is quelled, strike them down with greater haste. It’s surprising then that the film didn’t spark a youth revolt upon its release. I think that the fault then lies in the fact that a young Crispin Glover is called upon to dance ad nauseum during the film’s third act – a display so cryptic that even the most analytical of viewers fail to interpret the message behind the gyrations.
Watch the Trailer
The story begins when a young, nubile girl hiking through the woods comes across comes across a pair of men, one of whom is accompanied by his son. At first their meeting is pleasant, but it’s not long before the girl is raped and killed. Later, the killers seek lodging at the home of the girl’s family and it isn’t long before the father figures out who they are. He must then decide if he should reduce himself to their level and exact a similar revenge to their crime.
While this might sound like I’m describing the premise to Wes Craven’s “Last House on the Left,” “The Virgin Spring” is actually a pensive little exercise in revenge by Ingmar Bergman. As is customary is Bergman’s tales, faith is an intertwining theme between incidents. (Max von Sydow) is a pious man who feels as if he’s going throught eh trials of Job throughout the incident, and despite his devout, religious beliefs, his overwhelming desire is to make his murderous houseguests suffer as much as he can. But despite the dark theme of the film, it’s beautifully shot and told, making it feel like a lost parable brought to life.
Monday, December 21, 2009
The premise of a black comedy featuring Basil Rathbone and Bela Lugosi was certainly a promising one. In fact, the story of a group of money-hungry relatives preying on the misfortunes of an old woman with the hopes of gaining her inheritance is not a bad one at that. But the execution for this Universal horror flick left something to be desired. The pacing is abominably slow and I found myself stopping the film and coming back to it twice. That's pretty sad when the film's runtime is 69 minutes.
Hell, I won't beat around the bush anymore. I just don't like Hugh Herbert. Sure, I've got a penchant for character actors, especially those with memorable schticks, from Franklin Pangborn's finger tenting to Frank Nelson's trademark "Yeeesssss." But Herbert's "hoo-hoo" laugh and bumbling nature just rubs me the wrong way. He feels like a cheap alternative to Lou Costello. And much to the dismay of many film fans, I will attest that while I love classic wacky comedy, from the Marx Brothers to the Three Stooges, I just don't find Abbot and Costello funny. So, needless to say, it doesn't help for a film to bank the majority of its humor around a comedian whose stylings are reminiscent of a medium that I detest. A Herbert caricature did appear regularly on Looney Tunes shorts, so evidently he was popular for some unearthly reason.
It should be obvious by many of my reviews that I like low-budget horror. So when I hear that a film that cost $15,000 to make is receiving a national release, I can't help but indulge. The film features a lot of entertaining, yet effective "spookshow" elements to advance the plot and heighten the suspense. The general gist of the story is that a young couple believes that their house is haunted and so they decide that they shall tape every aspect of their days, including their nights in bed, in the hopes of capturing proof that something is amiss. A lot of the tricks that are used, from doors slowly creaking shut to odd bangs on the wall are unnerving. On more than one occasion, Katie (the girl who seems to be the target of the haunting demon's aggressions) arises from bed in the middle of the night and stares at her boyfriend, Micah, for hours on end, practically unmoving. She also seems to go into moments of mild possession where she will carry out acts that she does not remember later and artifacts from her childhood reappear with no logical reason as to how or why.
Unfortunately, writer/director Olen Peri gets very greedy at more than one point in the film. There's one scene featuring a Ouija board that is operated by an unseen hand shortly before it bursts into flame. Another shot features footprints appearing on the floor. Regardless of the "real-life circumstances," this is footage that, if real, would have had the attention of every paranormal investigator in the nation. So why Katie and Micah see these things occur and still take the events in stride is beyond plausibility. Furthermore, there seems to be a legitimate push to explain what is happening to the audience, with even a discovery of a website where another woman went through Katie's experiences, went crazy, blah, blah, blah.
I'm a firm believer of the "less is more" theory, because what is unknown is more frightening than what is defined, for that is the point that your imagination can run amok. It's merely indicative of our culture, for American audiences demand explanations and want to see everything. Speaking from ten years experience at a movie theatre, I can attest that films that feature ambiguous resolutions that are open to interpretation do not appeal to the average filmgoer. So the need to rationalize everything is a chronic problem that ruins too many films with great potential. However, "The Blair Witch Project" is not only reminiscent of "Paranormal Activity" in terms of plot devices and production, but it also features a highly indefinite finale, and it was a high grossing film. So with successful predecessors, it's saddening that "Paranormal Activity" went for the easy out. Kudos to the film though, for making the first night of going to sleep alone after viewing it a little uneasy.
Watch the Trailer
Like the greatest of giallo, "All the Colors of the Dark" (aka "They're Coming to Get You") is convoluted beyond compare. It features more red herrings than a fish market and any notion of a conventional plot is thrown out the window. And yet, the film is a lot of fun because it embraces the absurd, almost becoming self-parody, and it features great cinematography to boot. The best synopsis of the plot I can extrapolate is the film's heroine, Jane, is having bizarre nightmares, allegedly brought on by repressed trauma from her mother's death and a miscarriage. Everyone around her has solutions to her problems - her husband suggests pills, her sister suggests psychoanalysis and hypnosis and her neighbor suggests Satanic ritual (Satanic rituals? What won't they cure?)
Pretty soon Jane's nightmares take form in reality as she becomes an integral member of the cult. Are the cult followers vampires or ghouls? Is Jane crazy or is she a victim of a crazy plot? If she is going mad, who is pushing her to the limits of her sanity? Even after you complete the film, the answers to these questions will be a tad fuzzy. However, you don't watch Argento or Fulci films for coherence either; you watch their films for fun, tits and gore, and those are three fronts on which this film delivers.
Watch the Trailer
This is possibly the best John Malkovich vehicle since "Being John Malkovich." Rather than playing himself, the eccentric actor is a hammy, washed-up mentalist who spends his days in the limelight of backwoods towns, performing for crowds of dozens. However, when he manages to hypnotize an entire lobby of people in the absnence of any cameras, the rumor mill exaggerates the act and soon he's back on top. Malkovich is endearingly quirky as Howard, greeting fans with aggressive handshakes and bombastically declaring "I love this town!" at every new venue.
The main crux of the story, though, is not that of Buck Howard but of Troy Gable (Colin Hanks). Gable drops out of law school to take on the demeaning job as Buck's attache, much to his father's disapproval (played by Big Daddy Hanks - I'm guessing Colin roped him in for the star power angle to help rope in curious viewers). Troy's story has been done before, so it doesn't leave as much of an impression as John Malkovich's performance. In fact, had Malkovich been absent from the film, the result would have been mediocre at best, though there is a fun supporting cast, featuring the likes of Ricky Jay and Steve Zahn. I recall that this broke Louisville at the Village Eight during its transition period and as a result, very few people saw it. Pity. I feel like had this film opened at Baxter, it would have generated decent enough word of mouth to keep it running for a while (a la "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" or "Little Miss Sunshine"). Instead, it shall undoubtedly find a modest following on DVD.
Watch the Trailer
Sunday, December 20, 2009
The first twenty minutes sets the scene for this epic film set in 17th century Japan. Noble samurai Hanshiro arrives at the palace of Lord Saito, hoping that the lord will allow him to commit seppaku on his grounds (for he deems it an honorable place to do so). Saito is skeptical, explaining to Hanshiro that the land has many wandering transients claiming to be samurai who wish to perform seppaku in the hopes that the feudal lords will placate their grief and poverty with money, rather than allowing them to kill themselves. Saito makes it known that he is not like those other lords and that Hanshiro will be forced to kill himself if he claims that is his wish. Saito recounts a tale of the last samurai that came to his palace, a man whom he deemed a fraud because the ronin had a sword and dagger made of bamboo. That man was forced to kill himself, very slowly and painfully, with the flimsy bamboo dagger. Hanshiro insists that his wishes are genuine and later, before the ceremony begins, Hanshiro requests a special second to assist him with the ceremony. While the requested guard is sought, Hanshiro essentially says, "Now let me tell you a story. You recall that samurai you mentioned earlier? I knew him - he was like a son to me."
