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|Thursday, February 11th, 2016|
|Okay, let's pro/con this superhero thing.
It's no big secret that comic-book movies and I have been on the outs for a while now. As a matter of fact, the last time I felt compelled to watch one in theaters was during Obama's first term (the summer of 2012 to be exact, when The Avengers
assembled and The Dark Knight Rises
, umm, rose). Since then, I've lost touch with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I kept clear of Man of Steel
and the unnecessary Amazing Spider-Man
reboot, I've continued to ignore the X-Men
franchise, and I successfully fought off the temptation to rubberneck at Fantastic Four
. So what's the movie that got me over my superhero fatigue? Why, it's Deadpool
, and so help me, I loved every one of its 108 minutes (which is my way of saying yes, stick around for the post-credits scene; it's worth the wait).
Riotously profane and gleefully self-aware, Deadpool
is anchored by Ryan Reynolds's go-for-broke turn as ex-Special-Forces-operative-turned-low-r
evenge-seeker Wade Wilson, who helpfully introduces himself and lays out his backstory while working his way through the small army of super soldiers in the employ of his real target: Ajax (Ed Skrein), the mutant-power-enhanced baddie he holds responsible for ruining his Ryan Reynolds good looks by forcing him to "mutate or die." It's all more than a little convoluted, but director Tim Miller (making his feature debut) and screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (veterans of Zombieland
and G.I. Joe: Retaliation
) keep the exposition from weighing the film down. This is even the case when they get to the late-stage-cancer diagnosis that separates Wade from his simpatico lady-love Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) and sends him into the bowels of Ajax's mutant-farm workshop in search of a miracle cure that manages to imbue him with astonishing fast-healing powers. Coupled with his quick reflexes and well-honed fighting skills, that makes him an incredibly nimble killing machine. What it doesn't make him, however, is grateful to the sadist who tortured him until his body rebelled against him (shades of Cronenberg's The Brood
Filling out the supporting cast are T.J. Miller as Wade's best buddy Weasel, Gina Carano as Ajax's right-hand strongwoman Angel, Leslie Uggams as Wade's blind roommate Al, and the only two X-Men the producers would spring for -- scene-stealer Colossus (voiced by Stefan Kapicic) and sullen firebrand Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand). And even though he had nothing whatsoever to do with the creation of Deadpool, Stan Lee gets his requisite cameo, which is funny and surprising enough that I don't want to spoil it. Now, as Deadpool
heads into Valentine's Day weekend, bleeding heart on its sleeve, I urge anyone who's even remotely curious about it to ignore the naysayers and check it out for themselves. It's good to just have a little fun at the movies every once in a while.
|There's usually something going on here in Salt Flat.
Midway between his dip into the giallo at the start of the decade and his headlong plunge into horror at the end of it, Lucio Fulci directed 1975's Four of the Apocalypse
, one of the handful of spaghetti westerns he made during his long career. Set in Utah in the year 1873, it opens with its apocalyptic quartet -- card sharp Stubby Preston (Fabio Testi), pregnant prostitute Bunny (Lynne Frederick, soon to be Mrs. Peter Sellers), falling-down drunk Clem (Michael J. Pollard), and halfwit gravedigger Bud (Harry Baird) -- being locked up in the same jail cell to keep them out of the way while the Citizens Committee of Salt Flat dons white hoods to rid their frontier town of social undesirables and the sheriff sits idly by, letting it happen. The next morning, he provides the four of them with safe passage out of town for the nominal fee of $1,000, giving them two horses and a beat-up wagon that Stubby hopes will take them the 200 miles south to the enticingly named Sand City. Along the way, though, they run afoul of sadistic gunslinger Chaco (Tomas Milian), who imposes himself on the group and sticks around long enough to shoot some game, distribute some peyote, treat Clem like a dog, ravish Bunny while she's unconscious, and leave the others tied up to die of exposure in the desert. But before Chaco departs, Stubby vows to kill him if it's the last thing he does, and it is since Fulci and screenwriter Ennio De Concini have a few detours to send their characters down before all is said and done.
Brutal and bloody as it is, Four of the Apocalypse
benefits from an off-kilter approach to story and character development that prevents it from descending into pure nihilism. Other than the fact that they're thrown together at the start, there's little reason why a smart cookie like Stubby, a hysterical hooker like Bunny, a hopeless drunk like Clem, and a certifiable nutcase like Bud (who claims he sees dead people) would stick together as long as they do, but their loyalty to each other is ultimately what makes them endearing as individuals. (Well, maybe not Bud, who either doesn't notice or doesn't mind that everyone in the English dub seems to call him "Butt." Also, Bud's a cannibal. Not cool, Bud.) One thing that does bring the whole enterprise down a notch or two, though, is the soundtrack, which leans hard on bland country-rock songs featuring some of the most painfully literal lyrics ever written for a film. At least it served as Fulci's introduction to Fabio Frizzi, then working as part of a trio with Franco Bixio and Vince Tempera, who would go on to be a key collaborator on some of his more well-known films. Here's one, though, that deserves to be less obscure.
|Wednesday, February 10th, 2016|
|If you wish to see strange things I have the power to show them to you.
