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Below are the 20 most recent journal entries recorded in craigjclark's LiveJournal:

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Wednesday, September 28th, 2016
3:00 pm
Hanging around with you fellas is certainly making me unpopular.
Of the 16 films in which Cliff "Ukelele Ike" Edwards appeared in 1942 and 1943, six were westerns where he played second ukelele to Tim Holt. In each he was a character named Ike, but Holt was always someone different, so it's doubtful they're all meant to be the same ukelele slinger. In 1943's Fighting Frontier, Holt is Kit Russell, a decent enough young feller who's fallen in with a bad crowd. This being the Old West, said bad crowd constitutes a gang of bandits that has been putting the screws to a mining community and, as stated by City Commissioner Slocum (William Gould), "just about runs this country around here." During the stagecoach robbery that opens the film, though, Kit's mask slips, allowing him to be identified by the driver and the other passenger. (This is why hoods are always the better choice.) He manages to escape punishment, though, when the gang runs the passenger out of town and cows the driver into silence.

In spite of his acquittal, Kit remains on the outs with pretty Jeannie Halvorsen (Ann Summers), daughter of Judge Halvorsen (Davison Clark), the only man apart from Ike who knows Kit is a special investigator appointed by the governor and has infiltrated the gang so as to find out who's calling the shots. Kit also gets the stink-eye from mine owner Frank Walton (Eddie Dew), who's all for forming a vigilante committee and stringing up Kit, Ike, and a couple of genuine outlaws when they're caught with a cache of stolen bullion. And much like Mr. Orange in Reservoir Dogs -- only without the bullet in the gut -- Kit can't blow his cover until one of the others spills who the big boss is. All in all, it's energetically directed by Lambert Hillyer, who made the first Batman serial the same year, and it's the first Tim Holt western I've seen where he genuinely seems to take having a love interest seriously. In this regard, it probably helps that Kit doesn't have anywhere to ride off to after the final fade-out.
Tuesday, September 27th, 2016
11:11 am
Within the vigilantes there's a gang who will stop at nothing. People can't see though masks.
Quite unlike Six-Gun Gold, which frittered away ten minutes of its already lean 57-minute running time on a song, a runaway stagecoach chase, and some foolishness with a skunk before Tim Holt's cowpoke got to town to kick the plot into motion, in 1942's Pirates on the Prairie his character is apprised of the situation right from the get-go by his superior in the U.S. Marshals and rides into the town of Spencerville posing as Larry Durant, gunsmith, before even three minutes have elapsed. (In terms of cutting to the chase, it helps that Pirates is a remake of a film called Legion of the Lawless made just two years earlier.) The situation is that the railroad is all set to go through the town, which has been divided up into the prosperous Spencerville, founded by John Spencer (John Elliott), and East Spencerville, which is kept in line by his vigilante committee which has been set up with the governor's sanction. How that translates to allowing men to ride around in black hoods terrorizing the locals is beyond me, but I'm glad director Howard Bretherton gives them plenty of play in the film's back half.

As for the front half, it mostly involves Larry establishing himself in town and taking on former rancher Ike (Cliff "Ukulele Ike" Edwards, who follows through on his nickname's implied threat on two occasions, one of which is actually plot-related) as his somewhat dim-witted employee. He also runs afoul of lead vigilante Lew Harmon (Roy Barcroft), who keeps his shadier dealings secret from the lawful Spencer and his daughter Helen (Nell O'Day), the closest thing Larry would have to a love interest if he weren't all business. Considering what his business is, though, and how much screen time is given to his hooded adversaries, I'm not about to start complaining. And seeing as how this prefigures Tarantino's Django Unchained by a good seven decades, I like how some of their improvised hoods are better made than others.
Monday, September 26th, 2016
11:36 am
What's the matter with folks around here? Nobody's what they ain't.
I recently got my library to acquire the Warner Archive's Tim Holt Western Classics Collection Vol. 1, so as a warm-up I watched his 1941 RKO western Six-Gun Gold, which aired on TCM last week. As generic as they come, Six-Gun Gold stars Holt as a cowpoke named Don Cardigan (not the inventor of the sweater) who rolls into the town of Placer City with his two sidekicks -- crooner Smokey (Ray Whitley) and comic-relief coot Whopper (Lee "Lasses" White) -- expecting to find his brother Brad, who has recently been installed as its U.S. Marshal, but instead they find themselves in a whole heap of trouble. For starters, the man posing as Brad Cardigan (also not the inventor of the sweater) isn't Don's brother, and his three deputies attempt to frame the trio for rustling. On top of that, the mining families in the area are on edge because their gold shipments have been going astray, leading to the obligatory scene of our heroes getting shot at (but never actually shot) by a woman who believes in shooting first and asking questions after you've been plugged with lead.

The trigger-happy lass in question is Penny Blanchard (Jan Clayton, third-billed after Whitley), who would qualify as Don's love interest if either of them looked like they were even remotely interested in sex. Instead, the viewer is subjected to the flirtations that pass between Whopper and Penny's aunt Jenny (Fern Emmett), whose relentless malapropisms never even rise to the level of being mildly amusing. The best that can be said for Six-Gun Gold, the penultimate film for David Howard, who previously directed Hollywood Stadium Mystery, is that it's an innocuous way to pass 57 minutes. It's understandable, though, why Warner Bros. chose not to include it on any of their Archive Collections.
Sunday, September 25th, 2016
11:00 am
I believe anything can happen to anyone, anywhere, and at any time.
In the two seasons it was on the air, Masters of Horror produced 26 hour-long episodes, 25 of which were broadcast. (The lone holdout, Takashi Miike's Imprint, was deemed too disturbing, even for premium cable, so interested viewers had to wait until it came out on DVD.) I've been selective about which ones I've acquired over the years, which is why I've only just now polished off the equivalent of an 13-episode season, paradoxically with the very first one ever aired, Don Coscarelli's Incident On and Off a Mountain Road. Based on a story by Bubba Ho-tep scribe Joe R. Lansdale, Incident is a lean, compact place-setter for the series as a whole, using its small cast and limited settings to their full advantage.

