A Stuffed, Legless Duck Production|
[Most Recent Entries]
Below are the 20 most recent journal entries recorded in
[ << Previous 20 ]
[ << Previous 20 ]
|Friday, May 27th, 2016|
|This house is all that holds us together.
Having reached back to the Second World War for his previous picture, 1987's Au Revoir les Enfants
, Louis Malle took on more recent history with 1990's May Fools
, which is set during the protests, strikes, and general unrest that spread like a cancer from Paris to the rest of France in May of 1968. That's the backdrop for a few days of familial infighting when the matriarch of the Vieuzac family, owner of a run-down country estate, dies and all her living relatives descend upon it -- all except for her son Milou (Michel Piccoli), who's lived there the whole time. Even before they can get her buried, Milou's daughter Camille (Miou-Miou), brother Georges (Michel Duchaussoy), and niece Claire (Dominique Blanc) set about dividing up her furniture and other possessions. And then the bomb drops that they have to give an equal share to her longtime housekeeper Adele (Martine Gautier), a last-minute addition to the old woman's will that throws them all for a loop.
Working for what turned out to be the last time with screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, Malle fashioned a leisurely hangout film about a group of people who'd rather not spend a lot of time together. Furthermore, everybody -- young and old, married or not -- spends so much time falling in and out of each other's arms, there's no mistaking this for anything other than a French film. (Malle's last two -- 1992's Damage
and 1994's Vanya on 42nd Street
-- were made in the UK and the US, respectively.) Things ultimately take a turn for the overtly farcical when, believing that as landowners they'll be the first against the wall when the revolution comes knocking at their door, the family flees into the woods, woefully unprepared for roughing it. To borrow a line from the Bard, what fools these bourgeois be.
|Thursday, May 26th, 2016|
|You should never learn anything from television.
After a relatively fallow 1980s, which produced a pair of shorts, two hour-long teleplays, and one lone feature which shall not be named, the next decade saw an uptick in Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. adaptations, starting with the cable anthology series Monkey House
, which brought seven of his short stories to the small screen. That led directly to the full-fledged TV movie Harrison Bergeron
, based on Vonnegut's three-page story of the same name. Accordingly, quite a bit had to be done to flesh out its world, and the title character (played by Sean Astin) had to be given a lot more to do. Here he's an exceptional student who's been held back four years because of his inability to cheat on tests to get the desired average grades. Seems no matter how many "intrusions" are added to the band he -- and everybody else -- is forced to wear on his head, his superior brain always finds a way around them. As a last resort, his doctor schedules Harrison for "corrective" brain surgery, but also points him in the direction of an illegal "head house" where he pays $50 for an hour of chess with the brainy Phillipa (Miranda de Pencier), and after that his life is never the same.
Coming from a family of ordinary dullards anesthetized by television as much as their thought-inhibiting bands, Harrison is recruited by the shadowy National Administration Center, which is headed up by chief officer Klaxon (Christopher Plummer) and works behind the scenes to make sure society runs smoothly since nobody wants a repeat of 2018's bloody Second American Revolution. (There's a date that's looking more and more prescient all the time.) After taking a tour of the Center's various departments, including the one where SCTV
's Andrea Martin supervises the design of the physical handicaps imposed upon athletes and artists so no one can be made to feel inferior by their innate abilities, Harrison settles in at the television division, where network head Buck Henry does his level best to make sure nothing of quality gets on the air. (Chillingly, there is one channel that airs nonstop live executions, which is another way to deter people from stepping out of line.)
In terms of its backwards-looking future aesthetic and television-grade production values, Harrison Bergeron
isn't too far removed from 1985's Overdrawn at the Memory Bank
, also made in Canada and soon to be riffed on Mystery Science Theater 3000
. (Both film even feature references to Casablanca
, but Harrison
goes further by having Bergeron also refer to "the one about Rosebud" and sing the praises of It's a Wonderful Life
, one of the things he shows the viewers at home when he temporarily takes over the network's heavily fortified control room.) Throughout the proceedings, director Bruce Pittman leans hard on the satirical side of the spectrum, giving choice cameos to the likes of Eugene Levy as America's aggressively plebeian president (who, like all "elected" officials, was chosen at random by a computer program), Howie Mandel as a vacuous chat show host, and John Astin (Sean's adoptive father) as a golf announcer. That's almost enough to compensate for the film's more risible moments (e.g. every time Harrison enthuses about jazz), but the inescapable reality is that some short stories are better suited to be short films, and "Harrison Bergeron" is one of them.
|The meager resources of Portuguese cinema are not compatible with your reveries.
On the heels of his handsomely mounted Murnau riff Tabu
, Portuguese director Miguel Gomes embarked upon a film loosely inspired by One Thousand and One Nights
that grew to encompass an entire trilogy, neatly mirroring Pasolini's "Trilogy of Life" made some four decades earlier and its own Arabian Nights
. For his opening salvo, entitled Arabian Nights: Volume 1, The Restless One
, Gomes cast himself as his Scheherazade, a panicky film director forced to spin fantastic tales to save his skin after he's caught running away from an undercooked documentary about the plight of unemployed shipyard workers and an overworked exterminator battling the wasps threatening the country's bees.