If the 1926 silent The Magician
is famous for anything, it's the three-minute sequence where the title character, a hypnotist of ladies and practitioner of alchemy, shows one of his subjects a red-tinted vision of Hell as a riotous bacchanal attended by randy, scantily clad fauns. It's an awe-inspiring sight and one that writer/director Rex Ingram, adapting W. Somerset Maugham's novel, doesn't come close to equaling. He does, however, foreshadow the sinister doings to come by making sure his establishing shot of Paris includes a couple of its famous gargoyles in the foreground.
From there, the camera descends upon the bustling Latin Quarter, where sculptor Margaret Dauncey (Alice Terry, a.k.a Mrs. Rex Ingram) has a studio. There she's hard at work on an enormous statue of a faun when a piece of it breaks off and collapses on top of her, injuring her spine. Her uncle and guardian, Dr. Porhoët (Firmin Gémier), engages American surgeon Dr. Arthur Burdon (Iván Petrovich) to operate on her -- a public event witnessed by magician Oliver Haddo (Paul Wegener, playing a role that surely would have gone to Bela Lugosi one decade later), who believes he's found just the right source of maiden's blood for the life-creating formula he's been searching for in musty alchemy texts for years. In short order, Margaret makes a full recovery and she and Arthur are engaged, but Haddo is never far away, always looking "as if he had stepped out of a melodrama." Sure enough, the first time he gets her alone, Haddo hypnotizes Margaret and doesn't release his hold on her.
Once Haddo has his hooks in Margaret, things move pretty fast. (They have to since the film is only around 80 minutes long.) First, he forces her to marry him on the eve of her planned wedding to Arthur, then whisks her away to Monte Carlo where they make a killing at the roulette tables until her jilted fiancé tracks them down. Next, Haddo sets himself up with a laboratory at an ancient sorcerer's castle while Margaret recovers at a sanatorium, which is convenient because he knows right where to pick her up when he's ready to extract her blood. That he doesn't actually get to is something of a foregone conclusion, but he gets damn close.
|Tuesday, February 9th, 2016|
|Did you ever see someone and know that they were to play a role in your life?
I strongly suspect many people who slept on Alan Rickman's A Little Chaos
when it was released last year are giving it a second look in the wake of the actor's recent passing. For his second stay in the director's chair (after 1997's The Winter Guest
), Rickman chose to shed light on King Louis XIV's court and its move to Versailles in 1682, which is contingent upon the palace being ready in time. Helping to move this endeavor along is chief landscape architect André Le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts), who at first rejects, then is persuaded to take a second look at a proposal by Sabine De Barra (Kate Winslet), whose disorderly approach to landscaping earns her the plum assignment of constructing the king's outdoor ballroom. Thrown in at the deep end, she's given a budget and deadline and expected to figure things out for herself, but that's a walk in the park compared to getting a handle on court politics.
At the center of it all, naturally, is the Sun King himself, played with a wry weariness by Rickman, who's at his best in the scene where Sabine mistakes him for his gardener. And as his brother Philippe, Stanley Tucci would be in danger of stealing the entire film out from under its ostensible leads if only he were in more of it. (As it is, he handily makes off with every scene he is in.) He certainly has no competition from Le Notre's jealous wife (Helen McCrory) or the king's mistress (Jennifer Ehle), both of whom are taken by surprise by the queen's sudden death. Then again, so is the audience since Rickman and his co-screenwriters, Alison Deegan and Jeremy Brock, don't do much to foreshadow it. Instead, they spend far more time than necessary building up to a flashback to the moment when Sabine became a widow and lost her six-year-old daughter simultaneously. Since the circumstances can easily be guessed at, they might have been better off left to the imagination. I wouldn't say the same for Sabine and André's love scene, though, since Schoenaerts isn't shy about showing off his body. Seems the king's landscaping isn't the only thing he's taken care of.
|Monday, February 8th, 2016|
One of the seminal texts about German expressionist film is Lotte H. Eisner's The Haunted Screen
, and one of the films she highlights in it (and with good reason) is 1923's Warning Shadows
. Like Murnau's The Last Laugh
, made the following year, Warning Shadows
is told without resorting to any intertitles -- and even one-ups The Last Laugh
by having no onscreen text whatsoever apart from the credits -- but co-writer/director Arthur Robison's skill as a visual storyteller, coupled with the expressive acting of his performers, ensures that the viewer can follow it with ease. Of course, it helps that the story is simplicity itself, allowing Robison and his collaborators to doodle in the margins as much as they desire.
