Craig J. Clark Watches a Lot of Movies
December 2010

Wednesday, December 1, 2010
You're not a human being. You don't belong to this Earth.

Had an oddball double feature tonight, which was necessitated by the collision of two separate observances. First off, December 1 is World AIDS Day, which prompted me to watch Rainer Werner Fassbinder's final film, 1982's Querelle, which was completed after he died of a drug overdose at the age of 37. Fassbinder's death had nothing to do with AIDS, though. Rather, the AIDS connection comes in because the film stars Brad Davis, who died from AIDS a decade later, as the title character, a sailor who smuggles opium and has a taste for murder and other illicit activities. Based on the novel Querelle de Brest by Jean Genet, the film was written for the screen by Fassbinder and Burkhard Driest, who also portrays a corrupt cop who hangs around a whorehouse frequented by Davis, who is lusted after by just about everyone he meets. That includes naval officer Franco Nero, who is positively obsessed with him, whorehouse owner Jeanne Moreau, and her husband Günther Kaufmann.

Complicating matters are a pair of characters played by one actor, Hanno Pöschl. First he's Querelle's brother Robert, who also happens to be Moreau's not-so-secret lover. And second he's a Polish construction worker named Gil, who masks his love for a another man (Laurent Malet) by pretending to be interested in his sister. That's the kind of self-deception that can only lead to a tragic end for all concerned, but Fassbinder is totally up front about what kind of story he's telling. In fact, he fills the stylized sets with so much phallic imagery and well-sculpted young men that Querelle would probably go down as the most homoerotic film in history if it weren't for the existence of Genet's own Un Chant d'Amour, a 26-minute short the writer made in 1950. Sure, Genet wasn't as explicit as Fassbinder could be three decades later, but the power of the imagery is such that it's still captivating 60 years later.

And speaking of being captivated by the cinema, how's that for an awkward transition to Woody Allen's mid-period masterwork The Purple Rose of Cairo? Allen turned 75 today, so I couldn't let the occasion pass without taking in one of the most luminescent jewels in his cinematic crown (which is exactly one-third as old as he is). Released in 1985, The Purple Rose of Cairo is set during the Great Depression (which Allen was born right in the middle of) when jobs were scarce and audiences flocked to the movies to escape their drab and often troubled lives -- at least for a few hours.

That's definitely the case with shrinking violet Cecelia (Mia Farrow), who's barely holding onto her waitressing job and has a lout of an unemployed husband (Danny Aiello) who cheats on her and beats her up when she steps out of line. (I guess the honeymoon's been over for a while.) Moviegoing is still a magical experience for her, though (it's quite telling that she knows all of the employees at her local movie theater by name), so when she gets fired it's no surprise that she spends the whole day seeking solace in the eponymous film-within-the-film, which she watches over and over again. What is surprising is when secondary character Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels) steps off the screen the third time through and whisks her out of the theater, much to consternation of his fellow characters (whose ranks include Edward Herrmann, John Wood and the incomparable Zoe Caldwell). Baxter is eager to take advantage of his new-found freedom, but Cecelia warns him that the real world isn't all it's cracked up to be. Then actor Gil Shepherd (also Daniels) is flown in from Hollywood to try to convince him to return to the movie, which can't very well go on without him.

Allen gets a lot of comic mileage out of Baxter's naïveté when it comes to how things work on our side of the screen. (For instance, he's loaded with cash but his money's no good in the real world.) He also has a poignant encounter with a prostitute (Dianne Wiest in her first of many roles of Allen) who is so charmed by him that she's willing to give him a freebie -- if only he understood what line of work she's in. On the other side of the coin, Cecelia has an encyclopedic knowledge of all of the films she's seen, which comes in handy when she bumps into Shepherd and is able to recall even the most minor roles he's played. It's tough, though, when she has to choose between the perfect, fictional screen adventurer and the flesh-and-blood actor whose love for her, while of the "at first sight" variety, seems to be genuine. I guess he really is good at his job.

Thursday, December 2, 2010
Just think, the next time I shoot someone, I could be arrested.

Like a lot of comedy fans, I was deeply saddened by the loss of actor Leslie Neilsen, who died on Sunday at the age of 84. For the past three decades -- ever since Airplane! showed the world that he was the master of the deadpan -- he's regaled us with an array of comic performances (many of them in movies that were beneath his talents), but his greatest character by far was undoubtedly Lt. Frank Drebin, first in Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker's short-lived TV series Police Squad! and later in a trio of films that got off to a rousing start with The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (which, coincidentally enough, was released on this day in 1988).

Directed by David Zucker, who essentially took the series and ran with it while Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams went off and did their own things (Ghost and the Hot Shots! diptych chief among them), The Naked Gun reintroduced Frank Drebin to a viewing public that had essentially never gotten to meet him in the first place. In turn, the viewing public ate him up with a spoon and made Leslie Neilsen a bona fide movie star. The film also proved that Priscilla Presley had comic chops (and an unexpected flair for physical comedy) and that O.J. Simpson would be remembered for something other than killing his wife. (Wait, strike that. That is all he's going to be remembered for. Anyway...) The supporting cast also includes Ricardo Montalban as the villain who plans to have Queen Elizabeth assassinated while she's visiting Los Angeles, George Kennedy as Drebin's immediate superior, Ed Williams (one of the few returning cast members from the series) as Police Squad's resident forensics expert, and cameos by the likes of "Weird Al" Yankovic (as himself), John Houseman (as an unflappable driving instructor), Lawrence Tierney (pre-Reservoir Dogs), Reggie Jackson (as a secret, strangely robotic, assassin), and Charlotte Zucker (who gets her biggest role yet as Montalban's irreplaceable secretary).

I realize I haven't said much about the plot or the gags (which are arguably more important than the plot). This is probably just as well since its plot is actually rather well-constructed (unlike most modern spoof films that throw a bunch of scenes at the wall and see what, if anything, sticks). I will mention one detail that I noticed for the first time this evening and that is the generic signage. When Frank and Ed go to the hospital to visit Nordberg they actually go to "THE HOSPITAL." And when they return to the police station they enter "THE POLICE STATION." I wonder if that motif carried over to the other two films in the series. I'm sure I wouldn't mind finding out someday.

Friday, December 3, 2010
That thing looked like The Manson Family Christmas Special.

When I think of '80s Christmas movies, several titles immediately spring to mind. A Christmas Story, of course. Gremlins. One Magic Christmas. Santa Claus: The Movie (which I didn't see but certainly know about). Prancer (ditto). National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. Various and sundry slasher flicks about killers in Santa suits and/or killers offing dudes in Santa suits. None of those films really get to me on a gut level, though. (Not even Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out!) There is one, however, that somehow always manages to get the waterworks going and that is Richard Donner's Scrooged, which was released in 1988 and went on to become a modest hit (if not quite a blockbuster). If it doesn't seem to get as much play today as it used to that may be due to its profoundly schizophrenic nature (someday I'd like to see what the original, much darker cut -- which would have been more in line with co-writer Michael O'Donoghue's sensibility -- was like), but when it's firing on all cylinders it's quite bracing, even in the moments where it gets a little soppy in spite of itself.

There's a lot to unpack in this film, but I'm not even going to get started on it tonight because Joe Blevins and I are making it the focus of our last movie review at
Unloosen (since the traffic there has pretty much trickled down to nothing). Check there in a couple weeks (our goal is to have the article posted on the 16th) and see what we will have wrought. In the meantime, do us a favor and have a look at the work we've been doing over the past few months. It would be nice if somebody did.

Sunday, December 5, 2010
Lots of small, furry animals with sad eyes were horribly tortured during the making of this film.

Until now, the only thing I'd ever gotten to see of Bill Plympton's 1995 feature Guns on the Clackamas -- a mockumentary about the troubled production of a low-budget western -- was the extremely brief excerpt included in his 1997 shorts compilation Mondo Plympton (which also featured a clip from 1994's J. Lyle, a film which has likewise eluded me). Now Plympton has gone and put Guns on the Clackamas out on DVD himself (because it wasn't doing anybody much good just sitting on his shelf), so perhaps more people will get to see it. (I don't think it got much play outside of the festival circuit. In fact, before Mondo Plympton I had no idea he had even made any live-action films.)

The film is presented as the work of an initially ebullient documentarian named Nigel Nado (Keith Scales), who is hired by legendary film producer Holten P. Jeffers (who is claimed by Gus Van Sant as a major influence) to make a film about his latest western epic but is constantly stymied by his inability to gain access to the set. "Actually, I prefer not to have the full cooperation of my subjects," he says philosophically. "It gives me more objective freedom that way." Sounds like rationalizing to me, Nigel. Still, Nado manages to track down most of the key members of the crew, who fill him in on why it was such a disastrous shoot. It's one thing for the director (Michael Thomas Parks) to be a navel-gazing douche bag (who calls himself James X and makes pretentious films with titles like Orifice, Follicle and Bed Sore) and another for the lead actress to have a severe stutter, but when the financier demands that it be turned into an all-yodeling western musical, that's the last straw for Jeffers. Getting alternate funding once the Bratwurst King (William Tate) pulls out is a problem, though, and it's exacerbated by the film's accountant, who goes missing for a few days and believes he's had a close encounter with a multi-breasted alien creature (which he hopes was female). Throw into the mix a leading man with poor oral hygiene, an electrocuted head writer (whose distraught wife is represented by none other than J. Lyle, Attorney at Law), a blatant disregard for safety, and a cast that's poisoned by some bad macaroni salad and you've got a project that could give The Conquerer a run for its money.