The action revolves around Ellen (Bree Turner, later to play Rosalee on Grimm), who plows into an abandoned car on a lonely stretch of road and finds it isn't so lonely when she's chased through the woods by a monstrous-looking bald man (John DeSantis) she finds out is called Moonface (but not to his face) when he catches her and chains her up in his grubby basement along with a loopy, chatty old man named Buddy (Coscarelli all-star Angus Scrimm). Ellen may be bound, but she's determined to free herself and puts the survival skills instilled in her by her prepper husband Bruce (Ethan Embry, who only appears in the flashbacks Coscarelli and co-writer Stephen Romano disperse throughout the film) to use. In this way, she's something of a precursor to Sharni Vinson's Erin in You're Next, only Ellen's carefully laid booby traps backfire on occasion. The fact that she is such a resourceful adversary does impress her captor, however fleetingly.
Saturday, September 24th, 2016
8:38 pm
I do know one thing. Something weird is going on up there.
In celebration of the first annual Art House Theater Day, the IU Cinema screened the J.J. Abrams-financed 4K restoration of Don Coscarelli's cult horror film Phantasm. Originally sprung on audiences in 1979, the film has gone on to spawn four sequels -- including this year's series-capper Phantasm: Ravager, the first not to be directed by Coscarelli -- and a convoluted mythology/cosmology that doesn't even pretend to make sense. Like a lot of filmmakers who set out to approximate a waking nightmare, Coscarelli -- who, in addition to writing and directing, also served as his own cinematographer and editor -- is more interested in mood and atmosphere than crafting a coherent plot, which is not what anyone remembers about Phantasm anyway.

No, the takeaways from Phantasm are threefold: Angus Scrimm's horror villain hall of fame performance as The Tall Man, the most sinister mortician ever; his dwarf minions in the hooded cloaks, described as "little and brown and low to the ground" by one character; and The Ball. (There's a reason why, when Coscarelli made Phantasm II nearly a decade later, its marketing campaign was built around the slogan "The Ball Is Back!") True, the three leads have their quirks -- Michael Baldwin's Mike is a teen wizard with a socket wrench, Bill Thornbury as his older brother Jody has his muscle car and the music career he's put on hold, and Reggie Bannister's Reggie is your friendly neighborhood pony-tailed ice cream man -- but it feels like Coscarelli could have done a find-and-replace with any of them in any scene and it wouldn't have impacted on the overall film. Even so, he made enough movie magic happen on his tight budget that he was able to move on to the basic-cable mainstay Beastmaster. The Ball would have to wait its turn for an encore.
1:29 am
What is that howling in the black sunset?
In general, when a story opens with "Once upon a time," the expectation is that it will close with "And they lived happily ever after." Not so in Eiichi Yamamoto's Belladonna of Sadness, a Japanese animated film from 1973 that has only now made it to these shores. If it had come over at the time, it might have felt right at home rubbing shoulders with the adult-oriented likes of Ralph Bakshi's Fritz the Cat and Heavy Traffic, although its fairy-tale plot and medieval setting are more reminiscent of Jacques Demy's curiously G-rated The Pied Piper. Both films even include a major subplot involving the Black Death, but only one features Tatsuya Nakadai as the voice of the Devil, who starts out as a pale little phallic guy and grows larger -- and redder -- each time he reappears. (Suffice it to say, subtlety is not Belladonna's prime concern.)

As it happens, Satan's presence is unconsciously requested by simple peasant girl Jeanne (Aiko Nagayama) after she is married to her soulmate Jean (Katsuyuki Itô), but her deflowering is at the hands of their cruel Lord (Masaya Takahashi), who's the sort who doesn't care that he gives the feudal system a bad name. Each time Satan visits her, he promises Jeanne more power, but always at a steeper price than before. The horned/horny one wants her body and soul, but she holds onto the latter for as long as possible, until such time as she has no reason to believe it is of any more worth to her. All the while, Jean experiences fortunes good and bad, being made the Lord's tax collector one minute and having one of his hands lopped off the next when he does something to displease the despot. (Performance reviews in the Middle Ages were murder.) No matter how many times they're pulled back down, though, whenever they're on the ascent, it's whispered that Jeanne is a witch in league with the Devil. Finally, the only logical thing left to do is to burn her at the stake, which paradoxically makes her stronger than ever.

