Monday, March 30, 2009

Day Seventy-Two: Genesis (2004) - Rank 4/5


From the Big Bang to modern day, "Genesis" has it covered. And while the title might indicate that the film takes a Christian point of view towards the events, it's a natural world-themed excursion. That should come as no surprise since it was written and directed by the creative team behind "Microcosmos," a 1997 documentary that explored the insect world. There is a spiritual tie-in though, for the film is narrated by a seeming African shaman, sitting before a campfire. As he weaves a tapestry of folklore and fact, we see the action take place on screen.

The film is gorgeously shot - the footage of animals is some of the most breathtaking I've ever seen. The combination of music and animal imagery is almost hypnotizing, reminiscent of Reggio and Glass' all-too-brief "Anima Mundi." Then again, I'm a sucker for films that are practically dialog-free - and almost story-free as this film is. They take cinema to a level higher than that of simply telling a story - it's about sharing an idea. While the narrator is speaking a distinct language, the visuals of primitive Earth and its inhabitants engaged in their daily lives need to translation , especially considering how artfully they're edited together. Movies like this are then reserved for no particular audience, for they speak to all nationalities alike - a characteristic most filmmakers never strive for today.

Watch the Trailer

Day Seventy-One: Twin Peaks Season Two (1990- 1991) - Rank 3.5/5


, the first season of most television shows is looked back upon as mediocre, when compared with following seasons. The first season of "Twin Peaks" set the bar pretty damn high and I didn't see how it could be topped. It wasn't. Don't misunderstand me and think that I found the second season unenjoyable - not so. However, the second season was very uneven and at times, quite lackluster, which disappointed me a bit after being left nonplussed by the preceding season.

The series quickly diminishes in intrigue and, as a result, interest, once Laura Palmer's killer is discovered and subsequently dealt with. This left over half of the season for two new themes. The first was the revenge scheme of Jean Renault (played by the chameleon-like Michael Parks). This tale was short-lived, and thankfully so. The second was the battle of wits between Kyle MacLachlan's Agent Dale Cooper and his former mentor, Windom Earle (Kenneth Welsh). This storyline started to acquire more depth and complexity than its predecessor, but was prematurely ended due to the end of the series.

The loss of David Lynch as a primary writer and director certainly had its impact on the second season (he still kept his name involved). The series became more outlandish, making the exaggerated characters of Twin Peaks seem less credible/believable as time went on. That, and there was the working of Project Blue Book into the series, giving the show an X-Flies air. Thankfully, season two was buoyed by the gratuitous cameos that peppered its episodes (classic character actors like Miguel Ferrer, Royal Dano, Dan O'Herlihy, Frances Bay, Tony Jay and David Warner). The final episode certainly seemed as schizophrenic and rushed as the finales to Lynch's last two films, so I suppose it's only fitting on that account. Still, it seemed an undue and low-key end to such an amazing series.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Day Seventy: Watchmen (2009) - Rank 4.5/5


This is the first film I can recall in quite some time that has left viewers so divided. There is one contingent that finds the movie nothing short of intolerable. This group is primarily comprised of two types of individuals. People who are completely unfamiliar with the graphic novel and walk in expecting another "Spiderman," "X-Men," and the like, only to be sorely disappointed, and diehard fans of the graphic novel who can't accept the fact that changes were made. The second contingent loves the film, and I do happen to be a member of the latter.

Zack Snyder has "filmed the unfilmmable," not only flawlessly recreating panels from the novel with scenes in his film, but also making practically every shot gorgeous to behold. The complex, three-hour film explores a number of themes, primarily about the ambiguity of "right and wrong" in the grand scheme of the world's workings. The cast is superb and the special effects are stunning. Even the soundtrack stands out, ranging from exhilarating to satirical at times (I love the use of Philip Glass pieces from "Koyaanisqatsi" for Dr. Manhattan's origin story). While many deride the film for its length, I felt it could have been another hour in length (which, as I've been informed, is an opportunity that will be available once the film hits DVD).

The problem with any adaptation is many fans of the original story are absolutely dogmatic about what they expect to be covered and addressed in the film. Any time I become embroiled in such a discussion, I have to make two points. One: not everything in the original story can be translated to the screen and Two: not everything needs to be translated to the screen. Form my standpoint, I am content with a film as long as it captures the basic spirit and essence of what the source material was about, a goal that Zack Snyder easily hit within his film. So many individuals forget that a film adaptation is always an interpretation of the director. That director has the right to percent the story in whatever manner he/she chooses. I have great respect for Snyder after watching the film because it's blatantly evident that he endeavored to make as loyal of a cinematic recreation of the novel that he could. Furthermore, he is a director that has tackled three "touchy, fanboy domains" with his initial films - George Romero scripts, Frank Miller and Alan Moore. As a result, he's both one of the most lauded upcoming directors, as well as one of the most despised. In all honesty, I've been impressed with what I've seen thus far, and I curious to see what his future projects have in store for theatres.

Watch the Trailer

Day Sixty-Nine: Dance of the Drunk Mantis (1979) - Rank 3/5


Kung-fu flicks is one of the great genres of film that is primarily comprised of guilty pleasures. Sure, some might have elaborate plots, but most, such as "Dance of the Drunken Mantis" have storylines that only serve as a basic (and sometimes weak) excuse to introduce ample fighting/action sequences into the film And why not? That's the primary reason you're watching the bloody thing. You want action, not story structure (the same logic seen in porno scripts). Thankfully the film, like so many of the ilk, provides plenty of just that.

Starring in the film are Hwang Jang Lee (a taekwondo expert who often worked alongside Bruce Lee or a young Jackie Chan) and Simon Yuen, who reprises his role from the recently completed "Drunken Boxer." Yuen is a master of Drunken Mantis (an amalgamation of fighting styles) and must defend his title from Lee's "Rubber Legs." 'Nuff said. Many of the fighting scenes are choreographed in a near-slapstick manner, adding great comedic touches to the action. While comedic kung-fu would become prevalent in cinema much later (Stephen Chan's works have certainly introduced it to American audiences), this seems like one of the earliest experiments in the blending of the two concepts, making it an entertaining watch for more than just awesome fighting.

