Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Vampirama Part 1: Count Yorga, Vampire; The Vampire Lovers, The Rape of the Vampire

Alright, everybody! Today I'm trying something a little different. I'll be reviewing multiple movies, as I've done recently, but today they all have a theme: Vampire movies. There are a lot of them on Netflix so I intend to do at least one more Vampirama entry in the near future.

Count Yorga, Vampire by Bob Kelljan, 1970

I don't know, I kind of liked this one, a little. It's a bit campy, and Count Yorga actually wears actually wears a black cape with red lining, which is a dead giveaway that he's a vampire. That and he's a Bulgarian count that hangs out in L.A. or something. He took one of the characters' mom as a bride and then goes after her for his next one. There are a few other brides too. Then her friends have to go to Count Yorga's mansion and try to rescue her. It was watchable, and held my attention, but probably would have been more fun to watch with friends, because it was pretty silly.

The Vampire Lovers by Roy Ward Baker, 1970

This is one made by those British horror mavens, Hammer Films. It was directed by Roy Ward Baker, who made the classic A Night to Remember, considered by many to be the best Titanic movie. Later in his career, he seemed to get stuck in the horror ghetto with other talents such as Freddie Francis, directing movies for Hammer and Amicus, such as this and Vault of Horror. Nowadays, good horror directors are respected for their skill, but back then, unfortunately, it was considered kind of a slum.

Before watching The Vampire Lovers, the only other Hammer film I'd seen was the original The Wicker Man, which is also my favorite horror movie. The Vampire Lovers is quite different, less interested in that sense of dread that The Wicker Man builds so elegantly, and more interested in being fun, bloody, and sexy. Heck, it's downright dirty at times. It stars Ingrid Pitt as the vampire in question, who alternately goes by Carmilla, Mircalla, and Marcilla. It costars her boobs, which alternately go by Milcarla, Lircalma, Malcirla, Millarca, Rillcama, and Camlirla. It also features the great Peter Cushing, but not his boobs, so who cares?

I thought The Vampire Lovers was a really entertaining exploitation flick, definitely the best of the three that I'm reviewing today. It's an adaptation of the classic piece of vampire literature, Carmilla, which predates even Dracula, and was also adapted ten years prior by Barbarella director Roger Vadim and released as Blood and Roses. They're both good movies in their own way, but of the two, I prefer Vadim's. It's looser, stranger, more artfully shot and directed, and less exploitative. Still, I liked The Vampire Lovers, too.

The Rape of the Vampire, aka Le Viol du Vampire by Jean Rollin, 1968

Don't worry, it's not as porn-y as the title makes it sound. It's more artsy than anything. The story is told in two parts, because it started out as a short and was expanded to a feature. Part one is about four women who believe themselves to be vampire sisters. A trio of young people, one a psychoanalyst, visit, determined to prove to the sisters that they are human after all, and that vampires don't exist. The second half features the return of the Vampire Queen, who controls a weird medical clinic where a doctor under her employ secretly searches for a cure for vampirism.

It's a weird and interesting movie, but not great. What fascinated me about The Rape of the Vampire is that the director, Jean Rollin, spent pretty much his entire career just making vampire movies in France. And as far as I can tell, he did it because he wanted to, not because it was the only work he could find. I thought that was really cool and interesting for that period in time, since in England and America, that kind of thing was rare until the late 70's or early 80's, after The Exorcist and Jaws de-ghettoized horror a bit and all of Roger Corman's young proteges started seeping into the industry and such. I plan on watching some more of Jean Rollin's artsy vampire movies in the near future. I'll let you know what I think.


So there you have it, three vampire movies. Stay tuned for more in the next couple weeks!

Monday, June 25, 2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild

I know it's the middle of the summer and all we care about right now is Batman and Spider-Man, but there's a much smaller fantastical hero's quest that deserves your attention too: Beasts of the Southern Wild. I can't stress enough what a good film it is, but I'm going to try.

