Friday, December 25, 2015

Out of Time Moments of 2015

Bringing this back - just some of the moments that made me lean forward and go 'Hmmmmmmm' for various reasons.  Some because they're my favorite moments of the year.  Others because they're so very... movie-y...

Oh, and mild spoilers ahead (maybe)


1 and 2) Jennifer Jason Leigh: not once but twice she sings a song and suddenly stops the film she's in, but in the best possible way.  In ANOMALISA, Lisa mentions how much she loves 'Girls Just Wanna Have Fun' to the guy she's just met and admires so much, Michael Stone, and sings it for him with her eyes closed (as Kaufman and Johnson's camera pulls back ever so gently)...  Meanwhile, Daisy Domergue in THE HATEFUL EIGHT picks up a guitar at the start of Chapter 4 and is given a moment off of John Ruth the Hangman's cuffs so she can pluck some strings and croon (half-assedly no less) an old ballad.  But of course as with so much else in the film you have to pay attention to the background as much as the foreground (in the 70MM cut anyway) - but with Leigh filling it up, how can you look away?

3) That moment when the guitar-with-flamethrower musician extraordinaire (basically the Man of the Year, so says my version of TIME magazine) in MAD MAX FURY ROAD is just... sleeping (along with everyone else in Immortan Joe's party) and contorted in such a way that looks rather painful and fucking hysterical.

 4) FURIOUS 7's Dwayne Johnson stops pussy-footing around and goes back to being THE ROCK as, following not too long a recovery after falling out of a fucking building on to a car (!) he gets out of the hospital bed and busts his broken arm out of his cast by flexing.  That's all it takes, so just remember that next time you're laid up in the hospital, you wuss.

5) In EX MACHINA, there's just that little moment (take your pick) where Domnhall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander look at each other in uncomfortable silence, before she gives her warning of great danger - is it more for him or for her?  (Red color filter optional)



5.5) Oscar Issac tears up the fuckin dance floor with his Asian fuck-bot in the same movie.

6) David Foster Wallace laughing just like all us other hipsters do when watching an over-the-top action spectacle in the theater (in his case John Woo's 96 flick Broken Arrow, which he states he's seen before so why not again, and whether he genuinely wants to see it or it's part of the show for David Lipsky of Rolling Stone, who can tell) in THE END OF THE TOUR.



7) That perpetually nasty-looking prison dog in SHAUN THE SHEEP who stares into your soul...

8) In Oppenheimer's brilliant, heart-shattering follow-up/companion film to THE ACT OF KILLING, THE LOOK OF SILENCE, a son of a man killed during the massacres of the 1960s in Indonesia talks to a former military man who looks befuddled by his questions and keeps it coming back to Communists.  Few scenes in any film in recent years have been so tense as that one (though there are several here).

9) JEM AND THE HOLOGRAMS: "You're internet famous!  That's, like, second only to being actually famous!"

10) LISTEN TO ME, MARLON: "I've never been in a great movie.  There's no such thing as a 'great' movie."

11) There's that first minute where Ultron first gains his consciousness in a POV that includes extremely-rapidly edited clips from both the real world and past MCU movies in AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON, and it's not so much terrifying as it just curious and fascinating, because he is curious and fascinated, and very quickly gains the ability to be really, really terrible - humanity, man.

12) When the characters go into 'Abstract Thought' in INSIDE OUT, and for a fleeting moment it feels like the ghost of Salvador Dali has finally returned to work on a modern-day Disney feature (albeit it's more Picasso in look, it's surreal in feel to the extreme).

13) When a VHS tape breaks in a VCR - when the tape gets caught up in the gears and the VCR just shuts down and it feels like you're pulling someone's intenstines out in order to get out the tape - it's one of the most painful things in the world for a cinephile.  Such is a moment that made me wince immensely in KUMIKO, THE TREASURE HUNTER.

14) Ice Cube (as played by son O'Shea Jackson, Jr) finds out in STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON that NWA has recorded a song where they dissed him ("Benedict Arnold?!" as if he knows what it means) - SMASH CUT to him in the recording studio, in possibly my favorite musical moment of the year (yes, more than Anomalisa just barely and more than anything in Love & Mercy, which I'll get to in a moment), as Ice Cube performs "No Vaseline" like a man on the warpath.  (Full disclosure: this helped me out many times driving home from work after a rough day, listening to this, NWA, Easy-E and Dr Dre's diss songs back to back to back, and yet it's a tough call between "No Vaseline" and "Fuck wit Dre Day" as the best diss song of all time, but I digress)

15) In LOVE & MERCY, John Cusack's older Brian Wilson in , on one of his 'lessor' days, gets his hands on one of Paul Giamatti's grilled hamburgers, is eating it practically in one swallow, and Giamatti snaps over, yells at him like he's a three-year old with his mouth in a bowl of ice cream, and the awkward tension is so sharp it can cut the celluloid it's been printed on.

15.5) Young Brian Wilson (Paul Dano) is in the recording studio obsessing on almost the 70th take (give or take a dozen) of "Good Vibrations", all over a staccato violin - on the end part of the song that often gets cut off on radio play anyway or dimmed.

16) Margot Robbie is in a bubble bath to explain to you what the hell sub-prime mortgages mean in THE BIG SHORT.  That's just fine and dandy.

17) The way that the filmmakers draw just enough attention in a wide shot to the fact that Rey, on the (insert not-Tatooine but it's Tatooine) desert planet, is living out of the husk of a decades-old and dilapidated imperial walker in STAR WARS: EPISODE VII - THE FORCE AWAKENS (a touch of nostalgia that feels fine, the sort of organic sense of the decay that is simply a part of this world that the first act gets so right... and then the rest of the movie doesn't quite follow up on - thanks Death Star 3).

18) That moment when we first see the Nosferatu-like vampire who is apparently thousands of years old in WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS, and though he can't speak he still gives a look to his roommate like 'really?'  Or he is just a thousands-year-old vampire and is really fucking pissed.  Either way, it's hysterical.

18.5) "Leave me to do my dark bidding on the internet!"

19)  In CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA, the first reading the actress Binoche and assistant Stewart do together.  You have a feeling it may be dialog from a play, but you can't be sure.  Both actresses fall into their roles (a repetition in the film to be sure) and there's that awe-inspiring moment where you can't tell where the dialog from one scenario or the one inside is showing off the actors one way or another.  It's acting about acting about acting.

20) In IRRATIONAL MAN, an extreme close-up on Joaquin Phoenix's face and eyes as he overhears what will spark him into new life.

21) It's a cliche, but even cliches have power sometimes: after everything else Benicio del Toro has done on his Frank Castle path of vengeance in SICARIO, literally putting a gun to someone's head to force a signature on a piece of paper is chilling.  The moment that happens after that, where two characters share a look from one on a balcony and the other on the ground, may be more cinematically interesting, but this little gun-to-the-head bit stayed with me for months afterward.  It makes Denzel in Training Day almost look like kid's stuff.



22) Smashing a man's face over and over again on a sink is primitive and brutal and not something you normally see in a mainstream cineplex movie made by a major studio.  But, that's the sort of thing Guillermo del Toro does for the underrated CRIMSON PEAK.

23) THE PEANUTS MOVIE: "Marcie just read off a long list of great novels. "Huckleberry Something, Catcher with a Pie." But she said the greatest book of all time is "Leo's Toy Store" by some guy called "Warren Peace."

24) Eddie Redmayne going from 0 to 200 in the space of five seconds in JUPITER ASCENDING, briefly waking one up (as he will do a couple more times): "(in hushed tone) Bring her to me...... (screaming at top of lungs) NOOOOOOWWWWW!"

25) That moment where we see that the portrait of David Miscavige standing by his desk and looking sinister as fuck in GOING CLEAR: SCIENTOLOGY AND THE PRISON OF BELIEF makes him look like such a villain you'd swear we're all just living in a movie where this is acceptable...


runner ups/line of the year:

THE JINX: (while urinating, caught on tape) "Oh, what a disaster."

DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL: Alexander Skarsgard tripping on acid in a wild, desperate repeating "I love you" turn.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

STAR WARS: EPISODE VII - THE FORCE AWAKENS


 *** This review may contain spoilers ***

So the good news to report first is that J.J. Abrams is someone who loves Star Wars enough that he more than respects the mythology, which itself is cobbled together from past mythological stories, both old (back to the Greeks with the Gods) and modern (serials and comics), but also recognizes that in this 'Episode' series as a saga a lot of it has to come back to family.

The Force Awakens works tremendously when it focuses on the two (maybe three) new characters who are introduced in this series, and the familiar is both welcome and sometimes questionable, but mostly welcome all the same. It's a movie made for the fans, but it's not necessarily a "fan-film", if that makes sense. It's the logical progression of this franchise in 2015 and by a filmmaker like Abrams it's a commendable effort (if not great, read on for more, and of course SPOILERS be ahead).

First of all, the first act of this movie is magnificent. New heroes are introduced, one of which, a deflecting Stormtrooper for the newly formed First Order named Finn (though it's technically not his real name, and oddly enough his given name is an in-joke for ANH fans), is remarkable. I loved this character as someone who did seem like a new presence - not someone who is a space pirate or destined for something greater, just a guy who was raised to do just one thing and has a conscience and decides to act on it. As played by John Boyega he's the best part of the movie overall for me (yes, even with mother-f***ing Han Solo and the new cute droid BB8 included), and he gives Finn passion and fire and occasional humor but is a fully formed character; he's fulfilling the promise seen in him in Attack the Block, and I can't wait to see more of his character in the next episodes.


Likewise Daisy Ridley, a new actress relatively, is very good as Rey - though she at first is another character (or I should say archetype) that's familiar via Joseph Campbell as the Hero Destined for a Journey, Ridley gives her spunk and equal fire to Boyega, and it's a joy to see how they meet and join forces in the first act. Everything about this opening is so strong, a lot of it told without dialog (and when it does come in it feels simple but just right somehow) that it's a shame that the rest of the film doesn't quite live up. And it's not that the quality jumps off a cliff, but, for me, this first act of shaping this new world, the new evils (Adam Driver as the new sort of "Darth" Kylo Ren), hits its high point once Han Solo (Harrison Ford, acting like he'd never left the role, he's just there) and Chewbacca come in to the picture.

In a way the 'spine' of the movie, in other words the events that lead everyone from point A to B to C, are really close to that of A New Hope. At the same time, I got the feeling like Abrams, probably knowing this would be his only shot at making a Star Wars movie (whether he wants to do one again is his call, but I believe he's declined), has put EVERYTHING he'd want to do in a SW movie in one film. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, and Abrams passion for thios world comes through in almost every frame. But it almost feels a little cramped by the time the last act comes around and as our heroes face off against Kylo Ren (following the death of a pretty damn prominent character, sort of in keeping with the family-tragedy line of the series, I can't even bring myself to say it), there's the "Starkiller" Base, which is basically the Death Star on steroids.

It's a much darker film than I expected. Matter of fact, the third act has the sort of pacing issues to the point I almost forgot about the Starkiller Base plan, and it had not really much urgency considering its level of threat. It's also a little unclear for me (on a first viewing, I should note again) just how FAST someone gets Jedi-Force powers this time, and seemingly it's much, much quicker than one saw with Luke (the explanation of Rey having them is fine, but it seems like just how quickly is too much, as if she would need more, say, training to do ALL that she does, and it boils down to a story contrivance that I couldn't ignore while watching it). And by the time it gets to this next section of the film, where emotions are really high but callbacks are still done - even to things like, say, a trash compactor, or an Admiral Ackbar appearance - it's a bit much.

The number of gripes that I can ponder over are many... and yet I still recommend the film highly. For all the little faults in the storytelling or little bits of deus ex machina (at one point involving a split in the ground that separates two characters in a dual at just the right moment), this is a full-bloodied, extremely well directed, shot with fire in the cinematographer's cortex (and a lack of unnecessary lens flares!) Star Wars movie.

In the ways that ultimately count, in the spine as I mentioned, its familiarity is in keeping with how this saga has been unfolding over six films, with familial bonds and the mystical element of the Force guiding things in directions of good and/vs evil. It does what the 2009 Star Trek film, also from Abrams, did so well: reintroduce us to this universe with energy and spunk, give fans and newcomers what they want, and allow some new actors to act their buts off while giving veterans a chance to shine.



Oh, and BB8 is cute as a button. If only R2 had more screen time for them as a buddy-droid team...and not enough Oscar Isaac... ok, shutting off now...

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Revisiting STAR WARS: Episodes 1, 2 and 3

STAR WARS!



So why not watch the movies again?  Some need some re-examination, and some because, hey, it's STAR WARS after all.  I went in with an open mind especially for the prequels: it would be easy to tear them down just off the bat (not to say I didn't live-TWEET them, and if you'd like to scroll through the many, many tweets you can go to my Twitter to see them all).  So I took them as films, what they were trying to do, how the actors were, what Lucas' writing/direction did, and so on.  It's not a super-duper in-depth analysis (I leave that to Mr. Plinkett, the greatest 100+ year old murderer/pizza-roll delivering film critic this side of the hemisphere), it's reflections from someone who has been an admirer of the series for a long time.

So...


So this was an interesting sit if only in that it's now half a lifetime later since I first saw it (and needless to say I still remember the discussion between me and a friend after walking out of the May 15th screening in 99 where we tried to figure where it laid in ranking with the other SW films). After so many years, and of course reevaluation by just my memory and the points by others (most notably Mr. Plinkett at Red Letter Media), I decided to return to it and keep a completely open mind. And overall it's... not as bad as I thought it might be, but that's not to say it's not heavily flawed in some other ways.

The positives: from a filmmaking stand-point the Pod-Race shows Lucas' skills as an editor of an action sequence and it is about as thrilling as I remembered it. Of course some of it is cheesy as can be, but there's genuine tension as far as such a sequence can go. And while the climax may have too many points of view to cut around to (4 to be exact), the saber fight holds up as a master's class in stunt coordination and I have to give Ray Park and Neeson/McGregor's doubles all the credit. That brought me back to how I felt in the theater for a few minutes.

Speaking of which, Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor are the bedrocks of the film as far as screen presence and talent. Whatever lines Lucas gives them they deliver with gravity and poise, and however much Neeson can do with a guy who mostly says exposition he makes Qui-Gon memorable (McGregor gets better as Obi-Won too in the other two films). And as much as Jake Lloyd is a punching bag for a lot of people in the audience out there, he actually wasn't all that bad seeing it again... ok, 'yipee' is pretty groan-inducing, but he didn't write it. And considering what he's given, he does what a kid in his situation can do. Considering the reputation of Little 'Ani' he really isn't the worst part of the movie.

Hell, neither really is Jar Jar Binks. He's basically a floppy Disney Goofy wannabe (really, he's a Jamaican Goofy, it's that simple), and I actually could buy into him once I recognized he was a Goofy-trope with, possibly, some retardation (that's not a knock by using that word, I just mean that the guy is slow).

But what bogs the film down is simply that a good deal of the writing and direction is flat and brings on a sense of dullness. The first act rushes through things to get the characters off Naboo and on to Tatooine, and we only get to know so much about them amidst all of the, yes political turmoil afoot (in this sequence it was R2's introduction that I still liked the most, something about that robot is perfect for me). And the 'who cares how this thing happened' sense is felt mostly in one thing: C-3PO. This may be nitpicking, but why is he IN this movie? There's no reason for Anakin to have made him or for him to appear than to say 'Oh, here's how C-3PO was made, isn't that cool?' No, it's filler, he does nothing, is of no consequence, and his lines are lame. Cut him out and you lose nothing and actually make the story just a little bit tighter.

Something something dark side...
Outside of Neeson and McGregor and McDiarmid, the cast just doesn't fare well. Portman has been slagged for her acting in this series (I think she even came out and admitted to it), and it's easy to see why here. Flat, flat, flat stuff that she's given and gives out, and it says a lot that, again, Lloyd actually out-acts her in their scenes together(!) Other supporting people are adrift and wooden as can be, or become memorable for being types like the trade federation Asians or Watto (though oddly enough Watto was someone that didn't bother me just due to, hell, he HAS personality at least and is fun to watch, genuinely, he's not stepping in poop or turning his head away from farts).

