Craig J. Clark Watches a Lot of Movies
July 2012

Sunday, July 1, 2012
Your body, your naked body, initiated into the mysteries, steps forth.

Two years ago, when I said that Rainer Werner Fassbinder's
Querelle was probably the most homoerotic film in history this side of Jean Genet's Un Chant d'Amour, I clearly hadn't reckoned on Paul Humfress and Derek Jarman's Sebastiane, which I was aware of but hadn't investigated closely enough. Made in 1976, the film tells the story of Saint Sebastian, a Christian martyred during the reign of the Roman emperor Diocletian, whose fondness for debauchery is graphically depicted in the opening moments of the film, which are scored by Brian Eno. (Incidentally, among the emperor's guests are Rocky Horror alums Nell Campbell, Peter Hinwood and Patricia Quinn.) The action doesn't really begin, though, until Sebastian (Leonardo Treviglio) is exiled to a remote desert outpost, where he is nakedly lusted after by his captain (Barney James), and more often than not just plain naked.

To a man, the soldiers under James's command spend most of their time lounging about in little more than thongs and sandals -- that is, when they're not training under his watchful eye. When Sebastian rebels, throwing down his sword in disgust, James has him flogged repeatedly, and later on has him staked out under the hot sun when he resists the captain's advances. Meanwhile, his only friend (Richard Warwick) tries to understand why he submits to such brutality, but a fellow exile (Neil Kennedy), who speaks fondly of Rome under Nero, sums things up quite succintly when he bluntly states, in subtitled vulgar Latin, "Some people love punishment." Whether this is still the case when James has his men tie Sebastian to a post and turn into a human pincushion is something of an open question.

Some skeletons should be allowed to rest in their closets.

Ken Russell once called his 1977 film Valentino the biggest mistake of his career, and that's really saying something when one considers that it was his follow-up to Lisztomania. A heavily fictionalized biography of silent-film star Rudolph Valentino, it marked Rudolf Nureyev's debut as a dramatic actor and for all intents and purposes halted his screen career in its tracks. (He was in a handful of dance films before and after Valentino, but made just one more straight acting film, which is probably just as well.) Those who attempt to dismiss it on the grounds of its historical inaccuracies are barking up the wrong tree, though. If you want accuracy, read a book. If, however, you want to bask in the spectacle of Ken Russell recreating '20s Hollywood and the hoopla surrounding Valentino's premature death, this is the film for.

Following standard biopic protocol, Russell and his co-writer Mardik Martin open the film with Valentino having already succumbed to the perforated ulcer that took his life at the tender age of 31. With the crowd outside going berserk, his ex-lovers descend upon the funeral parlor where he is lying in state and tell his story in flashback form. Screenwriter Felicity Kendal recalls how she launched his Hollywood career by insisting that he be allowed to test for the lead in The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse (with Russell standing in for its director, Rex Ingram). Actress Leslie Caron makes a scene and remembers how she hand-picked him to star opposite her in Camille. And her protégé Michelle Phillips recounts the years they spent together as man and wife (even if the state of California didn't always recognize their union) and the forces that tore them apart.

The cast also includes Carol Kane as the starlet Valentino steals away from Fatty Arbuckle upon his arrival in Hollywood, ex-Dead End Kid/Bowery Boy Huntz Hall as the studio head who declines to bail him out when he's arrested on bigamy charges and then refuses to let him out of his contract, Seymour Cassel as the business manager who comes to his rescue and sends him and Phillips out on tour, Peter Vaughan as the newspaperman who accepts Valentino's challenge to a boxing match when his manhood is called into question, and John Ratzenberger (in one of his earliest screen appearances) as one of the newshounds hovering around Valentino's funeral hoping for a choice quote or scandalous photo. Lucky for them, the women in his life knew a thing or two about making spectacles of themselves.

Without good taste, you can't make good food.

It's something of a truism that watching films in which food is prepared -- and this is the case whether they're documentaries or dramas because the act of shooting a character cooking automatically turns a film into a documentary about whatever it is they're making -- tends to cause the viewer to crave the foods being prepared. Well, that goes double for the 2011 doc Jiro Dreams of Sushi, for not only am I really in the mood for sushi right now, but I also want to fly to Japan so I can have it at the ten-seater restaurant run by the film's main subject, 85-year-old master sushi chef Jiro Ono. After seeing what goes into Jiro's dishes, the stuff they have at my local Kroger simply won't cut it.

Directed and photographed by David Gelb, and mostly scored by an array of Philip Glass pieces, the film is a portrait not only of Jiro, but also his two grown sons, who have followed him into the family business, albeit in different ways. Older son Yoshikazu is primed to take over when his father retires (which Jiro seems far from ready to do), while his younger brother Takashi has left the nest to start his own sushi restaurant (which is the mirror image of his father's since they're differently handed). Gelb also interviews a food critic who sings Jiro's praises and a number of his apprentices, who have to be in it for the long haul because it takes ten years of training to fully learn his methods. And Gelb takes a few trips to the local fish market to get to know his suppliers -- all of whom are experts in their specialties. (If you ever wanted to know what it takes to be a tuna expert, this is the film for you.)

Throughout the film, Jiro shares his views on the value of hard work and of always striving to improve your methods. No matter how long you've been doing something, he says, you can always do it better. And as it winds up, we get to see why people are willing to make reservations one month in advance and pay upwards of 70,000 yen to eat the sushi Jiro has dreamed up. His three-course meal looks so delectable (as the food critic says, "You're consuming Jiro's philosophy with every bite"), the only possible response is to want to taste it for yourself.

Monday, July 2, 2012
Something came out of that coffin tonight. Something evil and strange.

One decade before Amicus produced its
lone feature-length werewolf film, it included a lycanthropic tale in its first horror anthology, 1965's Dr. Terror's House of Horrors. Directed by Hammer vet Freddie Francis (who would henceforth split his time between the two companies), the script by producer Milton Subotsky links together its five individual stories by having self-proclaimed "doctor of metaphysics" Peter Cushing use a deck of tarot cards (which he calls his "house of horrors") to predict the gruesome fates of the five gentlemen sharing his train compartment with him. The good news is that the werewolf segment is the first one out of the gate. The bad news is that we barely get a glimpse of the werewolf in it, but I suspect that was entirely by design.

The segment features Neil McCallum as an architect called out to his family's old estate, which has since been sold to a rich widow, because the current owner (Ursula Howells) wants to make some alterations to the interior. While poking around in the basement, McCallum happens upon the coffin of long-dead werewolf Cosmo Waldemar, who was killed by his great-grandfather and, according to legend, will return to take his revenge. Believing Howells is in danger, McCallum goes about trying to protect her, but completely misjudges who the beast's real target is. That's followed by a story about a man on holiday (Alan Freeman) whose family is besieged by a sentient creeping vine that's big self-preservation, and one about a jazz trumpeter (Roy Castle) who makes the mistake of attempting to steal the sacred music from a voodoo ceremony when his combo books a gig in the West Indies. Francis and Subotsky save the best for last, though, bringing the omnibus to a close with the two strongest stories at their disposal.

