Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Mikogami Trilogy: The Trail of Blood, The Fearless Avenger, Slaughter in the Snow


If you've been reading this blog for a while, you know me and old samurai movies.  I love them all.  The ones by the masters from the 50's and 60's are great pieces of art, and the ones from the 70's were often bloody, stylish, grindhouse flicks.  I can't pick favorites between the two.  They have samurais so they're all great.

In this entry, I'm looking at a trilogy of revenge films from the early 1970's, by director Kazuo Ikehiro, known as the Mikogami Trilogy. 

The Trail of Blood (Mushukunin Mikogami no Jokichi: Kiba wa Hikasaita), by Kazuo Ikehiro, 1972


The first film introduces us to Jokichi Mikogami, a fierce ronin mercenary.  At the beginning, he wanders into an inn, feverish.  While he's there, a gang of Yakuza jerks bust in and try to rape the girl, but Jokichi steps up to defend her, cutting the boss, Kyubei in the forehead.  He vows revenge and they take off.  Jokichi and the girl (sorry, names are tough when there's no Wikipedia for the movie I'm reviewing) soon fall in love, and he gives up his violent life in exchange for a peaceful one.

Three years later, Jokichi is still living with the girl, and they have a young son.  He gets a job opportunity, but must travel through the territory of the gang that still hates him to get there.  He promises not to fight them, and to keep his head down and get home alive.  Of course, he runs into them, and they hold him down and start bashing his pinky and ringfinger off with the hilt of a sword.  It's a pretty gruesome scene, even though the fingers are obviously fake.  When Jokichi can't stand it anymore, he swipes a sword off one of the guys, and instead of attacking them, he quietly slices off his two fingers, returns the sword, and thanks them as they all stare in shock.  Holy crap!

Unfortunately, Jokichi arrives home too late.  They already murdered his wife and son while he was away.  Aaaaaaand cue vengeance.  Jokichi finds out which bosses were behind the brutal act, and in true samurai tradition, becomes an unstoppable killing machine in order to bring them down.  He always has his wife's red belt around his waist, and he ties sharp little spikes to the tips of the remaining three fingers of his mangled hand and uses them as claws.  HELL YEAH.

It's a pretty standard revenge movie, actually, but very well executed and fun to watch.  Yoshio Harada is totally cool as Jokichi Mikogami.  There's also a mysterious one-eyed helper character named Hurricane Isaburo, but unfortunately, we never end up learning what his deal is.  The score is that weird but awesome funky music that pervaded 70's samurai movies such as the Lone Wolf and Cub series.  He even has sex with his lover with funky saxophones playing in the background.  Of course, this is an ongoing series, so he doesn't find all three bosses in this movie, he just faces off against the guy whose head he cut at the beginning (and all his men, of course).

The Fearless Avenger (Mushukunin Mikogami no Jokichi: Kawakaze ni Kako wa Nagareta), by Kazuo Ikehiro, 1972


The second film in the trilogy, The Fearless Avenger, is kind of the weak link of the three, but it's still pretty good.  This time around, Jokichi continues his relentless quest for vengeance, even walking right into a meeting of all the gang bosses and attacking them up front.  All this serves to do is get them angry, of course.

The main part of the story is about Jokichi being assigned by one Yakuza boss to protect another boss' runaway daughter and return her to him.  Of course, things end badly, and of course, Jokichi ends up butchering another army of guys.  This goes without saying.

The Fearless Avenger is lean and mean at only about 75 minutes, not including the 5-minute recap of the first film at the beginning.  It's still good, and there are some pretty surprising twists in the story, but it doesn't have a lot of character development for Jokichi, who had this great origin in the first film, and in this film just kind of spins his wheels.   I loved the final showdown, in a rocky river, with Jokichi submerging his sword arm underwater so his attackers can't see where he's pointing it.

Slaughter in the Snow (Mushukunin Mikogami no Jokichi: Tasogare ni Senko ga Tonda), by Kazuo Ikehiro, 1973


That title makes a pretty hefty promise, doesn't it?  Slaughter.  In the snow.  And let me tell you, it lives up to it.  Slaughter in the Snow is by FAR the bloodiest movie in the series.  It's also the best one, and I'm not saying that just because of the geysers of blood spraying out of chests, though that is a factor.

After the horrible events of the first two films, Jokichi has pretty much tossed aside all semblance of humanity.  As the movie opens, he just sits by his fire, quietly eating his pheasant, as a gang of bandits attacks and attempts to rape a poor girl.  He doesn't even look their way until they get in his face.  The girl follows him, despite his attempts to brush her off.

Soon, a similar scene plays out differently, as Jokichi witnesses a man save a girl from a gang without thinking twice.  Jokichi soon meets the man, an assassin named "Windmill" Kobunji, who is suffering from consumption.  He uses throwing knives with deadly accuracy, and throws them by twirling his arm like a windmill.  He's right upfront with Jokichi that he's already been paid a hefty retainer to kill him.  Despite this, they have a mutual respect for each other, and decide to travel for a while before they duel.

The strange, layered relationship between Jokichi and Kobunji is at the center of the movie.  When a bunch of men seek vengeance on Kobunji, Jokichi just sits back to watch the battle, reasoning that if they kill Kobunji, it's one less problem for him.  But when Kobunji begins coughing up blood during the battle, Jokichi steps in and scares the guys off, then takes the suffering assassin back to the inn where they met and helps nurse him back to health.

The reason I liked Slaughter in the Snow so much is the depth and complexity of the characters.  It's about Jokichi reacquiring a conscience.  The girl he rescued even calls him on his hypocrisy: He won't save a helpless girl being attacked by rapists, but now he's saving this guy who wants him dead?  I don't think Jokichi could even explain his reasoning, but I think it brought him back from the void.

The movie is also only 75 minutes long, and all the more intense for it.  The blood is a sharp red on the snow white scenery.  Kazuo Ikehiro must have liked the way red on white looked, because he pours it everywhere.  Slaughter is also the most visually stylized of the series.  Lots of really cool editing tricks and cinematography. 

There is a downside, though: The word "trilogy" is misused here.  A trilogy is when three movies tell a complete story.  Just because there are three Austin Powers movies doesn't mean it's the "Austin Powers Trilogy".  This is not the full story, and was clearly meant to continue for at least one more movie.  Jokichi never completes his vengeance on the third gang boss, and I guess he never will.  But still, Slaughter in the Snow is a great movie, even standing on its own.  I would recommend all three, but the third is by far the coolest.

Rope of Sand, The Gold Rush, Two-Way Stretch, When Eight Bells Toll

Rope of Sand, by William Dieterle,1949
So, here's the problem with being as far behind as I am in reviewing the movies I watch.  Most of the time, I watch good movies and I remember them and still have stuff to say a couple weeks later when I get around to writing about them.  Occasionally, I don't like a movie, and I can usually remember my gripes pretty well. too.  But then there's the occasion where I watch a movie that's just kind of OK.  Forgettable, even.

I guess I should have taken notes while I was watching William Dieterle's adventure film Rope of Sand, because I can remember very little at this point.  It didn't wow me.  Burt Lancaster stars as a guy in Africa who is hiding some diamonds he found from an evil diamond company.  They hire a lady to seduce it out of him and ummmm, I can't remember.  Peter Lorre is in it, and I always like him.  Claude Rains, too.  The movie is fine in the moment as a diversion, I don't recall NOT liking it, but if I'm any indication, it doesn't really stay with you.  Dieterle also directed The Devil and Daniel Webster, so he's still alright in my book.

The Gold Rush, by Charles Chaplin, 1924
Well, OK, I blew it on that last one.  Let's see if I can't do a little better this time.

As forgettable as Rope of Sand was (I even just now blanked on the title, no kidding), Charlie Chaplin's The Gold Rush is that much more memorable.  It's quite simply Chaplin's Little Tramp character in the gold rush.  Not the gold rush in California in the 1840's, the one in the Yukon at the turn of the century.  The Tramp finds himself trapped in a cabin with a couple of nasty guys, then finds himself in a town, in love with a local girl.  Lots of great physical comedy bits ensue.

My favorite bit was while Chaplin was stuck in the cabin during a blizzard with the two guys.  The two guys are fighting each other over a rifle while The Tramp hides.  No matter where he goes, though, the fighting men always turn so that the gun is pointing directly at him.  It's really funny stuff, in that great, timeless kind of way.  There are also some excellent practical effects involving the cabin being suspended on an icy cliff.

