Monday, December 11, 2017

McCabe & Mrs. Miller

John McCabe isn't good for much.  He's a businessman but seems more content with low stakes poker games and egg in his beer.  He can't even do arithmetic. He's had some degree of success but barely thinks beyond saloon walls.  There's a rumor that he killed an important man some time ago.

In the Pacific Northwest in the turn of the century, McCabe finds himself in a town called Presbyterian Church, but most folks there don't seem too devout to things spiritual.  Brothels do a brisk business.  When Mrs. Miller rides into town, she seeks to expand McCabe's low rent whore house into something classy, with clean linens and all.  Even a bath house.  This would be quite something in this muddy wasteland of a town that must reak of alcohol and dirty overalls.  Mrs. Miller is smart, sexy, and has a head for business. She brings in some girls from San Francisco.  The kitty fills with cash.  She explains that when clients are slow to arrive you gotta keep the girls busy otherwise they get bored and read the Bible. Then the church fills up instead of the house.

How does a two bitter like McCabe fit into Mrs. Miller's life?  Business partner? Lover? She charges him the top rate of five dollars, just like any other client.  She makes him take a bath like all the others.  But she will soften eventually.  She doesn't tell him of her opium habit. What will happen when representatives from a mining company offer to buy out McCabe's enterprise?


1971's MCCABE & MRS. MILLER is nominally a Western but refuses to play like one. Even with a climactic manhunt when pistols are raised.  Robert Altman directs with his usual wandering eye but this time the audience is never denied what the key players are saying or doing.  That multi talker babble/overlapping soundtrack is there as always, but even if you're not listening through headphones you should catch what you need.  You'll want to pay particular attention to McCabe's ramblings, particularly towards the end, when he describes himself as "full of poetry" during a realization that he is not the smartest or bravest of his gender.  But he is not the only flawed, tragic figure in this story.

With many of his films, Altman distances himself from the material (THE LONG GOODBYE, QUINTET, even MASH) but here he seems to be as invested in his characters as they are. There is more dramatic tension than usual.  His script, co-written by Brian McKay, is more than just a jumping off point for improvisation. The social observations are as pointed as ever.  But also, so many points made about the encroachment of progress, technology, and the timeless vice of greed.  The Old West was dying, choked by corporations that nary give a whit about the individual.  Altman could certainly relate to that.  Maybe he saw himself like McCabe, downed in a snowdrift.

The director clearly sees through D.P. Vilmos Zsigmond's dirty lens, capturing the grime and ice so vividly as to make the viewer feel somewhat immersed.   The use of three Leonard Cohen songs on the soundtrack only adds to the overall feeling of isolation and defeat.  The loneliness is palpable. This is my favorite Altman picture.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Aerial

Are you old enough to remember the heyday of T.V. antennas? Your only method of receiving signals from local (and some faraway) stations? You can still see them atop some houses, hospitals, businesses.  To me, they are not blights on the landscape, but rather comforting reminders of simpler times.  Those that remain stand tall in this digital and even nearly post-cable age, almost defiant in their stance, like a soldier holding a post, despite frequent punishing weather.  VHF and UHF forever!

Yes, I realize that antennas are still used, they just don't receive analog signals.  One needs a digital converter box if the television is analog.

Until the early 1980s, we had one.  The last one was shaped like an arrow.  While the stations from Broward county were still a bit snowy, I fondly remember Channel 45, with its reruns of Leave It To Beaver and Channel 51 showing old Bat Masterson episodes.  The Holy Grail was the VHF Channel 6, which seemed to be very intriguing programming (I was a TV Guide maven in those days).  It was an independent out of Miami, and even people in Ft. Lauderdale had trouble picking it up.  Once for a few glorious days I was actually able to get it on the little black and white in my bedroom, with its bent two pronged square protrusion in the back.  It was astonishing.  The wind must have been blowing just right.  Radio host Big Wilson did some spots. A between programs bit called "Snippets", aimed at children, had educational value.   Things like this thrilled my young heart.

How crushing! Hurricane David sent out beloved aerial into our backyard in 1979.  We also lost power for several days.  I stayed with my grandparents, who lived a bit east of us.  They had no such setbacks.  I helped my dad reinstall the mighty antenna, and it remained there for another two years or so.  Actually, a bit longer.

My friend down the street got cable circa 1981. The Showtime pay TV channel.  Of course I was down there as much as possible.  After a round of Marco Polo in his pool we'd watch uncut movies like AIRPLANE! and MORE AMERICAN GRAFFITI.  It was magical.  No commercials! People were swearing! When we happened to catch the sketch comedy show Bizarre, we got to see female breasts.   We were twelve.  A very big deal.

Somehow, I convinced my parents to subscribe to Showtime.  I can still remember hearing my mother gasp in the other room when she first watched Bizarre.  She was not as liberal as my friend's mother, who actually let her son and I watch such "smut".  I was raised in an environment where you were more or less taught that you would go blind if you saw female nudity in a movie or show.  Violence was OK.  I've never understood that, or heard a satisfactory explanation in its defense. Why? Because there isn't one.  Talk to someone who grew up in say, Europe in earlier years.  Nudity was very common on T.V., even in commercials.  I imagine most of those impressionable viewers turned out to be well adjusted adults, free of the hang-ups that plague so many Americans.


So now the mighty antenna was just a prop, an ersatz weather mane.  No longer needed.  Cable cleared the snow.  I was not nostalgic for "regular TV" though I still watched plenty of network shows well into the 80s. My father finally pulled old faithful down.  I don't recall being even slightly sad about it.

When analog signals ceased to be transmitted in 2009 (excluding some low power stations), many aerials remained but their time had certainly passed.  I always think of childhood when I see them.  Innocent family time around the T.V. before cable invaded and desensitized us.  It's a nice memory, a warm feeling.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

The Verdict

1982's THE VERDICT is a filmed masterpiece.  A choice example of how to polish the old underdog victory tale and create what I consider to be a work of art.  David Mamet, known for a very distinctive style of dialogue, did write the screenplay, and is good as it is, to me it is the weakest element of this movie.  Great films don't necessarily come from great screenplays.  I say this regarding THE VERDICT for several reasons: there are holes in the plot; there are questionable actions committed by lawyers and judges that would likely get them dismissed (if not disbarred); there are some contrived elements.   Viewers who appreciate and recognize how to discern cinematic art will not be distracted by such deficiencies.
 
Orchestrating THE VERDICT is the great Sidney Lumet, director of too many landmark films to mention.  THE VERDICT joins them.  Rarely has a film been as effective in stillness and silence as it is in its more audible moments.  Many of the later scenes occur in a courtroom, with a few intense exchanges and a witness stand breakdown.  Just about every movie and T.V. show with this setting have verbal fireworks in chambers and in court.  To convey the urgency of a broken soul vying not just for a professional comeback but also some sort of redemption requires less, for more.

Newman plays Frank Galvin, a once prominent Boston lawyer whose whistle blowing against corruption in his firm some years back earned him jail time and a broken marriage.  He now spends his days drowning in booze and playing pinball.  Reduced to scouring the obituaries and trolling funerals for potential clients.  When his old mentor Mickey (a feisty Jack Warden) sends a medical malpractice case his way, Galvin sees a potential glimmer in the darkness.  Mickey, too, knowing that the Archidiocese would rather settle out of court than have the Catholic hospital suffer bad publicity.  But then Frank visits the victim - a young woman who became comatose after improper administration of an anesthetic - in her facility.  He sees more than a surefire payday; he feels a moral obligation.

Frank's decision to go to trial is a surprise to everyone, including the obstinate judge (Milo O'Shea).  The victim's sister and brother-in-law are angered and bewildered.  Does Galvin really believe he can win?

Lumet uses interiors and exteriors very effectively.  The drab color palate suits the mood . Deep browns of courtrooms and offices.   Dark spaces, barely lamplit.  The bite of winter informs outdoor scenes, whether seen in close-up (Frank's realization that his star witness has bailed on him) or from a bird's eye view (Mickey informs Frank of a stinging betrayal). I especially like the second example, filmed with only the sounds of the city.  Perhaps Lumet felt it more effective that way.  I agree; the pain Frank feels at that moment is best observed from such a vantage point, with the loneliness of the city about him.  Andrzej Bartkowiak's cinematography is perfect at every moment.

