Sunday, February 28, 2010
"Quentin Tarantino presents" has become synonymous with projects that are worth a watch, though they often pale in comparison to the efforts of their sponsor. "Not Quite Hollywood" came as a strong recommendation to me after I began to devour the Aussie section at Wild and Woolly Video. The recent documentary, which focuses on the struggles and exploits of early, low-budget Australian "Hollywood," is a novel view, nothing more. The film interviews countless folks involved in the drive-in schlock that came out of the land down under in the 1970's and it serves as a great showcase. However, I would liken it to eating at a buffet, for it mainly piques your interest in the films presented rather than satiating your appetite for ozsploitation on the whole. I just found the documentary too one-sided (on the side of the B-movie auteurs, who pooh-poohed other writer/directors of the era, like Peter Weir, more than they talked up their own works), and I'm a man who likes his documentaries as objective as possible. Still, there's no denying that this film resulted in drastic changes of my Netflix queue...
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This film serves as a testament as to why I love Gene Hackman. Granted, the veteran actor has gotten to the point in his career that often, Gene Hackman is merely playing Gene Hackman (similar to the methods of Jack Nicholson or Christopher Walken). "Superman" is a prime, early example of when that transition began to take place. Be that as it may, "The Conversation" is a fantastic film that remains buried in an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust from the get-go. There's no unnecessary exposition, for the "conversation" in question begins rolling with the credits. I also find it remarkable that Francis Ford Coppola managed to sneak in production of this film between Godfathers. While it may lack the scope of the crime tales that made Coppola famous, the film does contain more layers than an onion, ranking it higher on repeat viewability (if I can be so permitted to make up such a word) than any Godfather installment.
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Okay, after a horrendous hiatus due to the commitments with my current film project, I'm endeavoring to wrap up the last of last year's reviews in a succinct manner. Succinct scarcely describes the efforts on Annie Sullivan's part to teach young Helen Keller some manner of semblance in the cinematic adaptation of William Gibson's play. Both Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke turn in powerhouse performances as Sullivan and Keller, respectively speaking. While the fights between the two have been the fodder of parody for decades, there's no denying the grueling battle of wits that ensues; one that leaves any viewer genuinely exhausted by the end of the film. And speaking from the viewpoint of a teacher, it makes me admit that my bad days ain't so bad by comparison.
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David Bowie is an alien? Well, no shit. Nicolas Roeg directs the singer in a dreamlike satire of the planet Earth. Sent to our world in search of a way to bring water back to his drought-ridden planet, Thomas Newton (Bowie) quickly generates a tremendous wealth by patenting advanced technology from his home (...transparent aluminum?). He soon rises to power and fame, but a fate of dissolution and addition creeps into his life as he falls prey to the very temptations that all other humans do.
The visual style of the film is remarkable, but considering Roeg's background, it's not surprising. Bowie performs surprisingly well, considering that this is his first major role in a film. He receives excellent support from Rip Torn, who refrains from hamming it up too much considering he's in the guise of a rakish, eccentric scientist. "The Man Who Fell to Earth" has a great deal going for it, but it's greatest downfall is its final act, as the film switches gears from Howard's quest to leave the planet to his seeming imprisonment. The film gets lost within itself, not unlike it's lead actor. This rough and almost clumsy transition throws off a smooth exercise in the surreal, snapping the viewer out of the hypnosis Roeg generated and leaving in it's place, confusion. I have to add, in the film's defense, that it has grown on my in retrospect, for the tale of an alien, far greater than any man, falling prey to the banalities of everyday life does play out like a science-fiction parable.
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Tuesday, February 23, 2010
Cagney, Bogart and bootlegging...what else need I say? Another period piece, designed to capture the spirit and essence of a certain era, similar to "Radio Days." However, the retrospective is a little less nostalgic that Allen's film or others of that ilk, which I mentioned in the review. The film seems intent on recreating many of the important historical events of the decade, but that dedication, while appreciated (speaking as one who has a penchant for the era), also distances it from emotion a bit more.
