Friday, September 30, 2011


Nobody knows how to deal with cancer. Yet at some point sooner or later, we're all going to have to, either first or secondhand. I've been there. Secondhand, I mean. It really sucks, man. Director Jonathan Levine's 50/50 is a comedy about dealing with cancer with your friend, Seth Rogen, based on writer Will Reiser's own experiences dealing with cancer and Seth Rogen. It takes its example very much from the Apatow school of comedy, dealing with painful or uncomfortable situations with humor, and balancing the dirty jokes with the sweetness.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Adam, a 27-year-old guy who gets a kind of cancer on his spine. It of course, turns his life upside down, as it would anybody that young. He spends a good deal of the movie in shock or denial, refusing to accept the possible outcome of all this. The movie follows Adam and the people around him as he navigates his way through chemotherapy and the eventual operation. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is good. He manages to sell the weakness and vulnerability pretty well. It must be awful going through chemo, all the puking and the always being tired and stuff. One thing that rang true to me was how lightly he closed a car door when he was getting in. I've witnessed that.

Rogen is his best friend Kyle. Basically playing a movie version of himself, as Rogen often does. He's pretty floored by Adam getting cancer, but he does his best to keep Adam occupied and cheer him up. Rogen is actually pretty awesome in this, it's one his best roles to date. There's a hilarious moment about halfway through where he calls Adam's girlfriend on some bullshit she's pulling.

The rest of the supporting cast is very nicely rounded out by Bryce Dallas Howard as Adam's girlfriend, who maybe isn't mature enough to deal with the situation, Anjelica Huston as Adam's overbearing mom, Matt Frewer and Philip Baker Hall as two older cancer patients that Adam befriends, and Anna Kendrick as Adam's therapist/love interest.

Kendrick especially stood out for me. She's fresh out of grad school and still working on her dissertation, not quite a doctor yet. Andy is only her third patient. It's fun watching her awkwardly feel her way through the therapy, genuinely wanting to help him, but also eager to try out all of her recently acquired skills on him. She makes all the mistakes in the book, including the whole getting involved with a patient thing. Although, to her credit, she does her best to keep a professional distance while the whole ordeal is happening.

50/50 manages to walk a narrow line very well. It deals with cancer and mortality without getting sappy or overly sentimental. It teeters on the edge sometimes, but I think it saved itself for the most part. It keeps positive and upbeat when it can, but it isn't afraid to take things into dark territory. As hard and depressing as things got, I still remember a lot of laughing and joking around in my own secondhand experience, to lighten the load. Thankfully, it isn't a tearjerker. I don't think saying it has a happy ending is much of a spoiler, since the guy who wrote it about himself lived to write it.

50/50 brought back a lot of crappy memories, but still managed to be funny about it. It feels genuine, personal, and emotionally real. The audience in the theater was really into it, even applauding at one point in the middle. I think this movie is going to have strong word-of-mouth going for it. There aren't a great deal of decent comedies out in the fall, especially since we're in that dead zone between the summer movies and the Award season movies, so 50/50 is a good bet.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The 10th Victim

There's a certain European sci-fi aesthetic from the 60's that drives me crazy (in the good way). It's that sexy, mod-era, Andy Warhol-ish design style you see in movies like Barbarella, Danger: Diabolik, Planet of the Vampires, even the early James Bond films. Barbarella is probably the absolute pinnacle of that style, in that it created an entire well-realized, bizarre universe out of it. It's one of my favorite movies. So, when I recently found out about Elio Petri's 1965 film, The 10th Victim, I scooted it right up to the top of my queue.

The 10th Victim is a science fiction film loaded with action and social satire. Set in the not-too-distant future, in a world where all war has been eliminated. Mankind's lust for violence has been diverted into a legal system of murder-as-entertainment: The Big Hunt. If you register for The Big Hunt, you must go through ten rounds, five as the Hunter, five as the Victim. The Hunter hunts, the Victim runs. Whoever lives wins. If you manage to survive ten rounds in the hunt, you gain fame, respect, and a million dollars. A not entirely unfamiliar, but very cool premise so far, right?

The movie opens with a woman running through the streets, and a man with a gun chasing after her. He frequently misses, and she stops and taunts him whenever she gets a chance. Eventually, she lures him into a S&M club, where she comes out as the entertainment, wearing a silver bikini and a mask over her eyes. She comes to him and seductively tells him to remove her mask, and then she turns around, and shoots him. Wait, there's more: With boob guns! She shoots him out of her bikini top.

We find out that this woman is Caroline Meredith (I suppose the Italians' idea of an American name), played by the most legendary of Bond Girls, Ursula Andress. She just finished playing the Victim in her 9th match. In the next and final match, she gets to be the Hunter.

Next, we see a jockey about to start a horse race. That is, until his boots explode. These boot bombs were placed by Marcello Poletti, played by Marcello Mastroianni. This was his 6th time in the hunt. In his next match, he'll be the Victim.

Marcello is in for a challenge. Caroline has corporate sponsorship from a Ming Tea company, who has given her pretty much unlimited resources to get her 10th kill in front of their cameras. There's a scene where Caroline and her corporate overlords are flying over Rome in a helicopter, scouting out locations for her to perform her deed. They settle on The Temple of Venus.