Newman is simply great, using expressions and relatively spare dialogue to convey his personal hell.  The bathroom scene, the one in which he is crippled in anxiety, will ring painfully familiar not only to recovering addicts but anyone ever paralyzed by the fear of failure.   James Mason is appropriately menacing, yet always so dapper and polished, as the opposing counsel.  Charlotte Rampling is elegantly downtrodden, beautiful yet unspeakably sad, as Laura, a woman with whom Frank becomes involved.   The attraction is understandable for several reasons; they do have much in common.  

I also really like the final scene, where one pays for their sins and the other, though perhaps troubled in the moment, enjoys a moment of respite. 

Friday, December 1, 2017

Logan

SPOILERS

It's encouraging to see a superhero film like this year's LOGAN, and it does most everything right.  While some of the darker tinged comic books collapse under their own seriousness, this installment in the X-MEN series closes a chapter on one of its most celebrated mutants without feeling like a two plus hour dirge.  In other words, it's still an exciting super hero movie, with powerful action scenes and demonstrations of super powers and big special effects.  But it's appealingly grounded, in every sense of the word.  I guess the right description would be, human.

Nonetheless, some viewers may not want to see an aging/aged Wolverine, ne Logan (Hugh Jackman) addicted to booze and analgesics while pushing his old mentor Professor X ne Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who's suffering degeneration of his brain, in a wheelchair.  It's 2029.  The last mutant was born a quarter century before.  Logan makes a living as a limo driver in Southern Texas.  Across the border, he lives in an old smelting plant with Charles and albino mutant tracker Caliban (Stephen Merchant).  Logan's efforts to lay low are destroyed when he is approached by both a mysterious Mexican woman and a guy named Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), who is looking for her.  There is also a little girl named Laura (Dafne Keen) who may be the woman's daughter, and may not be what she appears.

Much of LOGAN is on the road, as after a series of violent showdowns Logan and Charles escort Laura to North Dakota, where there is a rumored safe haven for "special" children.  The journey is expectedly perilous, and the trio brings death and destruction to many they encounter.   I'm leaving out lots of details, but I think you can fill in the blanks.  Even though LOGAN is not a film that lives or dies by surprises and certainly not by its oft told story, I won't ruin it for you.

The film does feature the bloodiest violence I have seen in an official comic book movie.  Those retractable claws do some serious impaling this time out.  This is perhaps the balls-out film Marvel fans have been waiting for.  While certainly not the caustic equivalent of last year's DEADPOOL, LOGAN does release the shackles of any previous restraint with its relentless mayhem and truckloads of profanity.  This is an unapologetically R-rated feature.  I did not find a moment of it gratuitous.

Director/co-writer James Mangold in fact has created a drama (quite similar to a Western) about the end of a life that just happens to involve a man who is one hundred and ninety seven years old.  But middle agers like me will recognize that he looks to rather be merely pushing fifty. That's relatable.  So is the fact that he doesn't heal like he used to (never mind that that includes gunshots).  And so is the fact that Charles Xavier's failing telepathy results in violent seizure like events (never mind that they cause seismic rumbles that render anyone within a few city blocks paralyzed).  To call the film great drama is a stretch, but like other exemplary films of this type it effectively transcends its comic book origins to become something more.  More serious, more involving emotionally.  Not another mere video game.

I like how throughout the movie, Logan rifles through X-Men comic books and shakes his head, damning what he considers an exaggerated account of his and his old colleagues' exploits.  Nice touch.

LOGAN is quite moving as its former super heroes are facing mortality, with perhaps a new generation to take up the reins. 

Monday, November 27, 2017

Metropolis

It wasn't until 2010 that modern audiences were able to see writer/director Fritz Lang's (almost) complete original cut of his classic 1927 film METROPOLIS.  You may have read that long missing footage was discovered in a museum in Argentina in '08.  Over the years, various editions were released, including one presented by composer Giorgio Moroder, with '80s rock songs (curious about that one).  Earlier this year I finally took the time to watch the 2 and 1/2 hr. edit that is described as "95% complete".

The missing footage is in rough shape, but is mostly necessary to continue and/or bridge scenes.  It is a bit jarring to watch beautifully restored shots that cut to frames riddled with vertical lines, but I am grateful for the painstaking effort.  Some scenes are still lost, remedied by text that explains the action.  It all plays together quite seamlessly.  METROPOLIS' timeless story of class struggle will resonate with those who seek out/stay with the film, and not simply because we are now closer to the film's time period: 2026.

Certainly in the 1920s (in Germany and elsewhere) there were rich industrialists who literally looked down on their wage slaves.  Manual workers toiling for hours in deplorable, unsafe conditions.  METROPOLIS features a namesake city that seems to not house a middle class.  One is either high society or an underground plebian. Forever attending black tie galas or pushing impossibly heavy objects connected to machines, one of which seems to power/run the entire dystopia above.

Straddling this divide is the youthful Freder (Gustav Frohlich), son of Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), the city's "master".  We first see Freder in a lesiurely place, a garden filled with greenery and women, but it's clear he is far from content, especially after a woman named Maria (Brigitte Helm) invades the idyll with a group of poor, soiled children who were born to the workers. This intrusion brings reality to Freder's eyes, and soon he is investigating the world below, even disguising himself as one of the laborers.  To find Maria, but also in deference to his father, discovered to be an ambivalent despot.  Is Freder destined to be a mediator between the classes?

Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), an eccentric inventor who has a rather unpleasant history with Fredersen, is also introduced.  He has built a robot that is intended to be a recreation of a lost love.  Fredersen  instead orders him to kidnap Maria and transfer her visage to the robot, leading to various complications and eventually chaos, including a climactic flood that threatens Metropolis.

Much has been written of METROPOLIS' eye popping special effects and it's all valid.   The very old school use of miniatures and mirrors still looks impressive.  Astonishing, really.   Lang was quite exacting and merciless with his actors and crew, keeping his actors in freezing water and housing them for hours at a time in uncomfortable costumes.  The film took a year to shoot.

Thea von Harbou's adaptation of her novel jettisons many science fiction and occult elements to focus on the sociopolitical.  Some critics ultimately found it simplistic, though many of the most effective statements are made simply and clearly.  And damn does this movie look sensational.  The reconstructionists should be proud of their toils.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Every '70s Movie

Want to truly indulge your jones for '70s movies? Check out "Every 70s Movie", an excellent blog of reviews by author and filmmaker Peter Hanson, who has spent the past seven years seeking out every film released in the U.S. in the 1970s.  He also occasionally devotes a week or two to films from 1980, which he argues merit inclusion as they were made in the '70s.  Hanson does exclude '70s films that did not play on American movie (or T.V.) screens during the Me Decade, like 1979's STALKER (which you will see on this blog sometime in 2018).

You will learn quite a bit about both mainstream and obscure cinema from this (arguably) best of eras for the medium. "The Best, The Worst, The Weirdest, and Every Far-Out Thing in Between."  What a formidable task for Hanson.  He requests donations as seeking out some of the lesser known titles can be expensive.  I imagine he had to watch some on VHS.

Hanson reports that his mission of providing daily posts for this task will likely conclude this coming March.  A few hundred titles of which he is aware will go unseen and un-reviewed as availability is nil.  Hopefully readers can fill in the blanks by sharing a videocassette dub made off of television back in the day or even a 35 mm print?

Every70s Movie

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Thanksgiving


I've spoken of Christmases past a few times on this blog, but how about some memories of Thanksgiving? Someone recently told me it is their favorite holiday as it involves families and friends coming together without all the concerns of gift giving. No argument.  Some of my more recent ones have been the best ever, with time spent up North with family.  Amazing trimmings, lots of laughs, and even a football tossed around.  In the early '00s I went to Monterey, CA a few times to visit my girlfriend (now wife) as she would help prepare a neighborhood feast with her grad school roommates.

Childhood Thanksgivings are murkier.  I have snatches of recollections of all the food.  I grew up as an only child, and we usually spent the Day with my grandparents, who lived nearby.  Some years we went to their place, other years they came to ours.  My mother and grandmother did most of the talking.  I'm sure I chatted about school.  My grandfather usually got more vocal by his third of fourth can of Busch.  Sometimes he would become unpleasant, necessitating my and my parents' exit, but I think he usually just retreated to his bedroom to nap it off.  He would get up after a few hours to join my father and I as we watched a game or movie.

But it's all like a barely remembered dream. Odd, as many other moments and events of those years are crystal clear.  I have no tragic Thanksgiving memories, or of turkeys that were burnt or hijacked by our dogs.  All the food was great, excepting that Ocean Spray cranberry goop that retained the can's shape as it was unceremonious dumped in one of my mother's ancient bowls.  These days my wife makes a sublime cranberry dish flavored nicely with navel orange gratings and ginger.  I always liked "Turkey Day", even if I was secretly envious of my friends who had larger gatherings, or got to fly off to a cold weather place for the festivities.