In short, it's about a count (Fritz Kortner) whose fears that his wife (Ruth Weyher) is unfaithful aren't entirely unfounded since she's an incorrigible flirt. This she demonstrates at a dinner party they give for some friends, among them the young man (Gustav von Wangenheim) he believes is her lover. Even before he arrives, though, Robison and cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner contrive to use multiple light sources to make it appear to the count as if the countess is being manhandled by three of their other guests when, in fact, they're actually standing several feet away. As if that isn't bad enough, the last straw comes when he hires a traveling entertainer (Alexander Granach) to put on a shadow puppet show (making him kind of a one-man version of the players in Hamlet
) and sees what he thinks is his wife and her lover holding hands during the performance. This is merely a trick of the light, though, or more to the point, a trick of the blockage of light.
After fooling the count like this once, the puppeteer goes all in by hypnotizing everyone present, including the servants (one of whom is played by Fritz Rasp, soon to be The Thin Man in Lang's Metropolis
), plunging them into the "nocturnal hallucination" of the film's original subtitle. In it, the count has his worst suspicions confirmed and orders his servants to tie up his wife so he can force her admirers to stab her to death at sword-point, after which he comes to a bad end himself. It's at that point that the puppeteer breaks the trance and finishes his show. When he moves on, though, he can rest assured that he's taught a few valuable lessons about trust and fidelity.
|Sunday, February 7th, 2016|
|You're not the first person to have this happen to them before they're ready.
Early on in Bruce McDonald's new film Hellions
, there's a moment where its protagonist, 17-year-old mother-to-be Dora Vogel (Chloe Rose), cycles past a trio of kids in generic Halloween costumes poking a dead cat in the road with a stick. While these aren't the demonic trick-or-treaters that besiege her home later that night, they are a harbinger of what's to come and a clear sign that there's no such thing as childhood innocence in the world of the film, however vaguely defined it may be.
Yes, it's Halloween in a rural community that seems to consist mainly of neglected pumpkin patches. (At one point, Dora makes a crack about how the town would fall off the map if it weren't for the holiday, a comment that neither McDonald nor screenwriter Pascal Trottier -- also one of the writers on A Christmas Horror Story
-- ever bother to qualify.) Not counting the hospital-set prologue, which the film circles back to at the end, Dora is introduced kicking back in one such patch with her boyfriend Jace (Luke Bilyk), with whom she plans to meet up that night after keeping her appointment at the local clinic, where the sympathetic Dr. Henry (Rossif Sutherland) gives her the news that she's one month pregnant. Understandably, this comes as something of a shock to her, but that's nothing compared to the night of terror that awaits her when a pack of homicidal kids (or are they?) sets about terrorizing the hell out of her.
As these things go, the film's set-up isn't that bad. In fact, for a while it seems like it's going to be a variation on The Strangers
with pint-sized menaces in place of that film's older antagonists. (There are nine hellions in all, each with a distinctive look and character -- Baghead, Buckethead, Lionhead, and so on.) The trouble is it doesn't take long for things to get unreal, leading the viewer to suspect it's all a dream (a definite possibility since there's already been one such fake-out) or there's something supernatural afoot (which is backed up by Dora's unnaturally accelerated pregnancy). Even when somebody -- Robert Patrick's Officer Mike -- shows up who ostensibly knows what's going on because he went through something similar years before, he's dispensed with before he has a chance to have a real impact on the story. Then again, by the time Dora is running for her life through a field of exploding pumpkins, reality has decidedly been left far behind.
|Friday, February 5th, 2016|
|You don't go til you set things straight.
With his fourth feature, 2013's Tom at the Farm
, French-Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan tries the conventions of the thriller on for size and finds them ill-fitting. Working from a play by Michel Marc Bouchard, who collaborated on the screen adaptation, Dolan directs himself as Tom, a young gay man from Montreal who drives out to the sticks to attend the funeral of his lover, Guillaume, whose family was either unaware or in denial about his sexual orientation. At least, his emotional wreck of a mother, Agathe (Lise Roy), seems to have been blissfully ignorant about it. Her other son, Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), on the other hand, was all too aware and recognizes Tom for what he is right away. In fact, he introduces himself by ambushing Tom in his sleep -- Agathe being clueless enough to give him Guillaume's bed -- and physically threatens him if he steps out of line. The longer Tom sticks around the farm, though, the more Francis's threats become actual violence and the more oblivious Agathe has to be not to know what's going on under her own roof.
For the first hour or so, Dolan manages to build up a good head of dread, especially as Francis's attacks become more and more sexually ambiguous, but the mood is shattered when a fourth character is added to the mix and everyone starts acting so irrationally it's impossible to care how it all turns out. There are also several moments that prefigure the aspect ratio shenanigans in Mommy
where Dolan narrows the frame so the more overtly suspenseful scenes play out in closer quarters. Far from heightening the tension, though, this gimmick only serves to draw attention to itself, just as Gabriel Yared's score does whenever it flares up on the soundtrack. More than anything, this proves Dolan is still fond of his grand gestures. Now he needs to figure out what he means to say with them.
|Thursday, February 4th, 2016|
|You don't follow for a very simple reason. These guys are screwballs.
