Thursday, July 30, 2009
It's Charlton Heston at his most "womanizingest!" Yes, while this film could easily be dismissed as an attempt to exploit the crown that went for "The African Queen," the incendiary nature of Heston, the production of George Pal (the 1950's answer to Jerry Bruckheimer) and an onslaught of army arts all make this a noteworthy investment in viewing.
Heston is Leiningen - a tough-as-nails owner of a cocoa plantation in South America. He drinks, he's not afraid of a brawl and he knows what he wants. He wants a family so he orders a bride from New Orleans, Joanna (Eleanor Parker). Joanna suffers Leiningen's verbal abuse, is forced to watch tribesmen be executed and even has the pleasure of having a bottle of perfume dumped on her, getting slapped a bit and nearly raped by her drunken husband. Ah, but Joanna's the type of tough ol' broad that frontiers were made for, so she sticks by her husband as they defend the plantation from the MARABUTA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
The film is tripe and corny at times, but it's entertaining fodder that never tries to beat you over the head with morals or schmaltz. Heston chews the scenery as much as the ants, but I wouldn't expect any less. As for the direction, I was both surprised and pleased to learn that the task was handled well by none other than Byron Haskin, the director behind episodes of "The Outer Limits" such as "The Architects of Fear," "Hundred Days of teh Dragon," "A Feasibility Study," and "Demon with the Glass Hand." The assault of the marabuta/ants feels a little anticlimactic, but still an enjoyable view as all George Pal productions typically are.
I remember hearing this film's title as a youth and thinking: "Awesome! It sounds like 'The Abominable Dr. Phibes!" I came to learn later that it was not a film in the vein of the Phibes films, largely because it precedes them by a decade. Yet the horror flick doesn't feel too terribly original either. The script was obviously influenced, to a very high degree, by "Eyes Without a Face," which preceded "The Awful Dr. Orlof" by two years.
Like its predecessor, the story surrounds a mad doctor who repeatedly kidnaps beautiful women so he can attempt to graft their faces onto his "horribly disfigured" daughter (which, after watching "The Oblong Box" and then this film, I'm beginning to wonder if filmmakers have any idea what "horribly disfigured" means. When I'm expecting a countenance that will make me wince, I just get a mug with a dash of liquid latex and rigid collodion). Anyway, he employs the use of a blind henchman, whose strangling abilities hinge entirely on the fact that the woman will keep screaming and that she won't hastily dart around furniture. There's also a henchwoman/lover that lives about as long as it takes Dr. Orlof to blather out the exposition on how she came to be under his employ, and an incompetent inspector who bungles his way into saving the day. The daughter does absolutely nothing - a waste.
The film isn't so much of a letdown as it is mediocre. The cinematographer, one Godofredo Pacheco, utilized high contrast lighting and Dutch angles enough to keep the film fairly atmospheric (to a degree that I found reminiscent of the work that Conrad Hall did for "The Outer Limits"). But the story never offers any real suspense or surprises (save one of the earliest, needless "titty shots" in a horror film that I can recall). It did leave me with a yearning to watch "Eyes Without a Face" again, but I don't think that was the intent.
When I saw "Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary" in 2002, I felt it was one of the best documentaries I'd seen. To this day, I still feel that it is one of the best character focuses done in a documentary (rivaling "The King of Kong" and "Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr."). That's why I anticipated the opportunity to catch this film in theatres (for the film is based largely on secretary Traudl Junge's accounts). Alas, at the time, our theatre was embroiled in a legal battle with Newmarket, so "Downfall" never saw the light of day in Louisville. A pity too, for it's easily one of the best films 2006 had to offer.
So many films set during WWII focus on sympathetic protagonists ("The Pianist," "Mrs. Miniver," "Schindler's List") or heroes and epic battles ("Saving Private Ryan," "The Dirty Dozen," "The Great Escape," etc). Director Oliver Hirschbiegel picked a unique setting - Germany during its last two weeks in the war. The last vestiges of Nazi power are confined to a bunker in the center of Berlin as the city is bombarded by Russian forces. Despite the inevitable conclusion of the war, Hitler remains more deluded than optimistic that the German forces will turn the battle around. As the last of the German forces are destroyed, we're left with a sad portrait of some of history's most nefarious leaders as they contemplate and carry out their ends.
To make a film where the audience actually begins to feel a shred of pity for Hitler is certainly impressive. Hirschbiegel is even conscious enough to fill the screen with figures of Jews slain at the dictator's behest and casualties that were the result of the war, as if to remind viewers at the end of the film that Hitler was "the bad guy." However, Bruno Ganz portrays Hitler as a very upset, betrayed and...well, human individual to such a degree that it's hard not to sympathize with him at some point. It would have also been quite easy to make Hitler's collapse the primary objective of the film, but the story continues long after the Fuhrer commits suicide. At its core, the film is a depiction of the downfall of Germany as a world power as seen through the eyes of Traudl Junge, the one person that personally saw the end of the Nazi regime and lived to tell about it. With such an amazing life story, I suppose it would take a large effort to make it anything less than enthralling.
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Gordon Hessler finally redeems himself, in my eyes. After the gritty and unpleasant "Cry of the Banshee," the convoluted "Murders in the Rue Morgue" and the tremendous disappointment of the absurd and pointless "Scream and Scream Again" (where Christopher Lee, Vincent Price and Peter Cushing all in one film are still boring), I got to see his first "Poe adaptation" - "The Oblong Box." However, to call the film a Poe adaptation is about as accurate as calling the upcoming "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra" a G.I. Joe film. Yes, it is a period piece and there are Poe elements to the tale, but a story adaptation...I think not.
That's not to say that's a bad thing. Roger Corman had tremendous success with very liberal interpretations with some of Poe's work several years prior, also while working with Vincent Price ("The Raven" is a perfect example of a film that really has nothing to do with the source material, save the name, but still works). Hessler and screenwriter Lawrence Huntington take the oldest cliche in the realm of horror - a crazed relative locked in the attic - and make it seem fairly fresh with African voodoo and repressed, colonial crimes. The film kicks off with Julian Markham (Vincent Price) discovering his brother Edward (Alister Williamson) being ritualistically tortured. His brother, disfigured and mad, is kept in the attic until his death is staged and he ends up in the hands of a corrupt doctor (Christopher Lee) who purchased him under the assumption that he was a corpse. The story feels like a Rube Goldberg device at times, but it works.
Though Price and Lee share about thirty seconds of screen time together, their performances within their separate domains of the film are enough to merit your attention. Edward's crazed killing are hokey for even B-movie standards, but it wasn't enough to dispel the fun of the film. So, for both "Golden Voyage of Sinbad" and now "The Oblong Box," Hessler has essentially redeemed himself for me...to a certain extent.
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This lesser-seen film happens to be the second in Ken Russell's "Composer Trilogy" and as such, it ranks between its two companions in the domain of visual style and excellent storytelling. "The Music Lovers" still ranks as Ken Russell's best work, with a brilliant script and a solid performance as Tchaikovsky. While it lacks some of the visual panache Russell became infamous for, its still a gorgeous film. "Lisztomania," the final in the trilogy, is filled with mind bending imagery (think "Tommy" on acid), but any trace of a coherent plot is lost, making the film tedious and convoluted. "Mahler" dances the fine line between both worlds.
Russell's depiction of Gustav Mahler, considered by many to be the last, great German composer, is a loving one. Any notion of a linear story is thrown out the window as the primary focus shifts to a train ride with Mahler, his wife and his former competitor in the world of romance. Mahler suffers a heart attack and most of the film is told through the composer's reflection on the events in his life that not only shaped him as a man, but as a man who rose above the banality of playing others' works. Each reverie is accompanied by the symphony that was inspired by the moment, making it as much of a musical tribute as a drama.
Russell regular Robert Powell excels as the tormented composer, depicting the strange existence of a man who cannot express his emotions, even to his beloved wife, in a verbal way; those thoughts and ideas can only be conveyed through music. There are a number of surreal, yet beautiful, "dream sequences" - ranging from his wife's slow emergnece from a cocoon to the Nazi fueled nightmare Mahler suffers at the fear of death. While it would be easy for these moments to become mere tangents within the film and nothing more, Russell expertly blends them in with the story, adding his own sense of style with superior direction.
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Monday, July 27, 2009
Chevy Chase playing Chevy Chase? Fine by me. In the case of "Fletch," Chase goes Peter Sellers by playing Chevy Chase in multiple roles. The antics begin when undercover reporter Fletch is picked up by an affluent individual named Alan Stanwyck (Tim Matheson). Stanwyck proposes to give $50,000 and a getaway ticket should he kill him. The notion of Stanwyck paying someone to kill him strikes Fletch as odd, so he investigates the situation in a number of disguises, eventually uncovering a whole drug trafficking ring, battling crooked cops (Joe Don Baker) and corrupt doctors (M.Emmett Walsh) along the way.
