Craig J. Clark Watches a Lot of Movies
Saturday, August 1, 2009
You don't need a lawyer, you need a bodyguard.
This week's "Drive-In Movie Classic" was the 1971 giallo The Devil with Seven Faces, which was co-written and directed by Osvaldo Civirani, who was a still photographer on a number of well-regarded Italian films (including Fellini's The White Sheik and Rossellini's The Flowers of St. Francis) before turning to directing in 1963 with a film about stripteases through the ages. Co-written by Tito Carpi, whose credits include a number of spaghetti westerns and the MST3K favorite Escape 2000, the film stars Carroll Baker (who was a long way from Baby Doll) as an American translator working in Italy who is mistaken for her identical twin, who apparently bilked a gang of jewel thieves out of a diamond worth $1 million. In her hour of need she goes to lawyer Stephen Boyd, who claims to have "the soul of a criminal," and falls into bed with race car driver George Hilton, who doesn't like her living by herself in an isolated house and eventually moves her into a nice flat where she's still plagued by noisy intruders.
As with the gialli of Maria Bava and Dario Argento (to name the genre's two most well-known practitioners), The Devil with Seven Faces stresses style over substance, but its main problem is that Osvaldo Civirani is no stylist. In fact, his trademark appears to be long pans and zooms that take their sweet time revealing anything relevant to the story. Either that, or shots that are held long after anything of interest is going on in them. (Of course, this may be partially due to the lousy pan-and-scan job, which does the Reversalscope image no favors, but somehow I doubt letterboxing would transform the film into a suspenseful nail-biter.) There are also some bizarre touches, like the blue wig that Baker wears in a beach scene, and just plain unbelievable developments such as a character who's shot in the chest and keeps on going. And then there's the blatant technical gaff about 15 minutes from the end where the cameraman is reflected in the window of a police car as it drives off. It's a shame Civirani didn't shoot this himself, as he did with many of his films from the '60s. It would have been nice to know what he looked like.
Monday, August 3, 2009
Filthy ruffian, you've dragged me down with you!
Did a double feature from the golden age of French cinema, despite the fact that the films in question were made 22 years apart. First up was Luis Buñuel's 1930 masterpiece L'Age d'Or, his provocative, feature-length follow-up to 1929's Un Chien Andalou and his second collaboration with Salvador Dalí (who apparently had little to do with L'Age d'Or's conception). Like its predecessor, the film is a virtual compendium of surrealistic moments and images, bookended by chilling documentary footage of scorpions (which is enhanced by Buñuel's wry commentary) and a vignette from the Marquis de Sade's The 120 Days of Sodom. No wonder it sparked violent protests and was withdrawn from distribution soon after its release.
In between, Buñuel gives us an extended comic set-piece about a group of exhausted bandits (led by painter Max Ernst) who are literally on their last legs before introducing his main characters, a couple (Gaston Modot and Lya Lys) who are discovered writhing in the mud on the edge of a crowd and forcibly separated. When Modot is dragged away, presumably to be put in jail, he still has the wherewithal to break away from his captors to kick a dog and stamp on a bug, and later on he even kicks a blind man in the chest. Lys, meanwhile, shoos a cow out of her bedroom and makes the final preparations for a party where bizarre events -- most of which go unnoticed by the aristocratic guests -- start piling up at an astonishing clip. Eventually Modot arrives and Lys is delighted by the uproar he creates and sneaks off into the garden with him to finish what they started, but their brand of amour fou is not the sort of thing that is built to last.
A similar situation crops up in Jacques Becker's 1952 film Casque d'Or, in which prostitute Simone Signoret takes up with carpenter Serge Reggiani, much to the dismay of underworld boss Claude Dauphin and Signoret's possessive boyfriend William Sabatier. When Signoret runs away with Reggiani, Dauphin frames his buddy Raymond Bussieres for Sabatier's murder, forcing Reggiani to return to Paris to face the rap -- and perhaps get his revenge on Dauphin at the same time. The heart of the matter, though, is the relationship between Reggiani and Signoret, which seems to be doomed from the start (not that that stops them from giving it a whirl anyway).
By pure coincidence, the film also features Gaston Modot as Reggiani's boss, a connection I didn't make until the credits rolled. I guess it shouldn't surprise me that Modot continued making films well into his later years (he was 42 when he starred in L'Age d'Or and 64 when he made Casque d'Or), but it's hard to see him in anything else after he made such an indelible first impression.
Tuesday, August 4, 2009
If you knew of all the years of hopes and dreams and tears, you'd know it didn't happen overnight.
Hollywood loves making films about itself. Furthermore, it loves remaking successful films about itself, which is why 1937's A Star Is Born has been remade twice so far, with a fourth go-round apparently in the works. I have not seen the original with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March nor the 1976 version with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, but from all the accounts I've read the 1954 edition is the best of the bunch and I can understand why. Directed by George Cukor and boasting a screenplay by Moss Hart, the film stars Judy Garland as the girl singer whose talent is recognized by alcohol-sodden actor James Mason, who encourages her not to "settle for the little dream" of having a hit record or two, but rather to "go on to the big one" -- namely movie stardom, which she achieves once Mason convinces studio head Charles Bickford gives her her big break. As Garland's star rises, though, Mason's falls and this creates a rift between them even after they become man and wife.
Designed as a comeback vehicle for Garland, who hadn't made a film since 1950's Summer Stock, A Star Is Born was a perfect showcase for her talents, utilizing her singing, dancing and acting chops, especially in the extended "Born in a Trunk" musical sequence that is the centerpiece of the film. Whether belting out a showstopper or caressing a tender ballad, she made every song she lent her voice to her own, and on the acting front she matched Mason every step of the way. It's not surprising to learn that they were both nominated for Academy Awards for their performances. It's a shame neither won, but that may be due in part to the fact that few people got to see the full measure of their achievement since 27 minutes was cut out of the film between its world premiere and general release two weeks later. That's something else Hollywood loves to do.
Wednesday, August 5, 2009
No earthly power can help those that are marked by the sign of the pentagram.
My quest to see all of Universal's Wolf Man films has been dealt two blows this week. First, my library's copy of the Dracula Legacy Collection -- which includes 1945's House of Dracula, the last film in the series (not counting Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein) -- has gone AWOL, which means I may have to acquire it from another source. Second, Universal has once again pushed back the release date of its Wolf Man remake -- this time to February 2010. The studio claims this has nothing to do with production problems, but whatever the reason it's sending mixed messages to me and anybody else who's been howling for its release.
In the meantime, I can anticipate tonight's full moon with 1944's House of Frankenstein, which picks up the story of poor, tormented Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) where it left off in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man the previous year. But first we're introduced to a brand new mad scientist played by Boris Karloff, who claims to be the brother of Dr. Frankenstein's assistant and who is obsessed with the idea of transplanting the brain of a man into the body of a dog (and probably vice versa). Locked up for 15 years for his crimes against man and canine, Karloff escapes from prison thanks to a freak thunderstorm and, with the aid of soulful hunchback J. Carrol Naish, who wants Karloff to give him a new body, sets about getting revenge on those who put him away.
Soon after their escape they come by a traveling Chamber of Horrors that houses the skeletal remains of Dracula, who is embodied by John Carradine when the stake is removed from his chest, but he barely merits a walk-on. Karloff then moves on to the village of Frankenstein, where he hopes to find the doctor's records and where Naish falls head over hump in love with gypsy girl Elena Verdugo, who finds it hard to see past his physical deformity. In the meantime, Karloff thaws out Talbot and the monster (Glenn Strange) when he finds them frozen in the glacial ice cavern beneath Castle Frankenstein's ruins. (Doesn't every castle have one?) When first seen Talbot is the Wolf Man, but upon thawing out there is a too-quick dissolve to his human form, whereupon he agrees to help Karloff in exchange for a brain transplant that will rid him of his curse. How this is actually supposed to work is never adequately explained, but it turns out Karloff has lots of brain transplants in mind once they reach their final destination of Visaria, where his laboratory is still standing.
Directed by Erle C. Kenton, who previously helmed 1942's The Ghost of Frankenstein, and based on a story by Curt Siodmak, House of Frankenstein may be a little overstocked in the monster department, especially as it represents the convergence of three disparate series, but it's kind of disappointing that we never see all of them active at the same time. (Perhaps Universal was saving that for the follow-up.) That said, I did like some of the details that went into the Wolf Man's subplot, like the way he thoughtfully removes his shoes and socks before transforming. (No reason to ruin a good pair of shoes.) I'm curious to see how Universal will bring him back in House of Dracula, though, since he's actually felled by a silver bullet (the first time that ever happened on film) at the end of the story. Even if it's totally implausible, I'm sure they'll find a way.