Centered around a WWI vet named Eddie Bartlett who becomes a prime time bootlegger(James Cagney), we get our proper tastes of the grand times that prohibition brought for the mob, tommyguns and all, as well as the cruelty of the stock market crash. Bartlett starts out as a lowly cab driver, struggling to make ends meet, but then he meets a dark dame with a hand in the underworld (the always welcome Gladys George) and after pairing up with a fellow former soldier (Bogart), teh booze and bullets flow like there's no tomorrow. The narrative disassociates the viewer from the primary characters a bit as I mentioned, but on the whole, considering the principle leads involved, it's hard for it to not hold your interest.
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Sunday, February 21, 2010
A nice little slice of nostalgia compliments of Woody Allen. The film is absent of both his zany rigmarole that is guides films like "Sleeper" or "Love and Death," as well as the self-deprecation or angst that works its way into many of his films, from "Annie Hall" to "Crimes and Misdemeanors." "Radio Days" plays out like a series of vignettes, changing as often as, appropriately enough, the programming on a radio station. Allen is never present in his film, but he serves as the narrator. As he reminisces about his youth, we're treated to a series of anecdotes that helped shape who he became. The central force tying all of these stories together (and quite often instigating them) is the radio. From his family playing along with "Guess that Tune" to an interrupted first date as a result of Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds" broadcast, the gossip, shows and songs of the radio influence all around him.
A pleasant aspect to the film is it's lack of any message, save perhaps a mild theme about how we are products of our environments. No social commentary on introversion, infidelity or inadequacy - just fun. To put it simply, of all of Woody's films, this by far feels like his most honest and heartfelt piece, and naturally so, for we're watching his childhood. It's akin to George Lucas' "American Graffiti" or Richard Linkletter's "Dazed and Confused." They're taking advantage of the medium they work in to share their youth with us. Some might view that as egocentric, but I love these films because you're absolutely immersed in a time and culture long gone. The costumes, the music, the morals...they're all there, and the screen is so saturated with the sentiment of an auteur that it's hard to not wax nostalgic about your own childhood upon leaving the cinema.
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This is yet another film I wish I had seen when I was younger - and not because it's a children's film. "Long Weekend," if it could be categorized, would best fall into the "animal attack" genre. I've long been a fan of such films and that fandom was sparked by "Day of the Animals." I first saw William Girdler's macabre commentary on the problem of depleting ozone levels during "Super Scary Saturday" on TBS (a venue for drive-in B-movies from the 1960's and 1970's, hosted by Al Lewis in Grandpa Munster guise). While most kids would be traumatized by an R-rated depiction of a group of campers being attacked by everything int eh woods, save the kitchen sink, I totally dug it. Colin Eggleston's "Long Weekend" goes a step further - he throws in the kitchen sink.
Not only are opossums and hawks the creatures antagonizing a vacationing couple, but even the very trees seem to be striking out. The organisms never move as Enths do, but branches falls off at coincidental moments. On the surface, the film seems a clear-cut "nature takes its revenge" storyline. Peter and Marcia spray insecticides around their camping area, plow through the underbrush in their four-wheeler, shoot a duogong for shits and giggles, etc. and the assault is justice on the part of the forest. However, below that, there are a lot of strange elements that seem almost contrary to that simple plot. There's a crossbow that fires by an unseen hand, the cries of the duogong continue after its death until its body appears on the edge of the camp, a submerged bus with the corpse of a young woman rests a quarter mile from the shore. These items are never explained, nor are they explored, sowing a sense of distrust between the audience and the film. Is there something going on beyond the forest striking back that the victims and the viewers cannot comprehend, or are the campers simply going mad? This pushes the film more into the realm of "Polanski thriller" than mere B-horror. An arthouse animal attack film, is you will.
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Within the first five minutes of the film, there's no doubt you're watching a Ken Russell film. From the outlandish characters to the elaborate sets, the viewer is treated to a saturation of excess and Wilde. Set in the late 19th century, Oscar Wilde (Nickolas Grace) and his lover, Lord Douglas, visit an opulent brothel in high London. The two are treated to a play that has been arranged by the brothel's owner, Alfred (Stratford Johns). The piece? "Salome's Last Dance" written by Oscar Wilde. Wilde is then treated to an adaptation of his play where the parts are played by the establishment's prostitutes. Wilde enjoys the production and other activities throughout.
