Sunday, September 2, 2012

V/H/S (2012)


If you peruse the internet and read the oodles of articles that have been written on this film, you will mostly find that people are either saying it's the best horror movie of the year or they are saying that it's terrible. I'm somewhere in the middle of the debate. It's true that the "found footage" horror movie premise has long outworn its welcome and it is still incredibly baffling that it still makes anyone filthy rich. Most recently The Devil Inside (2012) which cost one million dollars to make, made 100 million at the box office. Its profits multiplied its budget by one hundred times! I guess Hollywood found a cheap formula that works. The Paranormal Activity trilogy also proved that people still want to see that crap, even if they've already seen it before and afterward will just talk about how awful it was. I guess negative publicity is still publicity, and most of these people want to see it for themselves. Which is actually a good thing. Critics serve a purpose, I truly believe that. But I also think most people can tell from a trailer if it's going to be the kind of thing they want to see or not. This is why I am always amazed by whenever I go to the theatre and someone always walks out in the first few minutes. I just shake my head and say to myself, "Really? Did you actually think this was going to be your kind of movie?" 

So we've established that V/H/S is a "found footage" film, but it does something clever and combines that with another sub-genre of horror- the anthology. Horror anthologies go back to the 1920's, but they started to get more popular in the 50's. They are essentially several short films tied together with a frame story. Television series like The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery and Amazing Stories are the kind of tales you usually find in an anthology film. And many of them are directly influenced by horror comics and pulp magazines. My favorite horror movie so far this century is an anthology film- Trick 'r Treat (2007). It was much more of a throwback to the older anthology films which always had a distinct visual style, whereas V/H/S really cranks up the terror and reinvents the sub-genre. Its five segments are also directed by five different directors. 

The frame story of V/H/S involves a group of guys who make a living by going around with a video camera and assaulting young women and recording the act. They say that they get 50 bucks a tape. This sets up the film the way too many horror films are set up- with the viewer hating the protagonist. The reason these guys are the protagonists is because they're the ones being tormented in the film. The film is not about their attacks on women. So when the torment comes, there is very little sympathy. These guys get a job breaking into a house to steal a tape. In the house they start going through a stack of tapes and view the five segments that make up the anthology. 

Even though the five segments are directed by different directors, they fit together well and the whole thing is very cohesive. But some of the segments work better than others. The first is incredibly strong and has some intensely startling visuals. It also has some amazing casting on the part of a young dark haired succubus with haunted eyes. But again, the males are all unlikeable and overblown with stereotypically macho personalities. 

A clever segment is made entirely with a recorded conversation using web cams via a Skype like service. One problem with this one, is that there are several times where one of the characters asks if he was recording at that moment and he says he wasn't. So how we got to see the entire interaction, we'll never know. V/H/S does that a few other times too. We see things that would not have been caught on tape, but for the purpose of putting together a complete story, they had to throw it in somewhere. Much of the material is so strong and so entertaining, that this flaw can easily be forgiven. 

One other complaint I have about the film is its length. I read a suggestion somewhere that I absolutely agree with, saying that they could have taken one of the stories out and made it shorter. Second Honeymoon or Tuesday the 17th would not be missed if either had been saved as a DVD extra. But other than that, the movie is pretty strong. Much of it is actually scary and almost the whole thing is a lot of fun. And for me, that is the most important element of a good horror film. 


Saturday, September 1, 2012

Return to Horror High (1987)



This film is not a sequel to another movie. I know the "Return" in the title seems to suggest that it is. What it refers to is the filmmaking process. For all of the "Based on true events" films that come out these days, it kind of seems like a pretty novel idea in 1987. Before the opening credits, words roll down the screen telling us that brutal murders took place at Crippen High School in 1982 and the killer was never caught. Years later, a film crew has returned to the very same high school to make a film about the very same murders. What the film crew is about to find out is that the killer is back on campus too. 

The killing starts immediately and the production coincides with the police investigation, which would obviously never happen. One incident and the whole thing would be shut down and turned into an official crime scene. But we don't watch these movies for truthiness (as Stephen Colbert would say) we want to see blood and gore, we want to be scared and have fun. This film doesn't have much of any of that. It has a lot of red paint that looks like real red paint, but the effects in general leave a lot to be desired. Oh yeah! And school's still in session too. This is the worst school district ever. 

The cast is interesting and could have helped elevate the film as a whole, but it doesn't. Alex Rocco, most recognizable as Moe Greene in The Godfather (1972) plays a film producer in Return to Horror High. He has quite a bit of screen time and his acting is good, providing some of the film's comic relief. But it's all so cheesy and not funny. Maureen McCormick or Marsha Brady from The Brady Bunch, plays a police officer on campus as part of the murder investigation. She's actually pretty good. She wears her uniform and hat in a way that parodies stereotypical female cops, she stands up straight with her chest out and talks tough- think Sgt. Callahan in the Police Academy films.  

The most famous cast member of Return to Horror High is George Clooney. This movie was made while he was on the television series The Facts of Life, but it was his first motion picture. He plays an actor who is playing a police officer in the movie that is being made. We see him on the set at the beginning. He walks off down a hall by himself and into a closet. This is where he meets his demise, just 10 minutes into the film. 

This movie is terrible and barely even watchable. It's almost worth sitting through for the last 15 minutes when all is revealed. It's not so much that the ending is a shocker, it's not. But the setting and some of the props used are so sufficiently creepy, it's as if the channel was changed on the television and someone put on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Then comes another twist and we don't care about anything anymore. Remember, I see these movies so you don't have to.


Return of the Killer Tomatoes (1988)


Return of the Killer Tomatoes (1988) is to Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1978) as Beware! the Blob! (1972) is to The Blob (1958). Okay, so Attack of the Killer Tomatoes doesn't have anyone like Steve McQueen, but it does have Jack Riley from The Bob Newhart Show. Beware! The Blob has the late, great comedian Godfrey Cambridge and Return of the Killer Tomatoes has George Clooney. I can probably stop there. This should at least be a curiosity piece for most people who want to see a young George Clooney in one of his first movies. He did Return to Horror High a year earlier (I know both titles start with Return... there was no Horror High, this one's not a sequel), but if you must choose, I'd go with Return of the Killer Tomatoes. As its title suggests it's a sequel to the equally ridiculous Attack of the Killer Tomatoes and even though it's ridiculous, it's one of those movies that is fun to watch with a big group of friends while cracking jokes and howling at the screen. This one is also noteworthy for starring veteran actor John Astin as Professor Gangreen. 

Return takes place ten years after the original. Tomatoes are now illegal. Wilbur Finletter, who was a hero in The Great Tomato war, has opened a pizza place that serves tomatoless pizzas. Early in the film, we get the backstory from Finletter (let's face it, we'd be lost if we didn't) the war on tomatoes wasn't won until it was discovered that their weakness was the song "Puberty Love" ...the worst song ever recorded

Professor Gangreen is planning to start up another tomato war. He swears that this time music will help them and not be their downfall. He has a staff of employees including a lovely assistant and some muscle bound gardeners who he has all made from tomatoes. Gangreen's assistant Tara is tired of his abuse, so she takes off and goes to the pizza place, since the owner's son Chad (Anthony Starke) is the only person she knows. This setup makes way for lots of jokes about her naivete. Since she is not human all she wants to do is have sex, cook and clean for him. But his nervousness is also part of the joke and he seems pretty bewildered by the whole thing. Chad's roommate and co-worker is George Clooney. He's much more confident and convinces Chad to go with it, because this kind of thing never happens to people like him. When Gangreen notices that Tara is missing, he sends Igor, one of his creations (played by former Olympic swimmer Steve Lundquist) out to find her. He's also not too bright and more hilarity ensues. He needs him to hurry so he can start another tomato war and break his partner out of prison and make him President of the United States thus taking over the country and eventually the world. All of a sudden Mitt Romney doesn't seem so bad. And get this, his imprisoned buddy is played by the notorious reality T.V. personality Rick Rockwell. You may remember him as the guy who married Darva Conger on live television in 2000, on that silly publicity stunt gone wrong called Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? Whew! The reasons to see this movie just keep on coming, just like the mutant tomatoes rolling down the street chasing after terrified citizens. 

