Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin

When it comes to Hong Kong and Chinese cinema, I'm still learning. I've seen a few Kung Fu movies here and there, a couple of Wong Kar Wai movies, lots of Stephen Chow and Jackie Chan. Oh, and Infernal Affairs, I own that. Not much else. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin seems like a good place for me to start. It is considered one of the great martial arts movies of all time.

Made in 1978 as a Shaw Brothers production, and directed by Liu Chia-Liang, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin made a star out of a young Gordon Liu, a huge star in his own right, but best known to me as Johnny Mo and Pai Mei in the Kill Bill movies, in the role of San Te. San Te is a young man who joins the monks in Shaolin to learn their brand of Kung Fu, with the goal of introducing it to the oppressed people, and giving them a means to fight back against the Tartars.

A large bulk of the movie basically plays as the most awesome training montage ever. Over half of the movie is San Te's training, succeeding in difficult and painful trials, and climbing the ladder from the 35th Chamber all the way to the top. His first trial is simply finding a way to jump across a pool of water with a bundle of sticks floating in it, in order to get his food.

You'd think it would get boring, but it never does. San Te's single-mindedness and dedication to his goal, and the promise that his lessons will pay off in the end makes the training very engrossing and downright fun to watch. Not to mention the diversity and creativity behind each of the trials. At one point, they strap downward pointing knives to his biceps and make him carry buckets with his arms straight out. If he lowers them, he gets cut. Later, San Te invents a new weapon in order to defeat a higher ranking monk in a duel. Totally awesome.

I was really happy to see it subtitled on the DVD, rather than dubbed. The dubbing is one of the things that keeps me from watching a lot of Chinese movies. I really hate dubbing, and it seems like it's the only way a lot of these old movies are available.

So that's that. Another classic I can now say I've seen. Another gap in my knowledge filled. Next up, I suppose I should probably see Master of the Flying Guillotine, or maybe Hard Boiled or The Killer.


I'm not sure if a lot of fans out there were clamoring for a Martin Scorsese kids movie, but I know I was. About a decade ago, waaaay back when I was in college, there was an internet rumor that Scorsese was interested in directing the remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. This was years before the Tim Burton debacle that eventually happened. I just really like it when great directors known for more adult subject matter make movies for children, because they make them with the same degree of sophistication that they give any of their films.

Hugo is not only a wonderful, magical children's adventure set in 1920's Paris, it's also a loving ode to the dawn of cinema and the ability of movies to transport you into your dreams. Figuratively speaking, of course, we're not talking a Last Action Hero golden ticket scenario. It stars young Asa Butterfield in the title role, Hugo Cabret an orphaned son of a clockmaker who lives inside the walls of the train station in Paris, keeping the clocks running, unbeknownst to anyone. In his spare time, Hugo is trying to repair an old automaton that his father found at a museum, stealing parts from an old toymaker with a shop in the station. When Hugo is caught by the toymaker, his whole life is upturned, and he begins a journey, uncovering the toymaker's mysterious past while finding his own purpose in life in the process.

I'm not going to go into what Hugo discovers, and how it ties in with cinema, because that was all part of the magic of the movie. I loved how magical the movie felt, even though there was actually very few truly fantastical elements. Pretty much only the clockwork automaton.

The performances are all around wonderful. Asa Butterfield was great, as was Chloe Grace Moretz as the toymaker's God-daughter. Sacha Baron-Cohen continues to show his versatility and his prowess for physical comedy as the station's orphan hunting inspector. I wouldn't be surprised if Sir Ben Kingsley gets a Supporting Actor nomination for his part as Papa Georges, the toymaker.

I saw Hugo in 3-D, something I don't usually do. I was very curious to see how Scorsese utilized the 3-D technology as a tool. Unsurprisingly, it's among the best 3-D I've seen. But I learned something that I kind of already knew while watching it: As well done as it was, even the best 3-D doesn't look half as good as a 2-D movie. As deep and immersive as the experience was, I feel it would have been even more so in 2-D, without the darkened tint on the glasses and the eyestrain and the blur.