The penultimate tale concerns haughty art critic Christopher Lee, a skeptic who scoffs at Cushing's predictions until he is goaded into being told his own future, which revolves around his escalating rivalry with popular artist Michael Gough. After Gough plays him for a fool at one of his exhibitions and proceeds to taunt him relentlessly, Lee cracks under the strain and runs him down in the street, causing Gough to lose his hand and his will to live. It isn't long, though, before the hand comes back to get its revenge on Lee. And the final story finds doctor Donald Sutherland bringing his French wife (Jennifer Jayne) home with him to America, after which he comes to suspect that she may be a vampire. At least, that's what his colleague at the health clinic (Max Adrian) leads him to believe. As with the others, Sutherland finds that the only way to avoid his fate is death. Luckily, Cushing is more than happy to accommodate them all.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012
Even a convict's got a right to breathe.

Fifty years ago today, John Frankenheimer's Birdman of Alcatraz was released, and its great success (four Oscar nominations and one BAFTA award, among other accolades) solidified his working relationship with star Burt Lancaster, who had previously taken the leading role in Frankenheimer's 1961 film The Young Savages, albeit reluctantly. Originally intended to be the American debut of British director Charles Chrichton, who was fired a couple weeks into production, Birdman wound up being the second of three films Frankenheimer had out in 1962, sandwiched between
All Fall Down and The Manchurian Candidate. After the false start that was 1957's The Young Stranger, which resulted in his hasty retreat back to television, the quartet of films he made in 1961 and 1962 gave Frankenheimer a much firmer foothold in Hollywood, such that it would be two decades before he worked on the small screen again.

Narrated by Edmond O'Brien as Thomas E. Gaddis, the author of the book the film was based on, the film opens in 1912, when imprisoned murderer Robert Stroud (Lancaster) is transferred to Leavenworth Prison, where he first butts heads with by-the-books warden Karl Malden. A discipline problem from day one, Lancaster compounds his problems when he fatally stabs a guard, resulting in a second murder conviction and a death sentence. Thanks to the intervention of his mother (Thelma Ritter, who more than earned her Best Supporting Actress nomination), who petitions the president on his behalf, his sentence is commuted to life, but he winds up in solitary for the rest of that life, with only a surly guard (Neville Brand) to keep him company. Then one day he finds a baby sparrow that has found its way into the exercise yard and takes it in, collecting bugs to feed it and even teaching it to fly. To call this a life-changing turn of events would definitely be an understatement.

In addition to Lancaster (who was up for Best Actor, but lost to Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird, so there's no shame there) and Ritter, the other Academy Award nominations were for Burnett Guffey's black-and-white cinematograpy and Telly Savalas's supporting turn as a fellow inmate who gets in on the canary craze along with him. The supporting cast also includes Whit Bissell as a prison doctor Lancaster consults when his birds get sick, Betty Field as a widow who gets in contact with him when his miracle cure gets written up a journal and eventually goes into business with him selling it, and Hugh Marlowe as the warden who delivers the bad news when the Federal Bureau of Prisons (which Malden has left Leavenworth to head up) hands down new regulations barring, among other things, the ownership of pets by inmates. With the help of Ritter and Field, Lancaster stages a publicity campaign to reassert his rights and even marries Field in the process (much to Ritter's dismay), but his victory is short-lived when he's abruptly transferred to Alcatraz and has to leave his birds, his books and all of his scientific equipment behind.

It comes as no surprise when Malden is revealed to be the man behind the transfer, and he sums up Lancaster's new home quite succinctly when he says, "I don't suppose any of us truly enjoy living on this island. It wasn't designed for pleasure." Undaunted, Lancaster follows up his book on bird diseases with one on the history of the American penal system, which lands him in hot water with Malden, but their long-simmering feud is put on the back burner when Lancaster helps defuse a riot that breaks out around him. Even that doesn't help him with the parole board, which continues to deny his requests year in, year out. The way they put his story across, Frankenheimer, Lancaster, Gaddis and screenwriter Guy Trosper seem to be arguing that Stroud should have been paroled long before he ever got to Alcatraz, but by the time this film came out he was already 72 and had less than a year and a half to live. I guess some jailbirds are never meant to fly the coop.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012
How did he get in here? He's honest!

To celebrate the government-sanctioned holiday that is the Fourth of July, I took in a pair of Frank Capra films about our nation's political system and how royally messed up it is. First up was 1939's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which I wasn't as wild about as I'm probably supposed to be, but I suspect that has more to do with the ugliness of the current political climate than the film itself. It's all well and good for Capra to send an audience surrogate to our nation's capital to tell the elected officials entrenched there a thing or two about a thing or two, but any Mr. Smiths heading to Washington these days are already beholden to the special interests James Stewart so passionately speaks out against, which kind of throws a damper on the whole thing.

A plainspoken true believer, Stewart's Jefferson Smith is treated like an object of ridicule pretty much from the moment he steps off the train -- both the press and his colleagues alike are eager to play him for a rube -- but he turns out to be more of a handful than the political machine back home was expecting. Claude Rains is most impressive as the pragmatic senior senator from his state (which is never identified; all we know is that it's west of Washington) who's in the pocket of power broker Edward Arnold and agonizes over his betrayal of Stewart. Love interest Jean Arthur doesn't do as much for me -- largely because she seems to be a better match for frequently soused reporter Thomas Mitchell (who later played Uncle Billy in It's a Wonderful Life) -- but at least she doesn't turn Stewart into a bumbling fool, which is what happens whenever he's around Rains's comely daughter (Astrid Allwyn), who couldn't have disappeared from the picture fast enough for me. If it were to be remade today, though, I suspect the plot would revolve around Mr. Smith getting caught up in a sex scandal with her, which is why I'm glad there is no such remake on the horizon (knock on wood).

As hopelessly naïve as it comes off today, one thing I admire about Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is the way it declines to get caught up in partisan politics. (Not only do we never find out what state he's from, but Jefferson Smith's party affiliation is also a non-issue.) In contrast, Frank Capra's 1948 film State of the Union goes out of its way to identify its major players as Republicans and seems to work overtime to get in as many digs at Truman and the Democrats as it can. And considering what Capra's political leanings were, I highly doubt they were all in good fun.

Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, the film (which never quite escapes its theatrical origins) is centered on self-made industrialist Spencer Tracy, whose already strained marriage to Katharine Hepburn is tested when he's talked into making a run for the nomination by newspaper magnate Angela Lansbury (with whom he's had a not-so-secret affair) and self-styled kingmaker Adolphe Menjou. Sarcastic reporter Van Johnson is drafted to be his campaign manager, and Margaret Hamilton has a small role as Menjou's chambermaid, who acts like James Stewart when he's around Astrid Allwyn when she's around Johnson. (If you ever wanted to see a smitten Wicked Witch of the West walk into a doorway, this is the movie for you.) There's a fair amount of speechifying and some dramatics to go along with the light comedy (my favorite one-liner: "No woman could ever run for president. She'd have to admit she was over 35."), but the moment that stuck out the most for me was when Tracy receives a congratulatory telegram from a Mad Man Mundt, a name the Coen Brothers must have filed away for use later on when they first heard it. Ain't that a kick in the head?

Thursday, July 5, 2012
I'll say one thing for him, he's got the courage of his ignorance.