Not one of Russell's strongest, but not his weakest either. It could best be described as "eye candy" (an apropos description considering Glenda Jackson is playing the titular Salome). The visuals are positively striking and the performances delightfully campy. However, apart from the basic description provided above, there's not much substance to it. It seems that it's merely an exercise in fun, and possibly self-gratification, for the director. But considering that directors like Quentin Tarantino have a resume of films that are nothing but cinematic masturbation, so to speak, then I suppose all directors are permitted such pieces now and again. One final note: if there was ever a character actor destined to play my friend Robert Boston in a film, it would easily be Stratford Johns.
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While "The Giant Claw" was "terrorizing" folks on theater screens in 1957, other screens were offering up a different monster - Lonsesome Rhodes. Lonesome was not a giant bird from an antimatter universe, but a hopeless drunk who stumbles into the big time. The character of Lonesome is analogous to characters like Daniel Plainview - a sociopath with power that you find yourself strangely enjoying and, at times, rooting for. Played by Andy Griffith with iniquitous zeal, Lonesome Rhodes is a chimera of society's ugliest aspects.
Plucked from a drunk tank in a backwoods town by a local radio show hostess (Patricia Neal), Lonesome shares his homespun wisdom and a song with his sheepish drawl across the airwaves. Before he knows it, he has a sponsor, then two. His ascension into the nation's public eye enables him to dabble in everything from corporate bureaucracies to politics, and each new realm Lonesome stretches into enhances his greed and power hungry nature all the more. The story of a down-on-his-luck artist catching the break of a lifetime and making it big is a staple of Hollywood, and the corruption of the soul by power is typically the cliched angle the scripts take. But director Elia Kazan never tries to convince you that Lonesome is a good-tempered rube who falls into wrong - Lonesome is the same, self-centered rogue that spent every weekend in the drunk tank; however, he now has influence and wealth to heighten his ego and vices. How Andy Griffith failed to receive any award recognition for his powerhouse performance is beyond my ken (especially since this was his debut on film). My only hypothesis is that he was too new to Hollywood at the time. Had he shown his darker side after becoming a household name as Sheriff Taylor, he might have turned more heads, though it's also likely that at that stage, he would have never been considered for the role in the first place.
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From the dark recesses of my childhood, one wrought with many a Saturday afternoon spent watching cheesy horror films, comes "The Giant Claw." It's hard to believe that as a kid, this movie creeped the shit out of me. Why? It's was that damned bird marionette. That puppet looks like how the devil might have appeared to Jim Henson had he a Hunter S. Thompson lifestyle. I still recollect the lazy summer evenings where I would suspiciously eye the dusk sky, waiting for that damned bird to swoop down and eat me, emitting it's vicious laugh (the sound of the bird's cry actually sounds like the orgasm of a harp seal reversed with a lot of reverb). To look at the thing now and imagine that it was once terrifying sounds laughable.
But other creatures that haunted my dreams from my childhood, like G'Mork from "The Neverending Story"
Lord Kuruku from "Unico on the Island of Magic"
and not included is the sketch drawing John Lithgow does of bigfoot in "Harry and the Hendersons."
The film is as insipid as the monster itself, but it's so laughably absurd, it's actually fun. The bird flies in a predictable spiral pattern, branching ever outward from the point where it entered our world. Where did it come from? The scientists explain that during an atomic test during a top secret radar experiment a dimensional door was opened to an antimatter universe and this bird, from 17,000 B.C. on the parallel Earth came forward in time to our world. Simple enough. I talk about that shit happening in my science class all the time. Pretty common really. Where do you think "The Bozo Show's" Wizzo the Wizard came from? (speaking of terrifying characters from my childhood...)
Watch the Trailer...or just this.
Okay, despite living sans home computer for three months now, I need to finish my year's reviews. I started reviewing at the end of February of last year, so I suppose if I complete the process within the next week, the delay won't be too admonishable (watch me not finish until April now). I snagged "Q" simply because it was a movie with the title "Q." Like "M," a single letter title piques interest. Unlike "M," "Q" does not hold interest that well. Another brain child of Larry Cohen, the mastermind behind "It's Alive," "Q" is another monster flick that features a mythical bird rather than a mutated child. The delightfully cheesy poster tagline says it all: "Its name is Quetzalcoatl... just call it Q, that's all you'll have time to say before it tears you apart!"
