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|Wednesday, July 20th, 2016|
|There is danger in covering the cracks.
A remake of the 1983 film The Dresser
-- itself based on Ronald Harwood's 1980 play -- doesn't seem entirely necessary, but as an acting showcase for Sirs Ian McKellen and Anthony Hopkins, it's hard to begrudge its existence. McKellen, in particular, shines as Norman, the loyal dresser to Hopkins's senile Sir, a beleaguered actor-manager struggling through a tour of the English provinces at the height of World War II who has to be coached through one more performance -- his 227th, to be exact -- of King Lear
. A renowned Shakespearean actor who still manages to inspire awe in his company (including Emily Watson as Her Ladyship, who urges him to retire when he miraculously makes it to the interval, Sarah Lancashire as his long-suffering stage manager, and Edward Fox as a minor actor elevated to the role of The Fool by circumstance), Hopkins's Sir undergoes an astonishing transformation from a doddering old man to a ferocious lion playing a doddering old man. It's a pity, then, that director Richard Eyre's adaptation doesn't pull off a similar feat, confined as it is to the interior of the theater where Sir's company is in residence. This may bring it more in line with Harwood's original play than the 1983 version, but considering Harwood himself wrote that, I'd say he understood the need to open things up and air them out. Otherwise, things run the risk of getting a little stuffy.
|Tuesday, July 19th, 2016|
|If it wasn't for graft, you'd get a very low type of people in politics. Men without ambition.
In the wake of last night's dispiriting display of appalling political posturing, I needed a reminder of a time when the main thing we needed to worry about our politicians was whose pockets they were in, not which washed-up celebrities and straight-up bigots they invited to speak at their national convention. The directorial debut of screenwriter extraordinaire Preston Sturges, who won the first Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for his efforts, 1940's The Great McGinty
was precisely what the spin doctor ordered. The great man in question is Dan McGinty (Brian Donlevy), a bum whose entry into crooked politics comes by way of casting 37 votes in one night, which impresses The Boss (Akim Tamiroff) enough to put him on the payroll. From there, he moves up to alderman and eventually becomes The Boss's reform candidate for mayor. It's at this point that he enters a marriage of convenience with his secretary Catherine (Muriel Angelus) so he can get the female vote, but there's more than political expedience involved when they genuinely fall in love and she gets him thinking he might be able to make a difference in people's lives.
In line with Sturges's subsequent comedies -- of which I've seen four -- the pace is fast, the banter is snappy, and the side characters are a delight. Even the dimmest bulbs in his scripts get a moment or two to shine (e.g. William Demarest's turn as unperturbed politico Skeeters, his first of many roles in Sturges's stock company). And the subplot about Catherine's concerns about child labor, sweatshops, and tenements, which eventually become McGinty's concerns, prefigures the title character's nascent social conscience in Sullivan's Travels
. Then, of course, there's McGinty and The Boss's joint cameo in The Miracle at Morgan's Creek
, in which Sturges calls on them to sort out a mess that isn't of their own making for once. Considering how much time they spend at each other's throats, I'm surprised they managed to patch things up after the final fade-out.
|Sunday, July 17th, 2016|
|Crossing the ocean is the kind of thing you should only do once. One time.
Pixar's mania for sequels has been a turn-off for me ever since it brought Cars 2
into the world (as if the first Cars
wasn't bad enough). I can't complain too much, though, when it also results in an inoffensive charmer like Finding Dory
. (The jury's still out on Monsters University
, which I still don't see the point of.) The follow-up to 2003's Finding Nemo
functions as both a continuation of that film's story, picking things up one years later, and an origin/solo adventure for the Ellen DeGeneres-voiced blue tang with aggravating short-term memory problems. Following her lead, it winds up being a little scattered, but there are enough laughs scattered throughout to make it worthwhile, so I guess it had to go some of those places to find them.
In addition to DeGeneres, Albert Brooks also returns as cautious clownfish Marlin, who gets dragged along when Dory gets it in her loopy head to find her parents, and Nemo (now voiced by Hayden Rolence since the original actor aged out of the role) accompanies them because, well, I guess because Marlin needs someone to talk to when he is inevitably separated from Dory. And since Finding Dory
is on the short side, running just 86 minutes without credits, returning writer/director Andrew Stanton and his collaborators -- co-director Angus MacLane and co-writer Victoria Strouse -- waste little time getting the three of them to California and the Marine Life Institute where Dory lost her parents, an extremely patient pair voiced by Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy in the flashbacks/memories sprinkled throughout the film. Along the way, Dory is aided in her quest by Hank (Ed O'Neill), a gruff octopus who wants to go to Cleveland, and a pair of whales (yes, we get to find out how she learned to speak whale), and Marlin and Nemo try to find her with the help of two lazy sea lions voiced by Idris Elba and Dominic West. All works out in the end -- because how could it not -- and it's all very pleasant, but I hope Pixar has no plans to troll these waters a third time. Twice was enough.
|Saturday, July 16th, 2016|
|We've got all kinds in here. Good and bad, just like on the outside.
With its ripped-from-the-headlines premise, it's appropriate that 1954's Riot in Cell Block 11
opens with a newsreel-like rundown of recent prison riots. "Where will the next riot occur?" asks the stentorian narrator, and the film answers by plopping the viewer down inside an overcrowded and understaffed maximum-security prison that doubles as a powder keg just waiting for an excuse to blow. Described by the Criterion Collection as "the brainchild of producer extraordinaire Walter Wanger," Riot in Cell Block 11
also benefits from Don Siegel's no-nonsense direction and Richard Collins's taut script, telling its story in the space of 80 gripping minutes. And the fact that it was shot on location at Folsom State Prison definitely adds to its verisimilitude.