With evocative titles like "The Island of the Young Virgins of Bagdad," "The Men with Hard-Ons," "The Story of the Cockerel and the Fire," and "The Swim of the Magnificents," this first part of Gomes's Arabian Nights
presents a variety of responses to the austerity measures imposed on his country by the European Central Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Commission. In fact, it is the representatives of those very bodies who are the subjects of "The Men with Hard-Ons" when an African wizard presents them with a free spray that gives them instant erections, but if they want to know how to make them go away, that'll cost a few euros. "The world is spinning around our penises," one of them boasts, adding, "This is so cool." The only way Gomes and his co-writers, Mariana Ricardo and Telmo Churro, could be more explicit about international finance being a dick-waving contest would be if they were shown waving their dicks around, but the only cocks on display are the ones in the next chapter. That one yields its own priceless lines, like "Listen, I acquitted a cockerel today. So I'm hungry like a lion." Considering I have two more volumes to take in, I hope there's more dialogue like this in my future.
|Wednesday, May 25th, 2016|
|For The Residents, to be anonymous gives license to do anything.
The party line for the past four decades has been that nobody knows who The Residents are, really -- other than "those guys who make weird music and crazy videos and have eyeballs for heads" -- and those that do aren't telling. Even people who watch the 2015 documentary Theory of Obscurity: A Film About The Residents
won't find out who they are, and that's just as it should be. Director Don Hardy didn't set out to make a muckraking Nick Broomfield-like exposé that would blow the whistle on The Residents' long-concealed identities. He simply wanted to celebrate one of the most successful artist collectives the world has ever seen, and that's precisely what he accomplished.
Briskly covering in just 87 minutes the band's storied history and major milestones -- including the unfinished Vileness Fats
film, the incendiary Third Reich 'n' Roll
album (which spawned their first music video), and the overambitious Mole Show -- Theory of Obscurity
also drops in on The Residents' Wonder of Weird Tour, the name of which perfectly encapsulates their appeal 45 years after their first public performance. The perpetually publicity-shy band lets representatives, both past and present, from their management company -- the aptly named Cryptic Corporation -- speak for them, though, as well as some of the artists, singers, and musicians who have worked with them over the years. Then there are the famous fellow travelers, whose ranks include Les Claypool of Primus (whose cover of "Sinister Exaggerator" on their Miscellaneous Debris
EP was my entree to the world of The Residents), Simpsons
creator and superfan Matt Groening, magician Penn Jillette, Jerry Harrison of Talking Heads, and Gerald Casale of Devo. I was most amused, though, by the interview subject who's described as a "pedantic Residents nerd." When it comes to this band, I suppose that kind of goes with the territory.
|Friday, May 20th, 2016|
|Please, let's keep this civilized.
He's a human whose hippie parents have long kept from him the fact that he's a werewolf, she's a newly turned vampire who gets labeled a slut for going "all the way" with one of the vamp bullies at their school -- can the two of them get along? Well, they'd better try because along with the smartest kid in school, who deliberately gets himself bitten by a zombie because why not, they're the only creatures -- undead of otherwise -- standing between the town of Dillford and oblivion since the aliens decided to invade one night.
The self-proclaimed "Home of the Riblet," Dillford is the setting of 2015's Freaks of Nature
, which posits a society reminiscent of the one in Fido
where humans, vampires, and zombies live side-by-side, with shock collars on the zombies to prevent them from chowing down on the human population and an uneasy truce keeping the humans and vampires from going at each other. They still have to go to high school together, though, and that's the microcosm in which unwitting werewolf Dag (Nicholas Braun), vampire-to-be Petra (Mackenzie Davis), and put-upon nerd Ned (Josh Fadem) find themselves. It's also one where Dag is in love with Lorelei (Vanessa Hudgens), the girl next door who stashes her weed in his bedroon, Petra is in love with Milan (Ed Westwick), the too-cool-for-school vampire who puts the bite on her, and Ned has his dream of getting into a good college shattered by an uninspirational teacher who just so happens to be a vampire. He also happens to be played by Keegan-Michael Key, one of a number of funny people director Robbie Pickering and screenwriter Oren Uziel don't spend nearly enough time with.
Other grown-ups who get short shrift are Denis Leary's asshole riblet plant owner, Bob Odenkirk and Joan Cusack as Dag's "understanding" parents, and Patton Oswalt as a doomsday prepper who's ready for the coming apocalypse -- whatever kind of apocalypse it turns out to be. And I won't name who voices the alien ambassador when he finally puts in an appearance -- right before Dag finally turns into the werewolf we've known he's been ever since his parents gave him The Talk about the changes his body is going through -- but the choice is about as perfect as you can get. A few more laugh-out-loud moments and this could have been something special. Instead, it's a reasonably fun lark of a horror-comedy.
|Thursday, May 19th, 2016|
|How old do you have to be to know the difference between right and wrong?