Guns on the Clackamas is fitfully amusing, but it's rarely laugh-out-loud funny (the parade of "crazy actresses" auditioning to replace the stutterer is a funny idea, but it goes on way too long, especially when they return to extend the closing credits to an absurd length). Mostly it gets by on pure weirdness, like the relentlessly upbeat executive producer (Danny Bruno) who is a large-eye painting enthusiast and trots them out at every opportunity. There are also frequent cutaways to a delusional film critic who, when describing the film within the film, is prone to statements like "Not, perhaps, John Ford, but even here one can see glimmerings of talent seeping through." Later on he even calls Jeffers's opus "a beautiful piece of existential filmmaking," which is most appropriate since it's something of a miracle that it exists at all. That also goes for Plympton's Clackamas.

Monday, December 6, 2010
This isn't the kind of attention that most people want.

There are many people who set out to become famous. They develop some sort of talent that they hope will gain them an audience and then try their damnedest to get noticed. Then there are those who find fame inadvertently, oftentimes without even looking for it. Jack Rebney is one who decidedly falls into the latter camp. For Rebney, the road to fame was paved during an industrial film shoot for Winnebago in the sweltering summer of 1989, the profanity-ridden outtakes of which soon began circulating on the bootleg market. Then YouTube came along and his oft-dubbed clip went viral, which was around the time that he was dubbed "The Angriest Man in the World." That's where Austin-based documentary filmmaker Ben Steinbauer, director and co-writer of Winnebago Man, comes in.

Intrigued by the popularity of Rebney's videotaped meltdown, Steinbauer decides to track the man down -- if he can be tracked down, that is. After speaking to a few underground video enthusiasts and some crew members from the fateful shoot, Steinbauer (who appears on camera quite a bit and actively inserts himself into the narrative) hires a private investigator who turns up little beyond an array of post office boxes, but that's enough for him to get a letter to the reclusive Rebney, who eventually agrees to meet the filmmaker and is found working as the caretaker at a fishing resort in the mountains of northern California. At first he laughs his way through his infamous tape and can't understand what people see in it, but eventually he shows his true colors and starts to act like the "old, crotchety, pissed-off" 76-year-old with failing eyesight he is. Steinbauer tries to get him to use his platform to reach out to his fans, but Rebney would rather espouse his political views, which puts the two of them at an impasse. Then Rebney receives an invitation to appear at the Found Footage Film Festival in San Francisco, where he makes some sort of peace with his legacy. That's a long way from how one of the interview subjects sums up the original "Winnebago Man" video: "What you see on that tape is probably the worst day of this guy's life." I'm sure he's had a lot better ones since this film came out.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010
Some of our blood at least is the same. Ain't that supposed to mean something?

The official start of winter may not be for another couple of weeks, but itís cold enough (and here in Indiana, snowy enough) for me to break out Winterís Bone, the acclaimed indie thatís already netted some year-end awards and looks poised to be a strong Oscar contender this year. (It's already racked up six Independent Spirit Award nominations, including Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Female Lead, which is a pretty good indicator.) A devastatingly bleak film (or perhaps it's bleakly devastating), Winterís Bone stars Jennifer Lawrence as a 17-year-old high school dropout in rural Missouri who's raising her younger siblings because her mother (Valerie Richards) is pretty much a basket case and her absent father is a wanted meth cooker. Director Debra Granik (making an assured second feature) and her co-writer Anne Rosellini establish their desperate situation in the space of a handful of scenes (the one where Lawrence has to give up her horse because they can't afford to feed it anymore speaks volumes about her character) before making it even more desperate. Seems her father has put up their house and property as collateral on a bail bond and if he fails to show up for court they'll lose everything. Thus begins Lawrence's quest to find her father or, failing that, prove that he can't be found because he's dead.

Thus begins Lawrence's quest to find her father or, failing that, prove to the authorities that he can't be found because he's dead. It's not always a pleasant journey -- the threat of violence is damn near omnipresent and when it rears its head it's profoundly disturbing -- and Lawrence doesn't get much help, even from people she's related to by blood. (Calling them "family" would be something of a stretch.) Her steely-eyed determination does win her some converts, though, including a former classmate (Shelley Waggener) who dropped out to get married and have a baby, and her quietly menacing uncle who goes by the unlikely name of Teardrop (John Hawkes) and backs her up at a critical juncture. Suffice it to say, everything that Lawrence does in the name of keeping her family together has weighty consequences, and no one knows that better than she does. It's easy to come away with the impression that this is far from the first crisis she's faced -- and it won't the last.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010
That's how the world is. There are nothing but victims left. Martyrs are very rare.

Kirk Chastain (a.k.a. Atomic Age Cinema's own Baron Mardi) has been on me for months about seeing the recent French horror film Martyrs, so since it's on the cusp of being added to the A.V. Club's New Cult Canon I figured it was time to bite the bullet. The fact that it's in Plan Nine's "Cinemetics" section (i.e. films that may cause you to lose your lunch) nearly gave me pause, but I must have a stronger stomach than I thought I did because it wasn't turned by any of the repellent imagery on display (and there's plenty of that before all is said and done, believe me). Released in 2008, the film was written and directed by Pascal Laugier (whose previous film, 2004's House of Voices, has now been bumped to the top of my "to see" list) and stars Morjana Alaoui as a young woman who helps a mentally deranged friend (Mylène Jampanoï) in her quest to get revenge for a great wrong that was done to her in her youth.

Laugier takes his time teasing out what that wrong was, exactly, but we know it left Jampanoï physically and emotionally traumatized because she's periodically visited by a creepy-looking ghoul that causes her to mutilate herself. Even after she slaughters an innocent-seeming family of four in cold blood the vile thing won't leave her alone ("They're dead," she tells the insatiable creature. "They won't hurt you anymore."), which may be why she eventually slits her own throat with a box cutter. The fact that the film isn't even half over when that happens means there are many more disturbing revelations -- most of them patiently delivered by a matronly woman identified only as Mademoiselle (Catherine Bégin) -- on the way for Alaoui, who, it must be said, pays a steep price for helping out a friend. Proof that taking the law into your own hands can be hazardous to your health.

Thursday, December 9, 2010
Old Brokeback got us good, don't it?

It's been five long years, culturally speaking, since Brokeback Mountain went into limited theatrical release and was greeted with almost universal critical acclaim. And while it wouldn't be seen nationwide for at least another month, that didn't stop it from becoming a favorite target of conservative pundits who made tasteless jokes based on its title, misrepresented what it was about, and sought to score political points off what is at its core a story about two people who love each other but can't be together. (So what if they happen to both be men? Honestly, grow the fuck up, people.) Then, of course, came the whole Oscar fiasco, so it's no wonder I chose to give it a pass at the time. But hey, better late than never, right?

While Brokeback Mountain doesn't really break any ground for anyone who's been paying attention to GLBT cinema over the past 40 years, it still feels relevant today (which is more than can be said for a certain Best Picture winner that shall go nameless) and the reason for that can be chalked up to Ang Lee's strong direction (a nice recovery from 2003's ungainly Hulk), the spare, perceptive screenplay by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, and the perfectly modulated performances of Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as two ranch hands who form an intense emotional bond that follows them all through their lives. This is, of course, not to take anything from the other actors. Randy Quaid, Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway and Linda Cardellini all do terrifically subtle work -- especially Williams, who suffers in silence after catching her husband (Ledger) and his "old fishing buddy" (Gyllenhaal) in a clinch after they've been separated for four years. After witnessing such an unmistakably carnal display, one has to wonder why she stays with him as long as she does or why it takes her so long to let on that she knows all about them. Talk about being in denial (which, when you get right down to it, is something closeted homosexuals know a great deal about).

Friday, December 10, 2010
War strengthens bonds of friendship between men, but that doesn't mean all soldiers turn queer.

My music-buying habits are such that I'll occasionally pick up a soundtrack for a film I haven't seen yet and become familiar with the music long before I get around to seeing the actual film. One composer that this is often the case for is Ryuichi Sakamoto, who emerged from the Japanese supergroup Yellow Magic Orchestra in the mid-'80s with one foot in the pop world and the other firmly planted in film composing. The latter stemmed largely from his synthesizer-heavy score for 1983's Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, in which Sakamoto also made his screen debut as an actor, playing the commander of a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Java during World War II who becomes obsessed with a difficult British major played by David Bowie. The film was directed by Nagisa Oshima and written by Oshima and Paul Mayersberg (who also scripted Bowie's The Man Who Fell to Earth), and if it weren't for Criterion I would probably still be waiting for it to come out on DVD. (The fact that they put out his two previous films -- 1976's In the Realm of the Senses and 1978's Empire of Passion -- in 2009 probably had a lot to do with that.)