I usually lean toward Buster Keaton when it comes to silent comedies, but I'm not opposed to Chaplin.  He was an immensely talented comic and director.  I haven't actually seen a lot of Chaplin's films, and none of them since, I don't know, Intro to Film in college?  I should look into him a bit more.

Two-Way Stretch, by Robert Day, 1960
Two-Way Stretch is not a great comedy by any means, but it has a great premise and is worth watching if you're a fan of Peter Sellers.  That premise?  It's about a group of crooks living comfortably in prison, who hatch a scheme to break out, pull a heist, and break back into jail before anyone notices they're gone.  Unfortunately, a new warden arrives and tightens things up in the prison, so now they have to sneak around him.

It's a pretty clever premise, no?  The movie is just decent.  I do remember it better than Rope of Sand, which is apparently my new reference point now.  I liked Sellers, and my favorite jokes were early in the movie, when they show just how comfortable life for these prisoners is.  You know, I don't say this about many movies, but Two-Way Stretch would actually be a pretty good candidate for a remake.

When Eight Bells Toll, by Etienne Perier, 1971

Hey now, this is pretty awesome.  When Eight Bells Toll was initially intended to be a competitor with the highly successful James Bond series.  Of course, it didn't stand a chance, but you know what?  It's actually closer to a true 007 story than the Bond movies were at that point.

A young Anthony Hopkins, not long after his debut in A Lion in Winter, plays secret agent Phillip Calvert, on a mission to investigate a hijacked ship carrying a bunch of gold.  It's a fairly standard spy movie, but Hopkins is awesome in it.  He's suave and charming, and badass when necessary.  He even snaps a guy's neck in a pretty awesome way.  He has great dialogue, too.

In 1971, Diamonds are Forever came out, easily the lamest Bond movie yet (at the time, I mean, it may have been surpassed since).  Things had gotten campy and over-the-top ridiculous.  Of course, it was highly successful.  When Eight Bells Toll came out, it didn't do nearly as well, despite the fact that it was far superior.  It feels like a cool, low-tech spy movie (I prefer 'em low-tech), along the lines of the first 007 film, Dr. No.  It's totally worth watching.  In fact, of these four movies, it's the one I recommend the most.  I know The Gold Rush is a masterpiece, but When Eight Bells Toll is one of those little hidden gems.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Explorers

Explorers, by Joe Dante, 1985

How did this movie escape my childhood?  I loved all those 80's adventure movies about kids like me.  The Goonies, Monster Squad, and E.T. were all staples.  Well, I didn't see Monster Squad until a little later, but it became a staple once I did.  Explorers is right along the lines of these movies, and if I'd had it on tape as a kid, it would probably have been just as worn out as my copies of the above movies.

Joe Dante is also one of my favorite directors of that whole period.  I've yet to see a Joe Dante film that I didn't like.  His films always at least attempted to be commercial, yet they tended to skew just a little bit more off-kilter than his peers, such as Zemeckis, Donner, and Spielberg, did, and that quirk appealed to an odd little kid like me.  Dante's films were also brimming with sincere personal touches and his love for the campy B-Movies of his youth.

Explorers may in many ways be up there with Matinee as Dante's most personal film.  It stars two children who look an awful lot like River Phoenix and Ethan Hawke as a couple of kids who are given instructions in their dreams on how to unlock the secrets of interstellar travel.  Along with a third boy, they use this dream technology to clandestinely build their own spaceship and take it to the stars.  There, they, you know, meet aliens and stuff.

Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix are both great in their roles.  Hawke is the normal everyday kid, yearning to escape his life for a while and perhaps explore some uncharted territories.  Phoenix is his nerdy best friend, who is a science prodigy, and able to translate the technology in his dreams into physical reality.  There's a third kid, too, played by Jason Presson.  I actually liked his character a lot, but he wasn't in it nearly as much as his co-stars.  There were even some shots where the three of them were supposed to be sitting next to each other, yet the camera was only on the other two kids.  I wonder if there was some circumstance that prevented him from being in the movie as much as the other two?  Maybe he was difficult, or wasn't available as to shoot as much.

We also get bit parts by Joe Dante regulars, such as Dick Miller and Robert Picardo, who actually has three roles, two of them completely unrecognizable under some crazy alien prosthetics.  And James Cromwell plays River Phoenix's dad.

Explorers is a spirited, adventurous movie for younger children and nostalgic 30-year-olds, and it seems heavily inspired by Dante's own childhood, growing up in the thick of the space race, reading comic books and watching science fiction movies.  Though the film's third act in space is fun, I actually liked the parts of the movie before they leave the earth better.  There are some great sequences involving them building their ship out of old amusement park ride parts, and testing it out in front of a drive-in movie theater.  Even though these scenes had the fantastic elements, I could relate much more to kids scrounging around and using their creative minds to build stuff.  Once they get to space and meet aliens, it's a little out of my wheelhouse,though I'm sure I imagined doing just that a million times.  Which is really what the movie is all about: exploring that vast universe inside yourself.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Sowing My "Wilder" Oats the Fourth: I Give Up On Trying to Rationalize That Title: The Lost Weekend and Irma la Douce

Hey, folks, I'm back with another entry in my little series exploring the work of one of my favorite filmmakers, Billy Wilder.  This will be my last one for a while, since October's coming and that means horror movies.  Billy Wilder should have made some horror movies, so I could review them.

The Lost Weekend, by Billy Wilder, 1945


While most of my reviews so far have focused on the Billy Wilder of the late 50's, the 60's, and the 70's, there's still a good deal of his early films that I've yet to see.  A cautionary tale of the dangers of addiction, The Lost Weekend is a true classic, made just after Wilder had received a bunch of Oscar nominations for his breakthrough, Double Indemnity.

Ray Milland plays Don Birnam, an aspiring writer who lives on his brother's dime, which he mostly spends on booze.  At the start of the movie, Don is ten days sober, or so he claims, as we soon see him pull up a bottle he had hidden outside his window.  Once he gets his brother out of his hair, Don goes on a massive bender, full of self loathing and yuckiness.  During his bender, we see in flashbacks what has led Don to this point, as well as his meeting and courtship with Helen St. James, the woman who loves him and tolerates his behavior maybe way more than he deserves.

The Lost Weekend isn't one of Wilder's screwball comedies.  It's dark and even pretty harrowing for its time, with a serious underlying message about alcoholism, a problem that was on the rise since Prohibition.  That said, there are some laughs, and plenty of that sharp dialogue Billy Wilder was so good at writing.  Perhaps The Lost Weekend's most lasting contribution to society is the scene where Dan is walking while neon signs and stuff dissolve by in the background.  Even if you haven't seen this movie, you've seen that scene in homages and parodies a million billion times.  I'm guessing some of the people who use that device don't even know where it came from.

I'm sure at some point, we've all known, been, or dealt with addicts in our lives.  In the Lost Weekend, Billy Wilder addresses the issue head on at a time when many people just enabled it or swept it under the rug.  And he manages to make it all entertaining and not beat us over the head too hard with the message (there is some beating us over the head, but not TOO hard).

Irma la Douce, by Billy Wilder, 1963


While One, Two, Three was Wilder's next movie after his big Best Picture win for The Apartment, Irma la Douce was his true followup.  I assume One, Two Three was already in production by the time the Oscar nominations came out.  Irma la Douce is that kind of big, maybe a little too big, ambitious movies that a director makes when given extra license by a studio for making them an award winning box office hit.  I guess what I'm trying to say is, Irma la Douce is Billy Wilder's Magnolia.

Though he reunites The Apartment's stars, Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, Wilder wisely does not try to replicate the tone of that film.  Instead, Irma la Douce is more of a sophisticated screwball comedy in the vein of Some Like it Hot.  Set in Paris, Lemmon plays Nestor, an idealistic and oblivious police officer assigned to the seedy red light district, where the usual officers on duty take bribes to look the other way while the prostitutes work.  When he finds out what's going on, he stages a one man raid on the hotel and arrests all the prostitutes, including Irma la Douce (MacLaine), a sweet, chain-smoking, green-stockinged prostitute who carries around an alcoholic poodle.  She recognizes his kindness and good intentions, and treats him more kindly than the others.