The first of hopefully many films directed by Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild is the story of Hushpuppy, a six year old girl who lives with her father, Wink, in The Bathtub, a tiny community on an island on the Mississippi Delta. She spends much of her time on her own, in her own separate house, imagining her mother and such, as her father, a stern and distant man, does his best to keep her alive and fed. Her world then comes crashing down when she learns that her father is slowly dying from a medical condition, and then the rains come and flood the entire island. She, along with her father and several other citizens who refuse to leave their homes, begin a life afloat on the water.

When I say Hushpuppy's life comes crashing down, I mean quite literally. The movie is told completely from her perspective, and every event to a six year old feels interconnected, epic, and downright cataclysmic. When she learns of her father's illness, she perceives the balance of nature being tilted, the icecaps melting, a herd of prehistoric beasts called Aurochs awakening and trampling their way to her. The rains over The Bathtub only confirm her apocalyptic thoughts. Things are going to change.

The cinematography and production design is rich, detailed, and evocative. Zeitlin and crew puts you directly into Hushpuppy's world. The camera often stays low to the ground so you experience things with her.

The biggest treats in Beasts of the Southern Wild are the two lead performances. Zeitlin used locals for his cast, all real people, non professionals. The little girl who played Hushpuppy, Quvenzhané Wallis, is astonishing. The only other time I've ever seen a kid this young give such a convincing performance was in Tarsem's The Fall, and that little girl was basically tricked into acting. I see a lot of critics like Ebert and stuff referring to Quvenzhané Wallis as a "force of nature", which is about as accurate as you can get.

Dwight Henry, the man who played her father, Wink, is just as good. Wink does what he can to protect his daughter and prepare her for life without him, essentially pushing Hushpuppy away, and being harsh to her out of love. He, Wallis, and Zeitlin did a Q&A after the screening we attended, and when it came out that Henry had never acted before, that he in fact, owns a bakery, there was a collective gasp from the entire audience. Watching the movie before I heard that, I took him for a pro.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is moving and lyrical, simultaneously epic and internal, with two of the best performances you'll see this year. I wouldn't be surprised at all if it gets swamped with awards and nominations when the year's movies are tallied up in December. It's already one of the big Sundance and Cannes festival winners. It's opening in limited release this upcoming weekend (June 29), and expanding to other cities over the coming weeks. Beasts of the Southern Wild is a must see movie, so keep an eye out for it!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Tim & Eric's Billion Dollar Movie

A good test you can give yourself to determine whether or not you would like Tim & Eric's Billion Dollar Movie is:

1: Have you seen Tim & Eric before on TV or the internet?

2: Did you like what you saw?

If you answered yes to both of those questions, you just might enjoy their movie. These guys are the definition of the words "Not for Everyone". Over the years, Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim have made a career of their shorts, that often use amateur techniques that are indistinguishable from a 1980's VHS infomercial that you might find in a bin at a Salvation Army. Their comedy is surreal, obnoxious, subversive, and often will take a turn for the nightmarish. Their unique voice has also earned them the respect of pretty much everyone else who matters in the comedy world, if not the world at large.

Now Tim & Eric have taken their first step into the movie world, and it's every bit as strange and culty as you would expect. Tim & Eric's Billion Dollar Movie, is the story of Tim & Eric, playing themselves, who somehow got a billion dollars from Hollywood studios to make a movie. The movie that resulted, "Diamond Joe", starring a Johnny Depp impersonator in a suit made of diamonds, cost so much money that they were only able to shoot three minutes of it. They are held responsible by the studio heads, and must find a way to pay back the billion dollars. As luck would have it, they see a commercial where a man offers a billion dollars to anyone who can fix up his shopping mall.

Tim & Eric then form a PR firm called "DOBIS" (the origins of that name was one of my favorite bits), and set out to bring business back to a dilapidated shopping mall with used toilet paper stores and a sword shop whose owner doesn't actually want any business. The plot really makes little sense. It's just there to loosely tie together a bunch of weird characters and bizarre jokes.

