Thursday, May 24, 2012


Taika Waititi's Boy is a film I had been dying to see for over two years, since I first heard of it when it played at Sundance 2010. I occasionally dug around on the internet to see if there was any news of its U.S. release, and even considered buying an expensive imported copy of the DVD. I just loved the trailer that much. Now that I've finally seen it, I can say that Boy is every bit as funny, quirky, and heartwarming as the trailer made it out to be.

Set in a poor Maori area of New Zealand in 1984, Boy is the story of a boy named Boy (played fantastically by James Rolleston). His mother died while giving birth to his little brother, Rocky (Te Aho Aho Eketone-Whitu), and his father is in jail, so he lives with his largely absent grandmother and takes care of his brother and several cousins.

Boy worships his father. He sees him as all great things: a samurai warrior, a soldier, and most important of all, his idol, Michael Jackson. When his father, Alamein (played by writer/director Waititi), comes back from his stint in jail, Boy is ready to follow him anywhere. Unfortunately, Alamein is about as bad as a deadbeat dad can be, and is only back home so he can find a bag of stolen money he buried years ago.

While Boy hopelessly dotes on his father, Alamein uses his son to get whatever he wants. He makes Boy dig for his treasure, has him steal weed for him, etc., all the while dangling the empty promise that he'll take him away with him when he goes. Even worse, Alamein can't look his other son, Rocky, in the eyes, still blaming him for his lover's death. In the end, Boy must choose between following in his father's footsteps, or living up to his true potential, whatever that means.

Boy feels very personal and heartfelt, and maybe even partially autobiographical. I don't know for sure if anything like this actually happened to Taika Waititi, but I wouldn't be surprised if he had grown up in a similar situation as this. Waititi utilizes his quirky visual techniques, such as childish hand-drawn animation sequences, and fantasy dance numbers in homage to Michael Jackson's famous music videos for Thriller, to let us into Boy's world. There's also a great soundtrack by New Zealand band The Phoenix Foundation.

Newcomer James Rolleston is excellent as the title character. In fact, all of the children in the movie just feel like real kids. None of them have the artificiality of the type of child actor we get over here in America.

Taika Waititi is funny, too, as Alamein. While definitely a bit misguided, there's a childishness to him that allows you to want to like him, even when he's not exactly behaving like a very good role model for his kids. You hope that maybe he'll grow up one day and take responsibility.

Boy is worth looking into if you see it around. The U.S. theatrical release is pretty limited, but I have a feeling that if you miss it in theaters (or if you're reading this in the fuuuuuuuuuutuuuuuuuuure...), you will be able to find it at some point, on DVD, or streaming. Seek it out, if you can. Great movie.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Fly (1958)

Kurt Neumann's original 1958 version of The Fly was way better than I thought it would be. I expected the usual 1950's monster movie, something along the lines of the stuff you would see on Mystery Science Theater 3000. There is some camp, of course, but there are some genuinely creepy moments, the characters are three dimensional, and the narrative structure is quite smart.

The story begins in a factory, where the body of Andre, a scientist, has been found, his head and arm crushed in a pressing machine. We meet the scientist's brother Francois, played by Vincent Price, and his wife, Helene, who was at the scene of the crime, and under suspicion for murder. They are unsure if she is insane or just faking it. After earning her trust, Francois gets Helene to tell the story of the events leading up to the incident.

In flashback, we learn that Andre was developing a matter transporting machine. He excitedly shows it to his wife, demonstrating it on an ashtray. When it dissipates and appears in another chamber, the letters on the bottom are all jumbled up, so apparently it still needs work. After fixing it, he tries it on the family's cat. It disappears and never reappears. It's one of the creepier moments in the movie, when you just hear the cat's seemingly tortured cry coming from nowhere. Finally, sure he's fixed it, Andre tests his matter transporter on himself. Unfortunately, a fly gets in with him and their bodies are crossed with each other.

The movie is told from Helene's point of view. She is unsure what has happened to Andre, just that he refuses to leave his lab and speaks to her through notes. When she finally does see him, he has his head covered up by a cloth, which is also creepy. She finally learns that the fly has his head and one of his arms, and the only hope of returning him to normal is to find that fly. She and her son and the maid all go on a hunt for a fly with a white head, before Andre loses his grip on his humanity and becomes a monster.

