Monday, June 29, 2009

Day 142: My Man Godfrey (1936) - Rank 4/5


Out of all the actors in history, I don't think anyone has drank more on screen than William Powell. There were many actors who were lushes off screen, but on screen, I think Powell would rival even Oliver Reed. Well, Powell doesn't disappoint as he kicks back until he tumbles down into a Hooverville in this light-hearted comedy of manners. The film kicks off with a scavenger hunt with the creme of society scrambling desperately about for knickknacks. Cornelia and Irene Bullock (Gail {Patrick and Carole Lombard) travel to the local dump in search of a "lost man" and are joyous when they come across Godfrey (Powell) amidst the sea of trash. Cornelia comes on too strong, so Godfrey not only pus her in her place, but he also assists Irene in spiting her sister by aiding her in winning the hunt. Out of happiness, Irene bequeaths Godfrey with the title of butler and the antics begin.

The humor in the film is clearly of that daffy "screwball comedy" era, where everybody's nuts, yet things always miraculously fall into place. The film takes more than a few grains of salt when it comes to plausibility, but that doesn't ruin the fun. Powell and Lombard have great chemistry on the screen together, especially when Lombard is falling head over heels for Godfrey and he curtly dismisses one advance after another. The supporting cast is grand fun too, with Alice Brady encapsulating the stereotypical, oblivious, ditsy matriarch and Franklin Pangborne doing what Franklin is paid to do: act effeminate and upset (he has an uncredited cameo as the emcee for the scavenger hunt). My favorite player easily had to be Eugene Pallette.


The rotund, frog-voiced character actor is probably best remembered for his role of Friar Tuck in the Technicolor splendor "The Adventures of Robin Hood." He plays the only voice of reason and as a buoy of sensibility in a sea of madness, he remains perpetually pissed off (which to me, is comic gold). While he's the only true plutocrat in this well-to-do family (though, as the plot unfolds, it does seem that someone else is better off than he lets on), he's the everyman. He's how you or I would react if plopped down into this bizarre world. I wondered if he's received any recognition for the role, but it seems he was overlooked. Powell, Lombard and Brady all received nominations, and rightfully so, but the only Best Supporting Actor nomination for the film went to Mischa Auer, the only character so kooky that I found him utterly annoying. Go figure.

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Day 141: Mother Joan of the Angels (1961) - Rank 4.5/5

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It's odd that by chance I should watch two film adaptations of Aldous Huxley's "The Devils of Loudun," a non-fiction account of a group of nuns that claimed to have been possessed and the priest that was burned at the stake for witchcraft (since he allegedly was at least partially responsible for their predicament). Ken Russell's "The Devils" focused on the events leading up to the possessions, ending with the death of Father Grandier. The Polish film "Mother Joan of the Angels" focuses on the events that took place after Grandier's death.

After the death of Grandier, Father Suryn is sent to exorcise the nuns, who still seem possessed, despite the death of their tormentor. While public exorcisms seem to reveal that many of the nuns may be feigning demonic possession due to mass hysteria, the head of the convent, the titular Mother Joan of the Angels, seems to be another case entirely. She not only leaves Father Suryn baffled as to how to rid her of her demons, but she also pushes him to question his faith as he starts to fall in love with her.

The ponderous complexity of Father Suryn is the heart of the film. He constantly professes to Mother Joan of the Angels that love is the central dogma of the universe and God's power, and he begins to realize that he must truly love the nun to save her. The line that he cannot cross begins to blur and he begins to realize that the only way to save the woman he loves is to show her how much he loves her by making the ultimate sacrifice and taking her devil into his body. Ah, but here's the delightful catch-22 of the situation - if he takes her devil into his body, then they still cannot be together for he will be possessed. Furthermore, so much of the film is presented in a manner that we question whether Mother Joan of the Angels really is possessed. If Father Suryn takes her demon, then will he become another product of the mass hysteria and leave Mother Joan of the Angels clean...or will she too still be "possessed?" What if Mother Joan of the Angels wants nothing more than to see Father Suryn go mad? The more you analyze the relationship between the two, the more complex it gets.

Ken Russell made a magnificent film with "The Devils," but the state of Sister Jeanne (the character in the tale commensurate with Mother Joan of the Angels) was clearly a product of her infatuation with Father Grandier. In "Mother Joan of the Angels," the viewer never has any information revealed behind the nun's possession, it is just a dilemma that must be solved. The ambiguity behind the intentions and possessions of the main characters makes the film more complex, though not as delightfully stylized as "The Devils." And while Vanessa Redgrave turned in a tormented performance in Ken Russell's film, Lucyna Winnicka is absolutely terrifying as Mother Joan of the Angels. When she first appears on screen, she seems harmless and fragile, but when incited, her eyes go dark and frenzied and her voice changes pitch in a "physical transformation" that requires no grotesque makeup - and that's what makes her possession so much more terrifying than those performances that would follow in cinema. I think there are several elements to "The Exorcist" that were highly influenced by the film, from a priest's desire to accept a demon from soul he's working with, to the nefarious spider walk (which Winnicka does without any strings attached, she merely pauses and slowly curls her body backwards in an unsettling confrontation). It's tough to say whether the film is a better interpretation of the real-life events at Loundun than "The Devils" for the two are such different stories. If anything, they would make excellent companion pieces.

Day 140: Tropic Thunder (2008) - Rank 4.5/5


This is a comedy that works on so many levels. The most obvious level is the straightforward plot - a group of pretentious actors on the set of "Tropic Thunder" are thrown into real combat by their director to make their performances more realistic. The funnier level is the fact that the film is a parody of Hollywood - from its self-absorbed agents to the studios focused on making films that are intended to be box office smashes and not works of cinema that demand a level of intelligence. The funniest level, however, is the self-parody and self-satire.

Jack Black, for instance, is intended to be a parody of the modern-day, shameless Eddie Murphy - an actor that makes one stupid, gross-out or gimmicky comedy after the next. Yet in his own repertoire he carries "Shallow Hal" and "Envy." Ben Stiller's Tug Speedman shills one franchise after the next for all its worth, yet thanks to Ben Stiller, I lost two hours of my life watching "Meet the Fockers" and I successfully avoided the second "Night at the Museum." Then of course, "Little Fockers" is on the way...Then comes Robert Downey Jr. whose parody of Oscar and arthouse favorite Russell Crowe is far from subtle, yet Downey followed the film with "The Soloist." The film itself is a major studio, summer blockbuster, explosion filled action-comedy that blatantly mocks studios for making films of its very type. It's like watching someone stand in front of a mirror, flip themselves off and laugh maniacally. Sooner or later you can't resist and start laughing along.

Every film parody in "Tropic Thunder" is brilliant as well, especially the trailer for "Satan's Alley," an art pic about gay monks starring Robert Downey Jr.'s Kirk Lazarus and Tobey Maguire. And then there's Tom Cruise who absolutely steals the show in a nearly unrecognizable makeup job as the delightfully foul-mouthed studio executive in charge of the project. If Robert Downey Jr. merited an Oscar nomination nod (which he did) then certainly Cruise did as well. To focus on one moment would be difficult, because I was laughing straight through, but there is one image that comes to mind that sent me over the edge. Nick Nolte with hooks for hands...Jesus Christ...