So does it work? As someone who enjoys Tim & Eric, though I haven't watched a lot of them, I think a lot of it does. It's not perfect, but a lot of the jokes got me. For example, I really liked when they first meet the owner of the mall (Will Ferrell) and before they talk, they watch Top Gun together. When it's over, they watch it again. I also liked the showdown with the movie studio heads at the end. As I said, I laughed a bunch, though I didn't care for the scatological stuff, as bizarre as some of it was.

Tim & Eric are two comedians who really don't seem to care if they're making everybody laugh, or just themselves. I respect that attitude a lot. It's how they got their cult status in the first place. In their movie, they surround themselves with bigger stars (and frequent collaborators) who are similarly fearless and unconcerned with reaching everybody or just the few people like them. Supporting roles are filled by kindred spirits such as Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Zach Galifianakis, and Will Forte, all fully willing to give themselves over to Tim & Eric's weird vision.

I think you should only watch this if you're a T&E fan already. They have 5 seasons worth of insane, surreal sketches, most of them posted on Youtube. You should check some out if you haven't, these guys actually work better in short bursts than they do at feature length. If you've watched their Adult Swim show and approve, you might find some enjoyment in the Billion Dollar Movie, though I can't imagine someone unaware of these guys making it through 90 minutes of their antics.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom

I must confess, I am a Wes Anderson superfan. He is my favorite director working today. The Royal Tenenbaums is my favorite movie. It hit me on a whole variety of personal levels at the time of its release and it still works on me today. I credit Bottle Rocket for inspiring me to sit down and start writing. I even really liked The Darjeeling Limited, the movie that suffered most from the Wes Anderson Backlash Phenomenon (WABP).

Maybe my unabashed fandom makes my opinion unreliable, but I believe that Anderson's latest, Moonrise Kingdom, is his best work in over a decade, and in some ways maybe his best work yet. It embodies all the qualities that he is best known for: a moving, funny story with quirky characters, themes of the importance of family both biological and surrogate, lush, vibrant cinematography, and intricately, obsessively detailed production design.

Set in the 1960's, Moonrise Kingdom is the story of two twelve year olds in love, Sam, an orphan boy in a troop called the "Khaki Scouts", and Suzy, a depressed girl who loves French pop music and doesn't fit in with her own family. They live on a small island, and run off together into the wilderness to live off the land. When they disappear, the people in the town begin a frenzied search to find the two young lovers before a massive and dangerous storm arrives.

Newcomers Jared Gilman and Karen Hayward anchor the movie beautifully as Sam and Suzy. Sam is clever and self sufficient, and eager to show off all his knowledge. Suzy is sad and soulful, always reading fantasy stories about little girls who escape to far-away lands. They may seem quite different, but they understand each other, and treat each other like grown-ups, or at least what they understand to be grown up.

The supporting cast is rich with talent, as Anderson's films tend to be. Very few actors would say no to working with him. Edward Norton is Sam's scoutmaster Randy Ward. He runs a tight ship, and is very obsessed with little details, like many of Anderson's characters (and Anderson himself). Ward's job and true joy in life is put on the line when he loses Sam. Bill Murray and Frances McDormand are Suzy's parents, Walt and Laura Bishop. They don't seem to be entirely present in her life. Bruce Willis is Captain Sharp, the police officer leading the hunt for the kids, a man of few words. If that wasn't good enough, add to that Tilda Swinton, Jason Schwartzman, Harvey Keitel, and Bob Balaban, and you have a truly stellar cast.

Anderson's production design is incredible, possibly his densest looking film yet. From the very beginning, colors have played a massive role in his films. Moonrise Kingdom, set mostly outdoors, uses many greens and yellows so vibrant, they almost makes the wilderness seem like one of the magical lands in one of Suzy's books. The attention to detail this time around seems even more prominent than before. Look at the costumes in Suzy's Noah's Ark play! All the merit badges on the Khaki Scout uniforms! There's so much to look at in this movie. Anderson loves creating his own little universe, and then clearly takes great joy in decorating it.