The story feels a little contrived at times, but I suppose that could be said by and Chase vehicle, from "Foul Play" to the National Lampoon's Vacation series. The movies exist as an opportunity for Chase to drop one-liners as readily as possible. I absolutely love the aforementioned films and feel that they excel beyond "Fletch's" realm. I do think that Chase has better material in those films, but I think another factor is that I grew up with those movies, so the humor became ingrained with nostalgia, making them seem funnier than they possibly are (but I think that's only a small, contributing component). "Fletch" still has hilarious moments ("Sugar in your coffee, Mr. Poon?" "No, never!") but the electronic, Casio-generated soundtrack really dates the film...and not in a good way.
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It must have really sucked to have lived East Germany during the era of the GDR, is all I can say. Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck creates an atmosphere of fear for government officials very early in the film and it only increases in intensity as the plot thickens. The manner in which it is done is as subtle as a teacher putting a check mark next to the name of a student who questions whether tortuous interrogation is really necessary, or as tactless as an apartment torn asunder by a gang of Stasi thugs. This environment only enhances the sense of risk behind the actions that Gerd Weisler, a Stasi spy, carries out.
Weisler is put in charge of spying on playwright Georg Dreyman by the Hempf, the minister of culture. Hempf suspects that Dreyman harbors sympathy for the West and wants Weisler to expose Dreyman for the traitor he is. Weisler is assigned to the job because he's good...too good, in fact, for he quickly learns that Hempf is motivated by lust. He craves Dreyman's girlfriend and actress, Christa-Maria, and he's using his office and position of power to get an innocent man put into jail, eliminating the competition. But soon, Dreyman becomes moved by the suicide of a close friend to produce anti-party literature. Weisler, disillusioned by the corruption of his office, begins covering for the couple that's he's become attached to, merely by listening to their conversations and love-making, but the further Dreyman goes, the more at risk Weisler is at his "help" being exposed and ending up in jail with Dreyman.
The story feels positively Hitchcockian at times, with elegant twists of coincidence and a strange, voyeuristic attachment to a situation that feels reminiscent of "Rear Window." With such a heavy-handed plot, it would be easy to leave the audience feeling utterly bleak afterward, and it would be cheating to provide a chipper, cop out ending that would leave folks upbeat. Donnersmarck finds the perfect harmony between the two delivering a lesson in compassion over blind dedication, making it a masterpiece of altruism.
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As a science teacher, it's important for me to keep apprised on new developments in the science field so that I can convey that new information to my students. These are ten important lessons I learned from the film "Ssssss" that can be easily incorporated into my curriculum.
1. Milking venom from snakes is a lucrative industry.
2. All female scientists are sexually-repressed and need a penis to make them better researchers.
3. Sentient cobras can survive nuclear bombs and holocausts and will rule the future.
4. Genuine freaks in freak shows are hard to come by and garner top dollar when sold.
5. Boa constrictors need to drink Scotch to maintain a healthy diet.
6. The law of conservation of mass is more of a "guideline" when it comes to human-to-beast metamorphosis.
7. Never trust doctors, professors or anyone in a position of authority.
8. Snakes can be charmed with the words of Walt Whitman.
9. Cobra venom is a powerful hallucinogen. Ergo, stick your hands through the bars at the zoo to get bit for a cheap "trip."
10. Science can only be used for evil.
That's pretty much it. A scientist turns a man into a regular-sized cobra, because he believes it's the next step in evolution. Oh, and Heather Menzies takes her clothes off, but all we get is a PG-rated peek. Damn censors. Mad props to John Chambers for a pretty cool transformation that probably influenced Chris Walas' work on "The Fly"...to a tiny, tiny degree.
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The adventure continues as I endeavor to indulge in some of the first films I cleaned up after. "Tea With Mussolini" holds no anecdotal tales for me, other than the fact that I remember the damn thing playing forever. The reason it played so long? Well, working at Baxter has taught me one important lesson: people in the Highlands love to embrace anything British. Several regular customers don a cockney accent that makes me repress a strong urge to slap them until their Fairdale drawl resurfaces. Anyway, with Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright and Judi Dench in the cast, how can the film not last on screen until the end of time on the dollars on the "females forty years old and up" crowd?
Set in Italy on the cusp of WWII, the film quickly introduces us to a cavalcade of eccentric dames: Arabella (Dench), a screeching crone with a disheveled nest of hair and a penchant for art. Lady Hester (Smith), the affluent, acerbic bitch of the clique. The tomboyish Georgie (Lily Tomlin), slumming in Florence rather than the suburbs of New York. Elsa (Cher), a garish American who collects counterfeit art and husbands with the same level of credibility. And lastly, Mary (Plowright), an English nanny determined to bring up a young Italian by the name of Luca to be a proper English gentleman. Together, all these ladies...well...
The movie had me hooked from beginning to end with great acting by the cast, but I'm not sure what the primary story of the film was supposed to be. There were three distinct plots occurring simultaneously that intersected with one another when the occasion suited them.
1. A coming-of-age tale for Luca as he develops under the watchful eye of Mary and her friends and suffers puppy love fur Elsa (*shudder*).
2. A light-hearted look at the indefatigable nature of the British spirit, displayed through the "ever proper" behavior of the aforementioned ladies as the world they once knew comes crumbling down about them (both figuratively and literally).
3. The "true story" of an American woman (Elsa) who was misunderstood and despised by the British women. In the end, they come to realize that she helped save their lives at her own personal expense and they pull together to help her get back to America.
Had the feature focused primarily on one of these tales, it would have ended up a fantastic film. It did not though, and as a result, the final product never gels as a solid story.
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At the mark of my ten-year anniversary, I've embarked on a mission to see many of the films that played at Baxter during my first few months that I either overlooked or simply chose to ignore at the time. First and foremost in my memory is a film that let the ushers know it was about a minute out from release by emitting an obnoxious chortle. The humorous situation? A long-time bachelor finally commits to marriage. Ah, the wit of Oscar Wilde. "An Ideal Husband" was so popular, it received a return engagement after numerous Baxter patrons mourned its departure in a very complainy way. As a result, I have a very early and very distinct memory of Bob Markwell commenting (upon hearing the aforementioned chortle from outside the theatre): "God, I'd prayed I'd never hear that laugh again."
Like most Oscar Wilde stories, there's a great deal of etiquette humor, disaffected men and women that fall into two categories: scheming or coquettish. Aristocratic Sir Robert Chiltern (Jeremy Northam) finds himself the target of blackmail by an old flame, Lady Chevely (Julienne Moore). As Chiltern struggles to keep his sordid past, as well as the blackmail, private from his wife (Cate Blanchett), he turns to the most eligible bachelor in town, Lord Goring (ironically, Rupert Everett). Misinterpreted deeds offend friends, but in the end, all principal characters confront one another and forgive in time for tea. Ah, how pleasant.
The film falls into a category I first heard coined by a regular customer: fluff. It's a movie that's pleasant enough to enjoy your viewing, but once it's over, it's over. No analysis, no fond memories...basically, once you've seen it, you've seen it. It certainly wasn't anything new or unique, for Oscar Wilde adaptations are about as common as productions of "Pride and Prejudice" in the cinema realm. I did forget, though, what a good soundtrack the film has. It's a soundtrack with especially memorable music during the credits. While it might sound like a banal complement, let me just note that for an usher cleaning a theatre several times a day during the film's run, good credit music makes all the difference in the world.
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By the time season six rolled around, the Best Brains crew had really hit their stride. Prior seasons were marked with hit-and-miss commentaries with humorous sketches. During the show's last couple of seasons, a lot of the sketches were becoming hit-and-miss, while the stream of bon mots during the film were sensational. Seasons five and six seems to be the best of both worlds as long as the crew got the proper fodder. Such was the case with "Racket Girls," making it one of the funniest episodes I've seen in some time.
Set in an ambiguous city, the film out-Ed Woods Ed Wood with a paltry script about a group of mobsters running a shoddy gambling racket, using a female wrestling ring as a front. The plot is the loose thread that barely connects stock footage sections of bulky dames wrasslin' in their panties, either in the ring or at the gym. Shots of buxom lasses working out also serve as "establishing shots." To be quite honest, there's no linear, coherant story. So if I were to use my ranking system to rate the film, it would easily be a 1/5. Just middle-aged women's breasts and wrestling. I suppose it might serve as a stag film for guys who watched "I Love Lucy" and thought: "That Ethel bitch is hot!" Though if that's the case for you, then just keep in mind what Crow quips: "I'm becoming aroused by a woman that's been dead for years. What's wrong with me?" Ah, I miss that show.
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Sunday, July 26, 2009
There have been dozens of pictures that have examined the corruption behind the media or its emissaries, but "Ace in the Hole" is not only the earliest I've seen, but it's also one of the darkest. Kirk Douglas stars as "ace reporter" Chuck Tatum, an egocentric writer who lauds himself with great braggadocio to anyone who will listen, despite the fact that he's been axed by every respectable media firm in the country. When he makes a wrong turn in Albuquerque (literally) and finds himself broke with no car, he sells himself to the editor of the town's small rag. But small town news ain't what Chuck Tatum really wants. Tired of covering bake sales and other minutia, he declares to his loyal cameraman, Herbie: "Bad news sells best. Cause good news is no news."