Much like the silent version of Ben-Hur
, the titular film-within-the-film in Joel & Ethan Coen's new comedy Hail, Caesar!
is subtitled "A Tale of the Christ." A costly Biblical epic being made by Capitol Pictures in the year 1951, Caesar!
is but one of the crosses being borne by Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the Head of Physical Production for the studio whose job it is to make sure its talent stays out of trouble and only gets the right kind of publicity. Some of the things that make his job difficult are the abduction of star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) by a cabal of disgruntled screenwriters, the unplanned pregnancy of Esther Williams swim-in DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), and the last-minute reassignment of laconic cowpoke Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) to a Lubitsch-like comedy of manners. Actually, the latter is more of a headache for its effete director, Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), whose protests about being saddled with the verbally challenged Hobie fall on deaf ears.
For these and numerous other reasons, Mannix finds himself at a crossroads. On one side, he's being wooed away from Capitol by Lockheed. On the other, he has to finesse not one, but two gossip columnists, identical twins Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton). Then there are the religious leaders he has to consult to make sure their Tale of the Christ won't offend anybody who believes in him. (Understandably, the rabbi on the panel -- played by a prickly Robert Picardo -- doesn't really have a horse in that race.) Toss in Frances McDormand as the studio's stalwart editor, Channing Tatum as a singing-and-dancing sailor, Jonah Hill as Mannix's go-to "professional person," Wayne Knight as a conspiratorial extra, and Peter Jason and Christopher Lambert as two of Capitol's contract directors, and you've got the makings of an overstuffed cast. Accordingly, some only show up for a scene or two before disappearing again, but that's part and parcel of mounting such a sprawling production. If the end result isn't as sharp as, say, Barton Fink
, which was laser-focused on a single character, at least it comes down more squarely on the side of those who make Tinseltown twinkle. In other words, the Coens came to praise Hollywood, not to trample it.
|I don't want to lose you. I lose everyone.
If something seems off in a Charlie Kaufman movie -- and something generally does -- it can reasonably be assumed that it's off for a purpose and that purpose will be revealed in due course. In Anomalisa
, Kaufman's first directorial effort (shared with animator Duke Johnson) since 2008's Synecdoche, New York
(not counting the pilot for How and Why
, which FX declined to pick up in 2014), what's most obviously off is that every single character apart from lethargic motivational speaker Michael Stone (David Thewlis) is voiced by a single actor, Tom Noonan (who previously played Caden Cotard's double in Synecdoche
). Male or female, young or old, onscreen or off, Noonan voices them all. Well, all with one notable exception, and when it comes along, it's easy to identify with Michael's desperate need to locate its source and keep her close.
Before that, Kaufman and Johnson paint a stark portrait of Michael's mundane existence as he flies in to Cincinnati to deliver a speech on effective customer service, a subject he's written a best-seller about but has little interest in acknowledging when he's on the receiving end of it. After checking into his hotel -- and making a brief long-distance call home to his wife and son -- Michael reaches out to Bella, an old flame with whom he flamed out spectacularly eleven years earlier. Their reunion in the hotel bar goes about as well as can be expected (which is to say not at all), but he has much better luck with Emily and Lisa, a pair of phone workers down from Akron to hear him speak. Of the two, Emily is the more vivacious, but it's the introverted Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh) that Michael invites back to his room for a nightcap. Awkward, self-deprecating, and uncomfortable in her own skin, Lisa's "miraculous voice" is music to Michael's ears, but how long he continues to hear it depends as much on him as it does on her.
Belying its modest budget -- the film was financed through Kickstarter to the tune of about $1.4 million -- Anomalisa
is expressively animated, utilizing intricately subtle stop-motion. And much like last year's Best Animated Feature nominee The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
, it has a handmade quality that helps draw out the humanity of its characters, a process aided by the sterling voice work of Thewlis, Leigh, and especially Noonan. The scene near the end where his voice creeps in underneath Lisa's may turn out to be the most horrifying thing I see all year -- short of Donald Trump getting elected president. With luck, that will remain in the realm of fantasy, though.
|Wednesday, February 3rd, 2016|
|This happened. It's history. It's historic.
Buster Keaton now has a serious challenger for the title of The Great Stone Face. His name is Adi Rukun and he is the subject of Joshua Oppenheimer's powerful documentary The Look of Silence
. Made as a companion film to 2012's The Act of Killing
flips the script by following the brother of one of the victims of Indonesia's anti-communist purge of the mid-'60s as he confronts former death squad members and their commanders, all of whom continue to live in close proximity to the families of those they killed decades earlier. An optometrist by trade, Adi gives some of them eye exams, but he's more interested in making them see how monstrous their actions -- which they gleefully bragged about when previously interviewed by Oppenheimer -- clearly were.
"The past is past" is a refrain that comes up again and again -- both from the perpetrators and one of their victims who managed to escape from the Komando Aksi and survive. The unlucky ones, like Adi's brother Ramli, suffered mightily from the time they were rounded up and placed in prison camps by the military to when they were taken to the Snake River and executed by their fellow civilians. "We did this because America taught us to hate communists," says one, and as the classroom scene included by Oppenheimer illustrates, anti-communist propaganda is still the cornerstone of the state's hold on its citizens. This is why it's not surprising that, as Adi works his way up the ranks of those he holds responsible for Ramli's death, some of them start accusing him
of being a communist and even make veiled death threats.