Thursday, August 6, 2009
The boys tell me I did a couple of murders. Anything in it?
I've spent the past couple weeks reading Raymond Chandler's first few Philip Marlowe novels, so before I forge on with the rest (and their plots start to run together) I figured I would take a second look at a couple of the film adaptations they spawned. The first Chandler novel to make it to the big screen was his second, Farewell, My Lovely, which was turned into a vehicle for George Sanders's high-society detective in 1942's The Falcon Takes Over and then remade two years later as Murder, My Sweet with Dick Powell as the first screen Marlowe. Despite the name change the film, which was directed by Edward Dmytryk, was much more faithful to the novel, even if it did sanitize some aspects of the story, which was also streamlined and simplified during the transition from the page to the screen.
Powell might not have been most people's idea of a hard-boiled detective (at the time he was best known for his roles in musicals and light comedies), but he comes off reasonably well as he negotiates a pair of tricky, interrelated cases. The first is for bruiser Mike Mazurki, who's spent eight years behind bars and is looking for the dame who's supposed to be waiting for him. The other involves the theft of a jade necklace belonging to trophy wife Claire Trevor, whose stepdaughter Anne Shirley can't decide whether she wants to help Powell or get him out of their lives. The film also features Otto Kruger as a phony spiritualist whose part was beefed up for the pictures because movies are much less forgiving than novels when it comes to sending their main characters down blind alleys.
Of course, there are times when 1946's The Big Sleep, which was directed by Howard Hawks and based on Chandler's first novel, seems to be all about sending Marlowe (indelibly played Humphrey Bogart) down blind alleys, but that's part and parcel of the film's unrelenting pace. The second screen pairing of Bogart and Lauren Bacall (whose part was expanded during re-shoots in an attempt to replicate the chemistry they had displayed in 1944's To Have and Have Not, also directed by Hawks), The Big Sleep is the definitive Chandler adaptation, thanks in no small part to Bogart's commanding performance. (Maybe it's because he had already aced the role of Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, but stick the guy in a trench coat and give him a convoluted mystery to solve and he's just dynamite.) He also has some terrific support from the likes of Martha Vickers (as Bacall's much wilder younger sister) and Elisha Cook Jr. (as an information peddler who's in way over his head). This is one of those classics that gets better (not the mention easier to follow) every time you see it.
Friday, August 7, 2009
I think you're in over your head this time, Marlowe.
Three decades after Murder, My Sweet was sanitized for the wartime audience's protection, another attempt was made to bring Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely to the screen -- this time with its title and a lot more of its seedy details intact. Directed by Dick Richards (whose parents must have been exceedingly cruel) and adapted by David Zelag Goodman (whose next screenwriting credit was on Logan's Run), the 1975 version of the story stars Robert Mitchum as a very world-weary Marlowe picking his way through a messy case involving lowlifes, highlifes and every stratum in between. Like Murder, My Sweet, it plays out mostly in flashback as Mitchum explains to police detective John Ireland how he got mixed up in the whole business, which has less to do with the stolen jade necklace this time around and more to do with the imposing ex-con (a well-cast Jack O'Halloran, who was a few years away from playing the mute brute Non in the Superman movies) out looking for his girl.
The cast is positively stacked with great actors, with Charlotte Rampling taking the role of the trophy wife who flaunts her lovers in front of her impotent husband, Sylvia Miles drinking her way into a Best Supporting Actress nomination, Harry Dean Stanton as a crooked cop, Anthony Zerbe as a debonair racketeer, and Joe Spinell and Sylvester Stallone as two of his hoods. One of the weirder changes from the novel is the transformation of bogus spiritualist Jules Amthor into "famous madam" Frances Amthor (Kate Murtagh, who was a few years away from playing Mom in Doctor Detroit). Then again, that's not so inexplicable once you consider that her scenes are set in a whorehouse for the sole purpose of showing all the naked girls that had to be left out of noir films in the '40s. There's also a goodly amount of bloodshed, which was all the rage in the '70s, but the film keeps pushing its period setting with numerous references to Hitler invading Poland and Joe DiMaggio working on his batting record and so forth. (Turns out Marlowe is quite the baseball fan.) It also preserves a fair bit of Chandler's prose in the form of Mitchum's voice-over narration, but provides its own wrap-up. I don't know who decided that his character needed to be softened, but the last thing the world was crying out for was a sentimental Philip Marlowe.
Saturday, August 8, 2009
It was wild dogs, boy. This couldn't be done by a human being.
It's a couple days past the full moon, but some werewolf tales are liberal enough that their lycanthropes are capable of transforming several nights in a row -- as long as the moon looks full enough. Such is the case with 1972's Moon of the Wolf, which is included in the "Drive-In Movie Classics" set despite being a TV movie (complete with five unmistakable commercial breaks). In it, sheriff David Janssen goes head-to-head with the uncanny when an unknown creature with superhuman strength starts chowing down on his constituents.
Set on the Louisiana bayou in the quaintly named town of Marsh Island, which gives director Daniel Petrie a fair amount of atmosphere to work with, Moon of the Wolf provides Jannsen with any of a number of suspects. There's backwoods hick John Davis Chandler, who is out hunting with his pa (Royal Dano) when he discovers the werewolf's first victim. Then there's the victim's distraught brother (Geoffrey Lewis), who didn't like her messing around above her station. And Janssen also comes to suspect the town doctor (John Beradino), who apparently got the young lady in question pregnant and was pushing her to get an abortion. Meanwhile he rekindles a long-forgotten crush on Barbara Rush, whose family founded the town way back when and who's just returned from the big, bad city. This doesn't exactly endear Janssen to her overprotective brother (Bradford Dillman), but until he solves his mystery it's not like he has a whole lot of time for romancing anyway.
For such a short film (it's only 74 minutes), Moon of the Wolf sure takes its time getting to the werewolf attacks (or even hinting that the attacks are being carried out by a werewolf). Apart from an old man on his deathbed raving in French about the "loup-garou," no one even suspects that they have a lycanthrope on their hands (except maybe for the old man's superstitious nurse, who knows how to ward them off), which leads the gun-toting populace to organize a wild dog hunt (the results of which are kept tastefully off-screen). Of course, when the killer finally does show his hairy face (and hands, which come complete with black fingernails) it's none too impressive, so there's a very good reason why the filmmakers kept his identity under wraps. It's just too bad they also kept the body count down. A couple more murders would have livened the proceedings up immensely.
At one time I thought the tap-dancing magician craze would make a lot bigger splash than it did.
When I get into a filmmaker, I generally want to see everything they've done -- good, bad or indifferent. This can prove difficult with some of the more obscure entries in their filmographies, like Brian De Palma's Get to Know Your Rabbit, which has gone virtually unseen since its non-release in 1972. A counterculture comedy in the vein of De Palma's Greetings and Hi, Mom! -- albeit with a screenplay by Jordan Crittenden -- Get to Know Your Rabbit seemed destined to get left behind in the digital age until Warner Bros. released it as part of its Archive Collection. And while $20 may seem a little steep to pay for a disc without any extras (apart from a trailer), I was happy to shell out in order to finally see this -- and I will do so again the next time Warners releases something that I've been dying to get my hands on.
As long-sought-after rarities go, Get to Know Your Rabbit pretty much lived up to my expectations. In broad strokes (since it is a broad comedy), Tom Smothers is a harried marketing executive who quits his job after seven years to become a tap-dancing magician, which upsets his clingy boss (John Astin) and pouty fiancée (Susanne Zenor), both of whom try to convince him to rejoin the rat race when he'd rather spend more time with his rabbit. Schooled by the great Orson Welles (that's how he's credited in the trailer), Smothers eventually masters his craft and goes out on the road while Astin stays behind in Los Angeles and transforms his drop-out experience into an unwieldy corporate behemoth. Along the way Smothers falls in love with a terrific-looking girl (Katharine Ross) and nearly falls into the trap Astin has set for him, but he has just the trick to get out of it again.