Even before I learned of Andy Griffith's death on Tuesday at the age of 86, I had already planned on watching his big-screen debut, 1957's A Face in the Crowd, this week. His passing merely made my viewing of the film that much more timely. Written by Budd Schulberg and directed by Elia Kazan -- whose previous collaboration was the Academy-anointed On the Waterfront -- it brilliantly cast Griffith against type as a silver-tongued hobo who captures the imagination of the general public when he's put on the radio by Patricia Neal and soon learns that the power of persuasion is strong with him. Dubbed "Lonesome" Rhodes by Neal, it isn't long before he's courted by a regional television station, where he gains an acerbic head writer (Walter Matthau), and later goes national thanks to the efforts of his ambitious manager (Anthony Franciosa).

As is expected when someone who rockets to stardom, Griffith lets success go to his head (as Matthau quips at one point, "You gotta be a saint to stand all the power that little box can give you."), and things start to go sour between him and Neal when his marriage proposal is followed by the revelation that he already has a wife. Then he turns around and weds a teenaged majorette (Lee Remick, also making her feature debut) who turns his head, which would have been the final nail in the coffin for most people. It's only when he starts coaching a potential presidential candidate -- with the goal of being the power behind the throne -- that she fully realizes what kind of a monster she's created. Then again, you never know quite what you're going to get when you pick a face out of a crowd.

Friday, July 6, 2012
I've gone a hundred miles out of my way to find out what makes these monsters tick.

Ten years ago today we lost the great American filmmaker John Frankenheimer, so in his memory I watched his 1961 film The Young Savages, which was the first of five he made with star Burt Lancaster. In it, he plays a hard-working assistant district attorney who's chosen by ambitious D.A. Edward Andrews (who has designs on the governor's mansion) to prosecute a high-profile case involving a gang-related murder in his old stomping grounds. The hitch is that the mother of one of the suspects is an old flame (Shelley Winters) who's counting on him to save her son while his boss wants all three delinquents to get the chair. Since the victim was a blind Puerto Rican boy and the perpetrators were all part of a gang of leather-jacketed hoods, the prospect of this seem like a slam dunk, but the more Lancaster investigates, the less black-and-white everything gets.

In an effort to present all possible sides, screenwriters Edward Anhalt and JP Miller (writer of
Days of Wine and Roses), working from a novel by Evan Hunter, give Lancaster a bleeding-heart liberal wife (Dina Merrill) who changes her tune somewhat after she's intimidated by a couple of emissaries from the suspects' gang. (Later on, Lancaster has his own run-in with them, resulting in a few broken ribs and this priceless exchange with the doctor who's taping him up: "Doctor, is it all right if I smoke?" "If you have to." Ah, the '60s.) The film also co-stars Telly Savalas (in one of his first features) as a seen-it-all police detective, but the most affecting performance is delivered by Vivian Nathan, who plays the dead boy's mother. She makes her character's sorrow and hunger for justice palpable. What Lancaster has to weigh is that one mother's justice would be another one's tragedy.

Saturday, July 7, 2012
No matter what it's like to visit a place, there's no place like home.

I'm not sure why AMC Theatres insist on having their first showings so early in the morning (although I suspect it's to discourage people from taking advantage of the $5 ticket price), but I was up in time to make it To Rome with Love at 10 a.m., as were a number of other budget-conscious Bloomingtonians. And we were treated to the latest winner from Woody Allen, who spins together four tales, all of which take place in the title city and most of which have something to do with love (in its various forms).

Allen freely cuts back and forth between the different segments, which don't overlap in any way. (Heck, they don't even take place over the same time frame.) They're also neatly balanced since one pair involves Americans either living in or visiting Rome and the other two are centered on Italian characters. In one of the stories on the American side of the equation, Allen and Judy Davis play a married couple (he's retired, she's a practicing psychiatrist) who fly in to meet their daughter's (Alison Pill) fiancé (Flavio Parenti), a lawyer whose political views border on Communistic. That already puts them at odds, but the conflict doesn't kick into high gear until Allen overhears Parenti's mortician father (Fabio Armiliato) singing in the shower and makes it his mission to figure out how to exploit the shy man's exquisite singing voice. The other story follows successful architect Alec Baldwin, who runs into architecture student Jesse Eisenberg, who is essentially a younger version of himself, and sticks around to offer unheeded advice when Eisenberg considers breaking things off with his current girlfriend (rock-steady Greta Gerwig) to take up with her best friend (neurotic actress Ellen Page).

As for the Italians, Roberto Benigni makes a triumphant return to the screen as a lowly clerk whose humdrum existence is thrown out of whack when for no reason at all he is suddenly treated like a celebrity, with paparazzi hounding him wherever he goes and television journalists breathlessly reporting the tiniest minutiae of his mundane daily routine. (That's a killer premise worthy of Harry Block.) And the final story revolves around newlyweds Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi, who have come from the country so he can get ahead in business, but are separated soon after their arrival. While Mastronardi tries to find her way back to their hotel and winds up crossing paths with a few famous Italian actors, Tiberi gets an unexpected visit from prostitute Penélope Cruz, who then has to impersonate his wife for reasons that are too convoluted to go into. Even if the film as a whole doesn't add to more than the sum of its parts, at least those parts are highly amusing. And I don't think anything I see this summer will put a smile on my face quite like the sight of a naked man on a stage singing opera in a mobile shower stall. That's some old-school Woody Allen surreality right there.

The obscurity of the meaning adds to its elusive disconnection.
Criterion frequently uses its Eclipse series to shed light on neglected corners of cinematic history, exposing film lovers to obscure and/or elusive titles that they might not otherwise get to see. That is definitely the case with its Up All Night with Robert Downey Sr. set, which was released back in May. Of the five films included -- all of which were made between 1964 and 1975 -- I had only seen
Putney Swope before, so the rest was all virgin territory for me. Good thing the first film out of the gate was such a hoot.

Made in 1964, Babo 73 stars Taylor Mead as the soft-spoken president of the United Status (sic), who has advisers on both his left hand (pacifist James Antonio) and his right (hawkish James Greene, whose solution to everything is "Bomb 'em"). He also has a private secretary (Tom Gaines) who's always on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and since the White House has been gutted by a fire he takes most of his meetings at the beach. (The first one we see is with the Prime Minister of Luxembourg, who's played by Lawrence Wolf but not for long since he's shot dead after demanding twelve atomic bombs for his country.) Downey fills out the action with shots stolen at the actual White House and other Washington landmarks, as well as a parade complete with ICBMs. And his political satire takes aim at multiple targets, including the "Red Siamese problem" and the "Negro problem." The latter is highlighted by the sad story of a white man who attempted to integrate an all-black college. As you might expect, this did not go too well.

For his next film, 1966's Chafed Elbows, Downey shelved the politics and kept the focus firmly on the personal, specifically the person of breakdown-prone George Morgan. Introduced getting kicked out of his lover's bed -- only for it to be revealed that his lover is his own mother -- Morgan aimlessly knocks around New York City, with Downey alternating between still photos and moving pictures, which isn't as jarring as you might think. Neither is the fact that his wife Elsie has graduated from her one-scene part as a hitchhiker in Babo 73 to playing all the women's roles in this one. And Lawrence Wolf also returns, this time as a bald psychiatrist. I do have to wonder, though, how much truth there is to Elsie's claim that "the only thing about these low-budget films is that all the action is behind the camera." I'm sure there are plenty of stories behind the "Special Hindrance: N.Y.C. Police Dept." credit.