Watch the Trailer

Day Sixty-Eight: The Call of Cthulu (2006) - Rank 4/5


Like Alan Moore's "The Watchmen," H.P. Lovecraft's "The Call of Cthulu" has long been hailed as an unfilmable story. Despite this label though, the film adaptation holds the same suspense of the text while remaining loyal to the storyline. The near-ergodic tale starts with an inquisitive lad at his great-uncle's deathbed. He's being sworn to destroy a manuscript that was in his great-uncle's possession for some time. Naturally he reads it and the film flashes back to his his great-uncle as a youth, first discovering the manuscript. As the great-uncle begins to read, we're treated to another flashback, going up level after level until we finally get to three core stories: a discovery of a strange statue, its presentation to a group of archaeologists and a sighting of a terrifying creature at sea. Then all the flashbacks quickly collapse, the film ends and you may now begin your analysis of the piece for film class. Essay must be 5,000 words in length.

The eerie theme of the film is one of obsession and over-analysis. The three incidents, while distinctly correlated through basic theme, may not be related enough to point to the actual existence of a terrifying creature known as Cthulu. Yet this information continues to madden one curious investigator after the next as the manuscript changes hands. If the beast is truly one of the imagination, nothing more, then it truly gains immortality as the tales change hands and its visage works its way into the minds of the innocent. So in another regard, it could be seen as a social commentary on the prevalence of myths in our culture and how some manage to persist over the decades, despite a changing environment.

As "Brand Upon the Brain" endeavored to do that very same year, "The Call of Cthulu" is intended to be a tribute to silent films. I found it far more accurate and visually pleasing. The makeup on the actors, the conventional camera shots and lighting are all reminiscent of productions from the 1920's. While some scenes were clearly shot digitally, for the better part, the film has a sense of authenticity. And to choose such a complex story to adapt with this filmmaking style is nothing short of ambitious for a production company's debut.

Watch the Trailer

Day Sixty-Seven: Mademoiselle (1966) - Rank 4.5/5


In the first half an hour of “Mademoiselle,” we watch the school marm of a peaceful French hamlet set fire to multiple farm fields, flood another farm, poison the town’s drinking water, harass her students needlessly and run a church procession. Now that’s my kind of woman. But the titular Mademoiselle (for it seems that no one in town knows or calls her by any proper name), is not doing these acts out of her enjoyment for violence. These impulsive and destructive acts are spawned from a deep-seeded and highly repressed lust for a transient, Italian lumberjack.

While Mademoiselle rarely speaks, despite the fact that the camera is rarely away from her, you’re never left wondering what she’s thinking or feeling. Jeanne Moreau plays the role with exquisite subtlety, barely cracking a grin as she watches the lumberjack, Moreau, acts the town hero, stripping off his shirt to plunge into a flood to save cattle or to run into a burning home to save children. Her eyes carry a depth though, that allow you to understand everything she is feeling and craving. Quite often the camera is set tight on her face for prolonged shots, drawing you in to her voyeuristic realm of intrigue.

“Mademoiselle” is a film that operates proficiently on a number of levels, going beyond a macabre love story. It explores the realm of xenophobia, as well as the mentality of the mob (exacerbated by the incompetence of the local police).. Certainly the townspeople endeavor to exact justice commensurate with that of the criminal underworld in Fritz Lang’s “M.” Furthermore, the dark aspects to repressed sexual tension are definitely explored as Mademoiselle finds release through sociopathic acts. It’s then nothing less of a profound achievement when all of these themes, with minimal dialog, are interwoven perfectly in a beautifully shot tale.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Day Sixty-Six: The Nomi Song (2004) - Rank 4/5


Ever since I first learned about the brief existence of Klaus Nomi, I've been fascinated in this surreal icon from the early 1980's. A performer capable of reaching notes so high, they seem to defy the physical abilities of man. An individual so bizarre that many regarded him as some sort of alien - including himself. "Nomi Song" traces Nomi's humble beginnings as a pastry chef in the East Village of New York to a near sensation after performing as a backup singer for David Bowie on Saturday Night Live. The bizarre nature of his music absolutely has to be heard to be believed. While distinctly a representative of the early 1980's to a certain degree, there are many qualities about his singing that can only be described as "otherworldly."


If interested in learning more about Nomi, as I was, then "The Nomi Song" is certainly a must-see. There is a bevy of archival footage, featuring Nomi on stage as the slow evolution of his character takes place. However, the documentary has it's limitations, too. The primary aspect it seems to bemusing is examination. We're shown all the atypical characteristics to Nomi's life, but director Andrew Horn never seems curious enough to delve into the "why." To me, after you introduce Nomi and his world, the most logical thing to do would be to uncover the method behind the madness, so to speak. Why did he take on the specific persona he did? What were his relationships with the fans like? What were his insights on his own career? While many of these questions can never be answered since Nomi died 25 years ago, Horn could have taken a different approach to the interviews of Nomi's still-living friends to determine the crux behind his character. Horne did not choose to do this though, and so, in the end, we are given a fair amount of information on the performer, yet are left with more questions than we started with.

Watch the Trailer

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Day Sixty-Five: Jesus Camp ( 2006) - Rank 5/5


When I watched this for the first time, I was waiting for my shift to end out after staying up for almost 38 hours without sleep (due to various work commitments). In a great effort to stay awake, I flipped this on and not only was I instantly drawn in, but any sense of fatigue was quickly replaced with discomfort. I suppose that for those who've seen the film, they would agree that to label this as one of the more terrifying films made in recent years (certainly the most unsettling documentary I've ever seen). The focus of the film is an objective documentation of children at an Evangelical Christian camp in North Dakota.

The camp is headed by an individual named Becky Fisher, who is shockingly straightforward about her motives, stating that she and other Pentecostal worshippers are well aware of the impressionistic nature of children. They see children as their truest assets and if they mold them into the adults they want and do so with enough over time, then when those children become adults, they will be the majority and vote the way their religion deems fit (the now-disgraced Ted Haggard reiterates her points later on). Far more eerie than this mindset of what children should be are the kids themselves.