If you haven't seen the original classic from 1978, you really should. It was given the special edition DVD treatment a few years ago and there's some entertaining stuff on there to go along with the film. Then you need to see this one for all of the reasons I've already given. But skip The Killer Tomatoes Strike Back (1990) and The Killer Tomatoes Eat France (1991). You just get more silly Rick Rockwell, who actually has a writing credit on those. Just how did he become a multi-millionaire anyway? It couldn't have been from these movies. The only multi-millionaires in this movie that deserve any real recognition are George Clooney and John Astin. John Astin really hams it up in this, and George Clooney actually plays it pretty straight, but they are both always fun to watch.






Thursday, August 30, 2012

Godzilla 2000: Millennium (1999)



It has been thirteen years since the Japanese Toho Studios released the last Godzilla film for American audiences. A few more have been made since, but none of them made it to screens out west. But in 2013, the US will see a reboot of the Godzilla franchise that will either breathe fire and new life into the giant monster genre or it will sink to the bottom of the Hudson River like the creature did at the end of the 1998 big budget summer blockbuster along with Matthew Broderick's career. 

At the turn of the Millennium, Godzilla is now considered a force of nature, just like an earthquake. There is even a system in place called the Godzilla Prediction Network that lets the country know where Godzilla will attack next. The film features a typically convoluted yet somehow original storyline involving a UFO hiding in the ocean (that looks just like the ship in Flight of the Navigator) and another attack from Godzilla. The aliens aboard the UFO want Godzilla's DNA so they can learn to regenerate the way he does. This all leads up to a battle between the UFO and Godzilla and ultimately a battle between Godzilla and a monster called Orga that was a further mutation resulting from a mutant squid. You can't make this stuff up, folks!

If you have ever seen even one of the almost 30 Godzilla films, you know that you don't watch them for the great acting or the wonderful writing or the top notch visual effects. One thing you do watch them for and can absolutely count on is that the series never deviates from its visual style. Most of the effects done in the original Gojira (1954) are still done the exact same way today. I didn't detect much, if any, CGI in this one. Godzilla is still a guy in a rubber suit, wading through water, walking past hillsides, and in front of projections of cities and oceans. He still crashes through power lines while toy size army tanks and houses are destroyed in his path.

Some Godzilla films are better than others. I tend to enjoy the earlier ones more. But it's still interesting to see how the series evolved and stayed relevant by actually not changing very much at all. Even in 1999, the look of the people is still very 1950's. Godzilla is obviously something that you get or you don't, but one thing is certain- it's timeless. 



Wanderlust (2012)


This film opens with a scene that features Linda Lavin as a real estate agent. This made me smile, because I don't think I've seen Linda Lavin in anything since the show Alice ended in 1985. Her appearance is the best thing about this movie, and it's brief and its only purpose is to set up what follows. What follows are poorly written scenes with badly timed comedic situations and this goes on for over 90 minutes. 

George (Paul Rudd) and Linda (Jennifer Aniston) are a married couple from New York. They have just purchased a loft in the city and the next day they each lose their job (it's slightly more complicated for the sake of yucks, but I will spare you the details for the sake of sanity). They decide that their only option is to sell the loft and move in with George's brother in Georgia. George's brother is a jerk and his wife is a ticking time bomb. The time spent there is short lived and George and Linda decide to hit the road. 

Apparently this is the "wanderlust" that the title suggests, but there really isn't much wandering at all in the film. They drive all day and never leave Georgia before they finally happen upon a hippie commune in the middle of nowhere. They find this place when a nude man appears in their headlights. At first they are terrified and desperately try to reverse the car only to flip it upside down. Left with no other options, they must let the naked man offer his assistance. While this new setup may sound humorous, the description is better without the visuals and forced comedy from some usually competent actors. The naked man (Joe Lo Truglio) takes the couple back to the rest of the commune. Dumb jokes abound about how out of touch the hippies are how hippieish they are. The funniest scene involves Jennifer Aniston's character taking the hallucinogenic drug Ayahuaska. But even this just made me laugh with a single "Heh" sound. If she had actually succeeded at trying to fly the movie may have ended there. Instead we get the usual plot development where the evil people in suits want to take the land away from the peaceful hippies and a battle ensues. The whole thing is yawn inducing. Some incredible actors and comedians are completely wasted. Alan Alda plays the aging founder of the commune and gets very few laughs. This is very sad considering his Hawkeye character on M*A*S*H is one of the greatest television characters ever. Wanderlust also features several cast members of the classic MTV sketch comedy show The State. Most of them were also on the show Reno 911 and that material, while repetitive at times, was light years ahead of the stuff in Wanderlust

I don't know what anyone was the thinking during the writing process of this film. I don't understand how it got made. I don't understand how it got released. And anyone who enjoyed this movie- I don't know how they live with themselves. Wanderlust only made back like 2/3 of its budget at the box office, so maybe there aren't many of these people around anyway. Thank goodness for humanity. 


The Shape of Things (2003)


I've never noticed anything particularly odd or different about Paul Rudd's nose. It's not too big, it's not too small, but to be perfectly honest- this is the first time I have ever thought about his nose at all. In Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things (2003), Paul Rudd's character wears glasses and his hair falls over his forehead. His nose looks huge. If it's some sort of prosthesis, it looks amazing. Like Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood amazing. But if they just used the glasses and his hair style and lighting and other tricks to change the shape of his nose, then that's pretty remarkable as well. One thing that is worth mentioning is that Paul Rudd is acting along side the beautiful Rachel Weisz, so maybe that contributed to the illusion. 

The question about his nose is answered in the film and I won't answer it here. But Paul Rudd's appearance and his quirky mannerisms are crucial to the development of the story. Paul Rudd plays Adam Sorenson and Rachel Weisz plays Evelyn Ann Thompson. They meet in an art museum where Adam works. She has stepped over the velvet ropes to photograph a statue of a nude with a fig leaf over the crotch. He approaches her to try and stop her, but they get wrapped up in a long conversation. She admits that she intends to deface the statue and he eventually agrees to look the other way, but first he gets her phone number. 

The pair begins to spend a lot of time together. Adam's friends Phillip and Jenny, who happen to be an engaged couple, notice changes in Adam, both physical and inward. One night when the two couples are spending an evening together, Evelyn blows up in a rage leaving the other couple stunned. But later, when Jenny notices the changes in Adam, she seems to think Evelyn may be a great influence. Jenny follows that up with trying to make out with Adam. 

The writer and director of The Shape of Things is the one and only Neil LaBute. He adapted the story for the screen from his own stage play. The play has the same name and the film features the same four actors that were in the original stage production. LaBute is a great playwright, one of the best, and his films usually have a play-like quality. Dialogue is the most important thing and he uses it to show the flaws in his characters. But sometimes, and this film is a great example, his characters seem to behave in a deliberate and intentional way that cause others pain. This is not a character flaw, this is just evil. The outcome packs a similar punch to LaBute's In the Company of Men (1997) but this time the audience is not in on the joke. We are just as blindsided as the victim. But the film does a great job of setting up the sense of impending doom that is sure to come. No one seems to be very trustworthy and someone, maybe several people are going to get hurt. 


Friday, August 24, 2012

Daisies (1966)



It's hard to say if Daisies is really about something, but I will do my best. Two young women, both named Marie, have decided that everything in the world is bad- so they should be bad too. The films narrative is not at all straightforward and often jumps around and doesn't make much sense, but it mostly follows these two around while they amuse themselves and make other's lives miserable. 

I know it sounds crazy. It's often extremely mean-spirited. But the two lead actresses have an impish charm that makes it hard to not like them. They seem to be in the middle of a manic episode the entire film. After a while I did hate them. But I loved the movie. 