To wrap up my "children recklessly wrecking the lives of young adults" series, I belatedly caught up with 2007's Atonement
, based on the novel by Ian McEwan. Here the confused accuser is 13-year-old Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan, a well-deserved Academy Award nominee for Best Supporting Actress), an aspiring writer who witnesses some puzzling interactions between her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and their family's gardener, Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), from which she draws the wrong conclusion, resulting in the latter's arrest and the ruination of his dream of becoming a doctor. It's ironic, then, that Cecilia and Briony both become nurses when war breaks out four years later, while Robbie serves his country on the front lines -- and behind them, even. Briony's fabrication continues to hang over all of them, though, weighing most heavily on its mortified inventor (now played by Romola Garai).
As novelists are wont to do, McEwan freely jumps around in time, and Oscar-nominated screenwriter Christopher Hampton follows suit, twice doubling back in the early going to reveal the lead-up to what Briony witnessed and misinterpreted. He declines to do so the time it really counts, though, leaving the viewer as unsure of precisely what happened as she's sure she is. Director Joe Wright adds his own flourishes to the proceedings, most notably with the bravura long take -- brilliantly pulled off by Oscar-nominated director of photography Seamus McGarvey -- that establishes just how much of an undertaking it's going to be for Robbie to return to England as he promised Cecilia when they reconnected in London six months earlier. And since the film revolves around a writer with her ever-present typewriter, it's fitting that composer Dario Marianelli incorporates typewriter strokes (and other rhythmic sounds) into his Oscar-winning score. Who knows? She may still be using it decades later when, now played by Vanessa Redgrave, Briony is being interviewed on television about her 21st -- and, she claims, her final -- novel, in which she fully atones for what she did on that fateful night in 1935 and the happiness she destroyed in the process. I sincerely doubt Mary Tilford was ever moved to do anything similar.
|Wednesday, May 18th, 2016|
|This can't do any of us any good.
It's instructive to watch 1961's The Children's Hour
so hot on the heels of These Three
because while John Michael Hayes's screenplay is more faithful to Lillian Hellman's original play, for which she also did the adaptation, the earlier film is the one that mines more pathos from the material. This time out, the Wright-Dobin School for Girls is already up and running when the film opens, and headmistresses Karen and Martha (Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine) are pleased to be edging into the black. Because of this, Karen is finally ready to tie the knot with Joe (James Garner), who's now the nephew of the meddling Mrs. Tilford (Fay Bainter), which means he's related to horrid child Mary (Karen Balkin) as well. The main thing this does is it gives Mrs. Tilford someone else to "save" when she goes on her moral crusade based on the unfounded accusations of a habitual liar. It also gives Joe an extra reason to be irked when she does.
In a neat bit of stunt casting that pays large dividends, director William Wyler cast These Three
's Martha, Miriam Hopkins, as the overbearing Aunt Lily, whose flair for the dramatic comes to the fore when she picks a poor time to play the victim. And as Mary's victim/accomplice Rosalie, he cast a young Veronica Cartwright three years before she won the role of Rod Taylor's little sister in Hitchcock's The Birds
. Balkin may have gotten the "and introducing" credit, but Cartwright's the one who proved to have real staying power in an industry that routinely discards child actors before they reach maturity. As for Hepburn and MacLaine, they do what they can with the climactic scene where Martha confesses her true feelings for Karen, but it's one that has made a museum piece of this film. So has the scene of people stopping in front of the school to gawk at the lesbians. If the two of them had been smart, they would have hired a ticket taker and started charging admission.
|Tuesday, May 17th, 2016|
|It's our lives you're fooling with. Our lives.
Roland West wasn't the only Hollywood director who adapted the same Broadway play twice in his career. William Wyler did it, too, with Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour
, only he let a quarter of a century pass between his two attempts. The first, 1936's These Three
, had to drop the lesbian angle that was the cornerstone of the stage production because it was 1936 and Joseph Breen wasn't having any of it. The core story of a pair of schoolteachers whose lives and livelihoods are ruined by a vicious lie told by a vindictive student remains intact, though, and Hellman can't have been too put out since she wrote the screen story and screenplay.
The wronged parties are Martha and Karen (Miriam Hopkins and Merle Oberon), two newly minted college graduates who make a go of converting the run-down farmhouse Karen inherited from her grandmother into a boarding school for girls. In this endeavor they have the assistance of handsome doctor Joseph (Joel McCrea), their new neighbor who offers to help with the renovations and quickly falls in love with Karen, little realizing Martha has fallen for him. That's the wedge spoiled brat Mary Tilford (Best Actress nominee Bonita Granville) uses when she decides to get back at Martha and Karen for having the gall to repeatedly punish her for her lying, cheating, and general bad behavior. She wouldn't get anywhere, though, without her grandmother and guardian, the obscenely wealthy Mrs. Tilford (Alma Kruger), who fails to fact-check the girl's story before acting on it.