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Day 139: Hot Rod (2007) - Rank 3/5


Okay, I went a tad too far in my last review, so I'll endeavor to be concise (that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it, despite the fact that I'd been drinking a tad when I was watching this, and therefore have a sketchy recollection of it). Ever since I came across the website "The Lonely Island" years ago, I've been a fan of Andy Samberg and his clan. He's one of those individuals like Michael Showalter (or anyone from "Stella") who has the enviable status quo of making it in Hollywood simply from putting stupid videos on the Internet. "Hot Rod" goes to show you that stupid Internet videos can still be made, though with a budget and major studio backing, and yet still be funny.

The premise is simple, yet idiotic. A wanna-be stuntman (Samberg) wishes to follow in his alleged father's footsteps (dad is reputed to be Evil Knievel) by making record-setting jumps. His stepfather mocks his son's dreams, the two of them get into fights and one day, a fight puts his dad into the hospital. The only way to make enough money to save him? A highly-publicized jump. Again, the plot matters not, for it simply serves as a loose frame for a multitude of near non-sequitur jokes to be attached too. The film is hilarious at times, though the line does blur between original and some other schtick that could be attributed to "Stella," "Family Guy," "Tim and Eric: Awesome Show" or other recent, offbeat hits. Still, for mindless entertainment, I suppose I could do a lot worse.

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Day 138: Werewolf of London (1935) - Rank 3.5/5

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Finally Hollywood makes a movie about the cruel, cruel realm of botany. I've warned my students, particularly my AP Biology students to stay well away from the dark world of plants. Some warily heeded my advice, others were glad to, for it meant less studying, but there will be those who will be lured by the aromatic scents and beguiling colors of flowers or the promise of sweet-tasting sweetfruits. And then...oh, yes...then they'll know what I know (and have known since my early days at the university) and what Henry Hull learned all too late in the film. That insidious truth is botany leads to WEREWOLVES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

There will be some who will disagree that this is scarcely the point of the film, so I will make my argument here. Henry Hull plays well-meaning botanist Dr. Glendon, an individual who foolishly traverses to the wilds of eastern Europe to obtain the rare mariphasa plant. While there, he is bitten by a man-beast and disregards it as a nip from a competitor botanist. However, he soon comes to the realization, despite all known science, that he is afflicted with the cruelest form of lycanthropy - full-blown werewolfism. Fortunate for him that the mariphasa plant is the very cure for his disease. Too bad that its blooms are continuously stolen from him by competing botanist and competing werewolf Dr. Yogami. If it sounds like silly fun, it is.

And that's where they get you. Botanists, I mean. The entire film is clearly a piece of pro-botany doctrine. Consider the facts:

1. The film does for botany what "Raiders of the Lost Ark" does for archaeology. I wanted to be an archaeologist until I was ten and then I learned a cruel truth: movies lie. My brother John didn't learn this until after obtaining a degree in the field, poor sot.

2. It lauds flowers as cure-alls. If flowers can cure lycanthropy, then surely they can cure cancer, right? Bah. Flowers cause nothing but sickness. Think of where you see flowers the most. That's right, hospitals! They're the very carriers of vile plagues. And funeral homes...

3. Dr. Glendon is a wealthy, jet-setting gadfly. Since when did botanists turn into Lamont Cranston, I ask you? They aren't. Point in case: my botany teacher, Dr. Sengupta. Sure, she flew halfway across the world for botany, but what did it get her? A room full of unappreciative assholes like me who sit there thinking: "I don't give a fuck about the differences between a monocot and a eudicot! Sclerids? I wish I could get sclerid of you!"

4. Botanists get the girl. No, they don't.

Where does this blatant, pro-botany doctrine come from? None other than the founder of Universal Studios, Carl Laemmle! A brief search of the Internet reveals that Laemmle, whose studio produced "Werewolf of London," started his business with a little film called "Hiawatha." The film was based upon the poem by Dr. Henry Longfellow, who was a professor of Spanish at Harvard in the mid-1800's. Who happened to be Dr. Longfellow's close colleague at the time? None other than Dr. Asa Gray. Who is Dr. Gray, you ask? Why, a man credited with being the FATHER OF BOTANY IN THE UNITED STATES! It's all so clear now. This was a scheme decades in the making. The Illuminati, the Freemasons...they're all red herrings to distract humanity from the photosynthetic menace about us. I no longer care how this all began. What I want to know is: when will it end? When will it end?

Anyway, the overall film was quite entertaining, though it seems quite rushed at the end.

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Day 137: Midway (1976) - Rank 2.5/5


With production values clearly out the roof, a dynamite cast (Henry Fonda, Hal Holbrook, Charton Heston, James Coburn, etc.) and a decent historical event as its primary focus to boot, "Midway" has a hell of a lot going for it. The film shifts back and forth between U.S. officers and Japanese officers both pending the battle and during the battle and as a result, the event is recreated with great accuracy and a dash of stock footage. The theme: the U.S. kicks ass. But after watching it, I felt unmoved even though I felt like the intent of the film was to instill me with such a sense of national pride that I would find a war hero, melt down his purple heart and inject it into my own ticker as if it were an adrenaline shot.

Why the emptiness? Well, while the film focused on epic battles that dazzled the eye, it missed out on one of the major elements that hits a war film home for me: the human element. Granted, there were some minor plot contrivances meant to tug at the heart strings, such as an officer experiencing discrimination due to his Japanese girlfriend, but for the better part, the movie was a recreation, nothing more. A big budget one at that. I love a war epic that focuses on individuals and accentuates dark themes, such as identity loss, the blurring of good and evil, or simply the madness of war (such as "Bridge on the River Kwai," "Saving Private Ryan," or "Apocalypse Now"). When a war film fails to offer individuals to the audience that they can not only bond with, but watch them grow from their experiences, then it becomes very dissociative. I found this to be the major problem with "Pearl Harbor" when I saw it, and I feel it's applicable here. Neither is a horrible film, per se, they just have their focus skewed towards recreating an incident rather than telling a story.

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Sunday, June 28, 2009

Day 136: Day of the Locust (1975) - Rank 5/5


What a bizarre movie. Within the first five minutes, a young Jackie Earle Haley (in possibly his creepiest career role...and that's saying something) strolls up, dressed in full Shirley Temple attire, and blows kisses at our protagonist for the film and coquettishly imitates Mae West in saying: "Why don't you come up some time and see me, big boy?" From that point on, you realize you're in for an odd ride. The central focus is around Tod Hackett (William Atherton), a storyboard artist fresh in from the East Coast with aspirations of "making it big" in Hollywood. He takes up residence in a tenement complex, still cracked from the 1936 earthquake, where he meets a variety of odd characters. Abe Kusich (Billy Barty) an alcoholic dwarf with a penchant for cock fights. Harry Greener (Burgess Meredith), a has-been vaudvillian who utilizes his old schtick for selling cheap, cure-all tonic door-to-door.

The wackiest of them all is Harry's daughter Faye. A bubbly, blond Karen Black who turns one of the best performances of her career. Being the shallow individual that I am, I have trouble taking her serious in intense roles because of her wandering eye, but it actually adds to the daffiness of Faye Greener, a girl who flirts with every man but withholds herself from them all, and who has aspirations of lighting up the screen but never ends up as anything more glorious than an extra. Tod falls in love with Faye and her carefree nature, but he soon finds himself competing for her love for Homer Simpson (Donald Sutherland - who plays his role with such quiet, yet powerful intensity, you half expect him to punch a hole in a nearby wall after delivering a line). However, both men soon begin to realize that Faye may not be a girl who can be satisfied by any one man as she comes on to one man after the next, from Mexican drifters to studio executives (Tod's boss, played in a delightfully smarmy manner by veteran character actor Richard Dysart, a man possibly best remembered for his role in "The Thing").