The biggest sin here is that Anakin should've been a few years older. He didn't even need to be already set to be Darth Vader, I get the idea of progressing things over three films, but at the age he's at (8 or 9, maybe) he's just too young, and when he's in front of the Jedi council he doesn't seem much older than the other 'younglings' in the subsequent prequels. If anything the age transition at around 12/13 would've added a bit to the conflicts - and perhaps the yipees could've been nixed. Maybe even some dark-side could have been hinted at as well, whereas at this age he's more of a gleeful cypher with abandonment issues than anything else.

For all of the faults though, and there are some that are deep-rooted, there are many moments where it does feel like it's trying and going for that Star Wars feel of sweep and spectacle and excitement. If going by the old star-rating scale I'd give it 2 1/2 out of 4 stars, or an admirable thumbs down. It's a disappointment in the grand scheme of things, but considering how long it had been for me and all of the harsh points taken at it over time (many of them still correct), I wasn't that down on it as I expected. Again, it's all about expectations here, and at 31 it's different than at 15. For some it may be even worse than the first time around if revisiting and that's understandable.  PS: Ray Park, tremendous screen presence... shitty actor.  Just saying.


And now seeing this again... This is the worst of the (Episode) series of movies.

What it comes down to is that, simply, Hayden Christensen, for THIS movie, was miscast. It's interesting to see this right alongside Revenge of the Sith because in the latter he DOES get better and perhaps part of that was seeing himself here and recognizing things he could improve upon (albeit the material and direction can take him so far). What does him in, as well as Natalie Portman - who can be a very gifted actress - is that the romance just doesn't work very well.

Some of the romantic stuff comes down to chemistry - do these actors have it, I'm not sure, perhaps with better coaxing or different lines, or a different environment it could work - and some of it down to just what they're given to do. Though still superior (though only just) I was reminded a little of the Edward/Bella relationship in the first Twilight for a few scenes here. Take that scene on the Refugee ship when Anakin and Padme are going to Naboo; when Anakin gives his justification for Jedi-romance, he gives a look that is downright RAPEY.

 And on that precious ol' lake on Naboo he delivers a line (which is already pretty weak) about the difference between the coarse sand and "soft" Naboo as a pick-up line, it's just cringe-worthy. Even for a 1930's serial, of which this is of course the ultimate homage to, it would be cheesy and worthy of jokes, and here it's 2002 for Christssake.  ALl the more ironic that Joel Edgerton (yes, of THE GIFT) appears as young "uncle" Ben Lars; he distracted me by the notion that as Anakin he could pump some real emotion and conflict into this character. 

The rest of the movie is... Ok. McGregor gets better with each prequel performance and here he helps to make Obi-Won a character I could cling on to and thankfully everything he delivers works as the patient-except-when-he-isn't mentor (hell, even given a line like "I HATE it when he does that" comes off somewhat subdued considering alternatives). And nobody ever made a wrong bet having Christopher Lee in a film, and for his few moments he adds some gravitas and screen presence.


"I understood that reference" Captain America probably

The plot though is still not very strong - again, by separating the master and apprentice for such a long stretch to indulge in half romance and then half I'm-going-to-Tatooine-to-slaughter-some-Tusken-fucks, it loses that dynamic - and I've been told there's even a detail which seems off for a good reason. Sypho Dias (sic) was technically meant to be Darth Sidious, or something like that (look at the name and see if you can fuckin tell), and yet through a literal TYPO there is this feeling like 'Well, why is this character introduced, is that Tyrannus or not, why is this Dias involved, who was he ten years before, was it an alias for someone else, if so does it get explained HELL no'. So something like that is unforgivable.

Some of the action is still fine, albeit in the first part of the climax in the arena I deeply wished the creatures were Ray Harryhausen creations instead of bland CGI things, and there's a nifty little Western-saloon homage in that bar (with the movie's by far best moment involving a 'Death-Stick' dealer, a side character I'd love to see a whole movie about, one of the rare moments another story is hinted at in a film where it's most focused on the bland one). 

But there's an overriding sense, even more than on Phantom Menace and Sith if you can believe it, of no one telling Lucas NO, do something else, from certain lines (both Obi-Wan and Anakin have a line here or there after an incident happens that is not funny or cute or clever just annoying) to an entire section where the lack of chemistry and solid direction between two otherwise fine actors is achingly apparent on display.

Oh, and one thing that doesn't hold up 13 years later on: Yoda with a lightsaber. Sorry little guy, you're one of my favorite characters in cinema (seriously, he is, he's great), but it's much more interesting to see him lifting a ship out of a Dagobah bog than it is to flip around like Kermit the Frog on crack.  Sigh.

And  lastly on my rewatch train for the prequels I come to a movie that.... I genuinely enjoy very much.

At the time I saw this ten years ago I thought it was a smash - I even toyed with the notion it was superior to Return of the Jedi, making it third below the 4th and 5th episodes - and saw it a number of times.  Seeing it again I rediscovered why I did like it so much, and a large part of it comes down to the acting just being... better, overall.  Even with Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman they give greater emotional depth... does that mean they are GREAT?  No, it doesn't, at least for them, but there are moments that are striking, and Christensen finds himself at times not saying much at all (the quiet vignette before the showdown between Windu and Palpatine that shows Anakin in conflict with Padme far away from him) and it's compelling. 

I have to wonder if Attack of the Clones made the actors realize they had to do their own work for themselves - clearly Mr "Faster/More Intense" wouldn't really be of THAT much assistance, if any, and I question if maybe he picked up his game this time - but genuinely a masterful turn comes from Ian McDiarmid.  

He's having the time of his life as Palpatine, and with each prequel he was given more to do, to the point that in ROTS he gives for me an awards-worthy turn.  Serious, he's that good here, whether it's in the subtle seduction to the dark side (the "Plaigus" story, which I suspect was ghost-written entirely by Tom Stoppard, who was an uncredited touch-up writer for Lucas here), or when he has to go to town and be SUPER evil.  I haven't had a laugh, sincerely, in a long while as I did with him yelling "UNLIMITED POWER" seeing it again.  I could watch his performance on a loop and be happy.


Of course the stakes of the Republic falling and the Empire rising are reason enough for it to at least try to be a better story, but I do think Lucas, for the most part, rose to the challenge he set for himself to go back to his series.  I say 'for the most part' as there ARE issues though, certainly that keep it from being really on par with the OT.  And forget things like "Noooo" (which is silly but not unforgivable, it still comes amid a bad-ass Frankenstein monster homage, obvious it might be), or 'Hold me like you did on the lake on Naboo (which is cheesy).  I mean something elemental like... why does Padme really HAVE to die here? 

I understand the notion of her possible death making Anakin go nuts and drive his ego crazy, but it creates a plot continuity I thought Lucas wouldn't be stupid enough to fall into.  And it's not a nitpick; when Leia says in Episode 6, "she died when I was very young" and lists off things she remembered about her, it's not things that she could remember about her from when she was FIVE MINUTES OLD!  The melodrama could've been kept by if she was weakened and frail but was still alive, and the dramatic irony greater for Vader to be told that she was dead (not to mention another lie on top of the heap from Palpatine).  

But her death is slightly pointless at the end of it, only adding a funeral procession that is just grim for grim sake (and this is a movie with a climax that takes place in part on a fucking volcano) and then some further confusion with another (slight) plot hole of Leia being given to Senator Organa even though things should be kept on the down-low for children of Anakin Skywalker.  For Luke it makes sense to go to Tatooine.  For Leia to be with a still-sitting senator, albeit in an Empire now, it was kind of puzzling.

These might be nitpicks or genuine complaints, but they kept me from fully embracing this film as something as great as I remembered seeing.  It is still without question the best of the prequels, and on its own just an exciting and compelling movie with wonderful political overtones - though Lucas may not have intended it, as there's other precedents in history, it's tough to not see the Cheney/Bush connection with Palpatine and Skywalker - and an opening battle that makes the film a lot of fun before it plunges into darkness.  I even liked things that some fans (or critics) disparage like Greivous with the many lightsabers, a silly sight but one that makes sense when one realizes he's still a droid.  As Obi-Won noted in Clones, if droids could THINK there'd be none of us here, would there? 