Skipping the formality of introducing the prisoners or taking time out to establish the harsh conditions they're rebelling against, Siegel and Collins jump straight into the riot, which starts in the facility's dungeon-like detention block under the direction of ringleader Dunn (Neville Brand). Along with his muscle, the aptly named Crazy Mike Carnie (Leo Gordon), and a few confederates, Dunn handily subdues the block's four guards -- including newbie Monroe (Paul Frees) and hard-nosed screw Snader (Whit Bissell) -- and demands some face time with Warden Reynolds (the soft-spoken Emile Meyer) and an audience with the press (whose ranks include B-movie fixture William Schallert). The wild cards in play are an inmate known as "The Colonel" (Robert Osterloh), a war veteran who declines to be Dunn's second-in-command if it means lousing up his chances of getting paroled, and the supercilious Commissioner Haskell (Frank Faylen), who believes Reynolds is coddling his inmates.
Working within his budget limitations, Siegel stages several explosive scenes, including the trashing of Cell Block 11, another block's uprising in the mess hall, and, along with a third, the temporary takeover of the prison yard and delivery of five more guards to 11 to be hostages. As the situation deteriorates -- and one inmate is killed when the state police are called in -- it appears there's only one possible outcome, but cooler heads prevail before the order to bring down the house is given. Considering how broken the system is, though, that might not have been such a bad thing in the long run.
|Wednesday, July 13th, 2016|
|You have to break a dog, break their will.
It appears the rumors of Dawn Wiener's demise have been greatly exaggerated -- by her own creator, no less. Yes, after killing her off-screen and having her brother Mark eulogize her at the beginning of 2004's Palindromes
, Todd Solondz has resurrected Dawn for his latest film, Wiener-Dog
. Rather appropriate considering that was her nickname in school, but the title actually refers to a dachshund which gets passed from owner to owner, none of whom -- with one notable exception -- take very good care of her.
First seen being dropped off at an animal shelter by an anonymous man in a pickup truck who may not even be her original owner, Wiener-Dog (for that is her name) is adopted by Danny (playwright Tracy Letts) for his son Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke), much to the consternation of his wife Dina (Julie Delpy), to whom it falls to explain to Remi why his new pet has to be spayed and, after an unfortunate run-in with a granola bar, put to sleep. Wiener-Dog is recused, though, by her namesake (Greta Gerwig, subbing in for Heather Matarazzo, who declined to reprise the role), a veterinarian's nurse who smuggles her out of the office, nurses her back to health, renames her Doody (as in Howdy Doody, although nobody else makes the connection), and brings her along when an old classmate invites her to join his road trip to Ohio. This, incidentally, is Brandon McCarthy, the boy who bullied her relentlessly in Welcome to the Dollhouse
, now a hopeless drug addict played Kieran Culkin. Eventually, the reason for the pilgrimage comes out and Dawn decides to leave Doody with Brandon's brother and his wife, both of whom have Down Syndrome, but apparently they aren't suitable caretakers because after a whimsical intermission the dog has been passed on to someone else.
That someone is sad-sack screenwriting professor Dave Schmerz (Danny DeVito, eclipsing Paul Giamatti as the perfect embodiment of Solondz's worldview), who's despised by his students, can't get a straight answer out of his agency about the script they're supposedly shopping around Hollywood for him (its title: Celebrity Schmelebrity
), and categorically ignores his doctor's advice to get more exercise than just walking his dog. Wiener-Dog, meanwhile, is relegated to the role of silent observer, which carries over to the final segment, in which she's somehow become the companion of an irascible old woman (Ellen Burstyn) who's painfully aware of the sole reason why her estranged granddaughter Zoe (Zosia Mamet) has chosen to pay her a visit for the first time in three or four years. That Zoe shows up late for lunch doesn't phase her Nana one bit, nor does the fact that she's accompanied by her pretentious artist boyfriend, who tactfully takes Cancer (Nana's no-nonsense name for the dog) for a walk before the subject of money comes up. Then again, Nana's lived long enough and seen enough that very little could possibly phase her. She's granted a rare moment of self-awareness, though, when she slips into one of Solondz's off-kilter dream sequences, which presages the only possible ending he could have tacked onto the film. Considering how much he foreshadows it by having each segment but one close with an imminent threat to Wiener-Dog's life, it should come as no surprise to anyone when he follows through. Dog-lovers may not be amused, but I confess I had to stifle a guffaw at that moment. That probably marks me as a terrible human being, but at least I'm an honest one.
|Monday, July 11th, 2016|
|This is just one nasty varmint who got so pissed off that he snapped.
I would hereby like to propose a new drinking game. It's based on the 2006 movie The Feeding
. For the uninitiated, The Feeding
is a werewolf film that goes so far out of its way to avoid having its characters say the word "werewolf," writer/director Paul Moore -- previously responsible for the scarecrow horror film Dark Harvest
-- seems perversely proud of himself for not using it. There are, however, many times where the characters are right on the verge of identifying the kind of creature they're facing by name, only to walk it back at the last moment. So, should you watch The Feeding
(something, incidentally, I do not recommend), every time it looks like somebody is about to say "werewolf" and stops themselves short, take a drink. That might not get you drunk, but it could help make the viewing experience somewhat tolerable.