Hpe and aspiration soon become disillisionment and dispair as notions of love are dashed by torrid affairs, film sets become graveyards and the idyllic notion of Hollywood is reduced to a madness akin to WWII Germany. Clearly director John Schlesinger's focus is the false promise of Hollywood and the film industry - a promised land where people flock to with the thought of becoming famous only to have those dreams dashed and to lose any innocence of mind or spirit they may have had left. This theme is really hit home with the film's climax - a descent of humanity into primal insanity and bloodlust (a sequence of events as unsettling as the finale to "Quatermass and the Pit"). While excellent performances and gorgeous cinematography (thanks to Conrad Hall) make this a film worth remembering, the haunting imagery and mood that Schlesinger incorporates make it a story you can't shake.

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Saturday, June 27, 2009

Day 135: Fiend Without A Face (1958) - Rank 3/5

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There are two words that best describe this film: delightfully absurd. All B-horror requires a fair amount of suspension of disbelief, but "Fiend Without a Face" certainly pushes the plausibility factor. A monster film at its core, our creature is created by the very factor that created about 90% of all monsters in the 1950's - atomic power. As a kid, I almost wished that giant insects were terrorizing the countryside. I'd go into school and my science teachers would present more of a sermon than a lecture, with "When will we ever learn?" being the theme. Actually, I can do that...nay, shall. I'll have to make this review brief. It's hard to think when I can't hear over the sound of the cogs in my head turning.

Anyway, the monster comes into creation when the radioactivity from the atomic tests of a nearby airforce base interferes with an elderly scientist trying to develop his own telekinetic abilities. Somehow, the power of his intelligence mixed with the atomic power leads to a new sentient form of intelligence that, if exposed to enough radioactivity, develops an actual physical body. Surreal, I know and I have no doubt that this concept was heavily influenced by the idea behind the Id Monster in "Forbidden Planet" which had been released two years prior. Still, I can't deny that the monsters are pretty cool when you finally get to see them (during most of the film, the monsters are invisible when they suck out people's brains...did I mention that they suck out brains?). They're essentially brains with spinal cord tails and antennae.

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The climax features a lengthy assault by the brains on the film's survivors. Bullets fly and brains burst into bloody messes - impressively gory for the fifties and some of the best non-Harryhausen, non-O'Brien stop-animation work I've seen. The downside is the film does drag quite a bit, making you "earn" the ending. Ah, but a fun ending it is.

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Day 134: Hellfighters (1968) - Rank 3/5

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The plot is familiar: the old veteran works with a new apprentice. The veteran is curmudgeony and has a rocky marriage. The apprentice falls in love with the veteran's daughter and after a shaky start, they live happily ever after and even the veteran and his wife patch things up. Despite this predictable formula, I still found the film fairly enjoyable for two reasons: good acting on the part of the primary cast and a unique angle to the storyline.

John Wayne is our old pro and Jim Hutton is his young protege (This was the second film within a week that I watched that had Jim Hutton in a predominant role - Major Dundee being the other. Both times he turned in a decent performance that warranted my taking note of his name in the credits. I went to check out what he'd done lately only to learn that he died of cancer in his early forties). Their line of work? They put out oil fires. I think if I were younger when I saw the film I would have become more engrossed in the film simply for the fires and explosions, because the special effects are pretty astounding, for 1968 or today. As you can figure, the ladies in their lives (Vera Miles and Katherine Ross) don't approve of their hazardous line of work, but they overcome this obstacle and stay by their husbands' sides. Based on that though, I honestly wonder who the studio marketed the film towards. After all, you've got blazing oil fires juxtaposed with heart-to-heart talks and that's not easy to do. The only other film I know that came pretty close was "There Will Be Blood," though Daniel Plainview's heart-to-heart with his "brother" turned out less pleasantly than did the conversation between Hutton and Ross. Go figure.

Couldn't Find a Trailer, So Here's The Opening Scene

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Day 133: Into the Wild (2007) - Rank 5/5

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There's no ifs, ands or buts about it, this is just a damn good movie. Watching this film was a wise idea for putting me in the mood for my expedition to the Grand Canyon. It was a bad idea, because it put the temptation to never come back into my mind. The film focuses on the true life of Christopher McCandless, an Emory student who dropped out of, well..."civilized life," to explore the wilderness (the main focus of his expedition soon became hiking to Alaska). His departure was sparked out of disgust of materialism and commercialism - ideas that were embraced by his selfish parents. The spirit of the film captures the carefree lifestyle of living off of the land to the point that it becomes quite alluring.

The cast is absolutely perfect, with Emile Hirsch turning in an absolutely stellar performance as McCandless. Not only does he progress through a spiritual transformation, but he also undergoes a grueling physical transformation as well (hell, he lost forty pounds for the latter portion of the film). His performance is one that was sadly overlooked by most major awards ceremonies. I'll contend that he was more worthy of being nominated for Best Actor than Tommy Lee Jones in "In the Valley of Elah" or Johnny Depp in "Sweeny Todd."

Hal Holbrook did receive a nod, but it was just that. I think the Academy wanted to acknowledge the veteran actor for his body of work. However, I didn't see where it was worthy of a nomination. Now Brian H Dierker, on the other hand, was an actor that really caught my attention as Rainey, a hippie experiencing relationship issues with his wife (Catherine Keener). Every time he was on screen I wondered where I'd seen him before and I was surprised to learn that the answer was: nowhere. The guy was the coordinator for the river rafting scenes and Hirsch goaded director Sean Penn into roping him into the role. That's probably the best on the spot casting since R.Lee Ermey was pushed from the level of consultant to actor in "Full Metal Jacket." There's just so much in the film - often it's as astounding as its backdrops. Clearly Sean Penn had a love for the story that he was telling. He writing/directing projects are few and far between, but looking at "Crossing Guard," "The Pledge," and now "Into the Wild," it's clear that Penn is becoming quite versatile at a number of talents and while I was once lukewarm about the actor, I 'm almost surprised to hear myself saying that I look forward to his next endeavor.

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Day 132: Major Dundee (1965) - Rank 3.5/5


After "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid," I was in the mood for some more Peckinpah and, more importantly, more R.G. Armstrong. So I took in another one of Peckinpah's westerns, though western is a loose term here. The film could be considered a war picture as much as a western. Set in the final years of the Civil War, the story follows the disgraced Major Dundee (Charlton Heston) as he is given what might be an unachievable assignment: to stop a hoard of renegade Apache Indians that have been roaming the countryside, headed by the nefarious Apache leader Chariba, leaving countless dead in their wake. Worse yet, he lacks the necessary forces to carry out the mission, so he finds himself recruiting out of a nearby Union prison. As a result, he ends up with a ragtag team built of Union soldiers too eccentric to ever achieve high ranks, Confederate soldiers who see the expedition as an angle for revenge or escape, as well as drunks, horse thieves and town citizens. R.G. Armstrong plays his usual role for Peckinpah - a preacher with a bible in one hand and a rifle in the other, who, when asked why he wishes to join, responds: "Those who destroyeth my flock, shall so be destroyed!" Kickass!