There is something highly creepy about watching six-year olds babbling in tongues, arms outstretched towards the heavens and tears streaming down their eyes. Just as unsettling are those about to hit their teens - children already prepped to become ministers and teach others about the "right way to worship the Lord." Fascinatingly enough, filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady never present this documentary with an intended message. They simply pointed a camera at an element of our culture that many might not be aware of (I knew that culture existed, but never to that degree). The viewer is then left to justify whether its simply freedom of religion or sheer madness. Either way, the footage within could certainly be a badge of pride for the Pentecostal or evidence of brainwashing for others (whichever extreme you prefer). As an individual from outside that world looking in, I suppose that I'll sound sadly adolescent by summing up my impressions into one, fricative phrase: "That is some fucked up shit!"

Watch the Trailer

Day Sixty-Four: Waltz With Bashir (2008) - Rank 5/5


The is definitely one of the best films I've seen in theaters this year, and one of the best "animated" films I've ever viewed as well. It follows Ari Folman a war veteran and filmmaker as he tries to make sense of the dreams/flashbacks he's been having of his time served in the Lebanon War. Each new colleague visited shares his dreams or nightmares with Ari, and those visions often bleed over into reality, creating a beautiful, yet surreal world.

At it's heart, "Watlz With Bashir" (Israel's first, feature-length animated film) is a quasi-documentary, intended to illustrate (double entendre intended) the consequences of war on the soldiers involved - of the regret or repression of memories that can come to pass as time progresses. As Ari struggles to make sense of his own reoccurring vision, pieces slowly fall into place and you find yourself both wondering and worrying about what images his mind has gone to such great lengths to repress.

There are many elements of this movie that certainly would have been tough to watch/swallow had it been live action. The process used, a mix of cel and Flash animation, has a unique look all it's own. The choice to animated the film was a superb one, allowing the screen to be filled with some gorgeous artistry while depicting some of the horrors of war. In my mind, if a movie can take a topic so sensitive as repressed trauma and the slaughter of civilians and turn it into something beautiful to behold and utterly moving, then it truly is a superior piece of filmmaking.

Watch the Trailer

Day Sixty-Three: The Animation Show 2005 (2005) - Rank 3.5/5


The first Animation Show thankfully arose in 2003 (the brainchild of Mike Judge and Don Hertzfeldt), replacing the defunct Spike and Mike Animation Festivals in the way of animated short fare for the big screen. 2003's animation show was very hit and miss - segments either seemed outdated and crude or they were exceptionally well done. The 2005 collection is far more even paced with a greater diversity of contributors and a higher level of professionalism and creativity exhibited in the work. Bill Plymton's "Guard Dog" was a short that stood out for it's dark wit over the others and the Australian "Ward 13" is one of the most predominant in my mind after watching it for the sheer complexity of the stop-motion animation with clay figures (some of the best work I've seen done with "true clay" since the likes of Will Vinton or Art Clokey.

The standout work (as was the case in the 2003 collection) is Don Hertzfeldt's "Meaning of Life." I highly respect Hertzfeldt for his animation style, because he continues to grow and tell different stories. It would certainly be easy for him to cash in on the popularity of the absurdist humor of his Academy-award nominated short, "Rejected." In fact, he does so in the 2003 Animation Show by having two of the minor characters from "Rejected" acts as hosts (the second segment - "Intermission in the Third Dimension" is one of the funniest bits of animation I've ever seen, primarily because of the silly concept. A two-dimensional being "tripping out" from wearing 3-D glasses). The 2005 Animation Show lacked these hosts, and I think it suffered a bit, because in the first compilation, their commentary helped tie the entries together as a "presentation" rather than just a "collection." However, it's pleasing to me to see evidence of filmmaking styles, from claymation to cel animation, still alive and well in this day and age when the general population expects computer generated animation and nothing more (bloody sots).

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Day Sixty-Two: Man On Wire (2008) - Rank 4/5


I'd been vying for "Encounters at the End of the World" to win Best Documentary ever since I first saw it last July (for I love Herzog - even when he's taking tongue-in-cheek approaches to interviews by asking about prostitution and insanity among penguins, for example). After seeing "Man on Wire" though, it's easy to see why it universally swept the documentary division at every award ceremony.

To best describe the film, it's one of the most exhilarating and nerve-wracking caper movies that isn't a caper movie. Rather, it's the account of one of the most awe-inspiring stunts to take place in recent decades. Absent of any "Jackass-like" jocularity, commercial hype by the media or conduction under the watchful eye of medical professionals, Philippe Petit walked a high wire from one of the World Trade Towers to the next dozens of times until finally being arrested. His reason for doing so, the manner in which he and his friends smuggled in loads of equipment and the subsequent legal and media frenzy are all covered during the documentary.

However, at the heart of the film is a closer look at a dreamer. Petit explains how he yearned to wire-walk from one tower tot he next the moment he learned about the construction of the towers. Then, despite all odds and warnings from loved ones, he risks everything, including his life, to perform on a stage before all of mankind and God. James Marsh does a fabulous job of direction. Despite knowing the eventual outcome of the event, Marsh manages to build genuine tension through recreations of the set-up and quick editing between interviews. As a result, you find yourself holding your breath when Petit steps onto the wire for the first time and you're left with a pleasant dizziness after the film ends as if you, too, were hundreds of feet up, looking down.

Watch the Trailer

Day Sixty-One: Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party (2005) - Rank 3.5/5


It's common knowledge among my friends that I have a penchant for character actors. So much so that any time a film is recommended to me or others by my friends and it happens to have half a dozen of such thespians, it's colloquially referred to as a "Beau wet dream" (a bit of slang that's both funny and unsettling at the same time). I'm not sure why I'm big on character actors. It could be that character actors have the freedom to be cast for their eccentricities rather than suppressing them for a role. It could also be versatility. Whatever the reason, give me R. G. Armstrong, Catherine O'Hara or Jonathan Pryce any day over Brad Pitt or Paris Hilton. That's why a documentary surrounding a prominent character actor in Hollywood - Stephen Tobolowsky - sparked my interest greatly.

