Monday, September 21, 2009
This film falls into the loose category that so many modern horror films do - cool concept that doesn't live up to its potential. The creature that must be defeated in this film is not a monster in a true sense, but a fungus that infects living humans. The fungus grows in the form of metallic spikes and it only takes a puncture of one thin shard to infect you. Once that occurs, your body is no longer your own - your central nervous system is controlled by the primitive demands of the fungus, converting bodies, both living and dead, into unthinking, mobile creatures.
The humans pitted against this organisms are a happy couple celebrating their love with a camping trip, and another couple who hijack their car and take them hostage. The four end up at a gas station where the attendant has been infected by the fungus and soon they're holed up in this small station a la every zombie film ever made. The story conducts itself in a manner that can only be described as "predictable implausibility." A man's arm is amputated in a manner cruder than a scene in any "Saw" film, yet the victim lives, police show up randomly only to be destroyed...the usual cliches.
I can't deny though, that the creature concept was pretty cool. The fungus had the ability to join with itself and there's a neat scene where two corpses are joined by the splintering substance into one. Regrettably, you never see much of it, but a cool concept all the same. Severed limbs also serve the same threat as full corpses since the fungus can control all! There are some pretty cool special effects for such a low-budget film, but unfortunately "shaky-camera cinematography" was utilized in action scenes to prevent you from seeing too much (a tactic used to its fullest by Ridley Scott in "Gladiator" as well as every filmmaker since who didn't want the audience to get a genuine look at the action taking place...tsk, tsk). It wasn't the most unique horror flick, but I've killed time with far worse fodder.
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Sunday, September 20, 2009
Roger Corman's adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe pieces hold a fond place in my heart, for I have early memories of "Pit and the Pendulum" from my youth that later led to a rabid search for the rest of Vincent Price's collaborations with the B-movie auteur. "Tomb of Ligeia" and "Masque of the Red Death" are masterpieces of the macabre, despite limited budgets. But I was hesitant about catching "The Premature Burial" for in place of Vincent Price, we are handed Ray Milland as the tortured soul. My instincts were correct, for Milland scarcely has the "Gothic presence" of Price.
Milland is certainly capable of playing a tormented protagonist - his Oscar for "The Lost Weekend" is a testament to that fact. He can even "excel" at B-grade horror as his next collaboration with Roger Corman, "X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes" demonstrates. But the script doesn't seem to suit him in this situation. In fact, the script is the weakest aspect of the film. After all, there are only so many scenarios where a paralyzing fear of being buried alive can have a genuine influence on a man. Sure, all of Corman's Poe films are contrived to a degree, but not to the point that it mars the credibility of the lead (the "twist" ending is positively absurd, as well). So I suppose that Milland does his best playing Guy Carrell, an English nobleman who makes it his life's obsession ensuring that he will never be buried alive.
There is nice atmosphere to the film, evoking the same mood that the better installments generated. The repetition of "Molly Malone" being whistled in a haunting manner was a nice touch. Whistling is one of those small touches that can add great senses of suspense or dread and so often it's used in films as more of a whimsical element. "M," "Horror Express" and "Kill Bill Volume 1" all have moments where the eerie whistle of a character adds to the mood in a manner similar to "The Premature Burial." Also, my hats off to the brilliance of character Alan Napier, who was employed to play Milland's father-in-law. During the wedding scene at the film's start, a side character asks Napier if he is enjoying his daughter's wedding. He replies that he no longer experiences enjoyment - "...rather, I just experience greater and lesser degrees of tedium." A fabulous line that had me rolling.
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It's rare for me to watch a comedy and find myself laughing to the extent that my own chortles drown out the dialog on screen, but it happens. Such was the case with this British take on Gonzo reality. I suppose that referring to it as Gonzo might conjure up too much of a "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" image, though there are elements of that vacationing, hallucinatory madness afoot. It was more of a "self-realization" film, focused on a character coming to terms with who he is and where his direction in life lies just a bit later than many of his peers did (a theme that a somewhat similar film, "SLC Punk," handled rather well.
Our unnamed narrator and his rakish compatriot, Withnail, decide that the drudgery of their drug-addled, day-to-day lives needs shaking up, so they decide to escape deep into the pasture lands of rural England to indulge in drugs. But the kink in the works is the owner of their scenic cottage - Withnail's uncle, a flamboyant, retired actor who absolutely adores the narrator. So when Withnail's uncle "accidentally" ends up at the cottage as well, the old codger sets his sites on conquering the young vacationer.
Richard Griffiths, hands down, makes this movie. He seems to revel in the eccentric and licentious behavior of Uncle Monty. His constant attempts at seducing the narrator had me, for lack of a better word, howling with laughter. There are moments of subtle, euphemistic humor, such as asking the narrator if he is adept at handling meat while preparing a meal, to scenes of attempted rape as Uncle Monty drunkenly bashes down a barricaded door, bellowing "Boy! Don't pretend to sleep, boy! I know you're awake and I'll have you yet!" Richard E. Grant and Paul McGann have an entertaining, bickering friendship that has its surreal moments, but never seems to push the limits of reality. And despite moments as low as drinking lighter fluid, the two are endearing, giving a humorous look at the drug culture of the late sixties a heartwarming touch.
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I'd heard a fair amount of mediocre reviews regarding Hitchcock's last film prior to watching it. Perhaps lowering my expectations is why I enjoyed the silly caper. The story doesn't have the evocative power of "Vertigo" or "Rebecca," nor does it possess the edge-of-your-seat suspense of "Rear Window" or "Psycho." No, if I had to liken it to some of the director's other works, I'd say that it's definitely commensurate with "The Trouble With Harry" and possibly the zanier aspects of "North By Northwest."
The story is centered around the hijinks of a fraudulent psychic, Blanche (Barbara Harris) and her boyfriend (Bruce Dern) as they accept a commission from one of Blanche's regular clients - a wealthy, old widower. The assignment is to locate the widow's long-lost son so she can will her fortune to him. The problem? The heir (William Devane) doesn't want to be found, because his past is marred with murder and kidnapping. Needless to say, Blanche and her man stumble into a mess of trouble typical of most Hitchcock protagonists.
Despite some dark undertones, the film is, on the whole, light fare. Harris and Dern have entertaining chemistry on screen. William Devane channels Paul Lynde channeling William Devane as only Devane can. Karen Black does her multiple roles schtick that put her on the map in "Trilogy of Terror." How she can dupe others with her false identity with those eyes is a mystery to me and a mystery worthy of Hitchcock. Perhaps that could be his next proj...oh............ooooooh.
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Here's my plan if I should ever get a time machine - I would travel back in time and pick up some Crystal Pepsi and Barbeque Ripplins and catch "Dick Tracy" in theatres. That's it. I've seen too many sci-fi films that to be so foolish as to pull a "Sound of Thunder" move and do something so consequential as talk to my former self. However, if I did, I would smack my seventeen year-old self upside the head in 1998 and say "Go watch 'The Faculty,' damn it!" When the film came out, I shunned anything put out by Dimension because I was too busy absorbing myself in Kubrick and Vincent Price horror flicks. I was too snobbish to indulge in modern horror aimed only at my demographic.
It's a pity, though, for not only is this a damn, fun film, but it was released during my senior year, which was perfect timing. Of course, the big reason that "The Faculty" rises above the rest of its kind from the era ("Scream," "I Know What You Did Last Summer," etc.) is that it was helmed by Robert Rodriguez, who knows what it takes to entertain, whether he's directing a bloodbath or a children's film. The storyline is a touch "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," a touch "Night of the Creeps," and there are even elements of Bruce Coville's literary niche present. Nothing complex, mind you - the film is as surface-level as it seems. The school's teacher base is turning into aliens and it's up to a rag-tag group of students to stop them.
The student leads aren't terrible, but they don't stand out either, which is why the majority of them (apart from Elijah Wood and Josh Hartnett) have disappeared from the face of the Earth. The adult cast is another situation entirely, made up of a veritable character actor orgy. Daniel Von Bargen, Jon Stewart, Famke Janssen, Salma Hayek, Piper Laurie, Bebe Neuwirth, Susan Willis, Robert Patrick and a Harry Knowles cameo really do make the film. The rest of the film could have been an exercise in mediocrity and that cast would make it fun. Thankfully, the movie works on a lot of other levels (though, like most films of this ilk, it does have its fair share of gross implausibilities).