Hugo is based on a novel, called The Invention of Hugo Cabret. I suppose the studio that made the movie shortened the title in a desperate bid to make the title more memorable and hence more marketable. Or maybe they thought people would pronounce Cabret with a T instead of the French way. But in shortening it they drained all the magic and wonder from the title. Hugo gives the viewer no indication what they're going to see. Disney is doing the same thing with net year's John Carter (or JC as they like to shorten it). Hey Disney! The John Carter part isn't what interests us! It's the "OF MARS" part we want. Look at Hugo's opening weekend box office. Shortening the title didn't work.

Ok, enough ranting. Hugo is a movie that any film buff should go and see. Martin Scorsese clearly has put as much love and passion into it as anything he's ever done, if not more in some cases. I'm not sure if all kids would find it too interesting, but if you take the right kid to see it, you might just be setting them on a path to find their own love of cinema.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Mystery Team

When I was a kid, I was obsessed with the Encyclopedia Brown books. I had a bunch of them and read them over and over again, even though I already knew the solutions to all of the mysteries. I totally wanted to be a know-it-all boy detective. Nowadays I've graduated to reading Sherlock Holmes and wanting to be a know-it-all man detective, but my affection for Encyclopedia Brown remains. Mystery Team is the story of a trio of boy detectives who steadfastly refuse to make the leap to man-detectivehood.

The Mystery Team were the toast of the town when they were seven, solving local mysteries for a dime. Now they're 18, on their way out of high school, and still dressing and acting like they're a group of plucky kids from a Hardy Boys book. There is Jason (Community's Donald Glover), the team leader and master of disguises (usually a mustache). There's Duncan (DC Pierson), the brains of the group, whose knowledge is mainly taken from trivia books. And there is Charlie (Dominic Dierkes), the muscle of Mystery Team, who is, well, not very smart.

The thrust of the movie is provided when a little girl hires them (still a dime) to solve the murder of her parents. The team, looking to step up to the big leagues, takes the case. They are then thrust from the world of cookies thieves and playground bullies into the seedy underbelly of society, where they try to remain willfully and desperately ignorant of the corruption, violence, and temptation found therein.

Mystery Team is written, directed, and produced by the comedy group Derrick Comedy, best known for their viral internet videos. Much of the humor in the movie is in the tradition of, say, The Addams Family, where a group of naive oddballs from a different kind of world are forced to interact with the way things really are.

There are actually a lot of laughs in the movie. The characters are funny, and the three leads are all really good. You can see that Donald Glover can totally carry a movie, and his chemistry with Dierkes and Pierson is a lot of fun. I dug a lot of the throwaway gags about the trio's state of arrested development, like how Duncan's thesis for a high school assignment is a list of all the dinosaurs, and Charlie's inability to say the right thing in unison with the other two. There are a few more familiar faces in Mystery Team, too, including The Office and Bridesmaids' Ellie Kemper, SNL's Bobby Moynihan, and Parks and Recreation's Aubrey Plaza.

You can tell Mystery Team was made for a relatively tiny budget. Most of the cast is made up of friends and family of the Derrick Comedy group. There are a lot of young people playing characters who should probably be older than they are. That's all part of the charm, though; that whole putting-on-a-show-with-your-friends feel of it.

Not all of the jokes worked for me, though. The movie leans a little too heavily on poop and vomit jokes for my taste (although admittedly, I laughed at a few of those too). The best stuff in the movie comes from their own childlike view of the world, but sometimes they push it a little too far past the realm of believability, like a gag involving Duncan drinking dog pee.

Mystery Team was directed by Derrick Comedy member Dan Eckman. He does a decent job for a first film, especially when you take into account the low budget. I know the movie didn't make much money, but I hope that doesn't mean he won't get another chance at directing a comedy. It has a little bit of a weird, off-the-beaten-path sensibility, it's certainly not a mainstream comedy. Mystery Team is the kind of movie that a college-aged comedy nerd would possibly discover and show their friends, which is exactly who the target audience for their videos happens to be.

And now, since it looks like I may have written more about Mystery Team today than I did about Kagemusha, I will leave you. My final thought: If you like comedies like, say, Wet Hot American Summer or The Brothers Solomon, movies that are a little bit weird, a little bit surreal, and a little bit filthy, you will get some laughs out of Mystery Team, but it's probably not going to change your life.