Daisies is a part of the Czech New Wave movement and it was written and directed by Věra Chytilová. Some consider it a feminist work and I can understand why. But its message is a little unclear. I am not well versed in feminist theory, but I do believe that in order to affect the mainstream, you should be a part of it. This film is more Anarchist than Feminist in my opinion. And the ending makes you rethink everything that the first 70 minutes made you feel.  

The visuals are brilliant. It is absolutely a product of the 1960's with flower patterns and oranges and yellows, some sequences bordering on the psychedelic. The film also pays tribute to Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and even French director Jacques Tati, who was known for his slapstick comedy. The two girls in Daisies are sort of like younger and less jaded versions of Tati's bumbling, technology challenged character Monsieur Hulot. If they make it, they will certainly become just like him on 30 years. 

As an aside, I want to mention something I always liked about the television show Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Sometimes the person committing the crime would get away with it at the end of the show, but Hitchcock would always come on the screen after and assure the audience that the law and Karma eventually caught up with them and they were sent to prison. I wonder if Marie and Marie have ever seen that show. 


Thursday, August 23, 2012

Dawning (2009)


I have been finding so many low budget horror films lately that have really impressed me. They're all from the last few years and they utilize HD in the best possible way. A few years ago, I kept saying that HD makes movies so real looking that they no longer look like movies. For fictional films, too real isn't always good. But if it is balanced out with the right lighting and good sound design, HD can be glorious.

Dawning is a movie that has gotten way too many negative reviews. It uses HD extremely well, it carries the acting chops from its small cast and the story is original and suspenseful. It's writer/director Gregg Holtgrewe's second film. The only actor I recognized was Najarra Townsend, who is best known for television work and the brilliant 2005 film Me and You and Everyone We Know. In Dawning, she plays Aurora. She and her brother Chris are headed to visit their father and step-mother in the forest of Wisconsin. Chris drives while Aurora sleeps, and all of a sudden a figure jumps across the road and he swerves to avoid it. Aurora wakes, Chris tells her about almost hitting someone and she offers to drive. When they get to the cabin, everyone is on edge. There is a lot of family history that is revealed through conversation and it's pretty clear that everyone is still healing and dealing with ongoing pain in their own way. Aurora takes the family dog out for a walk, a few minutes later she returns without her, saying that she wandered off. The family goes to look for her and find her in some bushes, bleeding to death. This is only the beginning of the weird night. Everyone is hearing each other say things that they aren't actually saying. Much of it are hurtful and sarcastic comments. This starts the fighting and they all start airing their dirty laundry. Dad, who is a recovering alcoholic, starts drinking again. Then a mysterious man shows up. He makes his way inside the cabin and holds a gun at the family. I wont say anymore about what happens, but the tension and suspense build in this extremely unconventional film. It's part home invasion thriller and part supernatural Wendigo tale. The movie never mentions The Wendigo, but it takes place in the part of the United States where the legend comes. The Algonquians thought of it as a malevolent and cannibalistic spirit that could possess humans. Pretty scary stuff. The concept first appeared in horror fiction in the 1910 Algernon Blackwood story "The Wendigo".

Dawning is a movie that makes good use of its time. It never wear itself out, but it's only 80 minutes. The story unfolds very slowly and they never spoon feed you information about The Wendigo. I think the filmmaker trusted that his audience would get it, but unfortunately it went over a lot of people's heads. I'm not giving anything away by giving my interpretation, hopefully it will help others enjoy it more. With this information, just sit back and enjoy a film about the complex workings of a family unit that has been torn apart and now are forced to co-exist in a confined space. This brings to mind Roman Polanski's Knife in the Water (1962) which uses the same feeling of isolation and terror. Only Dawning puts it all on dry land and adds a nice supernatural element to the terror. 


The Haunting of Whaley House (2012)


The Haunting of Whaley House sets itself up with three different but unlikeable characters. The leader is a skinny, mean spirited white guy and his two friends are a fat guy and a black guy. The stand in front of a house that is supposed to haunted. The leader wants to go inside, the others aren't so excited about it. They have a two second argument about who's better- Argento or Fulci. Which is an age old argument, but why are they discussing it here? Then all of a sudden a figure of a woman holding a candle appears in a window. Startled, the leader walks backward a couple steps only to get run over by a car. "Danse Macabre" by Camille Saint-Saëns begins t play as the opening credits roll. Which is a nice choice. It's a classical piece that embodies the creepiness of old houses and ghost stories. 

We then get the background on the history of the house via a tour that is doing a walk through. It's typical and not worth mentioning here. We see things going on in the background that the characters do not. One of the women on the tour begins to see things, which escalates into her going into convulsions and needing to be taken to the hospital in a ambulance. What happens next is where the movies lost me- a conversation between the new tour guide and the tour guide who's been working at the house for thirty years. The young woman admits that she doesn't believe in ghosts but is working as a tour guide to put herself through medical school. Really? Medical school? The older woman talks about how the ghosts have to be respected and one should never go in the house at night, because that is their time. 

This, of course, sets up a conversation with a group of kids (who are drinking in a cemetery during the day. Again, really?) They discuss  plans to go inside the house to explore after dark. One of them brings along a famous T.V. psychic who regularly does ghost hunting shows. He inadvertently reveals himself to be a fake almost immediately. The rest of the group is made up of two dimensional and stereotypical characters. A few of them crack jokes that the rest of the cast thinks is hilarious, but to me a lot of it was racist, sexist and homophobic. This is obviously nothing new for teens in horror movies, but it's still unfortunate. 

People walk through the dark, People die in gruesome ways. Eventually the police show up only to tormented by the real Whaley family. And then one of the group of kids becomes possessed. This movie is based on a real house in San Diego that is thought to be haunted. It has been explored on all of the cable ghost hunting shows. I'm guessing all with the same results. Let's face it, there has never been anything on those shows that proves anything. And every episode I've seen is interchangeable. It's a sometimes entertaining hoax, but a hoax nonetheless.

Toward the end, it starts to get a little scary. The members of the Whaley family look like ghosts from Disneyland's Haunted Mansion. They move slowly in and out of shadows and have dark circles around their eyes with creepy grins on their faces. But overall there is nothing new here. All the haunted house cliches are present. Even though the production values are better than most independent horror films, its story is just as weak as any paint by the numbers Hollywood production. Avoid this one. 


True Romance (1993)


Tony Scott ended his life this week. I have never been a fan, far from it. But I do have respect for his accomplishments and I understand that his films are loved by a certain type of movie fan. It's just not me. Roger Ebert wrote a tribute to him a few days ago, calling him a master. I think that's going too far. When someone dies, all of a sudden they are loved by everyone. Probably because we are all going to die one day too. And I think everybody hopes that people will say nice things about them after they are gone. 

Still, I wanted to pay tribute to him somehow. So I decided I'd do it with an honest movie review. I first saw True Romance when it was released on video. I never saw it in the theater. A year later, screenwriter Quentin Tarantino would become a house hold name. Nineteen years later I'm watching it again. All I remember about this movie is not liking it- thinking it was too long, too flashy and hip, and that Tony Scott's jump cuts and editing were exhausting. And what was up with Gary Oldman's hair? So it's time to give this film another shot. Let's see what we find in 2012. 

The very first scene in the film has Clarence Worley (Christian Slater) sitting in a bar, flirting with a woman. Quentin Tarantino's writing is instantly recognizable. He borrows ideas from other films, adds in pop culture references and obscure references and puts it all together with snappy dialogue. He's a natural at this, It was evident from the beginning, but he's gotten so much better over the years. Worley is asking this woman to go to a Kung Fu movie with him. She kind of rolls her eyes and politely declines. This entire scene is kind of like watching Travis Bickle at work in Taxi Driver. But Clarence is obviously more evolved because he asks her if she wants to see the movie and tells her up front what it is. And it's just a Kung Fu movie, not a porno. 