It's safe to say that Mary is one of the most infuriating fictional characters -- if not the
most -- I've ever encountered, but she's given a run for her money by Martha's imposing Aunt Lily (Catherine Doucet), who takes credit where it isn't due and takes a powder when her testimony could have been useful in the slander suit Martha, Karen, and Joseph fruitlessly bring against Mrs. Tilford. Thankfully, Wyler and Hellman skip straight to the verdict since the plaintiffs have already been shown grilling Mary and her impressionable confederate Rosalie (Marcia Mae Jones), who probably wishes she had been assigned a different roommate. No matter how much she deserves the slap delivered to her by her grandmother's maid (played by the Wicked Witch of the West herself, Margaret Hamilton), it's doubtful that Mary will be turning the other cheek anytime soon.
|Monday, May 16th, 2016|
|Can you keep a secret? Don't reveal the identity of "The Bat."
With The Bat Whispers
fresh in my memory, I thought it meet to check out the silent version of The Bat
produced and directed by Roland West in 1926. Strangely, this one is less visually dynamic than the remake, which defies conventional wisdom as it applies to late silent and early sound films. Even so, West stages certain moments exactly the same in both films, starting with The Bat's elimination of his first victim by luring the man to an open window to be strangled and the villain's bat's-eye view of the bank robbery that sets the main story in motion. The Bat's get-up is much more bat-like in this film, though, with prominent ears and even a working mouth with fangs -- all the better to convince the occupants of the Fleming house that he means business when he starts ordering them around.
Other than that, the differences between the two films are negligible: a few character names, the amount stolen from the bank. (Here it's a piddling $200,000. Hardly worth The Bat's trouble.) Even a detail like jittery maid Lizzie capturing The Bat with a bear trap thrown out her bedroom window and chained to her bed is repeated verbatim, which means it must originate in Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood's original stage play, thus making West one of the most faithful adapters in the history of Hollywood. One change he definitely made for the better, though, was dropping Japanese butler Billy in favor of Whispers
's unnamed caretaker. It's bad enough reading intertitles calling him "That Jap butler" or "Jappy." Hearing them spoken out loud would have been infinitely worse.
|Sunday, May 15th, 2016|
|For the record, this is what making things worse looks like.
Since I gave this year's other big superhero smackdown a hard pass, I can't say how Marvel's stealth Avengers
movie stacks up against DC's dour Justice League
place-setter, but I am prepared to report that, a few stray moments aside, Captain America: Civil War
is a largely joyless affair in its own right. Sure, there's the occasional quip or arch line of dialogue to remind viewers that these characters have enjoyed each other's company in the past, but they spend too much of the present punching each other and throwing each other around, which doesn't feel too consequential when the people being punched and thrown around are super-soldiers or guys in armored suits or kids who have been bitten by radioactive spiders or whatever. Then again, the most thrilling scene in the whole film is
the one where Captain America and Iron Man and their respective posses convene at an otherwise deserted airstrip to hash out what's to become of Cap's brainwashed bud Bucky Barnes, a.k.a. The Winter Soldier (the subtitle of the previous Captain America
movie, which I skipped), so maybe there's something to that.
Even with Thor and The Hulk missing in action, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (returning for their third go-round with the star-spangled soldier) and directors Anthony and Joe Russo (re-upping after The Winter Soldier
) have a lot of characters to keep track of and arcs to set in motion in the lengthy lead-up to their big melee. For someone who's slept on the Marvel Cinematic Universe since the first Avengers
, the sensation is kind of like watching Christopher Guest movies, but going straight from Waiting for Guffman
to A Mighty Wind
and wondering what caused his core cast to grow exponentially. There were also a few callbacks that were completely lost on me (one in particular that stands out is Falcon throwing shade at Ant-Man for some reason), and name actors wasted in nothing roles -- although if you only have one scene to take Tony Stark down off his high horse, then hiring someone like Alfre Woodard to do it makes a lot of sense.
If Marvel accomplished nothing else with Civil War
(other than making a shit-ton of money), at least it can be assured that my appetite has been thoroughly whetted for the return of Chadwick Boseman as T'Challa, King of Wakanda, and his clawed alter ego in the solo Black Panther
feature coming in 2018. Sure, the new kid they got to play Peter Parker did all right, but I can go the rest of my life without seeing another Spider-Man movie. Here's the guy whose further adventures I'm champing at the bit to see:
|Friday, May 13th, 2016|
|I always thought I knew what I was supposed to do.
It's oddly fitting that PBS aired the 2015 documentary The Armor of Light
-- a nuanced look at the divisive issue of gun violence in America -- in the same week George Zimmerman chose to auction off the gun he used to kill Trayvon Martin in 2012. The announcement of the sale ignited a firestorm of controversy, causing the first auction site to take down the listing, but another one stepped into the breach in a matter of hours. In contrast, Independent Lens
broadcast The Armor of Light
as scheduled, which is at it should be. Taking a clear-eyed look at our nation's gun problem is the first step toward acknowledging that it's one in desperate need of being solved. The question is, is the Rev. Rob Schenck the man to solve it?
An Evangelical minister by trade, the vocal anti-abortion activist moved from the front lines of the struggle in Buffalo, New York, to the corridors of power in Washington, D.C., where his organization Faith and Action has spent the past two decades blurring the line between church and state with its Ten Commandments Project. The one that has come to trouble him the most in recent years, though, is the second -- "Thou shalt not kill" -- since gun violence started cropping up in his own backyard, from the murder of a Buffalo abortion provider to the Washington Navy Yard shootings, which happened in his neighborhood. Running in parallel with Schenck's growing moral crisis is the story of Lucy McBath, the mother of 17-year-old shooting victim Jordan Davis, whose killer's invocation of Florida's "stand your ground" law inspired her to go on a personal crusade against it. Eventually, that leads her to Schenck's office and him to start raising the thorny issue with the very people he worries about alienating by coming out against guns.