Captain Tyreen (Richard Harris), a former Confederate officer, works extremely well as a foil to Major Dundee and his other senior officer, Lieutenant Graham (Jim Hutton). James Coburn also adds a little heat as the Indian scout Samuel Potts, who doesn't necessarily agree with all of Dundee's decisions. There's plenty of action, be it battles on the field or battles of wit, to keep anyone engaged. Regrettably, the film slows considerably during the third act after Major Dundee is injured and he's sent to a nearby town to recover. There he wallows in self-pity, pain, regret and booze to the point that I began to feel like I was watching another film altogether. Pathos at that point seems both a little late, as well as a little excessive for me. Still, plenty of guns, guts and R.G. Armstrong to see me through.

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Day 131: Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) - Rank 4.5/5


This film originally came up in a discussion between my friend Dave and I at a funeral of all places. We were sequestered in the back row of the church, like two lepers, for we were the tallest folks there. Prior to "Rock of Ages" or whatever stereotypical music came over the loudspeakers, we were debating on what film could be considered the greatest character actor film of all time. I'd pointed out that practically anything by Joe Dante or Christopher Guest would fall into this category and he brought up the work of Sam Peckinpah and particularly this film. Being a fan of Peckinpah after "The Wild Bunch" and "Ride the High Country," I was intrigued at the prospect of the film. Little did I know that upon viewing it that I would slip into a state of blissful contentment as my favorite character actor of all time appeared on the screen within the first ten minutes. A veteran of the screen who was your man if you needed an asshole character in your film. None other than...
...that's right, R.G. Armstrong. He's a bible-quoting, rifle-toting deputy determined to make Billy the Kid beg for repentance from the Lord. At this point in time, I believe that only R.G. Armstrong and L.Q. Jones remain when it comes to still-living Peckinpah stock actors. Not only were these two present in "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid," but they were joined by Harry Dean Stanton, Slim Pickens, Richard Jaeckel, Jack Elam, Jason Robards, Chills Wills and Elisha Cook Jr. James Coburn turns in a dark and complex performance as Pat Garrett, the new lawman hired by the corporations slowly taking ownership over the west, to kill Billy the Kid. Kris Kristofferson plays Billy the Kid with a mix of impish glee as well as a threatening disposition. Between the two of them, the body count stacks up high (rivaling "The Wild Bunch's" over the course of the film). Even Bob Dylan plays a major role apart from writing "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" for the film.

But "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" rises above the simple classification of a "spaghetti western." At its heart, it's a close look at the relationship between two men who once were friends and still aren't that far apart. Garrett knows he has to kill Billy because times are changing and with corporate America expanding into the wilds of the southwest US, it's the only way for an individual of his stature to make a living. As such, there's a quiet tension within Coburn's Garrett, for the character seems to realize that in eliminating one of the last prolific outlaws of the era, a large part of the world he once knew and hails from will be gone forever. This is complicated with the burden of killing someone that was once his compatriot. Peckinpah's script is wrought with cynicism of the disappearance of the mythical "Old West" for the film opens with the execution of Pat Garrett at the hands of those who hired him to Kill Billy the Kid. This level of complexity certainly pushes the film to the rank of being one of Sam Peckinpah's best.

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Monday, June 22, 2009

Day 130: Blast of Silence (1961) - Rank4/5


One of the main reasons I love film noir is its such a versatile genre, because it's tough to determine what exactly makes a "film noir." Does it have to be shot at Dutch angles in black and white? Does it need a femme fatale? Does it require snappy dialogue? While all are staples, they certainly aren't requirements, which makes movies that are classified under this ambiguous categorization so diverse. It explains the unique character study I happened upon that features no name actors or writers or directors...because in this case, they are all one and the same, the relatively unknown Allen Baron.

Baron wrote, directed, produced and starred in this character study of a hitman on the days leading up to his final kill. The dialogue that takes place in the film is minimal - the majority of the focus is on the introspection of the character as he steadies his nerves, assesses possible friends and foes, works out exactly where and when he wants to kill his targets, etc. As such, the story is primarily told through narration that often sizzles, though it is occasionally prone to cliches. One of the highlights of the film is Big Ralph, a wormy thug who breeds and keeps rats for fun and who tries to double cross Baron's Frankie Bono along the way. I also love the fact that the film is set at Christmas in New York, an awesome backdrop.

"Blast of Silence" is a good film noir. What keeps it from rising to the height of a great one is Allen Baron playing the pivotal role. The guy doesn't look the part of a heartless killer and consequently, has trouble playing one as well. The role didn't have to go to a big name, but it should have gone to someone with more presence on screen. There's also way too much walking. Baron has scenes of his character walking down the street for one to two minutes at a time at numerous points in the film to allow proper down time for the narration. Unfortunately it becomes too repetitious, especially considering the film is a scant hour and twenty minutes. Nevertheless, I have to appreciate that this unknown made this labor of love and broke into Hollywood with it. Granted, he primarily guest directed episodes of television programs over the decades, but he broke in all the same.

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Day 129: Blood Car (2007) - Rank 3.5/5


Ah, this is one of those films where it's easy to make up some clever, little phrases that can double as taglines. How about: "A high octane comedy that inevitably runs out of gas." Yeah, that sounds pretentious enough. I'll take that film critic position now. In all seriousness, I could also use a phrase that was uttered my friend Michael in his recommendation of the film to me, "That movie cracks my shit up." Indeed, it did tickle my feces to the point that it no longer maintained proper composure. It was then that I "lost me shit" while watching the film. Okay, stupidity aside...

"Blood Car" is a low, low-budget, independent film by a crew of first-time filmmakers who know one all important rule of attention-garnering and moneymaking in Hollywood: blood and guts and boobs within the first fifteen minutes of a film sells! This film easily falls into the realm of guilty pleasure for it delivers more gore and laughs than Sam Raimi has in twenty years (or Troma has in its entire existance). The premise is simple: in a future where gas prices are too high, a kindergaten teacher invents a car that runs on blood...human blood. It's a world where cars are an extravagance for the very rich, equalling a lot of girls for our "hero." Ultimately, the vegan tree-hugger becomes consumed by guilt for his murderous ways and the government sets its sights on his creation.

The film is delightfully absurd in its humor, even at school where Archie (Mike Brune) teaches his kindergarten students about matters such as the Manhattan project. I also really appreciate teh fact that most of the film's soundtrack is comprised of classical pieces that the film's action is timed to. The movie's humor does trickle out after a good hour in and the federal agents being played by guys barely out of their thirties seems implausible. That's one of those situations where the director should have remembered that jsut because you can cast your friends in your movie doesn't necesarily mean that you should. Still, if this is the first effort by this crew, I'll be keeping my eye out for their future products.

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Day 128: To Live (1994) - Rank 4.5/5


I found this film in my hands at the behest of my friend Josh, who happens to be a Chinese cinema buff. His fandom for the genre is partially due to the fact that his wife is from the country and often picks what films the two of them are to watch. Little did I know at the time that the picture featured the work of two of my favorite individuals from the Hollywood of the East - Yimou Zhang and Gong Li. Zhang has brought some of the most colorful spectacles to the screen that I've ever seen, such as "House of Flying Daggers" and "Hero" (the latter being the very last film I saw at Showcase Cinemas Bardstown on its infamous screen #1 on the business' closing day - perfect film!).