I didn't really tweet during this one by the way... except for one thing, which was: "I'm pregnant" "Thats... that's wonderful" I wonder if that ellipses meant "Uh... is it mine?"


 Check back in a couple days for more STAR WARS (the originals ya dummy)
 

Woody Allen on the Meaning of Life and everything and...



Nah, I'm just kidding, here he is boxing a kangaroo!

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Eddie Murphy's RAW - Italian's After They Have Seen Rocky [HD]

Tippi Hedren & Melanie Griffith in ROAR (1981)


Noel Marshall and Tippi Hedren certainly had a, uh, interesting relationship for a while there in the 70's and early 80's. I don't know what their marriage was like behind closed doors of course, but somehow it's a great gift to the Earth that they produced the film ROAR. Why this is can't be easily explained in a review, but I can try with this: it's about a family that lives with lions and tigers and some elephants and panthers too.

Or rather it's about a guy who LOVES these lions and tigers (by the way, why tigers, shouldn't they be in India and, oh, nevermind) and panthers and so on, and invites his wife to come live with him along with her and his kids. So here comes Tippi Hedren and actual real life children Melanie Griffith and John and Jerry (Marshall's kids), and when they arrive Noel is out uh doing stuff out in the plains or jungle, and they have to contend with a house full of lions. Oh, and these were UNTRAINED LIONS by the way.

In a way I should be critical of Roar. Marshall, with the exception of one sequence that takes on the qualities of a Night of the Living Dead picture with wild cats in place of the un-dead, doesn't really set up suspense very well. The fascination with watching Roar is basic but constant: these are real people, many of them likely not exactly used to the f***ing idea of hanging out with things like lions and tigers, being knocked around, chased, bombarded by their paws and jaws and bodies, and that should in all likelihood they could/should kill these people.

There's also the behind the scenes drama that imbues with what's on screen so much; right on the cover of the blu-ray it states that 70 cast/crew were harmed, and looking up who got what is just staggering (to give you an idea of the extent, director of photography Jan de Bont got his skull practically knocked off, and Melanie Griffith got facial reconstructive surgery, though the fact that we didn't notice in those movies she starred in in the 80's shows how good that surgery must have been). If there was a documentary on the making of this film it might make Herzog's Grizzly Man look like kids stuff.

Indeed the hero to me of this film is de Bont; he gets his camera into places that I just couldn't think would be possible, right in the faces of these lions, capturing action that seems impossible - certainly with the knowledge that these lions didn't have proper, you know, TRAINERS. It's just a feeling of constant WTF that goes on with this - likely why it got picked up by Drafthouse Films as Drafthouse CEO Tim League is all about finding the freshest and brightest of those WHAT IS THIS sort of flick (they also released Miami Connection some years back) - and it's amazing just on that basis alone. It's also just hysterically funny in that way that the movie lacks that awareness of the danger. Or, let me rephrase that, I think the director knew that there would be danger with these cats, but, well, why carp? The attitude is that Man is the biggest enemy - the closest thing to antagonists are under-developed hunters, you know they are as they get lines showing that I guess and they have the guns - and that, with the exception of one memorable/super-bloody lion named Togar, the lions would be just peaceful and lovable creatures if left alone.

But the ethos of the filmmakers is constantly at odds with what IS shown on screen. The actors, to their credit (at least Hedren and Griffith to an extent), get this and play this fear well through a long mid-section. There's really the feeling like there isn't really any, shall we say, 'acting' going on here; to this end, Melanie is named Melanie as are the Marshall sons, though why Hedren is a different character name is anyone's guess. I'd be surprised if there even was a solid script - how do you get these lions et al to do the things they do? It's an entirely maddening enterprise to see unfold, the kind of movie that shouldn't have been made, and may even be (borderline?) unethical, but as it is here you can't look away from the metaphorical train-wreck.

To put it another way, Chris Rock said it best:

Friday, November 27, 2015

ROOM (2015)

(Not to be confused with "The" Room, don't want Wiseau Films on my ass...) 


It's often hard to get the point of view from a book to translate to another medium like a film - usually you try to use narration if you can, or just follow the plot as closely as possible, but point of view, how a character sees things and to get that point of view and emotional experience for an audience, is insanely difficult (often times it's just enough to get solid/consistent performances and tone right). Room is based on the book of the same name (and the author scripted the film, Emma Donoghue) and I've been told that the story is told from the first-person perspective of the 5-year old Jack (I've sadly not read it, yet).

It would be a challenge for a director to get that perspective for the film, especially in what the scope of this is as half of the film takes place inside of a room (that is a shed in the backyard). But by and large the point of view IS maintained, and it's to such a degree that I found that I got so much from Jack's perspective while at the same time not losing just what was needed to be seen from 'Ma', the mother. This is just a part of what makes this such a rich and important and moving cinematic experience, but a key one.

Not since I saw E.T. again a few years back did I have such a strong reaction to a film where a child is the (or a) main character. You have to take it down to their level sometimes to make an impact, and what makes it so strong and potent as drama is that, unless you're 5 yourself (or, hell, maybe in that case too), you come from the perspective of an adult but have to have that experience. In this case the story is about a young woman who, we find out, was kidnapped at the age of 17, locked away, and had a kid by her captor.

The story starts off when the child is just turning 5, and this whole system/universe has been set up by the mother to keep her son in this system. And from his point of view, having never seen anything different, it's not so bad: there's plenty of room in this room, after all, and even sleeping in his little closet at night isn't so bad (though it's strange how Old Nick - that's not his real name by the way - and he gets to play with his best friend, Ma, all day long. And when he's told by her about the 'world' out there, it sounds like an abstract concept.

The film has the structure of a thriller, for the first half, in just the way of 'how are they getting OUT of there?' The performances by Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay as the young Jack are so exceptional - they just feel completely lived in, psychologically, the look of them (he with his long hair, her without make-up to say the least) - that you never question this set up. At first you're just dropped in here, and I wasn't sure what the situation was, if, say, she intentionally had Jack under control as part of some cult with 'Old Nick' as some special protector or something.

It speaks to how direct the POV is for this kid that it takes him being told what's up for it to sink in how horrible this whole thing is. And yet the emotional component, the love for mother to son and son to mother, makes this so powerful that it's hard to think any other way for them to find a way out. I was more on the edge of my seat seeing how/if Ma and Jack could get out of this (by Ma subterfuge of Jack being sick, and he having to play along, which as she sees is tough to do) than I was with more Hollywood thrill-rides in all my years of movie-going.

There is a second half to the film, however, and this much can be seen from the trailer (I almost wish I hadn't seen that, much less glad I hadn't read the book), and this is life in the "world" in full. This is where it really becomes fascinating past the 'will they or won't they' part of it. Here the point of view takes on another dimension: how can Jack interact with people after only knowing one (maybe two) his whole life?

What about toys, or trusting others or being able to speak up for things? But what's even more impactful is how Ma doesn't completely cope with things, though she know she should, that now's the time to be happy. We get those moments where we see Ma struggling, and it just speaks volumes to see Larson and Tremblay looking at each other, interacting, the side that knows the damage done and the other side who won't really understand fully for years. That's where the tragedy lies, and the director Lenny Abrahamson never milks it into soapy melodrama: always the conflict is just laid bare, without any manipulation needed.

Even in this scene, where Ma has to be interviewed for TV so that she can pay legal bills (another tragedy that's not overlooked), the POV is I'd say 80% from Jack and 20% from the 'real' world
In other words, think back to the movie Oldboy, where a character was locked away for 15 years and didn't know why (until, of course, he's 'let go', and then the movie becomes about that). What if all you knew was the prison cell, and someone else next to you also locked up knows why and can't do anything about it (and in a way also can't fully grasp why - the "bad things happen to good people" thing). Of course this is a real event that sadly occurs and people tend to notice it, 'aw, that's too bad', and go on with their day.

The monumental impact of Room, why it's one of the dramas to really shake me in the past several years, is that the filmmakers and writer don't look away, they look at what this can do and does to people, both those who understand and those that don't, and even deeper than that is what makes the world the WORLD, good from bad and so on. What makes for consciousness and understanding and connection with people? And all the same it's a richly emotional experience; by the time the end comes, which is a climax that has to do with reconciling what's come before and moving on (a "goodbye Room" moment), I couldn't hold back from crying - maybe in some joy for the characters, but also pain at what they had lost/been taken from them.