To my surprise, Bowie doesn't actually play the title character. Rather, that part is filled by Tom Conti, who acts as a liaison between the prisoners and their captors because he speaks fluent Japanese. The film also features Takeshi Kitano (in his first major role) as a strict camp sergeant (who is, nevertheless, on friendly terms with Conti) and Breaker Morant's Jack Thompson as the P.O.W. commander whose position is nearly usurped because Sakamoto wants an excuse to have Bowie report to him more often. The major's rebellious nature puts the kibosh on that, though, and it isn't long before the two of them are at loggerheads. Geez, you'd almost think their countries were at war or something.

Saturday, December 11, 2010
Christmas is no time to be a policeman.

I suppose it's only a matter of time before I write about a killer Santa movie, but 1984's Don't Open Till Christmas doesn't quite fit the bill since it's a movie about a Santa-killer, not the other way around. (Last December I saw 1980's Christmas Evil courtesy of Atomic Age Cinema, but their shows are never conducive to taking notes so I filed that away for revisiting at some point in the future.) The main reason I watched Don't Open is because this month's Kryptic Army Mission is "Holiday Horrors," which also gave me the excuse to tick off another one of Mill Creek's "Drive-In Movie Classics." All things considered, though, I would have rather left this one unticked.

Just in case there are any doubts that this is yet another film riding on the coattails of Halloween, the opening scene allays them all within a matter of minutes. Heavy breathing on the soundtrack? Check. Point-of-view camera stalking its victims? Check. Throbbing synthesizer score? Check. And lastly, couple offed for getting it on? Check and check. The only new wrinkle director Edmund Purdom and writer Derek Ford bring to the table is the notion that the killer almost exclusively targets men dressed as Father Christmas -- for reasons that don't become clear until the flashback in the final act that explains everything. (As one would expect, it's the result of a Santa-related trauma he suffered when he was a little boy, which was also the plot of the same year's rather more notorious Silent Night, Deadly Night.) Purdom also stars as the Scotland Yard inspector in charge of the case who isn't able to do much of anything about the rash of Kris Kringle killings because they're all so random. ("Only Three More Killing Days to Christmas," reads the headline in the Daily Mail. "The chief's going to love cracks like that," Purdom quips.)

If the film has a plot (and I'm not saying it does), it mostly revolves around Purdom's suspicions about the flute-playing busker boyfriend (Gerry Sundquist) of a distraught young woman (Belinda Mayne) whose father gets a spear chucked through his head at a Christmas party where for some reason everybody comes dressed in their Halloween costumes. Other victims -- whose deaths are all scored by the same dirge-like rendition of "Silent Night" -- include a scrawny Santa roasting chestnuts who gets his head roasted, a drunk Santa in an alley who gets his brains blown out, a department store Santa on his break who gets it in a porno booth, another drunk Santa on a bike who is pursued by some punks and takes refuge in a house of horrors where he comes to a bad end, and another department store Santa who gets castrated while he's standing at a urinal. The last Santa, incidentally, is the only one in the whole picture who's fat and that's because he's actually overweight. (I guess the British don't believe in pillows.)

The film takes great pains to hide the identity of the killer until very near the end, but the moment Scotland Yard sergeant Mark Jones (who's fairly smug and condescending throughout) takes a call from a man (Alan Lake) who claims to write for the Daily Mail and offers to help him catch the killer that should set off alarm bells right there. Then there's the case of the topless model (Pat Astley) who's menaced by a masked man with a razor but is spared because she has lady parts (which she proudly shows off in multiple scenes). Less fortunate is the drunk Santa (what is this movie trying to tell us about guys who wear Santa suits?) who tries to evade the killer backstage at a Caroline Munro concert and winds up putting an appearance onstage with a cleaver buried in his face.

Happy Christmas, everyone!

This is the one night that the dead and all sorts of other things roam free and pay us a visit.

When I heard about the horror anthology Trick 'r Treat last fall I figured it would make for good Halloween viewing, but somehow I never got around to it. Same thing happened this year, but I picked up the DVD last month anyway because my local Borders is going out of business and I decided to get it while the getting was good. I just didn't think I would be in the mood to watch it right away. Then the Kryptic Army missive went out and I realized I wouldn't have to wait so long after all. (I'll have to thank Jon Kitley for extending the "Holiday Horror" theme to all holidays, not just the big one.)

Trick 'r Treat promises four tales of terror and writer/director Michael Dougherty delivers on that promise, neatly tying all of them together and having the characters and events overlap in unexpected ways. (Kind of like Four Rooms only all of the rooms are actually good.) The entire film is set in a small Ohio town that takes Halloween very seriously (there's a huge festival in the center of town and everything), as does the character of Sam, a mute trick-or-treater with a creepy-looking burlap sack over his head who pops up in each of the stories, even if it's just to silently observe what goes on. One story is about a virginal 22-year-old in a Red Riding Hood costume (Anna Paquin) who needs a date for a party taking place on the outskirts of town and, sure enough, has an encounter in the woods. Another involves a school principal (Dylan Baker) who's a traditionalist when it comes to Halloween and turns out to be quite the budding serial killer (and no, that's not the twist). The third story is about a group of kids who spend the night collecting jack-o'-lanterns and play a mean prank centered around the local urban legend of "The Halloween School Bus Massacre," which turns out to have a very real basis in fact. And the final one is about a wheezing recluse (Brian Cox) who wants to have nothing to do with Halloween and winds up incurring Sam's wrath as a result.

There's also a wraparound of sorts about a couple that goes into town for the festivities and, like Sam, has a way of showing up on the outskirts of each of the main stories. Interestingly enough, Dougherty chooses to open the film with the end of their story, as they stumble home and the wife (Leslie Bibb), clearly Halloweened out, decides she can't wait to start taking down their decorations. "It's just magical," she says, her voice dripping with sarcasm. "It makes me wish every night was Halloween." Is there any wonder why she also receives a visit from Sam? Incidentally, Dougherty has announced that he's working on a sequel, so it looks like Sam's work isn't over just yet.

Don't you get it? The whole Christmas thing is just a bluff.

Just in time for the holidays, the Ryder Film Series is showing Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, a Finnish import about the original Santa Claus, who's not nearly as friendly as his modern-day counterpart. Written and directed by Jalmari Helander, based on a pair of shorts he made about the Santa-related business of Rare Exports Inc., A Christmas Tale is kind of an origin story since it opens before the company has even been formed. The film is set near the Russian border, where an American company has discovered the resting place of Santa Claus and unwisely digs him out. A bright young Finnish boy named Pietari (Onni Tommila) who spies on the Americans with his friend Juuso (Ilmari Järvenpää) does some reading up on the not-very-jolly old elf and takes precautions that bewilder his father (Jorma Tommila) but protect him when Juuso and all the other children in the village are spirited away in the night.

Things continue to take a turn for the strange when Pietari's father catches a naked, bearded man who resembles a scrawny Saint Nick (Peeter Jakobi) in a wolf trap and enlists the help of two of his friends (Tommi Korpela and Rauno Juvonen) in subduing him and negotiating with the Americans for his return. It's only then that they find out just what they have and how much it's worth. I don't know if I'm quite prepared to call Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale an instant holiday classic, but it's certainly worth a look. And just think about the bragging rights. After all, how many people outside of Finland can say they've seen a Finnish Christmas movie? Not very many, I would imagine.

Sunday, December 12, 2010
And the day the gates of Hell are opened -- on that day, the dead will walk the Earth.

I never thought I would see the day when Turner Classic Movies showed a Lucio Fulci film, but thanks to TCM Underground, that day came last weekend with the airing of 1981's The Beyond. The film was co-written and directed by Fulci, who made it in between 1980's City of the Living Dead and 1981's The House by the Cemetery, which form with it a loose trilogy about the Gates of Hell. As the opening narration (taken from the Book of Eibon) goes: "The seven dreaded gateways are concealed in seven cursed places," and one of those cursed places is a run-down Louisiana hotel inherited by New Yorker Catriona MacColl, who decides to rehab the place in spite of all the contractor accidents and deaths, not to mention the warnings she receives about its diabolical past.

We get to see some of that diabolical past firsthand thanks to the sepia-toned prologue set in 1927 in which an artist (Antoine Saint-John) is accused to being a warlock by the superstitious townspeople (who arrive by boat and car in the dead of night) and is viciously beaten with chains, nailed to wall and then splattered with boiling plaster, which painfully eats away at his skin. (I guess simply asking him to move out wasn't an option.) When the story picks back up in 1981, MacColl has already set the renovations in motion and, along with the hotel, has apparently inherited spinsterish caretaker Veronica Lazar and her creepy son Gianpaolo Saccarola. Strange, then, that she learns nothing about the hotel's sordid past from them, but rather from a mysterious blind woman (Cinzia Monreale) who tells her to give it up "before it's too late." Of course, isn't it already too late when the unwary Joe the Plumber (Giovanni De Nava), who's been contracted to sort out the flooded basement, opens the fabled gateway (and has his eyes eyes dug out by a gnarled zombie hand as a result)?