I liked the slow reveal of Andre in fly form. It's sort of like how you don't see the shark in Jaws until the end, just glimpses. This works the same way, where you know whatever is under that sheet is horrifying, and when you finally do see it, well, it's kind of fake looking but it looks pretty great for the 1950's.

I won't spoil the ending, of course, but since you know that Andre's head and arm are smashed from the very beginning, you know it can't end well. I actually can't believe they got away with the way they ended the movie. Or the whole pressing machine thing. The movie is pretty gruesome for its time, and unsettling.

I enjoy being surprised by a movie like The Fly. I had already written it off as B-movie fare before even watching it, and it wound up being genuinely good. It's nice when one's preconceived notions are proven pleasantly wrong.

Monday, May 21, 2012


For some reason, I didn't grow up with the stories of Roald Dahl. I watched Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory many many times over, but nobody ever told me there were books! I would have loved them as a kid. It wasn't until adulthood that I started reading Roald Dahl's children's books, and even a collection of his adult short stories. I actually just read Matilda for the first time last year.

Adapted into a film in 1996 with Danny DeVito directing, Matilda is the story of a special little girl (Mara Wilson), born to the wrong family. Her dad (DeVito) is a greedy scam artist who runs a crooked used car dealership, and her mother (Rhea Perlman) is a preening, beauty-obsessed, Bingo-addict. While Matilda teaches herself to read and write at a very early age, her parents and big brother mostly ignore her, but sometimes berate her for not being more like they are.

As the years pass, Matilda proves herself more and more gifted, able to do long math, spending her days reading library books rather than watch game shows with her family. After a while, she sees her family for what they are, and decides that little kids aren't necessarily the only ones that need to be punished. She decides that when her dad does something especially bad, she'll turn the tables on him with a prank of some sort.

But when Matilda goes to school, she learns that her parents are the least of her worries. The monstrous and sadistic headmistress, The Trunchbull, is known for locking children in small rooms and throwing little girls by spinning them around by their pigtails. Matilda decides she must use her gifts to free her school of the tyranny of the Trunchbull.

More often than not, Dahl's books tend to make good movies. He never talked down to kids, and often wrote some strange and scary things. Matilda is loaded with that kind of stuff, with her mean, borderline abusive parents, and the villainous headmistress. But I can't see a kid being too scared, because they know Matilda is smarter than the grownups and will always have the upper hand.

DeVito does a great job adapting the story. He uses his trademark quirky visual style to create a fantastical world that feels true to Dahl's writing. He's also hilarious as Matilda's father. It's possibly some of the funniest acting of his career. Mara Wilson was quite a discovery for the role of Matilda, cute and innocent enough to get away with committing mischievous acts of revenge on adults without ever losing the viewers' support in this.

Of all the Roald Dahl films, Matilda may be the truest to the source material. As much as I love Willy Wonka and Fantastic Mr. Fox, they do both deviate from the books a good deal. I wish I hadn't missed out on this guy's books when I was at the age to properly appreciate them. Come to think of it, I have a niece and nephew who probably have no idea what they're missing. Perhaps it's time to change that.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Fantastic Voyage

I was really looking forward to seeing Fantastic Voyage. It's directed by Richard Fleischer, who had a respectable career, directed some real classics, and also Conan the Destroyer and Red Sonja. It has a really cool premise, with a crew shrinking themselves to go inside a man's body. I loved Joe Dante's Innerspace growing up. It also has groundbreaking for its time special effects and production design. Unfortunately, the movie itself just didn't hold my interest.

When the scientist developing the shrinking technology is nearly assassinated and rendered comatose from a blood clot in his brain, a small crew is put together to shrink down and go inside his brain to perform laser surgery on the clot. Unfortunately, I can't tell you that much about the crew, because I just wasn't very engaged by them. Raquel Welch was basically just "the girl" (though she looked amazing) and there was one scientist who constantly spouted out profound philosophical musings on what they were doing. The only performance that was fun to watch for me was Donald Pleasance as the claustrophobic scientist guy. Pleasance built a career on playing fun-to-watch supporting characters. When you're telling a high concept, fairly simple story like this, character is important. They need to be more colorful and memorable than they were in this case.