Even if he didn't write the script, there are still plenty of signs that this is a De Palma film. One of the earliest is a shot that initially seems to be an ordinary medium shot but turns out to be a stealth split-screen, which only becomes apparent when both sides split off and go in different directions. There's also a sequence that starts in Smothers's luxurious bedroom and rises up to give us a bird's eye view of the maze-like floor plan as he goes to answer the front door. And it just wouldn't be an early De Palma film without a choice role for Allen Garfield, who plays a sleazy guy looking for a party who drags Smothers along with him. (It also features M. Emmet Walsh as a bystander during a scene where an airline pilot has treed himself, with Bob Einstein as the cop tasked with talking him down.) About the only thing working against it is the clear evidence of studio tampering, which is probably why he went back to the independent route for his next project, 1973's Sisters, the film that launched the second, more successful, phase of his career.
Monday, August 10, 2009
I'm not going to enjoy myself if you're miserable about it.
This week I've decided to catch up on some films of recent vintage that I never got around to seeing in theaters for one reason or another. First up is 2006's Old Joy, a low-key indie drama that was co-written by director Kelly Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond, who is credited with the original story, with Reichardt acting as her own editor. That sort of thing can be problematic if a director isn't able to get enough perspective on their material, but Reichardt is telling a simple enough story here that she's able to avoid self-indulgence.
Clocking in at a lean 76 minutes, Old Joy benefits immensely from the unforced performances of lead actors Daniel London and musician Will Oldham (who might as well be the only characters the way Reichardt and Raymond structure the story). Of the two old friends who embark on a spontaneous weekend camping trip in the Oregon woods, London is the one with the regular job, fixed abode and looming responsibility of having a child on the way, while Oldham is the scruffy-looking drifter who initiates the trip because he's afraid of the growing distance between them (which is illustrated by the frequent cell phone calls London gets from his wife). They are also accompanied by London's dog Lucy (as Herself, a role she would reprise in Reichardt's follow-up, Wendy and Lucy) and the music of Yo La Tengo, who provide a spare and evocative score.
Once they get on the road, the film plays for a time like Gerry if Matt Damon and Casey Affleck had stayed in their car and still gotten lost on the way to "the thing" (which, in this instance, is the hot springs Oldham has chosen for their destination). When not listening to Air America (which appears to be London's default station), the two of them bemoan the loss of an old record store (the "end of an era," as Oldham puts it) and discuss subjects ranging from string theory (or Oldham's conception of it at any rate) to London's volunteer work. By the end of the trip it's clear that this will most likely be the last one they go on together, but the destination, once reached, turns out to be all it's cracked up to be. How many times does that happen in life?
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
Do you have any other material that shows... restraint?
Another film that I had the opportunity to see in 2006 but passed on, largely on the basis of its middling reviews, was The Notorious Bettie Page, which was co-written by director Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner -- the same team that had brought American Psycho to the screen in 2000. Based on its subject matter alone, Bettie Page could have been equally controversial, but Harron and Turner took their cues from Page's life and presented the '50s pin-up goddess as the down-to-earth, deeply religious country girl she really was. Sure, she made her name -- and her mark on American culture -- posing in lingerie and fetish gear (and sometimes in nothing at all), but it was always a lark to her and not a subversive act at all. And even though she's somewhat conflicted about how she makes a living, as she tells one admirer, "God gave me the talent to pose for pictures and it seems to make people happy. That can't be a bad thing, can it?"
The film jumps around in time from the mid-'50s -- when Page (played by Gretchen Mol) was at the height of her popularity and the U.S. Senate (headed by subcommittee chairman David Strathairn) was investigating the link between smut and juvenile delinquency -- to some of her formative experiences (being sexually molested by her father, marrying an abusive serviceman, finding her feet after moving to New York City). It really takes off, though, once she starts modeling for brother-and-sister team Chris Bauer and Lili Taylor (who treat their work in the same matter-of-fact fashion as Page) and bondage specialist Jared Harris. Perfectly captured in black and white (the better to match the genuine newsreel footage as well as the look of the real Page's pin-ups), the film also features the occasional color interlude, particularly when she travels to sunny Miami, where she is photographed by Bunny Yeager (Sarah Paulson). That's also where she's ultimately born again, which seems like it should be out of character, but there was always more to Bettie Page than her notoriety.
Wedesday, August 12, 2009
How do you think the hike's going so far?
Having been reminded of it while watching Old Joy on Monday, I toyed with the idea of re-watching Gerry this week. Then I found out that today is Casey Affleck's birthday (happy 34th!), which clinched it for me. Best approached as a kind of cinematic endurance test, Gerry is almost perversely lacking in incident, which can make its 103-minute running time seem more protracted than it already is. To some this film is akin to Chinese water torture, but if you can home in on its frequency (and I have done so thrice as of this viewing), it can be an absorbing experience.
Written by director Gus Van Sant with actors Casey Affleck and Matt Damon -- both of whom play characters named Gerry -- the film was the first of Van Sant's long-take trilogy, which was just the sort of creative shot in the arm he needed after the internet meme-spawning Finding Forrester (the one film of his I still have yet to see and will go on not seeing). It takes the most basic of story outlines -- Affleck and Damon start off down an unmarked wilderness trail, turn back at what they think is the halfway point, get completely lost and wind up aimlessly wandering around the desert until they collapse from exhaustion -- and creates visual poetry out of it. This is especially the case with the extended walking scenes (beautifully shot by Harris Savides), which are interspersed with some of the most comically absurd dialogue in movie history. From an early discussion about a boneheaded Wheel of Fortune contestant to Affleck's misfortune with a computer game and, most memorably, the extended scene where Damon has to make a "dirt mattress" so Affleck can jump down from the rock where he's marooned himself during an ill-thought-out "mountaintop scout-about," this is a film that doles out its dialogue sparingly but makes the absolute most of it.
Another area where the film shines is in its use of Arvo Pärt's minimalist music to underscore the inaction. The first time I saw it (when it was briefly in theaters in 2003), I was completely captivated by the marriage of sound and visuals. The second time (after it came to DVD and I could enjoy it in the discomfort of my non-air-conditioned apartment) I made a point of copying down the names of the pieces used in the film so I could track them down. Happily, I found them both on the same CD, 1999's Alina, which allowed me to appreciate their beauty in a whole new way. Like Gerry, Pärt's work may not be everybody's cup of tea, but if you have a taste for it, nothing else quite hits the spot.
Thursday, August 13, 2009
I can't keep going. I don't want to be part of the machine.
For the last film in his long-take trilogy, Gus Van Sant took a page out of the final chapter of Kurt Cobain's life to tell the story of a barely together rock star's Last Days. Michael Pitt plays Cobain-like Blake, who is first seen roaming the woods having skipped out of the rehab clinic where he was getting cleaned up in anticipation of an upcoming tour. Pitt's speech is mumbly and his manner distant throughout (it's several minutes into the film before he vocalizes anything remotely audible and that's only to sing a line from "Home on the Range"), and thanks to his unkempt, dirty blond hair we don't get a good look at his face until the film is nearly over. Even though it's the central role, it's about as far from a star part as you can get.
Eventually Pitt makes it back to his dingy, somewhat run-down house, where his fractured state of mind is ably conveyed by the way he fixes himself a bowl of cereal, puts the box away in the fridge and leaves the milk out on the counter. He also wanders from room to room in various states of dress, sometimes toting a shotgun and sometimes not, generally steering clear of the two couples (played in various combinations by Lukas Haas, Asia Argento, Scott Green and Nicole Vicius) who appear to be mooching off him and actively avoiding the private detective (Ricky Jay, who tells an apt story about a stage magician's failed bullet catch) trying to track him down. There are a few scenes where he actually interacts with visitors, including a Yellow Book salesman (Thadeus A. Thomas) who mistakenly believes he has an auto parts business and a record executive (Sonic Youth bassist Kim Gordon) who chastises him for being a "rock 'n' roll cliché" and fails to convince him to return to rehab. At least he manages to miss the two Mormons who earnestly share their message with Green, who takes it upon himself to run interference for Pitt, but turns out to be just as much of a needy hanger-on as everyone else.
As befits the closing film of a trilogy, Last Days shares some motifs with its two antecedents. Like Gerry it features many lyrical passages of its main character in nature (again photographed by Harris Savides), and like Elephant its narrative doubles back on itself a couple times to show the same events from different points of view. And like both of them it observes its characters from a distance, never really probing them psychologically. It also has a neat bookend device since both Gerry and Elephant open with a shot of a car driving to somewhere and Last Day's next-to-last shot is of a car driving away from somewhere. Knowing how meticulous Van Sant can be, I'm pretty certain that was intentional.