Now, comes the series of misunderstandings part, because that's what these comedies are all about, right?  Well, Irma la Douce has maybe the most misunderstandings ever in one of these movies, so many, in fact, that the movie has an unwieldy 2 1/2 hour running time.  You see, through a series of misunderstandings, Nestor loses his job, and then another series of misunderstandings leads Nestor to become Irma's pimp.  And when Nestor can't stand the thought of Irma sleeping with other men, he disguises himself as "Lord X" a Brit who pays Irma to be exclusive to him.  Nestor must now work all night to pay for his own girl's services as a prostitute, but not for sex, just for talking.  Nestor's sneaking out to work at night leads Irma to believe he's cheating on her, which leads her to try to run away with Lord X who is really Nestor... and so on.

This movie is complicated, but oh so smart.  I'm not usually big on comedies longer than 90 minutes or so, and you could definitely feel Irma la Douce's length (THAT'S WHAT SHE SAID HEHEHEH).  But I didn't really mind, that much, because the movie was very watchable and funny, and Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine are both great once again.  Lemmon gets to show his range, playing two characters (or one character playing another, I guess) and showing off his physical comedy skills.  It's also, as expected from Billy Wilder, ridiculously mature for its time.  By 1963, his movies are getting pretty dirty, and it's awesome.  If you can commit to that insanely long running time, or maybe just watch it in two sittings, Irma la Douce is an extremely fun ride.  I know I said it's bloated and overlong like Magnolia, but hey, I happen to really like Magnolia too.

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If you'd like, I have a bunch more Billy Wilder reviews and you can follow these links here to read them.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Metropolitan, War of the Arrows, Withnail and I

Metropolitan, by Whit Stillman, 1990


Holy cats, guys, I think I've finally found my Whiteness Threshold.  I'm a dedicated Wes Anderson fan, I listen to and enjoy Vampire Weekend, and I say things like "holy cats", so I'm pretty white, but I think Whit Stillman's Metropolitan may have been too white for me.  It's a pretty good movie, I guess, but I just couldn't relate.

Metropolitan follows the lives of a group of rich New York college kids who are a part of the debutante society.  They meet up on weekends and talk about intellectual bullshit (and it's pretty bullshitty, they're college freshmen after all) and basically act like people I could never have a conversation with.  The main character is a kid named Tom, who has hit a financial rough patch with his parents' divorce, and is hanging out with these snobby types even though he's poor.  He's just as pretend smart as the rest of them, though; one of my favorite jokes was when he quotes a criticism on Jane Austen and the girl who likes him, Audrey, asks if he's ever even read the book.  He admits that he hasn't.  In fact, he doesn't read books at all, only criticism.  That way he can get the story and a point of view on it.

Anyway, I'm just giving the movie a hard time.  Objectively speaking, Metropolitan is a good film.  And the characters actually do grow on you as the story progresses, though I still constantly found myself thinking, "do people REALLY talk like this?"  Whit Stillman is kind of gently making fun of kids like this (with a name like Whit Stillman, I assume he was once one of them), and showing that for all their intellectual and cultured talk, they're really just teenagers and they have no real life experience or wisdom to back up their ideas.  I actually would like to see Stillman's film The Last Days of Disco.  Even though I'm sure everybody still talks like this, the subject matter interests me.

War of the Arrows, by Han-Min Kim, 2011

With The Hunger Games and The Avengers and Brave all out this year, bows and arrows sure are popular.  Well, South Korea got the jump on our little trend and made a huge historical epic last year with more arrows than you can shake a bow at.  This movie has more bows and more arrows than all three of those movies COMBINED.  Not only that, but people get shot with said arrows in every imaginable way.  In the arms, in the legs, in the chest, you name it.  Necks.

War of the Arrows isn't all just arrows.  There is also WAR.  And also a brother forming a ragtag group to rescue his kidnapped sister and ward off an invading army.  It's really cool.  The story is engaging, the action is awesome, the characters are likeable.  These are all icing on the cake, though, because what I'm most excited about is the arrows.  The only way this movie could have been better is if the main character had a talking arrow who helped him aim or something. 

Anyway, I know this review is really short and one-note, but I liked War of the Arrows a lot.  Totally worth your time.

Withnail and I, by Bruce Robinson, 1987

Withnail and I is one of the strangest films I've seen in a while, and followers of this blog might know that I watch a lot of strange films.  It's the story of two struggling actors in London in the late 1960's.  Withnail (Richard E. Grant) is a hard livin' type, pretty much a drunk, always raging at the world.  "I" (Paul McGann, AKA the 8th Doctor) is the sort of complacent second fiddle who always goes along with Withnail's schemes and worries himself to death all along the way as they get into deeper and deeper trouble.

There's not really much more of a "story".  It's just a ridiculous, darkly comedic, and weirdly enjoyable chain of events.  They go to get money from Withnail's rich, gay uncle, wind up stealing his car and the keys to his country house.  They end up stranded there with no money.  Then the gay uncle turns up and tries to seduce "I".  And so on.

Withnail and I kind of reminds me of the Coen Brothers' cult classic The Big Lebowski.  Both have lots of non sequiturs, a seemingly-but-not-really random story, and indefinable in terms of genre.  I was also pleasantly surprised to see Ralph Brown, the aging concert promoter guy (or whatever, I haven't seen it in many years) in Wayne's World 2.  He's basically playing the same guy in this, and he's just as hilarious.

I (me, not the character) thought Withnail and I (the character, not me) was really enjoyable, but maybe I didn't get it.  I'm sure it had some deeper meaning in there, there was definitely some commentary on the end of the 60's.  I might have to watch it a second time and see if there's anything I'm not picking up on.  Even if there isn't, it's a pretty great movie.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Last Days Here, A Woman is a Woman, Hot Rod

Last Days Here, by Don Argott and Demian Fenton, 2011


So Pentagram was apparently an underground heavy metal band formed in the early 1970's. They were never signed on a major label, and mainly found an audience through bootleg recordings. I don't know a thing about heavy metal, really, but that these guys influenced an entire genre without releasing anything is pretty amazing. They never really went away, either. For the past 40 years, they sporadically reformed under numerous different lineups, always led by frontman Bobby Liebling.

Liebling is not just the glue that binds Pentagram together, however. It's safe to say he's also the reason they never stay together. In his 50's, addicted to crack (among other drugs), emotionally immature, and still living in his parents' basement, the guy is a mess. Last Days Here is a documentary about Liebling, in which his manager, Sean Pelletier, tries to get Bobby cleaned up and reunite the original members of Pentagram.

Last Days Here is pretty sad, but entertaining, too. We learn that Pentagram couldn't even get themselves together in the 70's, when members of Kiss came to their place to check them out. It could have been their big break, but it didn't work out. Liebling does give an honest go at quitting the drugs cold turkey, and even gets a girlfriend and moves out of his parents' house, but things go south when he freaks her out and she dumps him. He relapses and winds up getting a restraining order put on him.

Pelletier persists, though. He really wants this reunion to work out, and there is a kind of triumph when Pentagram is up on stage together at the end. There's even some hope for Bobby Liebling. It was nice to see this kind of documentary actually be pretty upbeat at the end. I hope the guy is still doing alright.

A Woman is a Woman (Une Femme est une Femme)
, by Jean-Luc Godard, 1961


Not that long ago, I watched Godard's debut film, Breathless. I can totally see why it's so highly praised, it's a great movie, and groundbreaking, to boot. And as much as I liked Breathless, I liked his next film, A Woman is a Woman even more. It may not be the superior film of the two (who am I to say?), but it's much more my kind of thing.

A Woman is a Woman is a comedy about relationships and sex, starring Anna Karina as Angela, a strip-tease artist who suddenly decides she wants a baby. When her boyfriend Emile (Jean-Claude Brialy) balks at this, they engage in a battle of wills, until his best friend Alfred (Jean-Paul Belmondo of Breathless) offers to impregnate her in his stead.

Why do I like it better? I just liked the way it feels. It's wacky and sexy and colorful. Godard shows off his playful side much more in this than the other two of his films I've seen, though there are certainly playful moments in both Breathless and Alphaville. Godard continues his experimentation with editing and sound design here, too. I loved the way the score would abruptly stop to make room for a line of dialogue or a sound effect, only to start right back up again. And it's even self-referential. The characters often look directly at the camera and smile knowingly at the end of a shot. At one point, a character says something like "I have to go, Breathless is on TV", and they also joke about Francois Truffaut's films Shoot the Piano Player and Jules and Jim.

A Woman is a Woman is my favorite Godard film yet. I hope he has other films along these lines. You should probably watch Breathless because it's great and important and it's a fun movie, too, but A Woman is a Woman is just pure smiles.