People complain that after Tenenbaums, Anderson untethered himself from any grounding in reality, and floated off into a territory of pure whimsy. It was too much for some. Well, Moonrise Kingdom was the most whimsical yet. This is a world of his own making, and some of the cartoon physics of his previous film, the stop-motion animated The Fantastic Mr. Fox, has carried over into this film.

Five years ago, when the WABP was in full force, people said they were tired of Anderson doing the same type of movie over and over again. That's silly, though! Nobody complained that "Oh, Hitchcock is making another thriller. Yawn," or "Here comes yet another bloody pastiche of 70's exploitation films from Tarantino." Some directors spend their entire careers exploring the same themes and ideas, and applying their own unique visual flourishes to them. I would also argue that with each film, Anderson has grown as a director, adding new techniques to his visual bag of tricks and improving at the ones he already had.

Ok, I'll shut up now. If you're fed up with Wes Anderson's movies, I'm probably not the guy you should be listening to. But I believe if you love his work like I do, especially his first three films, Moonrise Kingdom might be well worth your time. It is possibly my favorite film of the year so far.

Thursday, June 14, 2012


I'm not going to bury the lead here: I really enjoyed Prometheus. It's not a perfect movie, maybe not even a great one. In fact, I saw a movie I liked better in theaters on the same day (review to come). But it has many great moments, and it left me with enough to think about that it's been squirming around in my brain like a gross tentacle monster for the last five days.

Directed by the original Alien director, Ridley Scott, and set in the same universe, Prometheus is the story of Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), an archaeologist who finds evidence that human life may not have originated on earth, but rather, on a distant moon light years away. She and a crew of 17 embark on a mission, funded by the Weyland Corporation (the same one from the original Alien, minus the Yutani), to explore this moon, and hopefully meet our makers.

What they find couldn't be farther from their hopes, as they find an underground facility, abandoned for millennia, due to some unknown disaster. They also find that maybe our creators didn't have the best intentions in mind for us after all. A major recurring theme in the movie is that of the creator abandoning or rejecting the creation. It comes up time and again throughout in many different forms. Also, there are monsters.

I think one of the reasons I enjoyed it is that I'm not the biggest fan of the Alien franchise. I think the first two are great movies, but they've never been a regular staple in my life. I can't even remember the last time I watched them, though I hope to remedy that sometime soon. It seems there's a lot of hate and bile for this movie from those guys, but I'm just watching and judging the movie on its own merits, separate from the first film.

I really liked the main cast, especially Noomi Rapace as Shaw and Michael Fassbender as the Laurence of Arabia quoting android, David. Fassbender gives a Fass-cinating performance, playing a seemingly emotionless being that may have a lot more going on underneath than we think. Some of his actions in the movie seem to be under his own motivations, motivations contradictory to those of the crew and his masters. Noomi Rapace's Shaw is a strong woman in the tradition of Ripley in the Alien movies, and her faith is tested time and again as she is put through one horrifying ordeal after another. I won't spoil anything, but there's one scene in particular involving Shaw that you won't be forgetting anytime soon.

Charlize Theron plays Meredith Vickers, the cold Weyland representative, who is calling the shots, though she soon finds her command undermined by David and others, as the mission goes awry. Idris Elba plays Janek, the ship's pilot and captain, not a scientist, more of an everyman type. They're both fine in the movie, but are not really given the attention they need to become more well rounded characters.

Guy Pearce has a small role as Peter Weyland, which is the weakest in the movie. He's playing a very old man under some terrible old age makeup. It's very distracting. I don't get why they didn't cast an actual old actor. If it's for the sake of those viral videos promoting Prometheus starring Pearce as a young Weyland, shame on you, Ridley Scott. Don't sacrifice the quality of your own movie in the name of marketing!