The film also stars David Warbeck as a rather smug doctor who insists there's a rational explanation for everything (because someone has to) and Michele Mirabella as a restoration expert who learns something startling about the hotel's basement but doesn't get to tell anyone about it. This is because he is on the receiving end of one of the silliest and most protracted screen deaths in history: death by hungry tarantula (which make the sound of rusty hinges when they move). Another creatively gory death is the one visited upon Joe the Plumber's wife, who ignores the "DO NOT ENTRY" sign outside the hospital's autopsy room and, after putting him in his funeral clothes (really, that couldn't wait?) somehow gets a large bottle of acid dumped on her face. Then there's the caretaker whose head is impaled on a nail, which causes her eye to get poked out. Bet you never thought you'd see something like that on TCM, did you?

Finally, the hospital gets turns into zombie central and Warbeck proves to be painfully slow to learn that only head shots are effective against the living dead. Of course, he probably thinks he can waste as many bullets as he likes because his gun apparently doesn't need to get reloaded. As far as inexplicable events in this film go, though, that rates fairly low on the list. Wish I could say this was the one that caused me to change my tune about Fulci, since it's considered by some horror fans to be his masterpiece, but it's not one that I imagine I'll be revisiting very soon.

I hate cul-de-sacs. There's only one way out and the people are kind of weird.

As much as I've enjoyed Joe Dante's work over the years, for some reason I've never managed to catch up with his 1989 black comedy The 'Burbs -- until now, that is. There's no real reason why I would have avoided it, either, although its somewhat middling critical standing may have had something to do with it. At any rate, having started the day with The Beyond, it only seemed appropriate to follow it up with The 'Burbs, especially since there's talk of one of the houses in the cul-de-sac possibly being a gateway to Hell (with screenwriter Dana Olsen using 1977's The Sentinel as a reference point). This is quickly dismissed, but as theories go it seemed perfectly reasonable at the time.

The person to whom it seems reasonable is the totally average Ray (Tom Hanks), who decides to spend his week's vacation at home instead of going up to the lake as his wife (Carrie Fisher) wants to. ("You'll see," he tells her. "At the end of the week, I'll be a brand-new human being.") At first he's content simply to observe his eccentric neighbors as they go about their business -- one (Bruce Dern) is a Vietnam vet with a short fuse and another (Gale Gordon) has trained his poodle to poop on Dern's lawn -- but he's quickly drawn in by the inexplicable goings-on at the run-down house next door and, along with Dern and neighborhood freeloader Rick Ducommun, seeks to find out just what's going on in the Klopek house. Their first sight of a Klopek is the gangly Hans (Courtney Gains of Children of the Corn fame), but eventually they bluff their way inside the house and meet his uncles (Brother Theodore and Henry Gibson). They seem harmless enough, but the visit fails to allay their suspicions and after finding some evidence of foul play the three suburban commandos decide to do some digging while the Klopek clan is out.

As it turns out, Hanks isn't the only one who likes to watch what his neighbors are up to. Teen slacker Corey Feldman, who's been left to fend for himself while his parents are out of town, also gets in on the act and even invites his friends (includes Nicky Katt in an early role) over to watch the fireworks. And Dante finds roles for two of his regulars (Dick Miller and Robert Picardo) as philosophical garbage men. There are also plenty of pop culture references -- Jerry Goldsmith's music is full of allusions to famous film scores, and one night while watching TV Hanks flips past Race with the Devil, The Exorcist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 -- because what would a Joe Dante film be without pop culture references? Whenever his latest feature, The Hole, gets a U.S. release, I'll be watching to see what he comes up with this time.

Monday, December 13, 2010
I promise things are gonna pick up between us. Don't give up on me.

This is the one I've been dreading. When I started working my way through Hal Ashby's filmography last November I knew I would eventually have to suck it up and watch his 1985 bomb The Slugger's Wife. Heck, even Netflix knew I wasn't going to like it because their best guess for me was a 1.8 out of a possible 5. In baseball that would be a more than respectable .360 batting average, but as far as the movies are concerned it's the sort of score that gets you sent down to the minors in a hurry. Not only is it far from Ashby's best work, but screenwriter Neil Simon must have also been in a slump when he misconceived it because very few of his jokes land and the moments that are supposed to be romantic similarly fall flat due a lack of chemistry between the leads.

And how about those leads? You've got Michael O'Keefe (late of Caddyshack and an Oscar-nominated turn in The Great Santini) as an outfielder for the Atlanta Braves and Rebecca De Mornay (fresh from Risky Business) as the singer he falls for and fails to dazzle with his intellect. (Sample dialogue from their first meeting: "I couldn't take my eyes off your voice. That's a fact." "If I ever get to make an album, maybe you'd like to watch it sometime.") Their courtship is largely montage-driven (a necessity since De Mornay's line readings are noticeably off whenever there's a dialogue scene) and before you know it they're married (despite the fact that she says she's "not cut out to be a baseball wife, sitting in the stands every day") and he's closing in on the home-run record. There's trouble in paradise, though, because he expects her to sacrifice her career for his and she's anxious to make a name for herself. No matter how hard it tries, though, A Star Is Born this is not. (No, not even the Barbra Streisand/Kris Kristofferson version.)

When you get right down to it, The Slugger's Wife is full of missed opportunities since it reunited Ashby with actor Randy Quaid, who plays one of O'Keefe's teammates, and gave film director Martin Ritt a juicy supporting role as the Braves' irascible manager. And Caleb Deschanel's cinematography is impeccable. (He was just coming off The Natural, so he must have been right at home in the baseball scenes.) Maybe it would have helped if the musical performances were more persuasive. De Mornay's light-rock renditions of songs like "Little Red Corvette," "Hey Hey My My" and "Love the One You're With" don't really sound like the work of an artist on the verge of being signed to a record deal (even if she is backed up by Loudon Wainwright III) and the soundtrack is littered with equally dispiriting covers of "Hungry Heart," "Stray Cat Strut," "Summer in the City" and "Love Potion No. 9." And would it have killed them to stick an actual ending on the damn story? I don't think that's too much to ask.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010
You know, a mean man and a man of means often means the same.

I've long had an interest in the films of Mike Nichols, having latched onto him early in my career as a budding cinephile. (This is how I came to see such films as Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate and Carnal Knowledge long before I could fully understand what I was watching.) One that I never seemed to catch when it showed up on TV, though, was 1975's The Fortune, which I've now gotten to see courtesy of TCM -- and I'm glad I didn't get to it sooner because this is precisely the kind of film that panning and scanning makes mincemeat out of. Of course, there's a bit of a trade-off because now I'm fully aware of its troubled production history, having read all about Nichols's problems with writer Adrien Joyce in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, but you have to take the good with the bad in this business.

A kind of neo-screwball comedy set in the '20s, the film opens with perpetually unkempt ne'er-do-well Jack Nicholson marrying naïve young heiress Stockard Channing so she can be with her true love Warren Beatty, who is in the process of extracting himself from a failed marriage. The deception is mostly so they can cross state lines without violating the Mann Act, which was serious business at the time, but Nicholson eventually shows a less-than-professional interest in the woman he's married to on paper, much to Beatty's chagrin. All three leads play their parts very broadly -- Nicholson is a nasal-voiced weasel, Beatty is very gruff when he isn't putting on airs, and Channing plays the sheltered ingenue -- and there's a fair bit of physical comedy which they're not very adept at. Furthermore, there really isn't a whole lot of forward motion to the plot until Nicholson and Beatty decide they need to bump off Channing before she can give her inheritance away to charity. What she doesn't realize is all she has to do is wait around a few years and her money will disappear anyway.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010
I couldn't be funny even if my life depended on it. And it did.

When Arthur Penn passed away at the end of September (one day after his 88th birthday) I felt ill-prepared to eulogize him. And since I couldn't clear room on my movie-watching schedule right away I figured my tribute could wait a couple months. Well, now the wait is over and instead of going with something obvious like Bonnie and Clyde or The Miracle Worker, I chose 1965's Mickey One, which was Penn's first collaboration with Warren Beatty. It's a film that was heavily inspired by the French New Wave, both in its frenetic editing and its run-and-gun style of shooting, and that's the perfect way to tell the story of an up-and-coming nightclub comic on the run from the mob who gets increasingly paranoid that they're going to find him when he starts plying his trade again.

The film was written by Alan Surgal (and was his only produced screenplay) and co-stars Hurd Hatfield as the club owner who actively pursues Beatty (with Jeff Corey always lurking around as "the business end") and Alexandra Stewart as the girl he eventually opens up to about his predicament. The most curious characters in the film, though, are Franchot Tone as Beatty's tight-lipped manager and Kamatari Fujiwara as a perpetually cheerful scrap collector who keeps running into Beatty -- and seems vaguely threatening as a result -- but he's simply gathering materials for his deliberately impermanent art installations. That, along with the improvisations by Stan Getz that litter the soundtrack, reinforces the impression that Penn and Beatty are making the film as they go along, which may be part of the reason why it wasn't embraced when it first came out. It wouldn't be long, though, before they got another chance to shake things up.