I held off watching it, because I originally wanted to spoof the premise (not the film) for my own movie, "Callus' Birthday Party," back in its early stages where I wanted to combine this film's premise with that of "Cloverfield." Ultimately, the Lynchian nightmare that emerged was far from both.

The documentary was shot in a similar vein to one of my favorite documentaries, "Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary." The film is driven by stories - anecdotes - and frequently the camera is set point blank on the subject's face. There's no distraction of cut away shots to still images or stock video, it's just the person on screen talking directly to you as if you were sitting right in front of them (which, in a way, you are). I guess you could refer to it almost as informal documentary filmmaking. Stephen, like Traudl Junge of the aforementioned documentary, is a master raconteur, drawing you in with vivid anecdotes and great wit. The audience is treated to some of his best tales as recounts them for the camera, and them later at his birthday, to his guests.

A project like this could easily be viewed as self-indulgent or egotistic, but it never comes off as such. However, at best, I feel like the only purpose to the film is it's the director's way of saying, "Hey, I know someone cool. Check it out." If there is some other purpose to the documentary, whether it be a character study of Stephen or something more, it's never made clear. It's simply a collection of great stories told by a single person. My only other issues were that the party guests simply sat around in a semi-circle, quietly listening to Stephen as he talked (giving the film a sense of artificiality) and that I felt like the anecdotes never tied up as neatly as they should, leaving the ending feeling premature (or long overdue - I'm not sure which). Still, Stephen's anecdotes quickly draw you in and hold you until the end in an almost hypnotic manner, a quality certainly absent in many interviewees in lesser documentaries.

Watch the Trailer

Day Sixty: Delicatessen (1991) - Rank 4/5


Jean-Pierre Jeunet, in my opinion, is one of the most prominent French directors working today. When you sit down to watch one of his films, you have no doubt that you're viewing a Jeunet film, for his sense of cinematography, art direction and story are so distinctive (Patrice Laconte would be another fine example). I've enjoyed everything he's directed over the years, including his first Hollywood "I need money" project - "Alien: Resurrection." So when I finally got around to his first feature film, "Delicatessen," I'd already set the bar pretty high. While the film failed to disappoint, it didn't impress either (though once again, acceptability for the high standard I hold his films too still leaves this title in the realm of being classified as a good film).

The story is set in an overcast, dystopian realm where food and friends are scarce, so even the most ethically sound d individuals are not above cannibalism. Jeunet regular Dominique Pingon takes center stage in this story as an out-of-work circus clown who answers a butcher's advert for an assistant. The butcher is played by Jean-Claude Dreyfus, another fun, Jeunet regular. I will say one thing for Jeunet - he has a knack for picking individuals with unique appearances and/or screen presences. The butcher, apart from being the obvious character who slices up transients, is also landlord of a tenement building. Each apartment is filled with customers and/or potential victims. The story follows the romance between Pingon and the buther's near-blind daughter amidst all the Rube Goldberg chaos that is distinctive of the director's storytelling.

The main element that separates this film from his other works and easily identifies itself as one of his early works is the mass confusion that occurs for both the characters and the viewer as to what is happening in the end. Typically, Jeunet's endings are the culmination of half a dozen subplots or more, neatly closing as they intertwine with the main story. In "Delicatessen," the relationships between some characters seem stretched and the involvement of other characters seem almost unnecessary. There are a couple of characters who meet grisly fates and rather than their deaths seeming fitting, they seem premature or unwarranted, as if Jeunet (and frequent cowriter Marc Caro) couldn't figure out where further they could take them. Messy ending aside, a fair Jeunet film is still better than most "good films" churned out in America these days.

Watch the Trailer

Day Fifty-Nine: The Blues Brothers (1980) - Rank 3.5/5


There are times in my life when I reflect back upon a movie favorably, not necessarily because it was a good film, but because there was a fun or unique experience attached to it. The night of my going away party from the Village Eight, whereupon all attendees recreated the race from "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" as they went from the theatre to the host's apartment on the deserted streets of St. Matthews, is marked with a fond memory of the group "MST3K-ing" "Equinox." I found "Polar Express" enjoyable, because I was recuperating from an injury and was doped up on hydrocodone. Plus, it was in 3-D. My first viewing experience for "Blues Brothers" was as a midnight film, sitting next to my friend whom I've gotten to know through the midnights, Kevin. Kevin had won the Halloween costume contest before "Dead Alive," earning him his personal film pick. His manic laughter throughout the film quickly became contagious, and his taunting of the Rocky Horror attendees across the hall was nothing short of hilarious. "You've chosen poorly..."Blues Brothers!"...don't make me douse you with Cheese Whiz!" Good times.

The movie itself wasn't bad, though I'm not a huge fan of John Belushi (and I guess studio execs aren't either since I haven't seen him in anything for a while...Boooooo!). However, the standard zaniness that accompanies John Landis films was present, which kept me entertained (especially the manic car chases which hailed back to the grindhouse racing films of a decade prior). The film was peppered with dozens of fantastic cameos, from musical guests like Cab Calloway and Ray Charles, to character actors like Charles Napier or John Candy. My personal favorite role was that of the head of the Nazi clan, played by the ever-brilliant Henry Gibson. There was one scene where he was show to be painting a model of an eagle with gold paint, while smoking a corncob pipe and listening to classical music while surrounded by Nazi paraphernalia. I damn near fell on the floor laughing from the amalgamation of silly imagery.


As for the Blues Brothers themselves, I'm not sure what's so funny about them. In the absence of their musical guests and guest stars, their role is minor and humor is pretty absent (though, once again, I'm not a Belushi fan). That, and the plot is fairly shaky. Thankfully though, the scenes with only the Blues Brothers on screen are few and far between, which kept the movie, and myself, rolling.