The rest of the crew is pretty much just there for body count purposes. I didn't even bother to learn their names.

A lot of people are complaining that the movie is vague or unsatisfying. That characters' motivations are unclear, and that major questions posed in this movie are left unanswered by the end. These may be valid complaints, but I actually prefer some ambiguity in my science fiction. A great comparison would be Frederick Pohl's classic series of Gateway novels. The first book follows explorers on a similar mission, to learn more about an extinct alien race that they only know of through ancient artifacts. By the end of the book, little more is known about the aliens, but much is known about the people pursuing them, and that's what's important. In the Gateway sequels, we learn much about the aliens, and even meet some, and while they are fascinating reads, they never quite live up to the intensity and raw humanity of the original. If Prometheus had answered the big questions, I think it would have risked the same thing. In science fiction, the act of seeking answers is often more important than finding them.

So there you have it. I dug the movie. Whether you do or not is entirely up to you, but I think Prometheus is a film worth seeing either way. Also, read Gateway! Great book.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Men in Black III

All the way up to the movie's release, I was very skeptical about Men in Black III. It just didn't seem to have much going for it. The second movie was just sooooooo bad. Director Barry Sonnenfeld hadn't released any movies of note since the first Men in Black, though in his defense, he's done some great work on television in the intervening years. I can't even think of the last Will Smith movie that I bothered to see (I think it was Hitch, maybe? Ugh.). It was widely reported that they had to shut down production weeks into the shoot to rework the second and third acts of the script, not usually a good sign.

Well, my wife and I happened to be driving through Roswell, New Mexico the week Men in Black III came out, so despite our reservations, we just couldn't resist the delicious symmetry of it all. And, I am shocked to say, despite all prior indications, the movie works.

The story follows J (Will Smith) on a journey to 1969 to prevent a vengeful time traveling alien biker from assassinating a young K (2012: Tommy Lee Jones, 1969: Josh Brolin), and thus opening Earth's defenses for his race to invade the planet. The story is fast paced, light and breezy, thankfully ignoring the trend to make everything darker these days. Sonnenfeld and his screenwriters did good work reducing the time travel aspects to the most simple level possible, and the movie doesn't become a mess of paradoxes and plot holes (though I'm sure you'll find some if you look).

The real joy of Men in Black III is the cast. Surprisingly, Will Smith, who cemented his superstardom with the first movie, is actually the weak link. He's fine and likeable, but compared to everyone else, who were all really performing, Smith just coasts and does his thing.

Sadly, Tommy Lee Jones' role is pretty much an extended cameo, but Josh Brolin's impersonation is so uncanny that you never seem to miss him. You just think of Jones as K and Brolin as the same man at a younger age. Brolin walks away with much of the movie, I think.

Jemaine Clement, of Flight of the Conchords fame, transforms himself completely as Boris the Animal, the one-armed biker alien with a scorpion monster thing that lives in the palm of his hand. He does great work, and is every bit as scenery-chewing and hilarious as Vincent D'Onofrio was as "Edgar" in the first movie. I was surprised Clement was able to play menacing so well, because when you see him in real life, he's anything but.

Finally, my favorite character in the movie was Griffin, played by Michael Stuhlbarg. An alien refugee out of sync with time, able to see all pasts, presents, and possible futures at once. He's a very endearing and quirky character, and Stuhlbarg brings a surprising amount of depth, and even sadness, to him.

I was genuinely surprised by how much I enjoyed Men in Black III. It's not perfect, but neither is the first one. I'd probably say they're both at around the same level, both light and funny summer afternoon entertainment. It's nice to see the series revitalized and enjoyable again. Also, getting to see it in Roswell, where all of this alien mythology began for us, really made it into a memorable experience.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Frilmz Noir: The Woman in the Window, Scarlet Street

Before recently, my experience with Fritz Lang's films began and ended with his Expressionist science fiction masterpiece Metropolis. Considering how amazing that movie is, it's baffling that I've gone so long without seeking out more.