This review is nine months in the making. I bought Kagemusha on Blu Ray in February. It took a long time to find three hours to watch it, but we finally got around to it in May. But then, every attempt to watch it was thwarted by my PS3. And now, in late November, after replacing my Blu Ray, getting my Playstation repaired, and buying a brand new damn Blu Ray player, I bring you, with great relief, my review of Akira Kurosawa's Kagemusha.

Kagemusha is a sprawling samurai epic, set in the 1500s, following the Takeda clan, led by the feared and respected warlord Shingen. The film opens with a long, uninterrupted shot of what appears to be three Shingens having a conversation. In actuality, one is Shingen, one is his nearly-but-not-quite identical brother, Nobukado, who acts as his decoy (or Kagemusha). The third is a lowly bandit that Nobukado has discovered and saved from execution because of his uncanny resemblance to Shingen. He believes that this bandit could serve as Kagemusha better than he can.

His belief is soon put to the test, when Takeda Shingen is shot by a sniper and dies. If their enemies were to find out Shingen is dead, the clan would be done for, so the Kagemusha is made to replace Shingen. He must fool Shingen's clan, his family, and his enemies. Inspired by the kindness Shingen showed him, the double soon begins to carry on the ruse by choice, out of loyalty to the clan.

The legendary Tatsuya Nakadai plays the dual role of Shingen and his decoy. You may remember him as the gun-wielding gangster in Yojimbo, or maybe as the cold hearted protagonist/villain in Sword of Doom. He couldn't be more different in his roles here. Shingen is a smaller role, but must cast a huge shadow on the rest of the film. The decoy, stripped of any identity before the start of the movie, is never given a name. Where Shingen is regal and stoic, the decoy is crude and low born. It's kind of a The Prince and the Pauper situation.

Kagemusha is actually pretty delightful for the first couple of hours, before taking a dark turn, culminating in the true historical event of the Battle of Nagashino. Watching the decoy having to learn how to be another man, winning the love of Shingen's grandson, charming Shingen's mistresses, and ultimately earning the loyalty of Shingen's clan was really enjoyable and quite funny at times. The double is surrounded by many characters, and though they are not as colorful as those in Seven Samurai or some of Kurosawa's other early masterpieces, they are still interesting.

The pacing is slow and deliberate. There are many scenes played out in a long sustained single shot. Kurosawa also puts a heavy focus on the nonverbal interplay between his characters. It amazed me that sometimes he'd have like 10 different characters in a shot and you could just look at all of their faces and body language and feel like you could read them all. Pretty complex stuff.

Visually, Kagemusha is gorgeous and rich with detail. This is the first color Kurosawa film I've seen. I could tell from his earlier work that he composed every one of his shots like a painter would a painting. It turns out he paints them like a painting too. The colors are so vivid in Kagemusha, the reds and greens just leap off the screen.

I'm not sure if I would recommend Kagemusha to just anyone, however. It's probably not so much for the uninitiated. If somebody I knew hadn't seen any Kurosawa films, I'd certainly point them towards Seven Samurai, Rashomon, Yojimbo, etc. and if they were still coming back for more, then I would show them the less accessible Kagemusha. Still, it's another great film from possibly the greatest director.

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Muppets

There are few things I love in this world more than The Muppets. Friends and family excluded, I rank the creations of Jim Henson up there with pretty much all of the greatest things in life. So it always saddened me a little when the property fell into disrepair and disuse for the better part of the last two decades. I've been hoping for a revitalization for, well, maybe half my life. I am proud to announce that Muppets are once again vital.

Writers Nick Stoller and Jason Segel, and director James Bobin bring a lifetime of love, passion, and enthusiasm to The Muppets. From the moment the first musical number begins, you can tell that Jason Segel (in the lead human role) is living a dream come true. Everyone involved in the movie appears to be having a blast, and giving it their all, and their joy is infectious.