Easily the best American film I've seen this year.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Madadayo, Used DVD'S! - #11/12: Nic CAGE Edition: STOLEN & TRESPASS

Ok, let's get into it - Nicolas Cage.  And I don't mean Nicolas Cage as we know him and love him, for the performances that we love for innocent and guilty pleasures (Leaving Las Vegas, Raising Arizona, Bringing Out the Dead, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans, Adaptation are among the great performances by anyone in the past 30 years of cinema).  I mean of the Cage that does not give a flying fuck.  He's in it to pay off that island, and his huge-ass comic book collection, remember?  And little Kal can't subsist on government cheese for too long, you know? 

So, I think, around the time that The Wicker Man came out, we start to see Nicolas Cage get... weird, like Ghost Rider (which is still awesome) and Bangkok Dangerous (which is... eh).  And it also comes down to the generic action flicks especially, those he can get a quick paycheck and do... well, sometimes he DOES get to do 'Nic Cage' type of things.  But just how cagey depends on just how shitty the script can get.  But sadly, sometimes, the shittier the script doesn't always mean enjoyment, it means that it's just worthless, Syd-Field-wannabe type of stuff.  So let's get into two movies Cage acted in for Milennium Films a few years back - and both, by the way, for directors he worked with before.



In Simon West directed STOLEN, Cage plays a professional bank robber - as he's referred to more than one the BEST in the country (because, why not, it's Cage, I can buy he's the best).  After being given one small character quirk - like The Dude, of all things, he's gotta listen to his CCR, albeit here right before a job - he and Josh Lucas pull off a rather daring heist (the kind where it's a Silence of the Lambs sort of trick of 'oops, where the BIG law was going isn't where the thing is actually taking place), and attempt to amscray.  But Cage is double-crossed (or just, you know, left behind by his partners, including Malin Akerman and that guy who you see in other movies), and after one of those ridiculous-but-amusing-and-almost-plausible chases, he's put in prison for 8 years.

It would've been longer, but Cage didn't hold on to the money (as we see in a flashback, which I didn't entirely trust but is what happens for real it seems, he burns it all).  Cut to these eight years, Cage (sorry, his name's 'Will Montgomery', but can't I call him Cage, give me that much, life) is having trouble getting along with his daughter, who he hasn't seen since.  They don't have a good first meeting - bringing a stuffed animal, he went to the Liam Neeson Taken school, coincidentally enough - and she's taken away in a taxi... which is being DRIVEN BY HIS ORNERY FORMER PARTNER JOSH LUCAS!  Curses.  So, the 'get me my money or X dies' scenario comes about, and the screenwriter fits the FBI into it as well - there's gotta be more danger, doesn't there, and of course Danny Huston eight years later has nothing else to do in his division - so it's a race-against-time thing, with some rather shocking twists.

When I say shocking, don't get nervous and think this will have things that will actually shock your system.  Cage does get to have a few moments here and there of super-ragey-anger, and he gets to act hot and pissed and it's fun to see that.  Other times he just has his... concerned, determined face, which is more plain and generic and is what it is. 

In a way Josh Lucas, not unlike villain William Fictner in Drive Angry, gets to have the meatier role here as the former partner who has (get this) cut off a few of his fingers just so he would be marked for dead with another man's corpse(!)  He delivers a performance with wild, crazed eyes from the moment he's on screen, and I mean in the prologue where he is super-obssessed with GOLD that happens to be right next to the 10 mil that Will is out to get at the bank (don't worry, there's a little set-up/pay-off here).  Lucas didn't necessarily have to go into Manic-Killer-With-Metal-Leg mode, but it's certainly appreciated and gives Stolen some extra boost as far as being a guilty pleasure.

I think West as a director is actually capable of shooting and editing some decent action here, and there's some chases and car scenes and even suspense with the daughter locked in the taxi trunk trying to get out that work quite well.  The script is still, for lack of any better description, junk and the sort of thing that must have been through a shit-ton of drafts before getting approved once the star entered his 'I Need to Pay Off My Taxes' phase.  And yet I don't think Cage, or even co-star Danny Huston, are here completely wasted and show up to work.  They even have a couple of scenes together that feel like real acting.  Malin Akerman gets a little more wasted, but is there to basically serve halfway through for a really ludicrous, wait-how-can-this-be-oh-nevermind plot involving how Cage will get Lucas his millions. 

So, in short, if you got nothing else better to do, it's not too bad.  There's been worse Cage vehicles produced, albeit the titles weren't quite as generic and lame and... ok, let's get to it, you want an example?


TRESPASS



Now we're talking full-blown garbage, folks.  This comes from 8MM director Joel Schumacher, and that doesn't necessarily mean it'll be a waste of time and effort, but the odds are not in its favor much as you'd like.  Perhaps the premise could seem promising given how Schumacher has a way with 'bottle' scenarios like his 2002 film Phone Booth.  Here we have Cage as a, uh, I don't remember his name, let's call him 'Business Man', who comes home one day in his Porsche (and you will know it because of the opening montage of Cage in ADR talking on a phone while driving), says hi to his wife (let's call her 'Business Wife') played by Nicole Kidman, and also has a Daughter (Liana Liberato).  Guys described as police come to their door - uh-oh, there's been burglaries in the area, let's let em in, of course - and they're criminals out to get Business Man's money. 

But wait, does he have any money?  Flashbacks tell us the diamonds are there (the criminals' POV I guess, we're supposed to take the movie's word, which doesn't mean jack shit, but I'll get to that).  Oh, and there's also some possible (maybe, yes, no, we'll see) romantic thing that happened with Kidman and one of the criminals, like Cam Gigandet, which is both easy to remember and easy to forget as a name.  Amidst this back-drop we see a sort of cat-and-mouse, 'Where's the money?!' scenario play itself out, over and over and over again. 

You know that scene from The Room where the Drug Dealer is on the roof asking Danny about his money?  It's that scene, but just over and over, with different threats - a needle with Magical Knock-Out/Kill Stuff, a killing the wife and/or the daughter, the latter by the way leaves and comes back before the criminals show up and then doesn't leave in time due to Stupid Screenwriter Reasons (yes, all in caps), and with Business Man coming up with different ways to try and thwart these bad dudes who seem to be WAY in over their heads.  Oh, and did I mention the twists?  Oh the twists come like a fucking pretzel factory, folks!

I went into this movie hoping for the best, I really did.  I tried to think that Schumacher could find a way to make this material really intense and get us to really like these main characters in the face of these ruthless thugs (one of them is a woman who just, uh, smokes crack and spends most of the time trying on Kidman's clothes and maybe will take the jewels but no they're just QVC crap, figures).  But I feel like I've seen so much of this scenario before even if I'd only seen one of these kind of Holding-Hostage-in-Home movies. 

I should make a Kidman-in-her-office-with-her-Agent joke, but it'd be too easy...
This is Firewall with Harrison Ford.  This is Panic Room, up to a point (though that's superior due to director and script if nothing else).  This is, uh, insert-title-here.  Though here the annoying thing is just how much writer Karl Gajdusek feels the need to keep adding contrivance on top of contrivance, things for the characters to do or little annoyances that just keep the story rolling and up to (barely) 90 minutes.  There's even a minimal amount of Security System customer service character who calls after the alarm gets set off for reasons I won't go into here - seemingly enough to give her motivation for her to come back later in the story - but nothing else happens.  At other times, characters can easily get away but then get caught again because, yeah, screenplay says now they get caught, or now the watch will go off.  I'm sick of this crap.

Cage is... not really that impressive, actually.  Not that the material helps him much, as he has to be on the defensive side of things and only once (or twice, at most) gets to really get FULL into yelling and getting manic, but it's more that thing of him trying to out-do the criminals' assholish type of talk.  The rest of the time he's tied up, denying or trying to recklessly tell the criminals things so they might, maybe, leave and not come back or something, and being beaten and then losing blood for one reason or another.  Kidman gets to act a little more - she gets some of the flashbacks with Gigandet - but is only marginally more convincing (by that I mean not much), and, as a nitpick but hey I noticed it so it does count, she slips in and out of her Aussie accent at odd times. 