Hot Rod, by Akiva Schaffer, 2007


OK, while Hot Rod is no Jean-Luc Godard film, I found myself pleasantly surprised by it. It's just a dumb little comedy that seems pretty heavily inspired by those first couple Adam Sandler movies I used to watch over and over again when I was 14. But that works for me. I laughed a bit, and mostly chuckled, and I enjoyed it from beginning to end.

Saturday Night Live's Andy Samberg plays "Hot" Rod Kimble, a hopeless young wannabe daredevil, who must raise $50,000 to get a heart replacement for his step-father (Ian McShane). He decides to jump 15 buses, one more than the record set by his hero, Evel Knievel. That's it. Simple plot. Lots of silly jokes. It's made by The Lonely Island, the guys who did all the SNL Digital Shorts like Lazy Sunday and D*ck in a Box.

The supporting cast is pretty good here, though some of the talent is underutilized. Samberg's SNL costar Bill Hader, along with Danny McBride stole the show for me as Rod's "crew". Co-writer, MacGruber director, and fellow The Lonely Island guy Jorma Taccone is funny too as Rod's dim half-brother. Chris Parnell has a hilarious bit part, full of funny one liners. Isla Fisher does that thing I usually don't like in guy driven comedies, where she isn't very funny, and pretty much just serves the role of being a girl. But she does it a little differently. Usually in these movies, the girl acts shocked or appalled at the hero's weird, outlandish behavior, but in Hot Rod, she actually seems amused by him from the get-go, and even a little drawn to him. I liked that. Will Arnett has a couple good moments as her jerk boyfriend.

Anyway, Hot Rod is decently funny, and might grow funnier in repeat viewings, or if I had watched it with other people. Watching comedies alone is never as much fun. It seems like the kind of movie I would have gone crazy for in my early teens. It would have fit perfectly in my VHS collection alongside Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, and Tommy Boy.

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Last Wave, Mona Lisa

Well, everyone, I am now once again among the employed. While it feels great, it sadly does mean I may not update as frequently, or watch nearly as many movies. But it also means that soon I will be able to afford to buy Blu Rays again, a luxury I haven't had in some time, and let me tell you, my wish list has been piling up. So keep an eye out, I'll still be around. Just maybe a little less.

The Last Wave
, by Peter Weir, 1977


In 1975, Australian director Peter Weir gained worldwide attention with his eerie, hypnotic, and primal horror film Picnic at Hanging Rock. In 1977, he followed up that success with another horror film, which, though updating its setting to the present, still maintained many of Hanging Rock's core attributes. That film is The Last Wave, and though lesser known than its predecessor, it is no slouch itself.

The Last Wave is the story of David Burton (Richard Chamberlain), a lawyer assigned to defend a group of aborigines accused of murder. Burton, normally a rational man, is drawn to the aboriginals, as he begins having apocalyptic visions involving a recent spate of extreme weather.

The movie is actually kind of hard to describe, but The Last Wave does share some thematic and tonal similarities with Picnic at Hanging Rock. Certainly the sense that nature itself is an overwhelming force, trying to push us away. It seems in these two movies that Australia itself deems people (white people, particularly) unwelcome on its land. Also like Hanging Rock, Weir offers few solid answers for the supernatural phenomena, only implications that the viewers must piece together themselves. That just makes it all the more creepy, of course.

The Last Wave is another fascinating, unique film by Peter Weir. If you've seen any of his films, from Picnic at Hanging Rock, to The Mosquito Coast, The Truman Show, or Master and Commander, you know he has a talent for fascinating, unique films. Check it out!

Mona Lisa, by Neil Jordan, 1986


Bob Hoskins is one of those actors I never realized I was going to miss until he was gone. Not dead, I mean, but recently retired due to Parkinson's Disease. Of course, to me, he was always Eddie, the gruff detective in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, but he really did have a lot of great roles. His little role in Terry Gilliam's Brazil is a favorite of mine, and I just recently watched The Long Good Friday, which he was awesome in (just watch the subtle changes of emotions on his face in that final shot).

Neil Jordan's film noir, Mona Lisa, is another high point in Hoskins' career. He earned an Oscar nomination for best actor for his performance as George, an ex-con hired as a driver for Simone, a high class call girl (Cathy Tyson). The two eventually befriend each other, and he she asks of him the favor of tracking down a friend of hers, a teenaged heroin addicted prostitute of the street walking variety, who is in too deep. He is also keeping an eye on one of Simone's clients, trying to dig up dirt on him for one of his associates (Michael Caine). George soon finds himself immersed in the seedy underworld of London, and runs afoul of all sorts of bad people.

This is a really cool movie, man. I do not believe I have seen any of Neil Jordan's films before (though I do know the ending of The Crying Game), and I am quite impressed by Mona Lisa. It's dark and grimy, and the characters are interesting, and the performances are great all around. I could have done without the montage of Hoskins checking looking for Simone's friend in all the local peep shows and sex clubs, but that was only because I had to listen to Phil Collins. And hey, it was 1986. If Phil Collins hadn't been playing on that montage, he would have been playing in someone else's really good movie. What I'm saying is, I recommend Mona Lisa, but be warned: Phil Collins.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Bicycle Thief, Goyokin, and Jiro Dreams of Sushi

The Bicycle Thief, by Vittorio de Sica, 1948


Vittorio de Sica's The Bicycle Thief (or Bicycle Thieves, depending on who you ask) is one of the best, most important, and most moving films ever made. That's not up for debate, it's earned that. Having seen the film, I can now acknowledge all those things, but I don't know, it was just so sad.

The Bicycle Thief is the relentlessly soul-crushing story of Antonio, an impoverished man who gets a job opportunity that requires he has a bike. He and his wife trade all their sheets to be able to get one, and even then, just barely. Antonio and his family treat the bike as their most precious possession. His son polishes it and has memorized every detail, down to a small dent. When Antonio goes to work for his first day, he carries his bike into the office, refusing to put it down. Then, on the job, which is riding around the city and gluing posters to walls, a man takes off with his bike.

Antonio goes to the police, who just trivialize the theft, as though it's not important. To Antonio, of course, it's the most important thing in the world. He, his son, and some friends go on a desperate search, combing the city for the bicycle. There are thousands of bicycles, and so on. The movie is just really damn sad. There are uplifting moments, and there's actually a lovely message of empathy and understanding to the whole thing. Though Antonio's desperation is blinding him to it, we can see that everybody is struggling, not just him. This is what drives people to steal bicycles.

I'm not NOT recommending the movie, it really is great, but just warning you, grab your hankies. No wait, don't use hankies, those are so gross, use a tissue. And watch something happy or fun afterwards, like cat videos or a cool-as-hell samurai movie or something.

Goyokin, by Hideo Gosha, 1969


I feel like Hideo Gosha was the last great director of the Japanese New Wave of the 50's and 60's. I don't know if this is a fact, because my knowledge is incomplete, but this is how it seems to me. While most of the other important directors of the time began making films in the 30's and 40's and were already well into their careers when they produced their seminal works, Gosha made his first film in 1964. Japanese cinema becomes a whole different beast in the 1970's, and I feel like Gosha kind of bridges the gap between the two styles.

In Goyokin, the great Tatsuya Nakadai (The Sword of Doom, High and Low, Kagemusha, among many others) stars as Magobei Wakizaka, an honorable samurai who looks on in shame as his clansmen slaughter an entire village to steal a shipment of gold. He can't go on as a samurai anymore and quits, but also promises his master and best friend, Rokugo (Tetsuro Tanba of You Only Live Twice and The Twilight Samurai, also among many others), that he won't report this transgression as long as it doesn't happen again.

Three years later, Magobei, living a peaceful life, is about to give up his sword for good when assassins sent to kill him tip him off that Rokugo is planning on butchering another village. Magobei decides to stop it from happening. Along the way, he stumbles across the girl who was the sole survivor of the massacre three years ago, and wins over a mercenary sent to kill him.

This movie is awesome. It's fun, with lots of action and adventure. Tatsuya Nakadai is totally badass as Magobei Wakizaka. There's a great scene where he is tied up and dropped into a deep pit of snow and left to die. The exact details of his escape are left to the imagination, but we're given enough of a starting point to marvel at how cool this guy is. Rokugo's plan to run a shipment of gold into the sea is pretty diabolical, and Wakizaka's plan to thwart this plan is equally clever. And of course, we get a deadly showdown between the two at the climax.