Watch the Trailer

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Day Fifty-Eight: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) - Rank 5/5


For anyone who knows me well, it's no surprise that I'm not a fan of remakes. Rehashing the same plot over and over diminish the imagination and originality that can be present in many good films. Not only that, but many studios remake a film that had a director whose style is distinctive (Hitchcock, for instance. "Disturbia" I can kind of see the logic behind, but Gus Van Sant's "Psycho?" Come on, now. And don't even get me started on Michael Bay's "The Birds" remake). Still, there are a few remakes that are comparable with or enjoyable as the original - typically horror films. I suppose that with other genres, such as drama, they're tougher to remake since they're more performance driven. Horror films are often story, or in lesser cases, scare, driven. That, and horror films are often cheaper, so two qualities that tantalize the slothful and overly cautious studio execs, who would rather add another entry into a worn franchise than risk financial loss with something original.

The premise of the 1978 film is the same as that of its 1956 predecessor: people are slowly being replaced by emotionless clones while they sleep by giant, pod-bearing plants. Both films thrive on paranoia rather that "shock scares," though the 1978 version of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" takes the disturbing nature of a plant that can bear forth your doppelganger to a new level with awesome and unsettling special effects. Horror films of the 1980's are often times characterised by amazing and amazingly visceral, practical creature effects. In fact, on the topic of acceptable remakes, three other shining examples of both fun scripts as well as great effects would be John Carpenter's "The Thing," David Cronenberg's "The Fly" and whoever directed "The Blob" remake's "The Blob."

The film boasts a great scene where Sutherland dozes off out on his penthouse terrace and four pods begin to bloom and produce the duplicates of the film's other three stars, Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright and Brooke Adams (aka: Poor Man's Jessica Harper). The scene lasts almost five minutes as a tremendous, flesh-colored flower regurgitates forth a placental mass that pulsates and oozes as the raw mass of tissue begins to take shape. Great stuff. The film has been remades twice since with the 1993 "Body Snatchers" and 2007 Nicole Kidman film "The Invasion." I can only assume that they'd be intolerable for the simple fact that they lack cameos by Kevin McCarthy (for if there's anything that "UHF" and "Matinee" have proven, it's that cameo roles by the zealous character actor are the earmarks of a great film). Though I'm sure my students would be fine with such films, for they've often voiced that anything in black and white should be remade because: "Why should you watch black and white when you can watch stuff in color?" I weep for our nations future.

Watch the Trailer

Friday, March 20, 2009

Day Fifty-Seven: Melody Time (1948) - Rank 3.5/5


Over the past few decades, Disney has become renowned for bringing classic stories to life through animation. In fact, the studio, in recent years, has become so synonymous with fairy tales and talking animals/things (i.e. "Aladdin," "Beauty and the Beast," "The Little Mermaid," etc.) that any film in its canon that does not fit this mold seems almost like a fluke. "Melody Time" certainly would be an example, for rather than telling a feature-length, linear story, it presents a series of vignettes. Furthermore, each short is presented to the song stylings of a popular artist from the era. Roy Rogers narrates the tale of Pecos Bill in one short, while the throaty Frances Langford belts out "Once Upon a Christmastime" in another.

I'd seen most of the shorts presented in this anthology at one time or another, mixed into various collections of cartoons on the Disney channel. For example, the latter piece mentioned above, which features a pair of New England lovers out for an ice skating date that goes awry, was a quintessential selection in most of the Disney channel's Christmas compilations (back when Disney actually showed Disney cartoons/films instead of pimping talentless, purity ring-bearing tween idols qua alleged musicians...and George Lopez?). However, there were a couple of segments I hadn't seen in their entirety before, one being Freddy Martin's rendition of "Flight of the Bumblebee." The mix of manic, big band swing and the hallucinatory animation (which had to have been animated by the same individuals behind Dumbo's "pink elephants trip") were the perfect combination.

This was the last of Disney's package films where individual segments featured different musical artists. I can't help but wonder what sort of films the studio would have turned out had it continued this type of filmmaking up until today. Any installment from the early seventies would surely be wild, while anything from the late eighties would be appalling, yet dear to my heart for sentimental attachment. M.C. Hammer performing the theme song to "Darkwing Duck" (or worse yet, a combination of "Marsupilami" and Madonna in her "I'm Going Bananas" mode...SHUDDER). It could be worse though - it could be the inevitable 2009 combination of all the popular Disney record artists...the Jonas Brothers, Miley Cirus, Randy Newman and...George 3-D.

I couldn't find a trailer, so just check out the best segment, "Flight of the Bumblebee"

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Day Fifty-Six: Hot Fuzz (2007) - Rank 5/5


Hands down, this is one of the funniest films I've seen in a long time. I never caught it in theatres because of my reaction to Winter and Pegg's previous collaboration: "Shaun of the Dead." While I found the film enjoyable and moderately humorous, I never understood the hype behind it. As I watched it, I felt like I could see the two purposefully manipulating the film to make it the perfect formula - as if they created a checklist of every staple to be found in a horror/comedy/zombie flick and ticked items off as they generated the script. I didn't see it as any better or worse than its best American counterparts, the Evil Dead series (or Return of the Dead), I just felt like it didn't cover new ground.

"Hot Fuzz," on the other hand, I found to be highly unique, because on many levels, it never sets out to be a comedy at all. An overly-decorated Sargeant Angel (Simon Pegg) is sent to a small hamlet, nestled quietly in the middle of nowhere, is partnered with lummox Constable Butterman (Nick Frost)and comes near to dying of boredom when a string of "mysterious accidents" start arising. Winter and Pegg made one of the most self-indulgent action films I've ever seen (rivaling Tarantino's entire body of work for zany violence), and in doing so, their product became so over-the-top that it was nothing short of hilarious. They made mountains out of the trivial, raising a grocery store manager (Timothy Dalton in his best role since "The Rocketeer" to the level of a Bond villain in Angel's eyes), and legitimized judicious judo kicks to the faces of octogenarians. To better describe the exaggerated, action-based world in which they live, I will liken it to "Jack Slater IV" (the film within a film in "Last Action Hero" - a Schwartenegger flick that endeavored to be what "Hot Fuzz" is, but fell short)

Excess for the sake of excess almost always works, in my mind. Baz Luhrmann's "Moulin Rouge" would be a prime example, as would Peter Jackson's "Dead Alive." Both director's started out small, but rose to great heights from their early works ("Hot Fuzz" being a tremendous leap forward from "Shaun of the Dead"). For that reason, I'm curious to see what the Winter/Pegg pair will churn out next.