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Finally, a contrived film concept is executed in a manner that works. The overused plot? Two individuals, too eccentric for their own good, find love and friendship in one another through the very fact that they're enamored by one another's foibles. It's a staple synopsis of romantic comedies, dating back to the squirrely comedies of the thirties and forties, such as "Bringing Up Baby" to modern permutations like "Annie Hall" or my recently reviewed "Benny and Joon."
It's tough to say what makes this film work so well. One element is certainly the direction of Ken Russell, though his trademark excess is rather subdued here, replaced by the rakish nature of his main characters. Perhaps his focus on character development over surreal, visual digressions is a plus. The script is excellent and the performances by the leads are top notch. Scott Antony conveys a dizzying energy as Henri Gaudier, an obscure French sculptor who serves as Russell's focus in the biopic. Dorothy Tutin is equally incendiary as Henri's love and partner, Sophie.
The basic plot is quite similar to Russell's other biopics ("Mahler," "The Music Lovers," etc.), placing the focus on the subject dance along the fine line between genius and insanity. But while he portrays Gaudier as a wild, callous and egotistic artist, you're still fascinated by the talent he effortlessly exudes. For example, early in the film, Gaudier suggests an art dealer drop by his studio, bragging about a new, nonexistent piece of sculpture he has lying about. The dealer calls his bluff and promises to visit early in the morning. Gaudier leaves the party, absconds with a marble tombstone from a local cemetery and carves it into a beautiful work overnight, amidst his self-proclaiming ramblings. When the dealer cancels his meeting the next morning, Gaudier casts his new sculpture through the gallery's plate glass window. Antony almost seems to be channeling Michael Palin at times in his performance, but never to an obnoxious degree. I was surprised to learn, after a bit of research, that he was featured in a couple of minor roles after this film ("Savage Messiah" being his first performance), did a bit of stage work and disappeared. It's a shame, considering the potential demonstrated on screen. But speaking of stunning performances, Helen Mirren costars and is naked for approximately half of her screen time. Perhaps that's why I found the film so enjoyable...
Lycanthropy, vampirism, reanimated corpses, hunchbacked dames and insanity...all these things were what lured me into the science field as a youth. I suppose I was no different than the standard six year-old that aspires to be a cowboy or astronaut when he grows up. It's just that my doe-eyed dreams involved me becoming a mad scientist. Regrettably, there are no institutes of higher learning that offer degrees in delirium with minors in biology (unless you count the Word of Life Bible Institute's creationism program - Hey-oh!).
Here's a film that delivers a promise more golden and misleading than any of the other horror fodder I enjoyed as a youth. Dr. Edelmann is a scientist researching fungi in a Gothic castle with his saucy, hunchbacked nurse, when Dracula (David Carridine) arrives and reveals to the doctor that he's been slumbering in the castle's secret crypt. Dracula wants to be cured and Edelmann sets off to find one. Shortly thereafter, Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) is captured by the police and turns into a werewolf in his jail cell. Edelmann asks if he can have him, much as a child would ask for a puppy in a store window, and the police agree. After the third night, while trying to cure Larry with the help of the villager hoard (headed by Skelton Knaggs), Edelmann discovers the Frankenstein monster in a series of cove caves, which just so happen to connect to his recently-discovered crypt. And then he goes insane.
The ludicrous nature of this all makes this film quite fun. Old Doc Edelmann has to be thinking "Holy shit! Pay dirt!" when he goes from the banal study of fungal spores to having a vampire, wolfman and a reanimated corpse all inside of his castle walls (which also have a crypt and catacombs) in less than 72 hours. Too bad he goes insane. Bound to happen, I suppose. I do have to mention that one of the best "Dracula moments" in any of the Universal installations takes place when Dracula approaches Edelmann's assistant (Martha O'Driscoll) as she plays the piano. He begins to stare at her ominously, and soon she finds herself playing a haunting piece of music unknown to her. Eerie, yet effective. I was actually surprised that I enjoyed this better than the prior installment, "Son of Dracula." My assessment is that "Son of Dracula's" greatest fault is that it took itself too seriously, a quality that "House of Dracula" thankfully never strives for.
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It's Mortal Kombat: the Movie before "Mortal Kombat" was ever born! Flying weapons and over-the-top fight sequences galore, this is both a quintessential martial arts flick as well as a nice, little guilty pleasure. To make logical heads or tails of the plot is an exercise in futility, but being a school teacher by second trade, I excel at executing frivolity.
A blind assassin is bound and determined to vanquish his sworn enemy, the one-armed boxer who killed his followers. The assassin hones his skills by killing every one-armed man he happens across, utilizing the weapon that you know is coming...the FLYING GUILLOTINE! In one swift move, an opponent is beheaded, leaving the master of the weapon to revel at your decapitated body...assuming he could see it. The one-armed boxer, who's now running a martial arts school, spearheads a fighting tournament in the hopes of flushing out the assassin. Several eccentric fighters later, including one whose arms possess "Stretch Armstrong" powers, the blind killer shows himself.
It's clear that this was one of the prime pieces of cult fodder that influenced Tarantino's creation of the "Kill Bill" saga - so much so that he even uses excerpts from the theme music during "Volume One." The film possesses none of the grace and complex story lines that modern masterpieces, such as "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," or "Hero," do. But rest assured that there's enough absurdity to satiate your inner ten year-old.
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This film reminded me of a comment I once heard my friend Lee make, in reference to his first viewing of "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" during its original, theatrical release. To quote: "It's bad when you're watching an Indiana Jones movie and you find yourself looking at your watch." The same could be said of me while viewing one of Hitchcock's later projects. While there are clever sequences and artful shots, the film is very dry and essentially devoid of that trademark Hitchcockian suspense.
The focus is the Cold War, much as it was in "Torn Curtain." This time, the film begins with a defector who tells an American CIA agent (John Forsythe) that there are confirmed relations between Russia and Cuba, and that there's a spy within the French intelligence. The CIA utilizes French agent Andre Devereaux (Frederick Stafford) to do their dirty work, from investigating the link between Russia and Cuba to sniffing out the mole in his own organization. Philippe Noiret and John Vernon have entertaining, albeit brief roles as a glutton in the French agency and a feisty Cuban politico, respectively.
I suppose it's a bad sign when even Hitchcock doesn't know how to end his film. The endings were shot for "Topaz," none of which feel gratifying. Some critics argue that Stafford was a poor choice for a leading man because he scarcely had the presence of other Hitchcock regulars, such as Stewart or Grant. I suppose that's true to an extent, though I felt that Stafford did the best he could with a weak and convoluted script. As I mentioned in reviewing "The Wrong Man," while I appreciate Hitchcock's desire to branch out as a director (as he strives to do here), I still say: "If the formula isn't broken, then why try to fix it?"
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There are very few adaptations of Shakespeare's works that I find genuinely enjoyable when executed. I don't blame the source material per se, though the dialect can be tricky for those attempting to speak it when they really don't understand what it means. As a result, many productions come of as emotionless "readings" of the play in question, for the actors saying the lines aren't conveying the emotion behind the meaning of the words. I've found over the years, that the British excel at really bringing the Bard's prose to life. Perhaps it's cultural.
So you can understand my hesitancy when it came to watching Leonardo DiCaprio (milking his 90's heartthrob image) belt out Shakespeare. Surprisingly, it works. Had the production been set in 16th century Italy, I think the story would have fallen flat. Thankfully, Lurhmann injected his own unique breed of showmanship into the tale, placing Verona smack-dab in the middle of Mexico (the fictitious Verona Beach looking like the architectural love-child between Mexico City and Rio). Other permutations, such as giving the guns brand names like "Rapier" or "Sword" and reducing Queen Mab to a hit of Ecstasy, enhance the modern settings.
While the film's two leads, DiCaprio and Claire Danes, aren't exceptional, they ain't bad neither (if I'm permitted to coin such a phrase while reviewing Shakespeare). Pete Postlethwaite M. Emmet Walsh and Paul Sorvino devour much of the scenery, as is typically their want...especially Sorvino. Ah, but even Brian Dennehy eases into his role as the head of the Montague clan. So even though the story of Romeo and Juliet has seen the light of stage and screen countless times, it's nice to see that in the proper hands, it can still feel fresh.