I've seen five or six of Hideo Gosha's films now, and dug them all. Though the film that follows this, Hitokiri, is a lot darker, the rest of the ones I've seen, such as Secret of the Urn have all had this kind of spirit of adventure. Goyokin is tons of fun.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi
, by David Gelb, 2011


We're going to stay in Japan for our next review, though this is a very different kind of movie than Goyokin. Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a documentary about Jiro Ono, an 85 year old man who owns a tiny sushi shop that purportedly makes the best sushi in the world. Jiro has spent close to his entire life making sushi, obsessing over every detail, honing his techniques, and looking for ways to improve it. He's like Van Gogh painting the same scene over and over again, trying to find the perfect colors to represent it. Or Stanley Kubrick obsessively looking through thousands of pictures of door frames, trying to find the exact perfect one to include in his film.

We also meet Jiro's two sons; the eldest is in his 50's and is still being primed to take over Jiro's restaurant someday. He has to live with the anxiety that even if his sushi is every bit as good as his fathers, people will somehow perceive it as lesser and thus put his business under. The youngest son has been encouraged to open his own sushi restaurant that is an identical mirror image of Jiro's place. Jiro was not the best father to his sons. He was too busy thinking of sushi, but I guess he's there for them now, in his way.

The documentary is fascinating, though it can be as repetitive and single-minded as its subject. Could you imagine living your life with your brain centered on all aspects of sushi and nothing else? Of course, he's not making the sushi alone. Along with his sons, he has several apprentices. They are given years and years of rigorous training. In fact, they said it takes something like ten years before they're even allowed to handle the eggs.

What's weird is, I'm not an adventurous eater in the least bit. I've never even had sushi, but I still could totally appreciate this movie and Jiro's work. I assume this sushi is the most delicious raw fish one could ever eat, if one were into such things as raw fish. It would be like if somebody in America would dedicate their entire life to cultivating the most perfect french fry in the world... Oh man, now I'm drooling. I've gotta go.

Days of Being Wild, and Minnie and Moskowitz: Two Films That Delve Deep Into Their Characters

Days of Being Wild, by Wong Kar Wai, 1990


Not too long ago, I watched Wong Kar-Wai's first film, As Tears Go By, and was surprised that it wasn't that much like the other Wong Kar-Wai films I had seen. It was kind of a standard Hong Kong crime movie, though signs of the director he was to become show through. Now, I have learned that his second film, Days of Being Wild is really where he found his voice as a storyteller. It apparently kickstarted a whole wave of similar Hong Kong films other than his own, too.

Days of Being Wild, like most of Wong Kar Wai's films, doesn't have a plot, or a linear one, anyway. It follows and deeply explores several richly drawn characters, as their lives collide. Set in 1960, the main-est character of this movie is a man named York (Leslie Cheung), a ladies man who really kind of uses and abuses the women in his life. First he seduces a girl who works at a ticket stand (Maggie Cheung), and when she wants to get serious, he drops her and gets to work on a showgirl (Carina Lau). We eventually learn that his destructive behavior is due to the fact that his adoptive mother has refused for years to tell him who his real mother is. He treats her no better, holding her sort of psychologically captive until she tells him. There's also a police officer (Andy Lau) that gives some comfort to the ticket stand girl, depressed over her relationship with York, before he goes off to become a sailor.

I didn't give away the whole movie, though it almost seems that way. There's a lot going on in there, and a lot happens after where I left off. That's how dense and emotionally textured Wong Kar Wai's films are, and one of the reasons he's so highly lauded. The other is, of course, the beautiful photography by frequent collaborator, Christopher Doyle. This is their first work together, and it looks great. There's a huge difference between this and his first film, which, while still having Wong Kar Wai's vivid colors, looked very much like a seedy low-budget 1980's movie.

Days of Being Wild is a very good film. With it, Wong Kar Wai found both his storytelling and aesthetic styles and in subsequent films honed and improved upon them. I'm looking forward to watching more of those films.

Minnie and Moskowitz,
by John Cassavetes, 1971


I've been wondering what I was going to say about this movie ever since I watched it a few weeks ago. I'm not too sure I'm able to sufficiently explain why I loved it so much. I watched it twice within a week, which is something I almost never do, and I liked it even more the second time. I think Minnie and Moskowitz is one of my new favorite movies.

A quirky and unconventional love story, Minnie and Moskowitz is the story of the turbulent whirlwind romance of Seymour Moskowitz (Seymour Cassell AKA Max's dad from Rushmore), a ponytailed, biker-mustached, Jewish, New York parking lot attendant, and Minnie Moore (Gena Rowlands), a depressed 40-ish WASP, in an abusive relationship with a married man, and ready to give up on the very idea of romance.

The characters are so rich, detailed, and completely human. Seymour is impulsive, almost aggressively socially awkward, if that makes sense, and is prone to mouthing off and getting in fights. Minnie's self worth has been so damaged that she hides behind a gigantic pair of sunglasses, even indoors. But despite the fact that these two people are so different, you never question the believability their relationship through its ups and downs. One of my favorite moments is when Seymour questions a romantic gesture that Minnie makes. Embarrassed, Minnie immediately retreats back into her shell and starts putting her sunglasses on, and Seymour just reaches over and pulls her hand down and tells her he gets it. I also love the scene where their different ideas of what romance is becomes crystallized for Minnie, when a passionate Seymour bursts out, "I think about you so much I forget to go to the bathroom!"

I'm just now discovering director John Cassavetes. I've seen him acting in a couple of films, but I'm pretty blown away by his work as a director. He seemed like an awesome guy. He paid his dues doing acting roles, often as bad guys or tough guys, and used his paychecks to independently finance his own movies. He was a real trailblazer in the world of independent film. He worked largely with friends and family. Rowlands was his wife, and she starred in just about all of his films. His actors improvise a lot of their dialogue and Cassavetes would patiently let the camera eavesdrop, often embracing accidents or impulsive acts from the cast members.

I loved Minnie and Moskowitz. It feels so human and real, and it's both funny and emotionally intense. It really lets the viewer come to understand and love the main characters, and it might actually be the ONLY movie from the 1970's with a happy ending. That's a joke, you don't have Linkto list other 70's movies with happy endings for me.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Three Films of the Punk and New Wave Era: Forbidden Zone; Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains; Breaking Glass

Hello! In this entry, I'm going to talk about three rock and roll movies about one of my favorite musical periods: The punk/post-punk/new wave movement of the late 70's and early 80's! And yet I STILL haven't seen Sid and Nancy...

Forbidden Zone,
by Richard Elfman, 1982

Most of us know Danny Elfman nowadays as the guy who scores the Tim Burton movies, but some may fondly remember him as the lead singer of the nutty, theatrical new wave act, Oingo Bongo, or as they were originally called, The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo. Forbidden Zone is the Oingo Boingo movie, directed by Elfman's brother Richard, and intended to give theater audiences a cinematic idea of what an Oingo Boingo show was like.

What's it like? It's like a campy, trashy, John Waters burlesque show on acid. The story is centered on the Hercules family, a family of weirdos who live on top of a portal to the hellish 6th dimension. Herve Villechaize is the king there and he wants to toss aside his current queen and take the Hercules daughter, Frenchie, for his own. The rest of the family one by one go down, either on accident or to rescue her.

Forbidden Zone uses strange costumes, bad makeup, weird sets, and different styles of animation throughout. There are lots of musical numbers, the best of them featuring the songs of Oingo Boingo, though some are using old timey numbers. I'm not sure if I could call it a "good" movie, but it's an extremely culty movie and sometimes that's good. The music is really great. The acting is pretty awful, but also pretty appropriate, since Richard Elfman is obviously aiming for camp value. The cast is mostly just friends and family and Oingo Boingo members. The humor is pretty low brow and often knowingly lame, with the intention to offend everyone (and thus no one).

If you like Oingo Boingo and weird shit, you should probably watch Forbidden Zone. It contains lots of those things. It made me wonder what their early stage shows were like. I bet that would have made for an amazing night.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains,
by Lou Adler, 1981

It's funny that punk music had become such a thing by 1981 that they were making Hollywood movies about it. The movement had been declared dead a couple years earlier, and everyone was kind of cashing in their chips at this point. Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains is one such movie, though it has an air of authenticity lent to it by some real deal punk legends.

A young Diane Lane stars as Corinne Burns, a cynical teenager whose mother's recent death has spun her into one of those "nothing really matters" phases. After causing a mild stir by being fired from her fast food job while on a televised news report, Corinne announces to the world that she's the singer of The Stains, a band she has with her sister (Marin Kanter) and cousin (Laura Dern).