Marcello, on the other hand, is broke, and having all of his possessions repoed. A neat little detail, I thought, was his comic book collection. They were actually treated as something of value in a 60's movie! Unheard of.

Caroline then starts formulating a plan to get Marcello to the Temple of Venus. She "runs" into him, telling him that she's an American journalist writing a piece on the "sexual habits" of the Italian male. She says that she's representing "millions of unsatisfied American women" and she offers to pay him for the "interview". Although unaware that she is his Hunter, Marcello is suspicious of her, as he should be of everyone.

They get to know each other, and of course, they fall in love. She is moved by a sermon he conducts for a cult of "Sunset Worshipers". He takes her to his ex-wife's house, where she discovers he is hiding his parents, not wanting to turn them in to the state to be eliminated for being old. He explains most Italians hide their parents, usually surgically altering them to look like teenagers. As they fall for each other, they also keep at arms length. Marcello is reasonably sure she's his hunter, but can't do anything unless he's 100% sure, since he would get 30 years in prison for killing anybody else.

Anyway, I'm not going to explain any further, because the movie is a whole lot of fun. It gets crazier and crazier towards the end, with one double-cross and fake-out after another, until flying completely off the rails into absurdity. That's not meant to be a criticism, the movie is a comedy, and it knows what it's doing. The final scene is ridiculous and funny.

There are a lot of very funny little asides thrown into the movie as futuristic social commentary. While scouting locations, one of the Ming Tea reps mentions that he went to the Vatican on his honeymoon with his 18th wife. A news reports in the background that the "National Association of Homosexuals in France have outlawed The Big Hunt". Marcello nonchalantly walks by a fist fight in progress. When Caroline, watching via surveillance cam, asks who those people are, she is informed "just some students discussing art". The hilariously ironic slogan of the Ming Tea company.

The production values are pretty cool. You know, because of that sixties thing. Marcello has this pet robot thing with baby doll arms. There's this awesome outdoor lounge with inflatable chairs all around. A practice arena where hunters and victims run around shooting guns and dodging cars. And, I was surprised to discover, the movie is subtitled, instead of the usual crappy dubbing I usually find with Italian B-movies.

The two leads are both fun to watch, apart and together. Marcello Mastroianni is a badass in it, and Ursula Andress is strong, capable, clever, and (of course) sexy. The movie is surprisingly progressive for its time. They never question Caroline's abilities as a hunter. She and Marcello are adversaries on an even playing ground.

In conclusion, go find yourself a copy of The 10th Victim and watch it! Especially if you're a fan of the retro sci-fi stuff.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Killer's Kiss

As I mentioned in my previous review for Stanley Kubrick's film, The Killing, his previous film, Killer's Kiss, was included on the special features of the Blu Ray. It was very nice of Criterion to do this, since many would consider it worthy of a release of its own.

Killer's Kiss follows Davey, a boxer, who at the start of the movie loses a big fight. He meets a dancer named Gloria, who is dealing with her abusive boss always forcing himself on her. The two of them decide to run off together, but she gets kidnapped by the boss, and Davey gets a murder pinned on him. It all comes to a head with an exciting chase sequence and a showdown with sharp objects inside a creepy old mannequin warehouse.

That's about it for the story. It's not even really a story in any kind of linear sense. There are several diversions in the narrative, like Gloria's story about her ballerina sister. Gloria narrates the whole story over a long ballet dance. Killer's Kiss has a real stream of consciousness feel to it, like Kubrick was making it up as he went along. In some sense, he probably was.

Killer's Kiss was made independently by Kubrick with a little bit of money he borrowed from an uncle. He shot it in the streets of New York, using what was available to him. No elaborate sets, or crazy attention to detail here. He's just grabbing shots whenever and wherever he can. As a result of this, Killer's Kiss has a realism not generally found in his later films. You really get a sense of how run down and seedy the Times Square area was in the 50's.

The final chase and showdown is pretty badass. From the way it started, I didn't expect the movie to get so exciting at the end. The rooftop chase has some extremely real moments, one where one of the crooks trips and falls and gets back up. I assume that Kubrick just kept that in. At another point, one of the guys hurts his leg and can't go on. I think this was just to get the boss guy alone with Davey, but still, that's not something you see in very many action movies. The mannequin factory showdown is crazy, too. The boss guy has an axe and Davey has this hook thing that he's catching it with. All the while, Kubrick is cutting away from the fight to show us creepy, foreboding shots of severed mannequin heads and hands. Really cool stuff.

While not quite as good as Kubrick's later work, you can see the seeds of what he was to become in Killer's Kiss. The running time is crazy short, just a bit over an hour. It's kind of noir-ish, but without much plot to speak of. The dialogue doesn't pop like it did in The Killing. Still, it's an enjoyable little thriller, and worth watching just to see the humble beginnings of a cinematic giant.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Killing

Recently, I purchased the Criterion Collection Blu Ray of Stanley Kubrick's classic racetrack heist film noir, The Killing. This was my first time seeing it, as well as his previous film, Killer's Kiss, which is also featured on the Blu Ray.

I've seen I guess about half of Kubrick's films now, maybe a little more than that, but The Killing was the first one I've ever seen that feels, you know, kind of mainstream. It follows a group of guys plotting to steal $2 million worth of betting money at a racetrack. Besides Johnny, the mastermind, these guys aren't criminals, just normal guys who have some unfortunate circumstances in their lives to motivate them. Each have an important role to play in the heist itself.