The Muppets follows Gary (Segel) and his brother Walter. Walter has always been different. He stopped growing at age 7, he's small and fuzzy. He never knew how to relate to his world. That is, until the day he saw The Muppets on TV. From that day forth, he was The Muppets' biggest fan. When Gary and his girlfriend, Mary (Amy Adams) are planning a trip to Hollywood for their 10th anniversary, they invite Walter along, so he can visit Muppet Studios.

Unfortunately, when they get there, the once glorious studio is now abandoned and decrepit, all of the locations in the tour are closed "for repair". Sneaking off into Kermit's old office, Walter overhears an evil oil millionaire (Chris Cooper) plans to tear down the studios and dig for oil there. Walter, Gary, and Mary decide that the only way they can save the studio is to reunite the Muppets and have them put on one last show.

What follows is what you would hope for in a Muppet movie. Endless gags and vaudevillian banter, big, moving musical numbers, celebrity cameos, and a hilarious and disarming self awareness that tells you that even the characters are aware that they are in a movie and that the narrative is bound by certain rules.

I loved the musical numbers. The new songs were written by Bret McKenzie of the musical comedy duo Flight of the Conchords (whose show was co-created by Muppets director Bobin). They're clever, catchy, and silly in much the same fashion as the Conchords songs are. And the old songs are, well, there are a few old Muppet favorites in there, and I have to say, I teared up when they came on. Sorry I'm such a dork. I teared up a lot during the movie.

Bobin, Segel, and Stoller's love for the characters comes through, too. They give everybody a moment, including many of the more obscure characters that only geeks like me know the names of. They bumped up the role of Uncle Deadly, the cool looking dragon character usually only seen in brief Muppet Show gags, and gave him a little dimension for the first time. While Segel and Adams were welcome additions, I hope that now that we've been reintroduced to the Muppets, any possible future Muppet movies will be able to shift attention away from the human leads and back onto the Muppets where they belong. In the old movies, the humans were reserved for villain roles and cameos.

I enjoyed the movie a great deal, but it wasn't quite the same as Henson's Muppet movies. The energy was different. The difference was especially noticeable with Kermit. Steve Whitmire, the performer who operates Kermit, doesn't have Henson's distinctive hand acting. Obviously, he has his own. Kermit is still endlessly earnest and hopeful, but I kept waiting for him to have the frantic, frazzled energy that Kermit gets when he is trying to run his show, and keep everything from falling apart at any given moment while he's surrounded by so many loose cannons (figurative and literal cannons when Gonzo is around). That Kermit never arrives. Still, he was a good Kermit, it's just got to be tough under the shadow of Henson.

I am so happy that this group got The Muppets right. I want a whole new generation of children to see this movie for the first time and react to it the same way Walter and I did when we first encountered Kermit and the gang. There's still a month to go, but when all is said and done, I'm fairly positive The Muppets is going to be my favorite movie of the year. There just aren't enough movies with such unabashed joy and positivity out there anymore.

The Warriors

Wow, where was The Warriors when I was a teenager? I mean, it was out there, but I never even heard of it until I was in my twenties, and just got around to watching it recently. If I had seen it as a teen, it would probably have been given the same heavy rotation that Evil Dead 2 and Big Trouble in Little China got in my VCR.

The Warriors is a 1979 cult classic directed by Walter Hill, set in Brooklyn in the near future where gangs rule the streets. Cyrus, who appears to be the Martin Luther King Jr. of street gangs, calls a huge meeting, with the intention of forming a United Nations of gangs. Together, they would outnumber the police three to one. But before the alliance can be formed, Cyrus is gunned down by an unstable member of The Rogues, who then pins the assassination on The Warriors. The Warriors must then get back to the safe haven of their home turf in Coney Island while every gang in the city is out for their heads, not to mention the police.

The movie has a very post-apocalyptic feel. 1979 New York is run down and nasty looking. Graffiti completely covers the subway walls. Walter Hill is also very deliberately invoking comic books, right down to illustrated scene transitions, making it appear that the film is jumping right off the panels. It reminded me of Frank Miller's comic book work of the mid-80's, such as The Dark Knight Returns, though The Warriors predates Miller's fame by a couple of years.