1944's The Woman in the Window and the following year's Scarlet Street, are two of Lang's early film noirs, both very dark tales of passion and murder, and both featuring the same main cast. They were made nearly two decades after Metropolis, and by this point he had gone from Germany to Hollywood.

The first, The Woman in the Window stars Edward G. Robinson as Richard Wanley a timid, middle-aged professor who yearns for the adventurousness of youth. After a quiet night of drinking at a social club with friends, he finds himself admiring a painting of a beautiful woman in a storefront window. He is then surprised to meet the subject of the painting herself, Alice (Joan Bennett). They get a drink together and Wanley soon finds himself at her home. Not long after that, her lover comes in, furious and violent. Wanley ends up killing him, and he and Alice work out a plan to cover up the murder.

The rest of the movie is Wanley trying to live with his guilt and cover his tracks, even as his own friends from earlier, the District Attorney, and a doctor, investigate the case and come ever closer to finding the culprit. At the same time, a blackmailer (Dan Duryea) is tormenting Alice with his knowledge of what really went down.

The whole thing builds toward a beautifully dark, poetic and ironic conclusion. That is, until it's all taken away in the last three minutes by the strict guidelines of the Hayes Code, whose regulations restricted pretty much anything cool in American movies until the mid-60's. That's right, they didn't accept the original ending, so Lang had to tack on a crappy little scene afterwards that negates pretty much everything that went on before. It's very disappointing, but if you just turn off the movie a little bit early (you'll know when), you'll get a story that feels complete, uncompromised, and uncompromising.

Lang's very next film, Scarlet Street, feels like he wanted a do-over after his previous film had been tampered with. It explores some of the same themes, of midlife restlessness, and of the nature of guilt. This time around, Robinson plays Christopher Cross, a timid, middle aged bank cashier in a loveless marriage whose true passion is painting. At a celebration honoring his long years with the bank, he jealously watches his boss leave the party with a young mistress. Walking home that night, he witnesses what he believes to be a mugging. Chasing off the mugger, he takes the victim, Kitty (Bennett), for a drink. Smitten, he tells her about his aspirations as a painter.

Kitty, in actuality, is the girlfriend of the mugger, Johnny (Duryea). Knowing little of the arts, Kitty believes Cross is actually a successful but modest painter, not just a hobbyist. Together, they work up a scheme to bleed Christopher dry, with Kitty acting as a muse for his paintings and Johnny selling them. It all leads to, you guessed it, a murder. And then guilt. I won't spoil the outcome, though.

Of the two, I liked the second film better. The Woman in the Window almost feels like a sketch for what ultimately became Scarlet Street. The characters were all around more three dimensional in Scarlet Street, the plot more fully formed, and the sad ending was not compromised. Also, even though no blood is shown, and the victim is cleverly obscured, the murder scene in Scarlet Street is still really brutal and effective. It takes some pretty sly work for a director to sneak something past the Hayes Code, and Lang gets away with quite a bit here.

These two films were the first I'd ever seen starring Edward G. Robinson, and I have to say, he really surprised me. Like everyone, I associate him with the "Nyeah, see, NYEAH!" voice that he's often parodied with. He's not like that at all in these. In both movies, he's a shy and timid loser-y guy who gets tangled up with the wrong kind of girl and makes a series of bad decisions. He's very sympathetic along the way, and it hurts to see him eaten alive by the end.

If you're in the mood for a good Film Noir double feature, you could do worse than these two movies. They play great as companion pieces to each other, and seeing Edward G. Robinson playing against the type he's come to be synonymous with is really fun. I'd love to watch more Fritz Lang films, especially more of his early German work.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Grab Bag: Werewolf of London, Machine Gun McCain, Seven Chances, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Landlord

Hey, everyone! Time for another grab bag of reviews. I'm tired of being so behind, so I'm writing short reviews for several movies instead of long reviews for one. The movies have little to nothing in common with each other, they're just whatever I've watched recently. Got five more for you here. Enjoy!