From that moment, I was hooked. Hanshiro casually recounts the tale as to how his foster son ended up in the predicament he did, and along the way, we come to learn that a great deal of revenge has been enacted upon Lord Saito already, unbeknownst to the nefarious host. The film features spectacular sword battles, including a finale fight that was undoubtedly the inspiration behind the Bride's battle with the Crazy Eighty-Eight at the end of "Kill Bill Vol. 1." Quite simply, this was one of the most impressive revenge stories I've seen in a good, long while.
Watch the Trailer
This is yet another film I wish I'd caught in theatres, while mildly intoxicated in the company of friends. With practical effects gore abound and a schlocky plot, it screams "drive-in fare." Pity is was originally released in the cold barrens of March. The story is reminiscent of Fred Dekker's "Night of the Creeps." When I first saw the trailers for the film, I assumed it was a rip-off of the 1986 B-film and never caught it as a result. The film does borrow elements from "Night of the Creeps," but it snags aspects of a half dozen other 1980's horror films. So I suppose judging the film as a remake/rip-off would be as logical as deeming every one of Tarantino's films, especially the "Kill Bill" films as a rip-off as well.
The story does center around alien slugs that turn humans into zombies, just as "Night of the Creeps" did. However, while fraternity douchebags seemed to be the target of Dekker's piece, "Slither" sets its sights on South Carolina rednecks. Actually, I'll stop there, because to reduce a review to a comparison between the two is about as frivolous and belittling to the film as is a high school essay detailing the differences between the novel "I Know What You Did Last Summer" and the film adaptation ("Aw, man...they totally changed the ending. Bummer"). Simply put, the movie's a hell of a lot of fun, especially with half-man, half slug Michael Rooker pitted against Nathan Fillon. I'd liken it to drinking a forty of King Cobra - it won't make you more intelligent and it's certainly far from classy, but if you're with friends, it's a great way to kill a night...and I can't believe I just made that analogy work.
Watch the Trailer
The film is a spectacle of an anthology featuring the directorial work of Michel Gondry ("Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," "Human Nature"), Leox Carax ("Lovers on the Bridge") and Bong Joon-ho ("The Host"). Each half-hour vignette was theoretically created with the intent of capturing the spirit of the Japanese city, similar to the way that "Paris, Je T'aime" did the European highlight. However, I never felt like the stories immersed me into Japanese culture. I've always found that "Lost in Translation" did so successfully from an American point of view, capturing the sense of isolation and curiosity that emerges when one is a visitor to a foreign land. With the three tales within "Tokyo!" I felt that they could have been set within any major metropolis and still worked.
Gondry's story focuses on a girl who is slowly alienated by her peers and begins to turn into a chair. Joon-ho's tale centers around an obsessive-compulsive shut in that seemingly finds love in a strange, possibly post-apocalyptic future. The theme behind both is centered around the loss of identity and loneliness that comes from living in a major city. The most entertaining of the trio, Carax's "Merde," is the story of a feral, unkempt man who resides in Tokyo's sewers, eats chrysanthemums and periodically terrorizes residents with grenade attacks. When captured, he's put on trial in what is clearly an allegory for Western reaction and treatment of middle-east terrorists. There are even moments that mirror the final days of Saddam Hussein. The story calls to question the motivation behind such individuals and the aspects of hypocrisy that arise in determining punishment for them. However, as I mentioned before, I never felt like there was some unifying theme that tied the trio together and made the Tokyo setting imperative. Perhaps choosing three non-Japanese directors was the problem, but at least those three are excellent enough in their work to generate an intriguing piece.
Watch the Trailer
The last of the Frankenstein installments out of Hammer studios is still fun fare. This time, Cushing returns once more as the infamous Baron Frankenstein, only Frankenstein is absolutely daft. Imprisoned in an insane asylum, Frankenstein soon rises to power over the director though blackmailing means. There he uses his power to eliminate patients who possess desirable body parts for repairing his monster. A loony violinist provides supple hands for the monster, while the brain of a mad genius gives the monster new noggin meat.
Frankenstein is assisted by a doctor who was imprisoned for crimes similar to his own. Together the two bring new life to the monster, at which point it promptly and predictably runs amok. The story would feel overtired were it not for the presence of Cushing, who adds an amazing air of credibility to the notorious baron. David Prowse also has an early role as the monster itself, and Terence Fisher, the man behind some of the studio's better works, is behind the camera once more. The storyline scarcely surpasses its predecessors (especially the supremely smashing "Revenge of Frankenstein") but it is worth the watch for those fans of Cushing's horror work.
Watch the Trailer
This ain't a Disney-fied take on Le Prince de Beaumont's classic, cautionary fairy tale. Jean Cocteau presents a film that may have lapses of logic, but is never devoid of phantasmagoric beauty. To give a plot synopsis would be moot, for most individuals are familiar with the tale of a woman falling in love with her inhuman captor (Stockholm syndrome at its mythical best). What is worth mentioning is that this is one of the most beautiful films in the history of cinema. Cocteau's knack for breathtaking visuals in "Orphee" was what lured me towards the film.
Jean Marais, the star of "Orphee" (and Cocteau's lover for a time), plays both the role of the garrulous Gaston, the egotistic hunter seeking Belle's affection, as well as the Beast. The makeup for the Beast is far more elaborate than the work Jack Pierce was doing with Lon Chaney Jr. across the ocean. The set design and costuming dazzle the eye as well, enhancing Cocteau's surreal take on the tale. There are elements to the story that seem to be lost in translation, making a few minor plot points a little perplexing, but I would liken the overall viewing experience to watching a good, foreign opera - while everything that's transpiring may not make complete sense, the production is so gorgeous you cannot turn away.
Watch the Trailer
This is one of the only films included in this ongoing list that I've watched before. In this situation, I include it only because I had a gathering of friends over to my home to watch it during the October season. I coupled it with "The Wolf Man," but I'm choosing to present only "The Old, Dark House" here because far too few film lovers are familiar with it. It's a shame really, for I think it's one of the best movies to come out of the Universal horror boom of the thirties and forties.
The film features two themes that are common to horror: a couple becoming stranded at a creepy manor on a dark and stormy night, and the subplot of a crazy relative locked in the attic of the home suddenly escaping. "The Old, Dark House" was the first film to feature these themes that have since been duplicated and butchered ad nauseum by decades of copycats. Here, our stranded travelers are Melvyn Douglas, Gloria Stuart and Charles Laughton, and our eerie hosts are Ernest Thesiger and Eva Moore. Thesiger and Moore plays Horace and Rebecca Femm, respectively, with wonderful, tongue-in-cheek glee. Horace Femm sets the scene as he greets his guests and then remarks "My sister was in the process of arranging these" before tossing a beautiful bouquet of fresh flowers into the fire.
Brember Wills is also one of the most terrifying villains in early cinema. With a scraggly beard and a twisted laugh, he jabs a knife into the table repeatedly in front of Douglas while soliloquizing on his studies of fire. "It's not hot at all, but cold as ice and sharp as knives." The film is probably overlooked because it doesn't feature a monster that could later reappear in numerous sequels (though Boris Karloff does appear as the Femm's alcoholic and lecherous butler), but it is a wonderfully atypical, early offering from a studio that made an early fortune on the horror genre.
Not a trailer, but a decent review
There are two genres of film that are terribly overdone in cinema today - angsty teen romance and zombie flicks. The first has been common theatre fare since "American Pie," where an awkward teen tries to get the girl, but his foibles and eccentricities get the best of him until the girl learns to love and appreciate him for those qualities. I suppose it could be argued that such characters have been around far longer (Corey Haim could play such characters to perfection in John Hughes films), but it's only become a trend in recent years to make such characters the driving force behind the plot rather than having them serve as comedic relief on the side. As for zombies...'nuff said. Seventy percent of the horror films released in this day and age have zombies somewhere and it's become a theme that's exhausted as vampires. However, the amalgamation of the two surprisingly worked.
I went in expecting to find the film predictable and mildly funny (I think I'm one of the few people in my circle of friends who found "Shaun of the Dead" too "by the books"), but instead, I was quite simply laughing my ass off. Woody Harrelson was tolerable, nay likable, as Tallahassee, a Twinkie-obsessed redneck who shacks up with a nervous, yet level-headed Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg aka "poor man's Michael Cera"...I kid!) in a post-apocalyptic world. Columbus finds himself pining for Wichita (Emma Stone), a foil to the duo, primarily because she's the only girl in a hundred-mile radius that will talk to him and isn't trying to devour his flesh.