Periodically, Oppenheimer returns to Adi's family -- both his elderly parents and his young children -- whenever he reports the latest bombshells. (Tellingly, the one time his wife appears in the film it is to warn him about the danger he's putting himself in by continuing to dredge up the past.) As much as he tries to put on an outward show of dispassion, though, Adi's mask starts to slip when he sits down with a killer and his daughter/caregiver, who's floored by some of the things her senile father reveals -- like his practice of drinking the blood of his victims to keep from going crazy -- and promptly apologizes on his behalf. "It's not your fault that your father is a murderer," he tells her, but that's probably cold comfort.
|Tuesday, February 2nd, 2016|
|People deceive themselves here, don't you think?
Alan Rudolph directed two features before 1976's Welcome to L.A.
, but it's a safe bet this is the first one he considers "an Alan Rudolph film." Made under the aegis of producer Robert Altman, who previously employed him as an assistant director (on The Long Goodbye
, California Split
, and Nashville
) and screenwriter (on Buffalo Bill and the Indians
and an aborted adaptation of Breakfast of Champions
) and provided him with the lion's share of his cast, Welcome to L.A.
is a film about faulty connections and broken relationships in the city of the one-night stands. That phrase, by the way, is also the title of one of the tunes written by songwriter Carroll Barber (Keith Carradine, sporting a ridiculous beard) for pop star Eric Wood (Nashville
vet Richard Baskin, the film's actual composer and songwriter) to record. Rudolph holds back Carroll's entrance, though, in order to introduce the array of neurotics he'll be interacting with (and, in some cases, bedding) once he arrives in the city of angels.
By far, the most neurotic of the bunch is Karen (Geraldine Chaplin), who spends her days chattering away to herself while being driven around in taxis, much to the consternation of her career-minded husband Ken (Harvey Keitel), who works under Carroll's father Carl (Denver Pyle, soon to find fame as Uncle Jesse on The Dukes of Hazzard
) and helped turn the Barber family dairy into major corporation, which Carl would like to pass on to his disinterested son. Meanwhile, one of Carroll's sexual conquests is his old man's much younger lover, photographer Nona (Lauren Hutton, who later appeared in A Wedding
), but the one who really gets hung up on him is Ann (Sally Kellerman), the Realtor who sets him up at the house where he stays for the duration of his visit, as arranged by his agent Susan (Viveca Lindfors, who also showed up in A Wedding
), with whom he had a fling some years earlier, so he doesn't feel the need to revisit it. That just leaves the spacey Linda (Sissy Spacek, who was immediately tapped to be one of Altman's 3 Women
), who's hired to be Carroll's frequently topless maid and is pursued by Ann's husband, Jack (John Considine).
Considering how much time Rudolph's characters spend hopping in and out of each other's beds, it's worth noting that he chose to set the film at Christmas, with everything coming to a head on Christmas Eve. Guess that means none of them are terribly concerned about whether they're being naughty or nice, although most of them get a moment where they look directly into the camera, so apparently they're fully aware they're being watched -- and judged.
|Sunday, January 31st, 2016|
|What's been done before can be done again.
In order to fully appreciate a film like Robinson Crusoe on Mars
, it's necessary to take into account when it was made and how much was known about space travel and the surface of Mars in 1964. At the time, NASA was still five years away from landing a man on the moon, so a trip to Mars wasn't even on the proverbial drawing board. That didn't prevent screenwriter Ib Melchior from imagining what one might be like, though. (In fact, Robinson
was his second run at such a journey since he had made his directorial debut with The Angry Red Planet
five years earlier.) Placed in the hands of science-fiction veteran Byron Haskin, one decade removed from his screen version of H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds
, the scenario (reworked by John Higgins after Melchior left the project) turns Daniel Defoe's shipwrecked plantation owner into astronaut Kit Draper (Paul Mantee), who's stranded on Mars after his mission to orbit the planet gets scuttled by a passing meteor that forces him to use his escape capsule. His commanding officer (played by a pre-Batman
Adam West) takes the next one, but doesn't survive the landing, forcing Draper to have to figure the whole "surviving on an inhospitable planet" by himself.
Much like Mark Watney, space pirate, would half a century later, Draper has to solve the vexing problems of getting enough oxygen and water. (That the Mars of the film has a partially breathable atmosphere is one of many disbeliefs that must be suspended, but it does allow Draper to quickly divest himself of his helmet and eventually his entire space suit.) Soon after he licks the latter problem -- with the assistance of Mona, the ship's woolly monkey and his only living companion for the first half of the film -- Draper also stumbles onto an unprecedented food source. The turning point comes, though, when he's alerted to the presence of other visitors to the planet and rescues an escaped slave, eventually dubbed Friday (Victor Lundin), who takes his sweet time revealing that he's capable of speech. That's understandable under the circumstances, even if the humanoid's Prince Valiant haircut is not. Considering how blast-happy Friday's masters' spacecraft are, it's a safe bet they didn't put up with any talking within the ranks of their slaves.
|The agency can't afford to let a guy like you get away.
