Friday, August 31, 2012

Sowing My "Wilder" Oats: The Worst Possible Title For This Entry: The Seven Year Itch and Sabrina

Billy Wilder is one of my favorite filmmakers of all time, right up there with Hitchcock and Kurosawa, but there are still a bunch of his movies that I haven't seen yet. Yes, I've seen The Apartment and Sunset Boulevard, Ace in the Hole and Some Like it Hot, but there are still some big ones (and little ones too) that I never got around to. In the last month or so I began to notice how many Billy Wilder movies were piling up in my Netflix Instant queue, so I decided to make up for lost time and watch them. Here are the first couple.

The Seven Year Itch
, 1955

Part of the fun of watching a Billy Wilder comedy is seeing how much he can get away with, in the context of the time the movie came out. Even his raunchiest comedies had a smartness and sophistication to them, though he wasn't afraid to go low-brow for a laugh. Of course, today most of these raunchy comedies seem positively chaste, but at the time, he was getting some pretty shocking stuff through the system.

The Seven Year Itch is one of Wilder's dirtiest movies. It stars Tom Ewell as Richard Sherman, a man with a wife, a kid, and an overactive imagination. He sends the wife and kid away on vacation while he stays behind to keep working, promising his wife he won't get wild while they're gone. He really means it to, but as he settles down at home for a quiet night in, he meets the new upstairs neighbor: Marilyn Monroe. Well, not really Marilyn Monroe, but they never say her character's name, and she's even jokingly compared to Marilyn Monroe at one point.

Richard now must resist the temptation of cheating on his wife of seven years with the woman who is generally considered the sexiest of all time. He talks to directly to the audience when he's alone, and through this and cutaways to his imagination, we see that he believes himself irresistible to women (his wife correctly laughs this idea off), and we see all his neuroses and fears that maybe his wife is cheating too. Will schlubby Richard sleep with Marilyn Monroe, or will he resist his urges and stay true to his wife?

Marilyn Monroe is actually really funny in The Seven Year Itch. She is basically playing the broadest possible version of her on-screen persona. There's some self awareness in her performance, though her character is always oblivious to the fact that she's radiating sexuality. Pretty much everything she says and does has some sort of sexual implication and she's completely unaware of it. Like that famous scene where she walks over the grating in the city and the wind blows her dress up. The only Marilyn Monroe movies I've seen so far have been this and Some Like it Hot, and you know, I totally get why she's a sex symbol and everything, but I'm always kind of grossed out by that baby talk thing she does. I don't really know what to call it, but you probably know what I mean.

The Seven Year Itch is a very funny 50's sex comedy, but it's too bad they couldn't push things further. I know Wilder wanted things to go past where they ended up, but was restricted by the Hays Code that still had a stranglehold on Hollywood. Still, it's a testament to his talents that he could turn in such a good product even when he's being held back. It's also fun to watch his movies get more and more daring as the years go on and the Code's hold on things starts to crumble. This movie surely played some small part in chipping away at it.

Sabrina, 1954

Of course, Billy Wilder didn't just make boundary-pushing sex comedies. He had a rich and varied career, and made all sorts of movies. Sabrina is a simple, charming, romantic comedy. In fact, it's one of the best ever made. I can't believe I didn't watch this sooner.

Sabrina stars Audrey Hepburn in the title role, the daughter of a chauffeur for the extremely wealthy Larrabee family. Hopelessly in love with the playboy son of the family, David (William Holden), a despairing Sabrina attempts suicide. Her concerned father sends her away to a culinary school in Paris to help her get over her troubles. She never gets over her infatuation with David, though, and instead hatches a plan to return from France the most sophisticated beauty she can be, with the hopes that he'll finally notice her.

And notice her he does. David flips for Sabrina the moment he sees her. The problem is, he's been promised to the daughter of another corporate head, in order to cement a merger between to companies that would earn everyone millions. To make sure the merger happens, the elder brother, career-minded Linus Larrabee (Humphrey Bogart), attempts to sweep Sabrina off her feet and keep her away from David. Of course, Linus, too, falls for Sabrina.

While this movie isn't all sex jokes like The Seven Year Itch, Billy Wilder still touches upon some taboo topics. Suicide, for instance. Even though it's made clear that Sabrina's suicide attempt is more a teenager's cry for help than a serious suicide, Wilder still treats it with compassion. He would explore suicide more in depth six years later in his Oscar-Winning (and my favorite) The Apartment.

As with Marilyn Monroe above, I haven't seen too many Audrey Hepburn movies. Just this one now and the one where she's a blind lady being terrorized by Alan Arkin (Wait Until Dark, which is AWESOME). I think I like her more than Marilyn, she was classier and a better actress, though I don't think that has ever really been up for debate.

One thing I'm noticing more and more when I watch these old movies is how the leading men get older and older, but the women keep getting replaced with young ones. I was a little weirded out by the fact that a 20-ish Sabrina was so in love with 37-year-old David, but then when 50-something Humphrey Bogart is thrown into the mix, and is validated, that's just crazy! Not that Holden and Bogart weren't great in their roles, but the movie would have been more believable and less creepy if these guys were no older than 30.

What a fun movie. It's so smart and genuinely romantic, but also instilled with a healthy dose of Wilder's trademark cynicism. I really wish they still made romantic comedies like this, instead of the formulaic, machine-made "chick-flicks" we've been getting for the last 25 years or so. Romantic comedies used to be date movies, and told stories that both women AND men could enjoy together. If they were still that way, they might actually be my favorite genre.

Hey, everybody, check out the Polish poster!!!


That's all for now, everyone! I've got more Billy Wilder movies to review in the coming days, and even more still to watch when I get the chance, so expect me to sow more of my "Wilder" oats (UGH) in the near future.

Also, if you're interested, follow these links for previously written reviews of Wilder's Ace in the Hole and The Front Page.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Pygmalion, Detour, A Hen in the Wind

Pygmalion, by Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard, 1938

I haven't seen My Fair Lady, and while I probably still should, I instead decided to go straight back to the source. This is a wonderful adaptation of the famous George Bernard Shaw play, largely written by Shaw himself.

For those who might be unfamiliar with it, Pygmalion is a witty and observant takedown of class disparity in England about Henry Higgins, a wealthy dialect specialist who, on a bet, takes in Eliza Doolittle, a girl from the lowest walks of London society, and teaches her to pass herself off as a noblewoman. As his instruction begins to take hold, the two opposites, both equally headstrong, become enmeshed in a stubborn battle of wills.

The dialogue in Pygmalion holds up amazingly well, just as sharp today as it was in 1938 (and presumably in the 1912 play as well). The performances are great too. I loved Henry Higgins' character, played by co-director Leslie Howard, the way he was so sure of his high place in society, oblivious to his own lapses into bad language and slobbish behavior. He's definitely kind of a selfish jerk, but you come to actually like his company in the end, just as he and Eliza grow on each other. Wendy Hiller is also wonderful as Eliza Doolittle, not only playing a thick cockney accent, but convincingly evolving it into a posh English over the course of her training. What's really great about her performance are the subtleties in her pronunciations. Certain Cockneyisms stay with her, and sometimes sneak out, all the way to the end. She always has difficulty with the letter "H" and often puts a noticeable effort into hitting it, which proves Shaw's choosing of the name "Henry Higgins" a brilliant little metaphor for the distance between the two of them.

I'm sure I'll enjoy My Fair Lady too, whenever I see it, but I'm not sure I'll like it as much as I did Pygmalion. It's a true classic, often overshadowed by its flashier counterpart.

Detour, by Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945

It's weird to think that there were a bunch of different tiers in the early days of Hollywood filmmaking. Unlike today, where a movie is either HUGE and Hollywood or tiny and independent, with nothing in between, they used to have movies that ranged from the big Hollywood pictures with all the big stars, all the way down from the movies made on Poverty Row, for dirt cheap and with no-name actors. Not many of those dirt cheap movies are remembered too favorably these days, but Edgar G. Ulmer's film noir Detour is consistently listed as an important American film.