At this late date, I don't think it counts as a spoiler to mention that Bill Murray also appears in the film in the most brilliant, self-parodying cameo I've ever witnessed. Tears of joy intermixed with tears of laughter as he chewed the scenery far more than the zombie hoards could. This was easily one of the more delightful surprises I've had in theatres this year, considering I went in expecting convention and tedium. Thankfully, I received neither.
Watch the Trailer
Third in the vampire series by Hammer films and second film released sans Christopher Lee, "Kiss of the Vampire" stands up fairly well against its predecessors. This time, the victims are a honeymooning couple (Gerald and Marianne) that decided that Bavaria is a prime place to experience a romantic getaway (I'm sure that was a fad that had a half-life of two weeks in the early 20th century). The pair are invited to a dinner hosted by Dr. Ravna and his family in their luxurious and ominous castle. Marianne is turned into a vampire shortly thereafter and Gerald seeks the help of Dr. Zimmer (Clifford Evans acting qua Dr. Van Helsing) to bring his bride back.
The vampires in the film reflect the trend that was stared in "Brides of Dracula," where blood-suckery is an allegory for the cold nature of aristocracy. The parties held at the Ravna Castle are reminiscent of the celebration staged during the final act of Corman's "Masque of the Red Death" - colorful revelry masked by an ominous shadow. Evans doesn't rival Cushing's Dr. Van Helsing, but he's still fun to watch (though not nearly as entertaining as a sinister Noel Willman as the insideous Dr. Ravna). I find it somewhat sad though, that the hedonistic debauchery of vampire films of the sixties and seventies has been utterly replaced by teen angst and empty lust in the modern entries in the genre.
Watch the Trailer
Twins of evil? More like quadruplets of evil! Mary and Madeliene Collison, a pair of identical Playmates, take up residence with their Puritan, witch hunting uncle, Gustav (Peter Cushing, full of his usual, entrancing braggadocio). As i s typically the case with twins (at least within film), one is good (Maria) and one strays toward the naughty side of life (Frieda). Frieda is lured by her own desires to castle Karnstein where she revels in the pleasures of satanic love and badda-boom: vampire! Now Gustav has two problems: one, he must deal with the vampire menace of the village and two, he must save his niece from both vampirism and death at the hands of his witch hunter brethren.
I think it goes without saying that there's plenty of "bait and switch" within the plot. "How do we know which one is the vampire?" Poor Maria keeps ending up in the hands of the witch hunters. The film ranks up with "Vampire Circus" and "Captain Kronos" in the way of Hammer films that deviate from standard vampire lore. Delightfully dark, decidedly entertaining and, needless to say, a definite guy guilty pleasure. It's been a month and a half since I watched this film, but I still recall that those babies stay clad until the hour and twenty-one minute mark.
Watch the Trailer
This was the last of the "original five" film noirs that I had yet to see. The very concept of Fritz Lang teaming up with Edward G. Robinson is a golden one. Robinson's Professor Lanley is an expert on the psychology behind the homicidal mind, but his wits are put to the test when he murders a man. The victim is the enraged beau of Alice Reed (played seductively by Joan Bennett), a model who met Lanley when she caught the lumpy professor ogling her portrait in an art studio window. While the death could clearly be justified as self-defense, Lanley lets his libido do the thinking and acquiesces to Reed's suggestion of dumping the body in the woods.
It doesn't take a genius to foresee the perfect crime going awry, but a unique twist presented is Lanley happens to be best buds with the detective assigned tot eh case. Lanley struggles to mask clues as quickly as they're discovered. While the film is atmospheric and clever, it left a sour taste in my mouth at the finish. The cause? Possibly one of the worst/cliched endings I've seen in a film noir (and that's taking into account that the entire genre is based around convoluted plots and convention). I saw it as a cinematic "Fuck you" to the audience that can only be dwarfed by the saccharine wedding at the end of "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" (though the big difference here is that Crystal Skull really didn't have any redeeming qualities). Research proved my hypothesis on the twist, comedic ending: it was studio intervention. Pity, for what could have been a dark and powerful finale is reduced to a gag denouement that instills disappointment.
Watch the Trailer
After a month-long hiatus of posting reviews (though not from viewing films), due to a deceased computer and knee injury, I shall endeavor to get caught up on my reviews with great haste, meaning I will struggle to be as concise as conceivably possible. Considering my circumlocutory ways, that might prove impractical though. Anyway, the Hammer studios production of the classic Gaston Leroux novel is a nice mix of the fanciful and the morbid (thanks to the expertise of Hammer veteran director, Terence Fisher), but it doesn't rival its predecessors. Well, namely, the 1942 Universal production starring Claude Rains.
Yes, the garish countenance of Lon Chaney Sr.'s role made the Phantom infamous, but Rains really generated sympathy for the character's plight. Herbert Lom dons the plaster mask opposite Michael Gough (who plays the opera-thieving, lecherous Lord D'Arcy) and while he executes the role well, he lacks the power of "presence" that Chaney or Rains commanded. This might be due to the script, which reduces the film's climax to a more altruistic end for the Phantom. The dash of treacle does not do this permutation any good in my mind, but it's still hard to dislike the film, simply because the source material is so good. Though I suppose the same could be argued that such is the case with Charles Dickens' immortal "A Christmas Carol," but that's not going to sway me to sit through two hours of 3-D, Carrey hijinks.
Watch the Trailer
Friday, November 13, 2009
Back on another "Hammer Films" bender, I decided to check out the film that allegedly sparked Christopher Lee's horror icon status (though he was in "Curse of Frankenstein" a year prior). While the film was entertaining, I was a bit let down by this rendition of Dracula. I think it's because I've had the image below burned into my mind since I was a child, peering at it on the back of VHS clam shells, expecting an awesome bit of vampiric badassery.
What I got was a laid back drama that made Tod Browning's 1931 version seem speedy. I'll assume that most folks are familiar with the Dracula tale, so discussing the plot here is decidedly unnecessary. An interesting alteration to the usual renditions is that the early portion of the film centers around Jonathan Harker's attempt to dupe the Count into believing that he is a librarian so that he can dispose of Dracula properly. But Dracula is wily, and Harker soon finds himself converted into a vampire. It's then up to Dr. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) to eliminate Harker, explain, tactfully, to Harker's fiance, Lucy, that her beloved won't be coming back, and then dispose of Dracula.
To be honest, I think a major reason why the film crawled is the distinct absence of Dracula. You'd think that if you're pushing Lee as Dracula that he would get more screen time. But as it stands, Dracula is in the film for approximately ten minutes of the whole film and receives about a dozen lines. Therefore, images, such as the one above, are not indicative of the film as a whole. Pity.
Watch the Trailer
Tuesday, November 10, 2009
After watching this film, it's likely that the most predominant thought rolling around in your nonplussed head is: "The French are fucked up." From Cocteau to Jeunet, the French have been trumping American cinema far longer than the Japanese. While they're the butt of countless "surrendering jokes," they undoubtedly have the last laugh when they see half of the movie screens in our country playing "Twilight." Well, in 1989, France also produced a film that was undoubtedly the answer to the talking animal indistry.
Don't act like you don't know what I speak of. Anthropomorphized animals have been popular since the dawn of Disney. Live action animal films are prime box office fare for toddlers with Kool-aid stained lips and their mothers who drag them in front of a screen in the desperate hope that a cat making butt-licking jokes will satiate her child's sugar-fueled insanity for ninety minutes. "Homeward Bound," "Benji," "Milo and Otis," "Beverly Hills Chihuahua," "Air Bud," "Cats Vs. Dogs"...the list goes on. "Baxter" is a film so atypical for the genre that it blows my mind.
Baxter is a cathartic bull terrier that dreams of having a master whose impulses mirror his own. Baxter enjoys refusing the compassion of his elderly owner and watching the young married couple across the street make love. Eventually he grows weary of his old crone caretaker and trips her on the steps, killing her. When another couple takes him in, he tries his best to make their newborn baby suffer a similar fate. Eventually, he ends up under the care of an aspiring neo-Nazi, who begins training Baxter to maim and kill his classmates. And Baxter is happy.