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Every review that's been written for this film in the past fifty years or so has been absolutely glowing. Critics hail it as an overlooked, under-appreciated classic, a breathtaking epic, etc. All this retroactive fanfare intrigued me, especially when you take into account the film's mediocre reception by the British media at the time of its release (Churchill sought to have the film banned from theatres for its portrayal of Nazism). However, I hate to admit it, but I failed to see what the hype is all about.
The comic character "Colonel Blimp" is seen in the guise of a mustachioed British general of prodigious girth, known as Clive Candy (Roger Livesey). He begins his anecdotal soliloquy/flashback after his temper is incited by a braggadocio young soldier who attempts to take the good general "prisoner" hours before a war game is slated to start. The tale visually waxes on in a nostalgic fashion from the point of view of a seasoned man, who has endeavored to live his life with the utmost chivalry, now disgusted with the disrespectful and rakish nature of "today's youth." Being a sentimental bastard myself, I can appreciate this theme within a three-hour epic that sprawls across three wars.
My issue is that I found Clive Candy more pompous than endearing at many points. For example, the film starts out after he returns from the Boer War after winning the Victoria Cross for gallantry. This accomplishment is left dubious as Candy decides to taunt a group of German officers out of personal spite towards one officer known to him. The incident grows out of hand, Candy ends up insulting all of the German officers and soon finds himself locked into a duel. I suppose that in 1943, audiences nodded in satisfaction as he gave those krauts what-for, but I couldn't help but note that the predicament he lands himself in is essentially his fault. Therefore, it's hard to sympathize with the fact that he's in trouble. Furthermore, twenty minutes is spent outlining the rules and regulations for the duel, and providing exposition behind Candy's German opponent. However, when the time comes for the actual sword battle, the camera pans up from the sparring pair and out of the building, eliminating the action and substituting it with the subdued sound of blades clacking as we watch Candy's suitor (Deborah Kerr), anxiously wait outside.
In fact, I was amazed that a three-hour Technicolor spectacle depicting the life of a war hero, a British general that's allegedly as gallant as they come, didn't feature a single action scene. A duel and three wars, but no battles to be found. Rather, we're only treated to moments in Candy's life when he lectured others on the proper way to conduct war, love and all things British. While it is a worthwhile theme worth addressing, I felt like the dead horse was severely beaten here. As a result, I found the film to be less a character study and more a caricature study.
When I discovered "Dementia" at the beginning of the year, I was blown away by how unique, stylized and evocative the film noir was. The very concept of a complex story told without a shred of dialogue was ballsy to me. Imagine my surprise then, when I learned that "Dementia" was not the original film noir to use this premise. There was another tale of intrigue told without a single line spoken, and not only that, but it was also created three years prior.
Ray Milland stars as a nuclear physicist who engages in research by day and moonlights as a spy for an unnamed foreign power by night. It's clear from the get-go that Milland's Dr. Field's is a nervous-natured character who wants out of the espionage game, but doesn't have the gumption to tell his cohorts to take a hike. But when one of the members in the spy ring is killed in a moment of pure circumstance, microfilm containing the photos shot by Fields traces the authorities to his place of work, sending the prominent physicist on the run.
The problem with "The Thief" is that it never builds a great deal of suspense and I had trouble sympathizing with Fields. Furthermore, his character struggles to make things right and that turn of heart makes the story too treacly. I like my noirs like I like my humor - dark. "Dementia" was beyond dark - it was downright nightmarish, and the surreal concept of telling a story dialogue-free seemed apropos to the style. With "The Thief," the abstract, "Silent" angle felt wasted in a by-the-numbers script. "The Thief" is not a terrible production by any means, but if it can be said that it influenced the creation of "Dementia," then I certainly think the minds behind "Dementia" learned from their predecessor's mistakes.
It's rare for propaganda qua educational films to achieve the state of cult status. In fact, I can't think of any, save "Triumph of the Will," though I'm not sure how "educational" one could consider it (informative, perhaps). It's likely that "Reefer Madness" would have been lost to decay if it weren't for it's novelty value. And while we can look back at the media's depiction of marijuana usage and laugh at its stereotypical inaccuracies, things have scarcely changed.
It seems that in post-Depression America, smoking pot turned you into frenzied piano players who giggle to the point that they make Cesar Romero's Joker look as merry as Eeyore. These bizarre moments in the film feel like Lynchian departures from the plot and are entertaining to an extent. However, the moralistic nature of the film comes across as subtly as a slap upside the head. As a result, a great deal of "Reefer Madness" is just tedious. But if people are willing to preserve the "Star Wars Christmas Special" for the sake of novelty, far be it for me to judge those who hold "Reefer Madness" in high regard.
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The mediocre third entry in the Dracula series at Universal studios. Unlike "Dracula's Daughter," "Son of Dracula" ties, in on way, to its predecessors. Set in New Orleans, presumably in 1943, the Caldwell plantation receives an Eastern European gentleman caller - one Count Alucard (uh oh - palindrome zaniness!). Alucard (Lon Chaney Jr.) was invited to the home by Kay, one of Colonel Caldwell's two daughters, for reasons that are as ambiguous as Chaney's accent. The colonel "mysteriously" dies, the "Dark Oaks" plantation is willed to Kay and Kay's sister and Fiance are both inquisitive when she pledges her love to Alucard. The fiancee tries to kill Alucard for stealing his girl, accidentally shoots Kay and we're expected to view him as a hero. Meanwhile, a random doctor is thrown into the mix to play Van Helsing and goes through the motions to prove Alucard is a vampire (the crowning piece of evidence is that Alucard is Dracula spelled backwards...yeah).
The script is pretty lackluster, but I will give the film props for a couple of points. First, the swamps of New Orleans make an atmospheric backdrop for a wanna-be Gothic tale. Second, there are come effective and mildly creepy moments in the film - from Alucard's transformation into a bat (surprisingly smooth for the era) and scenes where Alucard floats over the water of a swamp, trailing a cloud of mist behind him. I always found this trick to be an eerie twist for Dracula in "Bram Stoker's Dracula" and I found it fascinating that it seems to originate here. Overall though, a film best left to the Universal classic horror diehards.
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I recall picking this up at a flea market for three bucks...Jesus, has it been three years? I've pulled the film off of my shelf dozens of times, looked at it and returned it to its place, only to choose "Gremlins 2: The New Batch." Why/ Apart from the fact that the latter film is a Dante-fueled, character actor orgy, I suppose I haven't got a reason. Pity, because I regret not sitting down and enjoying this film earlier, because it's an amazing work of art.
Fernando Meirelles takes the tired "corporate cover-up thriller" genre and injects new life into it, very much the way that "Michael Clayton" did. But while the George Clooney vehicle selected a "charitable" agricultural corporation as its target, the medicine industry and its "good natured" intentions are the focus of this intense drama. Ralph Fiennes excels as Justin Quayle, a British ambassador to Africa, who is bound and determined to discover why his wife, Tessa (Rachel Weisz in her Oscar-winning role) was brutally murdered. His is not an easy quest though, for discovery of an answer will inevitable seal his fate as well.
Meirelles creates a wonderful cinematic juxtaposition with the film. While Africa is often depicted as a realm of bloodthirsty beasts (be they human or not) and civil unrest, the real threat here is "civilized man" - an imperialist creature concerned only with personal gain on the stock market, not with the risk to countless, innocent human lives. It's a harsh reality to tackle as a subject, and a far crueler realization that Justin Quayle must come to terms with, but all of this is sewn up in a moving and perfect manner. Not as moving as Kathleen Freeman drinking cooking sherry and fighting gremlin puppets, but damn close.
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This is the role that undoubtedly sparked the notion in the minds of Hollywood directors of "Hey - Johnny Depp likes to play kooky characters! Let's exploit teh shit outta that!" Granted, his first major roles - "Cry Baby" and "Edward Scissorhands" were scarcely conventional characters, but the incessant "Look at me!" rigmarole that he seems to be pumping into many of his memorable roles as of late (Willy Wonka, Jack Sparrow and now, the Mad Hatter) appears to originate with the titular Benny.
Benny (Aidan Quinn) owns a successful repair garage and spends his free time minding his schizophrenic, artistic sister, Joon (Mary Stuart Masterson). Joon's misanthropic shenanigans are often trying for her brother, but he sticks by his sister all the same. But when a poker buddy cons Benny into accepting responsibility of his cousin, Sam (Depp), Benny's world is turned upside down (cue snarky trailer music). Sam and Joon form a close bond through their eccentricities and this relationship even helps teach Benny to love too.