So you can imagine the joy Chuck experiences when he happens across an old mine where a man by the name of Leo Minosa has become trapped, for he views it as literary gold. Chuck orchestrates one of the most elaborate farces in film as he turns a routine, twelve-hour rescue job into a week-long circus, all so he can milk the story for what it's worth in order to end up on top and on the payroll of a renowned paper once again. But the higher Chuck gets, the worse things get for Leo and we begin to realize that there's no one on the victim's side. Leo's wife goes along with the scheme because of the tourist trade the spectacle brings to her hotel/cafe/gift shop. The sheriff also plays ball, because he's angling for his corrupt past to be overlooked when he's praised as a hero by Tatum's words. And once both the viewer and Tatum begin to realize that Leo really doesn't have any allies, Leo comes down with a case of pneumonia that may prove fatal before he can be saved.
Billy Wilder has brought some fantastic films to the screen - "Sunset Boulevard," "Double Indemnity," "The Lost Weekend' - but this may be his most powerful work. Apart from exploring the corrupt underbelly of the news, he displays the true ugliness of humanity for all to see. Outside the cave-in, a carnival is set up and people bring their kids around to play games, listen to folk songs about Leo and buy souvenirs. They do this because they're operating under the guise that they're helping Leo - showing him support. But this sea of hypocrisy comes as no comfort to Leo because he's slowly dying and all he needs is just a few hours and a handful of men to rescue him. And as Tatum begins to realize what he's done, who he's become and suffers disgust at his own circus, the film really delivers.
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When my friend Bennett saw I was about to watch this film, he remarked: "A good movie, but you'll never want to see it again." In retrospect, I believe he's right. This is more of a downer than William Castle's production of "Bug," and that thing certainly has its bleak and claustrophobic moments. However, the two films bear only one thing in common: the title. Castle's "Bug" was a dark animal attack film that works well as 1970's drive-in schlock. As for William Friedkin's film that brings Tracy Lett's bizarre stage play to life...well, let's just say that if you used "Requiem for a Dream" as a deterrent for those considering a drug habit, "Bug" is what you show the addicts while they recover in detox.
Simply put, the movie is an endearing love story between an abused and drug abusing woman and a paranoid schizophrenic drifter. Agnes (an almost unrecognizable Ashley Judd), clearly has dependency issues, for she seems to quietly cling to her jailbird husband, Jerry (Harry Connick Jr.) despite her verbal abuse of him and his physically abusive retorts. When Peter comes along and deters her husband, she stays by his side, regardless of the fact that he seems to slowly be going insane. He begins to believe that there are microscopic bugs living in his blood stream that exit the skin for air and burrow back in. At first Agnes is skeptical, but then she begins to "see" them. Whether she truly sees them at first or she pretends to out of fear of losing Peter is uncertain, but as time progresses, she succumbs to Peter's hysteria and begins to "see" the bugs too. Before you know it, the two are ambling around a foil-ensconced bedroom, their bodies riddled with bleeding sores produced by their ever-itching fingernails.
Though the film is tough to classify into a predetermined genre, it could reasonably be considered a "paranoia film." However, the story is unique from many of its predecessors, such as Polanski's "Apartment Trilogy" in the sense that the paranoia is not brought on by outside influences (despite "outside forces" being the one thing that Agnes and Peter fear the most), but by internal sources - the mind. During the majority of the film, the two are essentially along - a brief appearance by Peter's shrink, Dr. Sweet, in the final twenty minutes marks the only, true individual to show up and heighten their paranoia. The rest is self-inflicted, as are Peter and Agnes' many wounds. One particularly disgusting scene features Peter trying to tug a molar out. Unlike most movie violence, the tooth does not pop right out. He tugs and wrestles with it for over a minute on camera, making you realize what a painful task it would be to do to yourself. Excellent writing, direction and acting keep you hooked to the screen until the film finishes, but it's so visceral and absent of any hope that it doesn't make it a repeat view.
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Thursday, July 23, 2009
Ah, Sacha Baron Cohen - a modern day, common man's Peter Sellers with a raunchy repertoire. It's fair to say that "Bruno" is nothing more than a stupid movie, because it is. Not that it bothers me, mind you. Just as a workaholic indulges in a night of relaxation and beers among friends now and again, the movie-minded enjoy an hour and a half of mindless entertainment to unwind between complex films. If you were to claim to me that you never watched any low-brow comedy, be it a Jackass film or a Mel Brooks productions, then I would call you a lie and promptly force you to watch the courtroom scene from "Ernest Goes to Jail" (for I contend that even the stone-hearted can't help but crack a grin at that slapstick gold).
So when it comes to assessing "Bruno," I cannot help but measure it against "Borat" for the two films are certainly comparable with one another. "Bruno" follows the same basic premise as "Borat, except Baron plays a flaming German rather than a bumbling Kazakhstan immigrant. Furthermore, while the alleged intent of Baron's first endeavor was to illustrate (in a hilarious awry) the intolerance many Americans have towards other races, "Bruno" seeks to out the close-minded attitudes people have towards the openly gay. In both cases, it's evident that Cohen is stacking the cards in his favor by cherry picking the most racist individuals he can for exploitation purposes. However, I was hoping that "Bruno" would push the envelope a little more than it did.
Cohen stuck with the exact same formula - a fish out of water is followed as he quests across America. It made far better sense in "Borat," for the titular character was starring in his own documentary within the film (and parodying low-budget foreign television as well). With "Bruno," the plot seemed more incidental, like a weak attempt to link a series of vignettes (much the way a plot is almost unnecessary in a porno). Did it hinder me from enjoying the film? Certainly not. There were points where I found myself gasping for air because I had laughed so much. But what I am saying is I will be disappointed if Cohen stays at the level of humor he's at now and never gets edgier. You might say: "He had a penis filling the screen, screaming his name. How can he get more edgy than that?" Well, consider this: yes, the viewing audience of "Bruno" watched Cohen gyrate between sequences of dancing dicks, but we saw this as it was shown to a test group in the film. We can laugh at it, because we're laughing at how he's trying to intentionally offend a handful of uptight adults. We were in on the joke, so we found it easy to laugh. But what if we weren't in on the joke? What if you had to sit through that without being in on the joke? That would put every ticket holder in the place of the half dozen victims of the film...it would make everyone who saw the film the butt of the joke rather than a "bystander" in on the joke. People would either laugh or be pissed off and demand their money back. It would be the critics who would say: "How can a guy like that get his own movie?" rather than the offended test group. It might sounds crazy, but making the audience the victims is the next logical step in this humor line (which, considering that was my logic behind "Callus' Birthday Party," I suppose that puts me on the cutting edge). Personally, I look forward to that happening should it ever occur. But until it does, I'm sure I'll continue to laugh my ass off at his shenanigans.
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Shakespeare and Kurosawa - if it sounds like a match made in heaven, it certainly is. The Japanese director's adaptation of "King Lear" never comes off as a stage-to-screen script. Sprawling landscapes and bloody battles make the play into an epic that's utterly gorgeous to behold. Kurosawa is so pragmatic about every shot in his film, saturating them with beautiful colors or symmetry so perfect that photography students would kill to take a snapshot of the setups.
Set in early Japan, the saga follows the plight of the Ichimonji clan - the proud rulers of an entire kingdom that quickly fall into civil dispute after Hidetora, the father of the clan, decides to pass his rule on to his sons. Taro, Hidetora's eldest and the prime owner of power in the restructured kingdom, soon turns his father into a pariah at the behest of his scheming wife, Lady Kaede. Kaede would like nothing better than to see the Ichimonji clan destoryed, for it was Hidetora who conquered her kingdom, stole her family castle, killed her family and forced her to marry his son. Jiro follows the order established by Taro, while Saburo, the youngest son, rejects his father's ideas for a new kingdom and becomes an outcast. As the dilemma unfolds, armies battle, castles are destroyed and when the smoke clears, we're left with a resolution about as merry as that of any classical tragedy.
Mieko Harada succeeds in sowing hatred in the viewer for Lady Kaede (as well as generating terror as the snow fairy in Kurosawa's "Dreams"). She makes the term "bitch" seem like an understatement. The only performance I've seen that's commensurate would be Jessica Lange as Tamora in "Titus" (to be fair, I'll stick with Shakespeare characters). Both women are capable of manipulating any man they know and both have no interest in love, but rather the downfall of their husband and his empire. Kurosawa's direction and witting for the character (as well as the rest of the cast) is flawless. All around, it's just a fabulous spectacle to behold on screen.