With their fly-on-the-wall approach, director Abigail E. Disney and co-director Kathleen Hughes manage to capture what would be spirited debates between Schenck and his pro-gun constituents if they didn't all seem to be parroting the same NRA talking points. (You know the parable about the bad guy with a gun and the good guy with a gun? Guess what comes up more than once.) One such closed-door meeting even devolves into a shouting match, demonstrating how much of an uphill battle Schenck faces with what he considers "his" people. It remains to be seen how much longer that will be the case, or whether they'll still consider him to be "their" people.
|Thursday, May 12th, 2016|
|Humans will meet the fate they deserve.
I haven't seen everything picked up for distribution in the States by GKIDS, but I've caught enough of their acquisitions to know they're a reliable source of quality animated films from around the world. That streak continues with the 2015 French-Canadian-Belgian co-production April and the Extraordinary World
, which sprang from the imagination of Jacques Tardi, creator of The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec
. Where that adaptation went the live-action route, this film directly emulates Tardi's art style, which adroitly grounds the fantastic in the mundane details of everyday life. Here, though, "everyday life" is an alternate reality where mankind is still reliant on steam technology well into the 20th century because the world's greatest scientists have systematically gone missing, thus depriving it of their great inventions.
The focus is on three generations of a family of scientists, in particular April Franklin (Marion Cotillard), who loses her parents, Paul and Annette (Olivier Gourmet and Macha Grenon), and her grandfather Prosper, a.k.a. Pops (Jean Rochefort), on the same day in 1931 when they attempt to perfect the Ultimate Serum. This, by the way, is the same Ultimate Serum her great-grandfather tried to concoct for Napoleon III in 1870 -- one which would create an army of invincible soldiers for the Emperor. Instead, what he came up with only endowed the animals with the power of speech, which is why April's constant companion is her talking cat Darwin (Philippe Katarine), who's getting up in cat years a decade later when April is still trying to finish her great-grandfather's work in her own secret laboratory.
In hot pursuit of the girl is the determined Inspector Pizoni (Bouli Lanners), who had the plum assignment of hunting down rogue scientists to serve the empire until it was stripped from him ten years earlier, and helping him is pickpocket Julius (Marc-Andrél Grondin), who regrets betraying April's trust when he falls in love with her. As fast-paced as the story is, it's more than just a clothesline for directors Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci to hang a series of thrilling chases and eye-popping visuals -- although April
has no shortage of both. There's also an underlying message about the march of progress and the misuse of science for less than humanitarian purposes. And there's a talking cat, so what more do you need, really? Just go see it.
|Wednesday, May 11th, 2016|
|He's a little possessive, don't you think?
In retrospect, handing Prince the reins of his second feature may not have been the wisest course of action, but that's precisely what happened on 1986's Under the Cherry Moon
when he had creative differences with original director Mary Lambert, then best known for the Madonna music videos "Borderline," "Like a Virgin," and "Material Girl." After shooting Madonna cavorting on a gondola through the canals of Venice, making a movie with Prince on the French Riviera must have seemed like an obvious next step, but Lambert would have to wait another year to make her feature debut. Instead, it was Mr. Nelson's turn to make his, and for better or worse the result is unmistakably "A Film by Prince," as his directing credit reads.
Working from a screenplay by Becky Johnston -- he would have to wait for the following year's Sign o' the Times
to make good on the full quadruple threat -- Prince plays Miami gigolo Christopher Tracy, who's installed himself as the ivory tickler at a swank hotel in Nice and, with the aid of his skirt-chasing sidekick Tricky (Jerome Benton of The Time), fleeces rich widows. He then sets his sights on 21-year-old heiress Mary Sharon (Kristin Scott Thomas, making her big-screen debut and looking faintly embarrassed by it pretty much the whole way through), who's all set to claim a $50 million trust fund if she marries the dullard her control freak of a father (Steven Berkoff) has picked out for her. That doesn't take true love into account, though, and frankly neither does this film because there's no reason in the world why Mary should fall for Christopher considering how childish he acts around her. And the same goes for Christopher since she acts like an insufferable snob around him, to the point of calling him a "peasant" on more than one occasion. (And here I though Brits were supposed to be more adept at insults.) The script says they're supposed to be soul mates, though, so that's what Prince and Thomas pretend to be, and none too convincingly.