Watch the Trailer

Day Fifty-Five: Nothing But Trouble (1991) - Rank 3/5


Considering this film was written and directed by Dan Aykroyd, all I can say is: that guy can be pretty fucked up. The plot doesn't make much sense; Chevy Chase and Demi Moore (whose performances often come off as stilted in the film) are a couple arrested in the small town of Valkenvania and are brought to the local justice of the peace. The 106 year-old Judge Valkenheiser sentences the couple to a stay in his courthouse/prison/funhouse and generic antics ensue. Despite this seemingly blase storyline, I found something endearing about the film. I think it was that I felt a bond to Aykroyd.


It's clear to me that Aykroyd tapped into what I refer to as his "inner Callus," named after my freakish alter ego Callus (if you're genuinely unfamiliar of whom I speak, check it). It's when you allow an entertainingly grotesque character to come forth, conquering any shred of your real personality and disturbing all around you. Some other that would serve as prime examples for undergoing this transformation would be Mike Myers as Goldmember in "Austin Powers in Goldmember," Danny Devito as the Penguin in "Batman Returns" and Amy Sedaris as Jerri Blank in "Strangers with Candy." (Ayllene Gibbons deserves a definite honorable mention as Mrs. Joyboy in "The Loved One," though I have a terrible feeling that her role wasn't far from the truth).

Judge Valkenheiser crashes about in his motorized chair, mutters incessantly and devours foods in the most disgusting manner possible. Aykroyd seeks out to make you laugh because you feel uncomfortable when watching his character. Since that same, basic concept was what I had in mind when I created "Callus' Birthday Party," I completely appreciate what Aykroyd set out to do. When I think about the film we could make with our crazed egos put together, the mind reels. Heck, he's not really up to much right now. Maybe he'd be down. Though upon meeting him and discussing the film, I would have to ask what on earth was up with the two, fat twins...ugh...

Watch the Trailer

Day Fifty-Four: The Shuttered Room (1967) - Rank 1/5


Let it be said that H.P. Lovecraft and Oliver Reed cannot save a film. Primarily because, in the case of "The Shuttered Room," an atmospheric, taut Lovecraft piece is reduced to a trifling film with the pacing of a bad Russian play and Oliver Reed just showed up, regrettably sober, to collect a paycheck (to buy more booze). Thankfully Reed is in the film, because he makes it watchable with some mild-mannered hamminess (though a horrific "Irish???" accent), but this is pre-Ken Russell Oliver Reed, so it goes without saying that his trademark scenery chewing is dreadfully absent. As is any sense of tension or suspense.

The plot is a familiar one - a character returns to the town of his/her childhood (in this case, that character is Carol Lynley) and it turns out there's a family curse. Gig Young plays the ever-so-sensible husband who disregards everything as superstition with an expert degree of wooden acting that makes Ben Stein's most languorous roles seem as if they're auditions for the part of Ricky Roma in "Glengarry Glenn Ross." The script is so trying I dozed off during my first attempt to watch the film and regrettably had to try again. Ugh...I typically try to look for some positive in a film, but I couldn't find any here. The funny thing is I've read over some movie message boards and a lot of people consider it a classic horror film. My question to them would be: "If it's so popular, then why couldn't I find an image of the original poster?" The closest I ever came was the foreign one sheet you see above. Just sad.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Day Fifty-Three: Mo (aka Boxer's Omen) (1982) - Rank 5/5...or 1/5


Upon reflecting about this film, I'm reminded of the words of writer/director Alejandro Jodorowsky when he said: "I ask of film what most North Americans ask of psychedelic drugs." Certainly, if you've ever seen any of his films, be it "El Topo" or one of my personal favorites, "The Holy Mountain," you know him to be a man of his word. But "Boxer's Omen" God...Okay, I won't lie. I watched this for the first time while down and out with a merciless virus...with a fever...and on a lot of Nyquil Hardcore Sinus PM...with extra drowsiness. Still, to label this film as a fever dream is an understatement and to dismiss my addlement as a product of an over-the-counter drug-induced delirium can only be considered a cop out. There aren't enough drugs in the world to help process this film.

This is one of the most bizarre films I've ever seen - so much so that I have no clue what it was about. The best I could interpret is it's about a boxer who loses a match, becomes the reincarnation of a monk killed by black magic, defeats a witch and then goes back to normal at which point he wins the rematch...I think. The movie comes back to me in fragments like a bad dream. Your mind does it's best to suppress what it saw, but chunks keep floating to the surface of your conscious like flotsam on the water's surface. There was the monk covered in moving Chinese symbols, the floating, glowing, upside-down "V" that pulsed as it taunted you, two different bat skeletons in different locations both controlled by a man rhythmically tapping bones and spitting, a shrieking demon that emerges from a puddle of vomit, lots of glowing eyes and blood...

This is one of the worst and most incomprehensible movies ever made (hence the 1 out of 5) or one of the most brilliant movies ever made, because I cannot fathom its meaning (hence the 5 out of 5). If you want to split the difference and call it 3/5, you can. Either way, SEE IT! You won't believe your eyes. I'm done with this thing, now.

Check out a Trailer/Film Clip

Day Fifty-Two: Fitzcarraldo (1982) - Rank 5/5


A fascinating character study and beautifully shot, this film also stands as a testament of the great lengths some dedicated directors will go to in order to realize their vision on the screen. The titular character, portrayed by longtime Herzog collaborator Klaus Kinski, is a quixotic individual who has aspirations of building an opera house in the middle of the rainforest in order to introduce the "uncivilized" to the beauty of Caruso's classical works. His zeal for opera is evident from the initial scene where he and his girlfriend arrive just in time for a performance after rowing up the Amazon River in a canoe for hours. Fitzcarraldo hatches a hare-brained, "get rich quick" scheme to help him fund his dream; he must reach an untapped field of rubber trees deep in the heart of Peru, isolated by impassible rapids and too far from civilization to make access by land practical. His solution? Go upstream in an adjacent river and cross over the mountains so that the claim can be staked. The problems? A disloyal, thuggish crew, a lack of funds, deadly jungle native and the obvious: lugging a steamboat over an entire mountain without damaging it.