The themes of freedom and trust are paramount in the 1985 spy thriller The Falcon and the Snowman
, based on an actual case from the Nixon and Ford years by way of a nonfiction book by Robert Lindsey, adapted for the screen by Steven Zaillian. First seen leaving the seminary for reasons he keeps to himself, Chris Boyce (Timothy Hutton) values freedom above all else, so when his father (an ex-FBI man) pulls some strings to get him a job at a CIA contractor and he catches wind of some of the agency's shadier dealings abroad, he figures the thing to do is to start leaking some of the top secret documents at his disposal to the Soviets. Unwisely, the person he trusts to act as his courier is childhood friend and drug dealer Daulton Lee (Sean Penn), who doesn't need more excuses to be paranoid since he's already a fugitive after being caught in a drug bust.
Tailoring a Watergate-era tale for a post-Morning in America world, Zaillian and director John Schlesinger hit all the expected marks, but fail to give the material the shape it needs to make the actions of its protagonists understandable. Daulton is motivated by money and fueled by heroin, which makes him jittery even at the best of times, and Chris remains a cipher throughout, the unperturbed patriot whose act of defiance has geopolitical repercussions he doesn't even begin to contemplate. Then there are the personal costs as he winds up sabotaging his relationships with his parents (Pat Hingle and Joyce Van Patten) and new girlfriend Lana (Lori Singer), who isn't put off when she finds out they met in a pet shop because he was buying birds to feed his falcon. (Which means yes, Schlesinger does lean hard on shots of Chris's falcon Fawkes -- named after Guy, of course -- both hooded and in flight to reinforce his themes.)
As for Daulton, he's already estranged from his parents (Richard Dysart and Priscilla Pointer) and brother David (Chris Makepeace), so his most meaningful relationship in the film is with Alex (David Suchet), his contact at the Russian embassy in Mexico City who quickly becomes weary of his amateur-hour antics (as does Chris, who unsuccessfully tries to cut him out of the loop). That there's no way out for either of them is telegraphed from the get-go -- the poster even includes a shot of the two of them in prison jumpsuits and chains after they've been caught and convicted. It's a pity the journey to that forgone conclusion isn't more engaging.
|Friday, January 29th, 2016|
|I want every detail. No matter how insignificant.
It's shocking to think Bernardo Bertolucci was barely in his 20s when he was given the opportunity to direct his first feature, 1962's The Grim Reaper
. A project he inherited from Pier Paolo Pasolini, who came up with the initial story but passed on directing it to make Mamma Roma
instead, The Grim Reaper
was also Bertolucci's first crack at screenwriting, in tandem with Sergio Citti, who subsequently worked as an assistant director on a number of Pasolini's films and collaborated on the screenplay for Salò
. As for this film, it revolves around the investigation into the murder of a prostitute, which the police are able to connect to about half a dozen men who may or may not have seen something the night she was killed. The trouble is, they were all up to no good, so none of them have good alibis.
The first one they drag in is young thief Canticchia (Francesco Ruiu), followed by bleach-blonde pimp Bostelli (Alfredo Leggi), slack-jawed soldier Teodoro (Allen Midgette), clog-wearing "strange one" Natalino (Renato Troiani), and teenage layabout Pepito (Romano Labate), one half of a team with fellow miscreant Francolicchio (Alvaro D'Ercole), who's better at evading the police than he is. As they go through their stories in turn, Bertolucci shows how reality deviates from what they say under interrogation and how they all converge in the park at the same time. He also periodically checks in with the soon-to-be-dead prostitute (Wanda Rocci), whose efforts to doll herself up end up being wasted on her eventual killer. She's far from the only female victimized in the film, though, which makes a solid case against heterosexual males of all stripes. (Tellingly, its one homosexual character, played by Silvio Laurenzi, is the sole witness who steps forward to ID the perpetrator.)
|Thursday, January 28th, 2016|
|No one is paying attention.
A film explicitly designed to angry up the blood, The Big Short
takes a hard, scabrously funny look at the 2008 collapse of the housing market, largely through the eyes of some of the financial analysts and fund managers who saw it coming and engineered a way to make a killing off it. Now, ordinarily, that would make them out to be the villains of the piece, but the way it's framed by director Adam McKay and his co-writer Charles Rudolph, working from Michael Lewis's nonfiction book The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine
, the real bad guys are the bankers and mortgage brokers whose actions fouled up the system in the first place.