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When the photos of Johnny Depp as The Mad Hatter were leaked onto the Internet a couple of weeks back, a scary thing happened - I almost drowned when every female between the ages of twelve and forty simultaneously got wet at the sight of the shot. I won't knock it too much, because it does look cool...but that's Burton's trouble. He knows how to make a film that dazzles the eye with fantastic visuals, but often the substance behind the film is lost, leaving you with a veritable "cinematic Faberge egg." Beautiful to gaze at, but hollow inside. In fact, I've long said that Tim Burton fans are the only folks more forgiving than George Lucas fans, but I won't deny that with titles like "Beetlejuice," "Pee-wee's Big Adventure" or "Ed Wood" that the director has a more impressive and diverse filmography than does Lucas.
All my skepticism aside, I'm still curious to see how the director's adaptation of Lewis Carroll's psychedelic childen's tale will come across (especially since it's plot is more reminiscent of the screenplay for "hook" that its true source material). Whatever the outcome, I can honestly say that it will unlikely top the bizarre and terrifying nature of Jan Swankmajer's take on the tale. This Czechoslovakian production would best be described as a stop-motion nightmare. With some of the best effects work outside of a Harryhausen film, Swankmajer animates the characters from the story in unsettling manners. The caterpillar is of many socks that spends its nights eating at the floorboards - a sock that sews in its own eyes and dentures, that is. The Mad Hatter is a well-worn ventriloquism dummy. The white rabbit is a reanimated piece of taxidermy that is forever eating sawdust to keep itself from deflating.
I made the comment in my review of "Interstella 5555" that I felt like I needed to be on drugs to watching the film. In this case, I thank the heavens that I wasn't on anything, for it was creepy enough sober. The film did feel terribly slow at times though, and I feel that a simple soundtrack would have easily staved this off. There was also the incessant narration of Alice, where she did the voices of all characters, and almost every line of dialog was followed by a shot of her lips saying "said the White Rabbit" (or whatever other character had spoken. While annoying at first, I was able to tune it out after a while. Actually, most of the film is free of dialog. My main consensus after watching this title is not only can it not be topped by Burton, but that I also must view more of Svankmajer's work if this is typical for the director.
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Tuesday, July 21, 2009
i love it when the tagline for a film succeed in nothing more than slamming another movie. The tagline for "Equilibrium" reads: "Forget 'The Matrix!'" Indeed, forget "The Matrix" so you won't notice the uncanny resemblance this film bears to the Wachowski brothers project. You'll find the stylized gun fights unique and the sleek "future" clothes trendy. I find it odd that science fiction films went through a period where clothing and fashion were one of the primary focuses. It reached its apex with the teaser posters for the lackluster "The Matrix Reloaded."
As a result, writing took back seat to style. Pity. "Equilibrium" could have been a stand-out movie, but it never rises above midgrade fare. The problem is the plot is all too familiar: in a utopian/dystopian future, mankind lives out his life on mood-altering pills in an emotion-free environment. One character stops taking his meds, experiences merriment when he weeps like a woman and spends the rest of the film on the run from the merciless police that are ruled by a giant face on a television screen. It's been done from "THX-1138" to "V for Vendetta" and I suppose producers in the genre praise George Orwell for creating "1984" so they could churn out one permutation of the work after the next every decade. "The Matrix" had hints of this, but for the better part, was original, which sets it above this contender (though "The Matrix" does borrow its basic premise from Olaf Stapledon's "The Starmaker").
The movie is cool from the point of view of a young guy's id, but only "cool" for its "gun fu" - a form of martial arts with weapons. However, it simply feels like the next, natural extension of the action scenes from "The Matrix" - blend the gunfights and the martial arts sequences into one. Christian Bale seems to be channeling Keanu Reeves for his role, and that's not a good thing. Combine all that with the fact that the only dame worth a look is Emma Watson (and she's no Carrie-Anne Moss, I assure you) and you've got a film that's ready for it's big premiere...on the Sci-Fi Channel.
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Close ups of garish eccentrics with a wide-angle lens...that's a quick summery of Baz Luhrmann's first, major directorial effort. But daffy, Australian character actors aside, Luhrmann presents a fun permutation of the tried-but-true Romeo and Juliet in the form of a dancing competition. Scott Hastings, the rising star of a family with a prominent ballroom dancing legacy, goes against the popular styles and trends with some flashy moves of his own. His headstrong ways alienate his long-time partner from him as well as many others in the dance community, but it draws homely Fran to him. Though the two are not the ideal couple in the eyes of all around them, they slowly begin to make their way to the infamous Pan Pacific Championship. Ah, but will their rising success and love be stopped by other, sinister forces? Namely....
the nefarious Barry Fife. Now, the film is filled with a number of hilarious characters, but Bill Hunter's bombastic and bullying performance easily steals the show. I was unfamiliar with this fellow prior to "Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert." While he was endearing as Bob, the "wanna-be groupie" for the cabaret trio, he didn't stand out much in the film. I suppose that's primarily due to the outlandish nature of his "competition" (it's hard to top Terence Stamp in a dress). But in "Stricly Ballroom" he shines as he bellows out insults and prepares conniving schemes to make Scott fail.
The film never soars to the excellent level of Luhrmann's "Moulin Rouge" or "Australia," but it's still an entertaining romantic comedy that doesn't stoop to treacle to win the audiences affections. The director's sense of the melodramatic is certainly present here though (to a zany extent), moreso than his other productions. However, "Romeo + Juliet" is still in my queue for the future, so I suppose I might be judging prematurely.
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Sunday, July 19, 2009
One of the fun things about the history of cinema is seeing how storytelling evolves as one generation influences the next. Quentin Tarantino was obviously influenced by Sergio Leone as "Kill Bill" reflects, and Leone was clearly influenced by John Ford to a fair degree as the sweeping epic "Once Upon a Time in the West" indicates. With "The Spirit of the Beehive," writer/director Victor Erice seems to be telling a semi-biopic about the first film to impact him as a youth: "Frankenstein."
Set in a small, Spanish village at the height of the country's civil war, the story is an exercise in youthful innocence, centered around a young girl named Ana (perfectly casting for Ana Torrent). Ana, a typical, gullible youth, watches a screening of "Frankenstein" at her village, and rather than being afraid of the monster, she wishes to know if he is real and ponders over his motives for killing the little girl in the film. Her sister teases her and tells her that the monster is real, that his spirit resides in an abandoned farmhouse and it can be summoned to appear by simply stating: "It's me." Much of the film follows Ana as she gains the courage to beckon the monster and when she does, there is an individual in the farmhouse - a soldier fleeing from Franco's men. But to Ana, he's the creature in need of caring and a friend.
The film is absolutely gorgeous and shot in a ponderous and hypnotic manner, reminiscent of "Picnic at Hanging Rock," for there's always an atmosphere of dread beneath the beautiful storyline and direction. Erice chose a warm, amber-colored theme for his settings - a style reminiscent of the honeycombs that Ana's father attends to. The shot below is a prime example.
Now as I said before, this film helps you trace the influence of one film through multiple generations. The influence of Whale on Erice is obvious, as it should be perfectly evident that this movie had a profound impact on writer/director Guillermo Del Toro (especially if you've ever seen "Pan's Labyrinth" or "The Devil's Backbone"). A story centered around an innocent child, the presence of a monster that is fueled by the child's imagination, disengaged parents, the Spanish civil war backdrop - all the common elements are there. Yet each director tells different stories of a child's innocence that are both heartwarming and heartbreaking.
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Ah, R.G. Armstrong, how I will never tire of watching you in films. Don't ever die. What started as a mere impulse rental for enjoying the antics of the silver screen's most ornery character actor turned out to be a vast cornucopia of fun roles for niche performers. I sat waiting for Armstrong's name to appear when whose name should become emblazoned on the screen? Cliff Robertson. Followed by Robert Duvall. As the names of recognizable character actors grew - Nellie Burt, Royal Dano, Donald Moffat, Luke Askew, Elisha Cook Jr, spazzy Matt Clark - I knew I was in for fun.
The film is light fare, nothing complex. Spaghetti western fluff, if I can use such a term. A band of outlaws headed by Cole Younger (Robertson) and Jesse James (Duvall) make their way due north to rob the bank of Northfield, Minnesota. Upon arrival, the James-Younger gang learn that the bank is bankrupt, so they gain the trust of the bank president enough to enact a scheme that will build the townspeople's trust of the establishment. Once most of the money of the town is in the bank, then they will rob it. Furthermore, they plan to use a large portion of the wealth to bribe Missouri lawmakers to grant their actions a pardon (the gang had been on the verge of a pardon for their Robin Hood-esque wrongdoings, but it was stymied by the wealthy railmen they'd scorned in their robberies). Thus, the plan will be perfect and everyone will end up happily ever after. But since this is a tale based on a true incident, it should come as no surprise that life rarely offers perfect Hollywood endings and as such, a cavalcade of shootings and bloodshed finish up our second half.