The first two acts follow the plotting of the heist, as Johnny gets all of the pieces in line. We also see all of the guys at home, and learn what is driving them. One of them, George, is a pushover in a loveless marriage. If they remade this, he would be played by William H. Macy. Hoping for a little bit of respect, he tells his wife what's going on, and she, in turn, tells the guy she's sleeping with on the side, and they hatch a little plot of their own.

The third act is, of course, the heist itself. It's pretty brilliantly staged, where we see one guy perform his duty, and then jump back in time a bit to see what the next guy does. Though techniques like this are not rare for slick heist movies now, it was pretty unique for the 1950's. It reminds me, surely not coincidentally, of the third act of Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown.

I won't spoil the ending, of course, other than to say that things do get bloody. Do they get away with the robbery? And then what after that? It has one of my favorite endings I've seen in a long time. The last line of dialogue is killer.

Even though it was still very early in his career, Stanley Kubrick's presence is still very much felt. The lower budget probably prevented it from having the ridiculously exacting detail that Kubrick later obsessed over, but the cinematography is still great. The acting is good, too. Little flourishes and details in their performances make the characters seem far more human than a lot of other movies from this time did. My favorite character was probably the sharpshooter Johnny hires to take down a horse to cause a distraction. When we meet him, he's demonstrating his skills by shooting a string of man-shaped targets. When he's done shooting, Johnny hands him his little dog back and he plays the rest of the scene cradling a puppy.

I really enjoyed The Killing. It was noir all the way, with razor sharp dialogue, but not so dark as to be depressing. The heist was truly fun to watch play out. It was interesting to see a young Kubrick at work, and I admit, even a bit of a relief that it wasn't as esoteric as his later work tended to be. And this is coming from a guy whose favorite Kubrick film is cinema's greatest riddle, 2001: A Space Odyssey. See it if you haven't already!

Sunday, September 25, 2011


As I sat in the movie theater and looked around at the audience before Moneyball began, a thought occurred to me: I think I might be the only guy who is here as a fan of Bennett Miller's previous film, Capote, and not as a fan of baseball.

You see, I'm not really a sports guy. I know the rules to all of the games, and I can follow them, but rarely do they hold my interest. I used to go to sporting events with my dad, of course, but my attention wandered a lot, especially during baseball. My only knowledge of baseball came from how much certain players' cards were worth. That was my version of Moneyball. And, you know what? Now that I think of it, that's not too different from how they played Moneyball in the movie.

Moneyball is the story of Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), the general manager of the woefully underbudgeted Oakland A's baseball team. The team is OK, but their best players are getting poached by rich teams like the Yankees. When Beane and his people are forced to put together a decent team for the next season, he is disillusioned by the way these old men are picking potential replacements. By their social lives, who they're dating, pure intuition. He realizes that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way these guys are playing the game.

On a trip to Cleveland to visit the Indians, Beane notices a young guy whispering advice to one of the manager types. Clearly his opinions are worth something. Beane approaches him to see what's up. He is Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a just-out-of-college economics major who has put a finger on the very thing that's been bothering him. These teams are buying stars, spending millions of dollars on home run hitters and guys with 100MPH fastballs. They should be constructing a team based on a million other things, but most importantly, the ability to get themselves on base. He has written a computer program reducing all of every players' stats down to one number to demonstrate this. Beane buys Peter Brand from the Indians and puts him to work as the new Assistant GM for the A's, where the two of them set out to prove that his algorithm works.

They're met with nothing but resistance on all fronts. His staff just balks at the pudgy nerdy kid who has suddenly rocketed past them in the ranks. They don't understand why he's picking over-the-hill players, players with weird pitches and permanent nerve damage in their arms, instead of picking out some good rookies on a hunch. The players don't understand what's going on either, though they're happy to be playing at all. The team's manager, Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), is a particular thorn in Beane's side. Even when the team is constructed in the way Beane wants, Howe still refuses to utilize the players in the ways they're needed.

Previously, Beane had always kept himself a safe distance from everybody, not going to away games, not even watching the home games. The only way he can get Moneyball to work is if they're all on the same page, so Beane has to learn to engage with his team and employees. And when it finally does start working, nobody understands what is happening. When they're losing, Beane is the bad guy, and when they're winning, it's all because of Art Howe. At one point, a game announcer says "there's something random going on with this", which is ridiculous, because it's the exact opposite of random. Nowadays, 10 years later, every team plays baseball using Billy Beane and Peter Brand's methods. They changed the way the entire sport is played.

Brad Pitt is good as Billy Beane. He's a guy who, in his youth, was the victim of such blind prognostication by the baseball scouts, at their urging, turning away from a full-ride scholarship to pursue a sure-thing career as a superstar baseball player. When their assurances proved wrong and his career never took off, he stepped down and got a job as a scout, forever haunted by the choice he could have made. I wish he wasn't chewing and spitting tobacco through the whole movie. It's so gross to watch! But at least he wasn't making a game of spitting it on dogs and stuff, like The Outlaw Josey Wales did.