Detour is the story of Al (Tom Neal), a struggling pianist, who sets out on a hitchhiking journey from New York to Los Angeles to reunite with his girlfriend who left him to become an actress. Along the way, he accidentally kills a man and covers it up, and is then blackmailed by a woman who had encountered that man before. There are several interesting twists and turns in the story, especially considering that the movie is only just over an hour long.

The tone of Detour is actually very dark and haunting, even for a film noir. My favorite shot was early in the movie, as we see a close-up of Al's hands playing a jaunty song at the club he's employed at. We then see his face as he's playing the song, and it's just about the most unhappy face you'll ever see. I also like that the scheme that drives the main characters in the second half of the film is just as low-rent and sleazy as the movie itself. There's no Maltese Falcon or other such Hollywood film noir MacGuffin. The characters are doing what they're doing to sell a dead man's car and keep the money. When the opportunity for a bigger piece of the pie comes along, the movie stops short of exploring it.

Detour is definitely worth a watch, and since it's in the public domain, it's very easy to come across. A very cool way to spend a mere hour of your time.

A Hen in the Wind
, by Yasujiro Ozu, 1948

I'm still quite new to the films of Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu, but so far, I'm pretty well blown away. The only film I had seen of his was Good Morning, his gentle and loving tale of two little boys who refuse to speak until their dad buys them a TV. A Hen in the Wind is a very different film from the rest of his body of work, but no less powerful.

Kinuyo Tanaka plays Tokiko, a housewife left alone with her son while her husband fights in the second World War. Japan's economy is in a deep wartime depression, and Tokiko's resources have dried up. When her son falls ill, she makes a difficult decision to save him: Selling herself as a prostitute in order to pay for his medical costs. Soon, when the war ends and her husband Shuichi (Shuji Sano) returns home, Tokiko confesses to him, unable to lie, which causes a seemingly insurmountable rift in their loving marriage.

Many have criticized A Hen in the Wind for being so much darker than a typical Ozu film. It even has one of, if not the, only act of violence in one of his films. It's not like a guy getting chopped in half or anything, or even someone getting killed. The act is relatively small in terms of movie violence, but it still feels pretty real and brutal in the context of this story. Despite the realness and brutality, I found the film to be very uplifting and beautiful in the end. Ozu doesn't demonize Tokiko for doing what she did. In fact, it seemed like the only decision available to her. Nor does he make Shuichi out to be in the wrong for his inability to process this. In fact, he does his best to try to understand her, and even forgive her, but still is unable to get her transgression out of his mind. Japan was in a dark place after the war, and the film reflects that, but also looks to the future with a message of forgiveness and new beginnings.

A Hen in the Wind is a beautiful film by one of the true masters, which is all the more surprising that this hasn't found its way onto DVD in the states. I think the Criterion Collection owns the rights, and they've released a lot of Ozu's other films, so it's probably only a matter of time. I had the wonderful opportunity to see it projected on film, and I'm glad that I did. It's definitely a film worth seeking out, should the opportunity arise.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Three Early British Thrillers: Night Train to Munich, Sabotage, Secret Agent

Night Train to Munich, by Carol Reed, 1940

Even though the James Bond movies may have defined the spy genre over the last fifty years, the British had been making great spy movies for decades before that. Night Train to Munich is just one example, directed by the great Carol Reed, who also brought us the post-war masterpiece The Third Man and the Oscar winning musical Oliver!

Night Train to Munich is the story of Anna (Margaret Lockwood), the daughter of a scientist wanted by both the Germans and the English. She and her father are kidnapped by the Nazis, and a dashing secret agent (Rex Harrison) goes undercover as a German officer to rescue them. They hatch a plan together to escape Germany to the Swiss border. Along the way, they get help from Charters and Caldicott, two comical Brits who seem to find themselves in interesting train adventures all the time (they previously appeared in the same roles in Hitchcock's classic The Lady Vanishes, which also features Lockwood in a different role).

The movie is an intelligent, sometimes tense, sometimes funny, thriller. Harrison and Lockwood have a great "I know we hate each other but we have to pretend we're lovers" chemistry going on. Basil Redford and Naunton Wayne provide a bit of comic relief, but also give the audience an everyman perspective on these extraordinary events. It had been years since I've seen The Lady Vanishes, so I forgot that they were the guys from that too, but I think that's totally awesome. The climax, set high in the Alps at the Swiss border, is an action packed shootout revolving around those cable cars that carry you from mountain to mountain. I won't blow the details, but it's a fantastic ending.

Sabotage, by Alfred Hitchcock, 1936

And speaking of great British thrillers, let's move right on to the absolute master. Sabotage is a fairly early Hitchcock film, made not long after he had found international success with The 39 Steps, a good couple years before he repeated that success with The Lady Vanishes, and four years before he moved to Hollywood and became THE Alfred Hitchcock with Rebecca.

Sabotage is the story of a terrorist placing bombs around London while Scotland Yard tries to hunt him down. What is extremely interesting, especially for its time: Hitchcock paints the terrorist as a normal man, hiding among us, a European immigrant with a loving wife, whose younger brother lives with them and looks up to him. We, the audience know his motives all along, though his family is oblivious, which is where much of the suspense is mined from.

Though not Hitchcock's best work by any stretch, we do see a lot of the tricks and techniques that will later become his trademarks. The story itself is pretty daring and he doesn't wimp out when it gets to the climax. My favorite piece of Hitchcockery in the film is when the terrorist sends his wife's brother out with a package, which, unbeknownst to the boy, contains a bomb. He shoots a close-up of the package, overlaid with a shot of gears turning, and then a shot of a clock ticking.

Sabotage is a really cool movie, made at a time when Hitchcock was still defining himself. His voice isn't entirely clear yet, but you can watch him as he figures it out. He would, of course, go on to make many of the greatest suspense thrillers ever. If you've seen a bunch of those, and still want to dig a little deeper, this would not be a bad place to start.

Secret Agent, by Alfred Hitchcock, 1936

I guess I already covered a lot of what I would say about Secret Agent in Sabotage. It was made in the same year as Sabotage, though it seems to be more following on the heels of The 39 Steps. Where Sabotage is darker and edgier, Secret Agent is a spy adventure.

John Gielgud stars as a writer sent on a spy mission, along with two other agents, one pretending to be his wife (Madaleine Carroll), and Peter Lorre as a Mexican, or possibly just a guy who is called a Mexican. Lorre was my favorite part of the film. He was such a great character actor, and this was very early in his English language career (which Hitchcock started two years before with The Man Who Knew Too Much).

I didn't enjoy Secret Agent as much as Sabotage, though it, too is one of those early films where you can see Hitchcock developing right in front of you. Many early examples of his techniques are on display here too. This is probably one for the hardcores only. If you want to be a Hitchcock completist, Secret Agent has its moments for sure, but many of those moments appear in later (and a few earlier) movies with much better execution. This guy made a lot of amazing movies, arguably more than any other great director, so go watch ALL those first, if you haven't already.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Electric Dreams and Just Imagine: Two Quaint Science Fiction Comedies

In this entry, I'm going to look at two futuristic comedies made more amusing by the fact that they were so of their time. Sadly, neither of these movies are commonly available, but both can be found if you know where to look.

Electric Dreams
, by Steve Barron, 1984

In the 1980's, the dawning age of home computers was all the rage. There are tons of classic movies from the era looking at this new technology, from Tron, to War Games, to Weird Science. For some reason, as time made classics of these films, Steve Barron's Electric Dreams fell by the wayside.

Electric Dreams follows Miles (Lenny Von Dohlen), a man who purchases a home computer to help him with his work as an architect. He gets way into his computer and buys all sorts of nonsensical add-ons, giving his computer control of all the appliances in his house. When he spills a bottle of champagne on the keyboard, the computer (of course) gains sentience (and amorousness). The computer, named Edgar, is voiced by Bud Cort. Things heat up when they both fall for the cute cellist next door (a young Virginia Madsen), and a jealous Edgar tries to woo her away by composing electronic songs for her and sabotaging Miles' life.