The director's eye for color is ever-present in this simple fable of a spoiled rake who learns to appreciate life and his family after he loses everything else. The scene is set in the early forties where simple Fugui (You Ge) gambles his family fortune away, losing his family's vast estate and nearly losing his wife Jiazhen (Gong Li). Out of pity, the victor of the gambling spree bequeaths his collection of silken puppets to Fugui and those puppets not only help him win back his family and support them through two children, but they also prevent him from being killed during China's communist revolt (if you can believe that). Prior to Mao's reign, the costumes and streets are a sea of numerous colors, but after China sets into its Communist regime, it's all tan and red. It's difficult to determine whether this shift in color from the dazzling to the drab is intended as a political commentary, but based on some of the other events that unfold through the late fifties and sixties, methinks Zhang was not a major fan of Mao.

Gong Li is absolutely superb as Jiazhen. I humbly admit I rather fell in love with the Asian beauty after the neo-noir "2046" and the epic "Emperor and the Assassin." While early in her career, she still succeeds in playing a poor woman (over the course of three decades) who has faced one calamity after the next in her life, yet still looks to the positive. You Ge works perfectly as her equal/husband. Granted, the film can be seen as a bit overly sentimental at times, it's still a powerful tale that looks at the strength of love for family over hardship.

Day 127: Burnt Offerings (1976) - Rank 3.5/5


Simply put, this is an effectively creepy film. Oliver Reed and Karen Black play a pair of caretakers who maintain a large, isolated home for the summer - a home that seems to have some level of consciousness. It projects its past into the present and even possesses the mother, putting the father and their young son at risk. If the plot sounds familiar, I, too, noted the uncanny similarities to the basic plot of Stephen King's "The Shining." However, it was King who came second with "Burnt Offerings" being made a year prior to "The Shining" being published, and the source novel for the film was printed four years prior. If King were to claim that the original novel and the film adaptation had no influence on his writing, I'd deem him a poor liar indeed.

Oliver Reed is gripping in his turn as your everyday, suburbia father who is thrown to the madness of the house. He's never overwhelmed by it, simply tormented. After the house induces multiple nightmares and hallucinations of a malevolent chauffeur from his past, Reed's Ben Rolf begins to suspect that the house is evil. I found the chauffeur utterly terrifying - more than an elevator unleashing a wave of blood. The crazy thing is he never does anything but smile from at a distance. Less is more, I'm telling you.


There are some other fantastic moments of terror as well, from Ben's Aunt Elizabeth (Bette Davis) wrenching about in bed as her spine is twisted by unseen hands to the house shedding its paneling and shingles as a snake might shed its skin (a fantastic sequence with great practical effects).

Karen Black as Ben's wife Marian was the minor downfall to the film. The character is impractical from the start. She's told by the owners of the home, the Allerdyces (played by Burgess Meredith and Eileen Heckart) that their mother will stay behind to reside alone in an attic room. Marian takes to preparing her meals and after a week of the food never being touched, she falls prey to standard movie logic (or lack thereof) and assumes that the aged matriarch must not be hungry, rather than opening the door to check on the woman or introduce herself. It could be argued that this is merely an early manifestation of the house possessing her, but I also had issues with Marian being possessed. I think this was largely due to the presence of Black. She's supposed to be intimidating as the spirit of the manor takes hold, but I have trouble feeling scared when she's yelling cross-eyed. Yes, it may be petty of me, but it's true. And how can anyone intimidate Oliver Reed? The guy can cut you in half with one stone cold glance. Had the roles been switched, so to speak, I think the film would have been more effective. Nevertheless, it's still an atmospheric and well-written piece of seventies horror that easily pushes the PG rating.

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Day 126: Coach Carter (2005) - Rank 3.5/5


Regardless of whether you attended a private or public high school for your secondary education, there is one constant that remains true: teachers love to show you movies about inspirational teachers. Teacher is having a lousy day? Then sit back and watch "Stand and Deliver," "Mr. Holland's Opus," "Dead Poets Society," "Friday Night Lights," umm... "Matilda" or..."Strangers with Candy" I'm proud to admit that I've never fallen prey to this easy out for a free day since I began teaching, because I find it both an ironic and hypocritical action. After all, shouldn't good teachers be, well, teaching rather than showing movies about good teachers?

Anyway, I found through a conversation that my friend Pigeon had also watched this for the first time on the same evening I did (a strange coincidence). I think his brief statement sums it up fairly well: "It's the best of the 'inspirational, poor black kids to victory' movies." Ah, I concur. "Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit's" Whoopi Goldberg is easily trumped by Samuel L. Jackson. In fact, in the absence of Jackson starring as the titular character, the film would have been a modest bit of treacle that would have passed under the radar, despite a decent storyline. Jackson has an incredible knack for adding the right amount of tongue-in-cheek hamminess to all of his roles, whether it be on a subtle level as was the case in the film, or in a blatantly obvious manner in B-grade films like "Snakes on a Plane" (which is still on my "kinda need to see" list).

Jackson fits into the role of a basketball coach that turns a misanthropic, crime-ridden team into undefeated champions as if he were wearing an expensive suit. The supporting cast is mediocre, many of their performances forgettable upon reflection. The tale of the team's rise to victory and Coach Carter's hard lockdown on their time on the court in engrossing, though it does feel overdramatized at times, making the overall product more cloying than moving. Still, if I were in class, I'd find the film a far superior alternative to homework. And no, I won't be showing it in my classroom any time soon.

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Sunday, June 21, 2009

Day 125: Advise and Consent (1962) - Rank 5/5


While a little melodramatic and hokey at times, "Advise and Consent" is still a great, cinematic peek into the inner workings of Washington D.C., the dirtiness of politics and a demonstration of a fantastic ensemble cast at work to boot. Otto Preminger shot the story, deemed unfilmable at the time of its creation, absolutely flawlessly. He takes the humdrum addressing of minutia in the senate and injects it with enthralling tension (much the way that Alfred Hitchcock made a tennis match seem intense in "Strangers on a Train").

A dying President nominates a senator (Henry Fonda) for the position of Secretary of State after his previous one dies suddenly (quite the unhealthy White House crew). When he does, the gloves come off on both sides of the aisle. Readily opposed to the nomination is a senator from the same party, a silver-tongued, forty year veteran of the office for South Carolina. This role is played with smug glee and a drawl to kill by Charles Laughton to the point that you both hate this character as well as love every moment he's on screen (a performance that certainly deserved a Best Supporting Actor nod). He butts heads with the Senate Majority leader (Walter Pidgeon) and soon a subcommittee is formed to decide whether the President's choice will be selected.

Soon, strings are pulled, the candidate accused of Communism, the subcommittee leader (Don Murray) is blackmailed, threats are exchanged, the President's health suffers, and everything from suicide to gay bars work themselves into the equation. I'd held off on watching this film that my brother recommended for some time simply because I find most political thrillers too tedious and focused on the legal mumbo jumbo of the situation (examples: "All the President's Men" and "The Contender." While I don't deny that both are decent films, I also don't deny that they have a sleep-inducing effect on me). But under the expertise direction of Otto Preminger, as well as supporting roles featuring Betty White, Gene Tierney and Burgess Meredith, the story unfolds in such a manner that you couldn't have tore me away from the screen had you tried. Too bad Preminger went on from "Advise and Consent" to this...