Jonah Hill is also pretty great as Peter Brand. He's been having a pretty good run with his last few movies, and this is probably the best he's been yet. There are a lot of funny moments where Peter Brand is reacting uncomfortably or awkwardly because he's a bit out of his depth. Even he questions whether they can get away with playing baseball by his method, and has to decide if he can commit 100% to what they're doing.

The filmmaking is quite good. I actually liked Moneyball better than Capote, although nobody in this gave quite as good a performance as Philip Seymour Hoffman did in that. The screenplay is credited to Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin. I can only assume they called Sorkin in after The Social Network came out, because he demonstrated his ability to write engaging dialogue of characters explaining potentially uninteresting subject matter to each other at length. I didn't actually know Sorkin was involved in this until I saw his name in the end credits, but I kept thinking about him through the whole movie, so his presence must have been felt.

Like any good baseball movie should be, Moneyball is earnest and optimistic, but unlike most of them, never gets too cloying or sentimental. I think you can also interpret it as being about America, too, which is another quality every baseball movie should have. In our current economic climate, there are hard times everywhere, with such a huge federal deficit, and with a whole bunch of crusty old dinosaurs running things in the same old way and resisting any new ideas. Like Billy Beane and the Oakland A's, maybe Bennett Miller intended Moneyball to double as a call for America to work together to find a way to change the way the entire game is played.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Secret of the Urn (Tange Sazen: Hien Iai-giri)

Secret of the Urn is the tale of Tange Sazen, a one-armed, one-eyed Samurai character famous in Japanese literature. There have been many adaptations of this story and others featuring him, in manga, in movies, etc. But look at me, speaking like I'm knowledgeable of the subject, when actually, this was the first time I've ever heard of Tange Sazen. This particular version of Secret of the Urn was made in 1966, by famed director Hideo Gosha.

Hideo Gosha is a Japanese director who never really got a lot of attention here in America. A few of his movies are available here, most famously Sword of the Beast from the Criterion Collection (which I have yet to see), but for the most part, you have to find them by other means. Secret of the Urn is one of his early works, more fun and less dark than his films were eventually to become. I was elated to find it on Netflix Instant Watch.

The story begins with a samurai named Samanosuke, who is told to execute a man who is married to a girl he grew up beside. Loyally doing his duty, he is tricked and betrayed, first by the man he is executing, then by his own people. He loses his right eye and his right arm. In the scene, his arm actually flies through the air and lands in a flock of birds, scattering them into the sky.

The story picks up one year later, with Yokichi, an over-the-hill bandit overhears the lord of the Yagyu clan talking about how they need 300,000 Ryo to pay for a shrine renovation for the Shogun. Obviously, the clan would go broke with that much Ryo (I mean, obviously, right?), so the lord asks his man to retrieve the Earless Monkey Urn, which is said to contain a million Ryo.

Hearing this, Yokichi goes to his cohort, a music teacher/prostitute named Ofuji, who is really calling the shots, and they hatch a plan to snatch that can. They go to the river where the Urn is being picked up, and surprise! The samurai transporting it are attacked by ninjas! There's this really great sequence where the urn is passed back and forth between ninja and samurai as they all get cut down one after the other. Finally, a dying samurai manages to get the urn to a little orphan boy. Ofuji and Yokichi try to get it from the boy and he runs off, only to meet... Samanosuke.

Only Samanosuke no longer goes by that name, he goes by Tange Sazen. No longer the loyal and noble samurai he was only a year before, he is now bitter, grouchy, and foul mouthed. He is homeless, and supports himself as a hired sword. Sazen helps the boy, Ofuji and Yokichi get away with the urn, and joins up with them. He's pretty much doing all this to stick it to the system that threw him away like yesterday's trash.

Over the course of the movie, Tange Sazen forms sort of a family unit out of these people, and becomes the leader of the Thieve's Temple Gang, a comical group of thieves. He also gets justice for himself, gets the urn into the right hands, and uncovers corruption in the very top level of the government.

Secret of the Urn was a really enjoyable movie. The characters are all likeable. Tange Sazen is clearly a hero of the post-Yojimbo era, the flea-bitten, gruff samurai with a hidden heart of gold. The little boy doesn't care about the urn, he just wants Sazen to teach him the sword. Ofuji is sort of a scheming love interest, where you can't immediately tell if she's loyal to Sazen, or to the urn. Yokichi and the thieves are comic relief. It was interesting to me, because I've never seen a Hideo Gosha film with such light-hearted elements before.

Hideo Gosha's action sequences are always impressive. Unlike many other samurai movie battles, which were slow builds of tension as the fighters size each other up, and then suddenly over as fast as one stroke of the sword, Gosha's were more modern, fast paced, choreographed sword fights. The great twist, of course, is that Tange Sazen is only able to use his left hand. There's a scene where he's holding the urn and tossing it up in the air and mowing a couple guys down before catching it.

I have to admit, there were a couple of dangling plot threads, like when the Urn turns out to be empty with writing inside it, they never really explain what the writing means, and where the million Ryo is. It's surely addressed in some of the many other versions of the story, right? Maybe they didn't explain it all because the story is so well known in Japan that everybody there just knows the answer. I don't know, I'm no Japan expert, just a real big fan of their stuff.