I did appreciate the attempt to ground Fantastic Voyage in real science. Obviously, the shrinking part is all made up, a necessary conceit of the premise, but Isaac Asimov worked on the story, straightening out some kinks, and giving it some scientific credibility, in terms of being inside a body and everything. It's really hard to do a science fiction movie right when you're actually paying attention to the science part of it, and I wish it happened more often.

I'm pretty sure I'm in the minority on this one. I know Fantastic Voyage was and still is a well regarded sci-fi adventure. I can appreciate it on a technical level, for sure. Unfortunately, the movie just didn't reach me on a human level. This is one of those rare movies I'd actually be interested in seeing a remake of.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Avengers

I have been waiting four years for this. Marvel Studios announced the Avengers movie the Monday after the first Iron Man came out in 2008. Heck, they announced it even earlier by putting Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury at the end of the credits. Now four years later, having seen The Avengers, I can't believe they not only pulled it off, but knocked it out of the park.

Admittedly, I'm a lifelong comic book reader, so I don't know how that colors my opinions. I'm also a part of the cult of the movie's writer/director, Joss Whedon, whose career I've been following since the first episode of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV show aired when I was in 9th grade. The Avengers was pretty much made for me.

But Marvel and Whedon didn't just target the nerds with The Avengers. They crafted a giant event film for the largest audience possible. An event film that truly feels like an event. Not since the Universal monsters started meeting Abbott and Costello has a studio so successfully combined characters from four separate movie franchises into one movie.

For those of you that live in a cave, The Avengers is the story of Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and The Hulk all team up to defeat a world-threatening evil. Rounding the team out are superspy Black Widow, crackshot archer Hawkeye, and Nick Fury, the morally ambiguous director of SHIELD, a global peacekeeping organization.

The Avengers are not well known for how well they get along. These guys have big egos, and wildly clashing personalities. Part of the fun in the first half is watching the good guys duke it out with each other, in basically the most epic pissing contest in cinema history, before things start going crazy in the second half and they have bigger fish to fry.

The second half is where The Avengers really takes off. It's a slow build, but once the last 45 minutes come along and the heroes battle an alien army, ravaging New York City in the process, the movie provides one huge crowd pleasing moment after another. I think just about every thing you ever wanted to see done with these characters is done.

Joss Whedon is a lifelong fan, too, and he understands what we, the viewers want to see, and he delivers it with wild abandon. The characters are imbued with all the complexity and humanity that made them endure in the first place. Downey Jr. shines as always as Tony Stark/Iron Man, and the Chrises Evans and Hemsworth bring it with Captain America and Thor. Scarlett Johannson gets a whole lot more to do this time around as Black Widow, the spy with Red in her past. But the characters who stole the show for me were Mark Ruffalo's Bruce Banner/The Hulk, finally done right in a movie, and Tom Hiddleston's Loki, the perpetually monologuing, pompous Norse God of lies and mischief.

Also, did I mention the movie is extremely funny? The dialogue is endlessly witty, and there are several big comedy moments throughout. The audience laughed more at The Avengers than a lot of comedies I've seen.

I could go on and on and on about The Avengers, but I feel like I would be in danger of falling into one of those "and the part where this happened... and then the part where THIS happened..." situations, where I just list everything. I loved it. And I don't think you need to know the comic books to love it too. The Avengers is a real-deal phenomenon.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Front Page

Billy Wilder is one of the greats. No contest. I believe I've said something along those lines just recently in my review of Ace in the Hole. In fact, Ace in the Hole inspired my wife and I to seek out another Wilder film. The combination of Wilder directing and Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau starring convinced us to take a look at The Front Page, a remake of a 1930's movie, based on a play. It was made pretty late in Wilder's career, and it's not even close to his best work, but it's still enjoyable enough.

Jack Lemmon stars as Hildy Johnson, a newspaper man through and through, who comes into the office to tell his editor in chief, Walter Burns (Matthau) that he's out of the game. He met a girl and fell in love, and they're about to take the next train out of Chicago. Burns won't have it, though, and he uses every dirty trick he has to pull Hildy back in.

Burns sends Hildy on one last assignment, to cover the hanging of a supposed radical. When the radical escapes death row, and basically falls right into Hildy's lap, Hildy's reporter instinct takes over and he goes to any length to hide the escaped inmate from the police, his fellow reporters, and the woman he's quitting the newspaper business for.