Even hazier are my young adult memories of Thanksgiving.  Did I join some of the other singles from church at someone's house or apartment?  I'm sure I did, but darned if I can place it.  I'll bet I turned down a few invites.   I assume many were spent alone, with maybe a visit to see my mother, who worked a variety of live-in nanny jobs in those years.

And the Publix commercials with Mannheim Steamroller music playing over images of folks traveling home for the holidays?  I do remember being affected deeply by them. In earlier years, my reality did not match them.

I am so thankful and blessed to be surrounded by family and friends near and afar these days.  I value solitude but wouldn't trade what I have now for all the free, aimless, empty T-Days of yore in the world.  I like to think that this blog may provide some diversion for the lonely.  Besides having an outlet for writing for myself,  this is why I keep doing it.  I hope you have a warm day of thanks, and know that even if you are by yourself someone is thinking of you.  Even if you don't believe that.

Monday, November 20, 2017

The Godfather, Part II

THE GODFATHER PART II introduced many filmgoers to underworld words of wisdom that found their way to the lips of  those in legitimate businesses in real life.  As far as I know, at least.  Did CEOs spout "Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer" prior to 1974? Probably, in one form or another.  That oft used "It isn't personal, it's just business" is one of the most fascinating misnomers.  It's all personal, paisan, you're dealing with people! I always want to scream that aloud.  When Jewish gangster/kingpin Hyman Roth, in well modulated seething, looks Michael Coreleone in the eye and explains that he understands why his friend Moe Green was assassinated on a massage parlor table on orders of an anonymous hit ("business"), we also see through Lee Strasberg's expert performance that the man not only knows damned well that Michael ordered the hit, but that the phrase itself is utter bullshit.  Everyone knows it, even as everyone says it.

Writer/director Francis Coppola continues the GODFATHER saga with a lengthy,  melancholy examination of two generations of the Corleone "family".  Michael (Al Pacino) ascended the ranks to become don by the close of Part I.  A meek, unassuming college boy and war hero transformed into a ruthless, cold blooded murderer.  An expert in using fear and paranoia even among his inner circle to preserve the family name and its business interests. In PART II, Michael brokers deals with crooked senators and the multiplicitous Roth, a man perhaps cut from the same mold.  Periodically, the film travels back to the early twentieth century as young Vito Corleone flees his mother country after the slaughter of his family, arriving in America with a boatload of other immigrants. Vito grows into a decent young man who fosters honor and respect with his peers and family.  But he also builds the eventual empire on a foundation of theft and murder.  Perhaps like many other celebrated entrepreneurs? 

The Corleone family has always been a metaphor for the American Dream. The hard work ethic. The overcoming of adversity.  The burgeoning family of would-be successors, the money, the means by which to achieve success. Also, the underbelly.  The offspring who don't measure up, or are cut down before their prime.  Hopefully many of us don't order garrotings in our drive for upward mobility, but how often do we extort, swindle, deceive, compromise our own morals in that pursuit?  Have you ever made a living in sales? There you are.

Perhaps Mario Puzo was just trying to tell a compelling story, not so concerned with specific real life parallels.  But they're unavoidable.  Especially when the GODFATHER movies use real life backdrops.  Here, the last days of Batista in Havana, Cuba are integral to the plot. Who does Michael represent in this scenario? And what about Roth, in pained excitement telling his business partner that they're about to be bigger than U.S. Steel?

THE GODFATHER PART II is extraordinary filmmaking.  I am not among those who feel it is better that the original, but in many ways this sequel outdoes its predecessor. Coppola and cinematographer Gordon Willis again frame the story in both emotional and tangible hues.  The transitions between the young Vito and more contemporary scenes are appropriate and effective. Coppola stated that he loved evoking the early days, happy to write many scenes of the new Americans building their city, and lives.  He could've easily taken three and one half hours with just that.  Robert DeNiro (talking Italian) delivers a perfect performance as the up and coming don, a stand up guy shown to kill only when it protects others from oppression.  But also in the name of vengeance.

Michael is all about vengeance, even against his own brother.  The heartbreaking central story of this movie is the kid brother discovering that Fredo (John Casale) has betrayed him.  This family drama is some of the most arresting cinema I've ever seen.  Do not discount the storyline of Michael's wife Kay's (Diane Keaton) miscarriage, which leads to a powerhouse confrontation between husband and wife.  Pacino handles these scenes so beautifully.  Watch his eyes.  They're slicked over and red when he learns the truth about Kay's tragedy, or anytime he speaks of his older brother.  The actor spends most of the movie betraying nothing with his icy veneer; it's a performance of nuance, and must have been monstrously difficult and draining.

And those final moments, when a man's fate is sealed.  His character, his destiny.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

War of the Roses

You really have to hand it to writer/director Danny DeVito for seeing 1989's WAR OF THE ROSES to its bitter end.  How such a downbeat climax made it past studio executives and test audiences is some kind of showbiz miracle.  It's really the most logical and appropriate (to say nothing of ballsy) ending to such a pitch black comedy/drama.  Framed in flashback between attorney DeVito and an unnamed client who is considering a divorce.  A cautionary tale.

Oliver (Michael Douglas) and Barbara Rose (Kathleen Turner) are an affluent, seemingly happy couple living in a grand old mansion filled with everything a materialist could desire.  Oliver is a successful attorney, while Barbara contents herself with homemaking and raising a boy and a girl.  But despite the fancy trappings and an athletic sex life, the years are not kind to the Roses and soon a raging contempt builds between them.  Mainly from Barbara, who suffers Oliver's condescension and narcissism beyond tolerance.  She finds a new lease on life when her husband thinks he about to lose his after what is believed to be a heart attack but is really just a hernia.

That's when the knives are unsheathed.  The mean business of THE WAR OF THE ROSES begins as the feuding spouses begin to section off the house; "I've got more square footage!" Oliver boasts to his attorney.  Battle lines drawn, literally.  But then things get downright vicious.  Artifacts are smashed.  A few family pets may get in the way.  As Barbara attempts to spread her wings and open a catering business, Oliver is there to sabotage a dinner party in a rather obscene and disgusting manner.   Caught in the middle is Gavin D'Amato, played with the right amount of resigned sadness by DeVito, who begs his client to work with his wife and just start his life over.

Instead, Oliver fires Gavin and represents himself.  Things escalate further, and then....that ending happens.  Never has the flick of a hand underlined a point with such devastation.

THE WAR OF THE ROSES ain't no date movie.  It will bring great satisfaction to bitter divorcees and those who've been wronged in relationships.  I enjoyed a viewing or two under the latter circumstance in my 20s.  But there's more than just morbid and grim satisfaction with Devito's (often very creatively directed) film.  Michael J. Leeson's script takes many of the standard scenes - including an early meet cute - to build a tower of portent that should serve to educate as well as vindicate anyone who's ever felt wronged.  The movie is billed as a comedy but be aware it is of the darkest variety.  And there's real pathos and sadness here.

Monday, November 13, 2017

The American Friend

1977's THE AMERICAN FRIEND may take its title from more than just the fact that the film's protagonist, a German art framer, meets and becomes somewhat of an ally with an American, who deals in art forgery.  Iconoclastic director extraordinaire Wim Wenders quite intriguingly uses much imagery of American products to underline his points of how this Western culture has positively saturated Europe.  With its movies and music, yes, but also its soft drinks and toys.

Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley character (played this time by Dennis Hopper) is the American friend.  He's crafty, wealthy, streetwise.  He's also a bit thin skinned, allowing a minor slight to essentially ruin a man's life.  The man is Jonathan Zimmerman (Bruno Ganz), our German who, in his first meeting with Ripley, dismisses the criminal by refusing to shake his hand and uttering "I know who you are". Ripley gets even by suggesting Zimmerman to his boss, a French criminal called Raoul (Gerard Blain), as a potential hit man to knock off a rival.

THE AMERICAN FRIEND follows Jonathan, who is dying of blood disease, as he reluctantly accepts Raoul's offer.  He needs the money to assure he can provide for his wife and child after his demise.  There will be deception and death along the way, of course, but Ripley and Jonathan will form some sort of bond, even trust, that may not be tainted by the more neo-noirish elements of the story.

Wenders, as usual, is not all that interested in the mechanics of the story.  He understands that story is the framework, and what drives the movie, but isn't what makes great cinema.  The director is an artist, fascinated with color schemes and composition. His use of locations throughout Hamburg and Paris are as vital as any script business. The how of THE AMERICAN FRIEND is also what distinguishes it from being a routine thriller.  The hit in the Paris Metro is not blocked and edited for heart stopping excitement, but rather plays long enough to make us feel how both awful and absurd it is.