The next film in the set, 1968's No More Excuses, was a collaboration between Downey and Robert Soukis. Downey may have decided he needed a co-director since he was taking a role in front of the camera, playing a wounded Civil War soldier who's thrust into present day New York City and is bewildered by everything he sees. This is but one of many strands woven into the film, which features interviews with patrons of singles bars and a representative from an organization called the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals, which is dedicated to providing clothing for all pets. (Their vice president, played by Alan Abel, gets the funniest line in the whole film when he says, "We're not interested in nudists. After all, what have they contributed to our society except a few good volleyball players?") Downey and Soukis also dramatize the assassination of President James A. Garfield (Lawrence Wolf again) and follow a woman (Paula Morris) who's followed home by a very persistent rapist (Don Calfa). It's all in the name of getting at just what the sexual revolution is about and who's actually benefiting from it.

As ramshackle as some of the films in this set are, the only one that feels like a glorified home movie is 1975's Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight, which was originally screened under the less unwieldy title Moment to Moment. Part of this has to do with the fact that Elsie is back playing most of the female roles (and contributing to the screenplay to boot), but Downey also sees fit to include lots of scenes with their children, Allyson and Robert, Jr. There are some wildly self-indulgent passages as well as cameos from a few of Downey's actor pals (Seymour Cassel is probably the most recognizable face in the cast), but the ubiquitous Lawrence Wolf is the bearer of the sagest piece of advice in the film: "Life isn't one continuous peak, you know? One has to accept the valleys." Considering how many peaks and valleys Downey's career has had since Putney Swope's left-field success, I hope he took that to heart.

Sunday, July 8, 2012
These imaginary displays provide a temporary release.

A few months back a friend loaned me both volumes of The Films of Kenneth Anger, which were released by Fantomas in 2007. (Thanks, Migs!) Now, having soaked up the underground films of Robert Downey Sr., it only seems right for me to do the same for Anger, who was a towering figure in that scene. None of his films have what anyone would call a traditional narrative, though, so I'll keep my comments about each one brief.

Volume One opens, appropriately enough, with the seminal Fireworks, a 14-minute provocation from 1947. Anger himself plays the central character, who takes a memorable -- and blatantly homoerotic -- trip to a room marked "GENTS" where he encounters some surly sailors. Next is a six-minute fragment from 1949 called Puce Moment, which was his first film shot in color. The studio-bound Rabbit's Moon follows, shot in France in 1950 and included in two different versions. The first runs 16 minutes, the second (which is included on Volume Two as it was re-edited in 1979) comes in at seven. 1953's Eaux d'Artifice is very much in the same vein -- both were shot in black-and-white and tinted blue -- only this one was made on location in Italy. Finally, we come to Anger's return to Hollywood, which resulted in his magnum opus, 1954's Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, which is by far his longest film, clocking in at 38 minutes. I'll leave it to someone else to unpack all of the symbolism on display throughout, but I couldn't help but notice its preoccupation with showing men putting hard things (jewelry, mostly) in their mouths and swallowing.

There's a decade-long break before Volume Two picks things back up with 1964's Scorpio Rising. Perhaps Anger's best-known film, Scorpio Rising is a 28-minute exploration of the burgeoning biker culture that also doubles as a leather fetishist's wet dream come true. Anger changes modes of transportation for 1965's Kustom Kar Kommandoes, which is for all intents and purposes a three-minute music video for the Paris Sisters' "Dream Lover." (Scorpio Rising is also scored exclusively with rock and roll songs, a clear influence on John Waters's early features.) While Scorpio Rising included a few fleeting glimpses of male nudity, 1969's Invocation of My Demon Brother (all eleven minutes of which are scored by Mick Jagger messing around on a Moog) drops any pretenses of propriety and just lets it all hang out. And Anger goes Egyptian -- or at least he goes to Egypt -- for 1981's Lucifer Rising, a 28-minute celebration of the occult that opens with several minutes of an active volcano spurting lava. No points for guessing what that's supposed to represent.

The world's not really accommodating to people who want to do things differently.

I've long been curious about Roadracers, the television film Robert Rodriguez made between El Mariachi and Desperado. The only thing I knew about it was that it was produced in 1994 for Showtime's Rebel Highway series, which also gave us Joe Dante's
Runaway Daughters, but it wasn't until my library acquired the recently released DVD (which claims to be the "director's cut") that I was able to give it the once-over. And once will be more than adequate for me, that's for sure.

In general, I like Rodriguez's films (when he's making them for grown-ups, that is), but I'm afraid this one just didn't cut the muster with me. Chalk it up to the cliché-ridden script (which Rodiguez co-wrote with Tommy Nix), which finds rebellious rocker David Arquette flouting the law and going out of his way to antagonize everybody who crosses his path -- with the notable exception of his girl (Salma Hayek, making her American debut), but even she gets fed up with his antics from time to time. Just as it's hard to see what she's sees in him, it's hard not to notice that Arquette and Hayek are both a little long-in-the-tooth to be playing teenagers. I realize this is standard operating procedure in Hollywood, but co-star John Hawkes was in his mid-30s when he played the role of sci-fi geek Nixer, who's obsessed with Invasion of the Body Snatchers. At least Arquette's nemesis (Jason Wiles, playing the son of sadistic sheriff William Sadler) looks like he could still be in high school, but that may have more to do with the fact that he acts incredibly immature for his age. Then again, the film as a whole has a tendency to descend into extremely juvenile comedy -- that is, when it isn't reveling in gratuitous violence. If Rodriguez had pulled back a little on both, I might have found the end result more enjoyable.

Since when does a soap opera control the future of the country?

The more things change, the more some political satires remain sadly relevant. Such is the case with The Second Civil War, which Joe Dante directed for HBO in 1997. Written by Martyn Burke, who previously co-wrote
Top Secret! and went on to write and direct the HBO film Pirates of Silicon Valley, The Second Civil War takes place "Sometime in the Near Future," although it seems in many ways like that near future is now. With multiple states passing (or considering) tough anti-immigration laws and butting heads with the federal government over the issue, the film's fanciful story about the governor of Idaho (Beau Bridges, delivering an Emmy-winning performance) closing the borders of his state to refugees and threatening to secede from the union doesn't seem quite so unrealistic anymore.

Much of the action is viewed through the prism of cable network News Net, which is lorded over by executive producer Dan Hedaya and his right-hand man Ron Perlman and counts among its on-air talent James Earl Jones, a veteran news man who gets to intone the phrase "This is News Net," anchorwoman Joanna Cassidy, and reporter Elizabeth Peña, who's embedded with the governor to the point where she's actually landed in bed with him. In fact, Bridges seems more concerned about their relationship than anything else, much to the dismay of his press secretary, Kevin Dunn. Meanwhile at the White House, terminally indecisive president Phil Hartman takes advice from members of his cabinet -- including chief of staff Kevin McCarthy and secretary of defense William Schallert -- but listens more to spin doctor James Coburn. And the longer the situation drags out, the more it escalates, with Hartman ordering the mobilization of troops and Bridges calling out the National Guard, leading to a tense standoff at the border.