Don't let him suck you in. He's not funny.
As a birthday present to me, Kerasotes is removing Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen from Bloomington's movie screens as of tomorrow, thus relieving me of the temptation to force myself to sit through it in the vain hope of "plugging myself back into the zeitgeist" or some such nonsense. (The funny thing is a month ago I was seriously considering this course of action, which now seems terribly misguided, but at the time I was genuinely concerned about being out of touch with the culture I am ostensibly a part of.) Of course, if I wanted to I could still catch the last showing tonight, but instead I bypassed the sentient junkpiles entirely and caught a mid-afternoon showing of Judd Apatow's Funny People. I'm pretty sure I made the right decision.
I've been in Apatow's corner ever since he made The 40-Year-Old Virgin in 2005. (That said, I haven't seen every film he's had a hand in over the past five years. Some like Step Brothers or You Don't Mess with the Zohan just seemed a little too broad for me.) I can't say the same for Adam Sandler because the only other film of his that I've seen in theaters was Punch-Drunk Love (and I've never seen any of his other starring vehicles, not even on television), but paired up with the right writer/director he can be surprisingly effective as an actor. In this film he stars as a famous comedian staring down his own mortality when he's diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia, which leads him to take his stand-up act in a very dark direction. Through blind fate he winds up befriending/mentoring/making life complicated for struggling comic Seth Rogen, who gets more than he bargained for when he takes a job as Sandler's assistant/joke writer.
As with Apatow's last film, Knocked Up, this one veers between comedy and drama, which isn't a terrible thing in and of itself, but it's quite disheartening that "drama" to Apatow mostly seems to entail having people angrily shout things at each other. This tendency especially comes to the fore in the scenes with Sandler's ex-girlfriend (Leslie Mann), who has since moved on with her life and married an Australian businessman (Eric Bana) who's often away on business and who she suspects has been unfaithful to her. Sandler's illness brings them back together after a long separation, which places Rogen in an awkward position since he goes wherever Sandler goes. Of course, nobody ever said working for a terminally ill, super-rich comedian was going to be a barrel of laughs.
I haven't mentioned the supporting cast yet, so I should probably get to that. Jonah Hill plays Rogen's roommate and a fellow stand-up who's had a bit more success than him, although both are beholden to smarmy sitcom actor Jason Schwartzman, star of the execrable Yo, Teach...! Aubrey Plaza plays another stand-up who's Rogen's romantic interest of sorts (until she sleeps with Schwartzman, which kind of puts the kibosh on his interest) and Aziz Ansari also appears as an ambitious up-and-comer. Then there's the gaggle of comedians playing themselves, whose ranks include Andy Dick, Paul Reiser, Norm MacDonald, Dave Atell, Sarah Silverman and Ray Romano, plus musicians James Taylor, Eminem and Jon Brion. In short, all the ingredients for a great movie about stand-up comedy were there, they just could have stood to be boiled down a little more. (I know Apatow's comedies have a tendency to run long, but 2:20 without credits definitely approaches overkill.)
Friday, August 14, 2009
There's a lot of secrets in District 9.
Out of all the big-budget, special effects-driven extravaganzas that have come out this summer, I haven't wanted to see a single one of them until this weekend, which saw the release of District 9. Co-written and directed by Neill Blomkamp (who has some shorts under his belt, but this was his first feature), the film has a certain amount of muscle behind it since it was produced by Peter Jackson, but it managed to fly under the radar until fairly recently, when the stealth marketing started in earnest. I know the first I really saw of it was the "FOR HUMANS ONLY" sticker at the concession stand when I went to see Brüno last month:
Naturally, I was immediately intrigued.
Briefly, the film tells the story of a race of alien scavengers that parks its mothership over Johannesburg, South Africa, in the early '80s and shows no signs of leaving (or attacking or anything else, really), so they're set up in the titular district, which quickly becomes a slum. Flash forward a couple decades when, having worn out their welcome inside city limits, the government works out a plan to evict all 1.8 million of the Prawns (as they're pejoratively called) and move them to a resettlement camp far, far away. The operation has disaster written all over it (even if it's only of the public relations variety) and the poor bloke they pick to head it up -- and go door to door serving eviction notices -- is bureaucrat Sharlto Copley (making his film debut, but what a debut), but events conspire to give him a whole new perspective on the aliens living amongst them. (Without giving too much away, there's a reason why I started thinking of Jeff Goldblum's performance in The Fly about halfway through.)
Much has been made about the film being a metaphor for apartheid and a thinly-veiled depiction of living conditions that still exist in parts of Johannesburg today, but the bottom line is that it tells a compelling story in an entertaining way. The majority of the film is shot hand-held, which gives it a real immediacy, and this is combined with documentary-style talking heads, cable news coverage, surveillance camera footage and other sources to paint the full picture. It's not necessarily a pretty picture (Blomkamp deliberately made sure his aliens rated high on the disgust-o-meter), but it's definitely one that deserves to be widely seen. High marks all around.
Saturday, August 15, 2009
That's the thing about anger: it sucks up a lot of intelligence.
Made the trip to the Keystone Art Cinema in Indianapolis today to catch a pair of films that I probably wouldn't get to see otherwise. The first was the pitch-perfect political satire In the Loop, which goes to great -- and hilarious -- lengths to depict the events leading up to an international clusterfuck of epic proportions. An offshoot of the British series The Thick of It (which I have not seen, but now desperately need to), the film was co-written and directed by series co-creator Armando Iannucci, who manages the daunting task of keeping a couple dozen major characters and nearly as many subplots in the air at once and making it seem effortless. And did I mention that it's gut-bustingly funny? I'll probably do so again before I'm finished.
At the center of everything is the Prime Minister's caustic spin doctor Peter Capaldi, whose work is seemingly never done, especially with idiotic cabinet minster Tom Hollander running off at the mouth about an "unforeseeable war" that he clearly has no business talking about. Also along for the ride are Hollander's capable communications director (Gina McKee) and his very green personal assistant (Chris Addison), neither of whom has much success preventing him from continually putting his foot in it. After his remarks are interpreted as being pro-war, Hollander attracts the attention of various American interests, including State Department antagonists David Rasche, whose secret war committee doesn't stay secret very long, and Mimi Kennedy, whose intern (Anna Chlumsky) has written a report on the proposed war that lists more cons than pros, and Pentagon general James Gandolfini, who'd just as soon not send thousands of young men off to get killed. Meanwhile, Hollander has other problems at home, namely an angry constituent (Steve Coogan) who's upset about a garden wall that's on the verge of collapsing -- just like Hollander's career. And that's just the tip of the iceberg for what could easily turn out to be the funniest film I see all year.
In stark contrast, my second film -- Atom Egoyan's Adoration -- couldn't have been more sober and contemplative. After playing various film festivals last year, it went into limited release back in May and has been making the rounds on the art house circuit ever since. I'm just happy it stayed the course long enough to make it reasonably close to my neck of the woods.
A welcome return to form for Egoyan after 2005's woefully misbegotten Where the Truth Lies, Adoration tells a multi-layered story utilizing the same kind of fractured narrative structure that he had previously used to good effect in Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter. At the same time it hearkens back to the intertwined themes of family and videography that have been his preoccupations from his earliest films on. Here the central character is teenager Devon Bostick, whose report on a foiled terrorist bombing captures the attention of his drama teacher (Arsinée Khanjian), largely because he places his own parents (Rachel Blanchard and Noam Jenkins) at the center of the incident, which took place before he was even born.
With his parents out of the picture, Bostick has been cared for by his uncle (Scott Speedman), whose job driving a tow truck routinely brings him into contact with people who aren't always on their best behavior. Speedman also has anger management issues stemming from his strained relationship with his overbearing father (Kenneth Welsh), who seems intent on passing his prejudices onto the next generation. It's pretty heavy going at times, and Egoyan keeps some of the connections between his characters a secret until pretty late in the game, but fans of his work won't come away disappointed. I know I wasn't.
Sunday, August 16, 2009
It's been a backwards kind of day.