Characterization is rich in Wenders' films.  Hopper does his eccentric tics but never flails over the top.  Ripley is a complex fellow but perhaps decent enough.  He operates on the criminal's code of honor, loyal to like-minded individuals.  Jonathan becomes a co-conspirator out of necessity and survival but also out of a similar brotherhood; Ganz is just fine in his role. And Wenders is the right person to showcase them with his patient, painterly direction, a natural extension of his screenplay.  He says much with his use of art forgery as a plot element - is this his statement on film itself?  And in several frames are bold Canada Dry neons and for Johnathan's son, a Snoopy bubble machine.  Did Wenders feel his country's identity was becoming more and more defined by American products and pop culture? A confusion as to where one begins and the other ends?

Speaking of endings, I was a bit disappointed by the final moments of THE AMERICAN FRIEND, a bit too pretentious in my opinion, but maybe thematically consistent.  Note must also be made for the effective use of songs by the Kinks and the Beatles.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Wildflowers

Tom Petty passed away early last month, leaving a void in the music world and a hollow feeling in my heart.  Celebrity passings never used to affect me as much as they have recently.  It truly does now feel as if a family member or dear friend has shaken off the mortal coil.  I got to know at least some essence of the man through his music and interviews.  He seemed genuine, unafraid to show his emotions without being dramatic. A Gainesville, FL boy made good, who went all the way to L.A. and sang about her, too.

I grew up listening to Petty.  My first real memory was of "The Waiting" on a South Florida rock station.  By then Tom had recorded a few albums and had a lot of success.  He even had a battle with his record label over their decision to raise the list price by a buck.  He threatened to name the new record "9.98".

I enjoyed his videos, from the spare performances of Hard Promises selections to the futuristic wasteland in "You Got Lucky" to the Alice in Wonderland dark comedy of "Don't Come Around Here No More."   Petty's songs were well used in films, particularly "American Girl", featured prominently in FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH and THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.  He wrote and performed the soundtrack to the 1996 romantic comedy SHE'S THE ONE.

By 1994, Petty had covered a lot of ground both with his band The Heartbreakers and as a solo artist.  There was quite a back catalogue of hits and just straight ahead great tunes.  But "Wildflowers" was really something special.  For me, his finest work. It's called a solo album, though most of The Heartbreakers play on it.  The heartland rock style was perfected in this collection of mostly melancholy, reflective songs that address fame "("It's Good to be King", "You Don't Know How It Feels"), broken families ("To Find a Friend"), and also with the self explanatory "Time to Move On".  Tom wasn't much for lyrical puzzles.  He created narratives that always felt as honest as a hard bitten guy busking on a street corner, albeit with some sweet production values.

Petty does rock out on the infectious, great-for-driving number "You Wreck Me" (a good companion piece for the earlier "Runnin' Down a Dream") and the blistering "Honey Bee", which includes the old classic "buzz awhile" lyric.  The title track and "A Higher Place" are perfect summer songs that make you feel good.  Honestly, there isn't one weak track on "Wildflowers", including the B-side "Girl on LSD", which was omitted from the album.

In some ways, "Wildflowers" feels like a summary, a valediction of a stellar career.  There was much more music to follow, including the wonderfully retro (1960s style) 2010 album Mojo, but "Wildflowers" assures a spot in music history that will always demonstrate Petty's most heartfelt output.  A true classic.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

The Red Turtle

Advertisements for 2016's animated feature THE RED TURTLE immediately intrigued me, but I had no idea how deeply I would be affected by this film.  Thankfully, I did not read too much about it beforehand, knowing only that its story was of a man, stranded on a deserted island, who encounters the title creature.  The stills' illustrations were impressive, indicative of a more traditional, perhaps even primitive style.  I was not interested in another three dimensional computer exercise ala FINDING DORY.  I was also aware that the film had no dialogue, further piquing my interest.  What was it Depeche Mode said about words...?

The first section of the film shows the man cast onto a shore by tidal waves.  We assume he was separated from his ship.  After surveying his lush surroundings and dire predicament, he soon learns to gather food and build a raft out of the island's plentiful bamboo.  His efforts to sail away are thwarted by the upward nudges of something under the water, destroying his vessel.  He rebuilds.  After the third attempt he finally meets the culprit: a huge, beautiful red turtle.  It seems fascinated by the man, meaning no harm and clearly not wanting  him to leave.  Defeated, the man retreats and cries out in despair.  He later sees the turtle ambling on the beach.  In vengeful fury, the man pushes the red turtle on its back, leaving it to die.

The man eventually feels badly, but will find the turtle has transformed......

Into what is something you will have to discover for yourself.  It will be difficult to explain why I truly love THE RED TURTLE without giving away these developments, but part of why this film was so magical for me was its great discovery.  Suffice it to say that the remainder of the film will follow the man and turtle relationship over quite some time.  The film is a rare contemporary entertainment that encourages a respect for and a co-existence with nature without resorting to overt cuteness.  There are no smart talking, personified animals with celebrity voices.  There are some hermit crabs that provide lighter moments.

Beware, possible spoiler......

The film, a French/Japanese co-production, also details a beautiful family story, the simplicity of its narrative allowing viewers to engage writer/director Michael Dudok de Wit's wellspring of themes all the more.  Complicated plots often mask shallow subtext.  THE RED TURTLE will reveal much as it is remembered hours and days later.   I suppose theological implications exist here.  I found the film worked primarily on an emotional level.  The final scene left me a weeping wreck. The implications get deeper and deeper as you replay those final moments.  I can't imagine anyone who has ever loved someone/something and spent their life with them will emerge from this film without misty eyes.  I've written elsewhere on this blog that I rarely cry during movies; maybe I'm getting more sensitive (or less steely) in my middle age. Especially when stories involve animals, which of course can be highly effective when trying to convey the realities of the "circle of life."

That's what THE RED TURTLE is about.  Life and death.  Nothing novel.  The choice to have a wordless narrative makes it as immediate and powerful as ever.  Words might've done it violence.  This has become one of my all time favorite films.  A film to seek and re-visit and share with others.  

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Weird Science

As entertaining as 1985's WEIRD SCIENCE may be, it was still a miss for the bard of teenage angst, John Hughes.  The writer/director dominated the genre in the mid-80s with his insightful, sometimes broad and silly high school sagas that, distilled to their essences, were just age old plots about the desperate need to fit in, to seek approval from peers.  Hughes gave his characters uncommonly intelligent dialogue and keen self-awareness. 

In that regard, WEIRD SCIENCE is no different.  Gary (Hughes reg. Anthony Michael Hall) and Wyatt (Ilan-Mitchell Smith) are two nerdy guys who are tired of their dismal social standing and humiliation by the cool people.  While Wyatt's folks are away, the boys hatch the farfetched plan of creating the perfect woman on a computer.  With FRANKENSTEIN to inspire them, they hook electrodes to shapely dolls and feed images of pinups and Albert Einstein and hack a government server to create Lisa (Kelly LeBrock), a stunningly beautiful, brilliant, and adventurous young woman with all sorts of powers at her disposal.  While Lisa is at the service of our heroes, willing to do whatever they desire, she's also a fiercely independent spitfire who sets about to right their lives, give them the confidence they desperately need.  But they have to at least feel comfortable showering with her first.

It sounds like some softcore cheapie designed for Cinemax, right? The scenario could easily travel that route, but this PG-13 movie is no exploitation tease.  The seamier elements are mostly kept in check, though there are plenty of sexual innuendoes and anatomy jokes. The film is fairly vulgar, but not in a SPRING BREAK or HARDBODIES sort of way.  Hughes riffs on all the familiar high school cliches: parties, drinking, popularity with his usual sharp eye, but this time with a bevy of special effects that get fairly elaborate.  A piano flies out of a house.  A motorcycle gang of mutants crashes said house.  Wyatt's loathsome older brother, Chet (Bill Paxton, achingly funny) is transformed into a giant frog-like creature.  It all makes sense in context.  It just gets a bit out of hand.

Some scenes just don't work.  Like when Lisa pulls a gun on Gary's dad when he refuses to let him go out. The rhythm, the acting, and the dialogue just don't flow, or make the point in any really humorous fashion.  The scene just sorta lies there.  Of course, it's revealed later that it was just a water gun.  When Lisa brings the boys to a blues club, it's a similarly D.O.A. moment.  Was Hughes going for something akin to that scene in ANIMAL HOUSE when the Deltas visit the all-black joint?