Kinski is absolutely wonderful as the positively delusional Fitzcarraldo, reminiscent of Baron Munchausen. And like Munchausen, an air of magic seems to follow him, often times that magic being produced by the sounds of Caruso or Waggner emanating from his photograph to calm "cultured man" and "savage" alike. Constantly clad in a three-piece white suit (in the middle of a South American rainforest, mind you), he exudes a sense of inexorable self-confidence that aids him in convincing the natives to help him lug his steamboat over a large summit to the adjacent river. Simply put, Werner Herzog creates an enthralling and endearing character study of an undeterred dreamer of the grandest sense. Despite the trials and tribulations Fitzcarraldo must grapple with, his smile and love for opera (as well as the overpowering desire to instill this love in others) never depart from him.

I became intrigued about the film after first hearing about it in "Incident at Loch Ness" of all places (for it served as ample material for mocking Werner Herzog). When I heard that Herzog had actually drug a vintage steamboat over a mountain in the rainforest for the sake of authenticity to his film, I was nonplussed. I won't beat around the bush - it takes balls to commit to such an undertaking all for the sake of filmaking. In this modern day and age, studios would force a filmmaker to settle for computer-generated effects or, at the very least, model work. However, Herzog was committed to bring his own vision to life and set out to make one of the greatest on-screen marvels ever documented a reality. This brings the film to an even higher level, for not only is it an astounding achievement on celluloid, Fitzcarraldo and his impossible dream are also an extension of Herzog and his goals for the film. Every bit of the technical prowess, dedication and, well, love behind the film is evident in the movie, making it a quintessential film for the director, as well as the industry as a whole.

Watch the Trailer

Day Fifty-One: Milk (2008) - Rank 4/5


Before I caught "Milk," I had confidence that Mickey Rourke stood a good chance for winning the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in "The Wrestler." That notion was dissolved once I saw Sean Penn's uncanny portrayal of Harvey Milk. The biopic follows Milk from his humble beginnings as a store owner in San Fransisco to his status as an individual of national notoriety as the first gay man elected into office (and subsequently, his assassination). Bang up performances by Josh Brolin, Emile Hirsch and James Franco (who's endeavoring to break the heartthrob icon as Heath Ledger did with his performance in this film as well as "Pineapple Express"). I could still make an argument that Mickey Rourke would be a fitting "dark horse" candidate for the award, because it is equally as compelling. However, there is one major difference that separates them and that is the source material.

While the role of Randy "The Ram" Robinson is a challenging task, there are many elements of the character that are reminiscent of aspects of Rourke's life. To a degree, he is playing himself - albeit an exaggerated form. As for Harvey Milk, that is not only a role that is unlike Sean Penn or any of his previous roles (it's the very antithesis of his last award-winning role in "Mystic River"), but it is a part that carries with it the high expectation of paying homage to a passed individual. That latter element tends to push actors to a higher level where they embody a role rather than play it (other recent Best Actor wins for Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles or Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote come quickly to mind).

Furthermore, the film could easily be compared with fellow Best Picture nominee "Frost/Nixon," for both focus on major events from the late 1970's (as well as featuring leads that served as powerful political figures during that decade). Upon reflection, I feel that "Milk" is the superior of the two, because "Frost/Nixon" seems tightly focused within it's own word of the duality of the two leads (and rightfully so, considering the material). "Milk" captures the very essence of the era far better than I've seen it depicted in some time - a country leaving behind the Vietnam War, filled with individuals spawned of the counterculture of the 1960's now struggling for identity. The focus shifts from New York to Florida to Washington D.C. and always back to California, giving the viewer a sensation of what is taking place nationwide - far more so than Ron Howard's "Frost/Nixon."

This marked the first time since 2005 (Best Picture: "Million Dollar Baby") that I've had the opportunity to see all five films nominated for Best Picture prior to the Academy Awards. My feeling then (and still now, despite knowing the outcome) is that "The Reader" was the best film of the year. The character analysis and development through secrecy and the painfully tragic love story both felt new to me and was flawlessly directed by Stephen Daldry (who is now three for three when it comes to nominations of his films - the previous two being for "Billy Elliot" and "The Hours"). "Frost/Nixon," as I mentioned two posts ago, I felt could have been better replaced by "Doubt." "Slumdog Millionaire," while an excellent film, was the tried and true "boy meets girl, loses girl and then overcomes adversity to get the girl in the end" tale I've seen many times. I do think it was the best directed film of the five, but over-hyped when it came to being regarded as Best Picture. "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" was certainly deserving of the nomination for the scope of the picture, though as my friend Bennett correctly identified, it pulls too many cues from "Forrest Gump" to set it above the others. "Milk" could have been a "dark horse" candidate, but it's strongest attribute, Sean Penn's performance, was what it was deservedly rewarded with in the end.

Watch the Trailer

Day Fifty: Kansas City Confidential (1952) - Rank 4/5


I received this DVD free from my friend Tobin about seven years ago, and believe it or not, I'm just now getting around to watching it. I was hesitant of watching it primarily because it was put out by Alpha Video, an indicator that the film was not only public domain, but the print quality would probably be low-grade. Not that I have anything against public domain films per's just that typically if a movie is even halfway decent, a studio will try to hold on to or obtain its rights. Imagine my shock when I was genuinely impressed with what "Kansas City Confidential" had to offer. It makes me wish that a studio would remaster the film, much like Kino International did for other public domain classics like "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" or "Metropolis"

The story kicks off with a perfect bank heist. The robbers wear masks before and after the robbery to conceal their identities from one another - a move orchestrated by the ringleader (Preston Foster). A young Lee Van Cleef and an even younger Jack Elam play two of the three rogues. They split up and agree to reconvene later to divvy up the loot. Meanwhile, ex-con Joe Rolfe (John Payne) is falsely accused of masterminding the caper. He's soon freed by the police, but it doesn't matter, because at that point, he's lost his job and what little reputation he had is ruined. So he sets out for revenge, trying to work his way up the chain of command to the boss. While he has an advantage over the other members of the gang (they never knew one another's identities, so he can easily take one of their places), he also suffers from the fact that none of them can give him any leads for the same reason. It's a complex plot, filled with a number of twists and set-ups, and is exceedingly well-written for an obscure film noir. Certainly many aspects of the film feel like they were inspiration for Tarantino's "Kill Bill." I suppose my only regret with this film is that I didn't partake in it sooner.