So check this movie out. It's on Netflix for all to watch. And if you're interested in digging deeper for other Hideo Gosha fare, might I recommend the two films he made after this, Samurai Wolf and Samurai Wolf 2? Those are also a whole lot of fun, and have a pretty awesome lead character.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Thing with Two Heads

I try to bring a good mix of reviews to this website. New releases, classics, foreign films, oddities. Once in a while, I'll watch a movie against my better judgment, out of pure curiosity. So, you tell me: if you saw this poster, you'd have to watch the movie, too, right? Yeah, I thought so.

As the logline suggests, The Thing with Two Heads is about a white bigot who's head is transplanted onto a soul brother's body. The bigot in question is Dr. Maxwell Kirshner, played by Ray Milland. He's a wheelchair bound transplant surgeon, the head of his own institute. He is no longer able to perform the transplants himself, but he supervises them. He doesn't allow black people on his staff. We know this because he somehow let one slip through the cracks. He tries to fire the dude, Fred Williams, but Fred gives a speech and has signed a contract, so he's allowed to stay for the remainder of his term.

At home Kirschner has a secret lab where he is developing the first ever head transplant. He's testing it on a gorilla (or possibly a man in a gorilla suit, I'm not sure). At one point, the two headed gorilla escapes. You'd think it would go on a rampage or something, but all the movie can really afford is to show it walking down the street calmly, and then knocking some things over in a grocery store. When they find the gorilla suit man, he's peacefully sitting in the supermarket, munching on two bananas.

Kirschner soon reveals that he is dying, and is planning on performing his head transplant on himself. You see, the transplant isn't two headed forever. After a month, the bond is made permanent, and the original head can be removed. They put out a call for death row inmates, offering a chance to buy them another month of life and the pride of knowing they donated themselves to science. They find their subject in Jack Moss ("Rosey" Grier), a man about to be given the chair for murder, but, as he says in his final words, he's innocent, and his girlfriend is just about to prove it, so he thinks he might donate himself to science after all. Oh, also, Jack Moss is black. You can tell this before you even see him because of the funky theme music that plays before he's introduced.

They perform the head transplant. It's actually a pretty well done sequence. For some reason, my favorite bit was when they were prepping Jack for the surgery by shaving his shoulder. Kirschner's severed head looked quite good for 40 years ago. It's mouth moved a little bit like it was still breathing, and it's eyes rolled open too. Oh, you know why? This movie is one of Rick Baker's first. Yes, the legendary creature designer is also the man in the two headed gorilla suit, according to the credits.

So the transplant is a success, and Kirschner, regaining consciousness first, is still unaware of his donor. He slowly regains control and narrates as he lifts up his hand, then his arm, and looks at it and goes, "is this some kind of a joke?" This is basically how Kirschner is through the whole movie. He's like your cranky old racist grandpa.

They are having some complications, I guess, because the surgeons summon Dr. Fred Williams to Kirschner's house to help them, with his anti-rejection expertise. When Jack comes to and finds another guy's head next to his own, he's not too happy. He manages to escape, holding Williams hostage, they jump into his car and go on the run.

What happens next is... well, it's... (sigh)... an endless police chase. First our heroes are on the run by car, then they shake the car and find their way onto a Motocross Rally, and take themselves a dirtbike. The chase lasts about half the running time of the movie. Yes, about 40 minutes. And they couldn't afford to do it on the street, so they do it in a field. A lot of police cars roll over. There's very little dialogue. It just keeps going.

Finally, after endless chasing, they make it to Jack's girlfriend's house, with only about 15 minutes of movie to go. Kirschner says more racist things. Jack tries to sleep with his girlfriend, saying "don't worry, baby, I'll just cover his head with a pillowcase!" Okay, that's a pretty funny line. What the movie comes down to is a battle for Jack's body as Kirschner begins to take control. Who can remove which head first???

The Thing with Two Brains actually has some funny moments. It isn't taking itself seriously, and the two leads actually commit to their parts. "Rosey" Grier is actually quite likeable as Jack, and I found myself rooting for him to clear his name and get this white asshole's head off his shoulder. Fred Williams was good, too. If it weren't for the looooooooong period in the middle where nothing of interest happens, this would be a somewhat enjoyable, goofy B-movie, with just a touch of social conscience.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Planet of the Vampires (Terrore nello Spazio)

Ooooh, look, everyone! Planets! Vampires! Terrore! Spazio! This is actually a pretty important science fiction film from 1965, directed by the legendary horror director, Mario Bava.
It is cited as a major influence on the visual style of Ridley Scott's Alien, among other things.

Planet of the Vampires is a pretty misleading title. It's a bit of a reach to call the creatures in this movie "vampires". I assume the company that released it in America wanted a catchy, eye-grabbing title that would put American butts in seats.

Terrore nello Spazio follows a crew on a spaceship who are drawn to a mysterious planet. After a crash landing is averted, everybody on the ship suddenly loses their senses and tries to kill each other. The captain, Mark keeps himself together and helps everyone else come to. They follow a distress call from another ship, and when they get there, they find the ship full of bloody corpses. And then the mystery goes deeper when they return to the ship later and the corpses are nowhere to be found. Somebody or something on this planet is messing with them.

I don't want to ruin the plot, since it kind of relies on the mystery, so I'll stop there.