Unmistakably a product of its time, Belladonna of Sadness encompasses an array of pictorial and animation styles. In fact, there is quite a bit of it that isn't animated at all, with Yamamoto emphasizing his tale's storybook qualities by panning across still images that wouldn't look out of place in a picture book, while reserving his limited animation for the more adult passages. There's also a segment that appears to have been lifted straight out of Yellow Submarine, proving that Yamamoto's influences ranged far and wide. It's about time his film did, too.
Thursday, September 22nd, 2016
4:26 pm
He's painfully honest with his fans. Probably too honest, really.
Looking back over the just-ended summer movie season, there was such a high turnover of wide releases that many were forced out of theaters before they had a chance to find an audience. An early casualty of the relentless churn was the Lonely Island's Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, a documentary spoof that skewers the modern pop scene by poking fun at a Justin Bieber-like singer who's nowhere near as talented as his yes men assure him he is. As played by Andy Samberg, who co-wrote the film with directors Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone, the egomaniacal Conner -- or Conner4Real as he's re-branded himself -- was once the front man for the Style Boyz, a hip-hop group he formed with his childhood friends Owen a.k.a. Kid Contact (Taccone), who provided the beats, and Lawrence a.k.a. Kid Brain (Schaffer), their lyricist. Kid Conner grew too big for his britches, though, and left them in the dust to go solo (literally in Lawrence's case since he went to work on a farm). Sure, he was magnanimous enough to bring Owen along as his DJ, but if there's one thing Conner is not good at, it's appreciating the talents of anybody not named Conner.

Following their obvious model, 1984's This Is Spinal Tap, Samberg, Schaffer, and Taccone follow Conner in the lead-up to the release of his highly anticipated second album, CONNquest, and its attendant tour, which doesn't start attracting sellout crowds until he adds an opening act, aggressive provocateur/prankster Hunter the Hungry (Chris Redd), who eventually comes to overshadow the ostensible headliner. All the while, he disrespects Owen, even going so far as to put him in a top-heavy Daft Punk/Deadmau5-inspired EDM helmet, causes multiple headaches for his long-suffering publicist Paula (Sarah Silverman) and manager Harry (Tim Meadows), sells out to an appliance company whose marketing guru (Maya Rudolph) has come up with the most intrusive method for distributing his music imaginable, and makes headlines for all the wrong reasons, most notably a mortifying wardrobe malfunction and a wolf attack at the surprise engagement to his maybe/maybe-not girlfriend Ashley (Imogen Poots).

In addition to the hordes of celebrities playing themselves -- who can go one review without being mentioned by name, I think -- Popstar also features a bevy of comedic actors who pop by for a scene or two before disappearing. Living the rock 'n' roll lifestyle are Joan Cusack as Conner's mother, who's all too eager to prove she's a fun mom, Bill Hader as guitar tech Zippy, whose "flatlining" hobby makes for a terrific throwaway bit, and an unrecognizable "Weird Al" Yankovic as the lead singer of a group called Hammerleg. And representing the bottom-feeder-heavy entertainment journalism complex is the TMZ-like CMZ, staffed by a snarky crew of self-loathing reporters played by the likes of Will Arnett, Mike Birbiglia, and Eric André. They sling plenty of zingers in Conner's direction, but by far the biggest laugh in the film belongs to Ringo Starr for his deadpan assessment of the pandering gay marriage anthem "Equal Rights." "He's writing a song for gay marriage," Starr says, "you know, like it's not allowed. It's allowed now." You tell him, Ringo!
Wednesday, September 21st, 2016
3:30 pm
You're pretty domesticated for a rock star.
I don't believe in the concept of the guilty pleasure. As long as it's not the cause or result of someone else's pain, if something gives you pleasure -- especially something as benign as watching a movie -- then there's no reason in the world why you should feel guilty about it before, during, or afterwards. Sure enough, there are plenty of pleasures on display in Luca Guadagnino's A Bigger Splash, the 2015 remake of a 1969 French film called La Piscine that starred Alain Delon and Romy Schneider as a couple whose idyllic vacation is shattered by the intrusion of her ex-lover and his teenage daughter. In A Bigger Splash, the situation has been reworked by screenwriter David Kajganich -- from the original script by Jean-Claude Carrière and Jacques Deray -- so it's centered on enigmatic rock 'n' roller Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton, channeling David Bowie at times), who's recovering from having surgery on her vocal cords, which means her current beau, documentary filmmaker Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) in called to do much of the talking for her. This is fine when it's just the two of them lounging around naked at the Italian villa where she's convalescing, but when her ex, bubbly record producer Harry (Ralph Fiennes), shows up unannounced with his recently acknowledged daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson) in tow, that not only puts a strain on the couple's relationship, but potentially her vulnerable voice as well.

One thing Guadagnino and Kajganich do well is find the right places to drop in flashbacks to Marianne's tumultuous life with Harry and the circumstances surrounding her hand-off to Paul. (At least, that's how Harry sees it, hence his belief that he can simply waltz in years later and take her back.) Meanwhile, other past events like Paul's supposed suicide attempt are left ambiguous enough that the viewer has to piece them together from the scattered details in the dialogue. This is significant since the film's entire third act turns on whether a certain coupling did or did not occur and whose story is the most credible when the police get involved. To say why they do would be to spoil the dramatic turn the film takes, but since that spoils the hangout vibe it has cultivated up to that point, with scene after scene of Harry quoting Holy Grail (and doing a decent Terry Gilliam impression), singing falsetto along with the Rolling Stones's "Emotional Rescue," and trotting out his oft-told story about working on the group's Voodoo Lounge record, it would be perversely appropriate for me to do so. However, just because Harry "doesn't believe in limits," as Marianne so succinctly puts it, that doesn't mean I have to follow suit.
Tuesday, September 20th, 2016
12:12 pm
Where did you find this extraordinarily exotic creature?
In 1972, a good 14 years before Paul Hogan's Crocodile Dundee left the Outback to explore the wilds of New York, Aussie comedian Barry Humphries uprooted his comic-strip character Barry McKenzie -- created for Peter Cook's satirical magazine Private Eye -- from his home in Sydney and plunked the yobbo down in London for a lowbrow culture-clash comedy called The Adventures of Barry McKenzie. Aiding Humphries was director Bruce Beresford, who collaborated on the screenplay, and actor Barry Crocker, who took on the title role so he could be freed up to play his signature character, the soon-to-be-Dame Edna Everage, along with two others. What might have been a breezy way to pass 90 minutes turns into a bit of slog when the running time hews closer to two hours, though, and the bulk of it is spent in the company of the prototypical Ugly Australian.