Werewolf of London by Stuart Walker, 1935

A Universal monster movie starring Henry Hull as a renowned botanist attacked by a wolf on an expedition to Tibet looking for a rare flower. Back in England, he begins to transform, but is able to hold off the transformation with the flower he acquired. That is, until the specimens are stolen.

There's some pretty cool stuff in Werewolf of London. I liked the fantastical plant specimens that Hull's character has collected. They were great looking props. Also, I liked a transformation sequence where he's walking and each time he walks behind something in the foreground, he's a little further along. The makeup isn't as cool as The Wolf Man, though, which came a little later. The ending is actually a pretty clear influence on that of An American Werewolf in London, though the latter improved upon it.

Machine Gun McCain by Giuliano Montaldo, 1969

An Italian gangster movie shot on location in America and using Hollywood stars in the lead roles. John Cassavetes stars as Hank McCain, a tough-as-nails convict sprung from prison to pull a job on some mobsters in Vegas. As you'd expect when you're dealing with the mafia, it doesn't end well. The cast also features Peter Falk as a gangster trying to horn in on the Vegas territory, and Britt Ekland as a girl McCain meets and marries right away, who helps him out with his heist. The highlight of Machine Gun McCain, though, is the score by the great Ennio Morricone. Pretty cool tough guy movie. It screened at Cannes.

Seven Chances by Buster Keaton, 1925

Buster Keaton stars as a junior partner at a law firm that is having financial difficulty. When his uncle dies, he is given the chance to inherit seven million dollars, but only if he is married by 7:00 on his 27th birthday, which happens to be that day. He then proposes to every woman he knows, but circumstances always thwart him. The first half has a lot of smaller laughs, though there are a few racial and ethnic jokes that don't age well.

The second half is where Seven Chances becomes the Buster Keaton comedy you've been waiting for. After inadvertently causing every eligible woman in town to want to kill him, Keaton goes on the run, pulling one incredible physical stunt after another. He dodges rocks in an avalanche, gets lifted high up into the air by a crane, and so on. Keaton was and still is unparalleled when it comes to physical comedy and stunts. Definitely worth watching.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre by John Huston, 1948

This is another one of those movies that probably deserves a full review of its own. One of the all time greats. John Huston directs his The Maltese Falcon star Humphrey Bogart as Dobbs, a broke and down-on-his-luck American in Mexico, looking for a bit of money to get by. When he and his buddy meet an old prospector (played by John Huston's father Walter Huston, who won an Oscar), the three of them hatch a plan to go off and dig for gold, strike it rich, and live it up.

As their plan succeeds and they get richer and richer, Dobbs gets bitten by the greed bug, becoming more and more paranoid and suspicious of his partners. By the end of the movie, Bogart's greed is his own undoing.

I wasn't too into The Maltese Falcon, though I respected its importance in cinema history. I didn't even care that much for Bogart in it. But I think he's fantastic in this. He gives a varied and rich performance, steering his character through comedy, adventure, and tragedy, and slowly transforming into a bit of a monster. Walter Huston is awesome too, in a fantastic role that is often referenced and parodied in pop culture to this day. I love getting to see movies like this for the first time. I've been watching movies my whole life, yet I still have a lot of catching up to do.

The Landlord by Hal Ashby, 1970

Hal Ashby's first film, stars a young Beau Bridges as a privileged, well meaning white guy who buys a run down tenement in Brooklyn with the intention of evicting the residents and fixing it up. He soon finds himself personally involved with the black tenants of the building, who often can't even afford to pay the rent, much to the dismay of his rich, racist family.

