Sunday, January 24, 2010
A very by-the-books biopic on one of the country's greatest con men. The film features an early pairing of two eclectic members of Hollywood - Vincent Price, prior to becoming a horror icon, and director Samuel Fuller (on his second feature length film). Price is James Reavis, a man who would make himself "Baron of Arizona" only through patiently acting out a twenty year scheme that will entitle the state to his name. He does so by adopting an orphan and having her schooled in the ways of Spanish aristocracy. While she grows old, he poses as everything from a monk to a gypsy so he can forge the proper documents to make it seem as if the land belongs to a family of Spanish nobles, whose only surviving relative is the young girl. And when she's old enough, he marries her so he can take over the state, which is a little creepy when you think about it...
Price executes the role with smarmy finesse, as he worms his way into the trust of one organization to the next, taking years to do so at times. As for the direction, well...it's hailed as a long lost Fuller classic, and the "long lost" portion may be accurate; however, the sense of direction is very conventional and it bears none of the earmarks that make it characteristically Fuller's (or anyone else's for that matter). And while the story is interesting, it never soars to the epic proportions its capable of.
This tale of a comedian's struggle to make it to the top feels a little played at times, but what saves the story from being formulaic drivel is the brilliance of Milton Berle. This film was the perfect vehicle for the comedian to show his stuff, and while he was well-known prior, this seems to be the role that shot him to the household name status. As Kip Cooper, Berle has ample opportunities to not only lampoon himself, but also pay homage to countless comedians before him. Cooper is hackneyed, boorish and at many points, unoriginal. He tries to make a star of himself by taking on the stylings of others in the profession.
I found it entertaining to watch Berle tackle famous bits, like Al Jolson's "Mammy" or belt out a Cole Porter tune, as he moves from one vaudevillian act to the next in the hopes that he will strike it hot with audiences. There's something endearing about Cooper's desperation, but the darker elements to his soul as he walks over his friends and lovers alike to reach the top also fit Berle's personality as well. Ruth Roman and Bert Lahr are also fun supporting cast members, but this is definitely Berle's opportunity to shine.
Film noir is a genre filled with predictable conventions, from convoluted plots to anti-hero protagonists. Snappy, slang-ridden dialog is another staple and when it comes to "Sweet Smell of Success," the repartee can't be outdone. Not unlike "A Clockwork Orange," the script is interlaced with its own breed of the English language. Expressions like, "I often wish I were dead and wore a hearing aid. With a simple flick of a switch, I could shut out the greedy murmur of little men." spew forth from the mouth of gossip columnist extraordinaire J.J. Hunsecker (played with calculating menace by Burt Lancaster). Many of his remarks are rejoinders to comments made by his fawning toadie, Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis - a perfect yang to Lancaster's yin), a press agent who suckles at J.J.'s teat in the hopes that the writer might throw one of his clients a bone.
Starved and desperate for a plug for one of his clients, Falco agrees to help J.J. destroy the romance between J.J.'s kid sister, Susan and a reefer-smoking band man named Dallas (Martin Milner). Trouble is, everything from the law to Sidney's conscience get in the way of his carrying out the dirty deed and soon, it looks like he might end up the patsy for a scandal rather than placating the man whose words level cities. Traveling to a rhythm all its own, "Sweet Smell of Success" blows along like an out-of-control El Train, but I'll be damned if it doesn't capture the seedy underbelly of show business and popularity better than so many pretenders.
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Please be warned. My high rating of the film could also be translated into a very low rating, for the film is one of the worst films I've ever seen. However, unlike "Manos: Hands of Fate," "Red Zone Cuba," "Teenagers from Outer Space" or a dozen other flicks introduced to a wider audience by Mystery Science Theater 3000, the film is a funny watch alone. Even Tommy Wiseau's "The Room" has laughable moments, but the film is practically unbearable when watching it alone. In fact, most bad films demand group settings and ample libations, but "Slugs" is one of those few exceptions. There were numerous parts where I guffawed over the jilted dialog as a result of a preposterous visual or stale line.
What's the premise? It's that slugs have developed a taste for human flesh and they attack a town. There is not a single element about this film that is intentionally campy or tongue-in-cheek. The epic is played out as serious as serious-can-be (which isn't much, considering the storyline). You will see teenage girls have their tits devoured by a tidal wave of gastropods, a businessman's eyes explode with a gusher of nematodes, slug puppets with teeth and a "cutting edge" research laboratory with safety signs posted in the background that clearly I.D. the room as a high school classroom. The sad thing is the film was based on a book (which I must pick up). Neither the film's gore nor absurdity can be understated. In fact, as of this moment, I am officially declaring that "Slugs" shall be the first film to premiere at my drive-in this season. Seriously, the mind reels...just check the awesome trailer.
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Sunday, January 17, 2010
My general impression of the film can best be summed up by a moment that occurred between myself and "Stargate" about halfway in. After the American military has entered Egypt-land, they are treated to a banquet by Erick Avari and his Avarians. A strange, roasted creature, which looks like a parasite that might have been passed by Jabba the Hutt, is laid before James Spader (who is more schtick than man in the film). Colonel Snake Plissken, I mean Colonel O'Neil (Kurt Russell) glances warily at the dish and makes a derisive remark. Dr. Jackson (Spader) samples it and chews, thoughtfully. He's then asked how it tastes. At this point, already a tad weary of Spader's rigmarole, said aloud to the television screen, "I swear to God, he's better not say, 'It's tastes like chicken.' "
"It tastes like chicken!"
It's not like I pictured anything overly original from a production with Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin at the helm. Emmerich has an exploitative nature about his filmmaking which I can't help but tip my hat to. I see him as filling the niche that Irwin Allen left behind (the role of a director that makes disaster films starring a collection of Hollywood names all for the sake of dough-ray-me). And Devlin falls more in line with Bert I. Gordon, because the two have a passion for big creatures. But watching this first collaboration between the two left me feeling a little disappointed. I can attribute my sense of emptiness to three possible reasons.