It's a very cheesy and VERY 80's movie, but I have a soft spot for stuff like this. There are a lot of clever scenes in it, and though it's not a great movie, it certainly has its moments. It has very good music, too. The score is by synthesizer wizard Giorgio Moroder, best known (by me, anyway) for producing a new wave version of Fritz Lang's masterpiece Metropolis, and the soundtrack features songs by Jeff Lynne and Culture Club, among others.

Now I know I said Electric Dreams is not a great movie, but I would argue that in it's way, it's kind of an important movie. You see, director Steve Barron, who permanently has a place in my heart for directing the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, will probably be best remembered for directing some of the most important and groundbreaking music videos of the early MTV era. Michael Jackson's Billie Jean? That's his. A-ha's Take On Me? His too. Dire Straits' Money for Nothing, Thomas Dolby's She Blinded Me With Science... If you're a child of the 80's, you get the picture.

When Electric Dreams came out, it drew criticism for having a flashy, MTV-style look. The editing feels just like an 80's music video. Videos didn't yet have the respect and acceptance as an art form that they came to earn (due in no small part to Barron's work). Flash forward a decade and many of the most acclaimed movie directors were coming out of MTV, from David Fincher to Spike Jonze to Michel Gondry. Now Barron's editing technique is completely accepted and even internalized in the industry. Electric Dreams, though firmly dated by its tone and content as a movie from 1984, is, in a way, years ahead of its time.

Just Imagine, by David Butler, 1930

I'm genuinely surprised that Just Imagine is not officially available on DVD, or even to stream. It's a true curiosity of its time, one of only a few science fiction features to be released in the 1930's, and a musical, to boot.

Just Imagine takes a look at earth in the distant future of 1980(!), where people are named with numbers (this was five years before Social Security), the government chooses who a woman must marry (they're working on that now), and couples order their babies from vending machines (why not just have sex?). Fear not, some things are still the same. The cops are still Irish stereotypes.

Our hero is J-21 (John Garrick), a man who wishes to marry his sweetheart, LN-18 (Maureen O'Sullivan), but must find a way to distinguish himself before the judge chooses her other suitor, MT-3 (Kenneth Thomson), a rich, mean jerk. J-21's best friend, RT-42 tries to cheer him up by taking him to watch some scientists revive a man who had died in 1930, who they take under their wing. He takes the name Single 0, and is played by El Brendel, a vaudevillian whose schtick was playing a bumbling Swedish immigrant, which seems weird and totally random but probably made more sense in 1930, because he made a ton of movies. Together, in hopes that J-21 will gain the fame necessary to win LN-18, they make the first flight to Mars, where an adventure awaits them.

The futuristic world is gloriously ridiculous, with wonderful, top notch production design, but as this was a year into the Great Depression, most of the jokes are gentle pokes at the world of 1930. When Single 0 asks if Prohibition is still on, they tell him that the government is talking about legalizing wines and beers. His response: "They're still saying that?"

The musical numbers are a little lacking. None of the songs are about the future! They're all about the 1930's, or things the audience could relate to, I guess. They could have been a whole lot more clever. There's one song, no kidding, about how J-21 wants an old fashioned girl like his grandmother. While he sings this they cut to shots of LN-18 as a modern 1930's woman doing 1930's things. You know, like smoking cigarettes. There is one really cool musical number toward the end, with a bunch of sexy martian women dancing in worship of the huge martian god statue.

Just Imagine is certainly no Metropolis, but it's one of the few cinematic attempts to look into the future we have from that time. Though most of the movie consists of cute observations and sentimentality, beggars can't be choosers.

The Great Escape

The Great Escape, by John Sturges, 1963

I have a long history with not seeing John Sturges' The Great Escape. It has been sitting unwatched in my DVD collection for over a decade now. I bought it as a gift for my dad, maybe in 2000 or so, and sometime after that, he died, and I absorbed it back into my own collection. I never watched it, at first because it made me think of him, but as years passed and the pain dulled, it was really just because it was hidden away in a book of old caseless DVDs and when I did notice it, I didn't have the time or patience for a three hour movie.

Well, I finally watched The Great Escape, and as I expected, it's kind of the ultimate watch-with-your-dad movie. For those few of you who may not have already watched it, it's about a bunch of tough-guy P.O.W.s in Poland in World War II, who hatch an elaborate plan to dig a tunnel right under the Nazis' eyes and burrow out of their prison camp. Steve McQueen leads the team, in the role that made him a star. James Garner, Charles Bronson, and James Coburn are there. Donald Pleasance is there, but true to form, he's not a tough guy, he's an expert forger losing his eyesight.

The movie is great fun, though it's perfectly comfortable being serious when the story demands it too. The three hour running time rolls by unnoticed. The score is another classic by Elmer Bernstein (whether you've seen the movie or not, you definitely know this score), who also wrote the influential score for Sturges' The Magnificent Seven, among many others. Those are the only two John Sturges films I've seen so far, but that guy knew his stuff, didn't he? Both are great, large-scale stories with tons of action, drama, and comedy, and huge ensemble casts playing great, memorable characters. I never liked war movies or westerns when I was young, but now I totally enjoy them, and Sturges made movies that are among the very best of those genres.

My dad wasn't a big movie guy, really. He liked a lot of great movies, but that was a side effect of growing up in the 60's and 70's when great movies were coming out left and right. He had some amazing stuff taped off HBO when I was a kid, and that's what opened the doors for me to love movies in the first place. So I guess what I'm saying is, you should totally watch The Great Escape, or The Magnificent Seven, or The Godfather, or even The Lord of the Rings, or anything else, especially if it's something he likes, with your dad. I didn't get to do much of that, and I regret it.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Mommie Dearest and The Swimmer: Two Bizarre Films by Frank Perry

Mommie Dearest, by Frank Perry, 1981
Mommie Dearest probably needs no introduction. It's a true camp classic, with one of the greatest over-the-top performances in movie history: Faye Dunaway as unhinged screen legend Joan Crawford is a sight to behold. It's the "true"? story of Christina Crawford, Joan's adopted daughter, who suffered a lifetime of verbal and psychological abuse by her crazy movie star mother. I'm sure there is actually a good deal of truth to the story, but the movie and its star are just so excessive that I can't imagine it played out like this in real life.

Even if you haven't seen Mommie Dearest before, scenes and lines have become part of pop culture. I'm sure we all know the "No More Wire Hangers" line, right? I feel kind of bad for Faye Dunaway, for being so ashamed of this role. It's a tour de force, whether she acknowledges it or not. She really transforms herself into Joan Crawford, and when Crawford goes crazy, Dunaway is hilariously and delightfully watchable. I know that's probably not what she intended to be, but we've seen Network, Chinatown, and Bonnie and Clyde, so we know Faye Dunaway can act. And act she does. And act and act and act. Nobody told her she was acting in a comedy.

Mommie Dearest is a rare instance of a studio putting a new spin on their marketing of a movie. When audiences at screenings laughed throughout, Paramount decided to sell it as high camp, and made a tidy profit on it. We all know that Dunaway wasn't happy. I wonder what director Frank Perry thought of it. I kind of get the sense that that was what he was going for all along, but who knows? There's a scene toward the end when 20-something Christina falls ill and her 60-year-old mother fills in for her on the soap opera she was acting on while she recovers. That's hilarious! And I felt like Frank Perry was aware of the humor of it all.

Regardless of whether it was meant to be funny or not, Mommie Dearest is one of the most insane movies ever made. Utterly tasteless, but undeniably watchable. Its cult status is well earned.

The Swimmer, by Frank Perry, 1968
After seeing Mommie Dearest, I was curious about the work of Frank Perry, so I sought out his 1968 film, The Swimmer, adapted from a John Cheever short story. It's a surreal, allegorical tale about Ned (Burt Lancaster), a successful man who decides to swim home through all the swimming pools across the county. On his journey through his neighbors' backyards, Ned encounters many people from his past, and has discussions with them, where more and more about his own nature is revealed, before swimming through their pools and running to the next yard. As the movie progresses, we realize, along with Ned, that he isn't the happy, successful, pleasant man he at first seemed to be.