Though it came out in 1974, Wilder infuses The Front Page with snappy 1930's style dialogue, and frantic comedic pacing. It's always a joy to see Lemmon and Matthau, one of the great comedy duos, working together. I also liked seeing a young Susan Sarandon as Hildy's fiancee Peggy, who knows their marriage won't work as long as Hildy is married to the newspaper.

Despite the good things, though, the movie isn't exactly fresh. Wilder was one of the edgiest filmmakers of his time, that time mainly being the 1940's and 1950's. By the time The Front Page was made, the face of cinema had changed. Movies like The Godfather, Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, and Badlands had all come out, and they were all able to tackle mature issues head on in a way that Wilder was only able to allude to in his day. The Front Page feels kind of limp compared to those movies, and also compared to Wilder's early work. Ace in the Hole is a Billy Wilder film from 20 years earlier, and it explores the lengths a newspaper man will go to get a good story in a much more subversive and edgy way than this.

The Front Page was still worth watching. It was well executed and funny and Lemmon and Matthau are a delight. But if you haven't already seen Wilder's other films, such as Sunset Boulevard, The Apartment, or Some Like it Hot, I would recommend you skip The Front Page and watch the classics ASAP.

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Five Year Engagement

I'm generally a fan of the comedies produced by Judd Apatow. He has a pretty high hit rate with me so far, and I like the people he works with both behind and in front of the camera. Knowing this going in, and the fact that it looked like a lot of the subject matter mirrored my life in some way, I was pretty sure The Five Year Engagement was going to be right up my alley. I ended up disappointed.

The Five Year Engagement is the story of Tom (Jason Segel) and Violet (Emily Blunt), a couple who get engaged, but have to keep repeatedly pushing back their wedding whenever life gets in the way. The longer they wait, the harder things get, until they question whether they should get married at all. It's a good enough premise, and I like the leads, but I found the movie just really light on laughs.

It was a weird feeling for certain aspects of the story to really hit home for me on a personal level, even though I wasn't laughing a great deal. Hey look! They have to move to Michigan! I grew up in Michigan and they're making Michigan jokes! They move because Violet is working on her psychology doctorate, and he's miserable there. MY wife is working on her psychology doctorate. I moved with her from Chicago to Texas and, no, I don't like it here either. We didn't delay our wedding, though. This movie reflects my life a whole bunch, yet I still wasn't feeling it.

My biggest problem came in the section of the film set in Michigan, where a depressed Tom tries to make the best of his situation and throws himself into the Michigan way of living. He starts hunting deer almost obsessively and grows a funny beard. Once that happens, I found it hard to believe Tom as a character, because they push it all too far. And I take pride in my very durable suspension of disbelief.

It's not all bad, though. The characters are all quite likeable. Segel and Blunt are actually upstaged by Alison Brie and Chris Pratt, as Violet's sister and Tom's best friend, who hook up at the engagement party, and end up married and with children while Tom and Violet are stuck in purgatory. I could watch a whole movie about Brie and Pratt.

The Five Year Engagement was directed by Nicholas Stoller who cowrote it with Segel. The two of them typically make a great team. My favorite Apatow production is Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which they made together. They crafted such a likeable cast of three dimensional characters in that, that I even wanted to hang out with the ones I wasn't supposed to like. Segel also helped out with the hilariously vapid songs in Stoller's 2nd film, Get Him to the Greek, and they also cowrote last year's glorious and sincere love letter, The Muppets. I have no reason to think they won't make another great comedy together at some point, but this one didn't work for me.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Magnificent Seven

The Magnificent Seven, in addition to being a rollicking good adventure, holds a place of importance in the landscape of world cinema. Or at least, I think it does. In 1954, with his Seven Samurai, director Akira Kurosawa redefined the samurai movie genre by infusing it with the visual style and values of a John Ford western. Six years later, in 1960, Hollywood would come full circle by remaking a Japanese Western into a Western Western.

The world of cinema was getting increasingly smaller, as international films had an increasing influence on filmmakers of the time. The directors of the French New Wave looked to Hollywood auteurs such as Alfred Hitchcock for inspiration. Not long after, the next generation of Hollywood directors, (Coppola, Malick, Scorsese, Lucas, etc.) would look to Kurosawa and the French New Wave. Nowadays, directors draw their influences from around the world and throughout the last century.