A hefty portion of the plot is both cloying and predictable, and at times, a little illogical, but director Jeremiah Chechik (who proved to me that he has an eye for comedic timing after directing "Christmas Vacation") does quite well with the mediocre script. And yes, Depp does entertain. Granted, it's still the same bag of tricks with the iconic actor, regardless of the role, but I can't deny that he excels at the trade...damn it.
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Long before Vincent Price was typecast as the affable villain in countless horror films, he played several roles as the affable villain in film noir. In the clever "Laura," he was a smarmy red herring and it seems that he's one of the primarily rogues in "The Bribe" (a title I've been struggling to find in some format). And while Price typically fails to disappoint, he doesn't necessarily thrill in "Shock" either.
The movie begins with a dame, as these stories often do, who just happens to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown. For two years after the end of WWII, Janet Stewart has assumed that her husband was killed in action, but one day, she receives a letter from him explaining that he is alive, and that he's on his way home. So as Janet awaits the return of her husband, she witnesses a brutal killing of a woman though her window. The shock of the incident sends her into a catatonic state, which her husband, Lt. Stewart (Frank Latimore), finds her in. A cheery reunion. But thankfully, a famous psychoanalyst happens to be staying in the hotel - Dr. Cross (Price). He takes Janet under his wing and gives her his utmost attention at his sanatorium...because Dr. Cross so happens to be the murderer that Janet witnessed. Cue dramatic chord.
It's actually a cool setup, because the more Janet swears that Dr. Cross is a killer, the more he claims that she's merely delusional - a condition that can be rectified with ample pills and electroshock. It's also fairly dark for the era to, but only dark in theme. The lighting and direction that can make or break a film noir is terribly conventional, and while I found the performances of the key actors engaging (primarily Price, who can do no wrong in my eyes - I forgive you for "Bloodbath at the House of Death," Vincent!), I was left feeling rather indifferent in the end.
Watching old episodes of "Saturday Night Live," and even "Blues Brothers," I had to ponder: why do people regard John Belushi as being so funny? Perhaps it's due to the fact that all through my school career, I frequently found myself stuck sitting by a fat kid who thought he was funny. While others would chuckle at their oafish slapstick, I was repelled, quietly seething and thinking to myself, "Yeah, laugh now, but fatso's gonna be dead at thirty and then I'll have the last laugh." I was macabre as a child, but the swift death of Chris Farley during my high school years gave me a smug sense of vindication.
Anyway, the point is that it's popular to be fat as long as you're obnoxious in today's media (look at Michael Moore - hay-oh!) and I'm just burnt out on it. Yet I found myself guffawing at Belushi's John Blutarsky. Perhaps it was the flu fever I had at the time or perhaps it was the guided direction of pre-"The Stupids" John Landis, but the movie works. I suppose the overused cliche "Always imitated - never duplicated" would be apropos here, for it was blatantly obvious that this film is the birth of the collegiate hijinks genre. It's a selection that's seen its fair share of permutations, from the "American Pie" franchise to "Van Wilder."
The plot is familiar - a band of misfits live the rakish life on campus until their revelry exceeds the tolerance level of "the man" and they must learn to mature and conquer their dilemma (while still remaining youthful at heart). The funny thing is that this film broke that template before it existed, for none of the reprobates residing in Delta House go out quietly, filled with remorse or a sense of self-improvement. And somehow, that angle works, because it makes the players seem more "realistic." After all, does anyone really change? I mean, I laughed my ass off at moments of this film, but I still hate fat people...
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They just don't write 'em like this any more. The quintessential screwball comedy, from the lowbrow lampoonery of the Marx brothers to the "erudite, socialite" humor of "Dinner at Eight," is a series of set-ups and rejoinders. The plot is often as harebrained and incidental as a storyline in a porno. But that snappy repartee has a kinetic rhythm to it that gives the films a breakneck pacing that can only be described as zany.
Based on that, one might argue that the point of discussing the film's premise is rather moot, but I shall endeavor to do so all the same. Renowned paleontologist Dr. Huxley (Cary Grant) is close to finishing his dinosaur skeleton, but lacks the intercostal clavicle and hopes the funding of one Ms. Random will help him complete the project. By chance, he comes to meet Ms. Random's niece, Susan (Katherine Hepburn), who believes he's a zoologist and cons him into going to Connecticut so she can con him into taking care of her leopard, Baby, and woo him out of his pending marriage. A big game hunter shows up, Dr. Huxley is assumed gay and the entire cast is arrested.
Again, the plot of comedies in this genre is usually off the wall, to put it mildly. Grant proves here, just as he does in "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House," "North by Northwest" or "Arsenic and Old Lace," that he can play the fool with an air of sophistication. And Hepburn is a strange mix of squirrely and vivacious. I like to think that this was really how the upper class really lived in the 1930's. Folks were either starving in bread lines in the post-Depression U.S. or getting smashed on gin and chasing circus animals across golf courses by night. God bless America. I'm surprised that such humor is absent in today's ADD-riddled society, though I suppose that the works of Adam Sandler are the evolved state of that particular beast. Wait a minute...rather than Grant, we now have Sandler? I retract my praise and say "Fuck you, America!" Where's the gin?
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I watched this for the sole reason that it is cited by the nefarious Steve Goldberg, during an interview within "Kill Beau," that this is one of his favorite films in recent years. After seeing the film, it adds a new level of creepiness to the guy. "Chuck and Buck" left me feeling uncomfortable, but not in the sense that a good horror film does. It was more akin to the sensation I'm left with after a new episode of "Tim and Eric: Awesome Show - Great Job!" It's that wormy, knotted feeling you get after viewing something that had the intention of conveying a sense of the awkward (but unlike "Tim and Eric," I don't recall laughing as much).
The story is a twisted examination of childhood friendship and, more appropriately, the peculiar nature that such friendships take on when revisited after years of abandonment. The youthful relationship between Chuck and Buck is revisited when Buck's mother dies and Chuck (now calling himself Charlie), along with his fiancee, arrives to console his friend. But Charlie soon finds Buck making advances towards him and flees Buck's home and returns to Los Angeles. But not one to be defeated, Buck follows Charlie and makes one attempt after the next to recharge the relationship that he and Charlie had as young adolescents.
To give credit where credit is due, Mike White is quite eerie as the obsessive Buck. His character never reaches a level of unsettling hysteria that Glenn Close does in "Fatal Attraction," nor does he possess a terrifying dark side behind his pleasant demeanor as Sergi Lopez in "With a Friend Like Harry..." but there's a distinct creepiness residing below the obvious obnoxiousness of the character. Thus, the fear that Charlie experiences is not that of a man who is afraid of being killed, or even physically harmed, but that of someone who does not want to be outed for his childhood experimentation (Buck seeing their relationship as something far more genuine). But even so, Charlie seems far more tolerant of Buck's attachment than most individuals would be (especially high-powered execs in Los Angeles). Furthermore, the film tries to maintain a fair amount of redemption for its characters in order to provide a somewhat happy relationship for all involved, but such an outcome seems unrealistic for the scenario provided.
I love the fact that there are two distinct forms of time-travel within film lore. The first notion of time travel falls into the Bradbury realm of logic, a la "A Sound of Thunder." With this form of time travel, you can go back into time, change something, and then go forward into time to find that you've changed the present as well. This method has been utilized primarily in science fiction television, from "The Twilight Zone" to "The Outer Limits," and in films such as "Star Trek IV," "Dragonfly" or the "Terminator" series. The "Back to the Future" trilogy also utilizes this method to the silliest degree.
The second method is far more fatalistic, based upon current "understandings" of space-time (curse Einstein, Hawking and the rest for spoiling our fun). In these scenarios, all time travel is in vein (assuming the travel is conducted with the desire to change the past), for you cannot change the past, for everything has already occurred (for it is the past). Any changes that the character believes he/she has made are actually what led to the future being what it is. "Donnie Darko," "12 Monkeys," and "Primer" all depict this far crueler notion of time travel...as does "Timecrimes."