I love dark films, but this gets so heavy at times, I was left wondering if I genuinely enjoyed the film. I would liken "Baxter" with "Requieum for a Dream" when it comes to considering the film an enjoyable watch. Both titles are excellent, intriguing fare with moments of delightfully macabre humor, but they aren't films that demand frequent, repeat viewings.
Peter Lorre's first starring role, in Fritz Lang's astounding "M," no doubt left German filmgoers thinking, "Damn, that man's creepy." As Lorre's first American release film, the actor clearly wanted to make the same impression on an audience across the ocean. Certainly, his role as the genius surgeon, Dr. Gogol, could have easily been named Dr. Guignol for all of Lorre's bug-eyed brooding and nefarious scheming. The end result was Lorre became a permanent icon in horror just as Vincent Price did after his role in "House of Wax." While I can't speak for Lorre, I don't regard such typecasting with negativity. After all, if you're good at what you do, then why not exploit it.
Dr. Gogol is a classic, sympathetic villain. As is typically the case with such rogues, he's enraptured by the beauty of a stage actress, Yvonne. But the romance is not meant to be, for all his pining in the world cannot ruin her love for her husband, pianist Stephen Orlac. Ah, but when Dame Fate throws Orlac into a train accident, leaving his hands crushed, Yvonne has no other choice but to turn to her long-time admirer and brilliant surgeon, Dr. Gogol. Gogol gives Orlac hands that work, but they are the hands of a knife-throwing murderer, and when Orlac realizes this and begins to fear that those hands are developing a mind of their own, Gogol exploits this irrational fear in the hopes of driving Orlac mad and bringing him closer to Yvonne.
The "appendage gone awry" has been a plot contrivance for decades, but this might be the origin of the idea. Whether it is or not, it is one of the few times where it advances the plot rather than serving as the gimmick. As for Lorre, he sinks into the role of the tormented and scheming surgeon with glee, making "Mad Love" a refreshingly entertaining bit of classic horror.
Watch the Trailer
When it comes to films that can only be described as "dreamlike," Jean Cocteau's "Orpheus" is as hypnotic as "Eraserhead" is nightmarish. The story is entrancing and drenched with moments that are both eerie and beautiful. Even today, such a film would be considered avant-garde, so I can't help but wonder how mind-blowing it was sixty years ago.
While slightly more linear than other surrealist films, "Orpheus" still possesses enough of a disjointed plot to make a synopsis difficult. The tale is centralized around Orphée, a poet who witnesses a tragic accident and soon finds himself the target of affection for one of Death's close associates, Princess (Maria Casares). Princess takes Orphée's wife to the Underworld and Orphée retrieves her only to learn that he may never again look upon the face of his beloved for fear of losing her to Death forever.
Cocteau uses the Greek tragedy of Orpheus as his inspiration, but brings the tale into the modern day, using bikers as Death's reapers and the radio as a hellmouth for non-sequitur poetry. In addition, characters interacting with other characters on rear-projection screens, scenes filmed backwards and presented in reverse and other trick shots boggle the mind far more than current digital trickery. The result is a gorgeous slice of fantasmagoria that clearly laid the groundwork for the countless other surrealist filmmakers, such as David Lynch or Michel Gondry, that followed.
If I were to walk into my classroom tomorrow and ask my students to name a director and actor that frequently collaborate together, I'd probably find myself looking out across the same sea of blank stares that greet me every time I pose a query like "What function does a ribosome carry out in the cell?" Now, regardless of the question, there are those bastions of saving grace, and undoubtedly those few would respond: "Johnny Depp and Tim Burton." Go back and time ten years ago and ask me and you'd probably get: "Leo G. Carroll and Alfred Hitchcock," shortly before my ass is beaten for knowing too much about movies...by my mother. I kid. But for those who develop a penchant for what Werner Herzog has to offer, cinematically speaking, they soon learn that there is no duo more infamous than the German auteur and the rabid Klaus Kinski.
"My Best Fiend" is a dark, yet anecdotal documentary chronicling the foibles of the pair as they collaborated on one maddening production after the next. Herzog helms the project as he revisits some of the pivotal locations of his films, as if conducting a life journey. In a way, I don't suppose that description is far off. Herzog handles his subjects (himself and his deceased colleague) with more grace and tenderness than one might expect. It's as if the film is a partial vindication for the oft misunderstood Kinski.
Don't assume for a moment, though, that the production is laden with saccharine. Herzog recounts moments of Kinski's notorious temper, such as a two-day period where Kinski stayed locked in the lavatory and tore the room asunder. And, as one would assume, Herzog does retell (and clarify) the classic story of his alleged "directing by gun" on the set of "Aguirre: The Wrath of God." However, Herzog doesn't digress into the sensationalistic either. The documentary strikes perfect harmony between the gentle man and the anguished actor to instill the sense of awe for Kinski - a sense of awe that Herzog conveys that he, too, once felt for his past friend.
Watch the Trailer
Monday, November 9, 2009
My fascination with Peter Weir's "Picnic at Hanging Rock" and "The Last Wave" drew me to this film. I never realized that there was a subgenre within Australian New Wave that focused on the juxtaposition of colonial "civilization" and aboriginal mystique. Thank goodness there is, because I have yet to be disappointed, and I can only hope there are other works that fall into this obscure category.
The film opens during a cricket match at an insame asylum (ah, if only more films began like that...), when a new doctor at the facility (Tim Curry) is invited to keep score alongside the eccentric inmate, Crossley (Alan Bates). Crossley decides that he wants to tell the new doctor a story behind one of the match's players, Anthony Fielding (John Hurt). Crossley's story involves his slow but steady integration (or should I say infiltration) into Fielding's life. Fielding, an effects artist making a study of various sounds, welcomes Crossley in one afternoon for lunch, and before he knows it, Crossley is showing up at the home every day and going as far as to have a blatant affair with Fieldin's wife (Susannah York). When Fielding becomes confrontational, Crossley threatens to use "the shout" on him - an aboriginal bit of magic that will kill any living thing that hears it.
The sequence where Crossley demonstrates his shout is fabulous. He and Fielding walk for hours to find a secluded environment, and even though Fielding plugs up his ears with cotton and wax, he slips into unconsciousness during the demonstration as sheep and birds drop dead all about him. But to assume that these mystical powers are real is to give Crossley the benefit of the doubt, especially when he's clearly an unreliable narrator. There is more than one moment in the film where the story (and Crossley's concentration) is interrupted by the cricket match. When the tale starts back up, minor elements have changed. The complexity of the characters and the battle of wits unfolding between them is enough to interpret as it is, but throw an element of incredibility into the mix, due to the unreliable nature of the storyteller, and you've got an engrossing and thought-provoking film that demands multiple viewings.
Watch the Trailer
Saturday, November 7, 2009
I decided to take a break from all the murder, monsters and mayhem to indulge in a bit of Disneyfied treacle. So schmaltzy, in fact, that it even melted one of the many layers of ice covering my heart. There were also unconfirmed rumors that approximately one to two tears were seen in the vicinity of my eyes, though a lack of sufficient evidence has yet to yield any substantial conclusions.
Disney and Pixar rejoined forces to produce WALL-E, an anthropomorphic robot in the distant future. He spends every day cleaning up the trash-ridden world that was abandoned by humans centuries earlier. When a robot probe named EVE is sent in search of plant life, WALL-E is smitten and follows her across abandoned metropolises and space alike. WALL-E stows away on a survey ship that takes him to a giant cruiser that now holds the entire human race, and WALL-E soon becomes the target of the self-aware ship computer, for he possesses the one thing that would end the ship's tour of duty and return humans to Earth - a plant.
It's weird for me to think that all the cloying relationships in all the live action films in the world scarcely touch me, but when it comes to the animation medium, I'm a sucker. Perhaps its the melodramatic nature of the plots, or maybe it's just that the inner child in me is touched, leading to some bizarre, sentimental reaction. Either way, "WALL-E" is an endearing film that's positively gorgeous to behold and a testament that children's films can successfully appeal to and touch all ages if a solid script is there.
Watch the Trailer
Oliver Reed as a werewolf? Don't mind if I do. Reed, a delightfully flamboyant actor who is prone to chewing the scenery, is in rare, subdued form in his first starring role. While playing characters of a brooding nature became is forte in life, Reed portrays Leon Corledo, a peasant afflicted with the curse of lycanthropy, with a quiet, but tortured, nature that makes you truly sympathize with the character.