The supporting cast is filled out by the usual assortment of Dante Repertory Company members, with Roger Corman as a News Net executive, Robert Picardo as a techie, Dick Miller as a cameraman with field producer Denis Leary, Rance Howard as an Idaho Guardsman, and Belinda Balaski as a graphic designer who's called on to create the "Second Civil War" graphic once Hedaya determines that it's imminent. He also sums up the state of cable news rather succinctly when he says, "Everybody's got a magic button. Our job: find it and push it." In the 15 years since this was first broadcast, they've only gotten better at that.

Monday, July 9, 2012
You raised us to hate those boys, and we do, and now it's come to this.

Last year's
Take Shelter may have introduced Arkansas-based filmmaker Jeff Nichols to a wider audience, but he turned a number of heads with his 2007 feature Shotgun Stories, one of the most assured debuts I have ever seen. Anchored by a riveting lead performance by Michael Shannon, it tells the story of the feud that erupts between two sets of half-brothers after their father dies and Shannon has some words to say about the deceased at his funeral. Backed up by his brothers Douglas Ligon (a basketball coach who lives out of his van) and Barlow Jacobs (who works alongside Shannon at a fish farm and is thinking about marrying his girlfriend), Shannon definitely looks like he means business, but that doesn't stop the most hotheaded member of the other family (Travis Smith) from stirring the pot and getting his younger brothers (Lynnsee Provence and David Rhodes) riled up as well. Their older brother (Michael Abbott Jr.) -- who, like Shannon, has a wife and family of his own -- tries to play peacemaker, but it soon becomes clear that this conflict has been going on for some time and has stymied the efforts of many would-be peacemakers over the years.

For much of its first half, the film is content to hang out with Shannon and his brothers -- he's on the outs with his wife (Glenda Pannell), who has moved back in with her mother thanks to his gambling problem -- but once the tensions boil over, they escalate to the point where tragedy is all but inevitable. Of course, it doesn't help that dispossessed drug dealer G. Alan Wilkins, who's constantly bugging Jacobs about parking his hot car at Shannon's house, does his own shit-stirring, but that's more than likely out of pure boredom than anything approaching malice. Living in such a small town, gossip is probably the only real source of entertainment -- and what makes for better gossip than a good old-fashioned family feud?

Wednesday, July 11, 2012
It's easy to form a group. It's all the rest that's difficult.

The year 2007 saw the release of two films about the band Joy Division. One was the drama
Control, which was based heavily on Touching from a Distance by Deborah Curtis, widow of lead singer Ian Curtis. The other was a documentary simply titled Joy Division, which allowed the other members of the band (as well as the people who worked with them) to tell their story in their own words. Even if it's a story that has been told many times before (most notably in 2002's 24 Hour Party People), it's good to finally hear multiple sides of it for once.

Photographed and directed by Grant Gee (who also performed those duties on the prickly Radiohead documentary Meeting People Is Easy), the film is anchored by interviews with surviving band members Bernard Sumner, Stephen Morris and Peter Hook (who reformed as New Order after Curtis's suicide), plus such key figures as TV personality/impresario Tony Wilson, music journalist Paul Morley (one of their biggest early boosters), graphic designer Peter Saville, photographer Anton Corbijn, and Curtis's lover, Annik Honoré. (Honoré's presence may explain why Deborah Curtis declined to be interviewed for the film, but her voice isn't entirely absent from it since Gee includes a number of quotes from her book.) Add in generous helpings of rehearsal footage, television and live appearances, and a couple of audio interviews (one with producer Martin Hannett, the other with Ian Curtis), and one starts to get a fuller picture of why Joy Division was such a revelation at the time and why their music continues to resonate with listeners today.

Thursday, July 12, 2012
What does it mean? It means something's going to happen, something big.

This month's
Kryptic Army mission has to do with horror films that were made by our neighbors to the north, so I used the opportunity to take in 2008's Pontypool, which sounded rather interesting when I heard about it a few years back. Kind of a thinking man's zombie movie, it takes place in the titular small Ontario town where "take no prisoners" morning show host Stephen McHattie has landed, having apparently burned his bridges elsewhere. And that pretty much describes the film as well because beyond the opening scene, in which McHattie drives to work through a blinding snowstorm and has a strange encounter with a dazed-looking woman on the side of the road, the action never leaves the converted church basement where he broadcasts from, aided by producer Lisa Houle and engineer Georgina Reilly, who field his incoming calls. There's little they can do to insulate him from the unbelievable reports that start filtering in from all over town, though, just like Houle's efforts to rein him in meet with a great deal of resistance once he takes the unsubstantiated stories and begins embellishing them.

At the outset, the film plays a bit like a Canadian variation on Talk Radio, but director Bruce McDonald and screenwriter Tony Burgess (adapting his own novel Pontypool Changes Everything) eventually tip their hand as Houle, Reilly and McHattie continue receiving and broadcasting calls about the mounting violence that is raging outside, as well as the strange behavior of those perpetrating it. (Leave it to the Canadians to make a zombie film and keep virtually all of the zombie stuff off-screeen.) No explanations are forthcoming, though, until a doctor (Hrant Alianak) who seems to know a little about what's going on finds his way into the studio. Whether that will actually make a difference in the long run is another matter.

Saturday, July 14, 2012
It's a bit creepy, I suppose. It's all so old and musty.

It's been a few months since TCM Underground has had something new to offer, so I was more than happy to tape last night's feature, the 1971 British thriller Fright, even if it didn't quite measure up to the best the Underground has aired in the past. Written by Tudor Gates, best known for penning the Karnstein Trilogy for Hammer Films, and directed by Peter Collinson, who was responsible for the original Italian Job, its set-up is basic as can be: middle-aged couple goes out to dinner, leaving toddler in care of babysitter; babysitter is stalked by escaped lunatic, placing both her and her charge in danger. Even if Fright can lay claim to being the first babysitter-in-peril movie, the fact remains that it's not a very good one -- and it's fairly unpleasant to boot. Not exactly a great combination.

A pre-Straw Dogs Susan George plays the babysitter, who's studying child welfare at university but has little hands-on experience with them, with Honor Blackman as the overprotective mother who is quick to reproach the man of the house (George Cole) when he makes any off-hand remark. It's obvious from the way they act around George that they're keeping a secret, but we don't find out what it is until the film is well underway. (Even the occupation of their dining companion, played by John Gregson, is kept under wraps so as not to give the game away.) Meanwhile, back at their musty old home, George is startled by every small noise and is spooked when her boyfriend (Dennis Waterman) shows up unannounced. When he tries to have it off with her, though, she kicks him out, whereupon he is stalked by a point-of-view camera (which is only used in the one shot, otherwise this would be a much clearer antecedent to the likes of
Black Christmas and Halloween) and severely beaten. Then, under the pretense of helping him out, his assailant (Ian Bannen) insinuates himself into the house and soon makes his intentions clear to George. Suffice it to say, he's not the concerned neighbor he purports to be.

I can't go into too much more detail without spoiling the plot, but I do have to wonder what was going through George's mind when she agreed to star in two films in a row where's the victim of a violent sexual assault. Straw Dogs is, of course, the more well-known of the two, but it's a wonder she didn't become the go-to girl for that sort of thing. Then again, I never have seen Dirty Mary Crazy Larry or Mandingo, so maybe she did. Back then, some actresses didn't have too many options when it came to the roles they were cast in.