1. It was their first collaboration, ergo, they were "playing it safe." The film is terribly formulaic, but unlike the formulaic "Independence Day," that formula isn't pushed to the very limits of logic. "Stargate" is simply a modest action film, made before the era where Emmerich learned that "blowing up the whole, goddamned world" = "awesome as shit." I watched it expecting outlandish (though spaceship pyramids are a tad excessive), but was treated to a small battle in an isolated desert. An analogy I can draw is: imagine how subdued "Star Wars" would have seemed if it had been concentrated only at Mos Eisley instead of across an entire galaxy (actually, you don't have to imagine too hard. It's called "Phantom Menace").
2. I want James Spader to die. Sure, the expert, controversial scientist, whose life works are readily dismissed as "Poppycock" by his peers, saving the day is tried and true as Jeff Goldblum and Dennis Quaid would demonstrate in later Emmerich films with tongue-in-cheek glee. But Dr. Daniels is a little too good, solving problems in a matter of hours that teams of scientists have been pondering for years. He has allergies too, so if you find a character sneezing at the most inopportune times, you'll love his character. They could have casted somebody, anybody, in place of Spader and I would have been happier. Jesus, even French Stewart was tolerable next to Spader (and the casting of Stewart worked out pretty well, for since most shots were in the sun-scorched desert, it gave the obnoxious character actor a reason to be squinting all the time).
3. I didn't see this film as a teenager. Emmerich's schlock is designed for the juvenile mind. I think my love for "Independence Day" is largely due to the fact that I caught it when I was fifteen (and that movie was, for lack of a better word, the shit that summer). Sadly, I was into Egyptology in my younger adolescent years, so this would have struck me just right. But seeing it after knowing how delightfully outlandish Emmerich can be, it just seems very subdued on the whole.
But make no mistake, I really do hate James Spader...
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A fun little exercise in atmosphere and paranoia. Ruth Bowman and her new husband are both off on a trans-Atlantic cruise. Ruth separates with her husband and badda-boom, he's gone. There's no trace of his luggage and no member of the crew can recall seeing Ruth with anyone. As Ruth begins to question her sanity, she comes under the wing of ship's doctor, Dr. Manning (Michael Rennie). Ruth is bound and determined to prove that her husband really exists and is trapped somewhere on the ship, but the rest of the crew views her as a lunatic and a nuisance, save Dr. Manning who seems to believe her.
This is a story that has been done many times before and since. The most recent permutations I can recall are "The Forgotten" and "Flightplan." Just as is the case with such films, you find yourself questioning the logic of the situation a hell of a lot, because some individuals clearly had conversations with Ruth's husband, but they claim to draw a blank when it comes to events that took place an hour ago. My only guess is that during cruises to the Caribbean and just floating around in international waters in general, drug use is a little looser with the crew, hence chronic short-term memory loss. Thus leads me to a fun film idea that just sprang to mind - a film noir parody of a storyline similar to this where the ultimate cause of all the mystery is not an elaborate scheme, but merely the fault of heavy pot use. However, upon writing that, I realize that I just described the plot to "Dude, Where's My Car?" So logic dictates that stoner comedies evolved from film noir? I just confused myself to the point that I can't remember who I last talked to now, so I'll stop while I'm behind. One item worth mentioning: I could listen to Michael Rennie read the dictionary, despite how emasculating such an admission sounds. Okay, this review's a mess. I'm stopping now.
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Saturday, January 16, 2010
Stephen Frears is a wonderfully versatile director whose films range from the comic ("Mrs. Henderson Presents," "High Fidelity") to the positively dark ("Dirty Pretty Things"). In this venture, he takes a more objective, though poignant, look at a pivotal moment in a nation's history, not unlike Ron Howard's "Frost/Nixon." The moment he centers on is the death of Princess Diana, but rather than focus on recreating the accident and trying to lay blame, the grief that came in the wake of the activist's demise is at the heart of the film, with an examination of Queen Elizabeth II in particular (natch).
Helen Mirren is positively uncanny as Queen Elizabeth II, her Oscar more than earned. Her portrayal reflects the difficult decisions that the matriarch was faced with after Diana's death. Granted, whether it was necessary for her to address the death or not was an issue, but it was merely the tip of the iceberg. Her main obstacle is the shift of the English people to more modern outlooks to life while she stands by the tried and true attitudes of the monarchy, only to find that such a path alienates her from her people to the point that they see her as villainous as the paparazzi photographers responsible for the accident. The film would actually act as a decent companion piece with "The Life and Times of Colonel Blimp," for both have a similar theme and tone. Each is centered around a character whose principals reflect the British ideals and principles long held over generations. However, the resolution is very different, for where "Colonel Blimp" encourages audience members to embrace British traditions of chivalry, reserve and other "respectable behaviors," "The Queen" makes more of a push for the need to adapt the old to the new, rather than dogmatically holding on to the past.
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While Hammer Film Studios was in the throes of rebooting the classic monster franchises abandoned by Universal studios, they decided to include "The Mummy" in their repertoire. But unlike the new take on vampires, werewolves or Frankenstein's monster, the rejuvenation of mummies left me wanting. The formula didn't change much for this film when compared with "Curse of Frankenstein" or "Horror of Dracula." You still have Peter Cushing as a protagonist fighting Christopher Lee as the monster under the watchful direction of Terence Fisher. But where the pacing of the other films seemed deliberate and methodical in its restrained momentum, "The Mummy" drags to the point that it lends to comparisons with the rigor mortis movements of its titular creature.
The premise for this venture is a unique take on the legend, focused still on revenge beyond the grave, but the use of the mummy is more akin to the sequels of the original Karloff mood piece and not the 1932 classic itself. A trio of archeologists uncover a tomb and one foolishly reads the scroll of life, resurrecting Ardeth Bay (Lee) and sending the reader into a state of shock. He's brought back to England and shotly thereafter, he and one of the others in the original three are murdered by Ardeth Bay. That leaves only archeologist John Banning (Cushing) to battle the undead creature. As I mentioned before, the pacing was slow to the point that it had a somnambular effect on my viewing. I suppose it would be unfair to deliver a true criticism of a film I was dozing in and out of, but I will put it that my review is probably more generous than it should be considering the fact that it was so difficult to stay aroused through.