Ignoring the censorship classification at the head of the film (NPA, which stands for "no poofters allowed" and therefore would bar me from watching it), Beresford and Humphries get right down to business with the reading of Barry's father's will, which stipulates that he'll inherit $2,000 if he goes to the UK. The will doesn't specify that he has to be chaperoned by his Aunt Edna, but she insists on going along anyway and the two of them arrive in London after a brief stopover in Hong Kong during the credits. As it is, the first Pommy bastard Barry meets sets the tone for his entire visit since his stash of Foster's is confiscated at customs. From there, he's ripped off by a taxi driver, checked into a fleabag hotel with a disreputable landlord (Spike Milligan), tapped to appear in a commercial for High Camp cigarettes and nearly seduced by his costar, targeted by predatory Tories who mistake him for a millionaire and try to marry him off to their homely daughter, exploited by a band of faux hippies (one of which is played by Humphries), placed in the care of a loony psychiatrist (Humphries again), pursued by a copper who thinks he's a poof, and picked by a TV director (played by Cook) to appear on a live chat show about Aussies in London that descends into utter chaos, leaving Barry with nowhere to go but home. Before he does, though, he demolishes countless cans of lager with his rowdy mates, rattles off countless euphemisms for taking a piss, completely fails to lose his virginity, and proves just how dim he by not recognizing that one of his old playmates is a lesbian and has taken him to a drag bar. Unlike the equivalent scene in Crocodile Dundee, though, the queens aren't the butt of the joke, making this the only area where The Adventures of Barry McKenzie is the least bit progressive.
Sunday, September 18th, 2016
11:12 pm
You've got a clear picture of what we're doing.
When it comes to the great conspiracy films of the '70s, the titles that immediately come to mind are the usual suspects: The Conversation, The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor, All the President's Men, maybe even Capricorn One and Winter Kills. (I haven't seen those last two, so I can't vouch for their greatness.) One that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as them is Jacques Rivette's Out 1, first screened in a 13-hour cut in 1971 and whittled down to a more manageable four-and-a-half the following year. That version, given the subtitle Spectre, is what was screened by the Underground Film Series at IU Cinema since it's enough of an endurance test as it is. It's one that's worth enduring, though, as the mystery that unfolds over its generous running time is never less than compelling.

Inspired by the writings of Balzac (specifically, the three-volume History of The Thirteen) and Lewis Carroll ("The Hunting of the Snark"), Rivette's scenario, written in collaboration with co-director Suzanne Schiffman, revolves around two different experimental theater troupes working on plays by Aeschylus, a pretty petty thief (Juliet Berto) and a panhandler posing as a deaf-mute (Jean-Pierre Léaud) who stumble into situations beyond their understanding, the proprietor of a shop catering to the youth market who has no idea what's become of her husband (Bulle Ogier), a novelist suffering from writer's block (Bernadette Lafont), and a dozen or so others who periodically bob to the surface of its narrative, creating ripples that have unintended effects. Such is also the case with the two competing Aeschylus productions when outside observers are brought in and change them dramatically. In fact, one of the directors (Michèle Moretti) feels so left out of the process that she eventually abandons her production of Seven Against Thebes, while the other (Michael Lonsdale) is bemused by the way the title character has been lifted out of his Prometheus Bound. That's Out 1: Spectre -- a film where its most important characters never appear on screen -- in a nutshell.
Saturday, September 17th, 2016
4:12 pm
Never did think my first marriage would be like this.
As the antiquated Production Code was phased out in the late '60s -- to be replaced by the MPAA's new ratings system -- many of the strictures that had resulted in the elimination of certain themes, most of them having to do with homosexuality, from the plays of Tennessee Williams as they made the transition to the movies fell by the wayside. One of the films this policy was extremely detrimental to was 1959's Suddenly, Last Summer, which Gore Vidal helped Williams adapt for the screen, so it must have pleased the author of Myra Breckenridge to get the assignment to write the screenplay for Last of the Mobile Hot Shots, based on the play The Seven Descents of Myrtle one decade later. Not only were the times more permissive in 1970, but the newly minted X rating, soon to be legitimized by Midnight Cowboy's Best Picture win, meant very little was off-limits in terms of subject matter.

For Vidal, this meant he could wallow all he wanted in the psycho-sexual interplay of Williams's characters, while director Sidney Lumet could show a naked breast or two, just not those of star Lynn Redgrave, who plays Myrtle the Descender, the sort of self-deluded Southern belle Williams specialized in. What she's deluded about is the nature of her quickie marriage to falling-down drunk Jeb Thornton (James Coburn), who reluctantly gets roped into appearing alongside her on a game show for happily engaged couples so they can jointly reap the benefits of the sizable cash prize along with the array of major appliances they win. The catch is they have to get married on the program, but that actually suits Jeb because he's eager to get back to the Louisiana plantation that has been in his family for 130 years and which he would like to restore to its former glory. The obstacles to this are many, though, starting with his piss-poor health (later revealed to be late-stage terminal cancer), his inability to consummate his marriage (a must if he is to produce the heir he desires), and the fact that his biracial half-brother Chicken (Robert Hooks) is looking forward to inheriting the property as soon as Jeb expires.