Day 124: The Undying Monster (1942) - Rank 2.5/5


When Universal cranked out "The Wolf Man" in 1941 and the film raked in a fair amount of dough, Fox Studios declared "Holy shit! Werewolves equal dough-ray-me! " Well, I doubt studio execs declared exactly that, but it's obvious that times haven't changed. Hollywood takes a successful formula and churns it back out again and hence we get "The Undying Monster."

A string of mysterious deaths are taking place in a remote area. Two detectives are sent to investigate, one the skeptic and the other that believes in the supernatural, and after a lot of "Butler did it" hijinks, we learn that werewolves are real. The film also has a "Thin Man" formula intertwined with the detective couple. However, they're no Nick and Nora Charles. Give me William Powell staggering about for an hour and a half and I don't care what the plot is about. That's a schtick that gets funnier the more I see it. Star James Ellison was clearly going for this angle, but fell short. The film was cranked out by John Brahm, who would go on later to direct "The Lodger" and "Hangover Square." I won't hold the entry in his filmography against him. It gave him the opportunity to experiment with atmospheric compositions that would serve him well later on (his direction adding more to the film than anything else). Apart from that, this short film (around seventy minutes) crawls by like half a day.

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Day 123: Gargalese (2009) - Rank 1.5/5

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The notion of the tickle monster acting as an actual monster is an amusing, as well as a unique one. Regrettably, the creature's incarnation in this film is anything but unique. I give the film a ranking slightly above my lowest rank (a 1/5) simply because my friend Jesse did some cool FX work on the film. However, all the creature effects in the world couldn't salvage the tepid plot, made worse by confusing editing and bad acting (but not bad in a laughable way, sadly). I caught it out of curiosity after the "Lost Skeleton Returns Again" premiere. Ugh...

The script also falls prey to the common flaw that I just praised "Lost Skeleton" for avoiding, and that is: it uses "fuck" all too often. Before you think that I'm taken aback by the word, let me just say that both working in the Highlands and teaching high school for a decade have made me immune to most anything others consider effective. The problem is that films today use it as verbal filler. Can't figure out a unique adjective to use? Fucking. Can't formulate the proper noun? Fucker. It's become the 21st century's "Um" (or if you're feeling silly and French, this century's "alors"). It's a basic rule of grammar that if you overuse a word, it devalues the impact of the word. Let me demonstrate by butchering an excerpt by one of my favorite selections by John Donne...The Good Fucking Morrow

My face in your fucking eye, thine in mine fucking appears, And true fuckin' hearts do in our faces rest; Where the fuck can we find two better fuckin' hemispheres Without fucking north or fucking west? Whatever the fuck dies, was fuck'd; If our two loves be one, then fuck baby, I'll tap that fucking shit, or thou and I Love so alike that none can fuck with us, none can die. Fuckin' A.

Actually, that turned out sillier than I thought. Anyway, fuck used in moderation can be both shocking and humorous. Fuck used in excess elicits a sigh from me, though kids under the age of eighteen find it hilarious the more its used ("The Devil's Rejects" is a prime example, though I liked the film because it had enough other elements in excess to hold my attention). Enough of this all. I'm going to stop and formulate an elaborate equation that doth factor the proper ratio of fucks to non-fucks into one simple, fucking algorithm.

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Day 122: The Lost Skeleton Returns Again (2009) - Rank 5/5

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In 2001, Larry Blamire created "The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra," an endearing parody of B-horror from the 1950's and 1960's. When it came out, I found it to be one of the funniest films of the year. I love it when modern comedies push the PG limit ("Napoleon Dynamite" would be another good example). All too often, Hollywood deems it necessary to produce scripts that are peppered with fricative expletives and fraught with scatological references or other gross-out humor. That's why I found the critically-acclaimed "Knocked Up" to be rather lackluster. Blamire (who also directs, produces and stars) created a labor of love with fabulous dialogue that hails back to the screwball comedies of the thirties and early forties where almost every line is a one-liner (and without struggling to make every line a catch phrase that's t-shirt worthy, as was the case in "Juno"). Or, to draw an even better analogy, the characters speak in a manner reminiscent of Victor Borge.

The dialogue in the sequel is superb, because Blamire and crew decided to push the limits of where their world could take them by making the plot much darker than the first film. Paul Armstrong (Blamire) has left behind his cheery wife, rocks and a life of science to embrace the spirit of bitterness at the bottom of a bottle that's lost in the heart of an unforgiving jungle (hey, now I'm getting the hang of their manner of speech). A quest to locate him is undertaken and along the way, all the familiar faces from the previous tale surface (sometimes in the guise of identical twins). There are some newcomers, including a foolishly determined Reet Pappin (Frank Dietz), the pompous and bumbling Slykes (Dan Roebuck, whose performances can be hit or miss for me, but is hilarious here as he channels Sydney Greenstreet) and Chinfa, Queen of the Cantaloupe People (Alison Martin in a self-explanatory role). Along the way, the Lost Skeleton rears his ugly head...and not much else since he's sans body.

While the film slows a bit near the end, the pacing is far tighter than the first and the cinematography is certainly superior. There were many scenes in "Lost Skeleton of Cadavra" that were shot point blank and clearly looked like they were shot digitally (though part of this is the humor of the film, because if you're going to parody low-budget endeavors, your work also needs to look low budget). However, "Lost Skeleton Returns Again" makes liberal use of Dutch angles and high contrast black and white to the point that I felt the camera was channeling the spirit of Conrad Hall. Sadly, the film is still looking for a distributor. I was lucky enough to see it as part of the third test audience and I have to admit that I came close to throwing up a number of times as a result of constant laughter. I can only hope and pray it receives a theatrical release, because when it does, I'm watching the hell out of the thing!

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Day 121: The Lodger (1944) - Rank 4/5


There's nothing like a good, black and white period piece set in London to make me wish there were more snaggle-toothed, coquettish tarts ambling about the streets of Louisville. It could be the mayor's next big project to attract even more folks downtown after dark. Place one prattling crone underneath every streetlight. I can already see it working now.

'Ello, guv'nah! Coo, the river's fog sure puts a chill in your bones, don' it?

-Are you talking to me?

Cor blimey, 'o else'd I'd be talkin' to? The Lord Chamberlain? Now there's a stuck-up lot if'n I ever saws it. Genteel, they calls it! Fine way to greet a lady.

-(stunned silence)

Tell me love, wouldn't you like a pretty young lass to keep your bones warm tonight?

-Actually, I'm looking for the Hard Rock Cafe.

The 'ard Rock Cafe? Sure, I knows it. I'll take ya there m'self. Look alive! I'll even let ya buy me a coupla drinks, but don't get no ideas!

-I wasn't going to...

I'm only foolin', guv'nah. Haw haw.

What an age we would live in if that were real. I could tolerate all the drunken frat crowds in London (or the Red Cheetah, to be more accurate) for that rigmarole. Oh, "The Lodger!" Fabulous film starring the late, great Laird Cregar, who was cut down in his prime by a heart attack due to a crash diet.