The serpent/bird attacks are the nonsense that bring two parallel story lines into the same fold. On one side of the city, Detective Shepherd (David Carradine) is investigating a series of murders where each victim is found skinned from head to toe. On the other side of town, small-time crook Jimmy Quinn (Michael Moriarty) is running from the cops after a jewel heist gone sour and ends up at the top of the Chrysler Building where Q has its nest. Jimmy tries to extort the city for profit in exchange for knowing the bird's lair, Shepherd comes to realize that the museum's expert on Aztec monsters is the guy who brought the creature to life, Carradine and costar Richard Roundtree wander around bored for a bit and the finale to King Kong is redone. Entertaining schlock at points I suppose, but the film does disprove my friend Bryan's theory that "any film that features boobs and decapitation in the first ten minutes is awesome!"
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Tuesday, February 9, 2010
I...love...Technicolor. "Black Narcissus" splashes the screen with all the colors of the East in a manner so marvelous, it gives recent explorations in teh region, such as "Monsoon Wedding" or "Vanity Fair" or...um..."Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" a damn good run for their money. To label a story about a group of nuns a Technicolor spectacle almost seems contradictory, for black and white scarcely necessitate the film medium. But the stark white of the habits create excellent juxtapositions with the rosy hue of Deborah Kerr's cheeks, to say nothing of the monochromatic dresses of the nuns pitted against the multi-hued royal palace where they settle down.
The tale seems a paltry one at first - a band of nuns open up a new mission and must battle the elements as they win the people's hearts. The location is delightfully exotic - the palace of Mopu, set high in the Himilayas just off the beaten path from Darjeeling, India. But the picturesque setting holds an unseen power - one that draws out the insecuritues of the sisters. Sister Ruth's sexual desires run mad, mixed with a dash of hypocondria and mental instability. Sister Philippa plants flowers rather than vegetables, reasoning that something about the beauty of the place betrayed her logic. Even Sister Clodagh (Kerr) experiences a similar sexual frustration to the others, brought about by reoccurring memories of an unrequited love, the presence of the "charming" Mr. Dean (David Farrar) and the erotic perfume of the local young general(Sabu) - the infamous Black Narcissus.
The complexities behind the fragment psyches of the nuns draws you in, much as the nuns are drawn to the brooding and mysterious atmosphere of the palace. There are many moments that are positively chilling, such as the scene where Clodagh walks into Sister Ruth's room and finds her in a civilian's dress with lipstick as red as blood. The nun, fallen prey to her own madness and temptation, is a far scarier creature than those conjured up by the likes of Jack Pierce. As Ruth continues to apply makeup, Clodagh begins reading scripture, a duel of wits that's absolutely masterful. Perfectly executed and deep in structure and message, "Black Narcissus" rivals "Mother Joan of the Angels" "The Devils" and "Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit" where dark stories about nuns are concerned. Yes, I know I'm bad...
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"Walkabout" is a dark and terse coming-of-age story in the wilds of the Australian outback. The film derives its title from the Aboriginal rite of passage ceremony where the young males of the tribe disappear into the wilderness and survive off of the land, only to return some time later as “a man.” That individual is played by one of the most distinctive Aboriginal character actors in pictures, David Gulpilil (an excellent, first performance). During his excursion across the Australian desert, he happens across two young children, Girl and Boy, whose father killed himself and left them to rot in the wilderness. Hindered by the language barrier, Girl makes it clear that she and her brother wish to return to “civilization,” and together, the three set off on their journey.
While the basic setup may seem prime fodder for a Disney live-action film, the finished product is anything but in the hands of Nicolas Roeg. Roeg pits the travelers against themes of sexual frustration and coping along with the sun and venomous wildlife. The juxtaposition of colonial civilization with Aboriginal mysticism is as present here as it is in some of Peter Weir’s earlier works (blatantly presented at times, as we see Girl lugging a transistor radio through the desert, tuned to a station that spouts out etiquette advice 24/7). But the film differs from Weir’s works, because the heart of the film is not a mystery, but rather, a tale about the dissolution of youth and the premature acceptance of responsibility. Roeg uses the backdrop of Australia’s outback so beautifully, the entire film often feels like William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience” sent wonderfully into motion.