Much like Spaghetti Westerns, Vampires was made in Italy on a teeny, tiny, shoestring budget, and starred slightly bankable actors from all around the world, in order to maximize international sales. It has pretty crappy dubbing, which was also just the way things were done at the time. In these old Italian movies, they didn't even record sound on set, they just worked it all out in post.

Unlike most space adventures of the period, the pacing for Planet of the Vampires is slow and suspenseful. Mario Bava adds atmosphere by filling the sets with fog and unsettling red lighting. He made do with his extremely limited resources by having minimalistic sets that can easily be reused for other locations (I'm pretty sure they only build the one ship).

The production design, cheap though it is, still has that awesome 60's aesthetic. I especially liked the crew's uniforms, which looked extremely similar to the costumes in the original X-Men movie, but with collars that go all the way up to their ears, pretty much completely immobilizing the actors' necks. There's also a cool sequence where they find an ancient alien ship with these giant, 15-foot alien skeletons in it that look pretty great.

Though interesting, the movie isn't perfect. There's a lot of the characters just going back and forth from one ship set to another on a tiny fake planet set. The repetition of this, combined with the slow pacing, started to wear on me by the end. The budget constraints prevent the movie from being great, but Mario Bava's skill in atmosphere and suspense make Planet of the Vampires an interesting watch.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Invisible Man

It's been a while since I reviewed an old Universal horror movie. Maybe I should have waited a few weeks and saved this for October, but I had some spare time for a short movie, and The Invisible Man fit the bill at only 70 minutes long. Once I discovered that it was directed by James Whale, the deal was sealed.

The only James Whale movies I'd seen were Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. I think it's safe to say that those are both pretty great movies. I don't know that much about Whale except that he was openly gay in the 30's and the movie Gods and Monsters, which I haven't seen but want to, is about him. His Frankenstein movies were both pretty amazing feats, the first one a dark and emotional Gothic horror story, the second one a smart, fun, and inventive sequel.

Whale made The Invisible Man in between Frankensteins. Based on the story by H.G. Wells, it follows Jack Griffin, a chemist who experiments on himself, only to make himself invisible. Being able to do anything he wants, Griffin goes mad with power and goes on a killing spree. Meanwhile, the townspeople of a small English village, the police, and Griffin's own former colleagues go on a manhunt for the man they may never be able to find.

Claude Rains owns it as Griffin. He's already invisible at the start of the film, and he spends pretty much all of it either completely wrapped in bandages or voicing over a special effect, but he remains charismatic and engaged in his role. At the beginning, while he is locked away in an inn trying to find a cure for his condition, he's actually sympathetic. He's mean and abusive to the innkeeper and his wife, but you can understand why he's so tortured. As the movie goes, he finally snaps, strips off his clothes and starts breaking stuff and attacking people, laughing maniacally all the way. He'd almost still be likeable if it were just mischief that he's causing, throwing mugs on the floor and stuff. But all the stranglings kind of undo that. You can't like a guy who strangles and laughs.

Visually, The Invisible Man really feels like a stepping stone from Frankenstein to The Bride of Frankenstein. It's still moody, atmospheric, expressionistic, and full of pathos like the first Frankenstein film, but Whale's knack for innovative special effects is starting to shine through. I hate to be the guy who doesn't do research, but I didn't, so I don't know if these invisible effects had been done before this movie. Even if they have, though, he integrates them and utilizes them very adeptly. And I'm guessing a lot of the tricks he used are still used today, but with the aid of computers and whatnot.

So The Invisible Man was good stuff. I need to watch the rest of these Universal monster movies. I might try to in October. I still haven't seen The Mummy, The Wolf Man, or Dracula. There's also another James Whale horror film from the period, a haunted house movie, from the looks of it. I plan on checking that out too. So, I guess you might consider this review a taste of things to come.

Monday, September 12, 2011


I've been a fan of Steven Soderbergh since, wow, since Out of Sight came out, which was when I was 15 or 16, right at the onset of my burgeoning deeper interest in filmmaking. I would even go so far as saying Soderbergh played some part in my deeper interest. I haven't seen all of his films, but I've seen many of them, and with the exception of maybe the Ocean's sequels, they've all been good (and even the Ocean's sequels have their share of moments). I guess I'm saying all this to illustrate that I know I'm in good hands when a Steven Soderbergh film comes out, and that sentiment again proved true with Contagion.

Contagion is much like his Oscar-winning epic Traffic, in that, instead of a single straight narrative, it follows several characters from around the globe, tracking the progress of a fast-spreading new virus as it tears its way across the world. Unlike Traffic, though, Contagion plays more as a thriller or even a Chrichton-esque horror movie. It never goes too far into the realm of science fiction, keeping the situation grounded enough in reality to be believable and genuinely scary.

Matt Damon plays the relatable human side of the movie, as a man whose family are among the first victims of the virus, trying to protect his daughter from sickness and all the other dangers that could come from a world ravaged by plague. He's good as always, I really can't think of anything bad to say about Matt Damon in anything, especially his work of the last five years or so.

Contagion also stars Laurence Fishburne as the head of the CDC, Jennifer Ehle as a CDC researcher working on a cure, Kate Winslet as an epidemiologist searching for the origin of the virus, Marion Cotillard as a World Health Org. investigator, and Jude Law as a corrupt blogger, profiting from the panic he's helping stir up. Many other good actors appear in smaller roles, too, such as Gwyneth Paltrow, John Hawkes, Bryan Cranston, Enrico Colantoni, and so on.