What stops it from being a great western is a script that is rather mediocre at times. It calls for a narrator to insert Paul Harvey "Rest of the story" inspired moments, which makes it feel a little bit Disneyfied (the fact that Paul Frees is the narrator gives it an even stronger feel of being something you might catch late at night on the Disney channel...back in the 1980's before it turned to shit). There's also a subplot about a roaming train filled with assassins hired to kill the James-Younger gang that goes nowhere. The railman in charge of the assassins is easily the worst actor in the film too, making me wish it had been left on the cutting room floor. Still, I can't hate any movie where R.G. Armstrong has a large role and a gun at his side. Oh, and props to Philip Kaufman for his hilarious introduction of Royal Dano's character (he appeared just as I was asking myself when he'd show in the story).
Royal Dano appears, babbling in what sounds like drunken Swedish
Jim Younger (Askew): Who's that?
Manning (Moffet): Him? Oh, that's just Crazy Gustavson! He probably just thinks your his son. He ain't been right since the war.
Gustavson (Dano) babbles excitedly in agreement.
Younger: Well make him stop.
Manning pulls a rock out of his pocket and throws it at Gustavson, who squeals and runs away.
Manning: See, if you just throw a stone at him, he goes away. It never hurts to keep a couple on you.
I think I managed to utter "What the hell?" before succumbing to apoplectic laughter on that number.
In the film "Adaptation," there's a crack about how two of the most overused plot devices in scripts are multiple personalities and serial killers. The statement is not without grounds, for ever since Norman Bates hit the scene, serial killers are "cool" where cinema is concerned. Hannibal Lecter might be the granddaddy of them all where film is concerned, though Dexter seems to have taken the cake where television is concerned. However, there is one common thread to all of these individuals and it is not motive, demographic or modus operandi. It is that they're "likable" or "enjoyable" to a fair degree. Who doesn't love Hannibal Lecter as he drops one liners as regularly as he does prison guards? Who didn't laugh at the absurdity of the gruesome killings at the hands of Patrick Bateman (of "American Psycho") or Mickey and Mallory Knox ("Natural Born Killers"). Alex DeLarge ("A Clockwork Orange") has his wit, Norman Bates garners our sympathy and Kevin Spacey's "John Doe" ("Se7en") simply astounds us with his "genius" scheme.
"Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" throws all of this out the window and presents a dark look at an unstoppable murderer. There are no clever means of elimination, there's no snappy repartee. There's not even a single joke or line that could even be construed as humorous within the film. Shot on 16mm, the grainy stock adds further grit to the already unappealing leads and locations. Set int he slums of Chicago, the story is centered around the titular character (played with brooding intensity by then-newcomer Michael Rooker) and his friendship with a former prison mate, Otis (Tom Towles) and Otis' sister Becky (Tracy Arnold). There's no glamour to the characters as Becky starts to fall in love with Henry, despite his sordid, matricidal past. Henry schools Otis in the ways of killing after Henry impulsively kills two hookers before Otis' eyes. Soon the pair enjoy one murder after the next, even going to the point that they buy a camcorder so they can tape and review their revelry.
This is not a pleasant movie to watch, yet I found it impossible to look away. Though the analogy is rather overused and cliched, in this case, saying that watching the film was very much like ogling a car wreck would certainly be apropos. The killings are the most unpleasant I can think of on film. Watching Otis lick the breasts of a housewife as Henry snaps the neck of her son and stabs her husband to death before her eyes is certainly far from a gigglefest. It makes moments like the torture of Aoyama at the end of "Audition" or the rape scenes from "A Clockwork Orange," "Irreversible," or "Last House on the Left," seem tamer by comparison. Then we're treated to Otis rewatching the tape of the event so he can rub one out at a later point. Simply put, the film is dark, gruesome and devoid of justice or hope, and yet, that's what makes it a good film in my eyes. There's nothing merry about taking one innocent life after the next, no matter how "just" a Hollywood tale may make it seem. If anything, "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" makes you realize how sugar-coated and immature so many other films in the genre really are (and kudos for writer/director John McNaughton for that).
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Thursday, July 16, 2009
Let me just preface this by saying that I was unfamiliar with the two artists featured in this collaboration. Daft Punk is a band that I've heard once or twice, but if asked point blank to name something from their repertoire, I'd be lost. And while I'm familiar with a fair number of prominent innovators in the anime domain, I'd never picked up on the name Leji Matsumoto before. Yet the two working together was an absolutely perfect combination, leading to one of the most mesmerizing and rhythmically energizing films I've seen.
"Interstella 5555" is an album film in the tradition of "Tommy," or "Pink Floyd: The Wall." And just like the two aforementioned titles, "Interstella 5555" was also a film where I found myself realizing that it was probably best intended for those on a whole lot of drugs. A series of kinetic sequences tell the story of a popular alien band that is abducted by a music mogul in Earth, only to be brainwashed, disguised as humans and perform to audiences. It's possibly the most surreal "get rich quick" scheme I've heard of (it also hints, in a subtle way, that humans are incapable of any true talent). A surviving friend of the band takes it upon himself to rescue the band from their manager's evil clutches and...well, the plot alone is absurd and almost incidental when taken by itself.
The music that accompanies the film is certainly not for everyone either. The whole electronica/techno genre is definitely a small subcult of music that's risen in popularity since the mid-eighties. I'll wager that this is entirely due to the parallel ascension of video games in popular culture. Atari, in its later years, developed background scores to their games, but most of the truly memorable musical themes emerged with Nintendo. Members of my generation know that if you're going to play a video game for hours on end, listening to a two minute loop of audio, that it had better be tolerable. Catchy, repetitious, synthesized beats are the essence of techno. Then again, it could all be a coincidence. Perhaps the minimalist scorings of Philip Glass are the true influence. Hey, a Philip Glass score for a video game...yeah...
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This is an odd mix of a moralistic picture aimed at teens and a borderline film noir. A drifter by the name of Bix (Brett Halsey of "Return of the Fly "fame") takes runaway teen Danny (Lowell Brown of nothing fame)under his wing and shows him the ropes of being a vagabond, because it clearly takes a lot. Rather than "drifting," the two settle down into a town with a pretty welcoming ratio of saucy dame to young men. In fact, the only competition is sight is Jack Elam and, well, it goes without saying there's really no competition. Ah, but they must battle the distaste the townsfolk have for drifters with more than just a "Why you always gotta be keeping me down, man?" attitude if they want to win over the hearts of the town's local fillies and law enforcement.
The film is a little light on logic, for the two look far more respectable than most bums I'm used to. If most of Louisville's reprobates looked at their worst like Rod Taylor with a moderate hangover, the city would be pretty well off. So how these two are recognized instantly as drifters, I can't say. Perhaps folks in the 1950's wore their W-2's on their lapels like name badges in the era (that, or maybe it's because they are the only ones wandering around without a briefcase or fedora). The plot is pretty predictable and the acting tepid, though Jack Elam seems to be making his best effort. Oh, and the moral of the tale? Our runaway Danny ditched home because his parents were getting divorced. Boo-hoo. He realizes that warm food is better than a night spent in a box car. And that's even considering that his nights on the train were far more welcoming than those that Chris McCandless experienced, to say the least.
Some might say that my viewing of the film was enhanced by the fact that I was viewing the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version of the film. I could also argue that I would have found the film worse due to the fact that the Best Brains crew were pointing out all the faults. Still, I'd rank the film at a 2/5. The episode as a whole was not one of the crew's best, but still entertaining fodder. The show truly excels when lampooning fodder from the horror or sci-fi genre, because the source material is campy enough as it is. However, one particular segment damn near knocked me to the floor. Crow decides to embrace his love of Jack Elam and decides to be Elam in the hopes of attaining an equally prolific career as a character actor. Thus Crow appears with his eyes rearranged in an asymmetrical fashion to mimic Elam. And if that isn't comic gold, I don't know what is.
Monday, July 13, 2009
Ah, World War I - the great, unnecessary, inglorious war. This era in history is often neglected by cinema. More focus is directed towards WWII ('cause 'MERIKA kicks Nazi ass) or Vietnam ('cause "MERIKA gets its ass kicked...and there's lots of drugs!). Still, the Great War at the turn of the twentieth century has always fascinated me, because the misery of battle seems that much greater when a victory means you moved ten feet forward in a mess of barbed wire, land mines, rotting corpses and mustard gas. And after taking in Stanley Kubrick's ode to the futility of this form of fighting, I'm convinced that this is possibly the best cinematic depiction of trench warfare and one of the better stories portraying the cruelty of war.
The story begins with an "impossible mission" handed down to General Mireau (George MacReady). Mireau knows the seizure of a location on the German side, referred to as "The Any Hill," will likely be a failure, but with the promise of a possible fifth star to his rank, the French general thoroughly convinces himself that the task can be accomplished. He presents the mission to the commanding officer at the front, Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), who balks at the estimated troop loss of 65%, but carries out his orders anyway. When the attack fails, Mireau orders that some of the remaining troops be executed for cowardice to better motivate the remaining French soldiers, but Dax protests and takes the responsibility of defending his men upon himself to prevent their death sentences.