If Under the Cherry Moon
has a saving grace, it's director of photography Michael Ballhaus's shimmering black-and-white cinematography, followed closely by Prince and The Revolution's soundtrack. (The standout: "Anotherloverholenyohead," which deserved to be a much bigger hit.) It also benefits from the supporting turns of Alexandra Stewart (as Mary's mother, who understands her situation more than she realizes), Francesca Annis (as Christopher's most recent conquest), and Victor Spinetti (as a jaded observer of Nice's leisure class). What it could have used is a snappier script, although I suspect some of the more risible lines (e.g. Tricky's "Why, you selfish son of a biscuit eater.") were improvised by the cast. When the best thing Mary can think of to spit out when Christopher's chicanery is exposed is "You've been using me all this time, you... you whore
," you know there's a paucity of imagination on display.
|Tuesday, May 10th, 2016|
|How long have you been leading this double life?
I've had the Warner Archive Blu-ray of Joe Dante's 1987 feature Innerspace
for a few months, but it took the recent passing of character actor William Schallert to inspire me to give it a spin. First used by Dante in the "It's a Good Life" segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie
, in which he was cast as the "father" of a boy with mysterious powers, Schallert went unbilled in Gremlins
(where he played a priest) before landing the role of Dr. Greenbush, the folksy general practitioner who ministers to severe hypochondriac Jack Putter (Martin Short). It's a small part, but one that's crucial for establishing the kind of man Jack is before miniaturized test pilot Tuck Pendleton (Dennis Quaid) gets injected into his ass -- an event that doesn't occur until 26 minutes into the film. Also pitching in is Henry Gibson as Jack's boss at the Safeway where he's assistant manager and another Dante regular in the making, going on to appear in four of his films to Schallert's five.
"Overstuffed" is a word that is frequently lobbed at Dante's films and it certainly applies to this one, but the brisk pace and inventive script (by Jeffrey Boam and Chip Proser) keep it light and fun, as do the cameos by the likes of Dick Miller (as a nosy cab driver), Chuck Jones and Rance Howard (as customers at Jack's supermarket), Short's fellow SCTV
alums Joe Flaherty and Andrea Martin (as patients in Dr. Greenbush's waiting room), and Kenneth Tobey (who has a memorable encounter with Jack in a restroom). Providing a counterbalance to Short's manic physical comedy is Meg Ryan as Tuck's ex-lover Lydia, who's kept in the dark for as long as possible while Jack enlists her help in getting back the stolen chip that's needed to re-enlarge him. (And yes, that is Orson Bean in a blink-and-you'll-miss-him cameo as her editor.) As for the villains in possession of it, they're also a fun lot, from Kevin McCarthy's megalomaniacal arms trader Mr. Scrimshaw on down to Robert Picardo's hilarious turn as Eurotrash technology fence The Cowboy. I'm kind of amazed, though, that the MPAA gave this a PG rating in light of the scene where scientist Dr. Canker (Fiona Lewis) is clearly about to be serviced by henchman Mr. Igoe's (Vernon Wells) snap-on vibrator. I guess that's what happens when Steven Spielberg has your back.
|Monday, May 9th, 2016|
|Something serious is liable to happen in this house at any time.
People today may complain about how quickly Hollywood reboots its franchises and turns out remakes of films that are only a couple of decades old, but the advent of sound in the late '20s meant that a lot of stage plays that had already been made into films were being remade at a rapid clip. Such is the case with Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood's durable The Bat
, which director Roland West previously brought to the screen in 1926 and decided to do so again four years later. To differentiate the sound version, West dubbed it The Bat Whispers
so patrons would know the title character would be menacing people with his voice as well as his all-black get-up, which includes a hood, a long cloak, gloves, and bat-like wings (but not the elaborate mask his counterpart had in the silent version because West had learned the value of restraint in the interim).
The emphasis on the dialogue results in a lot of static scenes were West plops the camera down far enough away that the audience can see everybody who's speaking, but he still goes in for the occasional sweeping camera move and makes creative use of detailed models, especially in the opening sequence which depicts The Bat pulling off the daring theft of a priceless necklace which he has been conceited enough to announce in advance. That accomplished (on time and right under the noses of the police), The Bat swoops across town and bears witness to a highly stylized bank robbery and follows the anonymous perpetrator to the bank manager's country house, which has been taken for the summer by the matronly Miss Cornelia (Grayce Hampton), who has somehow managed to put up with the hysterics of her fraidy-cat maid Lizzie (Maude Eburne) for 20 years.
Alas, Lizzie isn't the only comic-relief character on hand since she's soon joined by the house's superstitious caretaker (Spencer Charters) and bumbling private detective Jones (Charles Dow Clark), who's engaged by Cornelia when she starts receiving warnings to leave at once. (None are in writing -- The Bat's usual m.o. -- but she soon surmises that he has an interest in the house and the half million dollars stashed somewhere inside it.) Also in the mix are Cornelia's niece Dale (Una Merkel) and her fiancé Brook (William Bakewell), who poses as the new gardener so he can search the house for a secret room, the sinister Dr. Venrees (Gustav von Seyffertitz), who doesn't have to do much of anything to be a prime suspect, police detective Anderson (top-billed Chester Morris), and the absent owner's nephew, Richard Fleming (Hugh Huntley), who barely has time to get settled in before he's eliminated by The Bat.