Thursday, December 16, 2010
When it comes to double-crossers, you are looking at the king!

Well, it appears I got Arthur Penn's much-belated tribute in just under the wire because today I learned that Blake Edwards died yesterday, also at the age of 88. As soon as I heard the news I knew exactly which film I would be watching in his honor: the one that saved my life 15 years ago. I spent the spring of 1995 studying abroad in England, a longtime dream made a reality that had an unfortunate side-effect. Namely, I was depressed a lot of the time and missed my friends and family terribly. This was exacerbated over Easter when all of my flatmates went home to their families, leaving me alone for the entire holiday weekend. Luckily, on Easter Sunday one of the television channels was airing a Blake Edwards film I hadn't seen before, so I sat down to watch it -- all two hours and 40 minutes of it. That's how I came to see The Great Race, a film that cheered me up immeasurably and made me feel like I still had something to live for. If nothing else, I had to live so I could see The Great Race again someday.

Made in 1965, when Edwards was flush with the double success of The Pink Panther and A Shot in the Dark, The Great Race was an epic undertaking and one that could have sunk his directing career if it hadn't been a success. And it was a smashing success -- with audiences, at least. (The critics didn't take too kindly to it at the time, but what do critics know? Sometimes it seems like they just want to be critical out of spite.) Edwards dedicated the film to "Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy," putting viewers on the alert for a slapstick-filled romp and he does not disappoint them. He does take his time getting to the titular race, though, thoroughly establishing the rivalry between dashing daredevil Tony Curtis (the hero in white) and the dastardly Jack Lemmon (the villain all in black with the Snidely Whiplash mustache to complete the package). He also throws a monkey wrench into the works in the form of suffragette reporter Natalie Wood, who enters the race to cover it and to provide Curtis with an eventual love interest. And also along for the ride are Peter Falk as Lemmon's bumbling henchman and Keenan Wynn as Curtis's able mechanic (who objects to Wood's presence mostly on chauvinistic grounds).

The sexual politics are mostly the result of Edwards's decision to set the film around the turn of the 20th century. (It doesn't get too specific beyond a reference to Teddy Roosevelt being president.) This places the action close to the birth of the automotive industry and, once the race from New York to Paris gets underway, allows Edwards to take a side trip to a wild west town (where a gigantic brawl breaks out, of course). And the extended running time (which includes an overture, intermission and playout music) even gives him the freedom to strand his characters in a lengthy subplot involving Lemmon's double, the buffoonish -- and constantly soused -- crown prince of Carpania. That may seem self-indulgent to some, but it culminates in the greatest pie fight in movie history, which makes the whole thing worthwhile. (It also represents the apex of indignities visited upon Lemmon's devious villain, who's previously been seen covered in feathers, mud and fire extinguisher foam.) There's a bit more film to go after the pie fight's over, but for my money everything after that scene is anticlimactic. Once a film has shot its wad in such a dramatic fashion, it's time to wrap things up.

Friday, December 17, 2010
I've had nightmares in my time, but I've never dreamed of anything like this.

Since the year is swiftly drawing to a close -- and this will be my last weekend in Indiana until 2011 -- I'm doing some housecleaning that will result in a few mismatched double features. Case in point: tonight's pairing of the TCM Underground feature Dementia from 1955 with 1957's 20 Million Miles to Earth. Curiously, he first one was shown under its alternate title Daughter of Horror, which is spoken by narrator Ed McMahon several times during the course of the film. I guess someone was worried we were going to forget it.

Aside from McMahon's narration (which asks pointed questions like "Do you know what madness is or how it strikes?" and makes reference to "the pulsing, throbbing world of the insane mind") there is no spoken dialogue in Dementia, which saved writer/producer/director John Parker the trouble of having to write any. Instead, the film follows an unnamed young woman (Adrienne Barrett) through a typical night in the life, which includes allowing herself to be pimped out to a big shot (associate producer Bruno VeSota, who's never looked more suave) and then, after being shown the town and forced to watch him eat an entire chicken (which Parker frequently shows in extreme close-up), stabbing him in the gut and pushing him off a balcony. No wonder when she buys a newspaper (from Angelo Rossitto, a dwarf actor whose career stretched from the silent era to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome) with the headline "MYSTERIOUS STABBING" it continues to dog her even after she throws it away.

The film runs a few minutes shy of an hour, which is about right for a mostly plotless parade of bizarre scenes and characters. The strangest by far, though, has to be the flashback to Barrett's childhood that's introduced by a faceless figure she encounters in an imaginary graveyard. Instead of cutting away, Parker simply inserts her father and mother (Ben Roseman and Lucille Rowland) into the graveyard setting so they can reenact the trauma that causes Barrett to go around killing people like VeSota. Of course, even in her own deranged mind she can't allow herself get away with that, which is why Roseman reappears as a plainclothes policeman on her trail. Guess she still feels guilty after all these years.

There's no guilt involved when it comes to enjoying 20 Million Years to Earth, which Ray Harryhausen made right after Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. Directed by Nathan Juran (who also made Hellcats of the Navy, The Deadly Mantis and The Brain from Planet Arous the same year, so he must have been busy), 20 Million Years is about a reptilian creature called the Ymir which is brought back from Venus and grows at an alarming rate in Earth's atmosphere, causing much destruction and loss of life before it is finally stopped. There are also a number of human beings in the film (top-billed love interests William Hopper and Joan Taylor chief among them), but none of them inspire our sympathy the way the Ymir does. During the climactic showdown in the Roman Colosseum when it roars it seems to be crying, "I didn't ask to come here! I didn't ask to be this size! Stop shooting me!" Alas, that doesn't seem to be an option.

Saturday, December 18, 2010
Nothing that happens on Earth is unknown to Santa Claus.

Got another oddball double feature for you, only this time the films are connected to the extent that both were shown on TCM Underground (albeit a year and a half apart). The first, the Mexican version of Santa Claus from 1959, is well-known to fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000 for being the Christmas movie tackled by Mike and the Bots after he took over hosting duties. (The movie done during Joel's tenure, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, was actually on TCM early this morning as the backup feature to Bob Clark's Black Christmas, but I chose not to tape it since I've already seen it "uncut" once and don't particularly feel the need to do so again.)

Co-written and directed by René Cardona, and foisted upon unsuspecting audiences of children throughout the '60s and '70s by K. Gordon Murray, Santa Claus is an aggressively bizarre treatment of the jolly old elf's legend, placing his workshop in a castle in the sky and pitting him against Lucifer's chief demon for the hearts and minds of children the world over (but mostly in Mexico City since that's where it was shot). The film opens with Santa (José Elías Moreno) checking in on his toy factory, which is staffed by children representing the different countries of the world. This is an endless, painfully hyperextended sequence that also borders on the ridiculously offensive with its stereotypical depictions of some of the children. (Each group gets a culturally appropriate ditty to sing, with the American contingent somehow getting saddled with "Mary Had a Little Lamb," which the cowboy-hatted tykes warble like it's a funeral dirge.) Once that is dispensed with we're introduced to his main adversary, Pitch (José Luis Aguirre), who minces and prances around in skin-tight red pajamas and shiny red face paint -- and is the worst overactor in the whole film. He's given a run for his money, though, by Armando Arriola, whose Merlin the Magician is a doddering old time-waster of the first order. (There's a good reason why his scenes were mostly cut out of the MST3K version.)

Perhaps to compensate for inserting Merlin and the Devil into the story (not to mention Vulcan, who makes the magic key that Santa uses to open any door), Cardona and his crew make up for it by going overboard on the devices in Santa's magical observatory which he uses to spy on the children of the world. You don't know creepy until you've seen the gigantic red mouth that reports to him what they say, and the War of the Worlds-styled viewing device is prime nightmare fuel (as are Santa's mechanical reindeer). To be frank, there simply aren't enough synonyms for "creepy" to describe everything that goes on in this film, and that extends to the dream sequence where poor little girl Lupita (Lupita Quezadas) is overwhelmed by a cadre of dancing dolls. Lupita also inspires the most shamelessly bathetic scene in the film when she asks her dirt-poor mother (Nora Veryán) why Santa has never brought her a dolly. (The lonely rich kid who wants no toys, he just his parents to spend Christmas Eve with him runs a close second, though.)

There's a very good chance that if Turner Classic Movies hadn't shown this last weekend I probably would have never sought it out on its own, but then I would have denied myself the scenes that were cut out of the MST3K version. In addition to the first scene in Merlin's laboratory and Santa's visit with Vulcan, there's also one where he exercises and practices getting in and out of a chimney. And then there's a timely Sputnik reference when the Russian kids offer to replace his reindeer with Soviet satellite technology. Why Santa didn't jump at that, I'll never know. Anything would be an improvement over those hideous wind-up beasts in his train.