I suppose the film could be viewed as anti-war or even anti-authoritarian, but I viewed as more of a successful social commentary on the ethical "sense" behind following orders without questioning them. "Blind loyalty," so to speak. Kubrick offers two ends of the spectrum: the more "human" side in Dax, for he can't see the sense in executing men to inspire others, and the "devoted follower" side in Mireau, who not only does as he's instructed without question, but demands others to have the same level of dedication as he (to the point that he orders his artillery gunners to fire on the retreating divisions to keep them moving forward). These two dueling views of loyalty and respect to authority raise the film to a moralistic level far above a war flick merely concerned with recreating grisly battles. Douglas certainly excels in the role of Dax and MacReady reaches the zenith of his type-cast villainy as the conniving Mireau.
That's not to say that the movie is free of skirmishes. The attempted siege of the anthill is one of the best battles I've seen on a film. The camera pans follows the tumultuous charge as shells explode and countless troops are brought down by enemy fire, while Col. Dax, in vain, endeavors to lead his men ever forward. Kubrick has several tracking shots through the trenches as well that leave you in awe, for you realize that his crew painstakingly recreated a small section of No Man's Land in then-modern day Germany. There's no doubt about the fact that this is yet another tour-de-force from one of the most prolific director's to grace Hollywood.
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This has to be one of the most brilliantly executed films I've seen. The sheer concept leads me to believe that director Aleksandr Sokurov has balls of solid brass. Within a 36 hour window, he and his crew entered St. Petersberg's glorious Hermitage Museum, dressed it for shooting, shot "Russian Ark," broke everything down and left. More mind-boggling still is the fact that the entire movie is a single, solitary POV shot (there are no "cheat cuts" as Hitchcock got away with in "Rope"). Top that with a fascinating plot that involves 2,300 extras AND the fact that the movie was done in only one take and you have what may be one of the most complex shootings ever staged.
The story begins in darkness as our "narrator" awakens, unsure if he was in an accident. He doesn't know where he is at first, but soon learns that he is in Russia in the 19th century. He follows a group of well-dressed aristocrats and soldiers into the palace where he meets an unnamed European marquis. Together, the two explore the palace, debating about Russian art, music and history versus their European counterparts. As they discuss and stroll from one room to the next, they move through different eras of history, witnessing the countless monumental events that took place in the palace. They enter one room and see Peter the Great fuming at his staff. They move on to another room and it is present day and the two engage in a conversation with the Hermitage Museum's artwork. They leave and enter another chamber where Catherine the Great is rehearsing one of the many plays she would write for her royal audiences.
It sounds like it might be dreadfully educational, but that's not the film's intent. Instead, it's more of an artistic look at "the shining," if you will. You move through the building experiencing its 300+ years of rich, cultural history at once, with ghosts of the past embodying different rooms. Sometimes the narrator and the European can interact and talk with them, sometimes not. And yet, they are accepting of their odd state, as if they too are merely players in whatever beautiful, and almost supernatural, event is taking place. It makes you feel as if you're reliving a pleasant dream, for there is logic and the absence of it all at once. Simply an astounding film.
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While I'm not a fan of the adjective, the term "cute" could be applied here as readily as it could for any story from the halcyon era of 1950's suburbia. Well, I take that back. "Far From Heaven" wasn't cute...unless you're talking about Dennis Quaid...no. But in this quaint little look at Americana, writer/director had removed anyone of African ancestry and replaced them with ZOMBIES!!! Zombie servants, zombie gardeners, zombie garbage men, etc.
This "utopia" exists in a world where the events depicted in "Night of the Living Dead" really took place, but rather than humanity being consumed as a whole, it figured out how to enslave zombies and curb their murderous appetites for the good of the white bread, white collar, white folks. When the Robinson family acquire their first zombie servant, young Timmy doesn't understand why their buttling corpse, named Fido (Billy Connelly), should be treated with equal respect as everyone else. His mother (Carrie-Anne Moss) is understanding of Timmy's confusion and even begins to dote on the creature, but Mr. Robinson (Dylan Baker channeling the spirit of Don Knotts) hates zombies out of fear and wants nothing to do with it.
As you can imagine, things go awry, blood squirts and the body count goes up, but it's a zombie comedy that could be seen as the very antithesis of Peter Jackson's "Dead Alive." It's more akin to a macabre episode of "Leave it to Beaver." The social commentary about attitudes towards race during the 1950's is present in a number of tongue-in-cheek ways within the film - including the shunned Mr. Theopolis (Tim Blake Nelson in a hilarious role), who lost his job once he took on a zombie mistress. Thankfully, it's never to blatant, leaving "Fido" as a pleasant and comedic watch.
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The main appeal for me when it came to selecting this film was the commercials and trailers for it absolutely creeped me out as a kid. Perhaps this was partly due to the fact that alien abduction nightmares regularly haunted my dreams as a kid. That, or it was simply effective marketing. Strangely enough, I totally got into "The X-Files" when it came out seven months later. Knowing that piece of information, I can't help but wonder if this film was responsible for piquing the interest of the general public enough to make the Fox show viable.
"Fire int he Sky" is a retelling of the abduction of Travis Walton in Arizona, 1975. We kick off with Travis' logging buddies telling Sheriff Watters (James Garner) what transpired. Nobody believes the crew and soon the whole town turns against Travis' friends under the assumption that they killed him. The primary focus of all this small-town paranoia is Travis' best friend Mike Waters (Robert Patrick). Mike mopes about with occasional, irate outbursts until Travis finally is returned, with no rhyme or reason, but clearly disturbed.
The film was an interesting watch from a "recreation" point of view. Travis' big-budget flashbacks to the alien ship are silly at first, until the aliens begin to experiment on him. Since there are so many unknown chemicals being poured onto or into him as surreal gadgetry is attached, the scene is pretty terrifying. However, I felt like the rest of the film progressed at a near-death march pace to make you earn this payoff. The internal torment Mike Waters experiences for abandoning his friend should come into play somewhere, but I feel like I was bashed over the head with this subplot. Yeah, I get it - he regrets leaving his friend behind! Now enough with the pathos and show me some aliens cutting a dude open!
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Friday, July 10, 2009
The more I reflect upon this film, the more I like it, despite a couple of moot points on my part. The film is reminiscent of "2001: A Space Odyssey" but with a stronger focus on isolation and loss of self-identity. Sam Rockwell tackles duel roles as the same man: Sam Bell, an astronaut stationed alone on a moon base in an undefined year in our future. He staves off boredom as he sends containers of helium-3 back to Earth that are harvested by large machines roving across the lunar surface (a new, non-polluting power source). His world is shaken when he finds himself sharing the station with, well, himself. Sam inexplicably recovers a wounded version of himself from a lunar rover and when his doppelganger is revived, it seems to be another him.
I'll stop here for fear of giving any potential reveals away (I've given no exposition that cannot be determined from the trailer). Thankfully, writer/director Duncan Jones' script throws out all the typical cliches that one might expect after downing a decade of contrived M. Night Shymalan twists. Instead the reason behind the madness is rather straightforward - but merely on a surface level. The circumstances that led Sam to his current predicament and the way that he and his doppelganger behave are thoroughly open to interpretation. It's not too far fetched to suggest that Rockwell might garner a Best Actor nod from the Academy, given the tip of the hat they gave Nicolas Cage for "Adaptation."
The sense of loneliness that "Moon" instills certainly lasts longer than the film lasts. Jones easily generates this atmosphere by making Sam Bell the only player in this production (save televised communiques from his wife or superiors). Despite this, Jones does infuse a sense of hope into his film to keep it all from being utter despair. I did have niggling a niggling issue with Sam's reaction to himself. For the better part, he and his shadow act like two embittered roommates, refusing to accept each other's existence for much of the earlier portions of the film. One would assume that a professional scientist would be a little more inquisitive, but then again, the isolation of space could have clouded his judgment. In fact, that clouded perspective on the situation could have worked quite well as the crux of the film, making the story a psychological thriller in the vein of some of Roman Polanski's earlier works, like "Repulsion" or "The Tenant." Duncan Jones sticks to his guns though, and spins an old-fashioned, somewhat plausible and "down to Earth" (forgive the pun) science fiction yarn. And considering the fact that we seem to be in an era where most studios think that science fiction is nothing more than weird aliens and space battles, "Moon" certainly comes as a welcome breath of fresh air.
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Going into "Murders in the Rue Morgue," I never expected the adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe's short story to be stellar fun the way that the Roger Corman/Vincent Price adaptations are. However, I would have been more wary had I paid more attention to the director - Gordon Hessler. Hessler is not a terrible man of film. He brought "The Golden Voyage of Sinbad" to life with Ray Harryhausen. But his two films preceding this - "Scream and Scream Again" and "Cry of the Banshee" really tested my patience, despite a near-swooning fandom for Vincent Price. Hessler also directed Price in "The Oblong Box" alongside Christopher Lee, which I have yet to see but undoubtedly will in this quest, despite the inevitable, lukewarm experience it will yield. Enough about Hessler...