Nonetheless, WEIRD SCIENCE is a fun, highly quotable little flick, now considered a cult item. The performances are just right for this material and there's another decent soundtrack.  Quite the "experiment" for Hughes - melding sci-fi and his brand of high school soap opera - that doesn't quite make it but is still essential viewing for devotees.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Blade Runner 2049

SPOILERS

I was the first to arrive on a Monday evening at the 7:00 P.M. showing of this season's BLADE RUNNER 2049.  It was in an IMAX auditorium at a local multiplex that's been around for seventeen years.  I went to see the movie alone as my wife was not exactly a fan of the original 1982 film.  I looked around the theater and thought of the many times I had attended movies by myself since my teen years.  To me, the activity lends itself to going solo.  Especially movies like BLADE RUNNER, which in fact my father had taken my thirteen year old self to witness.  As it turns out, this new film also seems to be one best viewed by one's self, to process without commentary from another.

I felt lonely during the new film's two and one half plus hours.  This was a favorable reaction.  Just like before, for that old film I'd seen dozens of times.  The sense of dread for a not so far off future positively saturated Ridley Scott's art/sci-fi that was based on Philip K. Dick writings and involved humans and artificial intelligence.  It was always night.  Usually raining.  Neon signs for familiar corporations, which likely owned everything by that point, threw off a luminscence that was blinding.  The Tyrell Corp. created products known as "replicants" that looked like humans but were entirely engineered by man for slave labor.  A Los Angeles cop named Deckard was an expert at identifying and "retiring" rogue replicants, ones who dared to try to escape their plights and choose their own paths.  Not in the blueprint. 

That was 2019.  In the years that followed, L.A. suffered a long blackout that erased all the hardrives.  As one character quips, only the paper survived.  As time progressed, the Tyrell Corp. went bankrupt, but another company emerged and replicants were now being bio-engineered at a faster rate to keep society on Earth functioning.  Someone had to fill all the jobs those lucky enough to have secaped for the "off world" (mentioned numerous times in the first movie) left vacant.  Positions within the LAPD, for example.

The protagonist of this new film is a lonely cop/blade runner (and new style replicant) identified as "K", the name derived from his serial number.  His mission - dispatch the old remaining "skin jobs", the Nexus 6 replicants who were not necessarily programmed to blindly obey orders.   K is good at his job, much as Deckard, now long missing, was before.  K returns nightly to a dreary apartment in a dreary building in the shadows of those neons.  His companion is a holographic image of a female called Joi, manufactured by the new replicant corporation, led by Niander Wallace (Jared Lehto).  As BLADE RUNNER 2049 opens, K (Ryan Gosling) hunts down and dispatches an older model replicant who lives long enough to inform his murderer that he feels sorry for him, that he "has never seen a miracle."


But soon, K will see one, perhaps more. Maybe he himself is one.  Hampton Fancher returns to create this new story, with additional work by Michael Green, and updates us on the fate of Rachel, the replicant with whom Deckard (Harrison Ford) fell in love in 2019.  Her bones are found in a box buried on the farm of K's dispatch.  Forensics reveal she died during childbirth.  Replicants were not supposed to get pregnant. Where is the child? Was there more than one? Is Deckard still alive?

These questions are answered, but many more are asked.  This frustrates many audience members.  As I write this review, there are several articles describing what a big box office failure BLADE RUNNER 2049 is.  Surprising? Not at all. The first film tanked as well.  Too cerebral.  Did the studios expect anything different this time?

Does anyone under the age of 40-45 care about BLADE RUNNER? I'd like to think so, but there aren't enough of them. Some of the reviews I've read, from otherwise very insightful and intelligent critics, call 2049 "dull", "plodding", "confusing". Really inconceivable, to me.  Again, it's history repeating itself. Folks don't want to think, to work for answers.  To see connections.  To consider what is beyond the visuals, which again are simply astounding.  They may well outdo the original film.  Roger Deakins' photography ranks with some of the most awe inspiring and beautiful I've ever seen, especially in IMAX.

The score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch is appropriately dissonant and frightening and includes cues from Vangelis' original work.  The overall sound editing adds to this effect.  Given the striking visuals and aurals, along with its feast for the mind, it is no exaggeration to say that BLADE RUNNER 2049 was one of the greatest filmgoing experiences of my life.  I was entirely engrossed and could've easily watched another hour.  I did not find the film confusing at all.  If anything, it's less ambiguous than the original.  It's a challenging narrative, with deep ideas about humanity, politics, theology, technology, sexism, sexuality, and identity.  Love, too.  The scene in which Joi and a prostitute named Mariette "merge" for K won't flee my memory anytime soon (likewise the "birth" scene with Wallace and his hatchet woman, Luv). But despite the darkness and chilliness of the film, there is also warmth.

I will revisit BLADE RUNNER 2049 again and again and again, as I've done with the thirty five year old original.  I know I will post additional blogs, probing themes and offering interpretations.  I could already spend a day discussing implanted memories and their creation, again a large element of this world. We even meet a character whose job it is to create them for replicants.  How those memories define a man, or a replicant made to look like one will haunt you long afterward.  Many of the struggles Deckard faced in BLADE RUNNER are mirrored here, although from a different perspective.  Many ideas are turned inside out.

Director Denis Villeneuve, you have done a "man's job", and should be proud.  You've orchestrated a film just as - and possibly moreso - thrilling, exciting, and contemplative as that of Ridley Scott, who I am now not so sorry did not resume the chair.   How daunting a task it must've been.  This film will likewise eventually find its audience.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Halloween III: The Season of the Witch

I can appreciate what they tried to do with 1982's HALLOWEEN III: THE SEASON OF THE WITCH.  The franchise had suffered a minor setback with HALLOWEEN II, a decent but uninspired slasher that was an inferior knock off of the original, classic 1978 chiller.  Writer/director Tommy Lee Wallace, who had worked with John Carpenter on earlier films as an editor and art director, concocted an entirely new story that had nothing to do with the masked, knife wielding lunatic named Michael Meyers.  A fresh take is always welcomed, but this time the result was a total wash. HALLOWEEN III is a vile piece of refuse that, despite some novel elements, is less of a film than even the worst of the proper HALLOWEEN sequels.

The story involves a crazily nefarious plot: the murder of millions of children on Halloween. Uh huh.  The CEO of Shamrock Novelties, who creates Halloween masks that are quite popular with the young ones, is an old man named Conal Cochran (Dan O'Herlihy).  He seems kindly enough.  His company drives the economy of a small town in California.  It is there that a physician (Tom Atkins) and an attractive young woman (Stacey Nelkin) investigate the death of her father, a local shopkeeper.   Not unrelated to this is said dastardly plot.

Should I spoil it for you? It's pretty disgusting. There is no mad slasher on the loose this time.  The villains are corporate heads and their army of reinforcements, and Wallace does make a few points worthy of a head nod or two.  Shamrock plays a series of television commercials inviting kids to wear their special masks in front of the T.V. on October 31st for a big surprise. In a scene straight out of a James Bond movie, our heroes have been trapped by Cochran, who demonstrates with a local family what this big surprise is.  It is ugly and disheartening.  Gross in the traditional sense, but also in the soullessness behind such a plot (and that someone would bother to create a story such as this).

Then you learn why Cochran would engineer such a ghoulish deed.  I threw my hands in the air in disbelief, even as a fourteen year old.  It's pretty lame.

The disbelief continued when I read in some magazine at the time that Wallace was proud that his film did not contain graphic violence.  I guess the decapitations at the beginning and end of the film don't count.  He does create some creepy atmosphere and throws in a reference or two to the older HALLOWEEN films, but otherwise this is an experiment best forgotten.  A real lost opportunity, and just a bad movie.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Blue Sunshine

In the classic Hitchcockian, Jerry Zipkin (Zalman King) finds himself holding a bloody knife as the just deceased's best friend walks in.  But moments before, the now dead woman was hovering that knife over a pair of children, and Zikpin busts in just in time.  What would cause anyone to do something so unimaginably heinous? Our everyman hero had learned that the woman was one of several Stanford University graduates who had, ten years earlier, partaken of a dangerous form of LSD called "Blue Sunshine."  In addition to causing murderous tendencies, this apparently very long time released drug also causes alopecia.