The Landlord is decent, but not great. Ashby's distinct visual style and his social conscience are on display here, but as a filmmaker, he's not quite there yet. He tackles issues of racial and class disparity pretty fearlessly, though. The next year would bring his first true classic, Harold and Maude, and The Landlord can be seen as a stepping stone to that, and of mild interest if you're a fan of Ashby's work.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Grab Bag: Alice, The Fury, Hissatsu!, Gift Shop

Hi, folks! I took a week or so off, but now I'm back. Today I'm going to do something a little different. I know this is highly unorthodox, but I'm getting tired of being way behind, so today I'm going to post brief mini reviews for a few movies. I won't be going as "in depth" as I normally do (which isn't very in the first place). Just a paragraph or two per movie. OK, here goes!

Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore by Martin Scorsese, 1974

I feel kind of bad not devoting a whole review for this, but ugh, I'm so bogged down. By coincidence, I watched this on the day before Mother's Day, which was totally appropriate. It stars Ellen Burstyn as Alice, a wife and mother living a suffocating existence, who is given a chance to start a new life with her son in a new town. After his breakthrough with Mean Streets, Martin Scorsese proves himself a truly versatile director, making a movie that's both romantic and brutally honest at the same time.

The performances are aces, especially Ellen Burstyn in the title role. Even to this day, it's not often that so much respect is given in movies to women over 30. Harvey Keitel manages to first charm and then terrify in his small part. Also, Alfred Lutter is utterly believable as Alice's obnoxious kid. He might have a smart mouth on him, but I think he's going to turn out OK, because he totally listens to T. Rex and Mott the Hoople.

The Fury by Brian De Palma, 1978

As a follow-up to his massive hit Carrie, Brian De Palma made another thriller about teenage psychics. Kirk Douglas stars as a government agent whose psychic son is kidnapped by a dirty fellow agent looking to turn him into a living weapon. Douglas finds and enlists the help of an unstable psychic girl (Amy Irving) to rescue his son.

This movie was a lot of fun, doubling as both a horror movie and a paranoid conspiracy thriller. It was pretty cool seeing a 60-plus Kirk Douglas still kicking ass in chase sequences and stuff. John Cassavetes plays the villain, and this was the first movie I'd ever seen him in, but it won't be the last. Also, the score by John Williams is fantastic, maybe one of his best non-Spielberg/Lucas scores. I used to think I didn't like Brian de Palma, based on the small number of his movies I'd seen, but now that I've seen some more, I understand what his fans see in him. At least in his earlier films. I still just don't like The Untouchables, guys. Sorry. Maybe I'll revisit it someday.

Hissatsu! (Sure Death!) by Masahisa Sadanaga, 1984

This is the first samurai movie I've ever seen from the 80's, and it was pretty crazy. I hear it's part of a popular series, but I haven't learned much about the sequels. It follows a group of assassins who pose as local merchants, who have to fend off another group of killers trying to take them out by killing them first. It was enjoyable and quite silly. Everybody had killing techniques that fit the jobs they work in their civilian identities. The score is weird too, sometimes it sounds almost like an Ennio Morricone spaghetti western score, other times, it's straight-up funky, and other times it almost sounds like 70's Sesame Street music or something. I enjoyed it, but I think I enjoy every samurai movie. It's nowhere near the same class as the ones of the 50's and 60's, and it doesn't have the crazy stylized hyperviolence of the 70's ones.

Exit Through the Gift Shop by Banksy, 2010

A fascinating, funny documentary on the worldwide explosion of the Street Art movement. It follows Thierry Guetta, an eccentric French-American vintage clothing store owner, his growing obsession with the guerrilla artists leaving clever and often thought-provoking tags on the sides of buildings and elsewhere, and his eventual rise to fame as a street artist himself, Mr. Brainwash. Much of the story focuses on Shepherd Ferry and the anonymous Banksy, two of the artists at the forefront of the movement. Much speculation has gone into how much of this documentary is true and how much is a hoax or a prank. It's legitimately difficult to tell where the line is drawn between reality and comedy, or if there even is one. Captivating and entertaining stuff.


Well, I think four reviews is enough for now. I'll probably post another group of reviews tomorrow. I hope you enjoyed the change in format!