As much as Moore ties himself into knots having his characters talk around what they're up against, he also doesn't do them any favors by writing lines for them like "I'm guessing that if your girlfriend were alive, she wouldn't want you to hang around here waiting to have your throat torn out." In a low-budget, direct-to-video film like this, it's tempting to blame the stiff line-readings on the inexperience of the actors, but it's the lines Moore has given them to say that are dead-on-arrival. And it doesn't help that they're playing such thinly conceived walking stereotypes. On the one side, there's cocky Wildlife and Forestry special agent Jack Driscoll (Robert Pralgo), who's been after this particular monster for a few years, and his partner, animal expert Aimee Johnston (Dione Updike), who's keen to prove herself in the field. On the other, there's the septet of sex-crazed stoners (three couples and one seventh wheel) who pick the wrong week to go hiking in the Appalachians.
Following the requisite shock-kill opening, in which two redneck hunters banter pointlessly for a couple of minutes before shooting a very hairy werewolf, which makes short work of them, the first half of the film is all set-up as Jack and Aimee brief the park rangers in charge of clearing the mountain of civilians and then lie in wait for their quarry, and the interchangeable seven manage to slip past them and prepare to be werewolf chow. I would identify them, but really, what's the point? When just about everybody who appears on screen is in the opening credits -- even the actors playing "Hunter #1," "Ranger #1," and "Hunter #2" -- that makes nonentities of them all. Sure, Moore tries to inject some drama into the situation by having one of the guys be the ex-boyfriend of one of the girls, who has since paired off with another one of the guys, but this doesn't generate any more conflict than the ill-advised game of spin the bottle they choose to play one night. (I blame the weed for the poor decision-making.) And the second half of the film, during which the bipedal human-animal hybrid stalking and killing them gets a lot of screen time, is marred by the fact that it's always a little bit out of focus, as if Moore knew he had a lousy werewolf suit on his hands. Surprise, he was right.
|Saturday, July 9th, 2016|
|This night corrupts everyone.
It's been three years since The Purge
stole the masked-home-invaders thunder of Adam Wingard's You're Next
while it spent two years in distribution limbo. Since then, Wingard has branched out with the slick action-horror of The Guest
and the forthcoming shocker The Woods
. The Purge
writer/director James DeMonaco, on the other hand, has turned out two more Purge
movies: 2014's Anarchy
and this year's pointedly subtitled Election Year
. Call it the curse of success. DeMonaco has had the hits, but when will he be allowed to branch out? For that matter, does he even want to? He was apparently prepping a Purge
prequel depicting how it came about when Anarchy
headliner Frank Grillo agreed to return as his character from that film, prompting DeMonaco to switch gears. If he still has the burning desire to tell that story, we may yet have The Purge Origins: The Binge Before
in our future.
DeMonaco doesn't specify what year his Election Year
is, but it is clearly an alternate reality where the authoritarian New Founding Fathers of America -- the political party that brought The Purge into being -- has been in power for 25 years, and they aim to continue to be in spite of an insurgent presidential candidate's campaign promise to bring The Purge to an end, a platform that resonates with the poor and disenfranchised who bear the brunt of its violence and property damage. This is a plight Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell) understands all too well since 18 years earlier she was forced to watch while the rest of her family was slaughtered by a masked goon on Purge Night. Now her poll numbers are too close for the NFFA's comfort, so the party hires well-armed white supremacists to take her out on the one night of the year when all crime -- including murder, but mostly murder because DeMonaco doesn't show much else going on, law-breaking-wise -- is legal. What they don't count on is her head of security, Leo Barnes (Grillo), being so competent and the intervention of a ragtag group of average citizens who pitch in to protect her when they're forced to fend for themselves on D.C.'s mean streets after the protections for government officials are conveniently lifted.
Said ragtag group includes minority store owner Joe Dixon (Mykelti Williamson), who takes to his roof to defend against looters with bedazzled guns and chainsaws, his lone employee Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria), a Mexican immigrant who proves to be handy with a rifle, neighborhood legend Laney Rucker (Betty Gabriel), who spends Purge Nights tooling around in a fortified triage van, helping those who can be helped, and militant anti-Purge activist Dante Bishop (Edwin Hodge), whose underground safe zone is, at best, a temporary refuge for our beleaguered protagonists. To DeMonaco's credit, he finds logical reasons to keep them moving from location to location, which prevents things from getting too static, but his dialogue is utilitarian at best and his villains too cartoonish, especially Senator Roan's opponent, the sanctimonious Minister Edwidge Owens (Kyle Secor), who doesn't go in for that whole "separation of church and state" deal, and the foreign "murder tourists" who view The Purge as an excuse to rid the world of a few pesky Americans. Much better are the briefly glimpsed tableaux of anonymous Purgers in action. If I take anything away from this film, it will surely be those strangely poetic, trailer-ready moments.
|Friday, July 8th, 2016|
|You want to get past the awkward stage, right?
By the time he made 1966's You're a Big Boy Now
, Francis Ford Coppola had been in the business for about half a decade. In that time, he had done a number of jobs for Roger Corman and worked on a pair of nudie cuties on the side. Taking a step back from the exploitation ghetto, Coppola then tackled an adaptation of David Benedictus's coming-of-age novel about an aimless 19-year-old let loose on New York City by his parents, who are alternately overbearing and standoffish. Its directionless protagonist is Bernard Chanticleer (Peter Kastner), a page for the New York Public Library introduced roller-skating through the stacks in the bowels of the building. His overbearing parent is mother Margery (Geraldine Page, who received the film's only Academy Award nomination, for Best Supporting Actress) and the standoffish one is father I.H. (Rip Torn in unconvincing old-age makeup), the library's Curator of Incunabula (i.e. early printed books) who got him the job and has regretted it ever since. Still, dear old dad think it's a swell idea for junior to move out, and mother is happy that he winds up in an apartment building owned by prematurely old maid Miss Thing (Julie Harris), who has a thing about her tenants bringing pretty girls home.