A formally adventurous film replete with bold stylistic touches including freeze-frames, abrupt edits, and kinetic cross-cutting, The Big Short
has the look and feel -- courtesy of cinematographer Barry Ackroyd and editor Hank Corwin -- of a latter-day Soderbergh film. (As others have noted, this may be somewhat close to what Soderbergh's scuttled version of Moneyball
, also based on a book by Lewis, might have turned out like.) The most effective trick up McKay's sleeve, however, is how frequently he has his characters break the fourth wall to comment on the situation and their own actions. They also act as the film's narrators, exposing how they saw what nobody else was willing to look at -- or even acknowledge was possible -- and figured out how to exploit it. In a weird way, this almost makes the viewer want to root for the financial collapse to happen so they can be proven right and rewarded for having such keen foresight (or, in the case of a few of them, dumb luck). America loves its underdogs, even the ones that profit from the grave misfortune of others. (That most of them feel pretty bad about it helps, too.)
Also helping the medicine go down easier is the canny casting of Christian Bale, Steve Carell, and Ryan Gosling as three of the number-crunchers that foresee the fatal flaw in the financial system and producer Brad Pitt as a retired trader who helps two small-time investors (i.e they only have $30 million to play with instead of $300) get in on the game. And when the rules they're playing by get too hard to follow, McKay throws to the likes of Margot Robbie (in a bubble bath), Anthony Bourdain (in his kitchen), and economist Richard H. Thaler and Selena Gomez (at a blackjack table) to make the explanations more engaging. There comes a point, though, where even the smartest guys in the room have no idea what's happening or why. They just know that ultimately it's not going to be good for the economy or the millions of Americans primed to lose their homes, their savings, their retirements, and their faith in the system. For many, that's not likely to return any time soon.
|Real life is the life of dreams.
After co-directing his debut feature Variety Lights
in 1950, Federico Fellini struck out on his own with 1952's The White Sheik
, which follows a pair of newlyweds who have very different ideas about how they're going to spend their honeymoon in Rome. Starting with their arrival by train from Viterbo, husband Ivan (Leopoldo Trieste) has their trip planned down to the minute, including visits with his family and an audience with the Pope arranged by his uncle, who works at the Vatican. His wife Wanda (Brunella Bovo), on the other hand, is dying to meet her favorite fumetti actor, Fernando Rivoli (Alberto Sordi) -- the White Sheik himself -- and sneaks out while Ivan is napping so she can call on the comic strip's publisher. To her delight and bewilderment, however, she's whisked away to the location 26 miles outside of the city where the next installment is being photographed and is even drafted into playing one of the Sheik's harem girls.
Meanwhile, Ivan has to put on a show for his relatives, making various excuses as to why Wanda isn't joining them. Each time he breaks away to call the hotel, though, he's dismayed to hear she hasn't returned, which is why he ends the night by getting drunk and meeting a pair of prostitutes out on the street. (One of them, Giulietta Masina's Cabiria, has a such a buoyant personality that it's no wonder Fellini built an entire film around her five years later
.) Still, as dark as things get -- Wanda is even abandoned by the crew and, after hitching a ride back to the city, makes a feeble suicide attempt -- they look a whole lot better in the light of day when husband and wife are reunited, just in time for their face-saving audience with the Pope.
|Let there be no place where this man can hide or rest in safety.
While looking up Stranger on the Prowl
last night, I stumbled across 1952's Hunted
(retitled The Stranger in Between
for U.S. release), which stars Joseph Losey's collaborator-in-waiting Dirk Bogarde as a sailor who goes on the run with a small boy after committing a crime of passion. Directed by Charles Crichton, just coming off Ealing's The Lavender Hill Mob
at the time, Hunted
gets off to a running start as six-year-old Robbie (Jon Whiteley) encounters Bogarde's Chris Lloyd in the cellar of a bombed-out building, having just killed his wife's lover. (Funny how England's bombed-out buildings look a lot like the ones in Italy.) Fearing the boy will give him away, Chris abducts Robbie, but the kid doesn't put up much of a fight since he's afraid to go home for reasons screenwriter Jack Whittingham initially only hints at.
Right from the start, Chris is in a desperate situation. Low on money, he would have a hard enough time feeding himself, let alone a growing boy, and forget about cigarettes. ("He can't get far," says one of the cops on the case. "He must be skint.") After Robbie is unable to retrieve the money he has socked away in his flat, Chris sneaks past the police that have it staked out and confronts his unfaithful wife (Elizabeth Sellars), who doesn't seem too broken up about her lover's demise. From there, the two fugitives head north so Chris can lay low with his estranged brother, but the reception he gets when they finally arrive is chilly at best. Seems news of his exploits has preceded him, most notably that kidnapping has been added to the list of charges against him. As in Stranger on the Prowl
, though, if those in authority only heard the abductee out, they would get a completely different picture of the situation.
|Wednesday, January 27th, 2016|
|There are no green fields, no pastures. Life is hard. Life makes certain demands.