Currently, Edward Flemming (Mark Goddard), another Stanford grad and ex-husband of the dead would-be child killer, is running for public office.  His campaign slogan: "Make America Good Again". Yep.  Zipkin learns that Flemming was the head dealer of Blue Sunshine.  But did he ever ingest his own product? Is he due to have his own very bad trip any moment now? What about Flemming's bodyguard, Wayne (Ray Young), a former Stanford football star who has this habit of tugging at that rug on his head? Or Zipkin's old friend David (Robert Walden), a physician who also went to Stanford?

1978's BLUE SUNSHINE is writer/director Jeff Lieberman's attempt at a medical/political satire, wrapped in a standard '70s low budget horror package.  It's a fairly entertaining time waster, occasionally creepy, with some nice editing by Brian Smedley-Aston and Russ Kingston and fluid camerawork by Don Knight.  The recent remaster of this print is gorgeous.

Lieberman is a better director than writer, and tosses off a few decent fright and action scenes.  His script has some fascinating ideas, but they never really gel.  Hard not to wonder what Cronenberg could've made of this.  While there are numerous attempts at humor (one of the best is the cut to a poster of Flemming that has been defaced), most of the laughs seem unintentional, with a few serious howlers.

King, better known for his later softcore epics, inspires both laughter and sheer boredom.  He resembles Rush lead singer Geddy Lee, which for me did leaven his dull performance.  Aside from Walden, most of the rest of the cast deliver painfully amateurish acting.   I did enjoy the character named Frannie, showcased early on as one of Zipkin's party buddies and who sets the story in motion.  Damned if he doesn't remind me of Billy Crystal, I kept thinking.  Frannie is in fact played by Richard Crystal, Billy's brother.

And remember, if you want to slow down your attacker, just blast them with some disco music.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Rabid

David Cronenberg continues his "body horror" theme with 1977's RABID, a film that lifts several ideas from his subsequent SHIVERS.  Namely, that medical science is not to be blindly trusted and that we are also, distilled to our essences, a race of primal urge animals who know only to survive.  In the '70s and '80s, Cronenberg fashioned these ideas in a series of sometimes exploitative, often quite disturbing motion pictures that appealed to gore audiences but also won over the more cerebral among us, despite some in your face exploitation elements.

Viewers only familiar with the director's later films may have difficulty at holding back chuckles with this and some of the other early efforts.   The sometimes embarrassing acting, the over the top makeup effects.  The music in RABID is also distressingly rote and predictable for such a movie.  When Cronenberg met up with composer Howard Shore, things improved dramatically in that department.

The plot: A young couple suffer a terrible motorcycle accident near the Keloid Clinic for Plastic Surgery.   Hart (Frank More) and Rose (Marilyn Chambers) are shuttled to the center for treatment.  Rose's injuries are far more serious, with burns causing much damage to her skin.  Dr. Keloid (Howard Ryshpan) tries a new procedure - one that utilizes morphogenetic skin grafts in an effort to replace lost tissue and epidermis.  The procedure is previously untested.   Needless to say, complications ensue.

Rose eventually recovers but now has an insatiable thirst for human blood.  Mimicking what we observed in SHIVERS, a phallic looking organ (which is located on Rose's underarm and eminates from an invagination) attacks many unfortunates, leading them to become zombie like and seeking more victims.   Rose leaves the hospital, trying to reunite with Hart, and infecting many sleazy would be suitors along the way.  Soon, an epidemic of rabid savages brings Quebec to its knees.  The government exercises attempts at control, revealing disorganization on a grand scale.

RABID surprised me for its restraint.  With his second "major" motion picture, Cronenberg was already maturing, not just going for blood and guts. His film is nowhere nearly as excessive as I would've imagined.   There's no actual sex, only implications and themes of it.  The film has a very different reputation, especially with a lead actress whose previous work was in pornographic films like BEHIND THE GREEN DOOR, but is less interested in being graphic than waxing intellectual.  Cronenberg's films always thoughtfully consider the medical, political, financial, and social dynamics.  RABID may be rehashing much of the plotline of SHIVERS, but it finds its own eerie rhythm and potent statements to make.

Cronenberg also even finds some emotional weight in this thriller, mainly via the tragedy of seeing loved ones transformed into drooling bloodsuckers.  Rose's journey is not without some salty tears.

The director again embraces and cautiously dismantles scientific methodology.  I found it interesting that a character explains how a certain vaccine is powerless against the infected.  Perhaps artificial vaccinations are not only ineffective but more harmful? Sound like any latter day controversy to you? That Rose herself, the carrier, may also contain the antidote to the crisis should give you plenty to uh, feast on.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Road Games

1981's ROAD GAMES decides from its opening moments that its tone will be more in the lighthearted vein than anything sinister or forboding.  The movie is so laid back and unthreatening that it barely qualifies as a thriller, much less a horror movie, despite its categorization and marketing.  This is good news for viewers who crave a more witty, cerebral exercise in their shiver fare than your usual early '80s splatterfest.  ROAD GAMES, made in Australia, has been lumped in with other "Ozploitation", but is in fact free of any serious violence and has no nudity or explicit sex, aside from some mild innuendoes.  All good, but the movie is also distressingly mild and even goofy at times.

Those first scenes establish the amiable personality of trucker Patrick Quid (Stacy Keach), a chatterbox of a guy who shares his cab with a pet dingo ("he doesn't bark").  I've always liked the actor, but here he creates one of his most ingratiating blokes, a lonely intellectual who quotes poetry and likes to play "What's My Line " with folks he picks up.  People like a middle aged nag whose husband abandoned her roadside and a young woman named Pam (scream queen of the day Jamie Lee Curtis) who seems to be all over the desert before Quid relents and finally gives her a lift.  It is with her that he shares an easy, possibly flirtatious rapport, and a common interest in tracking a suspicious green van, the one Quid has followed since its driver beat him to a hotel's last vacant room at the beginning of this movie.

The driver is a serial murderer.  We see his work on an unfortunate hitchhiker in that hotel.  Quid knew there was something off about the guy.  His dingo obsessively sniffed a garbage bag while someone was peeking from the hotel window.   Now that van shares the open road with Quid and a variety of other strange motorists, including one with so many balls in the backseat they obscure the windows, and another who very cautiously hauls a boat.  Will the killer strike again? Is Pam to be the next victim? Is it really illegal for Quid to have that dingo?

Director Richard Franklin achieves a nice off kilter vibe with ROAD GAMES.  Predictable, it is not.  Playing detective along with Quid is mostly fun, if a bit tedious and wearying.  I was expecting a far more tense and scary motion picture, but the few suspenseful moments we get aren't frightening in the slightest.  Franklin is an avowed student of Alfred Hitchcock, and pays homage throughout the movie (some have dubbed this REAR WINDSHIELD), and that alone will entertain fans of the great director, but, uh, your mileage ultimately may vary.

NOTE - Optimum enjoyment will be achieved if you do not take the film's events literally, especially the eventful climax. 

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

SPOILERS!

Bad City is a dour landscape of dull architecture and oil derricks, sucking the land dry.  The latter  might be an intended metaphor for 2014's A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT, which features a mysterious girl who indeed spends her time walking home alone at night, intriguing and startling the young and old as she virtually hovers over sidewalks in a black chador.  Who is she? What is she doing? The city is meant to be somewhere in Iran, but if you've ever been to inland towns in California, it should look rather familiar.

"The Girl" (Sheila Vand) retreats nightly to a one room apartment, spinning pop songs on vinyl.  She loves music.  It may be more alive to her than anyone she meets in Bad City.  I can sometimes relate to that idea.  We learn early on that the girl is a vampire, albeit with a conscience.  She kills three people in this movie.  One, a vicious pimp/drug dealer, clearly deserves it.  But what about another man, an elderly heroin addict? He does force a prostitute to share a needle with him.  Then there's an anonymous street person, slumped over in an alley.   Maybe he was evil in some way, too.

Is the girl some sort of angel? She spares a young child, after scaring the shinola out of him.  "Be a good boy," she warns.  Her chador suggests she has been the victim of many not so good boys, perhaps an entire society of them.   She takes the kid's skateboard after he tears off in fright.  Seeing the girl riding it under streetlamps is one of the many oddly beautiful images in writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour's moody art piece.  Lyle Vincent's black and white photography is absolutely stunning.  It makes a literally colorless locale come to near phantamasgoric life, even if the film evokes more indie cool ala Jim Jarmusch than sheer terror or dread. Calling A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT a horror film does seem a bit of a stretch, aside from a few moments.