The movie is narrated by Alabama Whitman (Patricia Arquette). We meet her when she walks into the movie theater and the life of Clarence. She sort of forces herself on him and invades his space, but he welcomes it because he is longing for some human contact. He gets that with Alabama and a whole lot more. And we get an intense non-stop action movie. 

While Tarantino borrows plot points from some films that he loves, director Tony Scott borrows from himself. The first love scene between Clarence and Alabama is lit with dark blue light and looks an awful lot like the love scene in Top Gun (1987). After they make love, Alabama confesses that their meeting in the theater was arranged by a friend of Clarence's. Alabama is actually a call girl, but she thinks she's fallen in love with him. They get married, kill her pimp and end up with a bag full of cocaine that someone is looking for. It's time to get out of town. 

True Romance holds up better than I though it would. The cast is pretty amazing. It has everybody from Gary Oldman and Dennis Hopper to Samuel L. Jackson and Christopher Walken, plus there are tons of character actors and actresses whose faces you will recognize. The acting is perfect all around. It's the direction that I still mostly have a problem with. The movie is still exhausting and the action sequences which are like the whole second half of the movie- have those quick cuts and crazy editing, it's more confusing and disorienting than entertaining. There's also an awful soundtrack of what sounds like some stock sound from the 80s, it's a xylophone with a kind of calypso feel. It's the same few notes and it repeats over and over throughout the entire movie. Some other songs chosen are songs that are public domain or really cheap, because you hear them in everything. It's distracting and detracts from the movie as a whole. Even Tarantino's fancy dialogue runs out of steam and gets old after a while. 

The great thing about a movie like this, is that even though I didn't like it much, you can read my review and still think it sounds great. If it does, by all means go and see this film. But may I make a suggestion? If you are looking for a movie with two lovers on the lamb, you'd be better off seeing Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers (1994) or Terrence Mallick's Badlands (1973). Rest in peace, Tony Scott. You were great at doing what you were trying to do. It wasn't for me, but I admire you for it nonetheless. 


Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Two in the Wave (2010)


This is not a popular thing to say, but I've never cared much for Jean-Luc Godard's films. A few I flat out hate (like A Woman is a Woman from 1961) and others I'm indifferent to (Breathless). But one that I absolutely am in love with is Pierrot le Fou (1965). His star, Anna Karina, has a quality that I can't describe in words. But it is a quality that I've only seen in three actresses all throughout the history of film. Those three are Audrey Hepburn, Anna Karina and Audrey Tautou. 

One of my favorite directors of all time is François Truffaut. I've seen most of his films and haven't hated or been indifferent to a single one. His Antoine Doinel series is one of cinemas great character studies. The first film in the series, The 400 Blows (1959) is in my top ten favorite films of all time. 

Both of these directors are the subject of the documentary Two in the Wave (2010). They were both equally important to the French New Wave film movement. The fact that I don't care much for Godard is completely irrelevant. He is one of the most important filmmakers in history and he's still alive and making films in his 80s. 

Two in the Wave begins with the death of Truffaut. He died in 1984 of a brain tumor. When he died, Godard was told that there would no longer be anyone who would protect him. This documentary is mostly about their friendship and working relationship. But it strays far from that topic quite a bit and ends up sort of all over the place. It's still interesting for those interested in film history. But if you don't already know about French cinema, you'll probably get lost several times throughout the duration. 

There is quite a bit of emphasis on film criticism, which made me happy. They talk a lot about Andre Bazin, who is considered one of the most respected and influential film critics of the 1940's and 1950's. Truffaut's The 400 Blows is actually dedicated to him. It seems to me that if a filmmaker dedicated his film to a critic today, they would be lambasted for trying to bribe them into giving them a good review. Fortunately for Bazin, he died before the film was released.

The film also deals in great length with other french filmmakers of the time like Eric Rohmer. It really should have been called A Bunch in the Wave. After about the first half hour the film begins to focus. There is some amazing footage of the directors. One in particular that I found fascinating was Godard talking to Fritz Lang. As I watched I started to realize that talking about all of these other filmmakers was important because Truffaut and Godard were both influenced by so many great directors. Even American directors like Howard Hawks and Nicholas Ray. 

I learned quite a bit from watching this. Even though their friendship ended before Truffaut's death, it was interesting to see how Godard and Truffaut would always help each other out, despite their differences. Truffaut wrote the screenplay for Breathless and they co-directed a short film together, A Story of Water (1958). Their camaraderie sort of reminds me of Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and Eli Roth. The great thing is that these guys care as much about the movies as Truffaut and Godard. It's not just a job, it's a way of life. So for them to create these same kind of relationships half a century later, is pretty remarkable. I'm almost willing to bet that they don't see the connection. But great art is timeless and universal. And history keeps repeating itself. 


Sunday, August 19, 2012

I Bury the Living (1958)


The notion that good movies need to be really expensive to make money is absolutely ridiculous. The 1950's saw a lot of low budget films cropping up all over the place. Sure, for many films in the horror and science fiction genre at the time, the reason they are so good is because they are so bad. But there are some genuinely erie and entertaining cheapies that came out in the 50's. 

I Bury the Living (1958) has one of those titles that could be way too good for its content (to see what I'm talking about check out I Eat Your Skin from 1964, a real snooze fest). Fortunately it deserves it. I Bury the Living stars Richard Boone of the television series Have Gun - Will Travel. He plays Robert Kraft, the new guy in charge of the local cemetery. Theodore Bikel plays the cemetery grounds keeper. When Bikel shows Kraft to his office, he explains the purpose of a giant map of the cemetery on the wall of the office. Each grave is marked with a pin- a white pin for those who are still living but have already purchased the plot and a black pin for those who are already in their graves. Kraft eventually discovers that the map has the power to end lives and bring people back from the dead. He accidentally puts a black pin where a white pin should be and the owner of the plot dies that day. At first he believes it to be a coincidence, but when it happens again he realizes the truth. 

This movie is really short and it moves slow, but builds tension nicely as a result. The black and white cinematography creates a nice atmosphere that unfolds entirely on the cemetery grounds. There is also some incredible graveyard photography.  The acting is great and movie never gets campy. Even the effects and makeup are good for the time period. Some of it reminded me of Creepshow (1982) but without the vivid colors. Also worth mentioning is the design of the map, which I think was important because it sort of becomes a character or at least an extension of Robert Kraft. The final scenes have an incredible sequence that superimposes parts of the map over areas of the cemetery as Kraft runs around frantically. 

I'm not sure why this film isn't talked about more. It's a great example of a low-budget/high quality film from the 50's. I wish film studios today would realize that so much money is wasted on empty and meaningless crap. I think if the subject matter is good enough, it doesn't matter if it's a multi million dollar picture. People will still be interested. 


Saturday, August 18, 2012

Friends With Kids (2011)


I hated the sh!t out of the end of this movie and I really wasn't crazy about the beginning of it either. After its forced and overblown satirization of the setup of our introduction into these people's lives, the movie gets really good. It's fun and sweet, it has the snappy, rapid fire dialogue of a 30's screwball comedy, so much of it is so true and startlingly original for a romantic comedy. And then it all falls apart in the end. 

There is a scene where Jon Hamm's character has a long, slightly drunken and extremely angry rant about what happens to all good relationships after the passage of time. Some of the couples present are upset because they know he's right. Others are upset because they are the exception to the rule. John Hamm's rant explains quite eloquently what happens to every Hollywood romantic comedy and how an experienced movie-goer with a brain feels about it. What writer/director/star Jennifer Westfeldt probably didn't intend was for one of her characters to plead a case as to why you should not like this movie. After John Hamm stops talking the film comes unraveled and the defense rests. 

The movie is pretty much about exactly what the title suggests. It's a pretty bad title and it's lazy. It's like the whole concept came from the cast of Friends settling down and having kids. But it went from NBC to the edgier HBO. But somehow this got through all of the necessary channels and made it to the big screen with a wide release. I'm guessing solely on the fact that it stars four of the cast members from the infinitely better and much more successful Bridesmaids (2011). Of these four, Jon Hamm and Maya Rudolph give the best performances. The brilliant Kristen Wiig and the extremely funny Chris O'Dowd are wasted. Wiig's performance is fine, but her character is unlikeable. O'Dowd has a similar issue. He's slightly more likable, but the Irish actor speaks with what I think is supposed to be an american accent. He sounds like Bill or Ted from Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. He has some great lines and some nice moments in the film. but his voice is really distracting. 