This is the sort of material that doesn't even get points as a guilty pleasure.  Trespass is a slog of a bad movie, full of itself and thinking that it has more juicy character dynamics to work with, when it's really a script left out in the sun too long until every turn and twist and motivation has been sucked dry of moisture.  I'm surprised I was able to write about it so much here, as I'm not sure I'll remember much of it a month from now, or even in a week.


So yeah, in this Cage Cage match: Stolen wins.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Madadayo, Used DVD's - #10: Walter Hill's THE LONG RIDERS

"I like it better this way, Jesse; I get to see you run."

You watch a Walter Hill movie and I can basically guarantee you 9 times out of 10 you'll grow a little hair on your chest (or balls, take your pick).  That may sound like I'm selling some sort of off-brand, dubious formula for building masculinity, but in actuality it's what Hill has been his stock & trade for the better part of forty years making movies (longer than that, but we can start the marker at 75 with Bronson in Hard Times where he played a bare-knuckle fighter).   And boy did the guy know how to shoot a western; he was basically a man who followed in the tradition of people like Hawks and especially (in the case of this movie, The Long Riders) Peckinpah - stories of men in dusters and hats with big hair-dos (facial or head, take your pick) - and who will do what they gotta do to get by in the mean old west.

Indeed you can see Hill progress through three westerns he directed: this film in 1980, which is a little, shall one say, 'cleaner' in terms of it looking not too dirty, the cinematography adding a brown hue but nothing unpleasant to look at; in 1995 with Wild Bill, where we get Jeff Bridges (who was supposed to be slated to appear in this film with brother Beau but it didn't happen), and that shows some more grit, more attitude, Hill getting a little more cynical with time (you can find the review for that a few years back on this blog); and in 2004 he helmed the pilot for David Milch's series Deadwood (also featuring Keith Carradine as a famous Western figure), and here it's the landscape where 'cocksucker' is a comma in a sentence and everything is so gritty it's like shit-black everywhere.  If nothing else it's great that Hill got to do these three films - not that these were his only Westerns, of course he did others, and the gangster-western Last Man Standing - to see progression through time as a filmmaker and in his approach to making an iconic genre through his eyes.

As for this film... let's face it, it has a gimmick to hook people in.  Not unlike another film made around that time, On Golden Pond (it was neither the first nor hardly the last), the appeal for the studio and, by proxy one should think, for audiences is seeing all of these family members together and playing the roles they have in real life.  The Carradines - David, Keith and Robert - play the Youngers (Cole, Jim and Bob respectively); the Quaids - Dennis and Randy - play the Millers (Ed and Clell); the Keaches (yes, you probably didn't really know about James as much as Stacy, but wait till the next one) are the James brothers, Frank and Jesse; and lastly, there's the Guests, Christopher and Nicholas, as the Fords, Charlie and (that fuckin coward) Robert.  It's quite a sight to see them altogether - though the Fords are really in only a few scenes, and it's kind of a shock to see Christopher Guest, by and large a comedy actor, in this setting and playing such a guy as Charlie Ford.

Not even a full roll-call!
The other thing too is that this is one of those westerns, I gather, made for super Western buffs, like down to history and all.  I got to be honest and admit that I didn't know a lot about the Youngers or the Millers (I'd heard the names, probably from a movie or two), and yet I'm sure there's a reason the Keaches, for who this is kind of a passion project, as they're co-writers and co-producers, gave themselves the James Gang roles.  All the same it certainly makes for a solid premise with a hook that can at least drag the movie off the shelf; I'm sure that's why I first bought the movie at Blockbuster years back, dug in-between newer, crappier movies was this 'Huh, how did I not see THIS before' piece of work.  What the movie is essentially is following these gangs, and it's kind of book-ended by two spectacular robberies gone more or less wrong - as they get together, come apart, come back together and meanwhile have to make sure the law doesn't catch them.

It's an episodic series by design, though it's not hard to follow the characters exactly.  The opening is really riveting in just the sense of driven filmmaking, where the camera and cutting is on every movement of characters, watching how others move, and then when violence erupts its in that brutal, slow-motion explosions of people's guts and body parts.  Then Dennis Quaid's bank-robber breaks away (he mucked up part of the robbery), and the men go back to their wives or whores and so on.  There's a knife-fight mid-way through the movie between Carradine and James Remar (playing a, uh, half-breed I guess, he has the red banana to make him seem like a Native), and that is intense and choreographed in such a way that feels like it has to be great or else.  And meanwhile the stiff (but not unfriendly) law-men try to get confessions with no dice, and it all leads up this Big Harrah bank robbery that gets extremely bloody.

Was Hill trying to possibly top Peckinpah?  It wouldn't be something I keep coming back to, but it seems as if this is like his Wild Bunch: a group of guys who come together and pull big jobs on banks (also trains, there's one of those, couldn't have Jesse James without that and it's a doozy), and of course the stylized violence is akin to that.  It feels raw and unpredictable and alive in that (sort of a) climactic set piece.  Indeed the set pieces are the reason to see the movie really.  I just wish that Hill had done a better job, via the script of course, to make me care more about these people.  Yes they're criminals, but with the exception of Cole Younger and the James brothers I didn't really feel that much of a connection to anyone, which wasn't the case with 'Bunch'.  Maybe it's due to the episodic feel, or the (occasional) corn-pone style of music from Ry Cooder (an excellent opening theme, by the way, just not an excellent rest of the score).  Just as I feel like I'm getting to know someone it goes to another character and I lose the thread, especially with Randy Quaid and Keith Carradine, who have screen presence but feel underutilized.

I'm sure a lot of this will be irresistible.  It's hard not to see why as it has these mega-legendary-iconic characters all together and with these actors as brothers you can feel the chemistry between them (well, maybe not the Fords, but the Guests I think are directed to be rather cold-fish among the lot).  It's a solid movie to watch with your dad or uncle or whomever on a lazy weekend afternoon.  Not an essential western, however.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Spooktacular Savings #27 & Papa Mike's Video #12: Wes Craven's DEADLY BLESSING

"You are a stench in the nostrils of God!"

(Oh, RIP Train btw, for Wes Craven and composer James Horner...)


That line above is spoken by Ernest Borgnine's character, the sort of patriarch of the farm called Our Blessing in some rural backwoods place.  He leads a sect of the Amish called Hittites - who I could've sworn were mentioned by Peter Venkman in Ghostbusters as being part of the group that were associated with Zuul or something, but whatever, it's a movie - and they are super strict folks.  You can tell simply by Borgnines beard, which seems glued on but who knows maybe he grew it, and just how pissed he is in this whole movie.  Not once does he smile, and why should he - he sees that there are some "outsider" women in their neck of the woods (I use a kinder word there than he does than outsider), and that no good can come from it.  Oh, and at times he has to show some his flock a lesson or two when they get out of line (one of the younger men at one point tries to sneak a peek at a naked lady, I think that was him, or he did something else, who cares).

I wish the movie was actually from his point of view.  He may not be any more complex than the other characters, but damn it all if Borgnine doesn't make him interesting by just how much he plays so well a raging, hammy asshole.  Every time he came on screen I liked Deadly Blessing more, as much as when the set pieces would come up involving our lovely ladies on screen getting harassed by... snaked and spiders.

Sure, that doesn't sound too compelling, but the scenes are staged with an appropriate amount of suspense and Craven gets to flex his chops with setting up a character in a room and seeing what thing will come up to fuck it up; the woman who is in the bathtub seems, by the way, like a precursor to a similar scene in Nightmare on Elm Street (right down to the obvious, exploitative phallic imagery of long things between a woman's legs - by the way this actress clearly has on bottoms in the bathtub). Another impressive set piece, a couple far as I can remember, involve giant spiders and the webs that they leap off from; one of them is where the image from the poster comes from, where Sharon Stone (in her screen debut) is instructed by a voice with a set of black, furry arms to open her mouth wider and wider, and then the spider goes PLOP into her mouth.  Her reaction is intense and wild and a lot of fun.