Speaking of, the two age-appropriate women in Bernard's life are his father's nice secretary, Amy Partlett (Karen Black, who was introduced in this film), who really likes him, and flighty actress/dancer Barbara Darling (top-billed Elizabeth Hartman), with whom he's taken despite the fact that she's a terrible tease. She's so intimidating, in fact, that he's impotent with her, which doesn't prevent him from accepting her spontaneous offer to move in with her. That works out about as well as can be expected, as does Coppola's scattergun approach to advancing the plot. You're a Big Boy Now
is a restless, exuberant film from a young, Nouvelle vague
-inspired director still getting a handle on his medium. (In the filmographies of his future New Hollywood contemporaries, the film it most resembles is Brian De Palma's Greetings
, which came along two years later.) There's enough promise here, though, that it's not surprising that this boy went on to bigger and better things.
|Thursday, July 7th, 2016|
|A psychopath is a psychopath, in or out of the coffin.
It's never a good sign when one watches two comedies and sits stone-faced through both of them. I'm not sure what possessed William Castle to make two Sid Caesar vehicles back to back, but they both should have held out for scripts with actual jokes. The first one out of the gate for me was 1967's The Busy Body
, in which Caesar plays George Norton, a mid-level mob flunky with good fashion sense bumped up to a place on the board by big boss Charley Barker (Robert Ryan), then tasked with recovering $1 million in payoffs that have accidentally been buried with a recently deceased associate.
Based on a novel by Donald E. Westlake, Ben Starr's script sends George on a wild goose chase that's meant to evoke the frenetic It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World
(also featuring Caesar), but without the free-wheeling ambition and with a less-sprawling cast. That said, it does include Anne Baxter as one of two amorous widows who throw themselves at George, Kay Medford as his nagging mother, Richard Pryor making his big-screen debut as a police lieutenant who makes it his mission to find out why people keep dropping like flies around him, Dom DeLuise as one of the flies who gets a meat cleaver in the back, and Godfrey Cambridge as an opportunistic mob underling. At the outset, it seems like they're going to have the same goal -- get their hands on that $1 million -- but in the end they all turn out to have different, completely unrelated agendas.
Even taking into account how much of the plot hinges on which suit the dead man was buried in, there's still way too much business about George's sartorial sense and Charley's obsession with appearances. And the running gag about George's mother calling him at inopportune moments runs out of steam in a hurry. The film also features so much business with corpses that it plays like a macabre dry run for Castle's swan song Shanks
. Pour on some blatant Coca-Cola product placement and a sprightly score by Vic Mizzy that underlines every single joke and you've got a recipe for would-be hilarity that most definitely does not ensue. Castle and Caesar were back later that year, though, with a very different, but still morbid, comic creation.
Again scripted by Ben Starr, who had previously co-written Our Man Flint
and would go on to create the sitcoms The Facts of Life
and Silver Spoons
, and scored by Vic Mizzy, The Spirit Is Willing
flies in the face of the 1989 Bo Derek vehicle Ghosts Can't Do It
since it's centered on three restless 19th-century spirits -- a sea captain, his homely wife, and their pretty maid -- locked in an eternal love triangle who cause all kinds of poltergeist activity at the New England house leased sight-unseen by overworked magazine editor Ben Powell (Sid Caesar) and his family. Ben has been given a leave of absence so he can get some much-needed R&R, but he would have little chance of that even without a trio of mischievous ghosts busting up the joint since he and his wife Kate (Vera Miles) have a rather contentious relationship with their gawky teenage son Steve (Barry Gordon), not to mention Kate's rich uncle George (John McGiver), who lords his wealth over Ben, who ribs him right back since he made all his money in toilets.
The first half of the film is taken up by a lot of yelling and door-slamming, only some of which can be blamed on the destructive ghosts, a decidedly unimaginative bunch. (You can only see a someone materialize out of a cloud of red smoke so many times before it gets old.) Then Steve meets local girl Priscilla (Jill Townsend, who also plays the spectral maid and her own sister, the town librarian), who knows all about the ghosts and how to get in contact with -- and possibly exorcise -- them. All comes to a head on the night of Steve's 16th birthday bash, which he insists be nautical-themed so all the guests will be dressed as sailors and one can be sacrificed to the frustrated virgin who started the whole thing by taking a meat cleaver to her husband and his mistress. (So that makes two movies in a row with a cleaver-in-the-back gag.) About the only bright spot is John Astin's all-too-brief turn as Uncle George's in-house headshrinker, who's introduced treating director William Castle and is flown in to assess the situation. Suffice it to say, he does little to remedy it.
|Wednesday, July 6th, 2016|
|Do you think they'll try and take us alive?
Thanks to Kino Lorber's KL Studio Classics line, I have filled another gap in Joseph Losey's filmography with 1970's Figures in a Landscape
. As of this writing, I've now seen all 16 films he directed between 1960 and 1976, plus eight more. Not every film he made during that run is a classic, but Figures
is one that deserves that designation despite flying under the radar for so long.
A gripping tale of survival set in an unnamed country -- possibly a South American dictatorship, definitely filmed in Spain -- the film was based on a novel by Barry England that was adapted on the fly by actor Robert Shaw, who appears along with Malcolm McDowell (then hot off If...
and soon to go to work on A Clockwork Orange
) as a pair of Brits on the run from the authorities for reasons unknown. In fact, the audience never finds out how they got into their shared predicament. Instead, they're introduced running along a beach at dawn, their hands bound behind their backs and a helicopter already in pursuit. Heck, for the longest time Shaw's character, MacConnachie, only calls McDowell "boy," waiting a good long while before he deigns to call him Ansell.