For my second TCM Underground pick I watched 1962's All Night Long, which was first shown in the spring of 2009 as a last-minute substitute for Massacre at Central High. I passed on it at the time, but the channel gave me a second crack at it by airing it on the sixth of this month in honor of Dave Brubeck's 90th birthday. Brubeck is one of several jazz greats (including bassist extraordinaire Charles Mingus) who appear as themselves in the film, which takes place at the swinging first wedding anniversary of bandleader Aurelius Rex (Paul Harris) and his wife Delia Lane (Marti Stevens), a singer who gave up her career for him. Admirably, the film doesn't make an issue out of the fact that he's black and she's white, but it does allow director Basil Dearden to do a variation on the story of Othello, with the Iago role being filled by scheming drummer Johnnie Cousin (Patrick McGoohan), who wants to form his own outfit with Delia as his singer and works overtime to sow the seeds of doubt in Rex's mind so he can have her all to himself.

The film also features Richard Attenborough as the club owner who hosts the shindig in one of his warehouse spaces (and carries his own torch for Delia), Keith Michell as Rex's road manager whose weakness for pot and waning interest in his girlfriend (María Velasco) results in his downfall, and Betsy Blair as Cousin's ball and chain of a wife, who drags him down in more ways than one. (It figures out of all the couples in the film, they're the one that's the most dysfunctional.) And now that I have this and Victim under my belt, I can't wait for Eclipse to put out Basil Dearden's London Underground next month so I can also see The League of Gentlemen and Sapphire. They're sure to be most rewarding.

When you see a ghost, something very interesting happens.

As kind of a holiday treat, the Ryder has brought back two films from this past year and is showing them free of charge this weekend. I already saw one of them, the South Korean thriller Mother, back in the spring, but the other one, the Irish ghost story The Eclipse, was one I missed the first time around so I was glad to get a second crack at it.

Not to be confused with the similarly titled Twilight sequel (which, to be perfectly frank, you couldn't pay me to see), The Eclipse is the third feature from playwright and stage director Conor McPherson, who co-wrote the screenplay with Billy Roche (who also wrote the original story it's based on). It stars Ciarán Hinds as a widower raising two children who finds himself on the receiving end of some paranormal activity while his town is holding its annual literary festival, for which he's a volunteer driver. This introduces him (and us) to two successful novelists -- an American (Aidan Quinn) who's an enormously condescending snob and a horror writer (Iben Hjejle) with whom he makes a tentative connection. If only Quinn weren't pursuing her so aggressively...

It's refreshing to see a story of the supernatural that foregrounds the messy business of ordinary life. This is seen most acutely in Hinds's strained relationship with his father-in-law (Jim Norton), who's been placed in a home and has a chip on his shoulder about it. Of course, Norton's also the one who's been haunting him, which is strange because he isn't dead yet, but Hjejle has a reasonable-sounding explanation for that. At least two of his appearances are real "jump out of your skin" moments, too, which bodes well should McPherson ever decide to try his hand at an out-and-out horror film.

Sunday, December 19, 2010
If I had a smile such as yours, I would have played my cards differently.

Another double feature today, only this time the films are somewhat better matched. First up was House of Voices, the feature debut of Martyrs writer/director Pascal Laugier. Made in 2004, the film is about a beautiful young cleaning woman (Virginie Ledoyen) who takes a job at a shuttered orphanage and whose unwanted pregnancy is a poorly kept secret. Before all of the orphans are taken away, though, one of them warns her to "watch out for the scary children," which is enough to get her imagination racing. Of course, it doesn't help that the only residents remaining are a disturbed, heavily medicated girl (Lou Doillon) and the highly skeptical cook (Dorina Lazar). And then there's the fact that the orphanage's director (Catriona MacColl) keeps randomly showing up and telling her not to be so nosy. That all but guarantees that Ledoyen won't rest until she's gotten to the bottom of things.

House of Voices has style to burn, but unfortunately not a whole lot of originality. Some of its ideas even seem like a dry run for Martyrs, where they were put to much better use. More than anything, this film probably owes its existence to producer Christophe Gans's Brotherhood of the Wolf, the film that proved that the French were just as capable of turning out big, loud action movies as Americans (and failed to completely win me over when I saw it in 2002). I'm not entirely sure what this film proves, but it gave Laugier another turn at bat and the next time he was up he hit one out of the park. I'll be curious to see whether his batting average goes up or down when The Tall Man comes out next year.

For my second feature I watched 2007's Dead Silence, which was the second film from director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell, whose previous collaboration was the franchise-spawning Saw in 2004. Dead Silence wasn't anywhere near as successful, but it came highly recommended to me by Arthur Cullipher (a.k.a. Dr. Calamari from Atomic Age Cinema), so I figured it would be worth 91 minutes of my time. And, indeed, it gets off on the right foot by opening with the classic Universal logo and a credit sequence that takes us through the design and creation of an über-creepy ventriloquist's dummy. (Then again, since Dead of Night in 1945, the appearance of a dummy in just about any film is enough to inspire the creeps.)

The film begins with a city-dwelling couple (Ryan Kwanten and Laura Regan) receiving a mysterious package one night that contains a dummy which reminds Regan of an old urban legend from their hometown. When Regan is killed while Kwanten is out getting Chinese he becomes the main suspect for homicide detective Donnie Wahlberg (who, despite his constant shaving, always seems to have stubble), but Wahlberg is unable to hold him and he heads home to make arrangements for his wife's burial -- and find out who sent them the doll in the first place. He also reconnects with his estranged father (Bob Gunton), who has had a stroke while he was away, and meets his new stepmother (Amber Valletta), who doesn't seem to mind looking after her spouse's every need. He doesn't begin to get any answers, though, until he pays a visit to the funeral home and finds out from the mortician (Michael Fairman) and his easily spooked wife (Joan Heney) the grisly fate of local legend Mary Shaw (Judith Roberts), the dummy's original owner.

There's more to the story, but I won't reveal anything else in case there's anybody out there who wants to learn its secrets on their own. I will say, though, that Wan and Whannell do a good job of doling out just enough information to keep viewers guessing. Almost makes me want to go back and give the first Saw a try. Who knows? I might actually surprise myself and like it.

Monday, December 20, 2010
It feels good to be wolf, doesn't it?

Well, well, well. We have reached the final Full Moon Feature of 2010 and not only does tonight's full moon coincide with a lunar eclipse, but it also falls on the winter solstice, and that sort of thing doesn't happen very often. Almost makes me wish I could stay up to watch it unfold, but I suppose I'll have to make do with watching Jack Nicholson discover how good it feels to be Wolf. I haven't seen this film since it was released in the summer of 1994, but it has stayed with me, most likely because it was the first werewolf movie I saw in a theater. And I have to say, the past sixteen and a half years have been kinder to it than I thought they might be. The fact that it was the last major werewolf film to come out before the advent of digital effects probably has a little something to do with that. The only thing it's really lacking is a good transformation (which is a shame because Rick Baker did the makeup effects), but you can't have everything.

Wolf marked the only time director Mike Nichols ventured into the horror genre, but he had a good road map in Jim Harrison and Wesley Strick's Saturn Award-winning screenplay, and with expert cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno behind the camera he was assured that the final results were at least going to look good. Then, of course, there are the actors who take the story -- of a cultured book editor (Jack Nicholson) who's in danger of being put out to pasture when he has a nocturnal encounter with a wolf whose bite brings out his predatory instincts -- and class it up more than you would think possible. Nicholson has a lot to do with that, but he's helped immeasurably by the likes of James Spader (as his backstabbing protege, who not only steals his job but is carrying on an affair with his wife), Christopher Plummer (as the new boss who's more impressed by aggression than good breeding), David Hyde Pierce (as his top editor), Ron Rifkin (as his skeptical doctor), and Richard Jenkins (as a homicide detective who enters his life after there's been a homicide). In comparison, I thought the women in the film were a bit underwritten, with Michelle Pfeiffer's behavior and emotional state changing from scene to scene and Kate Nelligan barely registering as Nicholson's wayward wife, but Eileen Atkins fares much better as his faithful secretary and Prunella Scales shines as one of his star authors who threatens a walkout in solidarity.

Of course, a walkout is hardly necessary once Nicholson embarks on his campaign to get his job back. Along the way he discovers that the wolf bite has imbued him with heightened senses of smell and hearing and corrected his vision. (It even causes his thinning hair to fill out.) He also seeks out an expert on animal possession (an aged academic played by Om Puri) who informs him that "the wolf rests by day and prowls by night, but is always present," and gives him an amulet to keep the wolf at bay. It wouldn't be much of a werewolf story if that actually worked, though. In the end, Nicholson may have to sacrifice his humanity to save the woman he loves, but at least he can stand on his own four paws and howl at the moon. With the cloud cover and snowfall here, that's more than I'm going to be able to do tonight.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010
Looks like our friend Jigsaw likes to book himself front row seats to his own sick little games.