I love that every gang has a dress code and a theme. That's something from a lot of 80's pop culture that I wish were real. The Warriors and a few others just have logos and jackets or vests. But some gangs go all out, with pinstriped baseball uniforms, full clown makeup, what have you. If Walter Hill had included shots of the clown gang sitting in front of a mirror putting on their makeup so they could go beat some ass, they would have lost a lot of their menace.

The police are also always on The Warriors' tails. At least I think it was the police. I have a theory that they might have just been a police-themed gang trying to join the alliance, but things just got out of hand. Maybe they should consider a fireman theme.

I'm glad I finally saw The Warriors. I tend to watch a lot of older, more straightforward classics, but for me, it's always a real treat to find something like this; a unique, strange little movie set in its own universe with its own rules and sensibilities. It's a shame I didn't get to watch The Warriors over and over again in my VCR days, because it would have been perfect for that.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Descendants

Hot on the heels of my review for Alexander Payne's first film, Citizen Ruth, comes my review for his latest, The Descendants. I've been looking forward to this movie for a long time. I guess, technically, since after I saw Sideways like 7 years ago, just as I am now looking forward to his next film, whenever that may be. What I'm saying is, I really like Alexander Payne.

The Descendants is, like his films after Election, a comedy, but only kind of. It has funny stuff, but it also has a lot of sad stuff, a lot of moving stuff, and a lot of painfully real stuff. It stars George Clooney as Matt King, a work obsessed Hawaiian husband and father who suddenly finds his whole life upturned all at once when his wife gets in a boating accident and is put into a coma. He was never much of a father to his daughters, who, due to the traumatic circumstances are both acting out in their own ways, ways that he has no clue how to deal with. On top of this, Matt is in the midst of a huge land deal that could make him and his extended family millionaires, but would bruise the state of Hawaii by bringing development to hundreds of acres of untouched land. As if all that wasn't enough, his life is upturned yet again when he learns the hospital intends to pull the plug on his wife, and it is revealed to him that she was having an affair before the accident.

This guy really needs a break, doesn't he?

So the premise that drives The Descendants is Clooney taking his daughters on a trip to Oahu to find and confront the man his wife was sleeping with. It sounds like I already gave away a lot of the movie, but that was just a whole lot of set-up.

The acting is top notch. George Clooney gives one of his best performances to date. Alexander Payne has a way of taking huge movie stars and making an audience forget that they're famous. It was quite a feat he performed in About Schmidt, making Jack Nicholson the least Jack Nicholson he's ever been.

Clooney is surrounded by a colorful cast of supporting characters that are extremely well realized, even the ones who only have a couple of scenes. His daughters, Alexandra and Scottie, carry the movie along with him. Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), his 17 year old, is a bit of a wild child, but still quite intelligent, and she reminds him of her mother in the most painful ways. Scottie (Amara Miller) is 10, and she is already beginning to show signs of rebellion, even as Matt does his best to keep her innocent of her mother's transgressions. The three of them feel like a real family unit, you never question it.

Along for the ride is Sid, Alexandra's mouthy stoner buddy, played by Nick Krause. Alexandra refuses to go along with her father without Sid, and Matt, not knowing how else to deal with her, acquiesces. My little sister has brought many Sids into our lives, so I found his inclusion pretty hilarious and believable.

There are several other talented performers in the movie in smaller roles, including Robert Forster, Mary Birdsong, Rob Huebel, Beau Bridges, and Matthew Lillard as the man he's looking for. I especially liked Judy Greer, who always deserves mention but seldom gets it. She's so good in general, and especially in The Descendants.

The movie hit home for me several times, and I teared up more than once. There's a lot of underlying sadness in Matt King's journey, and a lot of tension within his family at such a trying time, but rather than being a downer in the end, The Descendants is quite life-affirming without ever feeling forced. All told, I came out of it feeling pretty good about things. I haven't done any real tallying at this point, but I'm fairly certain The Descendants will wind up near the top of my favorite movies of the year list.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Citizen Ruth

I'm not sure why it took me so long to see Citizen Ruth. I love the films of Alexander Payne. So much that I can't even pick a favorite between Election, About Schmidt, and Sideways. So with the very imminent release of Payne's new film, The Descendants (which I will surely be reviewing this weekend), I thought I would go back to the beginning and finally watch his first film.