The Swimmer is very much a piece of late sixties weirdness. It hasn't endured or held up the same way a lot of the major movies from that time period have. It kind of shares some themes with The Graduate. Not only the whole swimming pool thing, but also the notion that our ideas of success and The American Dream have become rather hollow, an idea very much prevalent in the 1960's.

I found The Swimmer to be an interesting film, but not a great one. This may come as a surprise, but this movie by the director of Mommie Dearest is NOT the most subtle of allegories. Everything is really on-the-nose, and you feel like he is driving the point home by repeatedly punching your face with it. As the narrative progresses, Ned, having been swimming, running half naked through the woods, and realizing what a piece of shit he is all day, starts getting colder and colder. By the end of it, he's basically holding out his fists and yelling "NOOOOOOOOOOO!", like Darth Vader at the end of Revenge of the Sith.

Still, The Swimmer is at least an interesting artifact of its time, and worth noting for that. They don't make movies like it now, and there was really only a brief period where they did.

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, and The Naked City

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, by Russ Meyer, 1965

In the heyday of exploitation movies, one of the most important factors in getting butts in movie theater seats was to have a tantalizing title. I doubt there's ever been a title that piques curiosity more than Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! Russ Meyer struck gold with that one, I must say. The real challenge is making a movie that lives up to that title.

Well, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is a true classic, at least as far as trashy movies go. Look, it's not Gone with the Wind, but it does have a certain quality. It's the story of three badass go-go dancers, Billie, Rosie, and their leader, Varla (Tura Satana). While road racing in the desert, they come across a couple of goofy teenagers. Varla kills the boy and they end up kidnapping the girl. They then find themselves scheming to rob an old man in a wheelchair and his two sons (including a dumb, muscular one named The Vegetable), while their teenage hostage tries to get away.

That's basically the story. It almost felt like Meyer and his cowriter Jack Moran were just going "and then this happens", "and then this happens", when they were writing the screenplay, because I don't know how else you would make the leap from "road-racing go-go dancers kill a teen" to "then they end up on a ranch". Not that I'm complaining, though. The movie is weird and plenty of fun. I was amused by how un-trashy this trashy movie seemed. There's not even nudity or anything in it, the violence is tame, it's just, you know, titillation. There's almost an innocence to it. A few years later, this movie would have been wayyyy more exploitative.

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is a fun and memorable B-movie, but I'm not sure if it would have endured the way it has if it didn't have that crazy title. I'm glad that weird stuff like this exists, though.

The Naked City, by Jules Dassin, 1948

If you traced the police procedural drama genre all the way back to its roots, Jules Dassin's 1948 Film Noir, The Naked City, might have been the starting point. I could be wrong, but I'm guessing it was at least the beginning of the modern era. The Naked City plays like the original Law & Order episode.

It begins with the murder of a model. Two police detectives, Muldoon and Halloran (Barry Fitzgerald and Don Taylor) begin their investigation. We then see the entire investigative process play out, interviewing witnesses, looking for clues, and following leads, until ultimately, they find their man. I know I'm being vague, but look, it's a really successful formula that we all know by heart by now, don't we?

I don't mean to say that The Naked City is formulaic. I don't believe it was at the time. I think it might be a big reason the formula is so prevalent today. It's a great movie, it even won a couple Oscars. The mystery is very well constructed and richly layered. The cinematography, on location in New York City, is fantastic. The characters, including the investigators, suspects, witnesses, and even the murderer are all given depth and dimension. There's a great scene where Halloran goes home to his wife, who begs him to discipline their son, which he doesn't believe in. We learn a lot about his nature in that one scene. He's not going to hit his kid, which says a lot about a man in 1948.

The Naked City is a classic, and a very influential film. Jules Dassin made some pretty groundbreaking movies. In addition to revolutionizing the police procedural with this, he practically invented the heist genre too, with 1955's Rififi (more on that whenever I actually see it). The only other film I've seen by him is Topkapi, which is another fun and influential heist movie.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Hyper-Violent Sci-Fi Satires by Guys Named Paul Double Feature! Death Race 2000 and Robocop

Death Race 2000, by Paul Bartel, 1975

I love the way Roger Corman worked. He would give his writers and directors near total freedom to make the movie they wanted within the parameters he assigned them. He might give them a title and a star they had to use, and they had to include a certain amount of violence and nudity (these were exploitation movies, after all), but the rest of the decisions were up to them. Sure, he brought a lot of garbage into the world. Some of that garbage is totally watchable, but a lot of it isn't. And every once in a while, he would give us a true gem. Paul Bartel's action packed satire Death Race 2000 is one such gem.

In a future totalitarian state (in the year 2000, naturally), the government holds a violent race, as a means to keep the masses in check. The object of the race is to drive across the country in souped up cars, earning points along the way by running over civilians (extra points for children!). The champion and star of the Death Race is Frankenstein (David Carradine), a mysterious masked driver who finds himself in the middle of an underground resistance's attempts to assassinate the dictator, AKA Mr. President.

Death Race 2000 is over-the-top, ridiculous, full of gratuitous violence and nudity, and very, very funny. Carradine is great as Frankenstein, and a pre-Rocky Sylvester Stallone also stars as his rival, Machine Gun Joe Viterbo. Paul Bartel at his best (this and Eating Raoul in particular) was a sharp and witty satirist, and with Death Race 2000, he's giving the moviegoing audience exactly what they need to satisfy their bloodlust, just like the spectators of the Death Race itself. At the same time, he's maybe getting some of his more observant audience members to question that bloodlust. So maybe that violence and nudity isn't all gratuitous after all. OK, it's still pretty gratuitous.

There's also a bit of a subtle feminist message in there, just by having male and female racers on equal ground and no attention being drawn to that fact. Sure there's also plenty of nudity that might negate that message, but as I said before, including the nudity was part of the deal, and Bartel did try to throw in some male nudity to balance things out a little.

Death Race 2000 is a whole lot of fun, and with some great social commentary that was maybe even a bit ahead of its time. I was thinking a great double feature might be to partner this with Albert Brooks' hilarious 1979 mockumentary, Real Life, which basically predicts reality TV a good two decades before it blew up. OR, if you want to keep the violence coming, you could partner it with...

Robocop, by Paul Verhoeven, 1987

Yes, this is the perfect double feature partner for Death Race 2000. Another hyper-violent science fiction super-satire, Paul Verhoeven's 1987 classic Robocop gives us a near future run by corporate interests and crime lords. It's scarily prescient and in some ways may be even more relevant today than it was in 1987.

In a run-down future Detroit, a huge corporation called Omni Consumer Products has its eyes on replacing the police force with its own robotic force. When a prototype for a giant crimestopping machine called ED-209 malfunctions, another plan goes into place, one to convert a cop, recently murdered in the line of duty, into a cybernetic killing machine. That cop is Murphy (Peter Weller), a good man, with a wife and a son. Murphy must then overcome the programming his corporate overlords imbued in him, and rediscover his own humanity in order to bring peace to the streets of Detroit.

I had seen parts of Robocop here and there, but this was my first time watching the movie from beginning to end. The violence is excessive to the point of being downright comedic, and if Verhoeven's intent with that wasn't evident, the hilarious interstitial news reports and commercials woven into the narrative should make it clear. He's using the violence to make a point.

Something that really stood out about Robocop for me was the fact that, besides all the extremely horrific content, it still feels like a kids movie. Robocop's even got a little kid he wants to impress with his gun twirling skills. It's hilarious to think that in the 80's this actually would have been marketed towards kids. There were surely action figures and everything. I remember Robocop toys when I was young, but I don't remember if they were for this or the sequels.

Anyway, Robocop is great. Peter Weller is great, too, though I will always prefer Buckaroo Banzai over this role. I love the stop motion animation of the ED-209 and the animatronics and all the other effects, too. I don't know what took me so long to watch this movie. Both of these movies, really. Watch em watch em watch em!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Black Narcissus, Thieves Like Us, The Bad News Bears (1976)

Black Narcissus, by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1947

Who likes erotic nun movies? Ew, not that kind of erotic nun movie! The kind that's fit for public screening. No nudity or sex, just tension that you can cut with a knife. Powell and Pressburger's Black Narcissus is about as good as an erotic nun movie can get. Deborah Kerr stars as Sister Clodagh, assigned to lead a group of nuns in the Himalayas, sent there to educate, care for, and convert the locals. Clodagh soon must try to keep it together when she meets and is attracted to Dean, a local Englishman who helps them out, and the exotic, sensual environment begins getting the best of her and her fellow nuns.