And so, I have finally seen Saw. "So what?" you say, astutely. That's a fair question. Surely, if I was going to, I should have seen Saw long before now, right? Well, what can I say? I skipped Saw when it was originally released in 2004 (it sure seems like they've been making these movies forever, I know, but the first one only came out six years ago) and as the sequels piled up, one every single year, I grew more and more convinced that I had made the right call. What I didn't count on was being turned on to director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell's sophomore effort Dead Silence, which -- while not perfect -- showed enough craft and sheer ingenuity that I just had to see their inaugural contraption for myself.

If any one thing kept me away from Saw on its initial release it was the reports that the acting was lousy. And let's not mince words here: the acting is pretty bad, even for a horror film. Cary Elwes does all right at the start, when his detached surgeon keeps his emotions in check, but his American accent slips the more upset he gets and by the end of the film he's a gibbering, scenery-chewing wreck. The same goes for the usually reliable Danny Glover, who plays a detective on the trail of the "Jigsaw Killer" who becomes so completely obsessed with cracking the case that eventually he's little more than an unhinged bundle of nerves and ticks. Then there's Whannell as the photographer trapped in the room with Elwes who does himself no favors by playing his whiny, unsympathetic character a little too effectively. Only Ken Leung, who plays Glover's partner, comes off well, but that's because he mostly hangs back and doesn't overact.

The acting aside, Saw isn't a total washout. (If it was, it wouldn't have spawned six sequels in as many years, although from what I've read they are practically the dictionary definition of diminished returns.) Wan's direction, while a little too flashy at times, is quite effective when it needs to be and the story he concocted with Whannell has more surprises up its sleeve than you might think considering what the series has come to be known for. I realize the "reverse bear trap" scene is kind of the centerpiece of Saw (unsurprisingly, it's the scene that Wan and Whannell extracted and made as a standalone short to get the funding to make a full feature), but there are other, more intriguing aspects to the story that I believe could have been explored to much better effect, even if they would have engendered less gruesome special effects. Also, I realize the ending of the film is open-ended enough that it practically begs for a sequel, but I kind of wish Saw had remained a one-off. If it had, I might not have waited so long to see it.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010
There is something inside of me that's lethal.

Every year or so a film comes along that pretty much lays everything out for you in the title and then dares you to watch it anyway. This year the cinematic dare du jour was The Human Centipede (now available to be watched instantly on Netflix!). A few years back it was Teeth, which made quite an impression when it premiered at Sundance in 2007 but was only given a limited release the following year before bowing on DVD. I guess somewhere along the line it was determined that a film about a teenage girl with vagina dentata wasn't going to fly with a general audience, which is a pity because surrounding the multiple scenes of unwary males having their penises severed during coitus is a biting, Citizen Ruth-like satire on teen abstinence and those who preach it.

The man who put the bite in Teeth is writer/director Mitchell Lichtenstein, who's aided immensely by his leading lady Jess Weixler, who has to make the transition from earnest abstinence program advocate (who's hyper-obsessed with purity and modesty) to avenging angel with a nasty set of incisors in her holiest of holies. At the start of the film, Weixler's home life is far from picture-perfect (for one thing, there are those twin nuclear reactors looming over it in every establishing shot). Her mother (Vivienne Benesch) is chronically ill, her stepfather (Lenny von Dohlen) has his hands full, and her stepbrother (John Hensley) is an insensitive asshole. So when she meets the nice, new kid in school (Hale Appleman) and they seem to be completely in sync she lets down her guard long enough for him to make advances and, when he advances too far, come to regret it. Confused and distraught, Weixler consults a gynecologist (Josh Pais) who gives her a manual exam and, when he goes too far, comes to regret it. Then she seeks solace in the arms of a horny classmate (Ashley Springer) who successfully seduces her by playing the conquering hero, but when he unwisely brags about it the following morning he comes to regret it. (Are you sensing a pattern here?)

What Teeth lacks in subtlety (the early scenes feature vaginal imagery up the wazoo) it makes up in sheer audacity. It also provided me with the perfect way to cap off my mini-series of one-word horror films. After all, a wolf has teeth and a saw has teeth. And if a wolf saw Teeth I'm sure it would cross its hind legs along with the rest of us.

Thursday, December 23, 2010
I never shot nobody that didn't ask for it.

When it came time to choose my last film in Bloomington before I head back east for the holidays, I was pleased that the Coen Brothers' True Grit obliged me by not waiting until Christmas Day to be released like many high-profile films do this time of year. Based on the same Charles Portis novel as the previous film version (which was made in 1969 and starred John Wayne in his only Academy Award-winning performance), this True Grit is supposedly a more faithful adaptation since it's told exclusively from the point of view of headstrong 14-year-old protagonist Mattie Ross (newcomer Hailee Steinfeld), who hires U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to hunt down the man who killed her father in cold blood. Her confidence in Cogburn seems more than a little misplaced, though, since he's frequently drunk and tries to ditch her at every opportunity.

Also along for the ride is Matt Damon as a Texas Ranger named La Boeuf, who's after the killer for his own reasons (and, to put it bluntly, a larger reward than Mattie can offer), and their quarry, Tom Chaney, is played by Josh Brolin (appearing in his second western this year after Jonah Hex, although I'm sure this is the one he'll want people to remember). I wish I had time to say more about the film -- because, as is usually the case with the Coen Brothers' work, there is a great deal that can be said about it -- but I have a long drive ahead of me tomorrow and I still haven't packed my suitcase or wrapped my Christmas presents, even. Talk about a lack of preparation.

Saturday, December 25, 2010
My feelings are too scary. I've never had these feelings before.

If there's one Woody Allen film that I'm liable to give more slack than it necessarily deserves it would be 1990's Alice and that's because it was the first Woody Allen film I saw in theaters. (Furthermore, it was the first and only date I ever went on with the girl I had a crush on in high school, but whether she considered it a date or not is a subject for another time.) Released 20 years ago on Christmas Day, Alice tells the story of a pampered Manhattan housewife (Mia Farrow) who has a rich, successful husband (William Hurt), a nanny to take care of her children, a cook to prepare all their meals, a trainer to get her into shape, a chauffeur to drive her around -- in short, everything she could possibly want save for personal fulfillment, which she feels she's lacking. ("I've become one of those women who shops all day and gets pedicures. But I want to be more," she insists. "There's more to me.") She's also clearly lacking in another department since she daydreams about kissing a strange man (Joe Mantegna) in the penguin house at the zoo, which is a clear sign that she's not getting enough love at home.

Enter Dr. Yang (Keye Luke), a Chinese herbalist, acupuncturist and hypnotist who's capable of making an accurate diagnosis simply by reading your pulse. Farrow goes to him because of back problems, but he quickly determines out that the problem lies elsewhere and gives her an herb that changes her attitude from timid and tongue-tied to forward and flirtatious the next time she sees Mantegna, who turns out to be a divorced tenor sax player. When feelings of guilt (she is a lapsed Catholic who once thought about becoming a nun, after all) prevent her from following through on the meeting she arranges, Farrow goes back to Dr. Yang, who gives her another herb that turns her invisible and allows her to shadow Mantegna when he visits his ex-wife (Judy Davis), an advertising executive with whom he still has sex. This naturally fails to endear him to her, so Farrow channels her energies in another direction when she learns an old friend (Cybill Shepherd) is now a television producer who buys scripts, which makes her think she could try her hand at writing. Before that can go anywhere, though, Dr. Yang gives her yet another herb that causes the ghost of an old boyfriend (a reckless artist played by Alec Baldwin) to appear and remind her of the last time she really loved someone and why. (He also has the ability to take her flying over the city at night, which is a sure way to reawaken the romantic in anybody.)

When Farrow and Mantegna finally embark upon a tentative affair it goes in fits and starts, as do her attempts to knock out a television script, even after she's visited by her muse (Bernadette Peters). One area where she makes definite progress is her relationship with her estranged sister (Blythe Danner), who helps out by wanting to reconcile just as much as she does. Finally, Dr. Yang gives her one last herb for a powerful love potion, which forces her to have to choose between Mantegna and Hurt. Or rather it would if it didn't cause chaos at her sister's Christmas party when some gets into the eggnog. (Bob Balaban has a great bit as Sid Moscowitz, one of her would-be paramours.) Finally, Farrow decides to attend to her spiritual well-being by going to India to work with her hero, Mother Theresa, which is an ending that seemed to come out of nowhere two decades ago, but now I see how Allen was building up to it from the start. Now that Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay doesn't seem so random. What seems strange is that out of 14 screenplay nominations he's only won twice, for Annie Hall and Hannah and Her Sisters. Seems like he should have a better batting average than that, but there's more to life than little gold statuettes.

Sunday, December 26, 2010
Nobody comes to see ballet, full stop.