Soderbergh and the writer, Scott Z. Burns, clearly did a lot of work to show how an outbreak might actually spread and what might happen as we race to find the cure. It takes place over a pretty long period of time, since it wouldn't be realistic for a cure to be found and distributed overnight. I'm pretty sure they used the recent Swine Flu epidemic as their jumping-off point. Soderbergh uses some extremely cool editing to show the virus' progress via montage. The montage stuff was probably my favorite stuff in the movie.

So Contagion is totally worth checking out. Steven Soderbergh once again proves himself a capable and versatile director. I think he's made movies in almost every single genre by now. Besides, with all this talk of him retiring in the next couple years to become a painter, we should try to enjoy Soderbergh in theaters while we can.

The Maltese Falcon

Is it wrong to say that I didn't love The Maltese Falcon? I mean, don't get me wrong, it's still a good movie. I enjoyed it. But isn't it supposed to be, like, the big daddy of all film noir? I was surprised at myself.

The Maltese Falcon, directed by John Huston, stars Humphrey Bogart as hardboiled detective Sam Spade. He and his partner, Archer, is hired by a "dame", or, in our modern parlance, a "woman", to follow a guy. When Archer and the guy both wind up dead, Spade becomes embroiled in a deadly standoff over a solid gold falcon statue from Malta.

Bogart is pure Bogart as Sam Spade. I've only ever seen him in Casablanca, but that's pretty much what he does. I like him alright, I guess, but he's not my favorite star from that period. He delivers a lot of his dialogue extremely deadpan, almost emotionless. I suppose that's how we know he's tough. My favorite moments with him, though, are the ones where he changes up his normal delivery and shows a little more humanity. As Sam Spade, he plays all sides of the case, making everyone believe he's working for them. When he's with criminals, he makes himself seem corrupt. When he's with the cops, he cooperates with them. Things can get pretty hairy when cops and criminals are in the room together, and that's part of the fun of watching him work, figuring out exactly where his loyalties lie.

My favorite character in the movie was Joel Cairo, the sniveling henchman played snivelingly by Peter Lorre, master of sniveling characters. I always like Peter Lorre in things. He was an interesting actor, and always brought a quality to his roles that only he could bring.

My real problem with The Maltese Falcon, and what really kept me from loving it, was just the sheer volume of telling when compared to the lack of showing. I know it's from a different period, budgets were lower, cinema was a lot different back then. But so much of the movie is people standing in a room, telling Spade exactly what they did, in as much detail as possible, and then Spade telling them what he did too, or what he's going to do next. Very rarely do we actually see things being done. Maybe I'm a little impatient, or maybe I've been spoiled by all these new-fangled movies where things happen.

The Maltese Falcon was made in the early 40's, which was really the onset of the film-noir genre. I'm not even sure if Citizen Kane had come out yet and revolutionized the language of film. They weren't really playing with lighting and angles as much as they could have been at that point, which is when film-noir got really fun. Still, it was an important movie for the genre, and I'm happy to have finally seen it.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Outlaw Josey Wales

Wow, looking back at my reviews, it's been a long time since I've done a Western. Unless you count Cowboys and Aliens, I guess, and that movie is maybe best left forgotten. Well, seeing as I'm now a Texan, it's about time I saw Clint Eastwood's The Outlaw Josey Wales.

The Outlaw Josey Wales is about a simple farmer, whose family is murdered by a bunch of out-of-control jerks who happen to be fighting on the side of The Union. I don't know my Civil War too well, but I got the sense that they were just mercenary types, not actual uniformed enlisted men. Josey is found brooding and grieving at his son's grave by another group of men who are on the trail of those guys. He winds up joining them and fighting as a mercenary type on the Confederate side.

When the war ends, his group is persuaded by their leader to go turn in their arms to a senator and swear an oath to the Union. Everybody goes but Josey, whose war is not yet over. When the group is betrayed and gunned down, Josey goes crackers on them and mows them down with a Gatling gun. He manages to escape with his own life and that of a badly wounded kid that used to ride with him. There's a huge price on his head now and everybody and their mother is after him.

As the movie progresses, Josey Wales stays one step ahead of his pursuers, outsmarting them when he can and shooting them when he can't. He finds allies on his way, and forms a new family of sorts. Eventually it all comes to a head in a big awesome shootout.

Clint Eastwood is doing his tough guy thing, which we all know he's the best at. He's not quite The Man with No Name, since we know his story from the start, but he's almost as iconic in this role. He chews tobacco through the whole movie, which in and of itself is disgusting, but when you add to it the constant spitting, it's doubly so. And then add to it that he's always aiming his spit at things. You know, whatever he can aim at: scorpions, dogs, dead guy's heads, live guy's heads, horses, shoes, cattle. The one thing he never aims it at is a spittoon. If anybody needs any gift ideas for Josey Wales, let me know.

The supporting cast is pretty great. Josey's "family" consists of an Indian girl he rescues from being raped at a trading post, a clever old Cherokee man who acts as his foil, and an old lady coming down from the north with her granddaughter, who he rescues after their wagon train gets raided. I liked the old Cherokee man, he got a lot of the best lines.