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I've seen this film once before, but it's probably been close to a decade since I last watched it, so save the general premise and the resolution, much of it had been long forgotten by me. I selected it as an entry with my film club at school, because it led us to a post-film discussion regarding real-time editing. Upon rewatching the film, I was surprised with the degree of tension that Fred Zinnemann manages to maintain throughout a solid eighty minutes. For those unfamiliar with the premise, the film begins at twenty minutes until eleven on the morning that Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) is lying down his badge and taking a new wife. As the wedding ceremony ends, he learns that gunman Frank Miller has been released from prison and is headed to town on the noon train with revenge in mind. Over the next hour, the camera follows Kane as he struggles to find someone, anyone, who will help him defend the town he fought so hard to bring peace to.
The plight of Cooper's Kane is positively heart-wrenching. Despite all he's done for the benefit of the town and its peoples, no one has the gumption to stand by his side, falling prey to cowardice or petty dismissal instead. The overall resolution of all the townsfolk is that it would be best if Kane fled and let Miller seize control over the town once more. The ticking clock motif makes Kane's struggle all the more frantic, yet the veteran marshal never speeds up his stride. It's easy to see how this became the iconic role that many remember Cooper for.
One delightful element I'd forgotten was the bevy of character actors that are utilized in the film. Harry Morgan, Thomas Mitchell and Lon Chaney Jr. play just a few of the let-downs that Kane comes to grips with. Lloyd Bridges excels as Kane's selfish and headstrong deputy and Grace Kelly lights up the screen as his new bride. My one and only criticism is I found the repetition of Tex Ritter's "Do Not Forsake Me, O My Darlin'" a little trying after the first half hour, but otherwise, a solid film that set a new standard for both Westerns as well as film editing.
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To say that I found "The Box" to be a good film, much less a coherent one, would be a lie on my part. But there's something about Richard Kelly's third feature film that I found entertaining. It's the same sense of entertainment I derive from watching a film like "Toys." The story is a mess and I'm never quite sure exactly what's taking place, but it's so absurd that I feel I'm hypnotized by the screen. The general premise of the film is mystery man Arlington Stewart (Frank Langella delightfully hamming up the role) delivers a box to the Lewis couple (James Marsden and Cameron Diaz), which possesses a button that, if punched, will reward them with a million dollars. The catch is that someone, somewhere, will die. Norma pushes it, unleashing a veritable Pandora's box of consequences and incidents, jolting reanimated corpses, alien portals and coincidental circumstances more convoluted and implausible than those in "The Game."
At the end of the film, I felt myself filled with the same sense of confusion I had after watching "Mulholland Drive" for the first time. However, the difference was that the confusion was not accompanied by a sense of betrayal. I don't feel like Kelly was trying to bullshit me with a "If you don't get this, then watch it again" mentality. instead, I feel like he just bit off more than he could chew, so to speak. The film projects a genuine attempt to entertain rather than explain and as a result, I found myself chuckling at some of the plots absurdities rather than scratching my head at them. That amusement was not the same as what I would experience while watching an Ed Wood film or something equally as hokey. Rather, I felt as if there were just elements of "The Box" that Kelly orchestrated "for weird's sake" (the library scene is a perfect example, for those who have seen it and know of what I speak) and he was just hoping someone would appreciate them from that point of view. And yes, I did.
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Fox's first attempt at film noir (also released as "Hot Shot") is a satisfying venture into the genre, but it pales in comparison with some of its brethren. This is primarily due to its predictability. Granted, film noir plots do stick to a series of well-played conventions, but not all of them possess outcomes that are foreseeable fifteen minutes in. Victor Mature stars in one of his earlier leading man roles and generates a presence that demonstrates why he achieved a matinee idol status, just as Robert Mitchum did in "Out of the Past" (though it doesn't rival Mature's tortured performance in "Kiss of Death"). He's a promoter who takes on a waitress as a client on a dare and soon finds himself the target of a merciless police department when she mysteriously turns up dead.
The moment that Laird Cregar popped up in the credits, my spirits were buoyed, for I've enjoyed the few roles I've seen with the character actor, whose five year career was cut all to short by a heart attack. But as soon as Cregar strolls on as the detective on the case, the audience knows that he's the killer. You don't know how or when he did it, but there's no doubt in your mind that he knows more about the death than he lets on. Casting like that is about as logical as casting Rondo Hatton as the main suspect and then trying to convince the audience that he's innocent - it just ain't gonna work. It would have been more logical to use Cregar's corrupt detective as a red herring, but alas, the film progresses along a rather played (though still entertaining) path. Cool score, though.
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Dreamlike and carnal, "Onibaba" is a delightful tale of petty revenge and infidelity that plays out like an ancient Japanese parable. Set during fourteenth century feudal Japan, a mother and her daughter-in-law live in a small hut amidst a veritable sea of susuki grass (resembling an expanse of wheat to the degree that I found myself channeling Woody Allen from "Love and Death" on more than one occasion. "Fields of wheat, cream of wheat..."). They make a living by killing samurai and soldiers that become lost in the giant grass field, dumping their bodies in a tremendous pit and harvesting their weapons and armor for trade. When a neighbor returns from war, he recounts how the mother's son (and daughter-in-law's husband) was killed, a tale that points the finger of blame squarely on him. But it doesn't matter much to the young girl that this man is responsible for the slaying of her husband, because she's horny as shit. Soon, she's fleeing to his hut at night, like a dog in heat, for sex that makes Tyler Durden's "sport fucking" in "Fight Club" seem tepid. Problem is, the mother is far more vengeful and when she manages to kill a samurai and steal his oni demon mask, she uses it to dress as a ghost and scare her daughter-in-law away from her sexual escapades.