The overall film feels very much like a fairy tale, albeit one far darker than you'd ever tell a child at bedtime. Beginning in 18th century Spain, roughly fifty years earlier, the story follows a poor beggar who comes to the town of Santa Vera in search of food and drink. He ends up at the castle of the cruel Marquis during his wedding feast. The Marquis provides the beggar with nothing but wine, and the result is drunken entertainment for all the guests until the beggar unwittingly offends the Marquis. Twenty years he lives in the dungeon for his offense, becoming more bestial by the year, until the fated day that he rapes the daughter of the dungeon master. She flees, is found half-dead and pregnant by Don Corledo, and is cared for by the Don and his wife until she dies during childbirth. The result is a child that possesses the spirit of the wolf within his blood. In reality, this probably isn't too far from the true origin for Oliver Reed (speculation based purely on the actor's rakish lifestyle).
Anyway, the werewolf being nothing more than a surreal metaphor for the beast that lies within every man is a unique twist to an old idea. It's explained during the film by a priest that every man possesses such a creature deep within his soul, but Leon's is far more prominent due to his past. His only hope is that he will find a woman who can tame that beast, and so he does in Cristina (Catherine Feller). But love is as cruel as Leon's past, and when he becomes separated from his love, the beast emerges and blood is shed.
The makeup for Reed as a werewolf is fantastic. The alteration of his neck and torso takes him beyond the look of a man with crepe hair slathered on his face. No, extra flesh added to Reed's large frame makes him look positively bestial and intimidating. This rendition, added to the macabre love story/fairy tale tone of the film, makes "Curse of the Werewolf" one of the superior installations in the lycanthrope lineage.
Watch the Trailer
"Faces" marks my first entry into John Cassavetes territory. My "film geek" friends that I consort with have attempted entry into this world before, but had lukewarm receptions to the avant-garde director's works. So I braced myself for boredom at worst and indifference at best, but was greeted with neither. Perhaps it's because I chose a film that none of my cronies had viewed, or maybe the simple explanation that Cassavetes is more my taste would be fitting, but I relished "Faces."
The film scarcely possesses the standard narrative that most cinematic works did in the late 1960's, and with a central focus on the topic of marital infidelity, it probably pushed some buttons too. It's a cinéma vérité collection of seven conversations/scenes, beginning with the end of a stint of "innocent debauchery" between businessman Richard Forst (John Marley) and prostitute Jeannie (Gena Rowlands). Richard goes home, informs his wife Maria (Lynn Carlin) that he wants a divorce, and that night, the former couple go their separate directions to find sexual happiness (Richard with Jeannie and Maria with a young hippie played by Seymour Cassel). But the more the individuals in this tale seek happiness and contentment, the more it eludes them.
The bleak analysis of the disintegration of marriage and conventional relationships in America is nothing short of hypnotic. The performances of each character range from manic to introspective and it's easy to see how Cassel and Carlin both snagged Oscar nominations for their performances. I was surprised that John Marley was not nominated though. Marley spent most of his career playing bit parts and this feels like the proverbial "role of a lifetime" for him. He certainly puts his heart into it as if it is. Without the performances of the film's four major players, the impact of "Faces" would have easily been lost, but as it stands, John Cassavetes' commentary on social dynamics in America stands out as a wonderful piece of art.
Watch the Trailer
Over the years, Dr. Van Helsing has undergone as many permutations as Dracula. In Tod Browning's adaptation, Dr. Van Helsing is played with scholarly finesse by an aged Edward Van Sloan. Anthony Hopkins portrayed the doctor in Coppola's adaptation as an eccentric, dancing the fine line between insanity and brilliance. Jack Gwillim devoured the scenery as the vampire hunter during his brief role in "The Monster Squad." Hugh Jackman...um...no. But when it comes to Peter Cushing, I believe my friend Dave put it best when he said, "It's a Van Helsing you can root for." Cushing's Van Helsing is an action hero who relies on his intellect, reminiscent of Indiana Jones.
"Brides of Dracula" follows where "Horror of Dracula" left off. Dracula is dead, but his legacy continues through the Baron Meinster. The baron has been imprisoned for most of his life by his mother, the Baroness (Martita Hunt). But when young Marienne visits the castle, she takes pity and unlocks the Baron. The result is a trail of female corpses that later rise as vampires and take their place by the Baron's side. But as fate would have it, Van Helsing is in town and has no qualms about killing women.
Cushing is absolutely delightful, and Hunt is equally enjoyable, casting an impression of both elegance and impending doom whenever she appears on screen. The film also features a sequence where Van Helsing is bit and must overcome this obstacle if he's to defeat the Baron. I won't mention the outcome, but needless to say, it's the first time I've regarded Peter Cushing as a badass.
Watch the Trailer
Before the credits even roll, you're treated to the pedophilic killing of a waif by a vampire, ample tit shots and sex, followed by the gory disposal of said vampire at the hands of an angry mob. Such moments in film enkindle the inner thirteen year-old in me, resulting in a tiny voice at the back of my mind that need exclaim only one thing: "Cooooooool!" "Vampire Circus" can't be considered anything but a guilty pleasure film, but, ah, what a guilty pleasure at that.
The plot could best be summed up as: an adaptation of Ray Bradbury's "Something Wicked This Way Comes"...but with vampires. Count Mitterhouse is the bourgeoisie vampire that is slain prior to the film's titles, and upon his death, he claims that a plague will fall upon the residents of the village as punishment, and that he will, one day, be resurrected by the blood of those who took his life. The plague does come and soon the village is cut off from the world, like a lot of lepers, so you can imagine their glee when the circus comes to town (the term "circus" being used here, since "band of gypsies" would be more apt a description). Every night, the town's population is entertained by the metamorphosis of animals to man, hypnotic dances and other manners of black magic presented in a merry fashion.
I suppose the film could also be compared with "The Circus of Dr. Lao," for many elements of the circus lead to the demise of the original slayers of Count Mitterhouse in mildly ironic fashions, just as foolish patrons meet unexpected fates at the hands of Medusa or other creatures with Dr. Lao's show. The film is both dark and surreal, and it still pushes the envelope by today's standards (much less, by those of Britain in the early 1970's). Definitely a lot of fun!
Watch the Trailer
Thursday, November 5, 2009
It could be argued that the film's are nothing more than cinematic masturbation on the director's part. He takes the kitchy elements of the film genres he digs (blaxploitation, kung fu, spaghetti westerns, etc), pumps them full of steroidal violence and ties up his sequences of cruelty with dialogue that often feels to clever for its own good. But I'll be damned if this predictable and self-serving form of showmanship fails to entertain.
The story is centered around a pack of Jewish-American soldiers who are sent behind enemy lines to pick off as many Nazis as they can. The men accept this mission, headed by Lieutenant Raine (Brad Pitt), and together they terrorize the French countryside, torturing and scalping Germans with utter glee. In a parallel tale, Shosanna Dreyfus, the owner of a French cinema, will be welcoming the Nazi elite to her theatre for the premiere of Joseph Goebbels latest propaganda film. Unbeknownst to the Germans, she plans to burn down the theatre on the night of the premiere. Both missions inexorably begin to converge, but are also threatened by the actions of a sly S.S. officer, who is known for his Jew-killing revelry.
Now, before I say this, please keep in mind that I love the "Kill Bill" saga, as well as "Pulp Fiction," but "Inglorious Basterds" has will undoubtedly assume the rank of "favorite Tarantino film" in my mind. It's one of the director's more accessible films to the general public, yet it also regresses into one of the most violent climaxes I've ever seen; it was a moment that made me realized that Tarantino has become the new Ken Russell where excess for the sake of excess is concerned. One forewarning though - I was thrown off by my misconceptions as to what could happen based on history and found myself pondering how the film would accommodate itself to reality. Keep in mind that Tarantino's film brings only two words to mind: "Fuck history!"