If this sounds like a recipe for an overheated melodrama rife with suggestive dialogue, well, that's Tennessee Williams for you. Audiences didn't go for it, though, so Last of the Mobile Hot Shots was the last of his works to get the big-screen treatment during his lifetime. Not that this prevented him from continuing to crank out plays. Hollywood simply stopped snapping them up.
Friday, September 16th, 2016
8:52 pm
It's so wonderful to feel this far gone.
How far is too far? When John Waters filmed Multiple Maniacs in 1969 and screened it for audiences the following year, there was no such thing as "too far" for him. There was just Waters dreaming up the most outlandish, filthy, degrading, deviant, and borderline pornographic things to put on screen and getting his friends to help him realize his cracked vision. Multiple Maniacs was more of a challenge than his first feature Mondo Trasho and his early shorts had been, though, because it was shot with sync sound, so his friends -- non-actors, all of them -- had reams and reams of dialogue to memorize and attempt to keep straight in the long takes Waters then favored since it made his job easier in the editing room. Even then, enough flubbed lines and garbled words makes their way into the final product that it's clear Waters knew he couldn't afford to be a perfectionist with the limited film stock at his disposal. (Along with his sound test, the improvised ten-minute short The Diane Linkletter Story, Multiple Maniacs was the last film Waters shot in black and white before switching to color for Pink Flamingos.)

Prefiguring The Blair Witch Project by three decades, the titular maniacs all go by their real names -- or their stage name in the case of Divine, who tops the bill as Lady Divine, whose Cavalcade of Perversion attracts gawkers from straight society so they can be robbed blind, although if Divine had her way they would all be killed instead of just one or two of them. Attended by her boyfriend, barker Mr. David (David Lochary), and bare-chested bodyguard, Divine runs roughshod over everyone around her with the sole exception of her daughter Cookie (Cookie Mueller), with whom she's staying while the Cavalcade is in Baltimore. Meanwhile, Mr. David is two-timing her with blonde floozy Bonnie (Mary Vivian Pearce's childhood nickname), a sexually voracious hanger-on who wants to perform unspecified acts with him. Then there's Mink Stole as Mink, the Religious Whore, who single-handedly converts Divine to lesbianism by performing an act on her that is specified but must be seen to be understood. And making her auspicious screen debut is Edith Massey as a friendly neighborhood bartender who doubles as the Virgin Mary during the low-rent recreation of the Stations of the Cross that probably did more to earn Multiple Maniacs its X rating than anything else in the film. And that includes the scene where Divine is raped by a giant lobster while the rest of the cast lies dead on the floor around her. That, as one might imagine, needs to be seen to be believed.
Thursday, September 15th, 2016
8:51 pm
This area has a history of things happening that no one likes to talk about.
Like Eyes Wide Shut, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez's The Blair Witch Project is a film I saw when it came out in the summer of 1999, but haven't gone back to until now. The occasion was the release of Blair Witch, Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett's belated sequel, which is directly tied to it and acts as if the 2000 cash-in Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 never happened. The Project definitely did, though, and its influence continues to this day, even if it did need a boost from Paranormal Activity, which proved a full decade later that audiences were prepared to embrace other cruddy-looking, artlessly shot found-footage horror films.
Covering eight days in the lives of three film students -- director Heather Donahue, cameraman Joshua Leonard, and sound man Michael Williams, all of whom go by their real names -- Project starts off innocently enough with them interviewing residents of Burkittsville, Maryland, about their infamous local legend. Things get hairy in a hurry, though, when the three of them head out into Black Hills Forest in search of a few landmarks to film (one of which, ominously enough, is named Coffin Rock) and find themselves unable to leave. Toggling between Heather's consumer-grade video camera and the 16mm film camera Joshua lugs around, the footage edited together by Myrick and Sánchez builds in intensity as the days drag on and nerves get frayed, right up until the moment when there's nobody left to shoot anything. The slim possibility of one of them still being alive, though, is what Wingard and Barrett's sequel hinges on.
Set 20 years after the events of the first -- and, as far as anyone should be concerned, only -- film, Blair Witch is centered on James (James Allen McCune, the only actor who uses his own name), the brother of Heather who somehow gets it is in his head that she might still be out there, and Lisa (Callie Hernandez), who's making a film about him for her documentary class. Wingard and Barrett double the number of unwary campers and triple the number of females by making two other couples go into Black Hills Forest with them. The first is James's best friend Peter (Brandon Scott) and his girl Ashley (Corbin Reid), who cuts the sole of her foot while crossing a creek early on, proving it never pays to cross a body of water in a Blair Witch movie. The second is Lane (Wes Robinson), the weirdo local who got James's hopes up by posting a video online that appears to show Heather alive, if not entirely well, and his girl Talia (Valorie Curry), who shares with him the burden of delivering much of the film's exposition. They don't get the nifty earpiece cameras that the other four sport, though, meaning none of them have to carry the burden of being the one who spends the majority of the film behind the camera constantly being told to turn it off.