While it's difficult to explain why the film is so delightfully macabre, for that would involve detailing the dark and darker twists the story takes as it progresses, take my work for it that this is one of the most enjoyable exercises in vengeful scheming I've seen in cinema. The night shots are particularly haunting, with high contrast exaggerating every curve and shadow of the demon mask to chilling proportions. The cold winds perpetually blowing through the grasses brought the surroundings alive, adding to the eerie atmosphere. The score heightens the surreal settings and frenzied emotions through a mix of manic drum beats, howling gales and birds squawking. There are just so many elements working together to make this both a beautiful and spectral film.
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Sunday, January 10, 2010
This was long considered one of Dario Argento's "lost works" due to limited availability. When it was finally released in 2009, I looked forward to catching the early work by the Italian gore auteur. Sadly, I suppose it could be said that the film was lost for a reason - it's not the director's best. Argento films are trademarked by their surreal visuals and their bizarre (and sometimes near implausible) death scenes. The story often feels incidental, but if the script syncs up well with the body count, the films work really well. If not, they come off as rather sloppy, and I would say that this film falls into the latter category.
Our staple American actor is Michael Brandon. If you find yourself asking "Who?" you're not alone. A quick search of his Imdb resume yields no other titles of his that I'm familiar with. To be blunt, his performance as Roberto, the rock star, is not as indispensable as the performances of other Argento alum, like David Hemmings, Karl Malden or Jessica Harper. Anyway, Roberto finds himself being persistently trailed by a stalker for days and when he confronts the man, he's put in a position where he's forced to kill the man. He looks up after stabbing the sorry sot and witnesses a mysterious individual in a creepy mask photographing him. From here the blackmail, cat-and-mouse hijinks that are characteristic of many giallo films ensues, with the predictable domino effect of characters dying the millisecond they figure out the plot. I'm not sure how they manage to do it either, because when the murderer's identity is revealed at the end, it's the most patently absurd conclusion the film could have reached. It's still mindless fun for Argento fans, but unlike it's brethren in Argento's animal/giallo trilogy ("The Bird with the Crystal Plumage" and "Cat O' Nine Tails") is wouldn't fall into my top five (which would be rounded out by "Suspiria," "Deep Red," and "Opera"). One final note - I want one of these masks...
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The best way to describe this film is it's excellent on all counts, from screenplay to acting and directing, but it is not something I would regularly watch for shits and giggles. The primary reason is that the film accomplishes, all too well, what it sets out to do - make the viewer feel uncomfortable. The tale of obsession is sparked by a chance collision of individuals through a tragic hot air balloon accident (possibly one of the most unique ways to set a plot in motion that I can recall). Two of the men at the scene are Joe (Daniel Craig) and Jed (Rhys Ifans). They are the first to discover the disemboweled body of the accident victim and during the pause of shock that first follows, Jed perceives there to be a "moment" between them. Jed then desperately (though that word puts it mildly) strives to convince Joe that there truly is something between them, despite Joe being positively repelled by the notion. As Jed's obsession and stalking persist, Joe is pushed to the edge at which point you're wondering who will remain standing at the end. But what Joe must consider is what he risks losing once he sinks to Jed's level...specifically, his fiancee Claire (Samantha Morton).
There are elements of the plot that could be likened to Adrian Lyne's "Fatal Attraction," though where the film's theme stops at "cautionary," "Enduring Love" delves deep into the horrific. What makes it unsettling is that Joe is just that - Average Joe. He didn't ask to end up in his predicament and when he becomes involved, there is no component to his choices that predetermines this fate for him, much less makes him deserving of it. It's merely a matter of chance and the film begs us to question ourselves as to how we would handle a similar situation, to ask: how would I react if someone pushed me past the limits of my sanity and threatened my life? It's a haunting piece of work that's hard to simply shrug off. Incidentally, Rhys Ifans is perfect for the role of Jed; I've wanted to kill that actor for years.
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"Never Cry Wolf" falls into that brief period of Disney history where the studio was endeavoring to shrug off the stereotype that it was only capable of lighter fare by descending into darker or more mature themes within its films (a push that ultimately led to the foundation of Touchstone). "The Black Hole" could easily be seen as the first step, though "Tron" and "The Black Cauldron" weren't "bring the little tykes" fare either. However, "Never Cry Wolf" differs in that there is nothing about it that smacks of Disney. There is no anthropomorphization of the wolves, no obligatory moments of cuteness to placate possible infants in the audience - it's just a straight docudrama on a biologist in the wild.
The film is certainly one of the better nature-oriented movies I've seen where the goal is neither to entertain audiences with animal antics nor inform as a straight-up documentary would. Instead, biologist Tyler is our principle and the audience follows him to the wilds of the Canadian Arctic as he goes to observe wolves in their natural habitat and deals with the difficulties of isolation. What sparked his mission was that the Canadian government was blaming the low numbers of caribou on the wolves, despite the fact that no scientist had ever seen wolves hunting in the wild (the film is based upon the memoirs of biologist Farley Mowat - the man who carried out this mission almost forty years earlier). Charles Martin Smith seems to undergo the same transformation through dedication that was seen in Emile Hirsch's performance in "Into the Wild." Brian Dennehy costars, but as is typically the case with Dennehy, he's playing Dennehy. Not to be scoffed is the cinematography of the Arctic landscape. There's a part of me that wishes I could have seen this flick on the big screen to appreciate the true scope of the film's backdrop. Despite a lot of positives, the film's message seems to pandering and preachy at times, and the fourth act feels far too abrupt. However, it cannot belittle the austere of the northern Canadian majesty and the touch of Aleutian mysticism that craftily works its way into the story.