Watch the Trailer
Just a forewarning - this marks the beginning of a very long, Hammer Studios binge on my part. The decision has come about out of a passion for horror films, stemming from the classic monsters (Wolfman, Frankenstein's monster, Dracula, etc). However, while the legacy set forth by Universal Studios is certainly the most prominent in the minds of many when it comes to the cinematic interpretations of these fictional creatures, Hammer Studios also invested a great deal of its time and money into these franchises. Many received more sequels than the Universal monsters ever did, yet I've managed to only see a handful of those in my lifetime. With the exception of "Curse of Frankenstein" and "Revenge of Frankenstein," I haven't seen most of the quintessential films the studio put out. My tastes have always been aimed at their more offbeat sagas ("X: The Unknown," "Quatermass and the Pit," "Four-Sided Triangle," etc.). Therefore, I felt the need to amend this sorely neglected aspect of my horror knowledge, and in starting with "Captain Kronos," I certainly kicked things off right.
"Captain Kronos" is an exceptionally unique film for a couple of major reasons. The first is it is an atypical "horror" film, bridging the gap between horror and action. It blends swashbuckling braggadocio with Gothic brooding in perfect harmony. Kronos (Horst Janson) is a nomadic vampire hunter, whose only close friend is a hunchbacked doctor named Professor Krost. They arrive at a village where virginal lasses are being drained of their life essence left and right.
The other unique twist to the tale is that it has a new take on the vampire legend. Krost and Kronos explain to the villagers that there are different breeds of vampire, just as there are great varieties of fish or bird. The notion that vampires can only come out at night and drain blood from the neck is an antiquated one to Kronos. The vampires plaguing the town feed only on the youth of girls, draining it from their lips during broad daylight. I thought this was delightfully refreshing, especially considering that vampires are often weaker than humans in the sense that they are not immune to sunlight, running water, garlic, crucifixes, etc.
There's one fabulous sequence where the town doctor begins to show signs of vampirism and Kronos begins experimenting with different means to killing the doctor in order to understand the lineage of vampire's he's fighting a little more. Stake through the heart - no dice. Hanging, flame - no good. But steel...Ah, that does it. So Kronos absconds with a large cross from a cemetery and Krost tempers it down to a sword for Kronos to use in battling the youth-draining vampires. What more can I say really? A lot of action and a lot of fun all around.
Watch the Trailer
Wednesday, November 4, 2009
For all intents and purposes, a good werewolf flick should not have me tapping at my foot, wondering how much longer it has. Especially when that film is scarcely over an hour. Ah, but such was the case with "She-Wolf of London" - a film that struggled to work lycanthropy into its plot. Phyllis Allenby (June Lockhart) worries that she's a werewolf when a series of murders begins in the park adjacent to her estate. She comes up with this notion with the help of her eccentric Aunt Martha, who believes there's a curse tied to the family. As a result, Phyllis descends into a private reverie of madness, severing her ties with the man she loves. Ah, but he's the dedicated sort and he strives to crack the mystery.
While there are moments of fair suspense and mystery, the majority of the film comes off as what it truly is: quick, low-budget fare. Lockhart, along with her fellow cast members (Don Porter, Sara Haden) seem to be doing their best with the material available. The problem is that the screenplay is rather flat. So much so that I find myself struggling to find something noteworthy about the film worth adding to what I've already said. I cannot, so there you have it.
Watch the Trailer
"The Hitcher." What a weird film to choose for a straight-to-DVD sequel. "The Hitcher" is a fairly obscure title as it is, and it's certainly not like it raked in a ton of dough. Not only that, but the original was also a film that not only required a great suspension of disbelief - it necessitated taking your disbelief, packing it in a box and shipping it across country (though, admittedly, "The Hitcher" is a guilty pleasure for me). And yet, here we are.
The sequel is entertaining enough, though it has two strikes against it. First, it requires an even greater suspension of disbelief than the original, which I can live with. But, that brings me to strike number two: Jake Busey is no Rutger Hauer. Hauer was positively intimidating in the first film. You had no doubt he was a serial killer (in either the film or real life for that matter). Busey? Not so much. He waltzes through the film with a puckish glee that seems uncharacteristic of the "Hitcher" character.
The premise is that he is the reincarnation of the devil that C. Thomas Howell's Jim Halsey was plagued by twenty years earlier. Howell returns as his character, along Kari Wuhrer as his fiance. Howell serves as a source of exposition (though unnecessarily so - after all, how many folks who have never heard of "The Hitcher" are going to buy a copy of "Hitcher II?") as well as a reason for the pair to end up back in Texas as he hopes to resolve the inner turmoil that's been plaguing him for the past two decades. After that, he's promptly killed and soon Wurher is pitted against Busey's "Hitcher." The film is mildly entertaining, but to me, all it truly accomplished was putting me in the mood to rewatch the original again.
Monday, September 21, 2009
This film falls into the loose category that so many modern horror films do - cool concept that doesn't live up to its potential. The creature that must be defeated in this film is not a monster in a true sense, but a fungus that infects living humans. The fungus grows in the form of metallic spikes and it only takes a puncture of one thin shard to infect you. Once that occurs, your body is no longer your own - your central nervous system is controlled by the primitive demands of the fungus, converting bodies, both living and dead, into unthinking, mobile creatures.
The humans pitted against this organisms are a happy couple celebrating their love with a camping trip, and another couple who hijack their car and take them hostage. The four end up at a gas station where the attendant has been infected by the fungus and soon they're holed up in this small station a la every zombie film ever made. The story conducts itself in a manner that can only be described as "predictable implausibility." A man's arm is amputated in a manner cruder than a scene in any "Saw" film, yet the victim lives, police show up randomly only to be destroyed...the usual cliches.
I can't deny though, that the creature concept was pretty cool. The fungus had the ability to join with itself and there's a neat scene where two corpses are joined by the splintering substance into one. Regrettably, you never see much of it, but a cool concept all the same. Severed limbs also serve the same threat as full corpses since the fungus can control all! There are some pretty cool special effects for such a low-budget film, but unfortunately "shaky-camera cinematography" was utilized in action scenes to prevent you from seeing too much (a tactic used to its fullest by Ridley Scott in "Gladiator" as well as every filmmaker since who didn't want the audience to get a genuine look at the action taking place...tsk, tsk). It wasn't the most unique horror flick, but I've killed time with far worse fodder.
Watch the Trailer
Sunday, September 20, 2009
Roger Corman's adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe pieces hold a fond place in my heart, for I have early memories of "Pit and the Pendulum" from my youth that later led to a rabid search for the rest of Vincent Price's collaborations with the B-movie auteur. "Tomb of Ligeia" and "Masque of the Red Death" are masterpieces of the macabre, despite limited budgets. But I was hesitant about catching "The Premature Burial" for in place of Vincent Price, we are handed Ray Milland as the tortured soul. My instincts were correct, for Milland scarcely has the "Gothic presence" of Price.
Milland is certainly capable of playing a tormented protagonist - his Oscar for "The Lost Weekend" is a testament to that fact. He can even "excel" at B-grade horror as his next collaboration with Roger Corman, "X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes" demonstrates. But the script doesn't seem to suit him in this situation. In fact, the script is the weakest aspect of the film. After all, there are only so many scenarios where a paralyzing fear of being buried alive can have a genuine influence on a man. Sure, all of Corman's Poe films are contrived to a degree, but not to the point that it mars the credibility of the lead (the "twist" ending is positively absurd, as well). So I suppose that Milland does his best playing Guy Carrell, an English nobleman who makes it his life's obsession ensuring that he will never be buried alive.
There is nice atmosphere to the film, evoking the same mood that the better installments generated. The repetition of "Molly Malone" being whistled in a haunting manner was a nice touch. Whistling is one of those small touches that can add great senses of suspense or dread and so often it's used in films as more of a whimsical element. "M," "Horror Express" and "Kill Bill Volume 1" all have moments where the eerie whistle of a character adds to the mood in a manner similar to "The Premature Burial." Also, my hats off to the brilliance of character Alan Napier, who was employed to play Milland's father-in-law. During the wedding scene at the film's start, a side character asks Napier if he is enjoying his daughter's wedding. He replies that he no longer experiences enjoyment - "...rather, I just experience greater and lesser degrees of tedium." A fabulous line that had me rolling.
Watch the Trailer
It's rare for me to watch a comedy and find myself laughing to the extent that my own chortles drown out the dialog on screen, but it happens. Such was the case with this British take on Gonzo reality. I suppose that referring to it as Gonzo might conjure up too much of a "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" image, though there are elements of that vacationing, hallucinatory madness afoot. It was more of a "self-realization" film, focused on a character coming to terms with who he is and where his direction in life lies just a bit later than many of his peers did (a theme that a somewhat similar film, "SLC Punk," handled rather well.