Since they doubled the size of the cast, it's only right that Wingard and Barrett cut the time frame in half, compressing the action into four days, including one that is essentially a test of Lisa's cameras and a drone. The drone, incidentally, is just one of the pieces of modern technology that finds a way to fail them. (See also: their GPS, which sends them walking in a big circle just like Heather's compass did in the first film when they try to find their way back to the car.) There's also a knowing jab at the genre's dependence on jump scares when, after one, Lisa asks, "Would everyone stop doing that?" Spoiler: everyone does not. Jump scares aside, though, this is an effective chiller and a worthy follow-up to the original film.
11:55 am
I'm assuming they've come a long way since we were kids.
Every time I think I've had my fill of found-footage horror films, another one manages to sucker me into watching it. Such is the case with 2014's The Houses October Built, the fictionalized remake of a 2011 documentary of the same name made by the same director and cast. The doc examined the phenomena of haunted houses and similar attractions that pop up across the country every fall. The feature takes the form of a tour of same as five friends -- co-writer/director Bobby Roe, co-writer/producer Zack Andrews, story contributor Jeff Larson, Bobby's brother Mikey Roe, and token girl Brandy Schaefer -- hit the road in an RV with the goal of squeezing as many haunts as possible into the week leading up to Halloween. Their trip is confined to the neighboring states of Texas and Louisiana, though, so it's nowhere near as comprehensive as it's made out to be at the outset.

As is par for the course with these things, a lot of time is eaten up by meandering conversations and stray moments either caught on the fly or scripted by Roe, Andrews, and co-screenwriter Jason Zada (who went on to direct The Forest). Along the way, we learn one or two things about each of the participants -- save for Bobby, who remains kind of a blank slate throughout. Mikey has a beard and is afraid of spiders. Jeff is a health nut. Brandy is claustrophobic. (How do we know? Because at one point she says, "You know I'm claustrophobic.") And Zack, the one in charge of their itinerary, is obsessed with finding a legendary "extreme" haunt that changes its location every year and is put on by a group called The Blue Skeleton. Their idea of viral marketing -- breaking into the RV one night to film them while they're sleeping and posting the video online -- is disturbing enough that it would deter most reasonable people, but not our crew, which continues following the trail of breadcrumbs leading to the masked maniacs that have been keeping tabs on them in various guises -- a psychotic clown, a cracked porcelain doll, the "Feaster Bunny" -- the whole time. Sheesh, you'd almost think their fates were sealed right from the start.
Wednesday, September 14th, 2016
2:54 pm
You don't have to go this far just to kill someone.
I've only seen two of his films so far -- first 2001's Pulse, now 1997's Cure -- but I have come to the realization that Kiyoshi Kurosawa doesn't mess around. Apart from messing with his audiences and keeping them perpetually off-balance, I mean. He does the same thing with his protagonist, police detective Takabe (Kôji Yakusho), who doesn't take long to start cracking under the pressure when a rash of unmotivated and seemingly unconnected murders breaks out in his city. At the same time, Kurosawa introduces aimless amnesiac Mamiya (Masato Hagiwara), who has some sort of effect on the people he encounters because if they talk to him long enough they wind up committing the crimes that keep landing in Takabe's lap.

One of the mysteries that Kurosawa preserves for the entire length of Cure is whether Mamiya is genuinely unable to remember anything about himself, where's he's been, or even who he's talking to or where he is at any given moment. The alternative is that he merely uses this as a pose to get people to lower their guard around him. "I want to hear more about you," he frequently says after enough questions have been lobbed in his direction. "Tell me more about yourself." Takabe's psychiatrist pal Sakuma (Tsuyoshi Ujiki) has it right when he tells the harried cop to back off. "Don't get into it with him," Sakuma warns. "You'll just get angry." Or worse.

Just as Mamiya uses misdirection to catch people off-guard, so too does Kurosawa, as in the way he opens the film with an unidentified woman (Anna Nakagawa) reading a passage from Bluebeard. Putting the book aside, she says, "I know how the story ends," but this isn't foreshadowing in the usual sense because it's shortly revealed that she's Fumie, the wife of Takabe, and she has unexplained memory lapses of her own. (As if he doesn't have enough to contend with already.) In the end, the viewer is left with more questions than they had going in and none answered to their full satisfaction. They will, however, learn that it's never a good sign when a character says "It's over" when there's still 40 minutes left to go in the film they're in.
Tuesday, September 13th, 2016
11:59 am
How did I let you talk me into this?
That a film about a serial killer called Malevolence is a nasty piece of work isn't terribly surprising. That writer/producer/director/co-editor/composer Stevan Mena lifts shots, motifs, and bits of score wholesale from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Halloween isn't, either. What is surprising is how effective the 2004 film still manages to be. The killer spending half of its running time lurking around in a white hood he commandeered from a dumbass bank robber is a bonus.

It all starts in 1989, when a six-year-old boy abducted from his home some months earlier is forced to bear witness to a young woman's violent murder at the hands of a psychopath whose face is never shown. The action then jumps forward a decade to show the lead-up to and aftermath of a poorly planned bank robbery pulled off by three criminals in Halloween masks and one in a white hood who is evidently the mastermind. This is Kurt (Richard Glover, later of Ben Wheatley's A Field in England), who has hooked up with fellow hardened criminal Max (Keith Chambers) and two amateurs -- Max's sister Marylin (Heather Magee) and her husband Julian (Brandon Johnson), who apparently owes a lot of money to the sort of people one doesn't want to be in debt to.
During the robbery, Max gets shot in the abdomen (shades of Reservoir Dogs) and dies on the way to the house where they're to divide the loot, meaning the others are now looking at a three-way split, but Kurt seems intent on stiffing his partners one way or another. On top of that, he complicates matters by taking a minivan-driving softball mom (top-billed Samantha Dark, playing a character named Samantha) and her daughter (Courtney Bertolone, playing a character named -- wait for it -- Courtney) hostage and forcing them to drive him to the abandoned house where the split is to take place. He does a shit job of tying Courtney up, though, and gets himself killed by an unseen assailant when the girl escapes and he chases her to a nearby derelict farm where Mena ratchets up the Texas Chain Saw-like foreboding. This is also the point where the killer dons his white hood, which now understandably has some spattered blood on it.