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This was a film that my departed friend Carl burned for me two years ago. Recalling that I still hadn't watched it after all this time, I popped it in, waxing back to the day he gave me a copy. He gave me a bootleg from his laserdisc, unprompted, after a discussion the two of us had had on character actors (as best as I recall, we'd been chatting about M. Emmet Walsh and Harry Dean Stanton). The film features Stanton in a pivotal role and was one of John Huston's last films. I remarked, "I take it that it's pretty good since you're giving me a copy," and he replied, "Well...it's different for Huston. Brad Dourif and Harry Stanton are a lot of fun. I don't know if I'd label it good, but it's definitely interesting."
Carl's opinion summed it up pretty well for me. Dourif, who has gone on to lend his talents to the likes of "Critters 4," "Exorcist III," "Seed of Chucky" and Rob Zombie's "Halloween II" truly shines here as Hazel Motes, a disillusioned war veteran who returns to his home town only to find it's practically a ghost town. The purchase of a new hat leads folks to assuming that he's a preacher, so he dons the role for a chance at making a buck and making something for himself. Equally as impressive is Harry Dean Stanton as the primary antagonist - a street preacher who's more con man than man of God. Motes hails his church as a church without Christ and attracts an eccentric little following, but soon his introspective nature gets the best of him and he becomes driven towards making himself seen more prophetic. You're never sure whether his change of mind comes from a genuine belief in what he preaches or it's merely a way of outdoing the showmanship of his rival, and that ambiguity lingers on your palette long after the credits have rolled. It's certainly not a film for everyone, but if you're a fan of Stanton or Dourif, it's well worth a watch because these are certainly two of the best roles of their careers.
Saturday, January 9, 2010
Ah, disappointment, thy name is "The Men Who Stare At Goats." I shouldn't be too surprised, for it happens semi-frequently for me. But I cannot deny that the trailer, as well as the films basic premise, had me pumped for an exercise is Clooney's trademark, wry humor mixed with a script that smacked of Charlie Kaufman. Instead, I found the film to be rather uneven. The basic premise is a Podunk newsman flies to Iraq to generate guilt with his adulterous wife and happens across a special forces operator who was once involved in secret army programs that trained troops to have psychic and telekinetic powers, as well as other rigmarole.
It's not that I found the film utterly terrible. It's just that I regarded it as a project with a tremendous amount of potential that turned out mediocre (an outcome that often vexes me more than if the story truly is tripe). Clooney seems to go through the motions of his "Jedi warrior" Lyn Cassidy, but all too often, I feel like he, along with Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey, are just being quirky for the sake of being quirky. As for Ewan McGregor's Ann Arbor reporter, let me just say this: "Ewan, I regard you as a great actor, though you make questionable choices from time to time. In this case, the most questionable choice was your decision to speak in an American accent that doesn't exist in the United States. Please avoid doing so again in the future."
The original material source was a book by the same name. While I've never read it, I've come to understand that it is not a narrative, nonfiction piece, but rather a collection of stories and facts regarding the avant-garde programs of the military. If that's the case, I can understand Peter Straughan's difficulty in adapting the source material into a somewhat linear tale. However, it can be done. I will cite "The Mothman Prophecies" as a prime example, for the majority of the movie is fictionalized and nowhere to be found int eh book, yet the script evokes the same, spine-tingling sensation that reading John Keel's novel does. I suppose that logic dictates that I should read "The Men Who Stare At Goats" before making the final verdict, for the film might also encapsulate the spirit of the text, but the film didn't exactly persuade me to carry out that venture.
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I have friends who knock my penchant for French cinema, since the stereotype for the genre is romances or period dramas or...well, I have no idea what mindsets I'm up against, to tell you the truth. Whatever they may be, they cannot deny the badassery on display in Henri Georges Clouzot's tale of four men desperate to make some easy cash and possibly prove something to themselves along the way. Set in South America, the film centers around a motley lot of vagabonds, cons and other reprobates who have ended up at the armpit of the world and cannot seem to escape. They while away their days in the local cantina, dreaming of a better life outside the humid environment (think "Casablanca" with less Nazis and more sweat). In the pitiful economy of the town, airfare out seems impossible until the Southern Oil Company (SOC) has an outbreak of fires at one of its fields. They hire four men from the local rabble (the main focus on Mario, played by Yves Montand) to transport large containers of nitro glycerin across the treacherous jungle along winding, bumpy roads. The job promises almost certain death, but the pay is a small fortune to the men.
The majority of the film is the actual drive, and while the idea of the mission seems a little corny, Clouzot directs it with such sustained suspense that you truly do find yourself holding your breath at numerous stages. It's also a unique take on teh action film, where the antagonists are not a man in possession of a laser that could destroy the earth or some sort of monster; the true threats are a boulder blocking the road, a mile drive over wooden planks and a rickety platform. And at the risk of spoiling the film (disregard this, if you must), the resolution turns out far darker that I expected, to the point that I remarked "Really?" to the screen upon the film's completion. And while that might suggest to you that all four men are "blowed up" during the mission, I can assure you that there is a more macabre finale to the two-and-a-half hour epic that leaves you stunned.
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Tuesday, January 5, 2010
Robert Mitchum stars in this dark and twisted tale about buried pasts and meticulously planned vengeance. While he can't outdo his quintessential and haunting performance in "Night of the Hunter," he still turns in a solid performance as Jeff Bailey...or is it Markham? The clarification of Jeff's identity is merely the tip of the iceberg when he is spotted by an old crony and learns that his last boss, an incendiary rogue named Whit (Kirk Douglas) has been wanting to meet with him for some time. Shortly thereafter, Jeff and his girlfriend embark to a trip to Lake Tahoe to visit Whit and along the way, Jeff recounts the sordid affair of his previous life that made him flee into hiding and warns her about the demons he will have to face when he picks his former persona up at the end of the ride.