The duo of Powell and Pressburger are a team I am only just now discovering. I had seen a couple of Powell's solo films already (Thief of Bagdad and Peeping Tom), but Black Narcissus is the first product of this famous collaboration that I have watched. Wow, it's quite a film. The lush color cinematography is beautiful. I loved the movie's slow shift in tone into a psychological thriller as the temptation gets to be too much for one of Clodagh's nuns, Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron). Most movies about nuns have only one hot nun. Black Narcissus has two, so you know there's going to be trouble.

All joking aside, Black Narcissus is an incredible film. It actually reminds me a little bit of Picnic at Hanging Rock, with that unsettling feeling that your very surroundings are overpowering you. I wonder if Peter Weir was thinking of this movie at all when he made Hanging Rock. I can't wait to see more of Powell and Pressburger's work, especially if it is anywhere near as rich and powerful as this.

Thieves Like Us, by Robert Altman, 1974

Nobody made them like Altman did in the 1970's, did they? Thieves Like Us is about a trio of Mississippi bank robbers in the 1930's. Kieth Carradine stars as Bowie, the youngest of the three, and the movie focuses on Bowie's doomed romance with Keechie (Shelley Duvall), the girl he holes up with.

Thieves Like us is filled with all the stylistic flourishes you would expect from Altman. The overlapping, naturalistic dialogue, the searching cameras, the little visual and aural puns and hints sprinkled into the background. I must say, though, I didn't think this was Altman's best work of the era. It's not bad by any stretch of the imagination, but I didn't think it was quite as subversive as McCabe & Mrs. Miller or as nutso as The Long Goodbye. Still, it's a 70's Robert Altman film, and that makes it automatically worth watching, especially if you're already an Altman fan.

The Bad News Bears, by Michael Ritchie, 1976

This is one of those movies I fudged my rules a little bit with. I usually only review movies I'd never seen before, but I make an occasional exception for movies I haven't seen since I was a kid and don't remember very well. I do remember liking it when I was young, though.

The Bad News Bears holds up wonderfully. The story of Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau), a washed up drunk pool cleaner who used to play for the minor leagues, who agrees to coach the most ragtag team of Little Leaguers ever. After placing a couple ringers on the team, including his estranged daughter (Tatum O'Neal, fresh off of her Paper Moon win) they begin to turn around, and Buttermaker gets caught up in the thrill of winning, before realizing that winning isn't the only thing that matters.

I love how in the 70's, even kids movies were edgy. This movie has kids smoking, drinking, swearing, saying racial slurs, etc., and it has Matthau drinking and driving and generally mistreating a bunch of kids. Yet, it's still hilarious, full of heart, and has a good positive message at the end. I also liked the simplicity and straightforwardness of the story. It's incredibly hard to tell a story this clearly and without any added distractions. Just now looking it up, I see that the screenplay is by Bill Lancaster, writer of John Carpenter's similarly uncluttered (and most excellent) The Thing.

The Bad News Bears stands the test of time, and resonates as well. I couldn't help but have flashbacks to how horrible I was at team sports as a kid, how much I wanted to be included, and how it ultimately led to me not caring about sports at all. I think I turned out somewhat OK in the end, but it would have been nice to have caught the fly ball like that Lupus kid did just once.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Cul-de-sac, Reds, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Since these multiple review columns that I was originally doing to play catch up have become the norm, I've decided to drop the dumb "Grab Bag" title. I'm sure everyone will miss it.

, by Roman Polanski, 1966

I haven't seen many of the old Roman Polanski films, but I hold Chinatown in very high regard (as one should), so I thought I'd take a look at something else. Cul-de-sac is Polanski's third film, a home invasion thriller-comedy of sorts, about a married couple who live in a castle on an island taken hostage by a fugitive criminal stranded there by the high tides. Donald Pleasance stars as the timid, emasculated husband.

I don't know, there was some interesting stuff in the film, but I have to say, I didn't really care for it. I had a hard time liking, or even sympathizing with any of the characters. Donald Pleasance built a career out of playing pushovers and weak men like this, but I've liked him more in other movies. I did like the setup of the criminal's car breaking down in the middle of a rising tide, forcing him to abandon his accomplice, dying of a gunshot wound, but the story gets more and more improbable and labored as it continues. It gets to the point where company comes to visit and the criminal pretends to be their butler. If it were just a wacky comedy, that might work, but the movie presents it semi-seriously, and it didn't work for me.

I'm not giving up on Polanski just yet. There are still a couple of big ones I should look into. I haven't even seen Rosemary's Baby! But Cul-de-sac just didn't cut it for me.

Reds, by Warren Beatty, 1981

Now this, I liked. Reds is Warren Beatty's epic, about Jack Reed, an American communist journalist and writer who helped out with the Russian Revolution in the 1920's. The narrative is tied together through interviews with the actual surviving colleagues and contemporaries of Reed, at that point in their 80's and 90's. Beatty was always a smart and capable director and producer, and had a hand in the development of many of his most memorable starring roles, often nurturing them for years before they got made. Reds may be his crowning achievement.

With a cast including Beatty, Diane Keaton, Jack Nicholson, and Gene Hackman, Reds feels like the dying breath of the stellar auteur-driven Hollywood of the 1970's, which had collapsed under the weight of bloated disasters such as Cimino's Heaven's Gate (which I haven't seen) and Altman's Popeye (which I love, warts and all), and the massive success of mainstream blockbusters like Star Wars and Jaws.Link
I love that Reds was about a group of American communists, which was very much a serious movement in the America of the early 20th Century, though it wasn't something anybody wanted to talk about after the 1950's. That this movie came out in the Reagan administration is a wonder unto itself.

The 3 hr 15 min run time is a bit of an obstacle, but I was never bored. The movie spans years, and is filled with action, drama, romance, and tragedy, like all good epics. It won Oscars for directing, cinematography, and supporting actress (Maureen Stapleton), and was nominated for many more, yet Reds isn't discussed much today, is it? It's strange how so many of the 1980's Oscar winners have been overshadowed by all the sci-fi/fantasy movies and comedies of the era that we grew up watching. Anyway, Reds is worth setting aside a sizeable chunk of your time for.

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? by Robert Aldritch, 1962

I am so glad I have finally seen this crazy movie. An aging Bette Davis runs rampant as Baby Jane Hudson, an over-the-hill child star, driven mad by her jealousy over her sister Blanche (Joan Crawford), a beloved screen actress, now wheelchair-ridden from a car "accident" and held captive in her bedroom.

Director Robert Aldritch and screenwriter Lukas Heller give the film a noirish, stylized look and a macabre sense of humor, while Davis and Crawford act their hearts out. I should also mention Victor Buono's hilarious performance as Edwin, a piano player hired by Jane to help revive her "career".

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is a true classic movie that has all the markings of a cult classic. The movie is so dark, twisted, weird, and disturbing, by 1962 standards, that I'm surprised it ever made it into theaters, let alone to so much acclaim and success. Things were just starting to loosen up around then, so I guess Baby Jane made it through, and I'm glad that it did.


So that's all for now. I'm very slowly catching up. It's my hope to be close to current by October, but I'm like 30 movies behind right now and I've been watching movies every day. Of the above three, I would most recommend Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, though Reds is great too. You can skip Cul-de-sac and watch Chinatown again instead.

Thanks, everyone!

Monday, August 20, 2012

Grab Bag: Tunes of Glory, Another Woman, Underwater Love (Onna No Kappa)

Hey, I have another three reviews ready here, just thought I'd throw in a quick little disclaimer. In my third review, there is a photograph of a lady's BOTTOM. I know, scandalous, right? I just thought you should know that this entry is mildly NSFW (Not Safe For Work, for the internet lingo uninitiated), so don't go scrolling down when your boss is walking by, alright? You've been warned!