Directed by John Sturges, The Magnificent Seven follows the structure of Seven Samurai fairly closely, though in a faster paced, more truncated way. While Seven Samurai is an epic, The Magnificent Seven is a thoroughly enjoyable piece of popcorn entertainment. Sturges clearly has a lot of reverence for Kurosawa, and shows it in his work, with many direct nods or homages to his source material throughout the movie.

The seven in question are led by Yul Brynner, probably cast just as much for his bald head as for his screen presence (the character in the Japanese version shaves his head). He is recruited by a farming village in Mexico to form a posse to help rid them of an army of 40 bandits bent on stealing their crops. Rounding out the posse are such icons of manliness as Steve McQueen, Robert Vaughn, Charles Bronson (the youngest I've ever seen him, still looks 70), and James Coburn.

The movie doesn't try to mimic Seven Samurai entirely. The seven don't all have the same motivations and personalities as their counterparts, for example. Also, the bandits are given more of a presence; rather than just being faceless bad guys, they are led by Eli Wallach.

Two of the samurai are sort of collapsed into one, in the case of Chico, played by Horst Buchholz. He takes both the role of the eager, hotheaded drifter who shoehorns his way into the group, and the young, naive kid learning the ropes who finds love with a peasant girl. I didn't really care for this. Buchholz would have worked fine as the kid, but he wasn't fit to fill the shoes of the great Toshiro Mifune, in what was possibly his most memorable and iconic role. They should have looked at that character as just as important a role as the Yul Brynner character, and found an appropriate actor.

The Magnificent Seven is as enjoyable as a streamlined remake of a longer, better foreign film can be. It's fun to watch so many superstars sharing the screen together. The score by Elmer Bernstein is tremendous and memorable, and is still referenced in Western movie scores. Also, I was glad to hear that Akira Kurosawa was a fan of the movie.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Everything Must Go

Putting a comedy actor in a dramatic role is not a new idea, and it should come as no surprise by now when it works. Of course these actors are good at drama. Comedy is hard. The real risk comes in how seriously these comedy actors wish to be taken. The best of the dramas starring comedians come across as movies they really cared about and wanted to be involved in. The worst (I'm looking at you, Robin Williams!) come across as desperate bids to be taken seriously. Thankfully, Everything Must Go is in the former category.

Everything Must Go is a film directed by Dan Rush, based on a short story by Raymond Carver. Carver's minimalist stories are perhaps best known by film lovers for providing the raw material for Robert Altman's classic ensemble epic, Short Cuts. Everything Must Go stars Will Ferrell as Nick Halsey, a recovering alcoholic who falls off the wagon, loses his job, and comes home to find his wife has changed the key to his house and thrown all of his belongings onto the front lawn. His AA sponsor, Frank (Michael Pena) is a cop , who is able to pull some strings and give him six days to clear his lawn, by registering it as a yard sale. Over the days, he finds companionship in a lonely kid whose mom is busy as a hospice worker, and a pregnant woman who has just moved in across the way, and begins the steps to putting his life back together by completely letting go of his old life.

It's fun to watch Nick let go. He starts off unwilling to sell any of his belongings, not even a half-used bottle of mouthwash, but as the movie progresses and he has one small revelation about himself after another, his yard sale gains momentum. One of my favorite comedy stars, Will Ferrell brings a lot of control to his performance. His character is a funny guy, but he's not Will Ferrell funny. There are laughs, but they come naturally, and often at his expense.

Though Carver's stories were short and sparse, there is a recognizable element of his work found in Everything Must Go. We as viewers get to eavesdrop on Nick and his neighbors in some of their most private moments, in an almost voyeuristic way. Also, there's a scene when Nick reaches a low point, and contacts a girl he barely remembers, who wrote a nice message in his high school yearbook. Played compassionately by Laura Dern, she recognizes Nick's desperation and helps him remember why she wrote what she wrote. That scene itself could have almost been a Carver story.