To say MacConnachie and Ansell have an antagonistic relationship would be putting it mildly. Whatever their common plight, there's a sharp generational divide between them -- summed up by their attitudes about The Pill -- as well as a country/city split, with much baiting coming from both sides. One area where they see eye to eye, though, is the desire to stay alive, even if MacConnachie only wants to so long as he gets to "bury that bastard pilot" who has been toying with them. Think of it as Duel
with helicopter blades and made one year earlier. Not bad, eh?
|Tuesday, July 5th, 2016|
|Get back on whatever road it was that brought you here and keep moving.
Horror anthologies are well-trod proving grounds for untried directors who want to get noticed, but maybe don't have the means to tackle a whole feature. They're also prone to stretching thin premises past their breaking points and being bound to pointless framing devices. That's why an anthology like 2015's Southbound
is so refreshing since it manages to get the balance right. Clocking in at 89 minutes with credits, it has an appropriate number of stories (five), each of which goes on for as long (or as short) as it needs to and doesn't take an inordinate amount of time getting going (the cardinal sin of the V/H/S
series). They also boast an interesting collection of characters, none of which are shrill and annoying or feel like dead weight. That alone is cause for celebration.
Bookending things are "The Way Out" and "The Way In," directed by the filmmaking collective Radio Silence (veterans of the first V/H/S
) and written by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, who appears alongside fellow Silencer Chad Villella in the opener as two fugitives on the run from some inexplicable supernatural threat who find themselves trapped in an ever-tightening loop, returning to the same roadside diner no matter how many times or how fast they drive away from it. Before they have a chance to belabor the concept, the baton is seamlessly passed to director Roxanne Benjamin's "Siren," about an all-girl rock band (Fabianne Therese, Nathalie Love, Hannah Marks) on tour whose van gets a flat tire, leaving them stranded in the desert until a creepy couple (played by Benjamin's co-writer Susan Burke and Davey Johnson) pick them up and take them back to their house. "You don't have to worry about locking it up," they're told as they alight from the car. "There's no one around for miles." Frankly, that's the kind of revelation that would cause most people to run for the hills even before the neighborly Kensingtons (stand-up comic Dana Gould and Anessa Ramsey) swing by for dinner and a pleasant evening's Satanic ritual.
As before, the bridge from "Siren" to the next segment is almost imperceptible. Only the introduction of a new character, distracted driver Lucas (Mather Zickel), signals that writer/director/producer/editor David Bruckner's "The Accident" has gotten underway. The most blackly humorous story in the bunch, also from a V/H/S
vet, "The Accident" puts Lucas through the wringer after one of the girls from "Siren" tries and fails to flag him down and he tries and fails to save her life with the dubious assistance of some emergency dispatchers. Next comes "Jailbreak," co-written and directed by Patrick Horvath, in which a desperate man (David Yow) tries and fails to extricate his sister (Tipper Newton) from a monstrous town. And bringing it all home is Radio Silence's "The Way In," in which a pair of proud parents (Kate Beahan and Gerald Downey) and their college-bound daughter (Hassie Harrison) are stalked by three men in masks for reasons that only become clear as the story dovetails with "The Way Out" and Larry Fessenden's omnipresent radio D.J. declares -- for the second time -- that "We're all on the same endless highway, the one with no name, no exits, looking for a way out of tonight and into tomorrow." For Southbound
's doomed characters, though, the chances of any of them seeing "tomorrow" are slim at best.
|Saturday, July 2nd, 2016|
|Interesting. I'd like to see where you're gonna go with this.
It's been two weeks since James Franco shocked the world with his "twisted" take on the 20-year-old Lifetime Original Movie Mother, May I Sleep with Danger?
, in which he and director Melanie Aitkenhead brazenly substituted a clingy lesbian "nightwalker" (a fancy name for vampire) for the 1996 version's obsessive psycho boyfriend. In truth, the most shocking thing about this half-shrug of a TV-14 movie is the notion that anybody would be taken aback by anything about it other than the conceit that Franco's "television story" and Amber Coney's teleplay are still based on Claire Rainwater Jacobs's novel. Granted, I've never read it, nor have I seen the Tori Spelling vehicle Lifetime made out of it, but who needs to when just about all of its potential entertainment value is sucked up by the title?
Speaking of sucking, there's a lot of it in this Mother
, both literal and figurative. Fresh-faced college student Leah (Leila George) likes to suck face with her photographer girlfriend Pearl (Emily Meade) when she isn't posing for her or starring as a gender-reversed Macbeth in a production being mounted by none other than Franco, who seizes the opportunity to play up the sapphic possibilities such a casting invites. Meanwhile, Pearl likes to suck the blood of campus rapists and other abusive men with her three nightwalker sisters, who have conveniently been cast as the play's witches and are eager for her to turn Leah just as Pearl herself was turned five years earlier. And sucking all the air out of the room is Bob (Nick Eversman), a classmate nursing a crush on Leah who doesn't take rejection well when he's passed over for the role of Macbeth and that of her boyfriend.
While Pearl represents the danger in Mother, May I Sleep with Danger?