The girl also meets a fairly decent youth named Arash (Arash Marandi) and after deciding not to sink her fangs into his neck, finds he seems like someone she can connect with.  She even lets him pierce her ears.  How their relationship plays out will be one viewer's tedium and another's mellow poetry.  Amirpour places visual lyricism in every shot.  It may distract you from what seems like a thin script, or perhaps expand on it. 
 
Amirpour is as mysterious as her main character.  In an interview with Roger Corman, who comments on the Jarmusch vibe, the director shrugs and admits she's not a big fan of his work (aside from ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE, of course) -  "I like Robert Zemeckis."

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Young Frankenstein

1974's YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN is writer/director Mel Brooks' finest hour, hands down.  A beautifully directed, wholly affectionate parody of Universal Pictures' Frankenstein adaptations in the 1930s.  A lot of love, and perhaps more tellingly, restraint went into this motion picture.  It's a spoof that doesn't feel the need to assault the moviegoer with a gag every few seconds.  Contrast this with Brooks' 1981 opus HISTORY OF THE WORLD, PART I, which grows increasingly desperate in its efforts to make us chortle and guffaw, usually resorting to out and out vulgarity.  That film doesn't know when to quit, and runs out of gas long before its conclusion.  Perhaps Brooks was trying to cover too much ground.  We'll analyze it another day.

YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN still has a plethora of jokes, not all of them successful (a few groaners), and for the most part uses innuendo as an occasional ingredient rather than as the main course.  Er, even with the "Schwanstucker".  Brooks and his lead actor and co-screenwriter Gene Wilder are far more interested in characterization and mood, very deftly evoking the feel of the old pictures.  The movie was shot in black and white, utilizes old school camera tricks, and features actual laboratory props from the original 1931 FRANKENSTEIN movie.  Wilder (as the reluctant physician of a dubious legacy) and cast are truly suited to their roles, especially misaligned eyed comedian Marty Feldman, who plays Dr. Frankenstein, ahem, Frahnk-en-steen's assistant Igor.

Well, by the time the good doctor travels to Transylvania to check on the family estate, he has given in to his checkered lineage.  His dismissal of the plausibililty of re-animating dead bodies changes after he reads his grandfather's old journals, and soon Frankenstein and Igor, aided by the shapely and flirtatious laboratory assistant Inga (Teri Garr), bring a rather large cadaver to life.  Unfortunately, Igor mucked up the doctor's instructions to retrieve the brain (from the local Brain Depository, of course) of a noted intellectual and instead brought home one from a jar marked "Abnormal".

What is interesting about YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN is while it is consistently funny, it may not evoke all that many belly laughs. Certainly far less than some of Brooks other pictures.  This is a movie one smiles through more often than holding his or her sides.  The humorous possibilities build, are carefully laid and gel into "comedic interest" rather than are randomly dropped into a scene for an easy gag (most of the time).  Peter Boyle's performance as "The Monster" is wonderfully earthy yet graceful.  He's really skillful with his eyes, almost as much so as Feldman.

I particularly enjoyed moments with The Monster and the blind hermit, nicely played by Gene Hackman. With that scene and as with Boris Karloff long before him, we feel a certain sympathy and pity for The Monster, and Brooks never merely treats him as an endless gag.  There is a funny twist on that scene from the original film with the little girl by the lake.   And how he sings "Puttin' on the Ritz" does always make me laugh out loud.

P.S.  Kenneth Mars is quite amazing as Inspector Kemp, he of the exaggerated German accent and prosthetic arm.  His movements suggest that of a figurine, a wind up toy.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Sleepwalkers

There are really only two reasons to watch 1992's SLEEPWALKERS: the women and the cats.  Two of God's best, most beguiling creations.  One of the few things this movie manages to achieve with any degree of success is the utilization of these creatures for sheer intrigue.  You might take issue with my calling a woman a "creature", but "Mary Brady" (Alice Krige) is in fact a shape shifter, a sort of vampire whose source of fuel comes from virgin women.  She employs her son/lover "Charles" (Brian Krause) to use his good looks and charms to lure pretty young things back to their house for the refueling.

The incestuous pair (yes, there's a sex scene) have taken their act on the road, forced to vacate more than one town as in their wake they've left corpses....and trees filled with dead cats.  Felines are the Bradys' mortal enemies, for reasons that are never quite elucidated in Stephen King's original screenplay.  King (who has a cameo, of course) doesn't really explain much at all about these nomads, whose mirror reflections reveal the alien-looking beasts within. What of their lineage?  I guess it doesn't matter.  The movie establishes from its first scene that this will be nothing more than a dopey popcorn muncher.  Why is it when King writes for movies that his unusually perceptive takes on the human condition and psychology are muted, quite unlike that in his novels? SLEEPWALKERS and the King directed MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE are just so, dumb.

Most horror fans don't care, but films like SLEEPWALKERS don't help non-fans take this genre any more seriously.  Apparently King had some unfinished ideas for a short story or novella, and decided instead to write a screenplay.  The raw materials are there for a decent tale.  Director Mick Garris does competent work, but his staging of big moments is usually unexciting and by-the-numbers.  An example would be the graveyard scene, when latest would-be victim Tanya (Madchen Amick) suddenly realizes the cute guy in her creative writing class is not the beau she was looking for.   The struggle between them is blocked awkwardly, and the awful special effects certainly don't help.  In fact, cheesy visuals undermine several key scenes.  Were Tom Savini and Richard Edlund too busy for this gig?

Some of Garris' buddies in the biz, such as directors Tobe Hooper, Joe Dante, and John Landis, have brief, undistinguished cameos.  None are especially good actors.

Ms. Krige, however, does some effective work as the ghoulish matriarch.  She portrays the right dangerous mix of sexiness and otherworldliness.  Amick manages to be both cute and lust worthy.  That gang of cats forever hanging outside the Brady house also have their moments, though not enough of them.  Clovis is a real hero, though. 


P.S. Fans of FERRIS BUELLER'S DAY OFF may enjoy two of the other casting choices.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Get Out

I watched this year's GET OUT the night before the violence unfolded in Charlottesville, Virginia.  I had this film on my mind the entire weekend afterward. Timing.  Many feel that writer/director Jordan Peele's horror film was a runaway smash because it opened soon after the victory of Donald Trump.  The "Make America Great Again" a platitude at best, a thinly veiled call to the multitude of  racist Caucasians at worst to many Americans.  When a neo Nazi rammed his car into a crowd of counter protestors, after a day of demonstrations by white supremacists who carried tiki torches that appeared to be purchased from Bed, Bath, & Beyond,  this movie's themes loomed larger, more forboding, more resonant.

It's a horror film, with traditional scary music by Michael Abels and jump out the shadows scares.  A terrible moment of realization that your friend is actually your enemy.  There are also campy moments of mad doctor brain surgery, stabbings, impalings, and more.  Peele is paying homage to directors of several eras.  Had it been a "straight" terror pic with an empty head, it would've merely been an impressive calling card for a new talent.  But the director has created something far more ominous and thoughtful.  I'm pleased to at least think that the film was wildly popular because it touched a collective nerve, got folks talking.  Many thrillers mask political and social themes with shocks and mayhem, or at least use those elements to personify them.  What is the real terror out there?

Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is joining his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) for a weekend at her parents' home in the country.  Potentially intimidating, especially for a black man dating a white girl.  Even in present day.  Dean (Bradley Whitford), a physician and Missy (Catherine Keener), a hypnotherapist are hospitable and warm, but something is odd about their African American help.  Walter (Marcus Henderson) and Georgina (Betty Gabriel) seem very Stepford like in their relentless politeness, speaking like those who are trying to put on a performance for listening ears while meanwhile plotting something.

What's happening? GET OUT is a film of surprises, so I won't reveal them.  The eventual explanations owe to the great traditions of horror and science fiction, and even as we plunge deeply into some pretty improbable and outrageous scenarios, the film is always driving home some pretty devastating points.  Peele's screenplay ingeniously uses historic events with real life notables to figure into the latter day plot, which again makes some uncomfortable proclamations about racism.  The more I think on the script, the more impressive it is, even if at first glance the movie is plotted like many a genre offering.

But look deeper.  And carefully.  Even the smallest of moments mean something, and go back the very real themes of discrimination, something sadly still faced by our brother and sisters of color.    Peale wants to entertain, and certainly does, but also wants you the feel uncomfortable for more reasons than your usual horror movie hangover.


Thursday, October 5, 2017

The Blob

SPOILERS!

I've always heard that 1958's THE BLOB was an allegory for Communism.  I guess you don't have to dig too deeply.  The film's antagonist, an ever expanding red colored glob of what resembles raspberry jam, engulfs residents of Everytown, U.S.A. before it is discovered that anything cold is the only defense.  It's all right there.  If you need any other overt signs, check the scene where a little boy, clad in cowboy duds, symbolically fires his cap guns at the blob, of course to no avail.