Working-class schmuck Hector decides to relax in his backyard with a pair of binoculars when he sees a woman undressing in the woods behind his home. Upon investigation, he finds the woman naked and unconscious, and himself pursued by a masked marauder. He finds sanctuary in a nearby research facility where he stows away in a tank that turns out to be a time machine. Once transported back several hours in time, Hector is forced to carry out actions that will lead his past self into the time machine so the space-time continuum won't be disrupted. It's not too long before multiple Hectors are manipulating one another in a surreal story that shows how far an average man will sink to restore the banality of his life. Complex, yet clever, it's definitely one of the darker entries in the time travel genre.
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The funny thing about this review is I watched season one in practically one sitting waaaaay back in January, but forgot to post a review. Why? Shit - there's not much to say on this one. "Dexter" had one of the strongest openings of a new show that I can recall, with every episode practically perfect in writing and execution. I believe it justly rivals "Twin Peaks" for the title of "Best First Season Ever" (though the original "The Outer Limits" has a predominantly strong first season). There are countless television programs that I love that suffer from the first season doldrums to such a point that I often have trouble fathoming that these shows actually made it through their first couple of years without falling prey to cancellation (I suppose that the competition those years was pure dreck). Some examples that come to mind: "South Park," "I Love Lucy," "The Simpsons," Seinfeld," and practically every permutation of "Star Trek." Granted, the shows stood out on their own right at the time of their respective premieres, but the first seasons almost seem more of a novelty when viewed in retrospect once seven to eight seasons have been tucked under the shows' belts.
The first season of "Dexter" wrapped itself up as neat as one of Dexter's victims, the season playing itself out more like a miniseries. Had the show been cancelled, the season would have stood on its own - a trait I've come to understand that the subsequent seasons hold to. Michael C. Hall plays the titular forensics expert/serial killer with finesse, dancing that fine line between smooth and smug to the point that you truly admire the guy. But despite "Dexter's" rising popuularity, it seems that serial killers are still rather passe. I find it strange that in our commercial-oriented society, where the actions of the proetariat are easily influenced by Hollywood "celebrities," that the streets aren't thick as theives with ax murderers and the like. Am I advocating mass murder? Certainly not. However, the media endeavors to take a sensationalistic angle on everything reported, even the utterly mundane. They need something sensational to latchon to. Though I suppose it could be argued that "Dexter" has influenced members of our society to such a degree that those existing serial killers have modeled their methods of body disposal after his subtle means. Okay, now this is just getting weird.
As a short film that falls into the Masters of Horror cinematic omnibus, "Sounds Like" holds itself together fairly well for the duration of an hour. While the plot could never be expanded into a feature-length film, it does lend a great deal of entertaining moments. This credit should rightly be placed on the shoulders of writer/director Brad Anderson. While Anderson may not carry the weight that other directors in the series do (Craven, Carpenter, Dante, etc.), I consider him to be one of the more unique and stylistically distinct, up-and-coming directors working in Hollywood. "Session 9" - a film that could be described as "The Shining meets an asbestos removal crew" - was fabulous proof that fresh ideas do exist in the horror genre apart from teen slasher flicks, and it was also a testament of how low-budget filmmaking can prove successful with an excellent storyline. "The Machinist" dove deeper into psychological terror, reaching a realm akin to Polanski's "Apartment Trilogy," and it provided a frightening look at the physiological transformations that Christian Bale is capable of.
"Sounds Like" focuses on Larry Pearce (Chris Bauer), an embittered manager at a call center. He finds that his hearing is inexorably increasing in sensitivity to the point that the hum of fluorescent lights drown out the conversations of others and the pitter-patter of rain practically drives him to the brink of insanity. This new found power seems to have stemmed from the death of his son, borne of the moment where he laid his ear on his son's chest and heard his irregular heartbeat for the first time. Anderson amplifies sound to the point that the inaudible reaches a "nails on a chalkboard" intolerability for Larry and the viewer. Many of such moments seem inspired by Lynch's trademark filmmaking. While Larry's eventual descent into madness seems both predictable, as well as illogical, Anderson still builds excellent suspense to keep you engaged.
It's easy to see why Ben Kingsley received a supporting actor nod from the Academy for his performance in "Sexy Beast." It's a perfect demonstration of the actor's versatility in the cinematic realm. His turn as Don, the gangster whose perpetual, fricative logorrhea steals the show is the very antithesis of his first renowned role as the non-violent civil leader, Gandhi. But even though Kinglsey devours the scenery, the film still stands as a prime example of the British caper genre, in the vein of Guy Ritchie and other directors of that ilk.
The tale is centered around retired thug Gal Dove (Ray Winstone). Gal's living up the sweet life in Spain, soaking up the sun's rays, until Don (Kingsley) pays him a visit and asks him to come out of retirement for one last job. The man in charge of the "perfect heist" is a rogue more intimidating that Don - shadowy crime lord Teddy Bass (Ian McShane). Gal is hesitant, but Don's sociopathic persistence makes it quite clear that Gal won't be left alone unless drastic measures are taken.
The "one last job" angle is a contrived staple of the film noir genre that's been done countless times over. What makes this take on the cliche is the performances of its cast and the stylized direction of Jonathan Glazer. Surreal delusions, snappy camerawork and tongue-in-cheek song placement give the film a flair that's as cool as Gal's poolside lounge chair is hot.
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Melville takes the old, cliched saying, "With friends like these, who needs enemies," and tailors it to his needs. One of the director's earlier works, the dark theme of friendship runs deep in a tale of a heist gone wrong and the accusations that run wild afterward. A pair of anti-heroes are Melville's offering: Maurice, an ex-con who begins his new life with a quick bit of murder and robbery to get back into the game, and his rather brutal pal, Silian. Silian happens to be a thug that's believed to be a police informant by both sides of the law. When Maurice's heist goes awry and his girlfriend ends up dead, it seems that Silian squealed on Maurice and as a result, the two pals are pitted against one another. But as is typically the case with Melville, the truth is not as black and white as the cinematography.
This is definitely a cruel film (as the best noirs typically are) with not too many folks ending up happy as suspicions boil and the body count rises. Melville utilizes shadow to such a degree that it practically feels like another character in teh film. The dark setting makes his examination of friendship in the underworld seem only that much darker. Maurice and Silian are portrayed with finesse, for in teh wrong hands, the notion of trust in a world filled with murder and mayhem might make the characters seem foolish, but under the guidance of the film's writer/director, they convey a sense of depth and, as odd as it may seem, humanity.
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Let me preface this by saying that I love Zhang Yimou's work. From his heartwarming "To Live" to his glamorous, martial arts epic "House of Flying Daggers," his films have a great sense of story and style. "Hero" would be the perfect example as to how the director can strike harmony between the two, resulting int eh most aesthetically pleasing action to fill the screen. But whether his characters were iconic warriors or working class families, you find yourself compelled by their plights. Not so much with "Curse of the Golden Flower," a film that left me feeling empty.
The plot is less a story and more a series of double crosses as the empress (Gong Li) endeavors to usurp power from the emperor (Chow Yun-Fat), as the emperor surreptitiously poisons his wife to the point of insanity. Watching the film, I was reminded of watching "Pirate's of the Caribbean: At World's End." More story twists than story, amazing visuals that seem almost wasted and overwhelming action scenes that are more tiresome than engaging. There's no denying that Yimou has a knack for art direction. Every scene is so saturated with color and provided with composition so perfect that any NYU photography student would sell his/her soul to the devil to play set photographer for a day. The problem is there's no substance and you just can't feel sympathy for any of teh characters (even less so than another style over substance film, "Toys" - and that's pretty bad). Though I suppose that latter point could be seen as a pro to the film, for it diminishes the negative impact of the film's "Fuck you, viewer" ending to a sizable degree. Needless to say that this was a fair disappointment from one of my favorite directors.
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This may easily be the most entertaining and engaging thriller I've seen amidst my film noir binging. From the opening panning shot across a darkened cityscape that rivals the opening for "Touch of Evil" to Charles Laughton's absolutely smarmy performance, it's pure fun from start to finish.