I mention these scenes because they're the best things about the movie.  There's also some craziness that happens in the last 15 minutes or so: at one point a woman, with a guy in a car who gets killed right outside of it, gets some gasoline spilled right close by to her and a fire comes to get to her car.  That little scene works, as do some other moments of horror as things ratchet up to the conclusion (which, if you've seen Craven's Scream by the way, won't come as TOO much of a shock as to what happens to a particular character after being put down).

But everything around these set pieces and Borgnine are not interesting in the slightest.  I got something of a plot where a man is killed in a barn by a tractor that may (or may not!) be powered by someone, and the man's wife's girlfriends come to the village to help her out in her time of need.  There's also some temptations for the Hittite folk (one of them Craven mainstay Michael Berryman, who gets a couple of creepy moments), and then, uh, some dialog and conversations happen.  Stone isn't even too bad here, though she's not given much to do outside of her spidery entanglements.  I get that it's supposed to be a dramatic set up and environment, but there actually didn't seem to really be *enough* of the hittites to make them either really compelling and grounded (ala Witness) or schlocky enough (they almost get there but not quite, i.e. the tractor) to make it a blast.

I wish I could recommend the movie more - it got re-released not too long ago by the incredible Shout Factory company, who put out many of the best re-releases of genre movies in this country - but it's not super impressive aside from a few truly wonderful moments with a couple of the actors and scares.  I'm sure Craven was trying, but he needed to make it just a little less serious; if everyone was as campy as Borgnine, or maybe a couple more were, then we might have something.  Deadly Blessing is a curiosity, but not an essential film from the late horror icon. 

Friday, October 30, 2015

Spooktacular Savings #25/26: Val Lewton Block: THE LEOPARD MAN & THE SEVENTH VICTIM



Val Lewton has one of the major, practically irreproachable reputations in Hollywood history, though probably, mostly, in the retroactive sense.  When movies like Cat People and The Leopard Man came out, they made a lot of money for RKO (according to TCM TV, 'Leopard' made four million on less than a 100 grand budget), but they were still seen as 'B' movies, meant to be on one side of a double bill - the length of the films, often if not always under 80 minutes (maybe less than 70), had that direction to them - and Lewton's career couldn't come back following the end of his horror movie run in the 40's.

But thanks to Lord Scorsese (sure, he's a Lord now, why not?) in his American Movies documentary and the Val Lewton: Man in the Shadows film he produced, and just lots and lots of heartfelt nostalgia for the days when films could suggest more and show less with effectiveness, he's a household name for certain movie geeks.  For a short while, he created true quality work that subverted the expectations of horror movies as just silly movies with people in costumes.  In other words, he was like a classier Jason Blum.



I'd seen Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie years back, but not the two features following it, and thanks to TCM I got that chance.  First up, The Leopard Man.  This is not so much about a Man Who Becomes a Leopard (one might wonder anyway), though the connection to the prior Cat flick is inescapable.  Especially because both films have the same director: Jacques Tourneur, who loved dark alleys and women walking down streets with loads of dark 'value' (or in less art-school speak, shadow) as they may or may not be stalked by something, or clicking and clacking some small musical maracas.  For the story there is and isn't much: by this I mean there is some plot with Clo-Clo (played by, not kidding, just Margo was her name) and a club promoter (Dennis O'Keefe), and what happens when O'Keefe's leopard goes on the loose.

I think there are things to recommend this movie for and some things that keep it from being less than when Lewton and Tourneur were firing on all cylinders with their previous films.  On the one hand, there's a sequence about 5 to 10 minutes in when a young woman is walking home alone at night, and somehow winds up under an overpass, and she feels like some eyes are on her.

And lo and behold, they are(!)  She is chased and a rather gruesome fate happens, but it's off-screen (though it's kind of ridiculous how a particular character could've easily saved her, the tension and terrible excitement is not lost on me, just by the ratcheting levels of screams from the actress - again, off-screen).  There's also another scene where a woman is locked in a courtyard and the character watching and waiting for something bad to happen makes it all the more painful to watch when something (I won't say what does).

Basically, any time that Tourneur gets to work on simply seeing his characters, without much (if any) dialog) on a street, at night, with some thing following them or in pursuit, it's a treat to watch.  But on the other hand, the characterizations are weak, even for a B movie where you don't expect much.  O'Keefe is fine but pretty one-note, and when it comes to the 'investigations' of these murders and other happenings with this Leopard (or a "Leopard Man" as it were).  It's frustrating since it's a mixed bag that I can recommend - if you can get past some of those day-time "talking" scenes, when it comes to the sort of "pure" cinema (I hate to use that word in quotes, but come on, you know what I'm talking about I hope) of the act of watching human being reacting to what they can't see, following them, seeing their hope dwindling, it's wonderful.  Oh, and those footsteps near the end...


If a major set-piece-type of reason to watch The Leopard Man is the opening (or I should say about 5-10 minutes in), the reason to watch The Seventh Victim would be the last twenty to twenty-five minutes of the run time.  It would be too much (or not necessary)  to reveal story-wise about the why of its power, but I do want to dig into how it's done, cinematically speaking, and hopefully I'll leave some mystery for you to discover.  In the simplest terms, a cult is taunting a woman to kill herself, and this woman, Jacqueline, is at a point where she is laible to do whatever is told to her - she doesn't really want to do it, but she has been with these Satanists (they could be anybody though) for so long she doesn't know what to do.  They let her go - for the time being - and she gets to walk the streets.

It's here that producer Val Lewton and director Mark Robeson strike where the cinematic iron is hot: Jacqueline has to find her way back to her sister's place, but she feels/knows she is being stalked (mostly likely, no it is, one of the cultists).  She tries to hide by running down a dark alley and ducking into a dark doorway, and narrowly misses the stalker; then she tries to get some (brief) help with an acting troupe going to a cafe, but she doesn't join them.  This could just be due to budget, like not being able to shoot inside the cafe.  But I think that they have to continue with this woman on her run from what is (to her in that moment) certain death.  The build up isn't to action though - it's to an interaction with some person in an apartment building, and... well, you'll have to see what kind of existential malaise has fallen over in that moment of time.

The Seventh Victim is mostly poised as a mystery story (as Leopard Man had some roots in film noir as in horror, so does this story), where young Mary Gibson (Kim Hunter in her debut) leaves her school to find her missing sister.  She goes to New York city to find her - at first a sleazy detective tries to get her to hire him (hey, Manhattan's only 9 miles, after all, not hard to find people as he says), though he gets his later on.  Then she meets some people who knew Jacqueline, including her lover, and the search intensifies.  It leads to some rather peculiar and nasty people: Satanists.  How much are they dedicated to Satan?  Well, it's tough to tell.  All one can see for sure is they got Jacqueline under their spell; we see her only once in the first half of the movie, and she appears to Mary like under some sort of spell, and disappears.

I liked the story better for Victim than Leopard, though the performances are generally just a little better.  I did like seeing Hunter here as the one sort of innocent figure here, or rather the one person who is in this new world for her - we can tell she's been sheltered from anything remotely sinister or even urban in her life - and the fact that she is totally confused at times makes things stronger for the drama and horror.  When she goes to a place and the sleazy dick is with her, and he goes to see these, uh, 'people', when he comes out he walks in a sort of trance state.  Then she gets on to a bus and he is... back, but being propped up by these darn cultists(!)



I say cultists because the Satan element doesn't seem to really be a major factor here; this isn't Rosemary's Baby, or one of those movies from the 70's.  It's not even 'Zombie', where one saw voodoo rituals done with aplomb and a sense of eerie atmosphere.  Not that this isn't eerie, on the contrary seeing a group of people sitting silently, with malevolence, waiting for someone to do something they don't want to do via their cult-peer-pressure fills me with dread.  As far as depicting a group of people who all get so lock in step that they appear as like one BIG group of killers, The Seventh Victim is terrifying and has an ominous tone that makes that final passage so masterful.

I mentioned the film noir element, and I should close by noting that Lewton's brand of horror had some over-lap with that.  Maybe it was the low-budget side of it, as many film noirs were in the 1940's, but because filmmakers had to get creative and take their characters into dark places with little resources, they needed to be creative.  There was no choice, and whether it's a woman running from some criminal or a cult leader or a leopard, it all fills one with a degree of suspense that in sharp black and white is something that carries some magic to it. 