I was blown away by his haunting performance in "Hangover Square" and I found his role as a man everyone suspects to be Jack the Ripper equally as enthralling. Cregar has sort of a Laurence Olivier intensity with a Victor Buono air, if such a description could be said to do him justice. Played opposite the mellifluent-voiced and occasionally hammy George Sanders, the film is practically a win-win from the start (director John Brahm evidently liked the pairing as well since he pitted the two against each other again in his next film, "Hangover Square")

Interestingly enough, the film is actually a remake of a Hitchcock film from 1927, though it's far superior to any of the other Hitchcock rip-offs that Hollywood has generated *cough* Disturbia *cough* Rumor has it that this adaptation is actually considered to be superior to Hitchcock's piece. I know that the basic plot is supposed to be relatively unchanged; the story follows a family as they take in a new lodger and begin to suspect that he may be Jack the Ripper. The film's family contains all the great staples of the era: a down-to-business patriarch who dismisses all panicked notions of his family as "Poppycock," an overly doting and snoopy mother and the bombshell daughter that stirs a man's id like a poker jostles glowing embers into a flame. It's a premise that lays the groundwork for a great plot, and with gorgeous, high contrast cinematography, the film is definitely a fun watch.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Day 120: Alien:The Director's Cut (1979/2003) - Rank 4/5


When screening this film for an event, I found myself pondering: "What are the differences between the original and the 'director's cut'?" I was curious to see if they would pop out at me (forgive the pun) during viewing, but nothing major ever caught my attention. Ridley Scott's sci-fi/horror yarn remains as gripping and as effective as the first time I saw it. I've always appreciated the first Alien film because it's the perfect blend in two schools of thought in the horror realm. Some horror films take a more psychological approach to scares - the "less is more" mentality. Show as little of the creature as possible and what the audience imagines will be more frightening than the actual product. The second way of thinking is: show the audience so much that they want to turn away.

That second rationale was becoming big in the late 1970's and early 1980's as Rob Bottin, Rick Baker and other wizards put practical effects back on the map. "The Thing," "The Fly" and others are all prime examples of showing the audience all they can bear. "Alien" is the perfect harmony between the two. It exploits the natural claustrophobic fear that comes from being trapped within a given space with a creature that keeps to the dark. Most of the actual killing takes place off camera and so the viewer is left to come up with something horrific in his mind. But at the same time, while the alien is minimally used for many shots, the scenes that it is present in are equally terrifying, for it's a fantastic design and a damn good suit. So it reaches that perfect middle ground between the psychological and the visceral.

Speaking of the visceral, that was the primary change that I noticed in the film - a scene where Dallas and a couple other crew members are cocooned to the wall and Ripley finds them. While both gruesome and informative (in the sense that it gives you a little more background information on the biology of the organism), I didn't see where it was necessary. However, it didn't subtract from the film either - merely eye candy. To Mr. Scott, I then say, "Hat's off" for he used enough discretion to merely tighten his film and remix the sound when called to make a recut, as opposed to making the same mistakes that other directors have made (the Star Wars Trilogy, Cinema Paradiso) in chopping up the original so badly that it makes the revised product almost unwatchable.

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Day 119: Avalon (2001) - Rank 4/5


When I first began watching this film, I couldn't help but note the similarities between it and "The Matrix." Both feature stylized violence in worlds of alternate reality, and both feature the same element of danger to them: if you die in the computer-generated world, you die in real life. But to consider "Avalon" an attempt to cash in on the success of "The Matrix" would be a disservice (though I do suspect that it was what the film's producers had in mind). "Avalon" takes the concept of existing in a simulated world instead of living in the real world to a higher, more artistic and ambiguous level, which left me wondering if the story was meant to be a subtle social commentary on gamers or something more.

The protagonist of the film is a curvaceous gamer named Ash (the type of female that rises to the heights of Lara Croft in the way of intended gameboy appeal) who happens to be one of the most expert players in a military RPG that involves a virtual reality hookup not dissimilar from that seen in "The Matrix." She makes a living by cashing in her game kills (I suppose I should say "frags" to sound "g33kishly correct") and rising in rank, but when she meets her better, she embarks on a quest to move to a level within the game few players have ever seen. This is the main difference between "The Matrix" and "Avalon" to me - the former is focused on freeing individuals so they can live in "the real world" whereas the latter's focus is delving deeper into the virtual world and further away from reality...and eerily enough to levels closer to actual reality that the real world itself as advancement in the game progresses.

In case you can't already tell, the film forces you to over analyze where reality ends and fantasy begins, not unlike a Cronenberg or Lynch film ("Videodrome" and "Lost Highway" being two prime examples). This erudite form of direction pushes "Avalon" to a status above movies of a like ilk, because it doesn't pander to mainstream audiences with a straightforward message. The theme that individuals who engage in role-playing games often find a greater sense of reality within their play than in their real life is certainly present, both in plot as well as visual style. All scenes shot in "reality" are softly lit in sepia tone, surely in an attempt to characterize real life as being "drab" and "unfocused." It's only though expert game play that color and clarity can truly shine through (simply put, the film looks gorgeous). The film's pacing suffers through the scenes set in the real world. Whether it was meant to show how slow and boring life can be when the console is turned off or it was unintentional, I can't say. But if it is the former, I can respect the directorial choice. Either way, I don't suppose it matters. I give the film just a couple more years before it is remade for American audiences and all the symbolism made blatantly obvious or thrown out altogether.

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Day 118: The Shawshank Redemption (1994) - Rank 5/5


I'm not sure if this is an official entry, due to the fact that I've "sort of" seen the whole film. Prior to catching it as a midnight, I'd only seen the film in bits and pieces on TNT (since it plays on that station on a weekly bases). I think my realization that I'd never seen it in its entirety came after the death of James Whitmore. My friend Bennett informed me of his passing and I replied, "Who?" Now, both he and I found it unsettling enough that I was unfamiliar with the name, considering my penchant for character actors from the sixties and what all. But when he cited Whitmore's role in "The Shawshank Redemption" as his most memorable role and I still stood agog, we both knew something was dreadfully amiss and my lacking a proper viewing of the aforementioned film was exactly it (now if he'd referenced Whitmore's role in "The Relic," I, sadly, would have known exactly who he was. Ah, Linda Hunt, how far you've fallen).


I recall reading and loving the tale during my junior year of high school in English class. Surely we did the staple "Write an essay comparing the differences between the book and the movie" assignment. Oh, and let me interrupt here to say that I'm reeling down the path of the anecdotal, so expect no in-depth film analysis here. The acting, direction, story...everything is absolutely superb. You wanna feel less manly and watch a film that makes you care about life? Then rent it. 'Nuff said. Anyway, perhaps my 9th, 11th, 12th grade English teacher Roger Eppinger was to blame. Sure he was a nice enough guy - I look back on his class with fond memories. It's just that I don't remember doing that much when compared with other classes (Mrs. Doyle's assigned analysis of "The Sun Also Rises" is a task that I still hurt from). I remember coming in and being ordered to read for the duration of the class, while he and the other students sat and did the same. Quite often he would dig in his ear with his pinkie, retrieve a stalagmite of dark brown wax, smell it and rub it on his sock. Thank God he always wore navy socks with dress clothes. That and he ate a lot of peanut M & M's when they weren't stolen by the students during hall changes. Good times. Wait, where was I? You see now why I remember nothing of the film? God, I've lost it again. Now I have to go back and watch it again. Someone kill Bob Gunton. Maybe that will help refresh my memory.