No, more about him. I do have to give credit to Hessler here, because he decided to take a unique approach to "Murders in the Rue Morgue." Claiming that too many people were familiar with the twist ending of an ape's involvement, Hessler decided to set the film in a theater where the Poe piece is being performed as a play. During this time, members of the cast are bumped off one by one by a mysterious, masked figure. Herbert Lom is the murderer in question, with not a Clouseau in sight, for he is spurned lover Marot. His main target is to humiliate stage and cast manager Cesar Charron (Jason Robards), a man who had tried to steal his beloved from him. Now Cesar is married to his former lover's daughter...yeah...and Marot is back to woo her too now that she's of age. But not before he charms her by killing all her friends with a vitriol facial.
The premise had me hooked from the start (save the presence of the worst ape suit I've ever seen) and Lom and Robards weren't too bad. But then the plot started going in numerous directions at once (I'm reminded of the way insects skitter when you lift up a rock). Amongst all this was one dream sequence after the next. Yes, Corman would insert dream sequences as filler too, but he would stick to just one per movie. Not only that, but they were atmospheric and eerie (the nightmare from "Tomb of Ligeia" rivals the reoccurring visions from "Sybil" in the way of feline ghoulishness). These sequences are shot pretty standard and they just become boring and repetitious. About two-thirds in, the plot becomes really convoluted, and after being graced with a headache in the process, I wish Hessler had stuck to Poe's original story.
Thursday, July 9, 2009
Now this is what a crime film should be! It takes the French to remind everyone that they know "noir." "Rififi" is as wild as its name indicates (the literal translation, according to a cabaret song within the film is "the rough and tumble") and Jules Dassin takes advantage of his Hollywood blacklisting and "exile" in France to expertly blend the film noir techniques he perfected in the US and the new wave style emerging in French cinema. The result is the true, original "caper movie." It's influence is seen from "The Killing" to "Ocean's Eleven" and the "Mission Impossible" series.
The story begins like most films of its kind - a con is released from jail and gets back together with some of the old gang and some new thugs as well, and together they map out a score that will leave them set for life. In this case, our former jailbird is Tony (Jean Servais), a cold and merciless rogue who takes over as the head of a jewel theft ring with little objection and who makes his displeasure with the infidelity of his girl known by having her strip down and then proceeding to beat her with a belt. The funny thing is, even though Tony is portrayed as tough, he's not heartless. He sticks by those who stay loyal to him. As for those who don't...
Where "Rififi" differs from its predecessors within the genre is its depiction of the actual heist. A large focus is centered around how the crew will break into the jewelry store and crack the safe without triggering the state-of-the-art alarm system. The actual heist takes place over the course of almost an entire reel with no score and scarcely a sound to be heard (for the alarm is sensitive to sound vibrations). As a result, terrific tension builds and doesn't let up until the gang has the jewelry on hand and are out the door. The degradation of the "perfect plan" that follows is equally enthralling, with kidnapping and shootings galore. While there have been numerous heist films in the wake of "Rififi's" success, few ever equal it, for this noir beyond noir sets the benchmark so high.
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This was easily one of the most anticipated movies of the summer for me, because I have a soft spot for gangster flicks of the 1920's and 1930's. They romanticize leading a life of crime more than pictures depicting the modern day, well-to-do drug dealers ("American Gangster," "Blow," etc.). That, mixed with Johnny Depp, Christian Bale and directed by Michael Mann...it's the perfect formula for summer escapism and fun. And yet, I left the film with the acknowledgement that I'd seen a "good film" despite feeling a little flat.
The film follows the parallel paths of two men: the newly appointed chief for Chicago's G-Men Melvin Purvis (Bale) and the primary target of his efforts, John Dillinger (Depp). Dillinger is a man of the people, lauded as almost a folk hero, for robbing banks but leaving the common man his money. But amongst all these apocryphal accolades is a fair sense of isolation that stems from the absence of a true, close friend or lover. He fills this void with a relationship involving a cloakroom attendant named Billie Frechette (Marion Cotilliard) and as his friends are slowly gunned down by Purvis' men, he grows to depend on her all the more. But in true, catch-22 fashion, the more the two are together, the more he puts the one he loves at risk and the greater the chance Purvis will catch up to him. A lot of the shootouts and jailbreaks are executed with as much accuracy as the amalgamation of history and cinema will allow (Dillinger's escape with a gun carved from wood and covered in shoe polish has always been one of my favorite tales from the era).
It's a strong cast, with Bale being the strongest of the starring trio. He maintains an expression of an impenetrable force, while underneath he's slowly beginning to crack as Dillinger slips through his fingers time and time again and his boss, J. Edgar Hoover () chews him out repeatedly. While Depp is marketed as the selling point for the film and he does a decent job, he doesn't ever "become" Dillinger on screen and Mann might have been well-advised to go for a less prominent or unknown actor for the role. Mann would have also been well-advised to shoot on 35mm film. I understand what he was trying to do - he wanted to break convention by shooting a period piece on an HD cam, possibly to draw a more modern look on past events. My issue is when it comes to a period piece, I enjoy watching something from the 1920's or the 1820's because in the hands of an excellent director, many scenes can look as beautiful as a postcard from the era or an Edward Hopper painting ("Road to Perdition" would be a perfect example of a film that both fits this bill and portrays a similar, gritty plot from the Prohibition/Depression era). The "realistic crudeness" of the camera just disassociated me from being drawn into the era, leaving me as more of a spectator and creating the sense of distance I experienced.
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You know, when people gripe about how there's no originality in Hollywood, they really need to take a strong look at the Universal horror line. Studios during this era were no different than they are now. They exploited a franchise as long as it would last, they churned out sequels as much as possible and they cut budgets in the process. However, there was one big difference and that is: a greater focus was put on the script. I'm not saying every sequel is tripe, but the majority do fall very short of the first installment. "Dracula's Daughter" may not rival Todd Browning's "Dracula," and at first, the very notion of continuing a saga by saying that the heartless count had time to raise a family may seem a bit contrived, the film is actually feels quite fresh and on some levels, explores darker territory.
The story picks up where the last scene in "Dracula" leaves off - Dr. Van Helsing (Edward Von Sloan reprising his infamous role) is strolling out from Dracula's resting place at Carfax Abbey when he runs into a couple of bobbies, who quickly digress into their "Wot's all this, then?" rigmarole and arrest Van Helsing for the murder of Dracula. Van Helsing tries to explain the entire ordeal to Scotland Yard, but the chief inspector concludes that the aged doctor is either a murderer or insane. Van Helsing calls upon an old psychiatrist friend, Dr. Garth (Otto Kruger), for help as the mysterious Countess Zaleska (aka Drac's daughter) arrives, abducts and burns her father's body, and then begins feasting on locals.
Zaleska is not your standard vampire though. Gloria Holden expertly plays her as a tortured soul who'd wished, with every fiber of her being, that her father's death would free her of her blood-craving curse. When she learns of some of the work that Dr. Garth has performed with addicts and those suffering from phobias, she approaches him about helping her with her dubious vices - only to no avail as her bloodlust overpowers her will. There's an inherent sadness and humanity in her desire for a normal life that adds an element of viewer sympathy to the character, and in turn, depth. This, combined with eerie lighting and a haunting score, evokes the atmosphere of "Dracula" while still operating as a unique and original horror film.
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Okay, let me preface this by saying that I'm a Bill Murray fan. Whether it's "Ghostbusters" or "Lost in Translation," the guy knows how to entertain. I just feel bad that he fell into the clutches of Wes Anderson. Okay, let me just preface this by saying I'm a fair weather Wes Anderson film. Anything prior to "The Life Aquatic" is great fun. But I believe his direction consists of: "Act bored and suicidal." It's funny for a while, but after "The Royal Tenenbaums," I believe he ran out of steam. That expectation of wanting actors to seem disinterested has now become Bill Murray's new schtick. It wasn't too overwhelming for a while, but I believe "The Life Aquatic" was the point where all of that hit its zenith. Since then, Bill Murray has waded through multiple performances with an air of "Is this film really worth the paycheck?" That statement is best summed up by the expression on Murray's face below (taken at the premiere of "City of Ember").
That being said, it was my hope that Murray would have gone back to his scenery-chewing roots with a role in a children's film where one of the primary goals is to entertain. While I found the character of the Mayor of Ember amusing, I felt like Murray neither added nor subtracted from the role. Perhaps though, it was director Gil Keenan at fault, for even Tim Robbins acted like he'd spent the night inside a tent filled with tsetse flies. Keenan may have kept the reigns tight on the two for fear of them overshadowing the two leads of the film: Saoirse Ronan and Harry Treadaway. The two newcomers are Lina and Doon, residents of the post-apocalyptic, subterranean city of Ember. It's a town that's on the verge of being plunged into darkness forever, because its generators are dying and the mayor, along with its peoples, are apathetic about venturing back to Earth's surface. Lina and Doon then set off to find a way out of the city, using a series of clues left behind by the city's founders in an adventure a la "The Goonies."