This is spun into a gig as an opening act for an over-the-hill metal band and an up and coming punk band called The Looters. The only problem is, nobody checked to see if The Stains can play. They're terrible. The sister and cousin can't play their instruments and Corinne can't sing. When booed off the stage, Corinne makes up for her lack of musical ability with her true talent: telling people why they suck and why she's awesome. She is perceived as a new feminist icon and spins The Stains into stardom with a plagiarized song, until, of course, it all comes crashing down.

I liked Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains a lot. It's directed by Lou Adler, best known for The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Cheech and Chong's Up In Smoke, both cult movies in their own right. But I think this is a better film than those two. It's not a "punk" movie, but it's cynical, darkly funny, and self aware enough to even mock itself a little. I thought Diane Lane gave a great performance as a teenage girl with a lot of rage and no real outlet for it. And a young Ray Winstone plays the singer of The Looters, who are rounded out by members of The Clash and The Sex Pistols. The Stains' main (plagiarized) song, Join the Professionals, was written by the former Pistols guys and it's a real-deal, legitimate sounding punk song.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains is good stuff. Unlike Forbidden Zone, you don't have to be a weirdo like me to like it. It's a well made satire with some cool music that never really found the audience it deserved.

Breaking Glass, by Brian Gibson, 1980

It's funny: Breaking Glass is sort of the sincere version of the story that Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains was being sarcastic about. Well, I'm not sure if "sincere" is the right word. This movie has the stink of the English Pop Star Making Machine all over it.

It stars an up-and-coming New Waver named Hazel O'Connor, as Kate, an up-and-coming New Waver. The movie follows the course of her career from idealistic young punk who refuses to sign a record contract, through the formation of her band and first hit, the temptation of success and alienation of said band, and ultimately, the unhappy ending of her being a superstar with no integrity. Apparently there's another scene at the end but it was cut out of the US version for no good reason.

The thing is, Hazel O'Connor hadn't even released an album at the time of this movie's release. Her first was the soundtrack. There was probably a conversation at some executive office like:

"If we make a pop star and give her a movie telling everybody she's a pop star, she'll be HUGE!"

"Yeah, but won't people see right through that?"

"No, see, we'll make it a cautionary tale, and show her unhappy with her success, as if to say, the REAL Hazel O'Connor would never do that."

"I don't get it but you sign checks!"

Anyway, I don't mean to dis Hazel O'Connor, just whoever was pulling the strings. She wasn't just a one-hit wonder, and she still releases music to this day. The songs in the movie are actually pretty good, and they're produced by Tony Visconti. The production sounds a lot like David Bowie's Low/"Heroes"/Lodger period that Visconti was working on at the time of this movie. It's even safe to assume that the band in the movie (and the movie's title), Breaking Glass is named after the Bowie song on Low.

Breaking Glass isn't great, but it has some cool songs, and it also has Jonathan Pryce playing a deaf saxophonist with a heroin addiction, so it can't be all bad, right?

Monday, September 10, 2012

Vanishing Point, She (1935), and Sleep, My Love

Vanishing Point, by Richard C. Sarafian, 1971


Vanishing Point took me by surprise. I expected a badass 70's car chase movie, and on one level that's exactly what it is. But it's also the story of one man's existential race into oblivion.

It begins with the hero, Kowalski (Barry Newman), a car delivery man who is taking an awesome car (I guess, anyway, I'm not a car guy) from Denver to San Francisco. He bets a guy that he'll be able to get it there by 3PM the next day, only 16 hours from his time of departure. I just did the math, and that means he would have to go a minimum of 80 miles for hour the whole way in order to make that goal, and that's not counting stops. So Kowalski takes a bunch of speed and sets out on his mission.

It doesn't take long before Kowalski gets the attention of the police, and it's no wonder. Nothing is going to stop him. If he sees a road block, he just jumps the median and goes around it on the other side of the road. He's getting help in avoiding the law over the radio from his friend Super Soul, a DJ (played by Cleavon Little of Blazing Saddles) who talks in a secret code of jive poetry.
All the while, the police are bearing down on Kowalski, as he edges closer and closer to the end of his race.

Vanishing Point is a really cool oddity among car chase movies because of its dark, psychedelic, and philosophical overtones. Things get more and more surreal for Kowalski as he goes deeper into the desert, meeting snake handlers, desert hippies and naked motorcycle riding hippie girls on the way. We get an idea of what is driving Kowalski through some sketchy flashbacks of his past, but he never states explicitly why he's doing it.

One last thing: If this review is selling you on Vanishing Point, and you decide to watch it, try to find the UK cut. It was available on the flipside of the DVD I had, so it shouldn't be too hard. It has an extended sequence cut from the American version, a surreal scene where Kowalski picks up a hitchhiker. It's one of the most important scenes in the movie, and we Americans didn't see it upon release because someone decided we were too stupid to get metaphors. That happens to us a lot, doesn't it?

She, by Irving Pichel and Lansing C. Holden, 1935


Based on a popular series of novels by H. Rider Haggard, She is an epic adventure produced by the man who brought King Kong into the world, Merian C. Cooper. It was intended to replicate the success of Kong, and despite its wonderful production design and special effects, it failed to do so, and I can tell you exactly why: NO MONSTERS.

She is the story of a man's quest to a lost land to find the Fountain of Youth deep in the arctic. Family lore has it that his ancestor found the fountain centuries ago. There they find an ancient race of cannibals and their ruler, She Who Must Be Obeyed. She believes the guy is his own ancestor that she had taken as a lover 500 years ago, and She wants him back.

The film is decent, but never achieves the blend of wonder and high adventure that King Kong did. There's never the feeling that you're seeing something you've never seen before. They are, after all, just shooting on a big soundstage, right? Couldn't they have thrown a giant spider or something in somewhere?

Still, She is full of rich movie history. One cool little fact is that She Who Must Be Obeyed was the visual inspiration for the evil queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Another is that it was thought lost until a print was found in Buster Keaton's personal collection. It's a fun, pulpy little movie, and it's totally worth watching, but it's not going to change your world.

Sleep, My Love,
by Douglas Sirk, 1948


I've been meaning for some time to watch something by Douglas Sirk. Sleep, My Love happened to be the only one of his films on Netflix Instant, and though it's not one of his more well known titles, I decided to give it a look.

Sleep, My Love stars Claudette Colbert as a New York woman who wakes up on a train to Boston, with no idea how she got there. When she returns to her husband (Don Ameche), we begin to see things take a much more sinister turn. He's cheating on her with a younger woman, and wants her money, and is manipulating her through hypnotic suggestion to drive her mad and commit suicide. It's pretty ridiculous, I know, but it's a fun little movie.

I can see now why women at the time responded so well to Sirk's films. He seems pretty sympathetic toward them. Like, if a 40's or 50's housewife believed her husband was cheating (chances were fair that she was right), most people would just roll their eyes and talk down to her. But she could go and see Sleep, My Love and have all her suspicions validated. See? Husbands CAN be evil. And that younger girl he's seeing is nothing but a money grubbing floozy. And that shrink he's sending me too IS a fraud. And look, she met a nicer man on the plane back from Boston. There's hope!

As I said above, this isn't one of Sirk's better known films, but it's a fun little diversion. I would very much like to see the 1950's films he would later become so well known for.

Sowing My "Wilder" Oats 3: Because We Can't All Be as Clever as Billy Wilder: One, Two, Three, and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes

I'm back, everybody, for my third installment of my depressingly lamely titled look at the work of the late, great Billy Wilder. I've been having a lot of fun writing these, and even more fun watching the movies. I've watched a dozen of Wilder's films so far, and the guy hasn't let me down yet.

One, Two, Three, by Billy Wilder, 1961


One, Two, Three came immediately after Wilder's triumphant one-two punch of Some Like it Hot and The Apartment, and because of that, it was bound to disappoint at the time of its release. Though it was well received by critics, the satirical Cold War comedy didn't perform well in the box office, and is a relatively obscure title in Wilder's body of work. It's too bad, too, because One, Two, Three deserves to be seen.

Set in West Berlin, One, Two, Three is the story of C.R. Macnamara, or just Mac, a hard working international representative for Coca-Cola, played by James Cagney. He has spent the last several years circling the globe with his family, spreading the joy of Coke wherever he goes. His wife wants to take their kid back to America, but he's vying for a big position in London. This job depends on his ability to introduce the cola to the Soviets.