Our unnamed narrator and his rakish compatriot, Withnail, decide that the drudgery of their drug-addled, day-to-day lives needs shaking up, so they decide to escape deep into the pasture lands of rural England to indulge in drugs. But the kink in the works is the owner of their scenic cottage - Withnail's uncle, a flamboyant, retired actor who absolutely adores the narrator. So when Withnail's uncle "accidentally" ends up at the cottage as well, the old codger sets his sites on conquering the young vacationer.
Richard Griffiths, hands down, makes this movie. He seems to revel in the eccentric and licentious behavior of Uncle Monty. His constant attempts at seducing the narrator had me, for lack of a better word, howling with laughter. There are moments of subtle, euphemistic humor, such as asking the narrator if he is adept at handling meat while preparing a meal, to scenes of attempted rape as Uncle Monty drunkenly bashes down a barricaded door, bellowing "Boy! Don't pretend to sleep, boy! I know you're awake and I'll have you yet!" Richard E. Grant and Paul McGann have an entertaining, bickering friendship that has its surreal moments, but never seems to push the limits of reality. And despite moments as low as drinking lighter fluid, the two are endearing, giving a humorous look at the drug culture of the late sixties a heartwarming touch.
Watch the Trailer
I'd heard a fair amount of mediocre reviews regarding Hitchcock's last film prior to watching it. Perhaps lowering my expectations is why I enjoyed the silly caper. The story doesn't have the evocative power of "Vertigo" or "Rebecca," nor does it possess the edge-of-your-seat suspense of "Rear Window" or "Psycho." No, if I had to liken it to some of the director's other works, I'd say that it's definitely commensurate with "The Trouble With Harry" and possibly the zanier aspects of "North By Northwest."
The story is centered around the hijinks of a fraudulent psychic, Blanche (Barbara Harris) and her boyfriend (Bruce Dern) as they accept a commission from one of Blanche's regular clients - a wealthy, old widower. The assignment is to locate the widow's long-lost son so she can will her fortune to him. The problem? The heir (William Devane) doesn't want to be found, because his past is marred with murder and kidnapping. Needless to say, Blanche and her man stumble into a mess of trouble typical of most Hitchcock protagonists.
Despite some dark undertones, the film is, on the whole, light fare. Harris and Dern have entertaining chemistry on screen. William Devane channels Paul Lynde channeling William Devane as only Devane can. Karen Black does her multiple roles schtick that put her on the map in "Trilogy of Terror." How she can dupe others with her false identity with those eyes is a mystery to me and a mystery worthy of Hitchcock. Perhaps that could be his next proj...oh............ooooooh.
Watch the Trailer
Here's my plan if I should ever get a time machine - I would travel back in time and pick up some Crystal Pepsi and Barbeque Ripplins and catch "Dick Tracy" in theatres. That's it. I've seen too many sci-fi films that to be so foolish as to pull a "Sound of Thunder" move and do something so consequential as talk to my former self. However, if I did, I would smack my seventeen year-old self upside the head in 1998 and say "Go watch 'The Faculty,' damn it!" When the film came out, I shunned anything put out by Dimension because I was too busy absorbing myself in Kubrick and Vincent Price horror flicks. I was too snobbish to indulge in modern horror aimed only at my demographic.
It's a pity, though, for not only is this a damn, fun film, but it was released during my senior year, which was perfect timing. Of course, the big reason that "The Faculty" rises above the rest of its kind from the era ("Scream," "I Know What You Did Last Summer," etc.) is that it was helmed by Robert Rodriguez, who knows what it takes to entertain, whether he's directing a bloodbath or a children's film. The storyline is a touch "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," a touch "Night of the Creeps," and there are even elements of Bruce Coville's literary niche present. Nothing complex, mind you - the film is as surface-level as it seems. The school's teacher base is turning into aliens and it's up to a rag-tag group of students to stop them.
The student leads aren't terrible, but they don't stand out either, which is why the majority of them (apart from Elijah Wood and Josh Hartnett) have disappeared from the face of the Earth. The adult cast is another situation entirely, made up of a veritable character actor orgy. Daniel Von Bargen, Jon Stewart, Famke Janssen, Salma Hayek, Piper Laurie, Bebe Neuwirth, Susan Willis, Robert Patrick and a Harry Knowles cameo really do make the film. The rest of the film could have been an exercise in mediocrity and that cast would make it fun. Thankfully, the movie works on a lot of other levels (though, like most films of this ilk, it does have its fair share of gross implausibilities).
Watch the Trailer
Finally, a contrived film concept is executed in a manner that works. The overused plot? Two individuals, too eccentric for their own good, find love and friendship in one another through the very fact that they're enamored by one another's foibles. It's a staple synopsis of romantic comedies, dating back to the squirrely comedies of the thirties and forties, such as "Bringing Up Baby" to modern permutations like "Annie Hall" or my recently reviewed "Benny and Joon."
It's tough to say what makes this film work so well. One element is certainly the direction of Ken Russell, though his trademark excess is rather subdued here, replaced by the rakish nature of his main characters. Perhaps his focus on character development over surreal, visual digressions is a plus. The script is excellent and the performances by the leads are top notch. Scott Antony conveys a dizzying energy as Henri Gaudier, an obscure French sculptor who serves as Russell's focus in the biopic. Dorothy Tutin is equally incendiary as Henri's love and partner, Sophie.
The basic plot is quite similar to Russell's other biopics ("Mahler," "The Music Lovers," etc.), placing the focus on the subject dance along the fine line between genius and insanity. But while he portrays Gaudier as a wild, callous and egotistic artist, you're still fascinated by the talent he effortlessly exudes. For example, early in the film, Gaudier suggests an art dealer drop by his studio, bragging about a new, nonexistent piece of sculpture he has lying about. The dealer calls his bluff and promises to visit early in the morning. Gaudier leaves the party, absconds with a marble tombstone from a local cemetery and carves it into a beautiful work overnight, amidst his self-proclaiming ramblings. When the dealer cancels his meeting the next morning, Gaudier casts his new sculpture through the gallery's plate glass window. Antony almost seems to be channeling Michael Palin at times in his performance, but never to an obnoxious degree. I was surprised to learn, after a bit of research, that he was featured in a couple of minor roles after this film ("Savage Messiah" being his first performance), did a bit of stage work and disappeared. It's a shame, considering the potential demonstrated on screen. But speaking of stunning performances, Helen Mirren costars and is naked for approximately half of her screen time. Perhaps that's why I found the film so enjoyable...
Lycanthropy, vampirism, reanimated corpses, hunchbacked dames and insanity...all these things were what lured me into the science field as a youth. I suppose I was no different than the standard six year-old that aspires to be a cowboy or astronaut when he grows up. It's just that my doe-eyed dreams involved me becoming a mad scientist. Regrettably, there are no institutes of higher learning that offer degrees in delirium with minors in biology (unless you count the Word of Life Bible Institute's creationism program - Hey-oh!).
Here's a film that delivers a promise more golden and misleading than any of the other horror fodder I enjoyed as a youth. Dr. Edelmann is a scientist researching fungi in a Gothic castle with his saucy, hunchbacked nurse, when Dracula (David Carridine) arrives and reveals to the doctor that he's been slumbering in the castle's secret crypt. Dracula wants to be cured and Edelmann sets off to find one. Shortly thereafter, Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) is captured by the police and turns into a werewolf in his jail cell. Edelmann asks if he can have him, much as a child would ask for a puppy in a store window, and the police agree. After the third night, while trying to cure Larry with the help of the villager hoard (headed by Skelton Knaggs), Edelmann discovers the Frankenstein monster in a series of cove caves, which just so happen to connect to his recently-discovered crypt. And then he goes insane.
The ludicrous nature of this all makes this film quite fun. Old Doc Edelmann has to be thinking "Holy shit! Pay dirt!" when he goes from the banal study of fungal spores to having a vampire, wolfman and a reanimated corpse all inside of his castle walls (which also have a crypt and catacombs) in less than 72 hours. Too bad he goes insane. Bound to happen, I suppose. I do have to mention that one of the best "Dracula moments" in any of the Universal installations takes place when Dracula approaches Edelmann's assistant (Martha O'Driscoll) as she plays the piano. He begins to stare at her ominously, and soon she finds herself playing a haunting piece of music unknown to her. Eerie, yet effective. I was actually surprised that I enjoyed this better than the prior installment, "Son of Dracula." My assessment is that "Son of Dracula's" greatest fault is that it took itself too seriously, a quality that "House of Dracula" thankfully never strives for.