It's not a terrible film. The actual city looks like something out of a Jean-Pierre Jeunet film and the premise is an intriguing one. The film's just, well, lifeless. I just feel like it goes nowhere, for the children are only pursued halfway and after that, it's just Lina and Doon versus the journey itself (which is neither as perilous or as entertaining as the aforementioned "The Goonies"). There's no true resolution for Ember or the mayor, who seems to simply drift off as Murray does in the film (save Murray doesn't face a giant mole in real life). Perhaps he needed to be cast alongside Martin Landau instead of Toby Jones (though Jones does seem to be having fun). As we can see in another photo from the film premiere, Landau possesses the powers of sorcery that instill life back into Murray.
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Rumor has it that Hitchcock was fairly displeased with the finished product of the film, as were its stars, Julie Andrews and Paul Newman. I suppose I can see why upon reflection. It's not that its a terrible film, it's just mediocre. When you consider the director's repertoire though, I could see where it would be a frightfully disappointing result. Director's attitude aside, "Torn Curtain" still has moments of Hitchcock's trademark suspense.
The plot follows Dr. Armstrong (Newman) as he defects to the Communist East Germany, and his dedicated fiance/assistant Sarah (Andrews), who unwittingly tags along until she realizes that there's no turning back to America. Dr. Armstrong has "defected" for the U.S. Government to obtain knowledge from some of Germany's most prominent scientists, but he cannot tell Sarah the truth for fear of exposure. Later, when the shit hits the fan, the two must try to make their way back to West Germany - a task that sounds easier than actuality.
While Newman and Andrews adequately keep their heads above water when on screen alone, together they tend to sink. I never got any sense of chemistry between the two and never felt like it would be plausible for Sarah to follow Armstrong halfway around the world. The script isn't the best Hitchcock's had to work with either, which hurts the director's ability to build proper tension for the spy thriller. As I noted before, there are some great moments of suspense, particularly when Newman kills his tail in a secluded farmhouse. For fear of alerting the cab driver outside the window, he kills the security detail in complete silence. No music. No dialogue. Just uncomfortable grunts as Newman stabs, chokes and drags the man into an oven. Unpleasant, but suspenseful. However, when one of the film's big climaxes is a bus ride that lasts nearly ten minutes...I'm sorry, but even Alfred Hitchcock, who made tennis riveting in "Strangers on a Train" is hard pressed to make it seem anything but tedious.
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I decided to follow "Saludos Amigos" with Disney's sequel, "Three Caballeros." I was worried that I would receive more of the "We love South America! Everyone should love South America!" message from the film, but it was thankfully subdued to the point that its almost absent. This might seem surprising, considering the story is still set in South American culture. However, the artists and writers seemed more concerned with entertaining this time around than utilizing their talents for a mild form of propaganda.
The story is still a loose means of allowing a smorgasbord of cartoons to grace the screen; Donald receives presents from his Latin American friends. His first present in a film reel about birds, a novelty I appreciate, and before it gets to the decent animated short, "The Cold-Blooded Penguin," an eccentric Disney character I'd forgotten completely about makes his debut - the Aracuan Bird. I suppose it was Disney's answer to the Looney Tunes Do-Do character. Still, I cracked up at his goofy song as much as I did when I was young and vowed there to parody it in a future production of mine.
As for the musical numbers, they were not only memorable and catchy, but they expertly blended animation with live action as Donald and his two newfound friends (Jose Chariocha of "Saludos Amigos" and new character Panchitos) sing/woo callipygean latinas. In fact, an alternate title for the film could have been "Donald Chases Tail" because that's what half of the musical numbers are about (leading me to the sound conclusion that this film could not be made in this day and age, due to its obvious chauvinistic undertones). The grand finale is evidence of this as Donald regresses into a primordial hallucination, filled with armies of dancing legs and other imagery that blows the "Pink Elephants on Parade" segment in "Dumbo" out of the water. But in the end, all the dames diss him. No wonder Donald stays pissed.
Disney goes to South America to give American audiences something to take their minds off World War II (hey, look at those people dancing with fruit on their heads! Pearl Harbor didn't bring them down!). The film is a combination of three new shorts bumpered by exposition on the culture of the continent and how said cartoon relates to the native peoples and their history. I'm sure that this film , if available in 16mm to schools, was used for educational purposes by teachers wanting to educate students about the culture of Brazil, Chile and surrounding countries. Though if this were still used today, apart from being a study in pleasant banalities, it would provide students with plenty of fodder to mock - primarily the film's tagline: "Walt Disney goes South American in his gayest musical Technicolor feature!"
Student: Yeah, it's pretty gay.
I like the concept of showing the Disney artists at work, followed by the cartoons they produce. The downside is the two themes feel a little forced into one another. That, and the animated shorts feel a little mediocre. "Pedro," a cartoon about a baby plane delivering mail, seems cloying, even by 1940's Disney standards. "El Gaucho Goofy," is fairly hilarious and the Donald Duck scenes, while entertaining (for I love Donald) also go on for too long. There's still enough dazzle of Technicolor to be engaging, but the film stands out as being more of an uneven production than one of Disney's best.
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Ah, another Hercule Poirot film. Released four years after "Murder on the Orient Express," "Death on the Nile" lacks the lavish-looking sets of its predecessor, as well as the superb score and perfect acting on the part of its cast (particularly that of Albert Finney as Poirot). Nevertheless, this is still a damn good film with an equally engaging script. This occurs thanks to the work of writer Anthony Schaffer, who also adapted "Orient Express" as well as two more Agatha Christie/Poirot mysteries in the following years.
The story is set not on a train, but a steamship cruising down the Nile. This confinement provides a nice excuse for the murderer's inability to escape, leading to the now-cliched climax where all the accused sit about the detective and find out "why you've all been called here..." This time, the victim is a wealthy heiress (Lois Chiles aka Holly Goodhead) and not only does she have plenty of enviable jewels and a sizable bank account, but she's a bitch to boot. So we end up with a corpse and a bevy of possible suspects (Maggie Smith, Bette Davis, Mia Farrow, George Kennedy, Jack Warden, etc.). Poirot (Peter Ustinov) finds himself assisted by his friend Colonel Race (David Niven). And as you might guess, while others are scrambling about and throwing countless red herrings in the detective's way, Poirot maintains a cool head and unravels the complex and nefarious plot.
Even though Poirot stories have a predictable pattern of unfolding, that doesn't make them any less engaging. You find it almost damning that Poirot can figure out exactly what transpired when you cannot, despite the fact that you both have the same clues at your disposal. Listening to Poirot explain what happened holds you at the same rapt attention one might experience while listening to a magician unveil his trick. So while Ustinov may not measure up to Finney's Poirot and the art direction may be low key when compared with "Orient Express," "Death on the Nile" is still a fun ride. Especially because you get to see Angela Lansbury shot in the head for the first time since "The Manchurian Candidate" (except this time, in color!).
Both enthralling and haunting, I feel like going as far to say that this was truly the best film of the year. I don't want to make that judgment right away, for I haven't seen "No Country for Old Men" since opening day, but "Atonement" was simply a perfect film. My favorite film of the five nominated is still "There Will Be Blood" for reasons too numerous to name here, but I will say that Daniel Day-Lewis' Daniel Plainview performance that makes being evil look fun is certainly the main reason. "Michael Clayton," while an excellent thriller, was just that for me. As for "Juno," well...no, I won't start.
"Atonement" beautifully depicts how everything is life is so very fragile. Be it lives or relationships, they can be dashed in an instant. Such a moment occurs as a result of misinterpretation of events by a young Briony. She catches only mere glimpses of the relationship between her sister Cecilia (Keira Knightly) and the estate gardener Robbie (James McAvoy). Despite being a youth that is highly doted by Cecilia's family, he's quickly thrown to the wolves when a visiting family member is raped and Briony testifies to Robbie's licentiousness (a misconception she receives by walking in on her sister and Robbie's interludes at inappropriate times). It wouldn't take Briony long to realize the error of her ways and she then spends her life endeavoring to find reconciliation for a wrong that cannot be corrected, leading up to the film's staggering finale.
Even more staggering that the finale is a single shot within the film. Set at Dunkick amidst World War II (the romance of Cecilia and Robbie continuing during the throes of battle when he joins the army after prison), director Joe Wright follows Robbie's troubled walk along the beach in a tracking shot that lasts five minutes on an astonishing set. As he progresses, he becomes more and more disillusioned by the sights surrounding him - horses are being executed as troops play on the beach or in the surf, soldiers lay out tanning next to those injured and bleeding, another group, led by a commanding officer, sing as a feris wheel burns in the background. I've never seen the madness and confusion of war summed up so brilliantly in a solitary shot. Wright accomplished in five minutes what it took Francis Ford Coppola almost four hours to do in "Apocalypse Now"...and it never looked so eerily beautiful. Between stellar performances and the year's best score, you'd have to look hard to find any true flaws to the film.
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