, the role of the mother is filled by Spelling, who gets to play at being overprotective without actually being, you know, protective. And her erstwhile stalker, Ivan Sergei, gets an extended cameo as Leah's literature professor, whose lectures on vampires and sexuality (to which Leah adds an appreciation for the first Twilight
book) and other monstrous subjects conveniently relate to the messy story they're stuck in. The same goes for Macbeth
, which leads to risible moments like the newly vampirized Bob, who's playing Macduff, telling Leah on opening night, "We have our big scene coming up, the one where I kill you." That Leah still goes on stage after that is either a tribute to the adage that the show must go on or the final proof that she has a death wish. Or should that be an undeath wish? (No, no it should not.)
|Thursday, June 30th, 2016|
|I came to Mexico a virgin, and I leave it debauched.
Ever since he came to filmmaking by way of painting, Peter Greenaway has followed his muse without regard for commercial considerations. For his most recent film, 2015's Eisenstein in Guanajuato
, he followed his muse where Sergei Eisenstein followed his in 1931 -- to Mexico, where the Russian genius set out to make an all-encompassing film about the country on Upton Sinclair's dime. Greenaway picks up the story near the end of his time there, though, specifically the ten days he spent in the town of Guanajuato, culminating in its celebration of the Day of the Dead. In that time, Eisenstein (Elmer Bäck, every inch the part) becomes besotted with his Mexican handler, Palomino Cañedo (Luis Alberti), who encourages him to loosen up and act on the sexual urges he has repressed for so long. "You're in Mexico," Palomino says. "Why don't you try it?" In that instance, he's talking about Eisenstein getting his shoes shined -- an extravagance unheard of in the Soviet Union -- but that could apply to just about anything, up to and including losing his virginity at the ripe old age of 33.
Anybody who goes into Eisenstein at Guanajuato
expecting scenes depicting the chaotic production of Qué Viva México!
is sure to come out of it disappointed. (In fact, it's 29 minutes before Greenaway shows Eisenstein shooting anything, and even then it's in the midst of an info dump covering his abortive Hollywood sojourn.) What they will get instead is a quick précis of Eisenstein's whirlwind career up to that point, illustrated by clips from Strike
, Battleship Potemkin
, and October
, and an impressionistic take on his Mexican adventure. All that is secondary, though, to the director's close association with Palomino, who opens him up in more ways than one. They make such a strong and immediate connection, in fact, that when Eisenstein's American financiers intrude on them to get him to up and finish his film already, it's as much an affront to the viewer as it is to the tender lovers. What with the abundant death imagery, though -- a visit to Guanajuato's Museum of the Dead, scenes of Eisenstein and Palomino cavorting in skull masks and dancing with skeleton dolls, and the Day of the Dead procession which includes a number of children in macabre costumes -- they had to know their relationship came with a built-in expiration date. Greenaway's interest in Eisenstein doesn't, though, since one of his upcoming projects is Eisenstein in Hollywood
. Clearly, he's not ready to say goodbye to the fellow just yet.
|Wednesday, June 29th, 2016|
|What you are doing is mad. It is diabolic!
There is much about 1940's Dr. Cyclops
that can't help but look hokey and antiquated to modern audiences. From the creaky "mad scientist in the jungle" premise to the wobbly rear-projection work that makes it appear as if said scientist is sharing the frame with people he has shrunk down to one-sixth their normal size -- not to mention the large dummy hand deployed when he grabs hold of one of them -- more than a little disbelief has to be suspended to get into the spirit of it. Good thing, then, that the film is as well-paced and entertaining as one would hope for from director Ernest B. Schoedsack and producer Merian C. Cooper, making their penultimate feature together.
Working from a screenplay by Tom Kilpatrick, Schoedsack wastes little time revealing that bald, bespectacled biologist Dr. Thorkel (Albert Dekker) has no qualms whatsoever about killing anyone who threatens to put a halt to his beyond-the-pale experiments. That extends to the party of scientists -- respected biologists Dr. Bulfinch (Charles Halton) and Dr. Mary Robinson (Janice Logan) and indolent mineralogist Bill Stockton (Thomas Coley) -- he invites to his jungle stronghold to confirm his findings, then abruptly dismisses. When they get too nosy for their own good, Thorkel shrinks them down along with interloper Steve Baker (Victor Kilian), who has designs on his uraninite mine, and his assistant Pedro (Frank Yaconelli), who's not the sharpest knife in the drawer under the best of circumstances. From there, it's a fight for survival for the film's five pint-sized protagonists.
Rough around the edges as they may be -- a possible side effect of using the Technicolor process -- the special effects in Dr. Cyclops
anticipate many that would crop up again 17 years later in Jack Arnold's The Incredible Shrinking Man
. There's even a scene where the miniaturized men (and woman) are menaced by a black cat. It doesn't get any of them, but they are
hunted down by the single-minded Dr. Thorkel (shades of Schoedsack and Irving Pichel's The Most Dangerous Game
) until the survivors stop running and take the fight to him. Considering the alternative is braving the jungle, that's not much of a choice.
|Tuesday, June 28th, 2016|
|What a radiant beginning, yet what a miserable end.
Along with Lotte H. Eisner's The Haunted Screen
, the other essential guide to German film during the Weimar era is Siegfried Kracauer's From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film
. Published in 1947, the book looks at German society during that turbulent period of economic instability and social upheaval through the lens of the films and filmmakers it produced. This is also the tactic of the 2014 documentary based on it, which changed the subtitle to German Film in the Age of the Masses
, but otherwise stayed faithful to Kracauer's take on the subject, buttressed by interviews with filmmakers (Volker Schlöndorff, Fatih Akin) and historians (Thomas Elsaesser, Eric D. Weitz, Elisabeth Bronfen).