Spooktacular Savings #24 & Papa Mike's Video #11: DEAD OF NIGHT (1945)

"And then the dream became a nightmare...."

I've been meaning to see this for years, hyped up by a number of sources, not least of which Slavoj Zizek in his Pervert's Guide to Cinema documentary.  This is none other than what was the Granddaddy of all horror anthology movies, Dead of Night.  The premise is simple enough: a man goes to a house upon invitation, and he finds that there are a group of people already there, talking and having a good time with drinks and such.  There's also a psychiatrist there, and he tries to help this man, Walter Craig (Mervyn Jones), in figuring out if what he thinks as being his 'dream' is a 'nightmare', or even that real at all.  The problem is this: everyone he sees at this house gathering has been in his dreams.  Why is this?  This will be the mystery to crack open - but first, it's STORYTIME! 

Some 'Spooktaculars' ago, I wrote about the documentary Nightmares in Red White and Blue.  In it, John Carpenter talked about the two types of horror stories: those told around the campfire, about those horrors "out there" or of the other, and then the stories about how the horror is within us, which is a harder story to tell.  You can't get more "campfire" like than this group of folks in this movie, and I also wonder with the sorts of tales told here - those of the macabre and ghosts and psychotic personality disorders and other odd and certainly malevolent things to do with death - were an influence on Rod Serling.  It's hard for me to watch Dead of Night and not think of The Twilight Zone and, for better or worse (mostly better), I'm sure that for those who might fret watching some creaky British (Ealing) film from 1945, these stories really would be right at home in the "Submitted for your Approval" category, and I mean that as a compliment (mostly).

Here are the stories told by the people present in this room, all leading up to the doctor and his tale of his 'patient', which is the story most people have heard of likely going into DoN: 1) a man was a race car driver and got into an accident.  He wakes up in a hospital and is being treated, and things seem ok (he's even flirting with the nurse), but when he looks outside he sees a rather sinister figure (one of those guys with a double chin but no regular chin at the same time and a goofy/pleasant smile that ills) sitting at a carriage.  What is he representing?  He also pops up when the man tries to board a bus, and he makes some comment to make him seem even more sinister.  Is this race car driver dead?  It's deduced that no, he's not, but that he may be getting a warning of some sort; he had the feeling right before he got into the accident that he might die (split second earlier sort of thing), so it's likely this figure is a Masque of Death of .... some sort.

Story 2 is from a young lady who was part of a hide and seek game with some children in a large house party at night.  She goes up stairs to hide and keeps going further and further.  She ends up finding a room where a small child is crying.  She puts the boy to bed and to try to calm his nerves.  When she returns to the party downstairs she tells one of the older ladies about this young boy who she discovered and tried to calm down and make better with some singing (yes, she sings, one of those songs that no one remembers 70 years later).  The old woman is shocked... who is up there?  No one that we know, that's for sure.  This story, as the first one before it, are the shortest in the film, but they are effective enough as little anecdotes that cut right to the chase of death and the after-life: the question is, can they see ghosts, or are these freak occurences?  Are they just in their dreams? 



Pay it no mind, there's the three main stories to tell still (these were more like horderves): #3 is about Peter Cortland who marries a woman and she comes upon an old mirror that she buys for her to-be-husband.  He puts it his room and, uh oh, it turns out whenever he looks at it it reflects black an entirely different room than what he is in: it has a fireplace and is cloaked in darkness with a bed that can be described in no other word than foreboding.  Oh, and it fills some dark thoughts in his head, which happened to the previous owner.  If it weren't for the knock-on-your-ass power of the final short, this would be the best/favorite one of the lot of stories in Dead of Night.  I loved how little by little Cortland got worse the more he looked at the mirror and what was surrounding him, and yet there's also a wonderful moment (before the wife finds out what's really wrong from a second source who had the mirror before - one of those 19th century gothic sort of deals) where the two people connect. 

She stands next to him and makes him look again, and he still sees what Cortland's seen before... then she holds his hand and gives her a compassionate, loving look and demands he look again, and it's back to normal.  It's not one of those sweepingly romantic things that may or may not work out - this is a real moment of love, and it helps to anchor the characters into the horror that is happening here.  We never get a full explanation of what the mirror is from, but its power comes in what it represents: a medium to make you see the worst in you - such as what you dread/suspect may be with your significant other and another man(!)

Unfortunately, the fourth short is not my favorite, though it is enjoyable on its own terms and as a kind of 'hoot' of a story, which probably shouldn't have a place among the other shorts here.  This is about two men and a lady who go golfing and one of the men dies while looking for a golf-ball - deep in the lake right by they golf.  But lo and behold, this guy is back as a ghost to this friend still plugging away on the golf course - and at a moment when he (Larry Potter his name) appears to him in the "flesh" he finds he can't do the, uh, combination hand-signals to come back to his invisible netherworld or whatever. 

I do enjoy a story that skewers people who play golf - at one point Larry Potter tells his friend that he has to stop playing golf and to straighten up, to not go after this lady who the two men kind of fancied - but it's rather light and while some jokes work, others don't.  Where it leads up to is a nice ironic punch, and the actors have a lot of fun in the parts (seeing a grown man doing hand-signals is amusing on its own).  Yet it feels like a calculated attempt to make things a little "light" and funny - to get Walter out of his funk by the storyteller in the room - when it doesn't really need to be.  Again, not bad at all, it's actually well acted and put together, but it doesn't hold up against the other shorts.

 Certainly not, I should transition now, into the story of a man and his "Dummy".  This segment, 'The Ventriloquist's Dummy/, and the whole Party sequence, are directed by Alberto Cavalcanti, and something about these scenes has a wilder flavor, just a little more chance taken with the pacing of shots and how intense things get with the characters.  In the 'Dummy' story, here we get the classic split-personality story, a man, Maxwell Frere (Michael Redgrave) with his puppet who seems to have a "mouth" on him at a show they put on at a club.  Already something seems 'off': the ventriloquist looks surprised at the things the Dummy says to people in the club - he gives lip to people and it is not the sort of thing that seems planned (there's a musical number the dummy should be a part of that gets cut short and not in a way that feels planned).  And backstage things still seem... weird. 

Maxwell looks mild-mannered enough, but it's whenever the dummy gets in his hand that the 'thing' becomes alive.  This was where Zizek came in with his documentary and where I first saw this scene; how does one control the "other" voice that comes out of some place that is in the nether-region of the brain?  This may not be as traditionally shocking as a ghost story, but it really got to me in a big way.  This is seeing a guy going completely unhinged - and with the twist that, well, what if that thing IS possessed, in its way?  Redgrave is magnificent in the role, mostly because of how lost he makes Maxwell look: he is drained away, in this sort of state of being where he is kind of low-key until... the dummy goes away. 

The story builds to such a point that involves the dummy being "taken" (it is not... or is it, who knows!) in a hotel and murder happening.  I won't say who or how, but it all leads up to a scene in a prison that has the air of major WTF.  It's not scary so much as terrifying and mortifying at the same time, at how human nature can suddenly become so completely unglued and seeing a person who should be in control completely lose it (the one moment that really does shock is when the puppet is finally "gone" and Redgrave's voice is... what the fuck is that anyway!)

In terms of direction and super-black-dark humor - there are a few moments where it's difficult not to laugh at what this goddamned silly puppet with a mouth at the ladies like in certain bars (yes there is a scene) - this one tops them all and is one of those towering moments in horror movies from the period, or any period, all leading up to what Walter discovers in that house with Dr. van Straaten, and what all of those nightmares involving all those people 'means'.  Does it mean he'll be violent himself, or it's all just a dream. 

What IS a nightmare, after all?  The power of Dead of Night, and at times when these tales are being told by these characters in the living room there's a nervous energy I can't quite place but is hard to ignore, is in what you believe in and get absorbed into when hearing a story around the campfire, so to speak.  Some stories are greater than others here, but the masterpiece ones (3 and 5 for me, The Haunted Mirror and Ventriloquist's Dummy) are worth seeking out the entire work alone.