Speaking of, The Bat sticks to the shadows for the first hour or so, but when he finally gets his close-up, it's a stunner. Having found the secret room, Dale is stunned when The Bat's shadow appears before her and transforms into the man himself who slowly creeps toward her. (It was established when he arrived on the property that he drags one foot behind the other.) West cuts away briefly to the reverse angle on the petrified Dale, but when he goes back to The Bat he's right on top of the camera, his wild eyes staring daggers at her from inside his hood. It's a shock cut that surely aroused a scream or two when this was released in 1930, and it's still capable of sending a chill down the spine today. He gets an even bigger close-up a few scenes later when he's been captured and is about to be unmasked, but like the serial villains he recalls, The Bat knows the value of being prepared for any eventuality -- and West didn't show him meticulously setting up a light-switch tripwire for nothing. That only forestalls the inevitable, though, and like all good criminal masterminds The Bat eventually finds himself on the way to jail, and the viewer is left with an admonishment not to reveal his identity to their friends and family. Considering this comes from the actor who was just revealed to be The Bat, I expect it was heeded.
|Sunday, May 8th, 2016|
|I swear, sometimes you boys act just like little savages.
With Garry Marshall's latest cinematic opus terrorizing audiences nationwide with its stultifying blandness, I started this Mother's Day off with its 1980 namesake. A Troma Team Release, co-written and directed by Lloyd Kaufman's brother Charles, Mother's Day
follows a trio of old college chums on their annual "mystery weekend" camping trip -- this time to Deep Barons Wilderness Area in rural New Jersey -- when they're set upon by a pair of backwoods creeps in thrall to their psychopathic mother. Like John Waters without the wit, Kaufman tosses in references to Deliverance
and Taxi Driver
and takes mild satirical swipes at consumer culture with the constant stream of television commercials on in the background of most scenes, but none of his jokes are remotely funny and his inbred antagonists are so repugnant it's impossible to laugh at their antics.
Brothers Ike (Holden McGuire, the big one) and Addley (Billy Ray McQuade, the one in the hood) are real pieces of work thanks to their domineering mother (Rose Ross), who runs them through various "exercises" designed to make them more efficient and sadistic stalkers/abductors. They don't have to work too hard, though, to waylay the "Rat Pack" -- New York City divorcée Jackie (Deborah Luce), mousy Abbey (Nancy Hendrickson), and Hollywood actress Trina (Tiana Pierce) -- since their victims come to them and wrap themselves up nicely in their sleeping bags. Accordingly, they're easily tied up and dragged from their campsite to mother's house, whereupon they're lashed to exercise equipment (which the boys presumably use to stay in shape) and abused until such time as they're able to escape and swear their revenge. (Well, two of them do. One doesn't make it.) Sure, the boys get what's coming to them -- one via an antenna through the throat and a claw hammer to the genitals, the other from a combination of Drano, a TV set, and an electric knife -- but the girls don't forget about mama. On her day, that just wouldn't do.
|Saturday, May 7th, 2016|
|He's got enough chips on his shoulder to sink a battleship.
Midway through his tenure as 007, Roger Moore starred as the title character in 1979's ffolkes
, who's about as far away from suave ladies man James Bond as you can get while still being an ass-kicking man of action. A lover of cats, drinker of neat scotch, and doer of needlepoint, Rufus Excalibur ffolkes is an eccentric misogynist with his own personal squad of highly trained frogmen -- "ffolkes Ffusiliers" -- which is why he's tapped by the British government and Lloyd's of London when the biggest oil production platform ever built in the North Sea is held for ransom by a group of economically motivated terrorists, who intend to blow it -- and themselves, if need be -- to kingdom come if they don't get 25 million pounds within 24 hours.
Anthony Perkins makes a meal of the role of Kramer, the unwavering leader of the hijackers, with Michael Parks as Harold, his explosives expert in thick eyeglasses. Just as their plan -- to commandeer a Norwegian supply ship by overpowering its small crew -- goes off with a minimum of hitches, so too does the one cooked up by ffolkes, who poses as the first officer of James Mason's Admiral Brinsden, the government's lead negotiator with Kramer. As irksome as he finds ffolkes's behavior at times, though, Brinsden can't deny that the man gets results. The same can be said for director Andrew V. McLaglen, working from a taut screenplay by Jack Davies (based on his own novel), and composer Michael J. Lewis, who delivers a stirring orchestral score with synth accents in the right places.
|Thursday, May 5th, 2016|
|How did we land in this amazing country?
To prepare myself for Peter Greenaway's Eisenstein in Guanajuato
, which comes to Netflix next week, I chose today of all days to watch Sergei Eisenstein's Qué Viva México!
, which was filmed in 1931 but left uncompleted until 1979, decades after his death. (I swear I didn't realize it was going to be Cinco de Mayo when I borrowed this from the library yesterday. That was a happy accident.) The 85-minute version we have today was overseen by Grigori Aleksandrov, one of the director's close collaborators at the time, who used his original shooting script and notes to guide the reconstruction. It's difficult to say how close Aleksandrov comes to what Eisenstein envisioned, but what really matters are the indelible images that were captured during the two-month shoot by cinematographer Eduard Tisse.