Meanwhile, Julian and Marylin arrive hours late to the rendezvous, having taken the time to bury Max, and find the still-bound Samantha and a paltry $40,000, but no Kurt, leading to many recriminations between the bickering couple while the hooded killer lurks nearby, waiting for his chance to strike. This comes when Julian goes off in search of Kurt, leaving the unsympathetic Marylin to her grisly and not entirely unearned fate. Upon his return, Julian proves he's not a bad guy by untying Samantha and helping her look for Courtney, but their happy reunion is short-lived since the hooded killer is intent on recreating the opening scene with the girl and her mother. No points for guessing who he turns out to be.
Monday, September 12th, 2016
12:06 pm
Whatever you are doing, somebody else is paying for it.
When I saw Steven Spielberg's Munich on its initial release in 2005, all I knew about its inciting incident was what I gleaned from the film itself. Now, with the TV movie and Academy Award-winning documentary under my belt, I have a greater understanding of the anguish felt by Israelis at the time and the desire for reprisals against those who planned the kidnapping and execution of eleven of their people at the 1972 Olympic Games. The Mossad agent placed in charge of the four-man team tasked with tracking them down and eliminating them is Avner (Eric Bana), an expectant father who's given eleven names, access to the funds they need to accomplish their objective, and next to no oversight.

Avner's men, who have been hand-picked by his case officer (Geoffrey Rush), are soldiers young (Daniel Craig) and old (Ciarán Hinds), a toy-maker-turned-bomb-maker (Mathieu Kassovitz), and an antiques dealer with a sideline in forging documents (Hanns Zischler). They wouldn't have any targets to speak of, though, without the information fed to them by their apolitical French contact (Mathieu Amalric) and his father (Michael Lonsdale), who make no bones about selling their intelligence to the highest bidder. No wonder Avner gets paranoid when, after they've crossed six names off their list, some of his men start getting crossed off somebody else's.

What galvanizes Munich and keeps its nearly three-hour running time from feeling like a slog is its tight focus on the mission and how it eats away at Avner's resolve the longer it goes on. Screenwriters Tony Kushner and Eric Roth even handle his increasingly strained relationship with his wife (Ayelet Zurer) in such a way that their scenes aren't a drag on the film as a whole. And the decision to parcel out the details of the attack in Munich was a wise one as it emphasizes just how much it comes to haunt both Avner's dreams and waking hours. Similarly, this may partially be a function of the fact that I last saw this on the big screen, but the Twin Towers loom a lot larger in my memory of the final shot than they do in the actual film. I guess Spielberg was being subtler than I've been giving him credit for.
Saturday, September 10th, 2016
2:36 pm
Bet you never seen nothing like that before.
Watching 1959's The Alligator People so soon after Roger Corman's The Undead, it's possible to think it's going to be more past-life regression hokum since it opens with a doctor placing a woman under hypnosis to prove something extraordinary to a colleague, but this is only being done so she can be made to recall repressed memories from her own life. And who can blame Joyce Webster (Beverly Garland, as much of a force of nature as she always is), whose husband left her in a lurch on the night of their wedding, forcing her to spend months tracking him down to the isolated Louisiana plantation he once called home? As she recounts the details of her turbulent marriage to plane crash survivor Paul Webster (Richard Crane), it becomes abundantly clear that they were never destined to rise above it all and live happily ever after.
Ominously, yet not surprisingly given that this was the '50s, Joyce's only companion when she's dropped off at the Bayou Landing train station is a trunk containing Cobalt 60 which is bound for the same destination she is -- the Cypresses. They both hitch a lift in the truck of one-handed good old boy Manon (Lon Chaney, Jr.), who has a personal vendetta against all alligators. (His key line: "I ain't never gonna stop shooting gators.") Meanwhile, his employer, Mrs. Hawthorne (Frieda Inescort), appears to be allergic to house guests and only allows Joyce to stay the night provided she doesn't leave her room and is on the first train out in the morning. Joyce knows something fishy is going on, though, even without being privy to the furtive phone calls between Mrs. Hawthorne and Dr. Sinclair (George Macready), a scientist working in the vicinity whose employees -- all strapping young men in tight shirts that show off their muscles -- need to be reminded that his patients "are people. You don't handle them like animals." (He does, however, approve of using a "sun ray" to calm them down when they get riled up and has them clad in all-white outfits that obscure their faces to depersonalize them.)
Joyce's suspicions are confirmed that night when she hears someone playing piano in the house and, while investigating, scares them off, not realizing it's Paul, who's keeping his scaly appearance from her, but director Roy Del Ruth (making his penultimate feature) gives him a good closeup right away, showing off Ben Nye and Dick Smith's decent makeup work. Later on, after Mrs. Hawthorne has come clean, Joyce sees Paul again and runs after him, but has to be rescued from the swamp's deadly denizens by Manon, only to have to be rescued from her rescuer when his idea of how she should thank him is even slimier than the creatures she was saved from. In the end, everything comes down to a risky experiment combining x-rays and gamma radiation that totally fails to cure Paul -- unless of course Dr. Sinclair's goal was to give him the head of an alligator, in which case, mission accomplished, Doc.
Friday, September 9th, 2016
8:48 pm
I'm not sure what you think you're doing, but you don't belong here.
In the summer of 1999, I saw two films that felt more like homework than things I was meant to enjoy. The first was George Lucas's The Phantom Menace, which I've never been compelled to revisit for any reason. The second was Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, which I knew would merit a second look at some point. Seventeen years later, that point has come. This time, though, the main thing I homed in on in Kubrick's adaptation (with co-screenwriter Frederic Raphael) of Arthur Schnitzler's Traumnovelle was not its evocation of dreams, but rather the procession of kisses that runs through the first half of the film and what they have to say about the kissers and the kissed.