With his Hollywood career in a shambles after ducking HUAC, Joseph Losey landed in Italy at the end of 1951. There, armed with a screenplay by blacklisted writer Ben Barzman, who co-wrote The Boy with Green Hair
and later penned Time Without Pity
, he took a stab at neorealism with 1952's Imbarco a mezzanotte
, released in the States one year later as Stranger on the Prowl
with Losey's and Barzman's names scrubbed from the credits. (They've been restored by Olive Films for its video release, but judging by the image and sound quality, they're the only things that have been.) The result is not what anyone would call top-drawer Losey, but it's telling that the first film he made abroad after fleeing from the blacklist is about a vagabond in Italy on the run from the authorities.
To be fair, Paul Muni's unnamed drifter is
wanted for murder, having accidentally killed a shopkeeper, so the authorities are somewhat justified there. Introduced getting booted off a ship on which he's stowed away, Muni tries to raise the 25,000 lire he needs to buy passage on it by selling his gun -- his only possession of any value -- only to be told by one of his prospects that "After every war, guns are cheap." On a parallel track, eight-year-old schemer Giacomo (Vittorio Manunta) is desperate to go to the circus that's rolled into town, but his mother (Luisa Rossi) can barely scrape by doing other people's laundry, so the 50 lire he needs is out of question. Then Giacomo loses the milk money she gives him playing marbles, prompting him to steal the milk from the same shopkeeper Muni strangles minutes later, prompting them both to flee from the police. In his ignorance, though, Giacomo thinks they're only after him and that this strange foreigner is very generously helping him evade them.
There's a third thread about bakery girl Angela (Joan Lorring), who's head over heels in love with a cyclist who barely knows she's alive, but she doesn't tie into the main plot until she comes home to find Muni hiding out in her apartment, having been deposited there by Giacomo. Whatever reprieve this earns him is short-lived, though, since the police soon have the block surrounded, but it's time enough for Giacomo to learn the truth about his new friend. Too bad nobody else is willing the hear him out.
|Tuesday, January 26th, 2016|
|What is this person's problem?
Having skipped it when it was released in theaters last April -- even though I would have been able to see it for free since that's when I started working for one myself -- I have finally caught up with Unfriended
since I was able to get it from my library, which means yes, I got to see it for free.. A relatively painless way to pass 77 minutes -- plus six minutes of credits -- Unfriended
takes place on the one-year anniversary of a Fresno high school student's suicide. More to the point, it takes place on the laptop screen of one of the dead girl's former friends, who spends the entire film on Skype with her boyfriend and a few of their mutual friends, all of whom are targeted one by one by some mysterious force that causes them to off themselves in various laughable ways. (My favorite: death by blender.)
Before it comes to that, though, the force toys with the main girl by not letting her unfriend the dead girl on Facebook -- and then letting her unfriend her two minutes later! (Dah dah daaaaah.) Meanwhile, director Leo Gabriadze and screenwriter Nelson Greaves work themselves into a lather incorporating message forums, YouTube videos, Spotify playlists, Chatroulette, and Google searches into the plot. They lost me, though, when the tech-savviest of the kids said, "It's probably just, like, a troll or something," and the main girl asked, "What is a troll?" That is some piss-poor screenwriting right there. Neither the characters in Unfriended
nor the audience for a film like Unfriended
need to have the term "troll" defined for them.
|He's a troubled person.
With a cast headlined by Kevin Corrigan, Barry Bostwick, and Karen Black, and a title like Some Guy Who Kills People
, this 2011 film seems to promise an off-kilter horror-comedy, but what it actually delivers is more of a low-key character study occasionally punctuated by violent murders. Happily, since the character under the microscope is played by longtime indie fixture Corrigan, the time in between killings never feels wasted. Typically relegated to "best friend"-type roles, here he gets top billing as Ken Boyd, a former mental patient who has moved back in with his mother Ruth (Black) while he works on getting his life back together after a suicide attempt. Sure, the only job he could get was one working the counter at an ice cream parlor -- and occasionally donning a humiliating ice cream cone costume for parties and flyer hand-out duties -- but it's a start.
The biggest downside of returning to his hometown is constantly running into the jock assholes who tortured him in high school over an unflattering comic book he, an aspiring artist, drew about them. To make plain the connection between that traumatic event and their subsequent murders at the hands of a figure in a black ski mask wielding a variety of bladed weapons, director Jack Perez and screenwriter Ryan Levin include numerous flashbacks to it, usually in the form of Ken's nightmares, and lingering shots of his sketchbooks, in which he dispatches his tormentors in much the same way they're croaked in real life. All the while, his best friend and co-worker Irv (Leo Fitzpatrick) encourages him to make something of himself and the local sheriff (Bostwick), who's sleeping with Ruth, bemusedly tries to puzzle out who's behind the longest murder spree their small town has ever seen.
On the plus side, Ken is given the chance to get to know his precocious 11-year-old daughter Amy (Ariel Gade), whose mother has kept his identity a secret from her, and also makes the acquaintance of cute Brit Stephanie (The Office
's Lucy Davis), who doesn't seem to mind how socially awkward he is. If it weren't for the whole "suspicion of multiple murders" thing, he would seem to be well on the way to that better life everyone wants for him. Whether he wants it for himself -- or even believes he deserves it -- is another matter.