It's public domain, so you can watch the whole film for free here.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Day Forty-Nine: Frost/Nixon (2008) - Rank 4/5


Skeletor as Richard Nixon? Yes, long-time Character actor Frank Langella shines as Nixon and deservedly received ample nominations for his portrayal. It always makes me happy when an oft-overlooked veteran receives recognition. And I should note that with Langella's performance is less an imitation and more a reincarnation. Michael Sheen is equally as convincing as David Frost, and admittedly I was unfamiliar with this actor prior to the film. Undoubtedly, this film probably put him on the map for many filmgoers and studio execs alike, so I suspect he'll become more prominent in Hollywood - at least for the next couple of years.

As for the film, I thought it was a great battle of the minds depicted on screen. But the battle is an unusual one. At first, Frost and Nixon start out with the same goal in mind: to be in the spotlight once more. As the film progresses, Frost realizes his goal is selfish compared to the ultimate duty he has before him, which is exposing Nixon for who he really is. David Frost's redemption then becomes the theme and we find ourselves presented with a classic underdog story - a story enhanced by its connection to actual events. Frost, the playboy and movie interviewer, is to go up against one of the most controlling and erudite personalities he's ever met. Many of his colleagues regard his interview as a publicity stunt, or simply a joke, and Frost must overcome his own insecurities and faults to gain redemption for himself and to bring the truth about Nixon's dealings to light.

While an excellent film, I question its nomination as Best Picture by the Academy. I felt that "Doubt" should have rounded out the top five, especially since its principle cast members were all nominated for Academy Awards. That, and I didn't feel that the film was fresh coming only a scant two years after "Good Night and Good Luck;" I felt like "Frost/Nixon" was certainly reminiscent of its theme and style. Still, am I disappointed or angered that it received a nomination? No. As I said before, it, like "Doubt," was an excellent screen adaptation of a stage play. I just felt the latter did so with greater success.

Watch the Trailer

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Day Forty-Eight: Freaked! (1993) - Rank 3.5/5


This is a film where I can't help but wonder: "How did this ever get made?" It falls into a subgenre of a subgenre of film where the movies are so utterly bizarre and beyond comprehension that it seems ludicrous to think that a studio executive ever gave it the go-ahead. Some prime examples from this realm would be "Reflections of Evil," "Street Trash," "Desperate Living," and "The Wizard of Speed and Time."

The premise is absurdly simple: a Hollywood hearthrob Ricky Coogan (Alex Winter - Bill of "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" fame) and a pair of his friends take a wrong turn and end up at Elijah C. Skuggs' Freak Show. Skuggs (played with tongue-in-cheek glee by Randy Quaid) uses the same chemical that Coogan was in South America to promote as a mutagen to turn him into a disgusting freak (oh, novel irony). The rest of the film follows Ricky and the rest of Skuggs' homemade freaks as they attempt to escape the freak show. Delightfully absurd would be the best way to sum the entire premise.

What sells the film, pushing it from a C-grade to a B-grade film are the freaks. The Human Worm, Cowboy (half human/half cow) and even Ricky's ultimate transformation are fantastic, like something the Chiodo brothers would come up with while on acid (Skuggs' security guards, the Rastafarian Eyes, may be the most absurd of all the characters). Bobcat Goldthwait's appearances as Sockhead continuously take the cake throughout the film. Certainly the film is no masterpiece, but in the realm of mindless, guilty pleasure comedies, you could certainly do far worse.

Watch the Trailer

Day Forty-Seven: The Keep (1983) - Rank 1.5/5


There are so many elements to this film that should be right. First of all, it's an adaptation of F. Paul Wilson's "The Keep," an amazing, horror novel about Nazis vs. a demon (crudely put). The head SS officer, Major Kaempffer is played by Gabriel Byrne and Ian McKellen is placed in the role of Professor Cuza, the Jewish expert in the history of the keep that the Nazis must depend on for salvation. Perfect casting on both roles. Mix all that with Michael Mann at the helm and you're guaranteed gold, right?

Wrong. The film adaptation of the novel is incomprehensible and, to be perfectly blunt, boring. Even as Nazi soldiers are murdered (most murders that are elaborately described in the book are never seen in the film), the film seems to crawl along. This is quite the conundrum, for entire portions of the novel, sections that are pertinent to the plot, were excised. As a result, there can be no tension, for all the fruitless attempts of the Germans to halt the murders are never even referenced. I'm realistic enough to know that no movie ever truly lives up tot he expectations of the fans of the original story source. However, I'm perfectly content with a film if it captures the mood of the source material. There's simply no atmosphere to speak of here.

This was Michael Mann's first, big-budget endeavor, so perhaps he was overwhelmed by the entire film. That, or it became as studio-manipulated as David Lynch's "Dune." I doubt it though. What exists of the film is scarcely impressive. From bad lighting (it's impossible to tell what is occurring in some scenes) to Tangerine Dream's intolerable score, I had to genuinely force myself to make it to the end. For that, I'm saddened to say that this might be the worst adaptation of a story I've ever seen (though "The Wicker Man" with Nicholas Cage might take the cake there - I'll never know because I'm not masochistic enough to view that dreck). Just thinking back to it angers the blood. If you're having trouble experiencing what I am as I type this, just think back to how you felt after watching "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" for the first time. At least "The Keep" didn't have CG prairie dogs...

Watch the Trailer