After a brief introduction, during which Aleksandrov places the film in historical perspective, it launches into the first of six discrete sections covering aspects of Mexico's culture and people. From the "Prologue," in which modern faces are compared to ancient statues, to "The Sandunga," which depicts the aspiration of young woman in a certain region to attain a necklace of gold coins and a man to dote on, to "Fiesta," which highlights the traditional Feast of the Holy Virgin of Guadalupe, the front half of the film is all about its rich heritage, and the changes wrought by Spain's conquest. (There's also an extended bullfighting sequence, which reconfirmed that it is impossible for me to watch a bullfight without thinking, "What did that poor bull do to deserve this?")
The second half, starting with "Maguey" -- named after a giant cactus whose juices are used to make an intoxicating brew -- is more downbeat since it dramatizes the subjugation of the peasantry under dictator Porfirio Díaz, whose overthrow would have been covered in the the next segment, "Soldadera," which Aleksandrov has to describe since the production ran out of money before it could be filmed. The most striking imagery, however, is saved for the "Epilogue" and its coverage of the Day of the Dead, with its carnival atmosphere and array of dancing men in skull masks. I'll be highly disappointed if I don't see more of them in Greenaway's biopic.
|Wednesday, May 4th, 2016|
|I just don't like this house anymore.
A spiritual sequel of sorts to his true-crime proto-slasher The Town That Dreaded Sundown
, Charles B. Pierce's 1979 film The Evictors
also purports to be "based on a true story," but its opening caption goes on to state that "All names, places, and dates have been changed," which makes one question how much "truth" is left in it. Set in northern Louisiana at a remote farmhouse that was forcibly repossessed from its trigger-happy occupants by well-armed bank operatives in 1928 (the first of several sepia-toned sequences), the film picks up 14 years later as New Orleans transplants Ben and Ruth Watkins (future Tarantino regular Michael Parks and contemporary cult darling Jessica Harper) are shown the house by an estate agent (top-billed Vic Morrow) who neglects to tell them about its sordid past before they move in. Instead, a junk peddler and their crippled neighbor take it upon themselves to fill Ruth in on the violent ends previous tenants have come to.
Unsurprisingly, Harper's performance is the highlight here, even if the script (by Pierce, Garry Rusoff, and Paul Fisk) gives her little more to do than be progressively alarmed by the things she hears about and in the house. (It sure doesn't help that Ben leaves her alone in it for long stretches at a time.) From the peddler (local amateur Lucius Farris, whose dialogue is almost entirely unintelligible), she learns about the couple that was either kicked to death by a mule or killed by a man with a horseshoe on a stick in 1934. From neighbor Olie (Hollywood professional Sue Ane Langdon in theatrical old-age makeup) she hears the story of a man and wife who were electrocuted and burned to death in a barn, respectively, in 1939. And Ruth seems destined to join them in victimhood when the perpetrator (Glen Roberts) starts making house calls, but she proves to be more resilient.
While it features a number of effective suspense sequences, The Evictors
has its share of missed opportunities. For instance, there are a number of notes left around the house -- two by the intruder and one by Olie inviting them around for coffee -- but Ruth never thinks to compare them. Also, the scene where the peddler drops by to chop some wood and winds up with an axe embedded in his back lacks a satisfying payoff, like Ruth stumbling onto his bloody corpse. (That may have edged it into R territory, though.) But most disappointing of all is the wild-eyed maniac's choice of attire -- blue overalls and a floppy hat -- which is a far cry from the Phantom's distinctive hood, evoked on the cover of one of the film's video releases. Pierce may not have wanted to repeat himself, but in this instance that may have been warranted.
|Monday, May 2nd, 2016|
|How can I explain what I don't understand myself?
The rare film noir that's a remake of a film made in the country where the term was coined, 1947's The Long Night
retains the complex flashback structure and fatalistic atmosphere of Marcel Carné's Le jour se lève
, which starred Jean Gabin and Arletty as would-be lovers torn apart by the machinations of an older man who wishes to possess her. Here the young lovers are Joe (Henry Fonda), a war veteran who works at a steel factory, and Jo Ann (Barbara Bel Geddes), an orphan who works at a nursery, and the older man who comes between them is a smooth-talking magician named Maximilian the Great (Vincent Price in peak form). Just as Le jour se lève
did, The Long Night
opens with the interloper getting shot and promptly dying, at which point Joe holes up inside his fourth-floor apartment and spends the night brooding in the dark after police snipers shoot out his lights.
Rather than straighten out the timeline, screenwriter John Wexley and director Anatole Litvak have most of the action play out in the past, including one part that has a flashback within a flashback. Naturally, Joe starts with the first time he met Jo Ann, whose plight he can relate to since he was also an orphan, then jumps forward to when he found out about her curious connection with Maximilian. To hear her tell it, though, it's not as sordid as Maximilian and his ex-assistant Charlie (Ann Dvorak) make it out to be, especially since the gray-haired magician plays off on the fact that he's old enough to be her father by telling Joe that he is. This is bullshit, of course, but after a point Joe is so mixed up he doesn't know what or who is on the level. As for Maximilian, he's the kind of fellow who doesn't know to quit while he's ahead, which is how he essentially talks himself to death. Whether that was his intention, it certainly was the result.