Tunes of Glory, by Ronald Neame, 1960

Screen legends Alec Guinness and John Mills face off in a battle of wills in this story of two commanding officers vying for dominance and respect in a peacetime Scottish army regiment. Guinness plays Jock Sinclair, a tough-as-nails, frequently drunk major, who is beloved by his men. Mills is Lieutenant Colonel Barrow, assigned to take over the unit, and determined to whip the men into shape after the lax discipline of Sinclair's command. The two strong-willed commanders clash, ultimately leading to tragedy.

This is a powerful film, with a well written script and understated direction from Ronald Neame both serving to enhance the strong performances of its two leads. Guinness believed this to be one of his best performances, and he might have been right. Within all his big speeches and boisterous Scottish bluster, there is a much more subtle side to Guinness' character, that of a functional alcoholic. Jock Sinclair is pretty much always drinking and/or drunk, but Guinness doesn't telegraph it, it's just a part of who this man is. Mills has a tough role to play as well, having to make sympathetic a character that the audience is basically told not to like. He's not even doing anything wrong, but the men love Sinclair and don't respect Barrow. Ultimately, both characters are sympathetic and heartbreaking.

Tunes of Glory is an excellent military drama, and worth watching for the performances alone.

Another Woman, by Woody Allen, 1988

Like Alice, which I recently wrote about, Another Woman is one of the Woody Allen films I hadn't yet seen. It isn't one of his comedies, which, of course, I prefer, and that may have been a reason why I had never sought it out. Another Woman has an interesting premise: it's about Marion Post, a middle-aged woman (Gena Rowlands) who rents an apartment for the purpose of having the privacy to finish writing a book. She then discovers that she can overhear everything being said in the therapist's office next door. The patient's (Mia Farrow) fear that her life is empty resonates with Marion, and drives her to reevaluate her life.

I thought Another Woman was pretty solid, possibly one of Allen's more underrated films. I'm never as into his dramas as I am his comedies, but I thought this was a pretty well-made film. Rowlands does good work, and I also liked Gene Hackman as her husband's best friend that Marion missed her shot with. I see on Wikipedia that he drew heavily from Ingmar Bergman, a well that Allen has dipped into often in his career. Much to my shame, I haven't seen any Bergman films yet. Guess I should get on that, huh?

Underwater Love (Onna no Kappa), by Shinji Imaoka, 2011

Underwater Love may be among the strangest films I've seen: a Japanese pink musical fantasy about a girl who falls in love with a magical turtle man, with stunning cinematography by Christopher Doyle, perhaps best known as the cinematographer behind Wong Kar Wai's films. By the way, "Pink" films in Japan are sex movies.

It's about Asuka, a 35-year-old woman who works at a fish factory, engaged to its manager. When she finds a fish still alive, she rushes out to the nearby lake to return it to the water, where she encounters a Kappa, a legendary Japanese creature which is a turtle with a beak and a bare scalp that must never get too dry. If the turtle-with-a-beak part sounds familiar, I think it might be because Kappa are the basis for Koopas in the Super Mario Bros. games. I don't know that for sure, but I suspect. Anyway, this Kappa happens to have been one of Asuka's classmates in a past life, and his high school love for her lives on.

The movie gets crazier from there, with the Kappa getting a job at her plant, working his way into her life. When his motives are made clear, they journey into the marsh together to find a magical "anal pearl" that makes Asuka invisible to Death. There are also musical numbers where characters sing catchy songs by the German pop group Stereo Total, and dance hastily put together, but still charming, dance numbers. Underwater Love was shot in about a week on a tiny budget.

Now, the sex: I think they're really doin' it. I couldn't tell for 100% sure, but I'm pretty sure they were. The actors in the movie aren't glamorous, fake looking porn stars. They all look like normal, out-of-shape, everyday people. The scenes are (somewhat) tastefully shot, with no full frontal nudity. Well, besides the Kappa's gigantic fake rubber turtle dong, they make sure you get plenty of good looks at that. Yeesh. Anyway, I'm not really an adult movie kind of guy, so I'm glad to say that the musical numbers do outnumber the sex scenes.

I think we can safely file Underwater Love in the "NOT FOR EVERYBODY" category without encountering too much controversy. It's mainly for people like me, nerds who hear about some weird-ass foreign film on a weird-ass foreign film website, and decide that this is a film they HAVE TO SEE. It's nuts that stuff like this even exists, and I'm glad it does. The movie isn't great (not even sure it's very good), but it's quirky and charming and raunchy and even kind of sweet, and the beautiful cinematography elevates it from being just a cult curiosity into something resembling, well, legitimate art. This movie has screened at festivals!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Mon Oncle

Mon Oncle, by Jacques Tati, 1958

The word "delightful" is surely applied to a lot of films, but few embody delight as wholeheartedly as Jacques Tati's gently satirical comedy, Mon Oncle. I think I was probably smiling through the whole film. Winner of the 1958 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, Mon Oncle is the story of, well, not so much a story as an episodic progression of events, of Monsieur Hulot, played by Tati himself, his signature character. He lives a relaxed life in an old building in a more traditional part of France. He is worshiped as a hero by his nephew, a little boy whose parents take great pride in their ultra-modern, high tech, comically unwelcoming, house of the future. There's a series of events, and a beginning and end, but that simple premise is pretty much the bulk of the story.

Mon Oncle is basically a silent film. There's dialogue, but it's mostly inconsequential. The narrative is carried by elaborate comedy set pieces and sight gags, commenting on, among other things the coldness and lack of function of modern 1950's design, as compared to the warmth and charming inefficiency of the old world. Monsieur Hulot's sister is obsessed with showing off all the pointless flourishes and gadgets of her home to all who visit, eager to impress them and be the envy of her neighborhood with her spitting fish statue, which she noisily turns on whenever somebody walks to the front gate. Her front yard is a labyrinthine series of stones, the lawn is off limits.

Hulot, on the other hand, fumbles through the modern world, never quite in step with it. This is demonstrated as his meddling sister tries to get him out of her son's life by getting him a job and setting him up with a lady. Tati plays Hulot much in the way Buster Keaton played his characters, with a cryptic expression that we the viewer can apply all sorts of emotions to. Is he annoyed or is he just baffled? Or is he amused? He quietly observes, and never seems to judge, or at least is too polite to do so openly.

The comedy set pieces are truly masterful. These aren't big pratfalls and stunts. Tati's physical comedy is much smaller in scale and more mundane. He sets up a plethora of motifs and recurring jokes and then builds them through repetition and slight variation, and they get funnier and funnier as they progress. The timing of the gags are some of the most intricate I've ever seen, and not just the comedic timing of the actors, but also of the world around them. It's like watching a symphony of comedy.

And speaking of music, the music and sound effects are just as important as the visuals. Tati does some truly incredible stuff with sound. Each location has a theme, and each recurring joke has its own recurring sound effects to go with it.

This is the first of Tati's scant six films I have seen, but I have a feeling I'll be seeking the rest out in the coming months. I think Tati is going to join the ranks of my favorite filmmakers.

The Dark Knight Rises

The Dark Knight Rises, by Christopher Nolan, 2012

I probably won't say too much on The Dark Knight Rises, because there's not a whole lot left to say, and if you're like me, you probably got tired of hearing about it weeks ago. I liked it. I like most movies I see, so that's no surprise. I did have the same reservations a lot of you have had about it, though. A bit plodding, a jumbled, overly complex plot, some awkward dialogue. But I still loved the scope and ambition, and appreciated a lot of things about it. I'm just going to list a couple of observations, and then leave you to your day.

- Where was Batman? Bale had very little screen time in the Batman suit this time around. I'm no fan of his ridiculous Bat-voice, but this is a Batman movie, after all.

- Tom Hardy rocked the house as Bane. Nolan really knows how to create a memorable villain. He finds talented, creative actors, and collaborates with them, and together, they find ways to make the villain as menacing as possible, while still having a quality that reminds you of their humanity. For me, it was the way Heath Ledger's Joker always licked his lips that cemented him into a kind of reality. Bane's performance is all in the eyes, but Hardy brings a great physicality to the character, and the fun-to-mimic vocal performance was good fun. The character was under a lot of pressure to live up to the Joker, and while it didn't, it was a nice effort.