I've been a big fan of the animated films of Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli ever since I was first exposed to them in college. (Thanks, Carol!) His latest, which was released in Japan last summer and just opened in the States this weekend, is Ponyo, the story of a five-year-old boy (voiced by Frankie Jonas in the English version) who rescues a strange little goldfish with the face of a human, names her Ponyo, and vows to always protect her. The boy lives in a seaside community with his self-reliant mother (Tina Fey) and frequently absent father (Matt Damon), a ship's captain who is often away for long stretches at a time. For her part, Ponyo eventually transforms herself into a little girl (voiced by Noah Cyrus), much to the chagrin of her father (Liam Neeson), a naval wizard obsessed with maintaining the balance of nature (no easy feat with humans constantly mucking things up) with the aide of the girl's mother (Cate Blanchett).
Along with the anti-pollution message (which thankfully doesn't get shoved down our throats), Miyazaki stresses the generosity of his characters and the importance of taking responsibilities seriously and being respectful of the elderly. (The boy's mother works at a senior center where some of the residents are voiced by Cloris Leachman, Lily Tomlin and Betty White.) If children come out of this film emulating those character traits, then Miyazaki has done his job well. I just hope they don't go home singing the egregiously awful pop song that plays over the closing credits. I'm not in the habit of leaving movies before the credits are done rolling, but I nearly made an exception in this case.
Pray he never comes knocking at your door.
Speaking of songs I can't imagine anyone humming as they walk out of the theater, the ones in Repo! The Genetic Opera are pretty much uniformly unmemorable, which is unfortunate as they appear to be its main reason for existing. For starters, it probably doesn't help that they are, for the most part, generic industrial rock and that a lot of the lyrics are recited rather than sung. Then there's the fact that they're yoked to an unpleasant story about organ harvesting in a dystopian future that has been brought to the screen by Darren Lynn Bousman, whose main claim to fame is that he directed half of the Saw movies that have been made thus far. (When I saw the trailer for Saw VI in front of District 9 this weekend I inwardly groaned. They have to stop eventually, don't they?)
Given a limited theatrical release in 2008 (although it's fairly safe to say that the studio was always aiming for a midnight movie audience), Repo! was written by Darren Smith & Terrance Zdunich and based on their own stage musical, which could account for some of the redundancy. (Most of the characters are introduced via comic panel-style title cards giving their backstories, which are then laid out again in the songs that immediately follow. I guess the filmmakers didn't want the audience to get lost.) I don't know how all this played on the stage, but here the filmmakers just seem to pile on the gore in the hopes of distracting the audience from the hideously unsympathetic characters who (with a couple exceptions) don't seem to deserve this much attention.
For starters, there's Paul Sorvino as the ruthless CEO of GeneCo, the company that makes the organs that people need to stay alive and authorizes their repossession when their owners fall behind on their payments. Then there are his three children (played by Paris Hilton, Bill Moseley and Nivek Ogre), who are so decadent that even Sorvino is disgusted with them. On the other end of the spectrum there's Sorvino's head Repo Man (Anthony Head), who's kept his 17-year-old daughter (Alexa Vega) under lock and key because of the blood disease she inherited from her dead mother, which prevents her from going outside. ("Why, oh, why are my genetics such a bitch?" she sings at one of her more dramatic moments.) Things start to change for her when she meets the Graverobber (Terrance Zdunich), who always seems to be around to explain what's going on, and her long-lost godmother (Sarah Brightman), who's the star attraction at the Genetic Opera, where the film comes to its violent end. If I had my druthers, that end would have come much sooner than it did, but it was worth sitting through the whole thing to get to the scene where Paris Hilton literally loses face. Well, mostly.
Apart from Get to Know Your Rabbit, the only other film I've gotten from the Warner Archive Collection so far is 1981's Urgh! A Music War, a concert film that captures performances by a staggering 33 bands at the crest of the new wave. Directed by Derek Burbidge and filmed in venues ranging from Frejus to Los Angeles, London to Portsmouth, and New York to San Diego, the film presents a range of artists both well-known (The Police, Oingo Boingo, XTC, The Go-Go's, Gary Numan, Joan Jett, Devo, UB40) and more obscure (Wall of Voodoo, Toyah Willcox, Echo and the Bunnymen, Klaus Nomi, Dead Kennedys, The Cramps, Pere Ubu, Gang of Four, X), plus some that have probably never been heard from since (Chelsea, Athletico Spizz 80, Surf Punks, Au Pairs, Invisible Sex, The Alley Cats, Skafish). It's a film that I've been dying to see for years, ever since I first read about it in George Gimarc's Post-Punk Diary 1980-1982, and it more than lived up to my expectations. In the musical battle between Repo! The Genetic Opera and Urgh! A Music War, Urgh! wins hands down.
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
He does have a criminal record, yes, but that doesn't mean the boy was all bad.
Forty years ago today, Woody Allen's full-fledged directorial debut Take the Money and Run was released in his hometown of New York City and a unique voice in American cinema was given free reign for the first time. With the assistance of co-writer Mickey Rose (who had previously contributed to What's Up, Tiger Lily? and would also co-write Bananas), Allen fashioned a pseudo-documentary about the life of inept career criminal Virgil Starkwell, who never quite manages to get the hang of the bank robbing thing, but he keeps at it because it's the only thing he knows.
On the acting front, Allen shines as the hapless Starkwell, whether he's murdering a cello, presenting an illegible hold-up note to a bank teller, getting mixed up in hair-brained prison escapes or falling madly in love with beautiful laundress Janet Margolin. As a director he clearly had a lot to learn, but for his first time behind the camera he acquitted himself well and, with the aid of editorial consultant Ralph Rosenblum, shaped his footage into the enduring comedy classic we know today. He also gave a small role to his then-wife Louise Lasser, who plays one of the interview subjects (whose ranks also include Starkwell's parents, who wear disguises because they're so ashamed of their reprobate son) and would go on to co-star with him in Bananas -- even after they were divorced. Proof that not all of Allen's long-tem relationships ended badly.
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
New York was his town and it always would be.
One decade after he took the money and ran, a much more seasoned Woody Allen made Manhattan, which I consider to be his masterpiece, even if the master himself doesn't think too highly of it. (It's said that he offered to direct another film for United Artists for free if they would shelve it.) Filming for the first time in both anamorphic widescreen and black and white, Allen and cinematographer Gordon Willis conspired to capture the most romantic vision of New York City possible and it's safe to say their efforts will never be topped. Throw in the lushly arranged music of George Gershwin and Allen's most perceptive script (written with Marshall Brickman, co-writer of Sleeper and Annie Hall) and you've got the recipe for one of the all-time classics.
Unlike Annie Hall, which jumped around in time and used various distancing devices like direct address and other forms of fourth-wall breaking, Manhattan tells a much more linear and straightforward story of love and other entanglements in the Big Apple. In it, Allen plays a television comedy writer dating a high school student (a wise-beyond-her-years Mariel Hemingway) whose life gets thrown into upheaval when he quits his job to write a book and becomes enamored of his best friend's lover (an insecure, intellectual Diane Keaton). Allen hangs back, though, despite the fact that his friend (Michael Murphy) is a married man and thus in no position to make Keaton happy. Meanwhile, his acrimonious relationship with his ex-wife (Meryl Streep) is exacerbated by the fact that she's writing a tell-all book about their marriage, which ended in divorce when he caught her sleeping with another woman. That's the sort of thing that would put some people off love permanently, but Allen is nothing if not tenacious. And the ending, while bittersweet, shows that he's still a romantic at heart.
Friday, August 21, 2009
Got us a German here wants to die for country. Oblige him.
Well, then. This is the second weekend in a row that I've made a point of seeing a film on opening night. Last week it was District 9, tonight it was Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, a.k.a. the bane of copy editors and English teachers everywhere. I feel like I need another viewing to fully process everything that happens in the film, but I believe I can paint the broad strokes fairly successfully.
Anybody who's seen the trailer knows the basic premise: Brad Pitt stars as an American lieutenant who recruits eight Jewish-American soldiers (whose ranks include Hostel director Eli Roth, who should stick to his day job, and B.J. Novak from The Office) for a dangerous mission behind enemy lines killing Nazis in occupied France. And there's also a guy playing Hitler who yells a lot. What the trailer doesn't even hint at is the parallel story about a Jewish cinema-owner (Mélanie Laurent) whose theater becomes the focal point of an Allied plan to kill a lot of high-ranking party members. And what the Allies don't realize is that Laurent has her own plan for getting revenge against the ruthless S.S. officer (Christoph Waltz, whose performance won him the Best Actor prize at Cannes) who exterminated her family.