The tale spans thirty-six hours in the life of George Stroud (Ray Milland), a shrewd investigator for a detective magazine, who goes from the top man in his department to a murder suspect. He works for the odious Earl Janoth (Laughton), a giant in the publishing world who is not only obsessed with clocks to the point that he seems the inspiration for Bob Kane's Clock King, but he's also jealous and short-tempered enough to strangle his mistress, Pauline (Rita Johnson), to death at the hint of infidelity. Upon killing her, Janoth commissions Stroud to find the man responsible in the hope that Stroud will bring Pauline's other courtier to justice, allowing the publisher to evade the authorities. What Stroud doesn't know is that the man he's put Stroud in charge of finding is Stroud. Stroud finds himself in one of the worst positions that could be generated for a noir protagonist - he must cover his tracks and try to discover who the genuine murderer is while his murderous boss and his crack team of investigators grow closer to pinning him with the blame.
Laughton channels William Randolph Hearst with glee as he both chews the scenery and fills the viewer with disgust for his character. The supporting cast is excellent as well, with Maureen O'Sullivan as Stroud's loving and forgiving wife, a young Harry Morgan as the detective in charge of the case, Elsa Lanchaster as a ditsy, starving artist and the always enthralling George Macready as Janoth's scheming right-hand man. To go in-depth on some of the great moments of suspense or twists of the plot would ruin the film's impact for those who haven't seen it (and I certainly couldn't do the intensity of the tale justice though description), so I will simply say this: buy the film now. If you've a film noir buff, there's no way you can be disappointed.
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Methodical, perceptive, erudite and collected...Costello(Alain Delon), the protagonist of Jean Pierre Melville's "Le Samourai" is as cool as characters come in the film noir world. Melville takes a minimalist approach to his introverted hitman, providing the viewer with a complex story with very little dialog. As a result, Costello is elevated to the status rivaling a legend. He appears when needed, can disappear without a trace and he can eliminate any target he's assigned without fail or folly...except once.
The tale follows the mysterious hitman as he liquidates an assignment, only to have his act witnessed by sultry lounge singer Valerie (Caty Rosier). Costello still evades immediate arrest because he's a master of establishing alibis and because Valerie denies that she recognizes him in the police lineup. But Costello is not in teh clear, because his alibi starts to crack, putting the police on his trail, the mob is determined to eliminate him for his imperfect job and above all, he seems compelled to understand what drove Valerie to spare him. "Le Samourai" stands above many of its kin because it makes a tremendous leap within the film noir genre, raising the film's status to that of a character study, rather than a tale centered more on a caper, revenge or any of the usual staples, making it a landmark in its own right.
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Woody Allen is an incredible versatile director when he chooses to be. Recent, lifeless offerings, such as "Anything Else" or "Hollywood Ending" seem more like vehicles for Allen to work alongside a heartthrob (be it current by public opinion or former) that he seemingly has an off-screen crush on. But he can excel at opposite ends of the spectrum, with comedies like "Love and Death," "Annie Hall" or even the recent "Small Time Crooks" being some of the funniest films I've seen, and more serious turns succeeding as superior and unique dramas ("Hannah and Her Sisters," "Purple Rose of Cairo"). With regards to the latter category, I think that "Crimes and Misdemeanors" may be Allen's best in this department.
There are two tales, seemingly unconnected, playing out parallel to one another. In one, Allen is a Jewish filmmaker trying to find success through his career, set against the backdrop of New York, and he finds himself falling in love with a television executive, played by Mia Farrow (yeah, that role is a real stretch). He's assigned the task of shooting a documentary on the creative mind of a decidedly unfunny comedian played with excellent sleaze by Alan Alda. The second story could easily stand on its own without interruptions by the first tale. It follows the actions of esteemed ophthalmologist Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau) whose love affair with another woman (Anjelica Huston) is about to blow up in his face and ruin his career and marriage. As a result, he begins to seriously consider murdering her, but the ultimate question is not whether he can have the order for her extermination executed, it's: can he live with the guilt?
Tying the entire film together is the phenomenal performance of Landau. While Landau was nominated for an Oscar for the role, he lost to Denzel Washington (for his performance in "Glory"). While I've not seen all the films starring his contenders for the year, it's difficult for me to imagine that anyone could outshine the quiet, internal fury that the tormented Dr. Rosenthal does. It's so moving that I found myself endeavoring to outsmart the film by figuring out how the two "unrelated" story lines would sync up. When they finally do, the final five minutes of the film a subdued conversation between Allen and Landau, the poignancy of the moment reminds you of what a brilliant writer Allen can be.
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Before setting out to write a review of this film, I endeavored to recall what it was about - to bitter defeat. This isn't a negative strike against Carl Reiner's film noir homage per se; it's a way of pointing out the fact that the plot is purely a incidental means (at times, almost an inconvenience) of tying together vignettes as well as cameos by long-dead celebrities. Steve Martin stars as Rigby Reardon, a private eye contracted by potential femme fatale Juliet Forrest (Rachel Ward) to investigate the disappearance/death of her father, a famed cheese scientist...and Rigby investigates...
The humor in the film is typical of most of Martin's other endeavors - laugh-out-loud moments peppered between feeble attempts at lampoonery. The degree to which that ratio shifts is in direct correlation to the film's entertainment value (ugh...I think I just reduced all Steve Martin comedy to a simple algorithm). With me, his simple bits are the best, such as a moment where he decides to prepare a cup of his "famous java" for Burt Lancaster and the bag of coffee grounds continuously pours out for over a minute. And no, Lancaster technically isn't in the film, but that's where Carl Reiner's genius comes in.
Employing vintage sets and lighting, as well as the costuming prowess of the great Edith Head, he not only pays tribute to the classic film noirs of Hollywood, he recreates them. He does so in a manner so perfect that he's able to insert scenes of vintage films into his own - ranging from the quintessential, such as "Double Indemnity" to the obscure, such as "The Bribe." As a result, while Ava Gardner or James Cagney never appear on screen with Steve Martin, cutaway shots allow them to costar with the silver-haired comedian. Just like Martin's gags, some of these cameos feel rather forced, but when they work, it's nothing short of brilliant.
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Jules Dassin, the master behind "Rififi," presents his own take on Frank Herbert's "Dune." That is, if "Dune" had been written prior to 1965...and had been set on Earth...and if apples too the place of spice...yeah. Clearly, the informational shorts that Mr. Rogers aired on his show between hallucinatory expeditions to the realm of Lady Elaine and King Friday were nothing but lies. I was raised to believe that apples were harvested in halcyon orchards and brought to market by grandfatherly farmer stereotypes. But Dassin's portrayal take on how fruits come to market is scarcely kid-friendly, marred with rackets and murder.
Nick Garcos (Richard Conte - who followed his performance here with "Whirlpool") returns home from his tour of duty in the armed services only to find his father, a lowly trucker who tried to make it peddling fruits, now a poor cripple. Nick suspects the shady fruit vendor, Mike Figlia (Lee J. Cobb), to be the individual responsible for both stealing a large sum of money from his father as well as handicapping him, so he enters the trade by purchasing a large sum of apples and teaming up with one of his father's former partners, and heads to San Francisco to outsmart Figlia. Figlia, however, is far craftier than Garcos could foresee, employing hookers and hoods alike to take away Garcos' money and stock.
Mike Figlia is possibly one of the great, unsung villains of cinema history. I'd never heard of the character prior to watching this film, and he definitely has unsavory moments borne out of greed that rival the actions of Gordon Gecko. Lee J. Cobb is utterly intimidating. Granted, the character actor made a career out of playing surly, obnoxious rogues, but his portrayal of Figlia makes his heated Juror #3 from "Twelve Angry Men" seem like a pacifist. He runs the open farmer's market like a mob boss, squashing vendors and sending his thugs on missions to incapacitate their drivers. It's his hatchet-wielding character and performance alone that make this a worthy investment of time.
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Dames and their emotions - bah. This unique film noir takes an introspective approach to one woman's guilt in order to advance the plot, and for the better part, it works quite well. Loretta Young goes from mild-mannered to tortured in no time as her guilt eats her up from the inside out. The conscience of Dr. Wilma Tuttle (Young) is put to the test after she kills one of her undergraduate students. The acts was out of pure self-defense (the callous youth tried to rape her on an "innocent" evening out), but Dr. Tuttle worries that it won't be interpreted as such and mocks up the incident to resemble a suicide. The police are satisfied, as is the coroner, but the victim's caretaker, prominent lawyer Warren Ford (Robert Cummings), is not and he soon has the police on the trail, headed by the sharp Lt. Dougan (Wendell Corey).