This is a dark, but wonderfully intriguing tale filled with the usual murder, backstabbing, adultery, setups and blackmail a good film noir possesses. Sure, the plot has more twists than "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" has comedian cameos, but I'll be damned if it doesn't draw you further in to the mystery of the film instead of leaving you confused. Kirk Douglas is delightfully nasty, so much so that you hold your breath when Jeff meets him in Lake Tahoe for the first time since his hiatus, half expecting Whit to unload a couple of slugs into the disgraced detective. Mitchum turns in an equally stellar and hypnotic performance that reminds you why he achieved leading man status despite his unusual countenance. And then there's Jane Greer as the femme fatale who has both Jeff and Whit all out of sorts, and to be quite frank, who can blame them? For a dame like that, I'd throw some of my scruples out the window too.
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I've always been a fan of Terry O'Quinn (and this is coming from someone who has never seen an episode of "Lost"). His no-nonsense deliveries give him a memorable presence as a character actor, regardless of the role. So when the remake of "The Stepfather" pushed the original out onto DVD after a long "out of print" life, I chomped at the bit to see O'Quinn take on the role of a manic serial killer. The story has its fair share of plot holes and implausibilities, but what serial killer film doesn't. The main thing that matters is that the film is designed as a vehicle for O'Quinn, and thankfully he doesn't fail to satisfy.
O'Quinn devours the scenery as Henry Morrison, a man determined to live out teh American dream with the quintessential family. He's mild-mannered enough, but if the family dynamic begins to break down, he snaps, kills the lot and moves on to a new city and family, like a hermit crab changing shells. The credit sequence sets the tone and premise fabulously, as Morrison shaves, cuts his hair and transforms himself to a new appearence before jauntily strolling out the house past his dismembered family. It's light fare as far as psychological thrillers go (though O'Quinn is positively frightening when his armor begins to crack), and the kill count is surprisingly low, but it's fun all the same.
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From Jules Dassin, the man who impressed me with the gritty, masochistic nature of highway fruit stands in "Thieves' Highway," comes a film that could easily serve as a wonderful companion piece to "The Shawshank Redemption." A prison break is at the center of this stark masterpiece, but unlike so many of its dime-a-dozen brethren that spawned out of Hollywood in the thirties through fifties, "Brute Force" really has an edge. That jagged sense of tension is due to the well-calculated direction of Dassin and the performances of Burt Lancaster and Hume Cronyn.
Lancaster is Joe Collins, a rough and tumble thug who spends half of his prison time in solitary for disorderly conduct and the occasional, well-orchestrated "accident" that results in the death of other inmates. When he organizes a prison break that sounds feasible, despite the alleged perfection of the facility, he gather a crew and sets it into motion (with the likes of Jeff Corey, Edmond O'Brien and Whit Bissel playing fellow cons). Little does he know that Captain Munsey and his guards are well aware of the break and see it as the perfect opportunity to receive carte blanc on the cruelty they can administer. Cronyn threw me for a loop with his reserved, yet sadistic performance. Cronyn mercilessly beats one prisoner while he drives another to suicide without flinching, giving Clancy Brown's Byron Hadley (the head guard in "Shawshank") a run for his money. Pitted against Lancaster, who delivers his performance like a knotted fist and you've got one tense, but badass movie.
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Sunday, January 3, 2010
I caught this little gem at 2:00 AM while channel surfing on TCM and was hooked until the end. Only did my research reveal later that the film is so obscure, not only does it lack a release onto VHS or DVD, but I couldn't find any original artwork for it either. No matter. The film is the tale of persuasive con man Paul Kroll (Warren William), based on real life crook Ivar Kreuger (known as the "Match King"). Kroll demonstrates his knack early on for accruing money through dubious means, convincing his foreman to cash and split paychecks for nonexistent employees and grifting what cash he can off of folks on the street. Shortly thereafter, he returns to his native Sweden, at the behest of his family, to save the family match factory. Not only does he do that, but he creates what can only be described as a primitive Ponzi scheme in which he buys up all the factories in Sweden and begins passing out fraudulent loans to corrupt officials in other countries in an effort to expand his empire. But as the old adage goes, the bigger they are, the harder they fall.
The film had me hooked early on due to the magnetic screen presence of Warren William. He conveys a wonderful panache as Kroll, even as he drowns partners and sleeps with women with only furthering his ill-gotten gains in mind. So much so, that I'm motivated to check out some of his other works. It's a real pity that the film is not available on DVD, because I'd really like to watch this flick again. I guess I just need to take up channel surfing in the middle of the night more regularly.
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Just for the record, I love Technicolor films, and "The Red Shoes" is a prime reminder as to why. Almost every scene of the film is positively saturated with every color of the rainbow. The very nature of the plot is also conducive to ample stunning visuals, for its a story within a story adaptation of the fairy tale by the same name. The original fairy tale tells of a girl who is compelled to dance once she puts on a pair of enchanted ballet shoes. The film surrounds a young dancer, Vicky Page (Moira Shearer), who desires to be a famous ballerina and is given just that chance by the nefarious Boris Lermontov, whose desires to feature her in his next production are as unscrupulous as you can imagine. While working under Lermontov, Vicky falls in love with his composer, Julian, and soon Lermontov and Julian are competing for the vivacious dancer. Ah, but they learn all too late that her first love is dancing.
I mentioned the "story within a story" motif - it just so happens that the ballet that shoots Vicky to stardom is Julian's adaptation of "The Red Shoes." The film switches back and forth between reality and the world of the ballet. Furthermore, the structure of the plot condemns Vicky to a life as tortured as that of her leading role. Between these parallel storylines operating simultaneously and the clever switches back and forth between reality and fiction, "The Red Shoes" feels ahead of its time in terms of writing and direction.
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For me, the Coen brothers rarely disappoint. Even the much lamented "The Ladykillers" remake has a spot on my DVD shelf (the main gripe that I heard from folks was that it loses its humor and momentum when rolling into the latter third of the film, but I contend: so does the original...which is also on my DVD shelf...). But speaking as someone who can count the number of Coen brothers films he hasn't seen on one hand, I believe that the duo are one of the more solid collaborating teams out there. Their films not only immerse you into the world of their characters, but their daily lives as well. And what a miserable life Larry Gopnik does have.