So about that plot- Jason (Adam Scott) and Julie (Jennifer Westfeldt) have been friends for ages. They are in their thirties and all of their friends are having kids. They decide one night that they should have a baby together. It's mutually agreed that this would be a great idea. But much to their friends dismay, they are not entering into a relationship. They are just agreeing to co-parent a child. This goes from working out perfectly to becoming a disaster. They each try to balance a personal life with the responsibilities of being a parent. This is actually the believable part of the film. While all of their friends seem to struggle with their sanity after having children, these two seem to have been born to do this. It's funny and heartwarming to watch this. 

But as I said before, the film falls into the clichés of typical romantic comedies and insists on a neat and tidy happy ending that unfortunately comes in the form of a punchline that wasn't even funny. It made me feel like a sucker for falling for this film and really believing that it was going to go somewhere different. It does not. Don't waste your time with it. 


Friday, August 17, 2012

I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale (2009)


John Cazale is arguably one of the greatest actors of all time and he is not a house hold name. He only made five films, all of which were nominated for Best Picture at The Academy Awards. He received no Oscar nominations for acting and was nominated only once for a Golden Globe in 1975 for Dog Day Afternoon. Sadly, he died in 1978 at the age of 42. 

I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale is a very short documentary about a very short life. My first impulse after it ended was to lay into it and really express my disappointment at its length. This subject is deserving of a 12 hour Ken Burns documentary. But I figured I'd do something a little different and review the DVD instead of the film on its own. Richard Shepard, the director, was smart enough to realize that 40 minutes wasn't sufficient, so he added quite a few extras including feature length director's commentary and it will take you over two hours to view all of it. During the commentary, he actually explains that HBO financed the movie, and they only produce documentaries that are either 40 minutes or two hours. Shepard felt that 40 minutes would be better because John Cazale's life was so short and because he knew that there wasn't very much information out there on him. No one had ever made a documentary on John Cazale before. If they weren't able to get all of the interviews they wanted, they would still be able to make the film. I knew it Was You is almost a minute for every year of John's life. 

I would say that the film is divided up into three parts: childhood with an overbearing father, acting career, and death from lung cancer at 42. Luckily Shepard was able to get all of the interviews he needed to complete the documentary. The only one he wanted that he wasn't able to get was director Michael Cimino. Cimino directed John Cazale in his last film The Deer Hunter (1978). Cimino was also responsible for one of the biggest disasters of a movie ever- Heaven's Gate (1980). So for whatever reason Cimino didn't want to talk about John, but who cares. This documentary has many interviews with some great actors and directors that worked with John- Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Gene Hackman, Carol Kane, Richard Dreyfuss, Francis Ford Copolla, Sidney Lumet, Israel Horovitz and Meryl Streep. Meryl Streep almost didn't do the documentary, but John's brother convinced her to do it. Her participation was probably the most important piece of the puzzle. Steve Buscemi, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Sam Rockwell also appear in the documentary as examples of younger actors who were influenced by John Cazale. 

The documentary is made up almost entirely of clips from the interviews with these people. The DVD extras include the full length interviews with Al Pacino and Israel Horovitz (who is a writer and play director). Horovitz reads his eulogy for John that was printed in The Village Voice after John Cazale died. One thing is missing from the extras. Richard Shepard mentions during the commentary that he interviewed Talia Shire, but cut out the entire interview. That really should have been on the extras and I'm really unsure why they didn't do that. 

Two short films are included on the DVD. The American Way (1962) features John Cazale as a silent man with a beard going around New York trying to blow things up. The Box (1969) is about a television and John's not in it, but the credits say he photographed it. Both films are part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. 

John Cazale was an extremely gifted actor. But you knew that if you've seen his films. When you see this documentary, you realize how much people loved him. He seems to still be around inside all of these people and just talking about him brings him back to life, like he was never gone at all. He died much too early and had a lot more to give. Instead, he broke our hearts. 


Thursday, August 16, 2012

I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco (2002)


I have been a casual Wilco fan since right after I graduated from high school in the mid-90's. I've listened to a ton of their music and I love it, but I don't own all of their albums, I've never seen them live and I never knew much about who they were or where they came from. So this documentary, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart was a treat for me to finally see. 

This documentary focuses on the recording of their classic album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. They've achieved a level of success where their record label trusts them enough to record their album in a hotel room without a producer and they get a ridiculous amount of money to complete this project. 

A movie like this is generally only really interesting to fans of the band, but this achieves a higher level of accessibility because it tells such a good story. It doesn't really matter who these guys are, they and the topic are interesting. The only thing I can compare it to in both format and visual style is U2's Rattle and Hum. Both films use black and white and they both are made up of recording footage, concert footage, interviews with a wide array of people and quite a bit of candidness. As we have seen in films like Let It Be, the recording process is not always an easy one. Big egos clash, communication goes out the window and feelings are hurt. That's all in the wonderfully titled I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, which incidentally is also the title of the first track of their album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. They break each other's hearts consistently, which ultimately ends in someone leaving the band. As a matter of fact as of the time I'm writing this review, Wilco only has two original members left. Jay Bennett, who is prominently featured in the documentary, has strong opinions and seems to think of himself as an equal to front man Jeff Tweedy, is kicked out of the band by the end of the film. He died in 2009. 

There are a couple of scenes in the film that almost make you think this might be a mockumentary. Comedian Fred Armisen, who had just started on SNL at the time, randomly shows up and has a conversation with Jeff Tweedy about superficial things like money and vacation homes. It's obviously done very tongue-in-cheek and also very funny. But most of the film is serious. Jeff Tweedy suffers from crippling migraines and there is a scene where he and Jay Bennett are arguing about semantics when he abruptly excuses himself to go throw up. The cameras are there for the whole thing following him in a shot that couldn't have been planned better by cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, but this didn't. As far as the cinematography goes on this film, IMDB lists eleven people. I'm guessing these are cameramen, because does a documentary need a cinematographer. Sam Jones' direction is excellent the whole way through. As is the editing by Erin Nordstrom. But the reason to see this is for Wilco. They've made great music for almost twenty years, and even if you've never heard them before, this film might make you a fan. 


Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Bugsy Malone (1976)


Sometimes you see movies as a little kid and love them so much, but then when you see them years later as an adult, they just disappoint you. Perhaps it's because you're older and more jaded. You've seen tons of movies and think you have acquired excellent taste. You can watch something and you are immediately fixated on all of its flaws. Fortunately for you, Bugsy Malone (1976) is still awesome. I would say it's even more so all these years later.

Bugsy Malone (Scott Baio) is a broke boxing promoter who dabbles in organized crime. He occasionally makes some money on the side by working for crime boss and owner of the local speakeasy, Fat Sam (John Cassisi). There is a rival gang in town lead by Dandy Dan (Martin Lev). His gang has these powerful new weapons that shoot pie custard and a lot of it. Fat Sam has his gang try to recover a bunch of the weapons so they can be ready to fight back. Typical gang warfare ensues. All the while Bugsy gets torn between two women who are competing for his affection, Blousey Brown (Florrie Dugger) and Tallulah (Jodie Foster). So Bugsy has his hands full, trying to make money, find a boxer to promote and not get "splurged" with pie custard. 

One thing I forgot to mention is that this movie features an entire cast of children. The biggest stars are Baio and Foster. But the supporting cast is brilliant. Everybody just looks like tiny versions of the same faces you've seen in every gangster movie since James Cagney played Tom Powers in Public Enemy (1931). Some of these actors went on to do other things and some of them are vaguely recognizable, and others never made another movie again. One of the best performances in the movie is Blousey's, and this Florrie Dugger's only movie. One thing that surprised me when I was looking at the cast bios was how many of the actors and actresses in the film were actually british. They all get the vocal tone of the 1920's gangster pitch perfect, any number of them could cry, "You dirty rat!" And you would believe them. 