Director Rüdiger Suchsland, who also narrates, takes for granted that most viewers of his doc will have a passing familiarity with many of the films it covers, particularly in the early going when he freely cuts between them without identifying where the clips are from. That comes later as he delves into the careers of such towering figures as Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch, F.W. Murnau, G.W. Pabst, and Billy Wilder (who's singled out for his work as a screenwriter). Additional attention is given to the likes of Walter Ruttman (director of 1927's Berlin: Symphony of a Great City
), Werner Hochbaum, and Arnold Fanck (director of many of Leni Riefenstahl's "mountain films"), whose contributions to German cinema are often overlooked. The film this has most whetted my appetite for, though, is 1930's People on Sunday
, which I'm surprised I haven't gotten around to yet since it was added to the Criterion Collection in 2008. Now I have no excuse.
|Monday, June 27th, 2016|
|Do you realize you're endangering our lives by your incompetence?
It says something about Michael Caine's investment in his character in 1985's The Holcroft Covenant
that the plot hinges on him having been raised in America almost from birth -- and he's even identified as an American by his accent at one point -- but he doesn't alter his speaking voice one iota. (To be fair, Sean Connery pulled off the same trick the following year when he played a Spaniard with a Scottish brogue in Highlander
.) A New York-based architect by trade, Caine's Noel Holcroft gets caught up in the machinery of a wide-ranging conspiracy four decades in the making when he's enticed to fly to Geneva to meet a Swiss banker who informs him he's the beneficiary of a trust worth $4.5 billion. The catch is the reason he's come into this huge sum is because his father was a Nazi general who squirreled it away as the war was coming to a close. The other catch is he has to share it with the offspring of his father's two partners -- also high-ranking German officers. Oh, yes. And people are trying to kill him left and right. That's the biggest catch of them all.
Based on a novel by Robert Ludlum, best known for the Jason Bourne series, The Holcroft Covenant
was brought to the screen by John Frankenheimer, whose knack for directing acting is in full effect, even if it is in service of a plot that never quite gels in spite of the combined efforts of three screenwriters. If a story can stymie George Axelrod (The Manchurian Candidate
), Edward Anhalt (Frankenheimer's The Young Savages
), and John Hopkins (Smiley's People
), then it would surely confound just about anyone. Still, Frankenheimer gives it his all (I look forward to watching this again with his commentary track) and gives Caine an able supporting cast including Victoria Tennant as his love interest, Lilli Palmer as his mother, and Michael Lonsdale as the Swiss banker who gets the ball rolling. As the out-of-his-depth Holcroft soon finds out, though, just about everybody has a hidden agenda and almost no one is precisely who they say they are. With billions of dollars at stake, a little deception simply goes with the territory.
|Saturday, June 25th, 2016|
|What you did is something you cannot apologize for.
The moment dementia-stricken widower Zev Guttman (Christopher Plummer) wrote a note to himself on his arm is when it clicked for me that Atom Egoyan's Remember
is a retiree riff on Memento
, only instead of seeking his wife's murderer, Zev is out to find the SS officer who killed his family at Auschwitz. Not an easy task for someone who always wakes up confused and needs to repeatedly be reminded his wife is dead. Good thing for Zev, fellow nursing home patient and Holocaust survivor Max Rosenbaum (Martin Landau) has written down everything he needs to do and arranged for his transportation and lodging so all he has to do is buy himself a gun (remarkably easy to do in Cleveland, his first stop), point it at the right Rudy Kurlander, and pull the trigger. The trouble is there are a number of Rudy Kurlanders of the right age and extraction, so Max has had to plan for Zev to potentially meet and confront them all.
If Zev is the audience's surrogate, not knowing where he's going or what he's supposed to do until he gets there, then Max is screenwriter Benjamin August's since he's the one providing the instructions. August also makes sure the viewer rarely knows more than Zev does at any given moment, which allows him and Egoyan to spring surprises on both simultaneously. And in terms of casting some of the Rudy Kurlander candidates, it was quite a coup for Egoyan to land Bruno Ganz (Downfall
's Hitler) and Jürgen Prochnow (who will always be known to me first and foremost as the U-boat captain in Das Boot
). Zev's most chilling encounter, though, is with the son of one of his targets who proves that the apple doesn't fall far from the antisemitic tree.
|Friday, June 24th, 2016|
|Anything worth having hurts a little.
I've deliberately avoided reading any reviews of Nicolas Winding Refn's Cannes-disapproved The Neon Demon
, but I'm guessing most criticisms of it are that it's all style and no substance. Well, I happen to dig Refn's style, which this film has in abundance, so I'm less bothered by its relative shallowness than some. Besides, its story is about the modeling industry, which is entirely based on how things -- and people -- look, so it's entirely appropriate that it's entirely surface-oriented.
For his first feature since 2013's divisive Only God Forgives
, Refn returns to Drive
's Los Angeles stomping grounds, this time bringing along cinematographer Natasha Braier to help him push his visual aesthetic futher than ever before and reuniting with composer Cliff Martinez for their third film in a row. And to flesh out his story, he collaborated with screenwriters Mary Laws and Polly Stenham, who added a feminine perspective to the proceedings (not that I expect this to prevent feminists from lobbing charges of misogyny at Refn and the film). His first film with a female protagonist, The Neon Demon
is a cautionary tale about a fresh-faced 16-year-old from Georgia who parlays her natural beauty into a fledgling modeling career, unaware of just how cutthroat this business really is. In fact, when we meet Jesse (Elle Fanning), she's in the midst of her first shoot -- for amateur photographer Dean (Karl Glusman) -- which is reminiscent of the ones Laura Mars
is famous for since she's been posed with her throat artistically cut. This turns out to be the handiwork of makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone), who takes Jesse under her wing and offers to be her protector, whether she thinks she needs one or not.