Citizen Ruth stars Laura Dern as a paint-huffing mess of a human being who, after being taken in from her latest binge by the authorities, finds out she is pregnant. This is nothing new to her. It will be her fifth child that society deems (correctly so) her unfit for. The judge gives her a choice. She either must terminate the pregnancy, or go to prison for placing her unborn child in danger through her excesses.

While being held in jail, Ruth meets a group of Pro-Life protesters who, after hearing her situation, decide to pay her bail and take her in, with the intention of using her as a figurehead for their cause. Soon enough, the Pro-Choicers get their mitts on her too, and Ruth finds herself caught in the middle of an escalating battle between the two.

The satire in Citizen Ruth is sharp and Payne does a great job of walking a fine line. He does this by making the activist groups on both sides of the issue both pretty equally corrupt and self-centered. They are both willing to do anything to get Ruth's endorsement, even though she really doesn't care about what either side thinks.

Laura Dern's portrayal of Ruth is excellent. She and Payne (and co-writer Jim Taylor) have created a perfect foil for these two groups. Even though she is a complete wreck, Ruth is also innocent in her way; not particularly smart, not interested in the greater issue at hand. Her main concern is getting her hands on some cash so she can score again and get high. Despite all this, Payne shows a great deal of empathy for Ruth and her plight. The situation she is pressured into forces her to rethink her priorities and consider maybe getting herself together.

The supporting cast surrounding Dern is a good deal of fun to watch as well. Kurtwood Smith and Mary Kay Place are hilarious as the Pro-Lifers who take her in. I especially liked M.C. Gainey as one of the Pro-Choicers. Burt Reynolds has a small part, in the midst of his post-Boogie-Nights mid-nineties career revival.

Citizen Ruth was a strong first film, but it is still a first film. As much as I enjoyed it, I think Alexander Payne was still working out his trademark style and tone. The subject matter is bold, and was surely a great way to get his name out there, but I felt the satire in his second film (Election) was a lot funnier, if not quite as edgy, and his (and our) empathy for his often hopeless characters has only grown in his later films. Still, Citizen Ruth is totally worth checking out if you haven't yet, especially if you're a fan of Payne's other work.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Logan's Run

Keepin' the review part of this one short, but guess what? I've got illustrations!

Logan's Run is a 1976 science fiction film by Michael Anderson, set in a future where everybody is put to death when they reach 30. It stars Michael York as Logan 5, and Jenny Agutter as Jessica 6, two citizens who choose to run before their time is up, searching for the legendary "Sanctuary". They wind up exploring the underbelly of the world, seeing what their society is really like, and ultimately escaping, before deciding to return and bring freedom to the rest of their people. That's the very brief version.

It was made not long before Star Wars, which means the special effects weren't quite "there" yet. There's some high camp value therein, but it's all in fun. I actually liked the movie quite a bit. The world was really cool in that stylized 70's way. Lots of unconvincing miniatures and silly future clothes. Michael York and Jenny Agutter (mmmm...) are both enjoyable to watch and easily carry the movie. Peter Ustinov is kind of horrifying as the oldest man on earth. He's not meant to be, but if I met him, I'd never want to age past 30. Speaking of which, I always wished the maximum age was much younger, like it was in the book. Death at 30 isn't nearly as resonant as 21, and the social commentary could be much richer if all the people running around in this world are practically children. There's a remake coming out in the not too distant future by the guy who made Drive. Maybe he'll delve a little deeper into that.

And now, without further ado, my take on Logan's Run in four horribly rendered MS Paint pictures. Thanks for reading!

Dracula (1931)

Whaaaat? Dracula? But Halloween is over, you might say. And I might say you're right. I planned on watching Dracula in October, but I missed my arbitrary deadline by a week or so. I did, however, finish reading the book before Halloween, and holy crap, it was good.

As those scant few followers of this blog surely know, I've been watching all the Universal monster movies over the course of the year. I've enjoyed the lot of them, especially the James Whale ones, so I went into Tod Browning's Dracula with reasonably high expectations. Sadly, it was not able to live up to them.