Bugsy Malone is also a musical. The music works perfectly, the songs are catchy and you will remember the song sung at Fat Sam's during the finale. The music was written by the great Paul Williams, who I don't think has ever written a bad song. He's written numerous hits for The Carpenters and he wrote the music and lyrics for films like The Phantom of the Paradise (1974), A Star is Born (1976) and The Muppet Movie (1979). Let's face it, "The Rainbow Connection" is one of the greatest songs ever written. The music in Bugsy Malone is top notch. 

One last thing I wanted to say about seeing this movie again as an adult, is that I feel like I can see a little of its influence on some films that have been made since. There is a scene where some gangsters are in the woods and someone is about to get "Splurged". I couldn't help but think that maybe the Coen brothers found some inspiration in this scene for Miller's Crossing (1990). I'm talking about a scene where John Turturro is on his knees, begging for the guy with the gun to look into his heart. Maybe it's a stretch and there's nothing quite that intense in Bugsy Malone, but it's nice to think that maybe Joel and Ethan Coen are fans. 


River's Edge (1986)


River's Edge is directed by Tim Hunter, written by Neal Jimenez and stars tons of great young actors with familiar faces. It also stars Dennis Hopper This movie clings to the line right between teen melodrama and cinematic brilliance. It never quite achieves either, but it also never goes over to the melodrama side. 

The pre-pubescent Tim (Joshua John Miller) is a young punk who hangs around and is heavily influenced by a local group of high school kids. In the film's opening sequence, Tim is standing on a bridge and witnesses John (Daniel Roebuck) sitting on the river bank screaming. It looks like something or someone is laying next to him. 

In a scene that follows, it gave me the feeling that the young kid was kind of in awe or fascinated by what he witnessed. Tim's purpose in this movie seems to be that of a fly on the wall. But a very impressionable fly who will no doubt make decisions that will probably lead him to exactly where the rest of these older kids are. Tim sees and hears absolutely everything, but he manages to remain all but invisible to the rest of the group. 

The next day at school, John brags (in a very nonchalant and emotionless way) that he killed Jamie (Danyi Deats). A couple of the kids think he's making a bad joke and they just walk away. Layne (Crispin Glover) starts to freak out, but immediately takes charge of the situation and begins to devise a plan to help John stay out of trouble. Someone in the group goes to the police and this starts the questioning of each of the kids. Layne take John to Feck's house to hide him. Feck (Dennis Hopper) is a middle aged guy who is probably an alcoholic and schizophrenic. Obviously someone who needs to be involved in this coverup. Every time he answers his front door, he does it with a gun. He also provides all of the kids with weed. John and Feck have a great conversation about whether the other one is psycho or not. Feck thinks he's normal and John says he's probably psycho. 

Tim Hunter also directed episodes of the David Lynch produced Twin Peaks. Which is fitting, the subject matter here is practically the same and River's Edge looks like it could be part of the series, with it's grey skies and muted colors. Crispin Glover's ultra weird character could easily be from Twin Peaks. He has this speech pattern that shows how obsessed he is with what's going on, and it's slightly more exaggerated than the typical Crispin Glover weirdness. 

There are also some remarkable similarities between River's Edge and the Penelope Spheeris film Suburbia (1984). It would actually be a pretty good companion piece to River's Edge. The acting in Suburbia isn't quite as good though and the film loses some of its impact as a result. Both films have the impressionable youngster who hangs out with big kids and Suburbia's world view is even bleaker. River's Edge is pretty bleak too, but it's so much deeper. 


Rumble Fish (1983)


Rumble Fish is sort of a sequel to The Outsiders. It's based on the book written by S.E. Hinton, who also wrote The Outsiders. It also features a few of the same acotrs that were in The Outsiders. The star, of course, is Matt Dillon.

I can't believe I wasn't into this movie a decade ago. It has everything that The Outsiders has. It has rumbles, it has excitement, it has Francis Ford Coppola. Who could ask for anything more? It even has Tom Waits. As a matter of fact, the last time I tried to watch this movie, I stopped like a half hour into it. I think I was expecting it to be another The Outsiders and frankly this is more experimental than that, some of it works really well and some of it does not. 

Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke) and Rusty James (Matt Dillon) are brothers. Rusty is younger and looks up to his bad older brother. This dynamic runs throughout the entire film. It is the heart. 

Most of the film is a gritty drama about a life of crime. It shows young people doing what they do and providing a perfect explanation as to why they do it. But it feels more like a student film. The black and white makes it feel like it wants to be a Jean Luc Godard film. Fortunately a young Matt Dillon and Mickey Rourke are flawless in the performance they give. There are moments that invoke Breathless (1960) and even Roman Holiday (1953). 

It's pretty ballsy that Coppola made this film. First of all, it was a sequel to a much beloved film and a novel that is required reading in high schools. But The Outsiders has a pretty straight forward narrative that isn't exactly cutting edge. This film gets inside of the heads of the characters. There are so many scenes of people just talking to each other and it offers so much insight into their background. It really makes you believe that these character existed before and after this film. 


Darkon (2006)


I've always respected the act of Civil War battle reenactments. They give those who are interested a better understanding of what some important historical figures went through in the first half of the 1860s. They can also honor those who fought to end slavery. Darkon is a little different. This is live action role-playing based entirely on fantasy. I have my opinions on it, but ultimately I think this serves an important purpose as well- perhaps even a much more personal one. 

As I said, Darkon is live action role-playing. These people gather in Baltimore to dress up like medieval warriors who try and conquer "imaginary hexes of land on a map." It is also necessary to defend your imaginary hexes of land. Each group is called a country and represents a spot on the map. The entire organization is on this map, so you can see the entire history of the game and who owns which area of land. 

One of the members explains that the groups meet every two weeks and they do battle in city parks and behind schools. Once a month during the summer, spring and fall, the groups have weekend camp outs that are larger in scale. 

The interesting thing about this documentary is not the battles or the costumes, it's the people who take part in all of it. The film introduces to several of Darkon's members and they all seem to have something in common- they are looking for a place to belong. One woman talks about how she works at a fabric store stocking shelves. She says it's important because if she does her job well, people can find what they are looking for faster and easier. She then goes on to say that if she quit that job and someone else did it, it wouldn't make any difference. Another woman talks about being a single mother who lives at home with her parents. She feels that as long as she is there, she isn't in charge of her life. But at Darkon, she controls her destiny. It gives her a sense of freedom and purpose. She also seems to have some questionable ideas on how to raise a child, but I'm not here to comment on that. 

Most of the male members talk about how they never fit in as a kid. They were loners and anti-social or got picked-on by the popular kids. One of the guy's mother's is interviewed and she seems thrilled that he found Darkon. Since joining he has found a group of people who are similar and he can now build healthy relationships.  Another guy says that in his personal life he works at Starbucks and is a nerd, but at Darkon everyone is equal. 

However, just like with any group of people, Darkon has its drama. There can be tension within individual groups. Moral issues are discussed privately with the utmost sincerity. By the look in their eyes and the tone in their voices, you really get the feeling that these people are just playing a game. 

One of the more fascinating aspects of the documentary is the philosophical realizations that some of these people have. In daily lives we all have roles that we play. If we go to a wedding, it is expected that we behave a certain way and participate in the various customs that go along with it. These people see Darkon the same way. They each play a part that ultimately helps achieve a greater purpose and promotes order in the social structure. The lines of reality are definitely blurred here as well. One player says that he spends so much of his time preparing for Darkon and playing Darkon that the fiction of it becomes his reality. He is actually the hero of his own destiny. 

I think the world is made up of two kinds of people when it comes to stuff like Darkon. There are those who need to take part in groups like these in order to feel fulfilled and there are those who already know how to follow their bliss and can get just as much out of reading a Joseph Campbell book or watching the Star Wars movies. No matter how we live our lives, we are all the heroes of our own destiny. It's up to us to figure out what the journey is. 