Then again, how could she not think she needs protection what with the unfriendly rivalries with established models Gigi and Sarah (Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee), both of whom feel threatened by her, and the predatory nature of most of the men she meets, chief among them the skeevy manager of her skeevy Pasadena motel (played by Keanu Reeves with maximum skeeviness)? It seems everybody wants to get something out of her, whether it's Jack (Desmond Harrington), the professional photographer her agent (Christina Hendricks) sends her to for a test who demands a closed set and takes advantage of the privacy, or Robert (Alessandro Nivola), the fashion designer who recognizes true (i.e. not manufactured) beauty when he sees it. And I suppose there are some who will claim Refn similarly takes advantage of Fanning and her co-stars for the sake of a little titillation, but that's not an argument that holds much water for me. Sorry, ladies.
|Sunday, June 19th, 2016|
|Fathers have a way of turning up raped and killed when you try to help.
Since I made a point of watching the Troma Team Release of Mother's Day
last month to mark the titular holiday (pun entirely intended), it only seemed right to follow it with their release of Astron-6's gender-swapped horror. Made in 2011, Father's Day
(which is not to be confused with Ivan Reitman's Fathers' Day
starring Billy Crystal and Robin Williams) is a full-on bad-taste odyssey engineered Grindhouse
-style to look like a product of the '80s slasher boom. In a reversal of expectations, though, here fathers are the victims, and in addition to being killed they're also brutally raped and often bloodily dismembered. Still on board? Because it only gets more depraved from there.
Presented as if it's the Late Night Movie on ASTR-TV, Father's Day
opens in medias evisceration as Chris Fuchman (Mackenzie Murdock), alias The Fuckman, is committing his latest patricidal atrocity. He's interrupted before he can finish the job, and apparently run down and executed by one-eyed vigilante Ahab (co-writer/co-director/cinematographer/e
ditor Adam Brooks), but 20 years and one credit sequence later, he's up to his tricks again, going so far as to burn the disapproving dad of male prostitute Twink (co-writer/co-director Conor Sweeney) alive right in front of him. Curiously, that makes Twink a prime suspect in the eyes of the law, represented by hard-nosed cop Det. Stegel (frequent Guy Maddin player Brent Neale), but the church sees things differently, spurring blind priest Father O'Flynn (Kevin Anderson) to send novice Father John Sullivan (co-writer/co-director Matthew Kennedy) to enlist Ahab's aid in bringing Fuchman down -- permanently this time. Oh, and his sister Chelsea (Amy Groening) insists on tagging along, and she works at a strip club because any B-movie worth its salt has to feature all three of Joe Bob Briggs's Three Bs
The other two members of Astron-6 stay more behind the scenes, with co-writer/co-director Jeremy Gillespie taking care of the music and co-writer/co-director Steven Kostanski the prosthetic makeup effects. Gillespie also created Star Raiders
, a spoiler-ridden commercial for which appears about an hour in, and Kostanski took charge of the miniatures and stop-motion animation for the sequence where Ahab, Twink, and Father John go to Hell for reasons much too complicated to go into. Still, they do allow for Troma head honcho Lloyd Kaufman to have a dual role as God and the Devil (who are revealed to be two sides of the same coin). Much like Troma's home-grown efforts, this is not for the weak of stomach or the easily offended since the Astron-6 crew goes way over the top with the blood, gore, and nudity (both male and
female, I should note). What saves it for the rest of us, though, is the fact that it's so goofy, it's impossible to take anything about Father's Day
seriously for even half a moment.
|Friday, June 17th, 2016|
|The eyes of this man are the eyes of the male we've always known.
About an hour into Federico Fellini's City of Women
-- just out from Cohen Media Group -- his frequent stand-in, Marcello Mastroianni, asks "What kind of film is this?" That's a fair question because there are a number of times when this comic fantasia resembles nothing less than a cockeyed horror movie, especially at the moment when Mastroianni is moved to pose it. Released in 1980, City
kicked off Fellini's last decade in the director's chair and gave Mastroianni a leading role in one of his films for the first time since 1963's 8 1/2
. In the intervening years, he had grown into middle age, but Fellini was not above having him revert to behaving like a hormonal teenager on the make.
That's the mode his character, Snàporaz, is in when he awakens to find he's sharing a train compartment with an alluring woman (Bernice Stegers) and, after some mild flirting, follows her into the restroom where he attempts to make love to her. They're interrupted, though, when the train makes an unscheduled stop across from an open field and they both get off (a sequence that strongly recalls Amando de Ossorio's Tombs of the Blind Dead
). From there, he pursues the woman to a hotel overrun by a horde of militant feminists, which is where his odyssey -- and Fellini's satirical exploration of the typical male's panicked response to strong-willed females -- truly begins.
After being driven from the convention, where he's rightly viewed as an interloper, Snàporaz receives "help" from various women on wheels, working his way up from a gaggle of girls on roller skates to an amorous older woman on a motorcycle to three cars full of crazy kids. Finally, he takes refuge as the mansion of the eccentric Dr. Katzone (Ettore Manni), who's throwing a party to celebrate his 10,000th conquest before he's forced to tear it down by the local lesbian security force. It's at this party that Snàporaz runs into his estranged wife Elena (Anna Prucnal), who drunkenly reads him the riot act regarding the selfish behavior that has brought him to this place. This is followed by a slide down memory lane as only Fellini could conceive it, allowing Snàporaz to revisit many of his formative experiences with women. Frankly, the reveal that it's all just been a dream is the least surprising thing about the whole affair.