What makes this an entirely unique and riveting Film noir is the avocation of Dr. Tuttle - she's a professor of psychology. The viewer is privy to her inner monologues as she converses with police, lawyers and fellow psychologists/professors alike (the latter role filled entertainingly by Sam Jaffe - Doc Erwin of "Asphalt Jungle" fame). Dr. Tuttle is overly familiar with all the behavioral and emotional tells of a liar/criminal and methodically eliminates them from her persona. But as Ford and Lt. Dougan grow ever closer to the truth, her mental fortitude begins to break down as readily as her alibis. To a degree, her internal collapse and panicked behavior near the film's final act seem uncharacteristic of her prior mentality, but on the whole, it's still a clever film.
Sunday, September 6, 2009
This has to be one of the darkest film noirs I've seen to date. The tone of the story in saturated in an uncomfortable sense of dread and hopelessness - not that it's a bad thing, mind you. I rather enjoyed it. Upon reflection, I'm actually surprised it was made in teh era it was, because many of the film's themes are of a darker ilk that wasn't prominent until the mid-1950's (about the time the French New Wavers started showing up American filmmakers).
When Nick Bianco (Victor Mature) is arrested for robbery in a jewel heist, he's offered a lighter sentence by D.A. D'Angelo (Brian Donlevy) if he rats out the rest of the men who were part of the heist that happened to evade the law. Bianco turns him down, reasoning "I ain't no squealer" despite D'Angelo's pleas of "Do it for your wife and kids." Several months later, Bianco's wife sticks her head in the kitchen oven, overcome with grief and debt, and Bianco's kids are slapped in an orphanage. The result is tough guy goes squealer so he can get out and be with his kids. The downside is that the primary thug Bianco rats out, a crazy son of a bitch named Tommy Udo, is found not guilty, despite Bianco's testimony. It's at that point that Bianco realizes that he's, for lack of a better word, fucked.
I never understood what the hype was about for either Victor Mature or Richard Widmark prior to watching this film. I do know, especially for Widmark. The madness he infuses into Udo is absolutely terrifying and elements of his character can be seen in later screen villains, from Frank Gorshin's Riddler (especially the laugh) to Dennis Hopper's Frank Booth.
He personifies that instability that makes the audience hold its breath whenever he steps onto the screen, because you aren't sure what he's going to do next. The most infamous of his cruelties is his torture of a crippled, elderly woman who refuses to rat out her son. Udo quickly tears the electrical cord from a nearby lamp, binds the woman to her wheelchair and then shoves her down the stairs, cackling as her next is snapped in the process. Not many film noirs have a moment that warrant exclaiming "Holy Shit!" but when one does, it definitely deserves kudos.
Saturday, September 5, 2009
There are few feature-length, directorial debuts that show as much promise as Louis Malle's amalgamation of new wave and film noir does. Malle takes the story of a simple murder gone disastrously awry and builds tension that draws the viewer in, supplementing it with a haunting atmosphere that makes it hang with you long after the film ends.
Adulterer Julien Tavernier ends his work week by ascending up the side of his office building with a grappling hook, executing his boss (who just happens to also be the husband of his lover), and preparing to meet his lover, Florence Carala (an early role by Jeanne Moreau). But before he leaves, he realizes that he foolishly left the telltale rope hanging from his balcony. During his ascent in the office elevator, the janitor shuts down the building's breakers and leaves for the night, trapping Julien for the weekend. Outside, a couple of teenage lovers realize Julien left his car's engine running and decide to steal it, along with Julien's gun. On their way out of town, they cruise by the restaurant where Florence is waiting, she catches a glimpse of the strange female sitting in the passenger seat of Julien's car and believing she's been stood up, wanders disillusioned about the city, reevaluating her life. And that's all in the first fifteen minutes.
It would have been really easy for Malle to make a successful thriller that merely surrounded the gimmick of a man trapped in an elevator. However, he takes advantage of the incapacitated Julien to throw the character's life into a horrendous turmoil, utterly unbeknown st to him. There were multiple times where I found myself wondering if the situation could get any worse for Julien, and as if answering my question, circumstances do worsen - almost infinitely so, to the point that viewer realizes that the rotting corpse in the top floor of his office building is the least of his concerns. The film is delightfully dark, both thematically and visually. A great deal of the action takes place during the first night of Julien's entrapment or within the shadowed walls of the locked elevator. Jeanne Moreau's tortured search for her longtime lover is especially moving. Simply put: it's a superb bit of noir that's hard to beat.
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A film noir about hypnosis, directed by Otto Preminger? Yes, please! While any storyline involving hypnosis feels a bit contrived, a decent script and excellent acting (well, superb acting where Jose Ferrer is concerned) imbue the film with a sizable amount of credibility. Ah, but the noirish atmosphere, complemented by a score with hints of theremin, that fills the screen during the scenes where the post-hypnotic suggestions are carried out add volumes to "Whirlpool."
The central character is Ann Sutton (Gene Tierney), a vulnerable, insomniac wife of Dr. Sutton (Richard Conte), the city's most prominent psychoanalyst. She also happens to be a kleptomaniac who indulges in shoplifting, as infamous hypnotist David Korvo (Ferrer) discovers. When Korvo prevents Ann from being arrested for shoplifting, he extorts her - but not for sex or money, just companionship. Soon, Ann seeks Korvo's help for her insomnia and next thing she knows, she wakes up in front of a strangled corpse with the police bursting in the door. All evidence points to Ann, but Dr. Sutton begins to suspect that Korvo may be the man behind the madness and seeks to expose him for the crook he is.
The story starts off a bit slow, but once Ann is arrested, the film becomes a battle of wits between Dr. Sutton and Korvo. At that point, the film really had me hooked. The film doesn't make any claim that Ann truly killed one of Korvo's former patients/lovers. Instead, it makes the heart of the conflict Dr. Sutton's quest to prove how Korvo carried out the murder, for at the time in question, he was hospitalized for an inflamed gall bladder - a seemingly airtight alibi. Ferrer easily steals the show, making Korvo seem as slimy as a street hawker, despite his fifth Avenue suit and posh surroundings. Tierney shines as well, making this a great view within the repertoire of Preminger.
Drugs! I need drugs! Man, I thought that Ken Russell's "Tommy" was the epitome of hallucinatory madness that the acid culture had to offer. I always regarded it as the type of production where everyone involved had to be on some mind-bending chemical. But "Yellow Submarine" trumps it, for the entire film is one gigantic trip. So much so, that I'm filled with a desire to procure it as a midnight film, just to see if the silence of the audience is interrupted at some point by an inebriated viewer screaming at the screen.
The story embodies that stereotypical message that them "gol' darned hippies" lived and died at the hands of the man by: love. The blue meanines (a clear metaphor for the cops), beat down a peaceful land of peace and music with their giant fists and deprive it of all color. It's then up to the Beatles, who join up with Captain Fred aboard his Yellow Submarine, to free everyone from the tyranny of the Blue Meanies with the only way they know how - love-infused music. The plot is pretty one-dimensional, but it merely serves as a way to infuse a series of Beatles songs with some pretty freaky animation.
Having never been a fan of the Beatles and still remaining fairly neutral on the subject, I appreciated the story more for its aesthetic value. The animation is astounding, from the vivid colors to the complexity of many of the vignettes, with multiple characters and objects blending together the way they would if someone fed Otto Messmer a handful of shrooms (it's easy to see how the animation style here no doubt influenced the style of Terry Gilliam). That's not to say that I found the soundtrack intolerable. Rather, I found it fitting; it was a perfect infusion of the audio and the visual. After completion, I honestly can't believe that a remake of the film has been greenlit. To me, "Yellow Submarine" is dated, but wonderfully so. It's a time capsule of the ideals, emotions, music and image of a generation. Any remake could scarcely convey those morals across several decades, and to put a new spin on the film's message would destroy it altogether. But I suppose in the eyes of Hollywood, if it makes money, then it doesn't matter. Ironically enough, such a mindset would be the very antithesis of the original product.
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I believe I've mentioned before that I possess a penchant for animal attack films. Therefore, the only surprise that should arise from my watching "Black Sheep" is not that I liked the film, but that it took me this long to catch it. Oddly enough, it's not a parody of the drive-in schlock of the 1970's. Instead, its more a tongue-in-cheek homage to the early works of Peter Jackson ("Braindead" or "Bad Taste" primarily). As such, it's replete with absurd creature effects and needless gore to the point of hilarity.