Then the Coke bigwig back in Atlanta calls with a new task: keep an eye on his boy-crazy daughter, Scarlet (Pamela Tiffin), who he is sending to West Berlin to get her away from some low-life or another that she's taken to. A couple months later, Mac's boss calls with the news that he's coming to visit himself, and Mac discovers that Scarlet has been sneaking into East Berlin and has secretly married Otto Piffl (Horst Buchholz), a hardline Communist who constantly spews his anti-capitalist sentiments to everyone within earshot. Mac must now find a way to clean up this mess without losing his job and causing an international incident in the process.

One, Two, Three is a relentlessly fast-paced comedy, about as screwball as a movie can get. Cagney is on fire, too. Most of the movie is on his shoulders, and it must have been exhausting, because this movie actually did drive him into retirement. He's constantly scrambling around, talking quickly with ridiculous amounts of dialogue, and orchestrating deftly executed comedic setpieces with his costars.

Wilder lets the jokes fly fast, and as such, there's little time for the emotion of some of his deeper works, but he still makes sure to cram One, Two, Three with a healthy dose of social commentary. He takes swipes at the Soviets and the Cold War itself, and even a few digs at the nature of capitalism. Mac's German right-hand man who claims to have been conveniently absent for the entirety of World War 2 is another great gag.

Since I haven't in previous entries, I thought this would be a good place to mention I.A.L. Diamond, Wilder's co-writer for every movie he made (except one) from 1957 all the way to his final film in 1981. Diamond was a perfect fit for Wilder's sensibilities, and together they crafted a long series of sophisticated comedies. One, Two, Three is an extremely smart and ridiculously precise comedy, and easily one of Wilder's most ambitious films. It's well worth your time.

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, by Billy Wilder, 1970


I've been a fan of Sherlock Holmes for a long time. He's my favorite character in all of literature. I was intrigued by the idea posed in the title of Wilder's film, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. What goes on when Holmes isn't solving mysteries? What keeps him ticking (besides cocaine) when he isn't occupied by some case? Well, to be honest, this film doesn't really go very far to answer these questions.

Robert Stephens stars as Holmes, and Colin Blakely as Dr. John Watson, whose chronicle of Holmes' adventures in The Strand Magazine has made him a celebrity. At the start of the film, a bored Holmes is intrigued by an invitation to the Russian Ballet. Backstage after the show, the star ballerina, Madame Petrova, makes him an offer: she wants him to give her a child. Flustered by this prospect, Holmes turns her down and gets out of dodge.

This only makes up the first act of the movie. After that, a different woman comes knocking and Holmes and Watson embark on a new case that involves the Loch Ness monster, German spies, and even Queen Victoria herself. It's all a very good, somewhat comedic Sherlock Holmes adventure, and as clever as you would expect from Wilder and Diamond, but we've seen it all before. That first act is where the movie should have been found. I wanted to see a deeper exploration of how Holmes would have dealt with this request from the ballerina.

It's too bad about that, but the movie is still very fun. Stephens and Blakely make an adequate Holmes and Watson, and additionally, Christopher Lee plays Sherlock's brother Mycroft, which is some very cool casting. Genevieve Page plays Gabrielle, the woman who sets Holmes off on his mission to Scotland, and steals his heart.

I guess I don't have a great deal else to say about The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. I wish the movie was actually about his private life, but at least it's a Sherlock Holmes movie, and very well crafted. It was made fairly late in Wilder's career, at a point when directing jobs appeared to be thinning out for him. It had been four years since his last film. Maybe he was losing some of his fire at this point. This is far from a classic, but it's still very good.

Friday, September 7, 2012

ParaNorman

ParaNorman, by Sam Fell and Chris Butler, 2012


The folks over at Laika seem poised to take over for Tim Burton as the top purveyors of macabre-stop-motion-animated-movies-for-kids-who-don't-mind-being-a-little-scared. I loved their previous effort, 2009's Coraline, but was unsure if they would be able to repeat their success without the Neil Gaiman source material and the direction by Tim Burton collaborator Henry Selick, whose modern classic, The Nightmare Before Christmas, really kick started the whole macabre-stop-motion-animated-movies-for-kids-who-don't-mind-being-a-little-scared genre in the first place.

Well, I'm pleased to report that Laika's latest film, ParaNorman, directed by Sam Fell and Chris Butler, is really good stuff. It's the story of Norman, a little boy saddled with the ability to communicate with ghosts. His family and the kids at school think he's weird, so Norman pretty much spends his time watching monster movies and talking to his dead grandmother. When the town's resident crazy man, Norman's uncle, dies and passes on his responsibilities to his nephew, Norman must now tame an ancient curse on the town of Blithe Hollow, a New England village that has a Salem-esque witch trial in its history.

ParaNorman plays the horror fairly straight. It's not too intense for older kids, but it can be quite morbid at times, even including a scene where Norman must break into his uncle's home and pry a book from the hands of his uncle's stiff corpse. There are ghosts and zombies and witches, too. The movie has its share of laughs, too, largely provided by Norman's new friend, a pudgy weird kid named Neil, but the comedy is secondary, there to lighten up a fairly dark kids story.

Though the characters are somewhat similar in design to those in Coraline, ParaNorman is drawing its look from completely different sources. Where Coraline looks heavily inspired by Eastern European animation, ParaNorman looks to have taken their aesthetic from German expressionist films and the early Universal monster movies. Lots of angles, and not a straight line in the movie, besides maybe Norman's hair, which stands straight up on his head. I also loved that all of the characters were slightly asymmetrical, with differently sized eyes, and uneven mouths and so on. In most animation, symmetry is the name of the game, so this just adds to the slightly off-kilter feel of the film, while at the same time maybe reflecting real life a little bit more as well.

Anyway, ParaNorman is worth watching, especially if you or your children are into the macabre-stop-motion-animated-movies-for-kids-who-don't-mind-being-a-little-scared genre. I think I would have really liked it as a kid, and I was (and kind of still am) a little wuss. We still have a few months to go, but it might end up being my favorite macabre-stop-motion-animated-movies-for-kids-who-don't-mind-being-a-little-scared movie of the year. I'll hold my judgment on that until I see Tim Burton's Frankenweenie, though.

Shadows and Fog and Walker: Two Comedies About Sticking Our Noses Where They Don't Belong

Shadows and Fog, by Woody Allen, 1991


I've seen most of Woody Allen's films at this point, although I've fallen off in recent years. I was pretty sure I had seen most, if not all, of the best ones, which left me pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed his 1991 film, Shadows and Fog.

A darkly comedic homage to German Expressionism, Shadows and Fog has some really beautiful black and white cinematography. In fact, there are tons of shadows and lots of fog in the movie, as I suppose should be expected. Set, I think, in the 1920's, a serial killer is stalking the streets and strangling his victims. Kleinman, a nebbishy 50-ish Woody Allen type, played by Woody Allen, is awakened in the middle of the night by the men of the neighborhood, who are forming a vigilante group to hunt this guy down. He is peer pressured into joining, despite his well-founded reservations.

At the same time, at a travelling circus outside of town, a couple, a sword swallower (Mia Farrow) and a clown (John Malkovich) to be exact, get in a fight over cheating and having kids, and the sword swallower, Irmy, leaves the clown. In the city, she falls in with a prostitute (Lily Tomlin), who takes her into her whorehouse for safety, and the two main stories begin to collide.

I really liked Shadows and Fog. The story is complex, funny, spooky, and interesting, Allen's directing is at its best, and the cast is top notch. It includes Allen, Farrow, Malkovitch, Tomlin, Madonna, Kathy Bates, Jodie Foster, Donald Pleasance, John Cusack, and even a brief appearance by William H. Macy. I especially enjoyed Pleasance's small part as a coroner, and Cusack as a young student infatuated with Farrow, who he believes to be a prostitute. The payoff at the end is pretty great too.

Woody Allen has made a lot of movies. I'm not sure where Shadows and Fog would rank among them, but I'd put it somewhere in the top half, and that's saying quite a lot.

Walker, by Alex Cox, 1987


I didn't know what to expect when I turned on Alex Cox's trippy anti-Biopic, Walker. Cox, director of Repo Man and Sid & Nancy (which I still haven't seen!), brought his punk-rock ethos to the Historical Biography genre, and destroyed his own Hollywood career in the process. Walker is a truly strange mess of a movie, and I kind of loved it.