So The Outlaw Josey Wales was another very good western revenge flick. I still prefer the heightened reality and stylization of the Sergio Leone films, while Eastwood's directing style is much more simple; clear and straightforward storytelling. Josey Wales definitely has better dialogue than the Leone films, since it wasn't all worked out after the fact in overdubbing. I could have done with less spitting on things, but I bet that was pretty historically accurate. A lot of spit in the old west and not nearly enough spittoons. It was a new frontier.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Winnie the Pooh

Oh, man, why can't more of the new Disney movies be like Winnie the Pooh? This movie really got it. It nailed the feel and tone of the original Winnie the Pooh shorts, but with just a little bit of a modern sensibility thrown in. We all should have gone and saw this the weekend it came out, but we were all busy seeing the final adventure of Harry Potter and friends. Okay, can you blame us? It was Harry Potter.

Winnie the Pooh is just like its predecessors. Gentle, full of wit and whimsy, and set in the rich little universe of the Hundred Acre Wood, which is apparently both inside Christopher Robin's head, and also located on the page of a storybook. That sounds inconsistent, but you never really question it.

The storybook is narrated by John Cleese, and the characters interact with the words on the page like it's nothing out of the ordinary. The story follows Pooh on a single-minded search for hunny, which leads to him helping Eeyore find his tail, which leads to Owl driving them all into a panic over a nonexistent monster. Every character gets a good chunk of movie, except maybe Kanga and Roo, who mostly sit this story out. The story has pretty much the attention span of a little boy playing with his toys, bouncing from one vignette to another at a moment's notice, taking the time to go on diversions and distractions, but it all comes together in the end.

The voice acting is mostly dead-on. The voice of Pooh sounds pretty much just like the original guy who did it. The rest of the characters aren't exact matches, but they match the originals in spirit and intent. I especially liked Craig Ferguson's take on the know-it-all Owl, who got many of the movie's biggest laughs. I was surprised about Tigger, certainly the favorite of every kid. He was definitely mine, but now, not so much. It must be a sign of aging, but now he just tires me out.

There are also some really great original songs in Winnie the Pooh, as well as reprises of the famous ones. Sometimes the songs are sung by the characters, and other times they're sung by Zooey Deschanel, who has a pretty perfect voice for this (we're all agreed that she's pretty perfect in general, right?).

It's too bad Disney chose to release Winnie the Pooh on the same day as Harry Potter, but then again, I can't imagine it would have broke the box office these days, anyway. I'm glad I got to see it on the big screen when I had a chance, though. Surely it will become a favorite of millions of little kids, and something at least tolerable for their parents, if not downright joyful, around Christmastime.

I don't believe I've seen the original Winnie the Pooh shorts since I was a kid, but I feel like I remember them pretty well. This made me really want to see them again. I hope Disney has Blu Ray plans for them, as I would love to add them to my collection.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Our Idiot Brother

Hi, everyone. Hope you all had a good Labor Day weekend. I had a nice one. Saw a few movies. Here's one of them.

Our Idiot Brother is a new comedy, directed by Jesse Peretz and starring Paul Rudd as a slightly thick-headed, good natured, hippie-ish guy who, after being arrested and jailed for selling weed to a uniformed cop (he said he was having one of those weeks), is forced to move back in with his family. His three sisters, each living very different, but successful lives, don't really want him around, so he kind of bounces from one sister to another, innocently throwing each of their lives into disarray.

This kind of thing is a pretty standard comedy formula: X-factor thrown into normal lives, x-factor messes everything up, x-factor helps characters realize that maybe they weren't living the ideal life after all, and everyone learns a lesson. What makes Our Idiot Brother stand out a little is just that it goes down easy. It has a far gentler tone than the other R-Rated comedies coming out these days. Paul Rudd's character is so goofy and likeable that I couldn't help just feeling happy watching it.

It was nice to see Rudd do something different. He's been playing those kind of Jack Lemmon-y schlubby guys a lot lately. But when you see him in things like Anchorman, Wet Hot American Summer, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, you know he's actually a capable and versatile comedic character actor too. In Our Idiot Brother, Rudd's character Ned is gentle and overly trusting by nature, and has probably spent the last 20 years in a permanently stoned haze. His sisters have lived with it their entire lives and have little patience for him, but many of the people around him find him affable and easy to talk to, even confide in.

The supporting cast is all around very good, too. Emily Mortimer, Elizabeth Banks, and Zooey Deschanel play his sisters, Steve Coogan as Emily Mortimer's documentarian husband, Adam Scott as Elizabeth Banks' sci-fi writer neighbor, and Rashida Jones as Zooey Deschanel's girlfriend. Elizabeth Banks and Rashida Jones are two of my favorite comedic actresses, and, having both worked with Paul Rudd before, are pretty in touch with his rhythms. One of my favorite subplots features Rashida Jones helping Ned get his dog, Willie Nelson, back from his ex-girlfriend, who is basically holding it hostage at their organic farm.

The movie plays out not unpredictably if you know the formula, but enjoyably enough. It's not going to change the world. I had a bit of a problem with the very last scene. There was a perfect end point for the movie, but it felt the need to tack on one last unnecessary scene at the end that felt pretty contrived. The movie goes on for maybe two minutes too long. Despite the ending, though, it's a very easy movie to like, and you'll probably come out of it in a pretty good mood.