Watch the Trailer
It's Mortal Kombat: the Movie before "Mortal Kombat" was ever born! Flying weapons and over-the-top fight sequences galore, this is both a quintessential martial arts flick as well as a nice, little guilty pleasure. To make logical heads or tails of the plot is an exercise in futility, but being a school teacher by second trade, I excel at executing frivolity.
A blind assassin is bound and determined to vanquish his sworn enemy, the one-armed boxer who killed his followers. The assassin hones his skills by killing every one-armed man he happens across, utilizing the weapon that you know is coming...the FLYING GUILLOTINE! In one swift move, an opponent is beheaded, leaving the master of the weapon to revel at your decapitated body...assuming he could see it. The one-armed boxer, who's now running a martial arts school, spearheads a fighting tournament in the hopes of flushing out the assassin. Several eccentric fighters later, including one whose arms possess "Stretch Armstrong" powers, the blind killer shows himself.
It's clear that this was one of the prime pieces of cult fodder that influenced Tarantino's creation of the "Kill Bill" saga - so much so that he even uses excerpts from the theme music during "Volume One." The film possesses none of the grace and complex story lines that modern masterpieces, such as "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," or "Hero," do. But rest assured that there's enough absurdity to satiate your inner ten year-old.
Watch the Trailer
This film reminded me of a comment I once heard my friend Lee make, in reference to his first viewing of "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" during its original, theatrical release. To quote: "It's bad when you're watching an Indiana Jones movie and you find yourself looking at your watch." The same could be said of me while viewing one of Hitchcock's later projects. While there are clever sequences and artful shots, the film is very dry and essentially devoid of that trademark Hitchcockian suspense.
The focus is the Cold War, much as it was in "Torn Curtain." This time, the film begins with a defector who tells an American CIA agent (John Forsythe) that there are confirmed relations between Russia and Cuba, and that there's a spy within the French intelligence. The CIA utilizes French agent Andre Devereaux (Frederick Stafford) to do their dirty work, from investigating the link between Russia and Cuba to sniffing out the mole in his own organization. Philippe Noiret and John Vernon have entertaining, albeit brief roles as a glutton in the French agency and a feisty Cuban politico, respectively.
I suppose it's a bad sign when even Hitchcock doesn't know how to end his film. The endings were shot for "Topaz," none of which feel gratifying. Some critics argue that Stafford was a poor choice for a leading man because he scarcely had the presence of other Hitchcock regulars, such as Stewart or Grant. I suppose that's true to an extent, though I felt that Stafford did the best he could with a weak and convoluted script. As I mentioned in reviewing "The Wrong Man," while I appreciate Hitchcock's desire to branch out as a director (as he strives to do here), I still say: "If the formula isn't broken, then why try to fix it?"
Watch the Trailer
There are very few adaptations of Shakespeare's works that I find genuinely enjoyable when executed. I don't blame the source material per se, though the dialect can be tricky for those attempting to speak it when they really don't understand what it means. As a result, many productions come of as emotionless "readings" of the play in question, for the actors saying the lines aren't conveying the emotion behind the meaning of the words. I've found over the years, that the British excel at really bringing the Bard's prose to life. Perhaps it's cultural.
So you can understand my hesitancy when it came to watching Leonardo DiCaprio (milking his 90's heartthrob image) belt out Shakespeare. Surprisingly, it works. Had the production been set in 16th century Italy, I think the story would have fallen flat. Thankfully, Lurhmann injected his own unique breed of showmanship into the tale, placing Verona smack-dab in the middle of Mexico (the fictitious Verona Beach looking like the architectural love-child between Mexico City and Rio). Other permutations, such as giving the guns brand names like "Rapier" or "Sword" and reducing Queen Mab to a hit of Ecstasy, enhance the modern settings.
While the film's two leads, DiCaprio and Claire Danes, aren't exceptional, they ain't bad neither (if I'm permitted to coin such a phrase while reviewing Shakespeare). Pete Postlethwaite M. Emmet Walsh and Paul Sorvino devour much of the scenery, as is typically their want...especially Sorvino. Ah, but even Brian Dennehy eases into his role as the head of the Montague clan. So even though the story of Romeo and Juliet has seen the light of stage and screen countless times, it's nice to see that in the proper hands, it can still feel fresh.
Watch the Trailer
Every review that's been written for this film in the past fifty years or so has been absolutely glowing. Critics hail it as an overlooked, under-appreciated classic, a breathtaking epic, etc. All this retroactive fanfare intrigued me, especially when you take into account the film's mediocre reception by the British media at the time of its release (Churchill sought to have the film banned from theatres for its portrayal of Nazism). However, I hate to admit it, but I failed to see what the hype is all about.
The comic character "Colonel Blimp" is seen in the guise of a mustachioed British general of prodigious girth, known as Clive Candy (Roger Livesey). He begins his anecdotal soliloquy/flashback after his temper is incited by a braggadocio young soldier who attempts to take the good general "prisoner" hours before a war game is slated to start. The tale visually waxes on in a nostalgic fashion from the point of view of a seasoned man, who has endeavored to live his life with the utmost chivalry, now disgusted with the disrespectful and rakish nature of "today's youth." Being a sentimental bastard myself, I can appreciate this theme within a three-hour epic that sprawls across three wars.
My issue is that I found Clive Candy more pompous than endearing at many points. For example, the film starts out after he returns from the Boer War after winning the Victoria Cross for gallantry. This accomplishment is left dubious as Candy decides to taunt a group of German officers out of personal spite towards one officer known to him. The incident grows out of hand, Candy ends up insulting all of the German officers and soon finds himself locked into a duel. I suppose that in 1943, audiences nodded in satisfaction as he gave those krauts what-for, but I couldn't help but note that the predicament he lands himself in is essentially his fault. Therefore, it's hard to sympathize with the fact that he's in trouble. Furthermore, twenty minutes is spent outlining the rules and regulations for the duel, and providing exposition behind Candy's German opponent. However, when the time comes for the actual sword battle, the camera pans up from the sparring pair and out of the building, eliminating the action and substituting it with the subdued sound of blades clacking as we watch Candy's suitor (Deborah Kerr), anxiously wait outside.
In fact, I was amazed that a three-hour Technicolor spectacle depicting the life of a war hero, a British general that's allegedly as gallant as they come, didn't feature a single action scene. A duel and three wars, but no battles to be found. Rather, we're only treated to moments in Candy's life when he lectured others on the proper way to conduct war, love and all things British. While it is a worthwhile theme worth addressing, I felt like the dead horse was severely beaten here. As a result, I found the film to be less a character study and more a caricature study.
When I discovered "Dementia" at the beginning of the year, I was blown away by how unique, stylized and evocative the film noir was. The very concept of a complex story told without a shred of dialogue was ballsy to me. Imagine my surprise then, when I learned that "Dementia" was not the original film noir to use this premise. There was another tale of intrigue told without a single line spoken, and not only that, but it was also created three years prior.
Ray Milland stars as a nuclear physicist who engages in research by day and moonlights as a spy for an unnamed foreign power by night. It's clear from the get-go that Milland's Dr. Field's is a nervous-natured character who wants out of the espionage game, but doesn't have the gumption to tell his cohorts to take a hike. But when one of the members in the spy ring is killed in a moment of pure circumstance, microfilm containing the photos shot by Fields traces the authorities to his place of work, sending the prominent physicist on the run.
The problem with "The Thief" is that it never builds a great deal of suspense and I had trouble sympathizing with Fields. Furthermore, his character struggles to make things right and that turn of heart makes the story too treacly. I like my noirs like I like my humor - dark. "Dementia" was beyond dark - it was downright nightmarish, and the surreal concept of telling a story dialogue-free seemed apropos to the style. With "The Thief," the abstract, "Silent" angle felt wasted in a by-the-numbers script. "The Thief" is not a terrible production by any means, but if it can be said that it influenced the creation of "Dementia," then I certainly think the minds behind "Dementia" learned from their predecessor's mistakes.