The Jewish physics professor is facing trouble receiving tenure at his university due to anonymous letters sullying his character, his wife is openly having an affair and demanding a divorce, he's engaged in a property war with his redneck neighbor on one side and experiencing sexual frustration from a nude sunbather on the other, his son is engaging in escalating misbehavior at school...the list goes on. Larry seeks spiritual advice for his plight from a series of rabbis, but each offers little insight into his problems. As is the case with the best of the Coen brothers' serious works, such as "Blood Simple" or the more recent "No Country for Old Men," the film is, simply put, a work of art. The characters, misanthropic and depraved as they may be at times, are human to a fault. And as is the case with any work of art, the interpretations are infinite.
The most obvious allegory present is that of the book of Job, which chronicles the plight of one man who strives to remain faithful to God despite one misfortune after the next. Certainly this is apparent in Larry's situation, but it's never clear how strong his faith truly is. When he seeks to possibly strengthen it, the rabbis serve only to addle his judgment further, a potential, sly social commentary on the futility of organized religions that claim to help individuals comprehend life's purpose, but succeed in masking it instead. Michael Stuhlbarg should definitely have an Oscar nod in the bag, and I really wouldn't be surprised to see the film make the Best Picture list (especially since the nomination list has opened up to ten potential candidates).
I'm certainly glad I managed to catch the film during its short theatrical life. I had a suspicion that the movie would not last long in theatres. As callous as it might be to say it, the film is too Jewish for your average American filmgoer. General audiences like the familiar, even if it's on another planet (hey, white dudes conquering planets has been a staple of sci-fi for a century). If it is the unfamiliar, then you can usually attract audiences by making it a comedy (because Americans like to laugh at things that are different or cultures that they don't understand. Examples: "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," half of Woody Allen's films). There is humor present in "A Serious Man," but it's very dark and cultural. Me? I'm the complete opposite. I was almost absorbed more in Hebrew school and the rigmarole involved in seeing a rabbi that I was in the actual storyline. I love a story that's absolutely saturated in a culture foreign to me. "Gosford Park" would be another prime example, for I was so fascinated by the social etiquette and daily workings of a large, manor staff that I could have cared less about the actual murder. So, a long digression made short, "A Serious Man" = excellent film.
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My friends who view "The Godfather" as the be all and end all of great films also hold Scorsese's "Goodfellas" in high regard. While I contend that "The Godfather" and its first sequel are both masterpieces of cinema, neither are pictures that I can just pop in on any given day. "Goodfellas" would fall into that same category, though I would deem it of greater "repeat watchability" than the Coppola films. My reasoning? It's purely subjective (hell, which of these reviews aren't?), but "Goodfellas" romanticizes organized crime quite well. I don't use the term in the sense that dames left theatres in 1990 swooning at the thought of being married to a coke dealer. But the film succeeded at a very important aspect - making the life of a "wise guy" look really fucking cool (until, as is typically the case in this genre of films, the protagonist's life inexorably turns to shit). Adding further resonance to the film is the fact that it's based on true-life incidents within the mob (or as accurate as any film adaptation of reality can be).
This element of "damn, it feels cool to be a gangster" of the story is imperative if you want the audience to bond with Henry Hill (Ray Liotta in one of the few roles I've ever regarded Liotta as tolerable), and to understand how he goes from a troublemaking urchin in Little Italy to an integral member of organized crime. Though it's hard not to find the idea of being a gangster cool when it means that you get to work with rogues like the wheeling and dealing Jimmy Conway (Robert DeNiro) and the spastic Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci at his most Joe Pesci). Ooh, better yet, having Paul Sorvino cook meals for you on a regular basis. That would be the shit. I'd move stolen merchandise in a heartbeat if I could have that. The problem is, if I had a Paul Sorvino of my very own, I'd have to force him to play alternating 1990 movie roles for me. As Paulie Cicero, he could prepare meals all day long and then as Lips Manlis, he could eat everything he made earlier in the day and make demands of himself for more food. If I was feeling greedy, I would make him argue with himself only in opera. It probably wouldn't work, but watching Sorvino attempt to do it would be so awesome that I would have a stroke from entertainment overload. Oh, if only a life of crime were that cool...
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The last of the Frankenstein series was definitely the most difficult when it came to engaging myself in its plot. It's funny that I found it more trying, because I found "House of Dracula" so much fun. Both films are similar in the sense that they're merely an amalgamation of several franchises, featuring Frankenstein! Wolf Man! Dracula!..um...Hunchback! (though not of the Notre Dame variety)...and the ever ambivalent, staple, generic Mad Scientist...! The mad scientist, in this scenario, is played by Karloff, who passes his bolts onto Glenn Strange (a worthy successor to Karloff that went on to play the monster in two other films).
The story seems to be all over the place as Karloff's Dr. Niemann attempts to exact revenge on an old foe. Dracula (John Carradine) is clumsily lost off of the back of a wagon, exposed to sunlight and quickly dies. The Wolf Man slips out of Niemann's grip and wreaks havoc on the nearby village, leaving the titular Frankenstein monster with about ten minutes screen time. I suppose it's no more orderly than "House of Dracula," but I felt like "House of Dracula" was more tongue-in-cheek, making the monster mayhem a bit more fun.
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This is the first film in the Universal franchise to not feature Karloff in the iconic role of Frankenstein's monster. Sadly, the film suffers as a result. Pity, because there are a lot of fun elements to the story. A generous portion of the film's plot is lampooned by the better known "Young Frankenstein" (though none of the films are same from Mel Brooks' satire). The story follows Ludwig Frankenstein (Sir Cedric Harwicke), a successful surgeon who left the rest of family to pursue a sane career in medicine. He's roped into returning to his hometown by the town's prosecutor (Ralph Bellamy) after the Frankenstein monster is caught, to see if he can be of any assistance. Amidst the chaos of the courtroom, Ludwig brings solace to the monster's rage for the beast senses elements of its master within the doctor (a clever little plot point). Then the madness of his family begins to sink in as Ludwig devises a means to correct the monster's animalistic ways - by giving it a new brain. Ah, but the manipulative Ygor (Bela Lugosi) has his own scheme that involves his mind in the body of the monster.