Like True Grit, I could have seen Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan before I left Bloomington, but I had already arranged to see it with Kevin Pease, so we braved the blizzard that struck the east coast on Boxing Day to catch a matinee. And we weren't the only ones, which was heartening because it is, after all, a film about ballet. You can dress it up as a psychological thriller all you want, at its base it's still a film about young women who sacrifice their bodies to an art form that relatively few modern audiences have firsthand knowledge of. Working from a screenplay by Mark Heyman (who also co-produced The Wrestler), Andres Heinz (who receives sole story credit) and John McLaughlin, Aronofsky brings his usual intensity to Black Swan, as well as his frequent collaborators, composer Clint Mansell (who has scored all of his films since Pi) and cinematographer Matthew Libatique (who has shot all of his films with the exception of The Wrestler). All the genius work behind the scenes wouldn't mean a thing if the film weren't well-cast, though, and that is an area where it most definitely excels.

Natalie Portman undergoes a astonishing transformation, both figuratively and literally, as the driven perfectionist who's cast as both the White and Black Swans in director Vincent Cassel's unconventional staging of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. Her main competition appears to a newcomer to the company (Mila Kunis), who impresses Cassel even though she's not as technically proficient, but Portman is really her own worst enemy, letting her insecurities drive her to the point where she's starting to hallucinate. And her overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey), who gave up a dancing career to raise her, isn't much help, either. (After the scene with the cake, there's little doubt where most of Portman's neuroses come from.) Rounding out the cast is Winona Ryder as an aging prima ballerina being forced out of the limelight who provides a chilling example for Portman about the price of stardom and how little time she can expect to hold onto it. Of course, with Kunis waiting in the wings (and seemingly around every corner), Portman has every reason to worry about her career's life expectancy.

Monday, December 27, 2010
At some point it becomes bearable.

Whenever I'm back home I generally try to catch a film or two at one or more of the Ritzes in Philly. This time both films that I wanted to see happened to be playing at the Ritz Five, so I made an afternoon of it and watched them back-to-back. First up was Rabbit Hole, which was written by David Lindsay-Abaire, based on his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, and directed by John Cameron Mitchell, who hasn't made a film since 2006's Shortbus and really needs to do something about working more often. Rabbit Hole has little in common with that film or Mitchell's debut, the exuberant Hedwig and the Angry Inch, though. Rather, it's about a suburban couple (Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart) who lose their four-year-old son in a tragic car accident and the psychic scars that remain eight months later. Kidman is closed off yet quick with a barbed comment or put-down and Eckhart tries his best to handle her while coping with his own profound grief. He even keeps going to their support group after Kidman drops out and strikes up a tentative friendship with group veteran Sandra Oh.

For her part, Kidman has to contend with her irresponsible younger sister (Tammy Blanchard), whose unplanned pregnancy (by her musician boyfriend Giancarlo Esposito) is a painful reminder of what she's lost, and her mother (Dianne Wiest), whose endless supply of platitudes falls on hostile ears. Then she has a chance encounter with the high school senior (Miles Teller) who was driving the car that killed her son and they begin meeting for reasons neither of them is able to fully understand or articulate. By the time the closing credits roll, just about all of them have had some sort of emotional breakdown and/or blow-up, but this is not a film where epiphanies or happy endings come easy. If it was, then it would have nowhere near the power that it does. This is a film that will stay with me for a long time.

Your tale, ma'am, would cure deafness.

I didn't read any of the reviews going in to Julie Taymor's version of The Tempest, but I knew they were a mixed bag because her films have a way of dividing critics and audiences alike. (And the fact that her latest Broadway venture, the rock musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Lights, has turned into something of a boondoggle can't be helping matters.) Still, I have nothing but fond memories of her previous Shakespeare adaptation, 1999's Titus, having seen it at a packed opening-night screening at the Ritz at the Bourse. Even if her Tempest turned out to be a mess, at least I knew it would be a fascinating mess.

Taymor's decision to recast the main character as a woman isn't as radical as it may seem, especially since it gives Helen Mirren the chance to inhabit the role of Prospera, a sorceress who uses magic to get her revenge on those who exiled her and her daughter from Milan, where she was wife to the duke. For 15 years they've made their home on a volcanic-looking Mediterranean island and in that time her daughter Miranda (Felicity Jones) has grown up to become a beautiful young woman who has no knowledge whatsoever of men apart from the brutish, mud-caked Caliban (Djimon Hounsou), who is Prospera's most bitter and unwilling slave. She also commands an elemental named Ariel (Ben Whishaw), who whips up the titular storm that strands a bevy of Italian noblemen (and some that are not so noble) on the island so Prospera can fuck with their heads.

Their ranks include the King of Naples (David Strathairn), who's bereaved because he believes he's lost his son Ferdinand (Reeve Carney) in the tempest, his wizened advisor Gonzalo (Tom Conti), his brother Sebastian (Alan Cumming), and Prospera's brother Antonio (Chris Cooper), the usurper who is the main target of her wrath. This being Shakespeare and nominally a comedy, there are also a couple of drunken clowns (servants to the king and duke) who have washed ashore and get themselves mixed up with Caliban. But whereas I quickly grew tired of the bumbling Triculo and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (Russell Brand), I had more patience for the antics of Stephano (more than likely because he's played by Alfred Molina). And there's even a legitimate romance for Miranda and Ferdinand, whose union does much to heal old wounds. As Prospera prepares to return to the world of men, though, one can rest assured she'll take more of an interest in politics than she had previously.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010
You really think your family's looking out for you?

Much like Jeff Bridges is competing against himself with the twin releases of True Grit and Tron: Legacy, two Darren Aronofsky films are going head-to-head this holiday season since Black Swan is up against the boxing drama The Fighter, which he executive produced. In this case, though, the directing chores were handled by David O. Russell, who probably figured he could do with something a little less contentious on his CV after Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees and the as-yet-unreleased Nailed. And while it's true that The Fighter hits many of the expected boxing-drama beats, the fact that it's based on a true story and is filled with such colorful characters keeps it from drowning in sports movie clichés -- especially the ones that have to do with underdogs who come from behind at the last minute to win the big game/match/fight.

Mark Wahlberg stars as welterweight hopeful Micky Ward, half-brother of Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), the "Pride of Lowell" who once fought Sugar Ray Leonard and still talks of making a comeback in spite of his crippling crack addiction, which he somehow thinks is a secret from his family. As the film opens, Dicky is energized because a camera crew is following him around while he trains Micky for his next fight -- that is, when he isn't camped out at the local crack house. For his part, Micky starts to wonder whether Dicky and their mother (Melissa Leo) are holding him back, especially after he strikes up a relationship with a bartender (Amy Adams) who convinces him that he's being mishandled. This causes a rift between Micky and the rest of his family (he also has seven sisters, all of whom are extremely opinionated) that doesn't get resolved until... well, you can probably fill in the rest. What matters with a story like this is how it's handled and Russell and his cast do such a beautiful job with it (especially Bale, who adds another indelible character to his roster) that it's impossible to resist it. It may not be "best of the year" material, but it's still worth seeking out. At the very least I'm glad I did.

Friday, December 31, 2010
Does the name Kevin Flynn mean anything to you?

Greetings, programs. Finished out the year by seeing Tron: Legacy in the company of Kevins Pease and Chase, who is one of the biggest Tron fans I know. Chase was more than a little ambivalent about seeing it since Tron was, in his own words, "the last remaining favorite of my childhood" that "has remained safe from toxic sequels," so I am pleased to announce that the new film satisfied all three of us. It's not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, and I believe it could stand to be shorter by a reel or two, but it's worthy of the Tron name and that's good enough for me. And you know what else was good enough for me? Seeing the film projected in two dimensions. (The theater we went to gave patrons three options: 2D, 3D or 3D IMAX. I can't even begin to imagine how steep the ticket price for the last one was.) It doesn't matter how many people say that 3D is the future of moviegoing. If that's truly the case, then I'll happily stay stuck in the past.

Rather conveniently, that just so happens to be one of the major themes in Tron: Legacy since the film is about the son of Tron's Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges, very much in The Dude mode) entering The Grid to find his old man after he gets trapped there for two decades. Garrett Hedlund plays the son, whose lack of interest in his father's company has allowed Encom to be taken over by greedy corporate types and a bright young software designer who just so happens to be the son of David Warner's character from the first film (and who's played by an uncredited Cillian Murphy). Warner doesn't appear in the new film, but Bruce Boxleitner does as Alan Bradley (the lone link to the past on Encom's board of directors) and his sentient program Tron. (Flynn's counterpart Clu is also around and has a lot more to do this time.) As for the newbies, you've got Olivia Wilde as Flynn's apprentice, Michael Sheen as a flamboyant club owner (where the robotic DJs are played by Daft Punk, who composed the film's excellent score), and James Frain as the only one of Clu's underlings who gets to have something of a personality. I realize that's asking a lot considering most of the characters are supposed to be computer programs, but what do you want? It's Tron.

And, when you get right down to it, that's all it really needs to be. I was dazzled by the spectacle and left somewhat wanting by the story and dialogue. I wonder if director Joseph Kosinski will be able to work on that at all before his remake of Disney's The Black Hole goes before the cameras. I guess we'll just have to wait until next year to see. Until then, end of line.

Back to November 2010 -- Forward to January 2011

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