For further evidence of this, all one has to do is look to the film that was shown as Fright's back-up feature: What's the Matter with Helen? Made in 1971, it was one of a number of "psycho-biddy" films that followed in the wake of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (a roll call that includes
Strait-Jacket, Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte, What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? and Who Slew Auntie Roo?). Like Baby Jane and Charlotte, What's the Matter with Helen? was written by Henry Farrell, who had previously collaborated with director Curtis Harrington on the TV movie How Awful About Allan. This time out, they paired up Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters as two unfortunate mothers who are hounded by the press and persecuted by the public when their two sons are found guilty of murder, so they relocate to Hollywood and open up a dance school for aspiring Shirley Temples. (As the opening newsreel coverage of the trial reveals, the story is set firmly in the '30s when Temple was the child star par excellence.) The platinum-blonde Reynolds and her showbiz aspirations frequently clash with the deeply religious Winters, though, and that's even before she starts freaking out at the sight of blades for no apparent reason.

In addition to showing off her students (all of whom come equipped with pushy stage mothers), Reynolds also has hopes for her own future when she catches the eye of wealthy Texan Dennis Weaver, who starts taking her to all the ritzy places while Winters stays at home listening to radio evangelist Agnes Moorehead. Meanwhile, the school takes on elocution and drama instructor Micheál MacLiammóir (essentially playing the Victor Buono role, albeit in a more sinister fashion) and appears to be humming along just fine when Winters has one of her spells backstage during a recital (which pads out the running time with a complete Shirley Temple song, a Mae West solo and a splashy patriotic number). This prompts Reynolds to ask the title question and Winters to go off the deep end, because whatever's the matter with her sure isn't going to right itself.

Nothing has been left to the imagination. It is not a story for the squeamish or the fainthearted.

As well-regarded as it is in horror circles, I haven't sought out 1974's Deranged before now because of its reputation as something of a stomach-turner. (After all, Tom Savini helped out with the makeup effects, and even that early in his career he knew what he was doing.) Well, as it turns out, the version I rented from Plan Nine -- the MGM "Midnite Movies" double feature with
Motel Hell -- is missing one of the film's more notorious scenes, but I'm not exactly crying foul since I don't generally go out of my way to disgust myself. (This is why I still haven't seen A Serbian Film or either of the Human Centipede movies, nor do I have any plans to.) Make no mistake, whatever form it's in Deranged is still plenty disturbing, but shorn of its nausea-inducing moments, the viewer is better able to appreciate the rich vein of jet-black humor embedded within it.

Much of the credit for Deranged's strange intensity goes to Roberts Blossom, who plays Ed Gein stand-in Ezra Cobb like a boy in a man's body, left with a strong mistrust of women after his Bible-thumping mother (Cosette Lee) passes away. Of course, as far as Ezra is concerned his mother isn't really dead, so when she tells him to bring her home he digs up her decomposing corpse and does just that. If that sounds at all familiar, that's because Robert Bloch based his novel Psycho on the Gein case, which also inspired Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Neither of those variants stuck very close to the facts, though, which gives Deranged's screenwriter Alan Ormsby, who co-directed with Jeff Gillen (who had been an assistant director on Bob Clark's Deathdream and went on to play Santa Claus in A Christmas Story), a leg up over them. Sure, Ormsby takes his own liberties -- for example, inventing a newspaper columnist (Leslie Carlson) who narrates the gruesome tale -- but Carlson's presence is justified by the occasions where he audaciously steps in front of the camera in the middle of a scene he's commenting on. That's the kind of creative gamble that shows Gillen and Ormsby had more on their minds than simply cranking out another exploitationer.

Before I wrap this up, I should say a few words about the supporting cast, starting with Robert Warner, who plays Ezra's oblivious neighbor. He's pretty much the prototype of the "guy who has absolutely no clue that he's living next door to a murderous grave-robber until the evidence is staring him right in the face." Speaking of which, Ezra's first live victim is a fat woman (Marian Waldman) who talks to her dead husband and rather unwisely gets Ezra sexually excited. Next, he takes a shine to a barmaid (Micki Moore) and abducts her with the intention of making her his wife, but one dinner with his extended "family" is more than enough for her. Finally, he sets his sights on Warner's son's girlfriend (Pat Orr) who works in a hardware store, the site of the film's great time-capsule scene -- and I'm not just saying that because it's the kind of place that has guns and ammunition out where any customer can pick them up. Different eras, different attitudes.

Sunday, July 15, 2012
This is a strange thing as e'er I look'd on.

For his third feature, Derek Jarman chose to tackle Shakespeare, with the result being his 1979 adaptation of The Tempest, the first time a full-length production of the play was attempted on film. Shot almost entirely inside a crumbling mansion, save for a handful of beach exteriors, Jarman's film strips the play down to its bare essence and a few of his actors as well, but that's far from unusual for him. Heathcote Williams heads the cast as Prospero, former Duke of Milan, who has raised his daughter Miranda (Toyah Willcox, playing the innocent rather well) in exile and uses his sorcery to raise a storm that shipwrecks his enemies, leaving them at his mercy. In this, he has the help of the spirit Ariel (Karl Johnson, dressed all in white) and the grudging cooperation of the beastly Caliban (Jack Birkett, reveling in his savagery), but there's never any doubt about who's in charge.

The first castaway to come ashore is Ferdinand (David Meyer), son of the King of Naples, who arrives stark naked but is sadly given a pair of pants after he's been on land for ten minutes. His father Alonso is played by Peter Bull, who's accompanied by honest councilor Gonzalo (the always-welcome Ken Campbell), his less-honest brother Sebastian (Neil Cunningham, dressed up as a bishop), and Prospero's treacherous brother Antonio (Richard Warwick, a holdover from
Sebastiane), who wants to be the power behind the throne -- with Sebastian on it. Finally, there's the comic-relief duo of Stephano and Trinculo (Christopher Biggins and Peter Turner), the perpetually soused sailors who hook up with Caliban, but not in that way. They do get to play dress-up, though, which is almost as good.

Having come from a design background, Jarman always made sure the sets and costumes in his films were visually interesting, and this one is no exception. It would be another six years before his singular vision again graced cinema screens, though (with 1985's The Angelic Conversation). Fortunately, I won't have to wait nearly as long.

Is it a crime to have known a girl that killed herself?

It's been five long years since I got started in earnest on the Fox Film Noir series, a collection of 26 films that the studio began releasing in 2005. Now, with 1954's Black Widow under my belt, I've finally polished off the set, although I suppose I could always follow it up with the Technicolor noir Leave Her to Heaven, which Fox decided to release outside of the series. Like that film, Black Widow was shot in color (by De Luxe this time), only this time the studio sprang for CinemaScope as well, which certainly helps make it seem more impressive than it really is. The fact is, it's a fairly uninvolving example of the form, which Fox was in the process of abandoning anyway. (The latest film in the series is 1955's House of Bamboo, which ironically enough was the
first one I ever saw.)

Written, produced and directed by Nunnally Johnson, a screenwriter of note who had made his directorial debut earlier that year with the drama Night People, Black Widow is about a prominent Broadway producer (Van Heflin) who gets mixed up in murder when a struggling writer (Peggy Ann Garner) is found hanged in his apartment. Naturally this puts a strain on his marriage (to actress Gene Tierney), but Heflin is determined to prove his innocence, which becomes more and more unlikely as police detective George Raft builds the case against him. He also has to contend with his high-maintenance star (Ginger Rogers) and her overshadowed husband (Reginald Gardiner), but neither of them are much help to him, and his practice of interviewing witnesses and telling them flat out that they're lying does little to bolster his defense. How he got to be a successful Broadway producer with such lousy people skills is beyond me.