And other than grocery store freezers and carbon dioxide from fire extinguishers, nothing can stop this mysterious gelatinous blob, which originates within a meteorite and one night lands in a rural Pennsylvania town.  Local teens, led by twenty-seven year old "Steven" McQueen as Steve, try in vain to convince the police that something is out there, killing folks.  The reasonable Lieutenant (Earl Rowe) and his hard ass Sergeant (John Benson) have been pranked too many times in the past by these hot rodders to buy such a wild tale, especially since there is no trace of the blob or its victims. 

Criterion has included this low budget sci-fi/horror in its library and you may come to the conclusion of it wondering just why.  Historical significance, for sure.  All the political subtext, probably.  The screenwriters deny that they created anything other than a modest chiller meant to play the drive-in circuit, but again, the case can certainly be made.   THE BLOB is a fairly serious movie, with far fewer unintentional laughs than expected.  McQueen is just so earnest in the lead, though there is at least one moment where he appears to be holding in a chuckle.

Director Irvin Yeaworth does a workman's job, maintaining something that resembles suspense without actually making you feel that anxious. Admirably, he doesn't give us too many shots of the red mess.  Less is more. Less is more.  Yeaworth does wring an emotion or two when our heroes are trapped in the cellar of a diner.  Prior to that, the blob infiltrates the town cinema, interrupting that classic of expressionist terror, DAUGHTER OF HORROR.

Monday, October 2, 2017

It

The current IT is indeed one of the best filmed Stephen King adaptations. Faint praise? I cite THE SHINING, THE DEAD ZONE, STAND BY ME, MISERY, CARRIE, SALEM'S LOT, and a handful of others in that small class.  All classics to some degree.  The novel It was one of King's epic horrors that was more about how folks band together than perhaps the very thing that terrorized them.  But yes, the terror does often define them as well.  This would certainly be the case with this story of a group of adolescents in small town Maine who are scared shitless by a malevolent clown who hangs out in sewers and wells and scary old houses, waiting to lure children to a gruesome death.

I only saw bits and pieces of the miniseries that aired in the early '90s, so I can't comment on that.  I've heard that Tim Curry was quite animated as the clown. 

IT opens with a young boy tragically reaching out for his toy in a storm drain.  The evil known as Pennywise is there, and he seems to know a lot about Georgie, and his older brother Bill, who gave him the paper sailboat.  The clown mauls and abducts Georgie, who joins the many who mysteriously vanish in the town of Derry.  We'll learn later that over the past few hundred years, cycles of missing children plagued the town.  What is Pennywise anyway? Is he, er, it real? An embodiment of their fears?  Of everyone's?

The time period from the novel has been switched from the late 1950s to the late 1980s. This allows for some nifty period jokes and references for us Gen Xers.  Here is a rundown of most of our heroes, the "Losers' Club":

Bill (Jason Lieberher), who stutters, is the leader of a group of social outcasts who are chased by town bullies and trade the usual boy insults.  Richie (Finn Wolfhard) is the funniest, a smart and foul mouthed brat with huge glasses that overwhelm his face. Stan (Wyatt Oleff) is the son of a rabbi who is having difficulty focusing on his upcoming bar mitzvah due to his lack of interest.  Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) is the hypochondriac and germaphobe of the group.  He has a smothering mother who is clearly the source of such misery.  Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) is the new kid who is painfully shy and overweight, an easy target for the bullies who call him "tits".  Mike (Chosen Jacobs) is the African American, homeschooled kid, a sensitive soul.  Bev (Sophia Lillis) is the one girl, who suffers an unfair reputation at school for promiscuity and very real sexual abuse from her father.

As many have stated, IT is like THE GOONIES in many ways, and the comparison is favorable and accurate.  Siimilarities to STAND BY ME are also inevitable.   IT plays best as an ode to friendship, to beating the odds, to never quitting, even when things are really, really bad.  To growing up.  Old hat cornball stuff, but it works.  The movie is well cast; the kids are endearing and most of the adults are portrayed effectively as either evil or worthless or both.  This is a kid's story after all.  And King really captured how a kid's story would be told, with outrageously heightened imagery.

The screenplay of IT (one of its writers is original director Cary Fukunaga) makes changes and omissions from the novel that in my opinion do not detract.  Director Andy Muschietti delivers the shock scenes with panache and serious intensity, although sometimes his film feels like a clumsy volley between the frightening and the heartwarming. Bill Skarsgard plays Pennywise with a terrifying ferocity, always out in the open, ready to scare the you know what out of everyone. We may see a bit too much of him, but he does in fact own every moment, CGI or not.  Skarsgard seems to have a good handle on how this particular brand of evil would act as a clown manifestation.

Overall, this movie delivers the goods, and is finally just good old fashioned scary fun.  The end credits inform us that we just watched Chapter One.  You do know this story picks up years later, when the kids are adults, right? We'll see if the producers milk this franchise for more than one sequel.  Or a miniseries...

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Horror Month '17

I never planned for this to be an annual thing, but here we are once again. Horror month!  This October will be devoted exclusively to films designed to make you shudder and clutch your date, should you be blesssed with one.  Maybe laugh, too, intentionally or otherwise.  There is one spoof among the offerings.  A Stephen King adaptation, and another that the author penned for the screen himself.  Another is a highly regarded classic piece of camp. There is also a very socially conscious thriller.  An Iranian "horror" film.  A Canadian one, too.  Two of the films were released this year.  I don't see many contemporary chillers, but these are worth the time.

Turn down the lights and enjoy!

Friday, September 29, 2017

Out West, Part Three

You see I-84 cut through this beautiful landscape, a shot taken from a hiking trail at Multnomah Falls, outside of Portland, Oregon.  We took that interstate back west from Boise, Idaho after a nice few days with our friends.  In the last entry we discussed our strolls through its downtown.  To cap that wonderful day, we drove deep into Idaho City to a hot spring resort.  Sorry, I do not have the name, shame on me.  There are several in Idaho City.  Ours had a giant swimming pool and a hot tub, all filled with natural source water.  A blues quartet came out to play for awhile.  You can rent a private bungalow with its own hot tub, if you wish.  This was a much needed few hours of bliss.   Later that night, we were back downtown for some dinner at Red Feather Lounge.

The next morning we were back on 84, Multnomah bound.  One rest stop had some interesting bits of history about the old trail on which we were driving.  Travel was far more perilous in earlier times.

We had a delicious brunch at the Oregon Trail Restaurant in Baker City along the way.  Squirrels had their lunch right outside our window.  The waitress knew them by name, telling us how one only had one eye.  Smalltown life such as this has a great appeal to me, and hearing this lady describe such detail made me want to stay around there a little while.

At long last we made it to Multnomah Falls in the town of Bridal Veil.  It is an expectedly tranquil, beautiful site. There is an historic Lodge and restaurant that dates back to the 1920s.  The falls have two major drops, with a footbridge near the lower.  We hiked to the upper - the trail was about a mile and a half each way.  You reach a point at the apex where the breezes from the waterfall feel like natural air conditioning.  You want to stay around awhile there too.

We were there on September 1st. On Sept. 2 a wildfire began along Eagle Creek Trail, pushed by winds toward the falls and the Lodge.  I-84 was shut down in both directions around the site.  Firefighters battled the blaze for days  The flames had wrapped around the waterfall, heading for the Lodge.  It was eventually contained, but the area is now closed to tourists for an indefinite amount of time.  I read that over one million visit yearly.  We were among them.  We were there one day before the fires (said to have started from a kid's firework) engulfed this beautiful area, with its winding trails and majestic cliffs.  One day.  Blows my mind.  We were among the last to wander around this amazing place before the disaster.  The Lodge has been saved, the water still rushes down.  I wonder about that lovely trail we took and hope it hasn't been scorched beyond recognition.  I realize that the vegetation and trees will grow back, but I look at these and many other pictures we took and feel I likewise have captured things that are now forever lost.

So yes, we flew out the next day.  The night before, we stayed in a hotel near the airport and had pie at Shari's, a chain found also in California and Washington state.  I was sad to leave Oregon, a place I could definitely see myself.  Natural beauty all around, with hipster culture aplenty in Portland if you seek it.  I'm glad I didn't know about the fires until after I was back home.  The long plane ride back would've been even sadder.  The entire trip was filled with awesome sights that have become sweet memories.  I pray this view hasn't been tainted too much.