Deep Red (1975)


Deep Red (1975) is an early film by Dario Argento and one of the best Italian films in the 20th century Italian literature and film genre known as Giallo. The reason I specify that it is one of the best Italian films is because the Italians include American films and other films from around the world in the genre, which is basically a genre that incorporates crime fiction and mystery. It can and often does have elements of horror and the Giallo movies are usually pretty steamy in the erotic department. Some examples of non-Italian Giallo are Psycho (1960) and Peeping Tom (1960). 

Deep Red is about a man named Marcus Daly (David Hemmings) who witnesses the murder of a psychic (which was actually predicted by the psychic). He takes it upon himself to try and solve the case as to what the identity of the murder is. He gets close, and the people close to him start turning up dead. 

Each murder begins with a creepy children's verse being sung in a la-la-la-la fashion much like the theme from Rosemary's Baby. The tune isn't just on the soundtrack of the film, it's being played through speakers at the crime scene. Marcus hears it at one point in his own apartment and knows the killer is after him, but he manages to get away. Each crime scene is also complete with primitive, scribbly drawings on the walls that look as if they were done by a child. 

Deep Red is the first Argento film to use the Italian Progressive rock band Goblin to compose and perform the film's score. I once read that he originally asked Pink Floyd to do it, but they were unable. Thank goodness. Goblin went on to work with Argento a few more times and they were also asked to score George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead (1978). Who knows, but that may not have happened if they hadn't been discovered by Argento. 

Up until the late 1980's, Dario Argento made films that were highly original and genuinely surreal and terrifying. He has been called the Hyronimous Bosch of cinema and for good reason. Unfortunately, in the early 90's he either ran out of ideas or just started to get lazy. Some of his more recent films are actually unwatchable. Which is sad, because he was once a master. But Deep Red, Also called The Hatchet Murders, is Dario Argento at the top of his game and just two years before he made his masterpiece Suspiria


Sunday, August 12, 2012

Bad Boy Bubby (1993)


Bubby is not a bad boy. He is a victim of his environment and of those who are closest to him and should have been protecting him. Bubby (Nicholas Hope) is in his thirties and he lives in an apartment with his mother. She has told him that there is poisonous gas outside, so he is never to leave the apartment. Whenever she leaves, she puts on a gas mask to show him that she's serious. Then while she is out he has to sit in one spot at the kitchen table and if he moves a muscle, she says, that Jesus can see him and he will be beaten. Yikes!

The first thirty minutes of this film are emotionally brutal and visually disgusting. The two of them live in filth. The apartment is a less cluttered version of what you would see on Hoarders. They don't have a lot of junk, but the place is gross. Bubby's mother is also gross. I don't say this because she is extremely overweight. I'm not that shallow and that alone is not the problem, but that combined with her habits and her physically and sexually abusive torment on her son is disgusting and appalling. She also has a lover who is a priest. He comes over once in a while to screw Bubby's disgusting mother and call Bubby horrible names. 

Bubby, who abuses cats by wrapping them in cellophane, simply because he doesn't know any better and he only wants them to be quiet, wraps his mother and the priest in cellophane while they sleep and they both suffocate. Bubby has no idea what he's done, but he decides that since they won't wake up, he will see what is outside. He opens the door to a world where there is no deadly poisonous gas in the air and he can breathe just fine without a gas mask. At this point begins a touching and often beautiful adventure of a man discovering life for the first time. You probably are thinking that this sounds a little like Being There (1979) and I suppose that is true, but while I watched it, I sort of thought of it as the anti Forrest Gump (1994). Bubby isn't very bright, because he's been sheltered and abused his whole life, but he somehow manages to make it. He figures it out and keeps on going. But this film has none of the ridiculous flag waving B.S. and ultimately terrible message of Forrest Gump. While that film said that if you stay dumb and do what you're told, wonderful things will happen to you. Bad Boy Bubby embraces individualism and not in an Ayn Rand sort of way, but in a way that is genuinely innocent and free. Bubby makes some great friends and he learns to love and be loved. 

I have seen quite a few films from Australia and they have a very distinct quality. So many of them are about adventure, Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002), The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert (1994) and The Road Warrior (1981) just to name a few. All of these films feature characters who overcome adversity and travel a great physical distant and meet interesting, important and life changing people along the way. 

Despite the extremely dark and disturbing subject matter of the first half hour of this film, if you can get through all of that, when the darkness lifts and Bubby wanders outside into the fresh air, what we have here is an uplifting movie that is remarkably bright and full of life. 


The Oregonian (2011)


The Oregonian should neither be written off as experimental garbage or make any top ten lists for the year. It's pretty interesting, original and extremely creepy, but it also has a tendency to wander aimlessly just like its main character.

The nameless main character played by Lindsey Pulsipher awakens after a car accident. She has blood pouring down her face and she doesn't remember anything. She starts walking and walking and does some more walking. She runs into a few people. No one speaks and everybody wears the color red and has disturbing smiles on their faces. Occasionally there are scenes that seem to be from her life before the accident, but no one can really be sure.

This is the first film from Calvin Lee Reeder. His direction is extremely ambitious. I read an article where he was compared to Buñuel. This movie has a look and feel that seems right out of the 70's. The story reminds of the dreamlike quality of Eraserhead and the long scenes of walking and driving invoke The Brown Bunny, which also had a very distinctive 70's look to it. 

The Oregonian is short. Thank goodness. It runs about 80 minutes. It's pretty gross and will leave you with a sort of empty feeling. Again, not because it's bad, it's not, it's just very strange and at times terrifying. Other times it gets really silly. Along with the startling visuals, the soundtrack works extremely well. It's mostly electric guitar that has a Sonic Youth sound to it. 

Overall, this movie is a challenge. But it has to be seen to be believed. No review can possibly describe what this film holds. After the Twilight series, it's nice to have some real horror and art coming out of the Pacific Northwest. 


Inferno (1980)

There are so few great films about witches. Two early films that come to mind are Witchfinder General (1968) starring Vincent Price in the title role and Night of the Eagle (1962, whose American title is Burn Witch Burn) written by Richard Matheson. These great films about witches aren't even as much about witches as they are about the people who suspect the witches of doing evil things and the people who hunt them. They are about fear and paranoia. In 1977, Italian horror director Dario Argento made Suspiria. This was the first of what was to be a trilogy known as The Three Mothers trilogy, which was only completed in 2007 with The Mother of Tears. The second film in the trilogy is Inferno (1980). This one more than the other two remind me so much of those films about witches from the 1960's, because most of the film involves searching for answers and the obstacles that stand in the way. The presence of witches is very minimal in the film. And that certainly isn't a bad thing. 

While this film has been classified as horror over the years, I think after the horror of Suspiria, this deviates a little away from the genre and is more of a mystery that is filled with suspense and a few horrific scenes. At the heart of the film is the search for missing people as well as the meaning of the mysterious book called The Three Mothers. The film starts with Rose (Irene Miracle) finding the book. She has reason to believe that she is living in one of the houses that is described in the book. The author gives instructions on where to find important keys. She spends a lot of time looking around in brightly colored but darkly lit hallways. And she falls into a ballroom filled with water where she finds a withered up corpse. She writes a letter to her brother Mark (Leigh McCloskey) and tells him that he should come visit her. Before he has a chance to arrive, two people who go to school with him are murdered and his his sister disappears.  Now Mark must find is sister who may already be dead and he must figure out the meaning behind this book. 

The score in Inferno was done by Keith Emerson of progessive rock band Emerson, Lake and Palmer. The Goblin score in Suspiria is much scarier and much louder, but Emerson's score is very effective too. 

The atmosphere Inferno isn't quite as ominous and grande as Suspiria. Overall I would say that Suspiria is a much better film. But Inferno serves a different purpose and it fulfills that purpose as good as it possibly can and it is a great film. Saying Suspiria is better than Inferno is sort of like saying The Godfather Part II is better than The Godfather. Both films are a masterpiece and it's just a matter of taste as far as which one you think is better.  