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Posting a review on this film detailing the outlines of the plot would be rather moot, for it seems that I was one of the few individuals who waited so long to see it. I have nothing against Star Trek – in fact, far from it. My Saturday evenings were spent watching The Next Generation with my father (typically, I served as an altar boy on Saturday night mass, so my father had to speed like a madman to get home in time for the show. Many a night I tuned out the rote ceremony with ponderings over what the Enterprise would encounter next. But I digress…). I can also pepper any serious conversation with dozens of “Star Trek VI” quotes with relative ease.
Therefore, my delay in seeing the film was not due to disinterest. Instead, I was working three jobs at the time of its release, mixed with my duties for Wonderfest, end of the school year, trip to the Grand Canyon, blah, blah, blah, [insert pithy excuse here]. As a result, I greatly regret not seeing the film on the big screen, because it’s one hell of a time (perhaps Mr. Spock’s time traveling device would come in handy here, though I have to ask: “Red matter?”). While the storyline might be heavily convoluted for an origin story (again, “Red matter?”), it still entertains by presenting a wet-behind-the-ears crew that wipes away the memories of the former cast’s snarkiness at the end of their careers and replaces it with wild action executed with wild abandon. The reckless and eager nature of Chris Pine compliments the persona of Captain Kirk perfectly, and (Karl Urban channels DeForest Kelly to a “t.” In fact, the reimagining is an exercise in perfect casting (though Simon Pegg does get a bit irritating in quirky mode as Mr. Scott), so it’s easy to see why so many fans were accepting of the film. Thanks, J.J.
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Low budget and gimmicky, but still entertaining fare. The film opens up similarly to John Carpenter's "Halloween," with a brutal POV murder of a happy couple in a bathtub - the only back story we get for Patrick (note: while both film openings are remarkably similar to one another, "Patrick" neither filmmaker could have been aware of the other's film until much later due to delayed, overseas release dates). Years later, Patrick is in a comatose state in an insane asylum. Enter Kathy, a naive nurse whom Patrick takes a liking to. At first his gestures are as simple as reflexive spits or the occasional erection, but soon his telekinetic powers are writing prose on Kathy's typewriter and tearing her home asunder when Kathy's eye turns to another man.
Pure drive-in cinema with a "Twilight Zone" air, but the film does generate genuine suspense. There's also a fair deal of dark humor peppered throughout the storyline. Robert Helpmann also stars as the sadistic head of surgery at the hospital - a man who is reduced to eating frog's innards by the end of the film. While the film is, by no means, perfect, for its pacing is rather labored at times, it does function well as a "gateway film" for inducing the desire to watch more Aussie horror flicks.
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Saturday, February 6, 2010
From “Return to Oz” to “The Neverending Story,” I had ample nightmare material to fuel my childhood mind. Still, “Santa Claus” takes the cake when it comes to disturbing children’s films. It also presents Santa’s workshop and his personal plight in a manner far more bizarre than “Santa Claus: the Movie.” Yes, while the 1985 box office failure had a semi-sober Dudley Moore in tights, John Lithgow flying through the air while madly chomping candy canes and more product placement than you could shake a stick at, “Santa Claus” has child enslavement and the devil.
A devil by the name of Pitch is the main foil for Kris Kringle, and he does his best to taint the consciences of Mexican children everywhere. His goal is to destroy the Christmas spirit…or something. Santa has a workshop devoid of elves, but populated by children dressed in full stereotypical attire, from Spanish children in sombreros to Cuban children in guerrilla fatigues, guns in hand – I shit you not. There’s also a talking orifice that looks like Santa’s personal pleasure hole. It’s function seems rather vague. There’s also maniacally-laughing reindeer – a sight that would be more appropriate in an “Evil Dead” film and not a Christmas story. If you fear that Santa might not defeat the devil, then clearly you’re unfamiliar with the format of Christmas films. If you fear that you might suffer weird, fever dreams after watching this, you’re probably right. As for the MST3K crew, this is one of those episodes that’s a perfect hit. A somewhat entertaining B-movie mixed with a fantastic series of rejoinders makes this a holiday season must-see.
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