As much a nod to spaghetti westerns as it is to war films (particularly ones like The Dirty Dozen), Inglorious Basterds packs a lot into its running time, including a number of Tarantino's trademark dialogue scenes, some of which prove that he's as well-versed in early German cinema as he is in the culture of the '60s and '70s. (One of his characters, a British officer played by Michael Fassbender, is even presented as an expert on German film, so he would have to know his stuff.) The film also features Diane Kruger as a German actress (and double agent) whose part in the plan develops complications, Julie Dreyfus as Goebbels's French interpreter, Mike Myers as the British General who briefs Fassbender on the plan (and who isn't as distracting as you might think), Rod Taylor as Winston Churchill, and an uncredited Samuel L. Jackson as the narrator (with another voice being played by a similarly unbilled Harvey Keitel).
Because Tarantino jumps around from story to story (or from chapter to chapter), he doesn't spend a whole lot of time on the connective tissue, forcing the audience to make certain narrative leaps with him. For example, simple math tells us that some the Basterds we're introduced to at the beginning of the film aren't around later on, but we're never told what happened to them. (It's safe to assume that the Germans got some of them, but it's not like the Basterds ever mourn their losses or the Germans ever brag about them.) Then there's the grand guignol finale, which rewrites history in a big -- but very satisfying -- way. Tarantino's most off-center choice, though, has to be his use of David Bowie's "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)" (the theme song from the 1982 film) during a pivotal sequence. It seems like it shouldn't work, but somehow it does -- fancy that.
Saturday, August 22, 2009
I love her, but I wish she would disappear.
The year 1989 was a fairly productive one for Woody Allen. In addition to his annual feature (Crimes and Misdemeanors), he contributed a segment to the anthology film New York Stories, which also featured the works of Martin Scorsese and Francis "Sometimes I Use My Middle Name Ford But Not This Time" Coppola. Taking them in order, I have nothing against Scorsese's "Life Lessons," which stars Nick Nolte as a famous artist who has a tempestuous relationship with his assistant (Rosanna Arquette), but it does get a little tedious and repetitive. (It also makes me want to never hear Procol Harum's "Whiter Shade of Pale" again.) It does make good use of its New York art world setting, though, and features a nice supporting turn by Steve Buscemi as a self-centered performance artist whose fans include Peter Gabriel and Deborah Harry.
Coppola's "Life without Zoe," on the other hand, is such a trifle that it barely has any reason to exist. Co-written with his daughter Sofia, who was one year away from sabotaging The Godfather: Part III, "Zoe" features newcomer Heather McComb as the precocious child of a world-famous flautist (Giancarlo Giannini) and jet-setting author (Talia Shire), both of whom are away so much that she's left in the care of butler Don Novello (better known as Father Guido Sarducci). For the most part McComb lives in a fairy-tale version of New York, full of shopping sprees at Tower Records and the occasional hotel robbery, but her problems are so inconsequential that it doesn't take long for me to get restless. Good thing, then, that this is the shortest segment in the film.
And good thing Allen brings us home with "Oedipus Wrecks," which plays liked a filmed version of one of his clever short stories. In it, he plays a partner in a law firm with unresolved mother issues, which isn't surprising once we get to meet his mother (Mae Questel). A constant embarrassment to him, Questel is also fiercely opposed to his fiancée (Mia Farrow), a shiksa who has three children from a previous marriage. One night, though, Questel disappears during a stage magician's act, which is a great relief to Allen until she appears in the sky over New York and proceeds to make life unbearable enough that he seeks out a mystic (Julie Kavner), whose arcane chants and spells do little to dispel the motherly menace. Hardly weighty stuff, but Allen probably needed a breather after making two heavy dramas (September and Another Woman) back to back. Besides, he knew he had another one waiting in the wings.
After Manhattan, 1989's Crimes and Misdemeanors is probably Woody Allen's next most successful marriage of comedy and drama (with Hannah and Her Sisters running them a close third). To accomplish this, the film tells parallel stories: in one, Martin Landau plays a successful opthalmologist whose unstable mistress (Anjelica Huston) threatens to destroy his life after he tries to break it off with her, and in the other, Allen plays a principled but struggling documentary filmmaker who is tapped to shoot a profile of his brother-in-law, an obscenely wealthy and fatuous sitcom producer (Alan Alda). While Landau fights to keep his wife (Claire Bloom) from learning about his indiscretions, Allen tries to keep his rocky marriage to Joanna Gleason afloat. While Landau weighs the competing advice of rabbi Sam Waterston (who happens to be one of his patients) and his brother Jerry Orbach (who happens to have underworld connections), Allen takes a fancy to PBS producer Mia Farrow and tries to keep Alda from sinking his claws into her. Only at the close of the film do their paths actually cross, in a scene fittingly set during a wedding celebration. It's kind of like the big confrontation scene between Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in Heat, only without the subsequent gunplay.
Sunday, August 23, 2009
Not only are you vain and egotistical, but you have genuine crudeness.
In the four decades since he made Take the Money and Run, Woody Allen has made a few other pseudo-documentaries, most notably Zelig in 1983 and Husbands and Wives in 1992. To date, his last crack at the form was 1999's Sweet and Lowdown, which starred Sean Penn as little-known jazz guitarist Emmet Ray, who is said to have been second only to Django Reinhardt. To tell his story, Allen trots out a number of jazz aficionados -- including himself and his Bullets Over Broadway co-writer Douglas McGrath -- who tell everything they know about him, from his sidelines pimping girls and hustling in pool halls to his kleptomania and penchant for showing up late to gigs or skipping them altogether. And who can forget his favorite pastimes: shooting rats at the dump and watching trains? When he finds a girl -- in this case mute laundress Samantha Morton -- who is willing to put up with his eccentricities, he should know to hold onto her.
The relationship between Penn and Morton (both of whom earned Academy Award nominations for their work here) is at the heart of the film, but Allen gives Ray an alternate romantic interest in the form of society girl (and would-be writer) Uma Thurman, who marries him and almost immediately starts an affair with bodyguard Anthony LaPaglia (who works for club owner Brad Garrett, one of many employers who has fired Ray over the years). He also gives supporting roles to James Urbaniak (star of several Hal Hartley films and the voice of Dr. Venture on The Venture Bros.) as Ray's rhythm guitarist and John Waters as an exasperated hotel owner who fires him after he goes missing for four days. With a reputation like that, it's no wonder hardly anybody remembers the guy.
Monday, August 24, 2009
The people in your dreams, you should call them when you're awake. It would make life simpler.
The Onion AV Club's New Cult Canon periodically introduces me to films I might not have otherwise sought out, like this week's entry, the 1991 French film The Lovers on the Bridge. Written and directed by Leos Carax (whose most recent effort was one of the segments in the anthology film Tokyo!), the film stars Juliette Binoche as an artist who's slowly going blind and Denis Lavant as the homeless street performer who falls madly in love with her at first sight. Lavant lives on a bridge that's been closed for renovations, a situation he shares with fellow vagrant Klaus-Michael Grüber, who provides him with the downers he needs to sleep. Grüber tries to scare Binoche off, but Lavant isn't having any of it and as time goes on he grows more and more attached to her, with occasionally violent results.
The bulk of the film is set in 1989 during France's bicentennial celebrations, which leads to one of its most memorable sequences when the river banks erupt in a huge fireworks display just as Binoche and Lavant are experiencing the first stirrings of passion. Binoche isn't ready to fully commit to Lavant, though, since she's still hung up on a cellist she grew up with and whose abandonment of her is apparently what drove her out onto the streets in the first place. For his part, Lavant does everything he can to make sure Binoche stays with him always, even if it means preventing her from finding out about a miracle cure that could restore her eyesight. Can you say abandonment issues? I'll bet you can.
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
You show me one couple that doesn't have problems.
Despite the fact that I was already a confirmed Woody Allen fan when it came out in the fall of 1992, I deliberately avoided Husbands and Wives on its release because it coincided with his messy break-up with Mia Farrow and I didn't want real-life events to color my reaction to the film. It wasn't until years later, when I found a VHS copy on sale at a rental store, that I caught up with it and was able to appreciate the volatile domestic drama on its own terms. And a few months back history repeated itself when I purchased the Cinemat's copy of the DVD when it was going out of business. Strange how these things happen.