The movie opens with Renfield visiting Dracula's castle in Transylvania, right away a huge departure from the novel, where it was Jonathan Harker's duty. Dracula uses his hypnotic powers on Renfield to turn him into his lacky. He comes along on the boat to England, where Dracula abandons him to be committed. While in England, Dracula uses his powers to seduce and transform Lucy Westenra and begin the same process on Mina (now Dr. Seward's daughter), while they try to hunt him down and prevent Mina's transformation.

There are some inspired scenes and moments that were sufficiently creepy. I loved the way the lights would only shine on Bela Lugosi's eyes when he was using his hypnotic power. And there was a great shot of the dead captain of the ship that brings Dracula to London. But despite the expressionistic style and moody atmosphere, I felt the movie suffered from being too cheap. Yes, I know all these Universal movies were made on a shoestring, but some were able to work around it and hide it more creatively than others. This movie has a scene where they're watching a wolf (Dracula in wolf form), and since they couldn't get a wolf, they just stand there and describe to the audience what the wolf is doing. I felt a little cheated.

Bela Lugosi, is of course, magnetic in the role. I can see why he is iconic. I think it's weird the way people paint such a pointy widow's peak on their forehead when they dress as Dracula, because his isn't that pronounced. I also liked Dwight Frye as the lunatic Renfield a lot. He was awesomely over the top and really fun to watch. I don't think the rest of the cast deserves much mention, though. They were for the most part forgettable, if not kind of bad. That's too bad, too, because in the book, Professor Van Helsing is every bit as iconic as Count Dracula and Renfield, and Mina Murray/Harker/Seward is a fantastic character, too.

Maybe it was because I had just read the book and they left out a lot of my favorite parts, I don't know. I thought Dracula was a pretty slow movie and was kind of bored. You know what? Besides Monster Squad, I'm pretty sure this was the first movie I've seen with Dracula in it. I would like to see other adaptations, but I hope some of them are more faithful to Bram Stoker's story. What's the best Dracula movie? Is the Coppola movie worth watching? Keanu Reeves as Harker worries me a bit. Hey, I like Keanu in things, and am willing to defend him, but even I have my limits.

I seem to be rambling, so I guess it's time to go. Final thought? Dracula has its moments, but if given the choice, watch Frankenstein or The Invisible Man instead. Blah!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Winnebago Man

Ahhh, the early days of viral videos. Remember when these funny, weird little videos would float around the web and people would laugh at them and pass them around for months? Nowadays, they rarely have that kind of longevity. We watch them, laugh, and forget the next day when somebody else's embarrassing video comes to our attention.

Winnebago Man is a documentary about one of the web's first viral video sensations. I had forgotten all about this video, but the moment they showed footage from it, it all came rushing back. The Winnebago Man, known alternately as "The Angriest Man in the World", is Jack Rebney. In 1989, Rebney filmed an industrial video for Winnebago. He was so comically nasty, grouchy, and foul mouthed between takes, that somebody on the crew saw fit to edit together the outtakes and pass the video around. 16 years later, it found its way onto a fledgling Youtube, and took the world by storm. It found its way into pop culture (we're treated to Ben Affleck doing an impression, and a reference to it on 30 Rock), and had countless parody videos and even an Italian knockoff made. The documentary's director, Ben Steinbauer, became fascinated with Rebney's tragically hilarious outbursts, and decided to track the history of the video, and attempt to track down Rebney himself, if he's indeed still out there.

At first, I thought this movie was going to lay a guilt trip on those of us who laugh at viral videos. You know, because these people are human too, and this kind of notoriety could cause a lot of damage to somebody's psyche. The Star Wars Kid is a good example of that. But it doesn't judge us for laughing at these people. We can't help it if these videos are funny. It does address these issues, and even talks to some other subjects of these unintentionally videos. It's all very interesting, and you do sympathize with these people.

Winnebago Man really takes off when Steinbauer finds Rebney. He lives alone, running a campground in Northern California. He seems to be calm, at peace, and able to laugh at himself. If that seems too good to be true, it's because it is. A week later, Steinbauer gets a call from Rebney, saying that was all a ruse. I'm happy to report that Jack Rebney is still the exact same man we saw in that video, and he's irate about the youth of today and their internets and Youtubes.