I think it's time we took this out of the backyard.

Caught up with Chronicle, courtesy of my local library. As I recall, it got decent enough reviews when it came out back in February, but I need more than mere decency to get me out the door these days, and the concept of a found-footage superhero movie wasn't enough of a draw in and of itself. That said, screenwriter Max Landis and director Josh Trank (who collaborated on the original story) did a good job of keeping the surprises coming, which partially compensates for having to keep playing the "I just want to film everything that happens" card. At least they didn't have to jump through any hoops to be able to get the main person doing the filming on camera. (This is where being able to levitate objects comes in handy.)

The film is a little slow out of the starting gate, but that gives us time to be properly introduced to Andrew (Dane DeHaan), a sullen loner with an alcoholic father (Michael Kelly) and sick mother (Bo Petersen) who buys a camera because he needs to put up a barrier between him and the rest of the world. The only person he really relates to is his philosophy-spouting cousin Matt (Alex Russell), who takes him to a party at an abandoned factory that changes their lives forever. Accompanied by football star and all-around popular kid Steve (Michael B. Jordan), they climb down into a hole in the ground and encounter a mysterious glowing crystalline object that imbues them with special powers. At first it's just garden-variety telekinesis, but they soon discover that they can create force fields and even fly, which leads them to explore just how powerful they are. Alas, Andrew doesn't have anybody to give him the "With great power comes great responsibility" speech -- at least, nobody he's willing to listen to.

If Chronicle spawns a sequel -- and there's every indication that it will -- I hope the filmmakers drop the found-footage angle next time around. They were able to get away with it for 78 minutes, but it's reaching the point where the concept in general is really getting played out. If you have to bend over backwards to justify having a camera running in a scene -- like the one where Matt pays a visit to a former classmate turned video blogger (Ashley Hinshaw) who records a conversation that nobody in their right mind would ever record -- then you really need to question why you're going to all that trouble.

Monday, July 16, 2012
People find out things about themselves through lovemaking that they never dreamed of.

Woody Allen was in a rare pastoral mood when he wrote, directed and starred in A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, which was released 30 years ago today (quite appropriately in the middle of summer). In addition to setting the main action of the film in and around a secluded country house, he also placed it squarely in the past, making it his first period piece since Love and Death. (And just as Sergei Prokofiev was put to work on that film's soundtrack, this one was "scored" by Felix Mendelssohn, whose pieces contribute greatly to the romantic mood.) Some may consider it minor Woody (including the man himself since it's the one film he made between Annie Hall and Hannah and Her Sisters that didn't have its screenplay published), but I still find it plenty enjoyable.

The whisper-thin plot revolves are three couples spending the weekend at the country home of stockbroker (and crackpot inventor) Allen and his wife Mary Steenburgen, with whom he hasn't slept in months. They're playing host to Steenburgen's cousin, stuffy academic José Ferrer, who's engaged to free spirit Mia Farrow (playing a character named Ariel, of course), and Allen's best friend, philandering doctor Tony Roberts, whose plus-one is his sexually liberated nurse Julie Hagerty. That they wind up pairing off in unexpected combinations is hardly a surprise given the film's title, but Allen is able to maintain a whimsical air throughout (unlike his inspiration, Ingmar Bergman's Smiles on a Summer Night, which quite frankly gets a little heavy at times). The end result may not be his most profound film, but it always puts a smile on my face.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012
I'm not the kind of guy that everyone says I am.

After lengthy production delays that held it up for several years and what amounted to a nonexistent theatrical release, writer/director Kenneth Lonergan's sophomore effort Margaret has finally found its way to home video, so while I wait for the library to deliver it to me, I figured it was high time I caught up with his debut, 2000's You Can Count on Me. A critical favorite and the recipient of two Academy Award nominations -- for Best Original Screenplay and Best Actress, both well-deserved -- the film charts the rocky relationship between two siblings who suffer the sudden, tragic loss of their parents when they're both children and struggle to stay connected when they become adults.

Of the two of them, sister Laura Linney is the one who seems more together since she has a stable job (as lending officer for a bank) and an age-appropriate friend-with-benefits (Jon Tenney), plus she's ably single-parenting her eight-year-old son (Rory Culkin). In contrast, brother Mark Ruffalo is an aimless drifter who's knocked up his teenage girlfriend and has only come home so he can borrow the money to get it taken care of. (Incidentally, it's a tribute to Lonergan's skill as a dramatist that this is all established without anyone ever uttering the words "pregnant" or "abortion.") The longer Ruffalo sticks around, though, the more responsible he seems, especially after Linney falls into an affair with her branch's new fussbudget of a manager (Matthew Broderick). That this coincides with the indecisive Tenney's poorly timed marriage proposal doesn't help matters, nor does her consultation with her minister (played by Lonergan), who disappoints her by being the nonjudgmental type.

At the end of the day, what really sets You Can Count on Me apart is the way it categorically refuses to judge any of its characters, even as they make poor decisions and needlessly cause trouble for themselves and others. And there aren't any plaster saints either since Lonergan recognizes that to be human is to be imperfect. After all, who's better equipped to accept your imperfections than your own family?

Thursday, July 19, 2012
Is this the stupidest, most crazy decision we have ever made?

I don't know what it is about David Wain's films, but to a man they seem to suffer from a distinct lack of ambition, coupled with a scattershot approach to comedy that makes him one of the most inconsistent directors working today. The trend continues with this year's Wanderlust, in which fewer jokes land than usual, and most of the ones that do come right at the top of the film. It says a lot that I laughed more at the discussions about the "micro-loft" in the West Village that Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston move into (a pitifully tiny paradise they are promptly ejected from when he loses his soul-sucking corporate job) than just about everything having to do with Elysium, the "intentional community" they stop off at on their way to his asshole brother's in Georgia. (Incidentally, the asshole brother is played by Wain's co-writer and fellow State alum Ken Marino, who doesn't get so much as a single scene where he's even remotely tolerable.)

After rejecting Marino's inhospitality, Rudd and Aniston decide to give Elysium a two-week trial, during which they get to know all of the quasi-hippies in residence, including the commune's sole remaining co-founder (acid casualty Alan Alda) and its spiritual guru (Justin Theroux), who clearly wants to share their concept of free love with Aniston from the moment they set foot on the property. To be fair, Rudd has his own admirer (the curvacious Malin Akerman), but because male nudity is so hilarious he has way more run-ins with casual nudist/wine-maker/aspiring novelist Joe Lo Truglio. In the final tally, Aniston takes to Elysium in a way that the super uptight Rudd cannot, causing a rift between them which Theroux helps widen as much as possible without being obvious about it. Too bad he's about as subtle as his jabs at outdated technology.

As is frequently the case with Wain's films, the best stuff is what's happening in the margins of the story, like Todd Barry's walk-on as Rudd's smugly unmarried co-worker, or the brief glimpses of the Atlanta news team of Wain, Michael Showalter and Michael Ian Black. Forget Anchorman 2. I want to see a movie about those guys.

Monday, July 23, 2012
She's too good for you. You haven't got a shot.