Apart from the unavoidable parallels with his personal life (which were entirely coincidental, but that didn't prevent the media from jumping all over them), what got the most attention at the time was Allen's use of jarring jump cuts and unsteady hand-held camerawork, which were far from commonplace in contemporary mainstream films. Allen may not have invented the "shaky cam," as it was soon dubbed, but it certainly gave the film a documentary-like quality that is buoyed by the frank interviews with the characters that crop up throughout the film (making this a clear forerunner of both versions of The Office). And speaking of the characters, there's Allen as a Columbia professor and frustrated novelist whose marriage isn't as stable as imagines, Mia Farrow as his wife who is thunderstruck when their friends Judy Davis and Sydney Pollack announce that they're splitting up after years of marriage, Juliette Lewis as the promising young writing student who idolizes Allen (and seems to have a thing for older men), and Liam Neeson as the editor of the art magazine where Farrow works -- and who happens to be her secret crush. With so many variables, sparks are pretty much guaranteed to fly.
Out of all the actors, Davis is the one who garnered the most critical praise, along with a bevy of Best Supporting Actress nominations and awards, for her fearless turn as a woman determined to make the most of her new-found (and potentially terrifying) freedom. Allen also got some attention (the right kind this time) for his screenplay, which earned him a Best Original Screenplay nod at the Oscars and a win at the BAFTA Awards. And while awards aren't always an indicator of quality, the sheer number of nominations and wins Allen's scripts have picked up over the years certainly attests to his keen sense of craft -- that is, when he's trying. One has to wonder how Whatever Works (a sentiment that is echoed by Pollack's character at the end of this film) will fare in that regard come awards season.
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
I think he was having difficulties.
When Barnes & Noble was having its Criterion sale last month (50% off all titles!), I eagerly scoured the selection at the store in town to see what they had. As it happens, both of the films I wound up taking home (Lodge Kerrigan's Clean, Shaven and Roman Polanski's Repulsion) are haunting character studies centered around damaged people with fragile mental states, which are conveyed through the use of subjective camerawork and a keen attention to sound. I considered running them back to back, but ultimately decided to split them up. There's only so much paranoia and unease one can take in a single sitting.
Essentially, the film tells the story of a schizophrenic (chillingly played by Peter Greene) who has a hard time adjusting to life outside of the asylum where he's been for the past few years. For one thing, he hates mirrors (and all reflective surfaces) and obscures them with newspaper clippings, which can make it difficult to drive and shave. He also has a strained relationship with his domineering mother (Megan Owen), who gave up his only daughter (Jennifer MacDonald) for adoption. While Greene works on keeping himself together long enough to track MacDonald down, he's pursued by a detective (Robert Albert) obsessed with solving the murder of another young girl, which may or may not have been Greene's doing. The detective's dedication to the case doesn't prevent him from bedding MacDonald's adoptive mother (Molly Castelloe), though. For a guy who's supposed to be on the right side of the law, he isn't as far removed from Greene as he would probably like to think.
Written, produced and directed by Kerrigan, Clean, Shaven was an audacious debut that announced the arrival of an exciting new talent when it started making the rounds of the festival circuit in the fall of 1993. The fact that it took a year or so to find a distributor is unsurprising, though; when a filmmaker makes something as raw and uncompromising as this, they have to know it's going to be a tough sell. It might have been for me, too, if it hadn't come with the Steven Soderbergh seal of approval (Soderbergh interviews Kerrigan on the DVD commentary track), but I'm glad I took the chance on it. And I'm eager to see their other collaboration, Keane, which Kerrigan wrote and directed in 2004 and Soderbergh executive produced. Should be interesting.
Thursday, August 27, 2009
I must get this crack mended.
For his follow-up to 1962's Knife in the Water, Roman Polanski originally wanted to make Cul-de-sac, but his producers insisted on a more commercial feature for his English-language debut, so he and co-writer Gérard Brach quickly turned out the script that became 1965's Repulsion. Set in swinging London, Repulsion is an intense psychological horror film about a withdrawn Belgian beauty (Catherine Deneuve) who works at an upscale beauty salon as a manicurist, but her mind is very rarely on her work. Frequently and easily distracted, Deneuve lives with her older sister (Yvonne Furneaux), who is seeing a boorish married man (Ian Hendry) who's in the habit of leaving his toothbrush and razor in Deneuve's drinking glass when he stays over. They're also in the habit of making noisy love in the next room, which disturbs Deneuve to no end for reasons we'll eventually be privy to.
About a third of the way through the film, the sister and her boyfriend take off for the continent, leaving Deneuve alone in the apartment with nothing but her crumbling psyche and a decaying rabbit for company. (During one of her more distracted moments, she takes an uncooked rabbit out of the fridge and sets it down in another room where it stays until it starts to draw flies -- and even then Deneuve never once considers throwing it away.) Deneuve quickly loses interest in work (and one time that she does go in, she pierces a client's fingernail -- a scene echoed in a more extreme fashion in Clean, Shaven) and blows off a date with a young man who's shown an interest in her (John Fraser) when she becomes transfixed by a crack in the pavement, which is matched later on by the ones that begin appearing in the walls of her flat once she's barricaded herself inside.
Throughout the film, Polanski is able to mirror Deneuve's deteriorating mental state through the use of ambient sound (ticking clocks, buzzing flies, a neighbor practicing piano scales) and shots of her vacant, staring eyes which occasionally bug out for no apparent reason. Then there are the infrequent shock effects, which somehow still work even when you know they're coming. For example, periodically Deneuve imagines a man breaching her defenses and viciously raping her, which is bad news for Fraser when he pops 'round to see how she's doing and has to break down the door to get in. And the same goes for the landlord (Patrick Wymark), who shows up one day to collect the back rent and makes some unwanted advances. Deneuve may look helpless, but invade her space at your peril, lads.
I am the Devil, and I am here to do the Devil's work.
When Rob Zombie's House of 1000 Corpses first came out in 2003, I joked about going to see it and counting the dead bodies, and if the total didn't add up to a thousand I was going to demand a refund. Well, I never did get around to doing that, so when I found out Zombie's follow-up, 2005's The Devil's Rejects, was a sequel to House, I also passed on it. Then a funny thing happened: the commercials for his 2007 remake of Halloween looked promising enough that they managed to lure me out to the theater opening weekend, something I won't be repeating with the sequel, which I've seen the trailer for twice now and it just looks flat-out stupid. Still, there's nothing preventing me from going back and watching The Devil's Rejects as a standalone film, which is what I have done thanks to the Independent Film Channel. (My library used to have a copy at one time, but it has since flown the coop.)
Returning from House of 1000 Corpses are degenerate clown Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig) and his vile kin Otis B. Driftwood (Bill Moseley) and Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie), who manage to escape a raid on their corpse-filled house by vindictive sheriff William Forsythe, who is out to avenge the death of his brother Tom Towles (kind of like Dennis Hopper's rogue Texas Ranger in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2). On the way to their rendezvous, Haig makes arrangements to hide out at the whorehouse of his brother Charlie Altamont (Ken Foree), while the others kidnap a country band called Banjo & Sullivan (led by Geoffrey Lewis, who never gets to tell his Johnny Cash story), which leads to torture, mayhem and the senseless murder of their roadie (Brian Posehn), who doesn't get to follow up on his interest in rodeo clowning. The film also features Leslie Easterbrook as the defiant Mother Firefly (taking over the role from Karen Black), Danny Trejo as one half of the Unholy Two (who capture the Rejects for Forsythe), and genre vets Michael Berryman, P.J. Soles and Mary Woronov.
With a cast that sounds like the roll-call from a '70s drive-in flick, Zombie hardly needs the opening title that establishes its 1978 setting (also the year of the original Halloween), but that does give him free reign to fill the soundtrack with plenty of distracting classic rock songs. (Not that I have anything against classic rock, but hearing Steely Dan's "Reelin' in the Years" in the middle of a gory horror movie is more than a little jarring.) It also gives him an excuse to play with freeze-frames, wipes and slow motion, the last of which he proves to be far too in love with, especially during the "Free Bird" ending which is apparently meant to elevate his antiheroes to some kind of mythical status, but frankly I'm not buying it. Not that I'm dismissing the film out of hand because it does have a lot going for it, but sending your characters out in a hail of bullets does not automatically make them movie martyrs like Bonnie and Clyde or the Wild Bunch -- no matter how slowly you make them die.