Caged Heat (1974)


The director of The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Jonathan Demme, began his film career working for the legendary B-Movie producer Roger Corman. His first film with him was the exploitation classic of the women in prison genre Caged Heat (1974). It's earned it's status as a classic because it stands out far above all other films of its kind. 

The film opens with a chase. Three undercover police officers arrive at an apartment building to make an arrest. But the suspects decide to try and run away on foot. The men get away, but the woman is trapped on the side of a house by two of the officers and taken off to be booked on charges. During her sentencing (this all happens in seconds, because it's only the setup) the judge remarks that because she refuses to cooperate and give the names of her cohorts, she will be incarcerated for no less than 10 years and not more than 40. She puts her head down and the screen goes dark. This is where the fun begins- for the viewer at least.

It's fairly easy to describe the plot of Caged Heat or any women in prison film for that matter. Girl winds up in prison. Girl makes friends with a prison gang. Battle wages between the prisoners and the guards. That's pretty much it. However, the movie is a lot more fun than my description would lead you to believe. And this movie is way smarter than you would ever believe. The fact that Jonathan Demme went on to direct some really great films is no surprise. Even here we see his ability to tell a story with the camera. There are some nice tracking shots that go up and down the halls of the prison (We saw the same shot in The Silence of the Lambs). He shows us everything that's going on. There are also recurring dream sequences that are filmed in a way that is stylistically formula. They each start the same way and have some pretty surreal elements. But the dreams aren't all coming form the subconscious of the same person. All of the inmates are having nightmares. 

There is plenty of humor in Caged Heat as well. This is the first woman in prison film to make the guards female and the outrageousness of the characters is a laugh riot. Barbara Steele is amazing as the warden. 

The script works on two levels and will appeal to a wide array of viewers. There is the deeper level that takes on social issues like sexism and racism. But for those just looking to see boobies, there's plenty of that here too. This movie is definitely not in the so-bad-it's-good category, most of it plays more like satire, but it's subtle. There are moments of grave seriousness that make it very nuanced. 

One thing I've never understood about these films is why all of the prisoners are allowed to wear their street clothes. I don't think that has ever been protocol in any prison anywhere. But it's a small gripe. Not even a gripe really. Just an observation. This movie is great and it's bound to be around for many generations. 


Two Lovers (2008)


When you are watching a movie, it is so easy to see all of the things that the characters don't see, both in each other and in themselves. You can see the beginning of their mistakes. You can see their flaws. Sometimes you can even see who they really are as well as the masks they put on for those around them. Having this all seeing privilege can be incredibly frustrating and sometimes it's sad. 

Of course, in real life we don't have the benefit of having an audience that sees everything we do and knows everything we feel. This is why it's so much easier to see your friends make mistakes and bad decisions before they do. The viewer has a broader perspective and they aren't clouded by the feelings that drive us to make our decisions. Plus, you draw on your own experiences that tell you, this is not the best idea. It's very hard to get this through to someone else. 

Two Lovers (2008) opens with Leonard (Joaquin Pheonix) at the beginning of a suicide attempt. He falls into the bay in Brooklyn from a pier but he changes his mind and resurfaces. He is spotted by some people passing by and pulled from the water. When he stands up quickly and announces, "I gotta go." One of the people just says, "Aren't you gonna thank this guy? He just saved your life." It is clear right away that Leonard is pretty awkward and stuck inside his head. 

Leonard lives with his parents (Isabella Rossellini and Moni Moshonov). They both love him very much, this is not a guess. It's obvious and I am certain of this. When he comes home wet and doesn't tell them what happened, his mother says to her husband, "I think he tried it again." So we know that he has a history of emotional issues. More of his back story is later revealed and we understand why he the way he is. 

I've spent so much time describing Leonard and his parents, but that is just a small part of the big picture. His dad is in the process of selling the family business, which Leonard works for as a delivery guy. Leonard is introduced to the daughter of the soon-to-be owners. Her name is Sandra. This is such a wonderful performance given by Vinessa Shaw. They hit it off, but Leonard is timid and doesn't make much of the meeting. The next day, he meets Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow) whom he is drawn to immediately.

The title is slightly misleading. I got the feeling that the time frame of the movie wasn't very long. So, he never really had a lot of time to get super close to either of the women. Saying that he has two lovers would imply that he is cheating. I guess this is left up to the viewer. But I don't think that Leonard thinks he's cheating on anyone. If Sandra knew about Michelle, It might be a different matter. Leonard is confused and emotionally broken, this we know. But when he is faced with the excitement of being with Michelle, he likes it. She is unpredictable. She also seems to like drama. She calls him at weird hours and expects him to come take care of her whenever she's feeling needy. On the other hand, Michelle offers stability. She is grounded and a good person. She genuinely wants to take care of Leonard (which he seems to need) and make him happy. 

Director/Writer James Gray has made a very good movie. He could have easily made a typical romantic comedy, but instead he gives us real people struggling to navigate their lives, and the parents who are helpless in making things happen for them. There are no clichés in this film. There is so much insight. If only we could all step back and look at our lives from the outside, all of the answers would probably seem so clear. 


Monday, August 6, 2012

Captivity (2007)


Captivity immediately starts out like it wants to be Irreversible (2002). It has the same warm colors of reds and oranges. It utilizes a soundtrack of pulsating techno music. The sound design combines loud, startling bursts and muffled, far away groans. And the initial attack on the main character takes place in a long hallway. The look of the film is stylish and crisp, with a sort of music video look, but it is absolutely baffling to me that this was directed by Roland Joffé, the man who directed such wonderful films as City of Joy (1992) The Mission (1986) and The Killing Fields (1984). 

Jennifer Tree (Elisha Cuthbert) is a young fashion model. One evening she decides to go out drinking by herself. At the bar, she sees a mysterious video camera in a hallway and is knocked unconscious by someone. When she wakes up she appears to be back in her hotel room. I hesitate to reveal what happens next because it's probably the most effective scene in the entire film. But, if you're smart you will avoid the film altogether. So it really shouldn't matter if I spoil one small surprise, early in the picture. She's not really in her hotel room. Dun dun dun!!! I won't say how they reveal it, but it's pretty inventive. So she is actually in a cold, dark cell. For pretty much the rest of the movie she is brutally tortured. Other people who are also being held in other cells are also tortured. We see everything, it's relentless, and doesn't seem to have much of a point, except to make the viewer squirm. 

Wouldn't you know that a movie like this also has a dumb twist and the standard bit where the dead killer's not actually dead- that we've seen millions of times since Halloween (1978). 

When analyzing literature in an academic setting, you learn to consider the meaning of the names of the characters. Writer Larry Cohen is no dummy. He's been writing a long time and he knows this. The female lead's last name is Tree. This is obviously to suggest her strength. Bad and offensive material cannot be justified just because it has a strong female character. But wouldn't you know that the secret to the whole movie lies in the last name of Gary Dexter (played by Daniel Gillies). For the record the hit cable T.V. series Dexter had it's first season in 2006- the year before this movie was released. I seriously facepalmed when I had this realization.  

The brutality is nowhere near Irreversible. I am actually not a fan of Irriversible or its director Gaspare Noe. Irriversible is the better film. However, Joffe's track record as a filmmaker is much better. But you have to wonder if making a film like this leaves a stain on all of the others. 

As I mentioned, one of the writers of the film is the great Larry Cohen. He is responsible for some great B-movies and horror films of the 70s and 80s. He also wrote the screenplay to one of the only Joel Schumacher films I like, Phone Booth (2002). As great as his writing has been in the past, he really missed the mark here. Instead, opting to only go for what Hollywood seems to think horror fans want- torture porn. The writers were nice enough to give a reason why the killer or killers do what they do. I'd still like to know why this movie was made. I'm going to go way out on a limb and say for money