Henry Oldfield (Nathan Meister) returns to the family sheep farm, located in the heart of New Zealand, a decade after leaving it. He's there to both confront his phobia of sheep, as well as sell off his portion of the family farm to his corrupt brother Angus (Peter Feeney). While there, Henry meets Experience, an animal activist who's come to the farm in search of evidence of animal cruelty that will bring down Angus. But petty vendettas and ghosts of the past have to be laid aside once the sheep develop a craving for human blood (explained by the fact that they've been genetically-engineered by a mad scientist - though it's not like a serious reason is really needed).
The delightful absurdity of watching men and women alike devoured by sheep had me rolling. Peter Jackson produced this first-time film endeavor by writer/director Jonathan King, and was even kind enough to put his Weta crew on the project. As a result, the gore is not only hilarious, but it looks damn believable too, making it all the funnier. There are also moments of ovinanthropy (come on, how many times in my life will I have the opportunity to use that one?) that are cleverly conducted as well, for it seems that once humans are bitten by the sheep, they're doomed to turn into weresheep if not treated. I guarantee that when Rick Baker saw some of the transformation scenes in the film, he felt jealous. The movie is scarcely an intelligent way to pass the time, but it is smart and funny to the point that it hurts.
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There's a fair amount of campiness to this thriller that kept me engrossed, despite a somewhat mediocre plot. I don't think I'm the only one who felt the film was rife for parody, for it clearly served as the template for "Airplane." Much of the plot here is the same as the Zucker Bros lampoon - Ted Stryker (Dana Andrews) is a former WWII pilot whose guilt over the death of some of his fellow troops has led him down a path in life filled with dead-end jobs and a wife that no longer loves him. But on a fated trip to Vancouver, the majority of the passengers and crew fall sick with food poisoning, leaving Stryker as the only man capable of landing the plane. But he first must overcome both his unfamiliarity with modern air equipment as well as the ghosts of his past - two tasks left up to ground controller Captain Treleaven (Sterling Hayden) to handle.
The production has the melodramatic feel of an Irwin Allen film, such as "The Swarm" or "Poseidon Adventure" (or a film by the modern Irwin Allen - Roland Emmerich). But there are also moments where the film takes itself seriously to the point of tedium. It's definitely a situation where the actors take the script up to a level of "watchability" for Andrews does quite well as the tormented pilot and Hayden - well, give the guy the dictionary and I could watch him read it for an hour and a half. But I suppose air disaster flicks were big business for the era, because screenwriter Arthur Hailey was also the brainchild behind "Airport," "Airport 1975" and "Airport '77." Disappointingly, none of them feature Harrison Ford or snakes.
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This highly-stylized "biopic" is an impressive, experimental endeavor by director Paul Schrader. Focusing on the life of Japanese writer/actor/militarist Yukio Mishima, he expertly blends history with fantasy and the literary. To give a straightforward summation of what the film is about would be highly difficult, for it's operating on a number of complex levels. The main storyline is that of Mishima (played in this timeline by Ken Ogata) on the last day of his life as he prepares to stage a bloodless coup at a military complex - his hope being to move the troops to recognize the divine right of Japan's emperor once more. But as this storyline inexorably moves to an unpleasant end, Schrader incorporates two major components to the tale in an effort to help the viewer understand Mishima's motivation.
Early on, we are greeted with a number of flashbacks, narrated by Mishima (in this case, narrated by Roy Schieder) as he reflects upon his family, youth, accomplishments and insecurities. Many of his memories are climaxed by acts of destruction, though these moments are often perceived as efforts to achieve a greater good by Mishima. The second major element to the film are brief adaptations of the author's works ("Temple of the Golden Pavilion," Kyoko's House" and "Runaway Horses"). These selection illustrate the brilliant and creative mind of Mishima, instilling a sense of admiration for the literary giant of Japan, but they also appear to be allegories for his own shortcomings. Much like many moments in his real life, his fictiious tale end in moments of minor (or grandiose) destruction.
Schrader's film never seems to have a central message to it though. Perhaps this was a directorial choice - an effort to present the man's life in as objective of a manner as possible without judgment of his actions. But there are times where I felt like the beautiful imagery on the screen was mere eye-candy, absent of meaning. The art direction and the score though, are two exceptional reasons for watching the film. There are moments of surrealism so gorgeous, I wanted to catch a flight to L.A., slap Tim Burton across the face and say to him as this film plays: "This is the type of shit you need to be doing." As for Philip Glass' score - it was so engrossing and hypnotic that the instant the film ended, I hopped online and purchases the film's soundtrack. With the Kronos Quartet at his disposal, the music is as beautfil as the imagery on screen.
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Wednesday, September 2, 2009
Hey, it’s another film where we see just who can defeat the Nazis and it turns out that yes, you, Suzie B. Homemaker, can expose the mongrel Nazis for the slime they are. That is, if you can handle having two X chromosomes long enough to see past your love and emotions and happy marriage to realize that the man you wed spent the past couple of years gassing Jews to death in concentration camps. Throw in a dash of cat-and-mouse, a dead dog and a hell of a lot of clocks, bake for an hour and a half and we get Orson Welles’ moody film noir “The Stranger.”
Charles Rankin (Welles) is a well-respected man in the sleepy town of Harper, Connecticut with an adoring wife and reputable career as a college professor. Funny thing is he just happens to be one of the most notorious members of the Third Reich, and when an old colleague comes to him for help, he's shadowed by an investigator with the War Crimes Commission. Rankin quickly kills his old friend in an effort to throw the investigator, Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson), off the trail, but it has the opposite effect, pushing Wilson to snoop about Harper all the more. It quickly becomes evident that Rankin will do whatever it takes, including killing members of his new family, in order to keep his past hidden.
The photography in this film is absolutely gorgeous and Welles really establishes himself here as an excellent storyteller (I personally found it more enjoyable than the quintessential "Citizen Kane," though I'm sure that such an assertion will lead to my excommunication from the cinephile community). Robinson is perfectly cast as Rankin's foil, shedding off his cliched gangster typecast to embody a personality as clever and calculating as Rankin, though his efforts are backed with a sense of justice. The film's climax even rivals the Mt. Rushmore showdown of "North by Northwest" as a battle ensues atop the towns grand clock tower. Definitely a top must-see in the Welles' pantheon.
If there’s one thing that cinema can provide, it’s repeated opportunities to kick Nazi ass. Allied troops do it in a number of flicks, from “The Dirty Dozen” to “The Great Escape.” Furthermore, cinema has also taught us that Nazis can be bested by demons from Hell (“Hellboy”), archaeologists (“Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” or “Raiders of the Lost Ark”), old Jews (“Marathon Man” or “The Boys from Brazil ”), hippies (“the Producers”), the indefatigable attitude of the British upper crust (“Mrs. Miniver) and even talking mules (“Francis”). But now I know that Nazis can also be defeated by erudite detectives from the 19th century.
Sherlock Holmes (played by the only, true Sherlock – and yeah, I’m talking to you, Robert Downey Jr.! – Basil Rathbone) is back to outsmart Hitler and his stooges as only Holmes can. His duty is to protect imminent scientist Dr. Franz Tobel (William Post Jr.) from being abducted by the Nazis, for Dr. Tobel has perfected a new type of bomb that will help turn the war around. When he’s kidnapped, despite Holmes’ and Watson’s efforts, Holmes employs his usual tricks to track Dr. Tobel down, only to learn that *SHOCK* his old rival, Dr. Moriarty (Lionel Atwill) is behind the shenanigans. Moriarty has pulled a Belloq in the sense that he doesn’t care about the Nazi cause, he just wants to outwit Holmes again.
I have a feeling that this film was generated when a couple of poor saps at Universal studios sat around, reading the bleak headlines in the paper and one quipped, “You know what? I’ll bet Sherlock Holmes could outwit Hitler.” That, or “You know how we could exploit England and the movie-going public during the war?” Bingo! Box office gold! Britain’s most notorious, fictional hero to save the day. The film’s not all that bad, for it has the same tongue-in-cheek attitude that serials from the era possess. However, I like a good Holmes story to have a period feel to it, replete with the atmosphere that only fog on the banks of the Thames and Big Ben eerily chiming midnight can generate. Having those replaced with stock footage of bombs being dropped over test sites leaves me feeling a little, well, cheated.
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