As the movie progresses, we come to sympathize with Rebney, and maybe even like him a little (don't get me wrong, I wouldn't want to spend any time with him). He is who he is. He's grouchy and angry even towards people he likes. The climax is when Steinbauer convinces Jack to attend a Found Footage Festival screening of his video and do a Q & A. You get a sense that Jack has come to terms with this whole thing, maybe just a little.

Winnebago Man reminded me a great deal of last year's awesome documentary, Best Worst Movie, about the cult status of the hilariously terrible Troll 2. They both follow the effects of a new kind of fame, where maybe the people who love something aren't loving it for the intended reasons. These movies both humanize their subjects while still giving us permission to find them funny. We as viewers should just all be mindful that we're all just one accident or unguarded moment away from being a cult sensation ourselves.

Saturday, November 5, 2011


One of the things I love most about Alfred Hitchcock is the way he would find ways to challenge himself. Sure, he mostly stayed within the thriller genre, so there was always the relative safety of knowing he's doing what he does best. But Hitchcock would sometimes find ways to intentionally restrict himself as a director, such as limiting his camera's perspective to only that which his protagonist could see, in Rear Window.

Rope is Hitchcock at his most experimental, taking away from his arsenal what is perhaps the most important tool a director has for building suspense: editing. Rope is a story told in (seemingly) a single shot. The limitations of the time, specifically the length of a reel, forced him to hide a cut in there every 10 minutes or so. What does Hitchcock do without editing? He finds a million other ways to increase tension.

The story follows two old prep school chums, Brandon and Phillip, who in the film's opening, have just finished strangling a man (David, a third "chum") to death. Brandon believes they have committed the perfect crime, Phillip is not so sure. All that's left to do is to wait until dark, and take the body out to the country to dispose of it.

It's not going to be that easy, though, is it? Brandon is so cocky and brazen, his head so full of philosophical justifications of his own intellectual superiority, that he can't help but see just how far he can dangle his accomplishment over everybody's heads without them catching on. The best way to do that? Throw a dinner party before they go, the guest list full of associates and loved ones of the victim himself.

Among the guests are their housekeeper, David's girlfriend, his father and aunt, the 4th chum in their Chummery, and Rupert, their old teacher, the one who filled Brandon's head with these philosophical notions (played by Jimmy Stewart). James Stewart is the biggest name in the movie, so you know he has a meaty role.

Brandon takes every chance he possibly can to drop little hints of what he and Phillip did in front of the guests. Phillip is just trying to keep it together. Rupert can see that something suspicious is going on, and is putting the pieces together. It's pretty much one of Hitchcock's "perfect murder" setups, where a character starts off thinking they're secure, and we get to watch as their schemes slowly crumble do to a missed detail here and there.

The fun of the movie is in Hitchcock's inventiveness in finding tension and suspense without edits. The camera swoops all around the apartment, following different conversations as they happen in real time, and panning in on objects, letting the audience in on details that the characters may not be aware of yet. The music is only source music, never soundtrack, and it is provided by the jittery Phillip, nervously fumbling through an off-kilter, lilting piano tune.

The lighting is pretty masterful, as well. Set in a New York high rise, the movie uses a phony backdrop of the New York skyline outside. The movie is set at dusk, though, so with some clever trickery, the backdrop is replaced with darker and darker ones as the sun sets. Things reach a crescendo when the blaring neon lights on the building across the street burst on, washing the room in anxious reds and greens.

Some of the edits in Rope are more subtle than others. Most of the time, Hitchcock just pushes in on the back of an actor's jacket and hides the cut there, where the screen is all black. There's a particularly seamless one early in the film, where he cleverly overlaps the sound of piano and dialogue from the next shot in with the previous.

Rope is more known for its gimmick than its content, but I found the story to be quite entertaining. Jimmy Stewart is always fun to watch, isn't he? Hitchcock was the master of pulling our strings, and there's a subtle psychology to the way he would put together a story, especially within his editing. It's interesting to see that he was just as able to mess around with us without the benefit of his greatest tool as he was with it.