Friday, August 28, 2009
We're doing this because it scares us more than anything else.
As I read the reports coming out of Sundance this past January, one film that I knew I wanted to see -- but didn't know whether I would get the chance to -- was Humpday. Between its risque subject matter (it's about two old college friends who have drifted apart and decide to make a porno together despite the fact that they're both heterosexual) and its lo-fi origins, I just didn't see it showing up at the Kerasotes in town -- and maybe not even at the Keystone Art Cinema in Indianapolis. That was why I was very glad to learn that it was starting a two-week run at the Ryder this weekend. It sure beats the alternative (i.e. Rob Zombie's Halloween II).
Written, produced and directed by Lynn Shelton, Humpday first establishes the straight-laced Ben (Mark Duplass), who is happily married to Anna (Alycia Delmore), with whom he has a nice house and is planning on starting a family. Then in swoops Ben's more adventurous buddy Andrew (Joshua Leonard), who arrives on their doorstep without any warning at two in the morning, which Anna tries her best to be good-natured about. The next night she even makes her famous pork chops so the three of them can have dinner together, but Andrew ropes Ben into joining him for a pot-luck meal/wild party at a Dionysian commune, leaving Anna to fume by herself. As the evening grows late, and having partaken of certain substances, Ben and Andrew essentially dare each other into entering Humpfest, an actual amateur porn festival based out of Seattle, which would have never occurred to them under any other circumstances. But having committed themselves, even in the cold light of the morning, neither one of them is willing to back down.
Will they go ahead with the "art project"? Will they be able to follow through? And how will Anna react when she finds out what they're planning to do? If the answers to these questions intrigue you, then by all means seek out Humpday, because I guarantee you won't find them anywhere else.
Saturday, August 29, 2009
I just waited for something that would happen, absurd and terrible at the same time.
Dipped back into the "Drive-In Movie Classics" well and came up with 1973's Voodoo Black Exorcist, a film that doesn't contain a single exorcism -- and very few bonafide black people. The product of Rosgard of Miami and Mingyar of Madrid (and Lothar of the Hill People), Voodoo Black Exorcist is a cheap mummy rip-off directed by Manuel Caño and written by Santiago Moncada (who is credited with the story and screenplay just in case anyone had any doubts), then ineptly dubbed into English two years later and dumped onto the American drive-in circuit. I expect that's when it picked up the "Black" and the "Exorcist," since its original Spanish title, Vudú Sangriento, translates to the much more accurate, if less marketable, "Bloody Voodoo." Then there's the French title, La Vengeance du Zombie, which also has a nice ring to it. Maybe they should have gone with Bloody Vengeance of Voodoo Zombie Mummy and called it a day.
No matter what the movie is called, though, it can't disguise the fact that it's just plain dreadful and features some of the worst blackface (and blackarm and blackleg and blackchest) I've ever seen. At least most of it is confined to the prologue, set a thousand years in the past, in which Haitian voodoo priest Gatanebo (Aldo Sambrell) is punished for an indiscretion with another man's wife by being stabbed in the neck with a ceremonial ring and repeatedly mounted by topless women before being entombed alive. The wife, meanwhile, gets off easy -- she's merely beheaded. (And right off the bat the filmmakers demonstrate their obvious attention to detail since one of the drummers at the voodoo ceremony where all this happens is clearly wearing blue jeans.) Then, over a wandering shot of a cave interior, the somber narrator declares that "Blood will be spilled, terrible things will happen again and everything will start again." I guess he must have seen the rushes.
The film then abruptly transitions from Gatanebo's entombment to a rocket launch, which doesn't figure into the plot at all but does give the filmmakers the excuse to start the credits over some shots in space. Then, back on Earth, we watch as Gatanebo's sarcophagus is placed in the hold of a cruise ship by the Keenan Wynn-ish Dr. Kessling (Alfredo Mayo), who places it under 24-hour guard for some reason or another. This sequence also features numerous close-ups of a caged cat, which is the first to buy it when Gatanebo's mummy is revived for some reason or another. (The director and screenwriter don't go much for explaining what's going on, which is probably just as well.) Then the mummy's skin regenerates and he wanders aimlessly around the ship, assaulting the occasional deckhand, which brings to mind the episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker where Kolchak is trapped on a singles cruise with a werewolf. Then he discovers that his lover has been reincarnated as Dr. Kessling's secretary/whore (Eva León) and the mere sight of her causes him to be re-mummified. Gatanebo then spends the rest of the film seemingly going back and forth between these two states at random, which is a plot device better suited to a knockabout farce than a horror movie.
Anyway, I haven't even mentioned the rose-tinted flashbacks or the ill-advised close-ups of papier mache heads (my favorite being the one in the scene where the reincarnation of León's beheader is himself beheaded). Then there are the memorable supporting characters like the tarot card-reading busybody Miss Thorndyke (sadly not identified in the credits) and her henpecked husband Alfred (ditto), or the lazy police inspector (Fernando Sancho) who's given to saying things like, "The criminal must be reasonable, but none of what is happening is." And I never knew how much mummies hated furniture, but the scene that really takes the cake is the one where a cop battles the mummy with a fire hose. After a thousand years spent drying out, you'd think it wouldn't hold up under the pressure, but it manages to escape back to its cave (with León in tow), whereupon they are both incinerated by a rookie cop with a flamethrower. The end.
We're gonna have to save our own lives. They ain't gonna do it for us.
For his follow-up to 1972's The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, director Philip Kaufman tackled James Houston's novel The White Dawn, which was based on the true story of three sailors on an ill-fated whaling expedition in Baffin Bay who got separated from their vessel and would have perished on the ice if they hadn't been rescued by the natives. Set in 1896, when the actual events took place, and filmed on location in Canada's Northwest Territories, the 1974 film starred Warren Oates, Timothy Bottoms and Louis Gossett Jr. as the stranded sailors and featured the Eskimo people of the Canadian Arctic as themselves. (Kaufman even had them speak their own language, which aided in the verisimilitude.)
As can be expected, it takes our three strangers time to adjust to their new living conditions (that is, once they've been brought back from the brink the death), but their hosts (who refer to them as Dog-Children) welcome them with open arms, sharing their food, their shelter and even their women once they've been deemed worthy. (Gossett is the first since, as the harpooner, he's already a skilled hunter. Bottoms has to prove himself first and is most readily assimilated into the tribe, even going so far as to learn their language. Oates, on the other hand, has to cheat his way into getting some companionship.) Along the way we watch as the tribe hunts seal, geese and even walrus when other food gets scarce, and generally gets on with their lives. There are ominous rumblings on the horizon, though, in the form of a medicine man who stops by periodically to warn against allowing the interlopers to remain in their midst. One way or another, they're eventually going to have to be on their way.
Monday, August 31, 2009
I've kept company with bad men all my life.
There are revisionist westerns and there are revisionist westerns, and 2005's The Proposition sets out to be the revisionest of them all. Substituting the untamed Australian Outback for the American Old West, it invokes timeless themes such as the encroachment of civilization and the desire to seek revenge and grounds the story in dirt and grime and fills the soundtrack with the omnipresent buzzing of flies. Directed by John Hillcoat (whose current film is The Road, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy) and written by Nick Cave (whose day job is as the lead singer of the Bad Seeds), the film opens right in the middle of a shootout in a whorehouse, which is one way to start things off with a bang. And since we don't know who the men are or why they're being shot at, we pretty much have to take it as read that they're very bad indeed. At least, that's what lawman Ray Winstone believes when he confronts the two survivors.
As fate would have it (or perhaps it was by design) they're both brothers, and Winstone figures that the only way to get gunslinger Guy Pearce to find and kill his older brother (Danny Huston), a notorious outlaw who lives in the bush, is to threaten to hang his younger brother (Richard Wilson) on Christmas, which is but nine days away. Meanwhile, Winstone has his hands full trying to shield his wife (Emily Watson) from the brutality surrounding them while also fending off the supercilious David Wenham, who brought him over from England to civilize the place and whose ideas about justice are far off the mark. The film also features David Gulpilil as an Aborigine in Winstone's employ and John Hurt as a drunk Irishman Pearce encounters while searching for Huston (and who isn't nearly as harmless as he acts). Suffice it to say, by the time Huston is finally found, Pearce has plenty of reasons to be conflicted about the proposition he's accepted.
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