I really liked Everything Must Go. It had a positive, almost Buddhist message without being preachy. It really dragged its protagonist through the mud, took him all the way to rock bottom, but also gave him a clean break. I related to it personally in some small sense. I'm not a drunk or anything, but I do have a TON of stuff, and I do have a real hard time getting rid of it. I've had to let go of some fairly dear possessions the last couple of times I moved, including many childhood toys, and my MAD magazine collection. It's not easy to do, but it does feel quite liberating once the deed is done. Everything Must Go made me remember that feeling and think maybe it would be good for me to lose some more of my junk.

Jane Eyre (1943)

I only have a passing familiarity with the story of Jane Eyre. My wife is a fan of Charlotte Bronte's* novel, though I've never read it myself. I wanted to see the movie version that came out recently, and I heard was pretty good, but I haven't had that chance yet. So that all means that this, Robert Stevenson's 1943 adaptation of the novel, starring Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles, is my first real introduction to Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester.

Jane Eyre is the story of a girl who, after a difficult, loveless youth, finds love in the shape of a stern, grouchy, rich man with a secret. Her journey is full of hardships and heartbreaks, and all of those things that made a good novel in the 19th century.

Our main reason for watching this version of Jane Eyre when we did was to see another movie starring Joan Fontaine, who my wife and I both loved in Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca. Fontaine makes a pretty great Jane Eyre (or so I'm told by my wife), which is no surprise, since Rebecca is kind of exactly the same story, but with a more modern, suspense thriller vibe. I liked her better in Rebecca, though, especially in the early parts of the movie, when she's all awkward and clumsy and timid.

Orson Welles is Orson Welles, which is great. This was made not long after Citizen Kane. I always kind of wondered if other directors felt weird directing the guy who blew the doors of possibility wide open on the way movies were made. The screenplay was based off a radio production that Welles performed with his theater troup. He makes a pretty believable Mr. Rochester, and is able to find and show us the humanity in such a grouch, allowing the viewer to understand what Jane Eyre might see in this guy.

The director, Robert Stevenson, is actually a very important movie director, though one many of us may not know by name. Starting in the 1950's, he became the Disney studio's go-to guy for their live action kids movies. He directed some true Disney classics, including Mary Poppins, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, The Nutty Professor, The Shaggy Dog, and That Darn Cat. Jane Eyre is made long before any of those movies, and shows that earlier in his career, he could make mature and serious films just as well as he could make whimsical family movies.

Well, there you have it. I finally know what Jane Eyre is all about. Maybe someday I'll read the novel. I do enjoy reading the classics from time to time.

Oh hey, one more thing: Aldous Huxley worked on the script for this. Crazy, right?

*Apologies to die hard Bronte fans, (or Brontesauruses as I have just now decided to call them), I have no idea how to put the two little dots over the E in her name.

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Manitou

Welcome, everybody, to my 200th movie review! I started writing these reviews 16 months ago as a hobby more than anything else, and since then, I've written about every single movie that I've watched for the first time (and even a couple of repeat viewings). Is there no end in sight?

I had originally intended to add some drawings for movie 200, and I even tried to start some, but as it turns out, nothing I can draw can even come close to the utter insanity that is The Manitou. The Manitou, directed by William Girdler, is one of those weird, post-Exorcist 1970's horror movies, that tried to add some level of believability to their movie by rooting it in both medical science and some sort of mythology. Remember that scene in The Exorcist where they took the little girl to get a cat scan? That they would try to explain her behavior medically before resorting to the Catholic stuff made the movie feel so much more real.

In the case of The Manitou, the attempt to ground the story in reality just comes across as silly. It is the story of Karen, a woman in San Francisco who visits a specialist because of a tumor growing on the back of her neck. The doctors are baffled by it as well. When Karen goes under to have the tumor removed, the tumor starts to fight back, possessing the surgeon to cut his own hand with his scalpel rather than it.

While in town, she runs into an old friend/lover, a charlatan fortune teller played by Tony Curtis, and they become reacquainted. Strange occurrences cause him to suspect all is not well with Karen. She mutters ominous foreign words in her sleep.

So, what is it about this tumor, you ask? Well, I'm going to spoil it for you, because it's pretty bugnuts. You see, there is a fetus growing inside the tumor on the back of Karen's neck. Weird, huh? I'm not finished, though. It is the fetus of a powerful ancient Native American shaman, using Karen's body as a host to reincarnate himself and enact vengeance upon the white man. Good night, everybody!