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Day 117: The Last Valley (1970) - Rank 3/5


When it comes to war films, it seems that there are two principal wars that Hollywood loves to focus on: World War II and the Vietnam War. So it was a breath of fresh air to watch a film focused heavily on the Thirty Years War (Protestants vs. Catholics....FIGHT!!!). The film featured the two staples of the genre: a character who has a change of heart and saves the day and plenty of fighting. Michael Caine plays our "hero/villain" with a decent level of intelligence and complexity (as well as a fluctuating, indiscernible accent). Known only as "The Captain" he settles into an idyllic valley, not unlike the proverbial Valley of Canaan, that remains miraculously untouched amidst the scorched and blood-spattered hills that surround it. He makes peace with the peasants that run the valley, mediated by a mysterious man named Vogel (Omar Sharif), who seems to be doing his best just to stay alive.

The tale is an interesting study in the interactions that occur between peasants and soldiers OR, if I can draw a more apropos analogy to modern day events, the relationships between native citizens and the "protectors" occupying their land. The battle of wits between the Captain and the village leaders is certainly fun, but there are too many subplots that diminish the film's central story (a witch burning seems out of place, despite the historical appropriateness). Furthermore, many of the lines are delivered with a melodramatic air that is reminiscent of Baz Luhrman productions. And yet, despite all this, I was left unmoved by the film's climax - an outcome I don't think was intended.

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Day 116: if... (1968) - Rank 3.5/5


As stange as it may seem, upon reflection of viewing the film, I feel it would make an interesting companion piece to Gus Van Sant's "Elephant." Both films examine the "unnatural" response of students to undue pressure from their classmates and teachers. Both also feature a climax where students and administrators alike are slaughtered at the hands of the dogged few who decide to strike back. However, while "Elephant" is an exercise in the subtle, low key and "realistic" nature of filmmaking, Lindsay Anderson's "if..." could be considered anything but.

Malcolm McDowell lights up the screen in his breakthrough role as Mick Travis, a junior at a private boys academy in England. He plays the role with such ferocity that it undoubtedly inspired Kubrick to both cast McDowell as Alex in "A Clockwork Orange" as well as portray Private Pyle in "Full Metal Jacket" in the manner he did. It's obvious from the start as he arrives at school at the start of the year donning a Guy Fawkes look that he's a rabblerouser by nature. We're never given the backstory behind his behavior and it soon becomes inconsequential as the film displays one shocking punishment or hazing after the next, from extended stays in cold showers and caning, to the freshmen boys taking on forced homoerotic roles at the pleasures of the senior enforcers (aka: whips). Many of the wild acts that Mick engages in, from drinking in his room to stealing a motorcycle, could be seen as outlets for his repressed rage towards his superiors.

The rage culminates in a school shooting that seems more farcical than fearsome, and I think that's where the film lost creditability with me a bit. Granted, much of the film had been presented as tongue-in-cheek throughout the film (especially from the point of view of a teacher), but the violence was typically shown with a serious tone. I scarcely found myself grinning during the extended caning scene. Rather, a pained grimace was across my face. But when a bullet is sent into the head of the school headmaster, I chuckled. Granted, the scene was played for dark comedy, but I don't think it should have been. That was the stage at which the film needed to really be hitting its point home, and considering the theme of the film and the tone leading up to it, "if..." didn't need to leave viewers with a smile.

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Day 115: Murder on the Orient Express (1974) - Rank 5/5


Robert Altman, eat your heart out. The director, notorious for his all-star casts, has nothing for the rabble of names that were collected for this adaptation of one of Agatha Christie's most famous works. Sir John Gielgud, Sean Connery, Lauren Bacall, Rachel Roberts, Michael York...even Anthony Perkins shares the screen with Martin Balsam without killing him. Ingrid Bergman cinched her third and final Oscar for the role, though I felt that she was certainly outshone by Bacall's garrulous Mrs. Hubbard or Wendy Hiller's Princess Dragomiroff (a far more regal role than her part in "Elephant Man," but no less imposing). And then there's Albert Finney.

Finney is one of those actors whose ethnic origins often slip my mind. I know he's British, yet his southern accents in films like "Erin Brokovich" or "Big Fish" would dupe me into recalling that he's from one of the Carolinas. His Belgian Poirot is as impeccable as the detective's mustache. He assumes the persona as if he were born for the role - his posturing and eccentricities even betray his stature, making him seem more a squat, befuddled man. He was certainly deserving of his nomination for the Best Actor Academy Award. Short of taking in Art Carney's performance in "Harry and Tonto," I can't say if he was robbed the award. But I will say that I found his performance more impressive than two competing, powerhouse roles: Nicholson in "Chinatown" and Pacino in "Godfather II" (and yeah, I might be putting my neck out on that statement).

As for the plot of the film, it's the quintessential "whodunnit." However, an interesting spin on the tale, apart from the fact that there are thirteen potential suspects, is that some, if not all, may be in on it together. Fabulously witty dialogue, a fantastic score and gorgeous sets and cinematography make this an almost unrivaled spectacle of the screen where large cast films are concerned. Perhaps Altman's "Gosford Park" would be the most recent film that can be said to have a production analogous to this one. And now that I've mentioned Altman, we've gone full circle.

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Monday, June 1, 2009

Day 114: Obsessed (2009) - Rank: 1/5


Forgive my crudeness, but what a shitty movie. Okay, I didn't see this one by choice. I was forced by my teaching job to chaperon a field trip to a competitor theatre to partake in either this or "17 Again." I was afraid that I might be injured in a mass swooning when Zac Efron appeared on screen and all the teenage girls were at once "All up ons," at the sight of him. No risk of that in "Obsessed." The best it has to offer is Bruce McGill. Yeah...


Anyway, many students recommended this blatant, "Fatal Attraction" ripoff, because: "Beyonce gets all up in this girl's face and bitch-slaps her." Is "bitch-slap" supposed to be hyphenated?...Anyway, I spent the duration of the film, watching the film as I kept 200 teenagers from texting. It may be a bad movie, but I don't want my misery interrupted by glowing screens surrounding me. Thus, I began to sow an even deeper hatred for the film on screen, beyond my abhorrence for the simple fact that it was a horrible film. So bad, in fact, that it scarcely deserves the effort I'm giving it now. Done.

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Day 113: Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001) - Rank: 3/5


A greater and more stylized amalgamation of countless elements there never was. "Brotherhood of the Wolf" features martial arts fighting (choreographed a la "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"), a supernatural beast, the French Revolution, Vincent Cassel at his most Vincent Cassel and surreal costumes and sets, even for a French period piece. The story follows the royal taxidermist and his Iroquois Indian cohort as they endeavor to slay the legendary Beast of Gevaudan - a task set before them not unlike the hunting of the shark in "Jaws." There is also an overarching theme of religion vs. science as the age of reason encroaches on 17th century France, the natural world threatening the stance of the spiritual.

And yet, for all of these attributes, I had trouble "getting into" the film. Objectively, I thought it was an excellent film, though a little long winded at times. But as for personal preference, it just didn't click. I've been chewing this one over for a bit and all I can conclude is that it was too much of everything. The film was operating on so many levels at once, it almost became to addling to enjoy the exquisite battles. In turn, the plot would become so engrossing at other points that a fight or appearance of the beast almost seemed obtrusive. There's no regret in my partaking the film - rather, it left me with a desire to view it again, simply for the sake of absorbing all it had to offer.

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