- That said, the mixing of his muffled voice into the front and center of the soundtrack was a mistake. I know everybody complained about the mixing in the preview, but they overcompensated in fixing it. I liked really having to listen to work through his accent, and I always got his intent. I don't mind working a little, but I guess the movie-going public does.

- I love Christopher Nolan's commitment to maintaining the cinematic integrity of his films. He shoots on film, uses these amazing IMAX cameras. He steadfastly resists the dreaded 3-D takeover. I would love if more directors fought back against it, but very few have the power to do so, if Spielberg and Scorsese are on board, I'm sure it's here to stay. His special effects are virtually seamless, and he uses them sparingly.

- Another thing I like about Nolan's films, is that he doesn't hold back. He throws everything into the pot. It's common practice these days to save the good stuff for the sequels. Franchise movies are often seeded with foreshadowing and hints for later entries, more often than not, entries that haven't even been conceived yet. Conversely, Christopher Nolan and company have put all of their ideas into each individual movie. This leads to big payoffs, a real sense of scope, and full arcs for his characters. Yes, it also leads to things getting a little too complicated, but I still think it's refreshing.

That's all I have to say about The Dark Knight Rises. It's a flawed beast, but it's ambitious, full of big ideas, and special in its way. Christopher Nolan has built his name up to mean a certain kind of movie, a kind that nobody else is making. Now that his Batman epic is complete, I'm eager to see what new worlds he will create under his unique brand.

Picnic at Hanging Rock

Picnic at Hanging Rock, by Peter Weir, 1975

With films such as The Mosquito Coast, The Truman Show, and Master and Commander under his belt, I've long held that Peter Weir is among the most talented and under-appreciated filmmakers in the world today. Picnic at Hanging Rock, Weir's second film, is another great film to add to that list. The movie not only put him on the map as a talent, but also made the world take notice of Australia and their then-burgeoning film industry.

Picnic at Hanging Rock is the story of a class of school girls on a day trip to Hanging Rock in the year 1900, the tail end of the Victorian era. Four of the girls wander away from the group, traveling deeper and deeper into the mountain, drawn to it as though they were mesmerized. Only one of the girls comes back. One of the teachers goes in to look, and she disappears as well. The townsfolk, in the wake of the incident, begin to have a harder and harder time keeping themselves together. No explanation is ever given to the disappearance, only tantalizing and unsettling clues. When one of the girls is returned, with no memory of what happened, it's all the more disturbing that there is still no sign of the others.

Picnic at Hanging Rock is a horror movie unlike any other. Nothing jumps out at you. There's not even anything tangible for the viewer to be scared of. Instead, there's a near overwhelming sense of dread and anxiety just beneath the surface. It is a ghost movie without a ghost.

But there's more to it than that. The movie is also about these mannered, put-together Victorian people trying to keep themselves civilized in the face of the overpowering, pervasive wild of the Australian Outback. From the virginal schoolgirls in white dresses being lured into Hanging Rock by a force beyond their control (the one who returns is later seen in a red dress, we all know what that means), to the fact that the teacher is last witnessed running into the mountain in her knickers, the movie is brimming with primal and sexual overtones, with dreamlike cinematography and symbolic nature imagery throughout.

Picnic at Hanging Rock is a beautiful and thought-provoking film. It gets under your skin. I found myself thinking about it for days. Peter Weir began a long and amazing career with this movie, and it's among the best of his films that I've seen. I can't recommend it enough.

Ip Man, Ip Man 2

Ip Man, by Wilson Yip, 2008

Biopics, as a whole, just might be my least favorite genre. There are good ones out there. I love Ed Wood, and Bound for Glory, and Amadeus, for example. But for the most part, we in America get Oscar bait that glorifies rather than humanizes the subject, plays fast and loose with historical accuracy, and throws just about every cliche in the book at us.

Well, in Hong Kong, they appear to make biopics pretty much the exact same way, but for one thing: a real sense of fun. Ip Man is the story of the great 20th century martial arts master: Ip Man, best known as the teacher of Bruce Lee. Donnie Yen plays Ip Man, a peaceful, mannered family man in 1930's China. He is frequently visited by other masters eager to prove themselves for a fight, and he takes it in stride, though he refuses to teach his trade, which is the Wing Chun style. That all changes when the Japanese invade and occupy China. Ip Man trains his people in self defense and face off against the invaders.

Yes, the movie glorifies Ip Man. He's treated as almost saintly. The only character flaw I could really find was that he loved Martial Arts so much that he didn't have much time for his wife and children, a trope not too different from the heroes in our rock and roll biopics. And no, I don't know much about the historical Ip Man, but I doubt his life really played out like this, a perfectly structured Martial Arts movie. I really don't mind, though, because none of it feels cynical. It doesn't feel like a product manufactured for awards. What Wilson Yip made was an entertaining and reverent action movie based on a life of an interesting 20th century Chinese figure. The fight scenes are great, and Donnie Yen is extremely charming in the lead. The movie was very successful in China, making tons of money and winning tons of awards, and it led to...

Ip Man 2, by Wilson Yip, 2010

That's right, a sequel! How many biopics get sequels? I guess Che was split into two movies, but usually all the greatest hits of someone's life are covered in one movie, but the first Ip Man only covered a few years in his life, and the sequel picks up right where it left off. Master Ip Man has fled the Japanese occupation in mainland China for Hong Kong, where he opens a school.

The problem is, all the heads of the other schools run a tight racket on the Martial Arts business. He must first prove himself in battle with these guys before they allow him to teach Wing Chun in their territory. There's a great fight sequence between Yen and Sammo Hung where Yen must stay on top of a wobbly table for the entirety of the duel in order to keep teaching.

Then, Ip Man is roped into fighting an English boxer, boxing vs. Wing Chun. The fight seems a little absurd. Seems to me since Ip Man is fighting with his bare fists instead of with gloves, and is allowed to use kicking, that it should be no problem. But the English guy is apparently super strong and nigh-invulnerable, and a big mean jerk to boot, endlessly spouting out swipes at the Chinese.

Like the first entry, Ip Man 2 is a lot of fun. It doesn't try to make things realistic, it's a purely movie world these characters are living in. I didn't think it was quite as good as the first one, but they do play great as one big movie. I'm again impressed with how entertaining and watchable Donnie Yen is as the hero. Oh, and by the end of this movie, Ip Man is still well shy of meeting and teaching Bruce Lee. There's a knowing nod and a wink to the audience at the end that would seem out of place in a serious Hollywood biopic, but works great for the popcorn fun of the Ip Man movies. Maybe someday they'll make an Ip Man 3 with Bruce Lee as a character. I'd watch that.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Switchblade Sisters, You're Gonna Miss Me

All I've wanted to do lately is watch movies. I don't really know why, but I've just been experiencing a hunger lately to take in as many films as I possibly can. I'm sure that's what those of you who know me think I'm like all the time, but truthfully, until fairly recently, I was happy to watch three or four movies a week, mixed in with countless TV shows, comic books, novels, video games, and websites, not to mention what passes for my piddling social life.

Suddenly, in July, I started watching a movie every single day, sometimes more than one. I watched close to 40 in that month alone, and that was even with me prepping a cross-country move! It looks like I'll come close to that again in August. In the last month and a half, I've watched 1/3 of the total movies I've watched all year!

Why am I telling you this? I have no idea. I just have so many movies to talk about right now, and the list of films I want to see keeps getting longer. The last couple months have felt quite fulfilling in that respect. I don't know how long I can keep up this momentum. Probably not long, since I'll be back to working full time by September. But I'll try to drag it out as long as I can.

The Switchblade Sisters, by Jack Hill, 1975

Watching old exploitation movies can often be a squirmy, unsettling affair. The violence doesn't usually take me aback very much, but the sex often can. Not that I'm prudish, I just don't really like it when things get rapey, as they often did in the 70's. In those cases, you usually just have to try to look past those scenes and try to appreciate the movie within the context it was made in.