Walker is the story of William Walker (Ed Harris), an American soldier of fortune in the 1850's who leads a group of mercenaries into Nicaragua to liberate the locals, only to take over and become dictator himself. Cox is not so much interested in historical facts, however, and he plays fast and loose with the truth. He's more interested in commenting on what America was actually doing in Latin America in the 1980's, and he viciously comments on it throughout.

There's lots of hilarious black comedy in Walker, such as the battalion drummer who asks to sit out on the next day's battle because he's noticed in all the war paintings that the drummer is always one of the corpses. Walker looks him in the eye like a holy man and says "as long as I am your commander, no harm shall come to you." Of course, at the battle he is gunned down violently and repeatedly, as Walker is somehow able to walk through all the carnage magically unscathed.

In addition to the comedy and the carnage, there is a surrealist element to Cox's film as well. As the movie progresses, he starts sneaking in historical anachronisms, to remind us that this isn't the 1850's he's talking about, this is today (1987). At first it's something like someone lighting a fuse with a Zippo lighter, or a guy drinking a bottle of Coke, but by the end, there are helicopters disrupting the period authenticity.

Add to all this an excellent, moody musical score by Joe Strummer of The Clash, and you have in Walker a great piece of anti-establishment cinema; shocking, funny, violent, and rebellious. I think it was slammed by critics at the time of its release, but like the best cult movies, has later experienced some rehabilitation and found an audience. Some even hold it up as Alex Cox's best film. I still need to watch Sid and Nancy, so I don't know yet. I sure dug it, though.

This Day and Age: Cecil B. DeMille's Solution for a Broken System

This Day and Age, by Cecil B. DeMille, 1933


While best known for the historical epics that the latter part of his career focused on, Cecil B. DeMille was actually a quite versatile director. This last sentence makes me sound like an authority on Cecil B. DeMille, which I'm totally not. I haven't even seen The Ten Commandments. Cut me some slack, OK? It's four hours long. In fact, This Day and Age is the first of DeMille's films I've ever seen.

This fact is especially odd when you consider that This Day and Age is one of the director's only films not made readily available on DVD or some other format. Not 100% sure why, either due to mild racism or political wrongheadedness, you take your pick. You see, America was well into the Great Depression at the time of its release, and people were looking for solutions. This was DeMille's proposal. By the way, I'm going to be SPOILER-iffic this time around, because this is one of those movies you might not get many chances to see, and it's just too weird to not talk about.

This Day and Age is about a group of high school seniors at the top of their class, selected to take part in "Boys Week" (girls aren't qualified, I guess), where they shadow the men who hold high city positions. One boy goes with the Chief of Police, one with the District Attorney, one with the Judge. When the friendly local Jewish stereotype is gunned down by the local gangster stereotype for not paying for protection, the boys witness firsthand just how broken the system is. The gangster gets off because none of the evidence can prove conclusively that he did what they all know he did. The boys decide to investigate on their own, and the gangster ends up killing one of them and pinning it on another. Disenfranchised at the way the institution handles things, the remaining boys hatch a plan to bring this gangster to justice: mob justice!

Yes, DeMille was proposing that if the system can't do things right, let's form a mob and do it ourselves. The boys mobilize and form a secret army of all the high school boys in the entire area. They whistle Yankee Doodle Dandy as their secret code. Their plan to get the gangster alone to kidnap him, yes kidnap him, is to have one of their girlfriends seduce his righthand man, who really wants to have sex with a high school girl. Oh, and did I mention that when the boys get the gangster, they hold a trial themselves, and torture a confession out of him by lowering him into a pit of live rats? Then they carry him back to the judge and the judge commends them for doing the right thing! Yes, this movie is crazy!

I mentioned above that This Day and Age is also mildly racist. It's not really so bad. Though the Jewish characters were broad stereotypes, the movie was really standing up for them. The worst part is when the Jewish tailor's shop is blown up as a threat, and the tailor, lying in a pile of rubble, goes "Oy, this damage is going to cost me $432...", then a bit of plaster breaks over his head and he goes, "...and 64 cents!" Yeah. But there was actually a really cool line, involving a black student. The boys need a black person to pretend to be a shoeshine (yeah, I know) for the plan to work. They go up to a boy and say "hey, do you shine shoes?", and he looks at them and says "I shine my own shoes". So I don't think the racism was necessarily coming from bad intentions, just, you know, ignorance.

Despite the fact that this film is a political minefield (I heard it was banned in Holland for being too fascist!), it's actually insanely well directed. Cecil B. DeMille totally knew his stuff. The performances, cinematography and production values are exceptional. There's a fantastic sequence between the creepy second-in-command mobster and the girlfriend of the valedictorian boy. It's played entirely in closeups on their hands while they talk to each other. He's locking the hotel room door and she's sliding a knife into her purse. Really cool stuff.

As outdated and messed up as This Day and Age is, it's still an extremely watchable film. I would recommend it as both an entertaining movie and a historical curiosity. If you hear of it playing near you, or if it is made available to you somehow, you should definitely check it out.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky and Breathless: There Are Lots of Different Ways to Be Great

Wow, everybody, I'm not going to make a big deal of it, but Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky is the 300th movie I've reviewed on I Probably Liked It. That's a lot of movies for someone to probably like in only 20 months! I haven't slowed down at all since watching it either. I still have almost 30 movies to review. I'm really wanting to be caught up by the end of this month, but writing takes a lot of time that I don't necessarily have, so we'll see.

Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky
, by Lam Nai-Choi, 1991


I've been hearing about this movie since I was in 9th grade. Back in the early, pre-Stewart days of The Daily Show, they always used to show a clip of a guy smashing another man's head with his fists like Ghallagher smashes a watermelon with a sledgehammer. The older geeks who were more in the know than I told me about The Story of Ricky, and thus a legend was born.

Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky, set in a hellish not-too-distant future of 2001, is about a good guy who is imprisoned for killing a crime boss. The prison is just as corrupt as the outside world, as Ricky soon learns when he comes to the defense of a poor old man who is just shy of parole. In doing this, he makes enemies of not only the worst of the prisoners, but also the evil warden and his lackies. Now Ricky must fight his way through these guys and out of the jail that would rather see him dead.

This movie is nuts! I don't know why it took me so long to see it. I guess because it was never sitting directly in front of me, until it popped up on Netflix. The violence is super over-the-top and hilariously fake looking. It's like if Evil Dead 2-era Sam Raimi made a science fiction kung fu prison drama/comedy. We're in a world where pretty much anything can happen. We see Ricky smash his fists through heads and torsos, and one of his foes tries to choke Ricky with his intestines at one point. Ricky has superpowers and is basically indestructible, unfortunately for these bad guys. You never feel like the odds are overwhelming for the hero, you just watch to see how he's going to eviscerate one boss after another.

I'm guessing my description isn't really selling Riki-Oh. You're probably wondering what's so appealing about it. It's hard to do this movie justice with words. Let me just say that it's weird and funny and culty and great to watch with a group of friends (inebriation optional). Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky is off its rocker, and totally awesome for it.

Breathless, by Jean-Luc Godard, 1960


While I think you could say the Story of Ricky achieves a kind of greatness, Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless is the real deal. Sure, it doesn't have a scene where the hero shoves a bad guy into a meat grinder, but it has its own non-meat-grinder related merits. There's a reason this film is frequently voted by critics as one of the best ever made.

One of the films that kick started the French New Wave, Breathless is the story of Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a guy who steals a car and shoots a cop and now needs money to get out of the way. He goes into the city to find someone to give him a loan. While he's there, he also tracks down Patricia (Jean Seberg), an American girl he's slept with a few times, and wants to come with him. Much of the movie is set in her apartment, as they smoke cigarettes like they're in a French movie and discuss their situation and she tries to determine whether she loves him or not, while the cops are out there tracking him down.

It says something about a movie when it is the source of all the stereotypes of what a certain kind of movie is. Breathless is like that. Every American parody of an "artsy" French film on TV, in cartoons, and in movies, is just doing its own version of Breathless. This is that movie. The philosophical voice-over narration of the hero, the frequent use of jump-cuts. Not only often parodied, but often used for serious. The way Godard used jump-cuts in his editing was a brand new thing at the time, though it's become recognizable and commonplace over the last 50 years.

I had seen Godard's Alphaville before this, and I liked it, but now that I've seen Breathless, Godard seems much easier to get into. It's bold, groundbreaking, and personal and it still feels that way half a century later. This would have been a much better film for me to start off with.