As I said, a fairly cool story, considering this is the fourth installation the series (with two more to follow). The problem is Lon Chaney Jr. under Jack Pierce's makeup. He's too wooden, enacting more a stereotype of Karloff's performances than an extension. That lifelessness takes the humanity out of the monster, making him less of a pivotal character and more of an incidental component of the plot. But an excellent cast, rounded out with Lionel Atwill as Frankenstein's untrustworthy protegee.
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I was motivated to catch this film for a couple of reasons. First and foremost was the fact that my friend Eagle decided to don the outfit of the film's killer during this past Halloween. I'd been apprised as to who he was prior to arriving at his party, but humorously enough, he wouldn't say a word (nor had he the entire evening, despite being the party's cohost). I was intrigued by the film further when I learned that Sergio Martino was at its helm, the master of the bizarre behind "All the Colors of the Dark."
"Torso" was predictable in theme in the sense that it's a slasher flick - simple and straightforward. Girls arrive on camera and clothing drops to the floor shortly before limbs do on a fairly regular basis. In fact, my boss Bryan has frequently cited "boobs and decapitation" as the two watermarks a horror film must bear to be deemed acceptably entertaining. If I recall correctly, "Torso" had those two items checked off the list approximately fifteen minutes in. But to label the entire film as predictable would be unjust, because there's no foreseeing who the killer is. The plot makes every single character in the film a red herring. And as for the ending, you would be more likely to watch Nicolas Roeg's "Don't Look Now" and say, "I saw that finish coming a mile away" more than you would here.
What struck me was how utterly bleak the film makes Italy. One of the film's victims meets her end in a bog that resembles the swamp of sadness set from "The Neverending Story." Granted, giallo flicks never make Italy look gorgeous, but having only the visual style of "All the Colors..." as a reference, I expected more of a stylistic aesthetic to be apparent. The grungy feel of the sets do add to the unpleasant atmosphere of dread that saturates the film like a languorous smog, making it a more memorable slasher piece - especially when you take into consideration that this film is considered to be the first true predecessor to the slasher subgenre of horror.
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Saturday, January 2, 2010
It's hard not to find so many elements of John Carpenter's first opus endearing. With Dan O'Bannon, he created a student film that garnered enough attention to receive theatrical distribution. Never mind the fact that some of the special effects encroach on the laughably absurd - to hell with it, they are laughably absurd. A beach ball as an antagonistic alien is positively cheesy, but it's hard not to smile as it creates chaos on the ship.
There are some aspects to the plot that drag it out a bit, primarily the digressions and bickering among the crew members (their goal and the basic plot of the film is blowing up "unstable planets" about the galaxy). While humorous at first, their arguments and existential rhetoric tend to go on too long (conversely, I did enjoy the philosophical debate between Lt. Doolittle and a talking, thinking bomb that is on the verge of destroying the ship). But overall, it's an exercise in low budget filmmaking that has undoubtedly served as an inspiration to other independent filmmakers as to what can be produced with a few bucks and a lot of imagination and determination.
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I'm not sure if I truly liked this film or not, but I can say one thing: I couldn't draw my eyes away from the screen. While the analogy is dreadfully overused, it was like watching a train wreck - horrific and grisly, yet there's something about the carnage that's hypnotic. Sam Neill and Isabele Adjani both turn in amazing - nay - frightening performances as a couple whose marriage is fast collapsing. Mark (Neill) returns home after a business trip and finds that his wife Anna (Adjani) wishes to leave him, admitting that she has found a new lover. Mark tracks down her lover Heinrich only to find that Anna has spurned him as well. So who is she sleeping with exactly? The question should not be who, but what, for Anna's new love is a creature that looks almost like a half-human, half-penis, drenched in placenta drippings, which moves about with the aid of multiple tentacles.
The film falls into the "What the hell did I just watch?" category reserved for some of the more bizarre films that have arisen, from many of Lynch's films to newer puzzlements, such as "Uzumaki," "Audition" or "Visions of Suffering." In fact, it's somewhat akin to Lynch's "Eraserhead" in the sense that if "Eraserhead" is the manifestation of a nightmare a man has after finding out that his girlfriend is pregnant, then "Possession" is a nightmare that one might have at the first signs of a divorce. It's not a pretty film to watch by any means, but the allure of seeing a film where Sam Neill drowns a man in a toilet filled with vomit is hard to resist.
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I'm sure it will be a horror faux pas not to give the quintessential Mario Bava pic the highest of marks, but there was just an element that kept me from being completely hooked into the story. The trouble is, upon reflection, it's hard to say exactly what. My first instinct is to suggest pacing, for the plot does unfold at a deliberately somber rate. However, there are a number of horror films I absolutely love from that era, from "The Haunting" to the Corman/Price Poe adaptations that progress at a slower rate. I can't criticize the script either, for not only is it pretty solid within its own right, but it also invokes a delightfully macabre atmosphere, not unlike good Lovecraft tales. The cinematography as eerily beautiful as much of the work Conrad Hall in the black and white medium and the acting moody...so why didn't the film grab me?
The more I think about it, the more I have to place the blame on unrealistically high expectations based on too much hype. Typically, hype only ruins a newer film for me - the very reason I held off on seeing "Star Trek" upon its original release. So why did "Black Sunday" have so much buzz about it considering it's a fifty year old film? Well, simply put, I hang out with a lot of old school horror geeks. I will point out though that the film merits revisitation at a later date, simply because, as I already mentioned, for all intents and purposes, I should have loved this film.
By the way, as you may note, the year is over, but I shall finish the backlog of reviews from films I watched in 2009 before I leave the blog be, even if I'm only writing these reflections for myself.
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