Jack Hill's The Switchblade Sisters is actually a pretty well made film, despite the scenes that make you feel like a creep for watching them. It's about a gang of tough, kick-ass high school girls known as The Dagger Debs, who are like a sister sorority to a man gang called The Daggers. Maggie, a new girl in town, manages to work her way into the Debs, befriending the leader, Lace. Over the course of things, Maggie takes over the gang, throws out the guys, and changes the name to the much cooler sounding The Jezebels, and eventually, it all comes down to a big gang fight, with Maggie going up against her old friend Lace. Lots of violence and titillation along the way.

The Switchblade Sisters walks kind of a weird balance. The girls in the gang are strong, independent, three-dimensional characters, which is pretty impressive for its time. But the movie must also give in to the demands of its financiers and its target audience, so there's a lot of pretty tasteless stuff mixed in. You could almost say this movie is kind of feminist. You could also say it's not in the least bit feminist, and you would not be wrong. Overall, I did like The Switchblade Sisters. It has an entertaining story, and the lead girls were actually really badass. It's worth watching if you know that you're getting into some pretty gloriously trashy stuff. I know Quentin Tarantino is a big fan, if that's any indication.

You're Gonna Miss Me, by Keven McAlester, 2005

Rock and roll history and lore is riddled with stories of success and highly publicized accounts of tragedy. But along the paths of those famous stories are tangential stories of bands that almost made it, or artists who burned out before they even began. Bands who disintegrated after recording one ahead-of-its-time album. Artists who couldn't stand the attention. These stories are often just as, or more, interesting than hearing about The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, or Kurt Cobain again.

You're Gonna Miss Me is a documentary about Roky Erickson, lead singer of a 60's rock band called The 13th Floor Elevators, and apparently, the man who coined the word "psychedelic". They have some songs you might recognize, look them up. Erickson took too much LSD, was diagnosed schizophrenic, and committed. But when he gets out his guitar and sings, he still can make phenomenal music. A very interesting and pretty sad documentary, and an important side story in the Annals of Rock.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome

I'm a huge fan of Mad Max and it's even-better sequel, The Road Warrior. I don't like making lists, but if I did, I just might rank The Road Warrior in my top 10. I was a little worried about the third installment, 1985's Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, since you just don't hear people say too many good things about it. I was pleasantly surprised. While I think it's the worst of the series, there's a lot of really cool stuff in it anyway, and it's still worth watching if you love Mad Max like I do.

The first act of the movie follows Max Rockatansky as he finds himself in the middle of a (literal) power struggle between Auntie Entity, the leader of Bartertown, a last ditch effort to keep some semblance of civilization in the wake of the apocalypse, and Master-Blaster, the megalomaniacal dwarf-and-giant combo who control Bartertown's electrical supply. These are the movie's best sequences.

It takes a turn for the worse as Max finds himself as a savior to a bunch of child survivors of an age-old plane crash. The kids are sort of smack in the middle between the Ewoks and the Lost Boys from Hook, and just as annoying as both. It's as if the studio said to George Miller, "Hey, people really liked the Feral Kid in Road Warrior. Do more of that."

The third act picks up a bit as it finally delivers the car chase action that Mad Max movies should deliver up front. I think that was my biggest concern with the movie for the first two thirds. Where the hell are those crazy souped-up cars? Well, you just have to wait.

It's really the inclusion of annoying kids that bugs me. And the toned down violence, but I can get past that, I guess. If they all had razor boomerangs that cut the bad guys' fingers off, maybe they'd be fine.

There's a lot to like, too. Mel Gibson is great. Bruce Spence returns as a pilot, though it's unclear if he's actually the Gyro Captain from Road Warrior. It's safe to say he probably is. Like he did with Road Warrior, George Miller shoots Thunderdome to look like a radiation-burned Akira Kurosawa movie. Max is a post-apocalyptic Yojimbo. I love how vivid and detailed the Mad Max universe is at this point. Miller has deepened and expanded it with each movie, and the amount of detail in the production design is insanely impressive. This place looks funky and lived-in. And hey, how many movies can boast Tina Turner in a weird wig? Or a dwarf who rides on a giant's back who consider themselves one unit?

Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome is an imaginative, watchable sequel, but it seldom reaches the heights of its predecessors. For a great down and dirty, low budget exploitation film, watch the first Mad Max. For a bigger, better, more intense, downright crazy action movie, watch The Road Warrior. Thunderdome is like the family friendly, 80's Steven Spielberg version of those movies.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Grab Bag: Fist of Fury / The Chinese Connection, The Lion in Winter, Alice

Look at me! I'm back! Writing about movies once again, now with an all-new, all-Chicago-y backdrop. I still don't have the internet yet, so updates may still be sporadic, but I haven't stopped watching movies in my absence. I think I have like 30 movies piled up to talk about, including some real-deal classics.

Fist of Fury / The Chinese Connection,
by Lo Wei, 1972

Much like Enter the Dragon, I'm pretty sure I watched The Chinese Connection when I was a kid, but I don't really remember it. Bruce Lee plays, well, a Bruce Lee-type who returns to his home town to find his master murdered by Japanese bad guys. Bruce Lee then kicks everybody's ass to avenge his teacher and prove Chinese superiority. I can't think of too much more to say about it right now because I'm a bad writer, but it's good stuff.

The Lion in Winter, by Anthony Harvey, 1968

Well, I didn't have much to say about Fist of Fury, so hopefully I can make up for that with the next two.

I said I watched some true classics, and this is one of them. Peter O'Toole and Katherine Hepburn star as King Henry II and his wife Lady Eleanor in this vicious adaptation of the play of the same name.

The Lion in Winter follows the machinations and maneuverings of an aging Henry and Eleanor, their three children, Richard, Geoffrey, and John, in determining the succession of the British Crown. Henry wants his youngest, the snivelling John on the throne. Eleanor wants the eldest, the kingly Richard (Anthony Hopkins in his first movie role). Geoffrey, the middle child, wants Geoffrey on the throne, but nobody else seems to care. Backstabbing, eavesdropping, and manipulation abounds. It's like watching two hours of the most epic domestic dispute of all time.

The characters are all thoroughly wretched people who care for little outside of themselves, but they're thoroughly wretched interesting people, especially O'Toole's Henry. Hepburn won a well-deserved Oscar for her performance.

I didn't know what this movie was going to be like when I started it, and I did not expect it to be so dark and filled with such acidic dialogue. I assume it's a fairly straight adaptation of the play. The family kind of reminded me of the Lannisters in A Game of Thrones. The Lion in Winter is thoroughly engrossing. The writing and the performances pull you in and don't let go for the entire 2 hour plus running time.

Alice, by Woody Allen, 1990

When I was 21 or so, I discovered the films of Woody Allen and never looked back. Like most comedy guys, I prefer the early, zany stuff, but I still appreciate a lot of his later work, all the while yearning for the Woody Allen of old. I've seen the majority of his films, though I've fallen off in recent years. Every once in a while, I look into one of the movies I've overlooked. Alice is one of those movies.

Alice is one of his whimsical fantasy comedies, along the lines of The Purple Rose of Cairo or Midnight in Paris, two of my favorite post-Manhattan Allen films. It is the story of Alice, (Mia Farrow) an unhappy rich housewife who lives a boring, struggle-free life. When she is recommended to a Chinese holistic healer, he gives her all sorts of magic herbs that allow her to fly around the city, speak to ghosts, turn invisible, and so on. Through these she is able to see herself and others in a new light and can make the changes that will allow her to live the life she had intended for herself.

Alice was a decent enough movie, but I wouldn't even put it in my top 10 Allen films. I guess it was said to be a riff on Alice in Wonderland, but really, the only similarity is that she ingests things that give her powers. I also found Allen's take on the mystical Chinese healer to be pretty outdated and borderline racist, in that way where grandpas are racist even when they don't realize it. Still, it has some really fun and funny moments, and it's better than some of his films. I would say check out Alice, but only if you have already seen all the really great Woody Allen films and feel the need to watch more.


I was hoping to have time for more reviews but this entry alone has taken me days to put together! Things will be calming down in the next week or so, and hopefully I can get back to a regular schedule by then. See you soon!