Tellingly, the first two are the only ones that pass between protagonist Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) and his wife of nine years, unemployed art gallery manager Alice (Nicole Kidman, Cruise's wife of eight years at the time of the film's release and soon to be the ex-Mrs. Cruise), and they're dispensed with in the first five minutes. They're also the most chaste in the whole film. The first is a kiss on the neck delivered by Bill while they're getting ready to go out to a Christmas party given by one of his patients, the obscenely wealthy Victor (Sydney Pollack), to whom many spoils have gone. The second is a light peck on the cheek as they part ways at said party -- Alice to be hit on by a suave Hungarian who chivalrously kisses her hand, Bill to be chatted up by two models. Even mildly inebriated, Alice is capable of disengaging from her admirer before things can get out of hand, but the easily flummoxed Bill has to be rescued from temptation -- and not for the last time -- when Victor needs his help with a hooker who almost ODs on him.

The next day, after a casual pot-smoking session with Alice unexpectedly morphs into a serious discussion about fidelity that upends Bill's assumptions about their marriage, he's called away again, this time to the home of a longtime patient who has died so he can comfort the man's daughter, Marion (Marie Richardson), who responds by passionately kissing him on the lips and follows that up with a hysterical declaration of love that he's in the midst of deflecting when her fiancé arrives, giving Bill the opening he needs to extricate himself. Shortly thereafter, he's taunted by a group of homophobic college kids and, as if to assert his heterosexuality, allows himself to be lured into the home of a hooker named Domino (Vinessa Shaw) who promises to show him a good time for $150, but they barely get to first base (the first kiss on the lips that he instigates, by the by) before a call from Alice to his mobile phone kills the mood. (The subsequent reveal that Domino has tested positive for HIV turns this into a literal "saved by the bell" situation.)

Instead of halting Bill's nocturnal odyssey, Alice's call merely short-circuits one potentially tragic transaction in time for him to have a chance encounter his old med school pal, Nick Nightingale (Todd Field, future director of In the Bedroom and Little Children), a jazz pianist who lets slip some tantalizing details about a debauched gathering at which he is to perform blindfolded later that night. Determined to crash the party, Bill shells out some serious scratch to acquire the costume he needs to gain entry -- a tuxedo, black hooded cloak, and mask -- but doesn't get to see much before he's singled out by a naked woman who follows their masked kiss (by far, the film's steamiest) with an admonition to get the hell out that he blithely ignores. Sure enough, it isn't long before he's exposed (literally, since he's forced to unmask himself) and subject to expulsion, but his attempts to retrace his steps the next day, in defiance of multiple warnings to leave well enough alone, only place him in more danger. When he ducks into a coffee shop to get away from an obtrusive stalker, he seems to take no notice that the front-page headline of the New York Post he's idly picked up reads "LUCKY TO BE ALIVE." Turns out he's also lucky to have a wife as forgiving as Alice, who knows precisely what they need to do to repair the rift in their relationship.
Wednesday, September 7th, 2016
1:00 pm
You're only as good as the people you're with.
Just in time for me to not be able to see his latest, Free Fire, at the Toronto International Film Festival, I have caught up with Ben Wheatley's first feature, 2009's Down Terrace. A strong indicator that he's always been a talent to watch, it's about a Brighton crime family that comes apart at the seams over the course of a fortnight when patriarch Bill (Robert Hill) and his son Karl (Robin Hill, also Wheatley's co-writer and editor) are released from police custody after four months, having been acquitted of whatever charges they were brought up on. They're welcomed home by wife and mother Maggie (Julia Deakin) and two of their trusted associates who have been keeping things humming while they were inside, but the nagging question of who betrayed them eats away at father and son, leading them to question which of their associates should be trusted.

It all starts with a nudge from David (Mark Kempner), their "man on the inside," who tells Bill point blank there's a police informant in his organization. Suspicion quickly falls on the unassuming Garvey (Tony Way, later the caretaker in High-Rise), who heads for the hills (or the nearest bedroom, in which he locks himself) when he sees that professional killer Chris Pringle (Wheatley regular Michael Smiley), who has his three-year-old in tow, has been invited to his interrogation. In the end, it's Karl who gets his hands dirty, and he calls on his father's right-hand man Eric (David Schaal) to help him dispose of the body so his parents don't have to know. On top of everything else, the aimless young man has to face up to the responsibilities of impending fatherhood since his girlfriend Valda (Kerry Peacock) has revealed that she's pregnant, adding another wrinkle to the proceedings. Considering how little value this lot places upon human life, there's no guarantee the little bastard will even be carried to term.
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Craig J. Clark Watches A Lot Of Movies   About LiveJournal.com