Still there? Well, there's plenty more to say. I feel like I can ruin things in this movie and still have confidence that you will want to watch it in order to see the scene where a dwarf wearing Native American monster makeup climbs out of the tumor on the woman's back. Or the insane final showdown in the Astral Plane or something where Karen shoots lasers out of her hands to fight the Shaman.

The crazy thing about The Manitou is, as utterly ridiculous as it is, it's kind of watchable. I think this is owed to the fact that the story is told very earnestly. The people who made this never seemed to realize the absurdity of the premise, and that in and of itself helps lend a level of enjoyability to it.

As hilarious as all that weird tumor stuff is, my favorite scene is the one where Tony Curtis is doing his fortune telling scam on an old woman. He wears a robe with magical looking symbols on it and a fake mustache (???) to make himself seem more mystical. Then the old lady gets possessed by the shaman who starts flipping out and throws the old lady down the stairs. Boy, that sounds hilarious, doesn't it? I guess you just have to see it for yourself.

I also liked the supporting cast, which includes Tony Curtis' character's friends, one of whom looks like a member of The Doobie Brothers or something. And there's also a cameo by the great Burgess Meredith as an expert on Native American mythology. He also forms a friendship with a real Native American shaman, who agrees to help him defeat the evil one inside Karen's tumor in exchange for a donation to a charity and some tobacco for himself (he was almost out).

The Manitou is a truly strange relic of the 1970's. Though I can't recommend it as a good film, I thought it was still a fun movie, and worth watching, just to say I've now seen a little man climb out of a neck tumor. It probably would have been even more fun to watch with a group of like-minded and possibly inebriated friends, but this time around, I was on my own and sober, and I still had an oddly good time.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Grifters

Making a good Con Man movie at this point is no easy task. It's always fun to watch con artists pull off a job, but the genre itself is riddled with cliches. I get so tired of when you find out that the con man hero was actually being conned the whole time, by his partner or mark. That was a funny and original twist thirty years ago in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, but a tired old gag by the time it turned up ten years ago in Matchstick Men.

The Grifters is, thankfully, different from the typical con man movie. In fact, it's not like any I've ever seen. It is less interested in the act of deception and more interested in getting inside the characters and exploring the reasons why they make a living out of deceiving. Produced in 1990 by Martin Scorsese, and directed by Stephen Frears, The Grifters is a dark and gritty look at what makes the con artist tick.

John Cusack stars as Roy, a young grifter who focuses only on the small game. He learned from his mentor never to pull a long con, never to work with partners, and never to get caught. Unfortunately, he's maybe not as good as his mentor. At the start of the movie, he gets caught by a bartender he attempts to rip off and takes a baseball bat to the gut, resulting in his hospitalization for internal bleeding.

This brings his mother, Lilly (Anjelica Huston), out of the woodwork. She works at a horse racing track for a dirty bookie, betting on horses in order to mess up the odds. Lilly had Roy when she was only 14, and never has fully forgiven him for ruining her life. The feeling is mutual. Roy has issues with her methods of parenting as well.

Roy's girlfriend, Myra (Annette Bening), is also in the game. Though in her glory days, she worked long cons with the big guys, she now also works small time, largely relying on sex to get the job done. There is an instant dislike between Myra and Lilly upon meeting.

What follows is a story of deception and betrayal, as the three characters demonstrate just how far they will go to get what they want. I loved that there wasn't a "mark" or a con that they all team up to pull on somebody. It was all about the three of them.

In the case of Cusack, he's not willing to go quite as far as the women. He doesn't really have what it takes to be in the game, and that's what makes him likeable, and maybe is why his performance is not as well regarded as Bening's and Huston's, who both got Oscar nominations. He really is just as good as they are, though. This was made not long after Say Anything... with Cusack hungry for the big leagues and ready for more grown-up roles.

As said before, Annette Bening and Anjelica Huston are fantastic as well. They take each of their characters to really dark places. Moreso than with Cusack's character, who really just wants to be loved by his mother, you see through them the kind of damaged person one must be to make a life out of lying.

Stephen Frears is an extremely talented director who has made some great movies in a wide range of different genres. He is perhaps best known, in addition to The Grifters, for directing another John Cusack classic, High Fidelity. These two work together excellently. I'd go so far as to say Frears is the best Cusack director there is. They should make another movie together, it's well past time for that.