Since I missed out on Life During Wartime when it was briefly in theaters a couple years back (and still haven't caught up with it on home video in spite of its inclusion in the Criterion Collection), Dark Horse is the first Todd Solondz film I've seen since Palindromes was briefly in theaters in 2004. I guess I'm just lucky it was held over another week at the Ritz at the Bourse. A tale of arrested development in the extreme, Dark Horse follows the misadventures of overweight nerd Jordan Gelber, who projects an absurd amount of self-confidence for a grown man who collects action figures, still lives with his parents and, having dropped out of college, is employed by his own father (Christopher Walken, who underplays beautifully).

When we first encounter Gelber, he's at a raucous wedding where he's chatting up a morose, dark-haired Selma Blair (reprising her character from 2001's Storytelling) who couldn't be less into him if she tried. In spite of her unmistakeable lack of interest, he manages to wheedle her phone number out of her and when he calls her up later on is pleasantly surprised to discover that it is genuine. From there, he commences a mostly one-sided courtship, punctuated by stern lectures at the office from his father (who is dissatisfied with his work ethic, to say the least) and unhelpful heart-to-hearts at home with his mother (a nearly unrecognizable Mia Farrow). Also thrown into the mix are Justin Bartha as his younger brother (a doctor who lords his success over Gelber), Aasif Mandvi as Blair's dreaded ex (who is at least partially responsible for her depressed state, but the larger portion of it stems from the failure of her once-promising literary career), Zachary Booth as his cousin (who's also employed by Walken and is quietly gunning for Gelber's job), and Donna Murphy as Walken's secretary (who doubles as Gelber's imaginary confidante when he lapses into fantasies fueled by his self-doubt).

In a lot of ways, this is Solondz's most accessible film since he burst onto the scene with Welcome to the Dollhouse back in the mid-'90s. Chances are slim that it will get the chance to reach a wider audience (it's been out for a month and a half and is still only playing in a handful of theaters), but anyone attuned to his singular brand of misanthropy should find much to appreciate (if not necessarily like) in it.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012
A princess does not chortle.

There's an old Primus song that goes, "To defy the laws of tradition is a crusade only of the brave." Well, that adage definitely applies to the feisty young heroine of Pixar's latest computer-animated marvel Brave, which has been out for over a month, but I deliberately held off on it so I could see it with a good friend and fellow Pixar stalwart. And since it has been out that long, I feel like I can freely discuss the plot device that kicks in about halfway through without having to tiptoe around it, so if you still haven't caught up with Brave for whatever reason, you'll probably want to stop reading this review right about now because this is the one and only spoiler warning you'll be getting.

Much has made of the fact that Brave is the first Pixar film to have a female protagonist, although I suppose the argument could be made that it has two since the key relationship is between rebellious princess Merida (Kelly Macdonald) and her tradition-bound mother (Emma Thompson). A whiz with a bow from an early age thanks to the encouragement of her burly father (Billy Connolly), Merida chafes under her mother's tutelage and draws the line when she learns she is to be betrothed to one of the sons of rival clan leaders Robbie Coltrane, Craig Ferguson and Kevin McKidd (all of whom come equipped with their authentic Scottish brogues). Eager to change her fate, even if she has to use magical means to do so, Merida stumbles upon a dotty witch-cum-woodcarver (Julie Walters) who sells her a spell that changes her mother into a bear -- and gives them just two days to figure out how to reverse it or she'll remain one for the rest of her natural life.

If that plot sounds at all familiar, it's probably because you remember Brother Bear, which was one of Disney's last traditionally animated features before the company threw them under the bus in favor of computer animation. (Hmm, I wonder what inspired that decision.) That story may or may not have been on the minds of directors Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman, both of whom collaborated on the script with co-director Steve Purcell (who gets some of the biggest laughs in the film as the witch's crow) and screenwriter Irene Mecchi. All I know is as soon as the transformation occurred I jotted down the phrase "Mother Bear" in my notebook and it stuck. That said, I thought they handled the plot development well and that it yielded a great deal more physical comedy than I was expecting. I was also surprised by all the bare asses on display when the menfolk have to tie their kilts together to get down off the roof of the castle, but I knew female nudity was completely off the table when Merida threw a tapestry over her mother just before she changed back into human form. Just like the preordained happy ending, things like that are entirely predictable.

Thursday, July 26, 2012
No one cared who I was until I put on the mask.

Did my civic duty today and caught The Dark Knight Rises with my brother Jason, with whom I've seen a number of superhero films over the years. Neither of us was interested in seeing it with a full house, though, so getting some distance from opening weekend was a great boon to us, as was the theater's $5 ticket price for any showing before noon.

As someone who liked Batman Begins (but wasn't particularly blown away by it) and loved The Dark Knight (even if I haven't felt compelled to revisit it since it was in theaters), I have to say that Rises is easily the best film in the trilogy and that director Christopher Nolan, with the aid of his brother and frequent co-writer Jonathan, found the perfect way to bring it to a close. Picking up eight years after the events of The Dark Knight -- on Harvey Dent Day, when Gotham City celebrates its fallen "hero" -- the film takes its time putting all of its returning pieces into play. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale, great as always) has become a Howard Hughes-like recluse, Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman, great as always) has fought crime to a virtual standstill, Alfred (Michael Caine, great as always) has remained ever-loyal, and Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman, great as always) has continued to run Wayne Enterprises and do his own R&D work on the side just in case his wonderful toys are needed again. And sure enough, it isn't long before Bruce has to suit up again when everything he set out to achieve is threatened by a ruthless terrorist with the highly appropriate moniker Bane (Tom Hardy, ported over from Inception).

Other holdovers from Inception include Joseph Gordon-Levitt (as a hotheaded beat cop) and Marion Cotillard (as a philanthropist working on a clean energy project), with Anne Hathaway as slinky jewel thief Selina Kyle (who's after a clean slate), Matthew Modine as Gordon's second-in-command, and Ben Mendelsohn as a corporate raider out to take control of Wayne Enterprises who's willing to use any means necessary to get the job done, even if that means hiring Bane to do the job. And to bring the trilogy full-circle, Liam Neeson and Cillian Murphy both reprise their characters from the first film, because why not? It's not like Nolan is going to get to play with them again (although I'd like to see him cast Neeson in another film at some point to break him out of the Taken/Titans/Grey/Battleship rut he's been in lately).

Monday, July 30, 2012
Maybe we know each other too well, you know?

I wasn't planning on seeing another film in theaters this month, but that was before I discovered that Your Sister's Sister was playing in town. Written and directed by Lynn Shelton, whose previous outing was 2009's memorable
Humpday, the film tracks the complications that ensue when, in the wake of a rather emotional memorial party for his brother, sad sack Mark Duplass (returning from Humpday) accepts an invitation to stay at the isolated cabin of his best friend (Emily Blunt) so he can have some alone time, only to discover that it's occupied by her sister (Rosemarie DeWitt). She's also retreating from the world after ending a seven-year relationship, but the last person she would expect to rebound with is Duplass, for reasons that become evident before long. Things don't become especially awkward, however, until Blunt shows up unannounced -- just like she wasn't expecting DeWitt to be there. Pity poor Duplass, who gets caught in the middle when long-simmering sibling rivalry comes to the surface.

Back to June 2012 -- Onward to August 2012

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