I laid off talking about the actual plot of The Grifters, because there are some twists and turns and it actually took me by surprise. The story did not play out remotely how I expected it to, and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible. It's rare and refreshing to see a Con Man movie that doesn't fall back on the usual devices of the genre.

A Night in Casablanca

Are there people out there who don't find The Marx Brothers funny? I'm sure there must be, but I just don't understand how. Their brand of comedy is so chaotic and fast paced, blending superb physical humor and witty dialogue, that it's hard to imagine it not working for somebody.

A Night in Casablanca is kind of a spoof of Casablanca, but not really. It isn't copying the story outright, though there are some hints of it. There's a Nazi war criminal in hiding at Casablanca, on the search for hidden Nazi treasure. He has killed the last three manager of the hotel he is staying at, though he has finally met his match with Ronald Kornblow (Groucho Marx), the new manager. Chico plays an opportunistic camel rental owner who takes it upon himself to be Kornblow's bodyguard when he realizes Kornblow is in danger. And of course, Harpo plays the Nazi guy's mute valet, who infuriates him at every turn, seemingly both innocently and intentionally at the same time.

I love that the Marx Brothers could just be transplanted into any setting and there would be a million new opportunities for gags. Here we see Harpo Marx's amazing physical skills in the form of a hilarious sword duel, and Chico's ability to even make the act of piano playing look funny (while actually playing a song, at that!) Groucho does his thing too, usually making snappy jokes at the expense of stuffy, upper class hotel guests and the like. No matter where these guys go, they bring anarchy with them. It's a shame they never did a movie called "A Night on the Moon". Or maybe it isn't.

A Night in Casablanca is actually one of The Marx Brothers' later films, made long after Zeppo Marx left the group. The Marx Brothers are maybe a little past their prime, but they still manage to bring the laughs. Their comedy is timeless.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012


After a series of successful thrillers in England, Alfred Hitchcock made his way to America in 1940 to make movies for Hollywood. He hit the ground running with Rebecca, an adaptation of a recent bestselling novel that earned him a Best Picture Oscar.

Rebecca stars Joan Fontaine as a timid young woman who works as a personal assistant for a domineering old rich lady, vacationing in Monte Carlo. Fontaine (whose character is never given a name) soon falls in love with Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), an aristocrat spending time away from his manor after the death of his wife, Rebecca.

He soon proposes to her, and they return to his mansion, Manderley. Manderley is an unsettling place, a shrine to Rebecca, where all of her things remain untouched, and not a moment passes where the servants, especially the cruel Mrs. Danvers, compares Fontaine unfavorably to the former Mrs. de Winter. Maxim will not speak of Rebecca at all, and flies into a fit of rage when reminded of her. Soon, the presence of Rebecca weighs heavily on Fontaine, pushing her into despair, and ultimately, a confrontation with Rebecca's past.

Rebecca is a quintessential Hitchcock movie, in which he explores how people can often be in the control of other people. Even the dead can hold sway over us. It's a ghost story without an actual ghost. I love the techniques Hitchcock employs to make Mrs. de Winter seem insignificant. In addition to keeping her character nameless, he also made everything in Manderley seem way too big for her. The house itself oppresses her, with huge doorways with handles so high that she has to reach up to open them. Even in a low angle, the walls are so high that they stretch endlessly above the top of the frame. We are given no hint of a ceiling.

The entire cast is great, but Rebecca is Joan Fontaine's movie all the way. She begins the movie young and clumsy and eager to please, full of innocence but with very little self worth. By the end of the events of the movie, she is transformed into a different woman, innocence gone, but walking taller.

I won't spoil the story for those of you who aren't familiar with it, but there is a twist in the third act, that sets the entire story into a different direction. The twist is smart and surprising, and I certainly wanted to see how the rest of the story played out, but the third act is never quite as enthralling as the first two. There's absolutely no way I'm the first reviewer to say it like this, but the first two acts of the movie overshadow the third, much in the way that Rebecca holds sway over the new Mrs. de Winter and Manderley.

Rebecca is still great, though. Hitchcock was already making great movies by this time, but this movie pushed him up to another level.