Monday, August 25, 2008


Okay, so I've been having some trouble with Netflix mailing me my movies, and have been twiddling my thumb for at least a week now.

They're working on fixing the problem and should be sending me my movies soon, so for right now I'm calling this thing to a halt for about a week. I'd planned this whole activity out with the intention of watching, for the most part, movies I had never seen. The idea of writing for the next week about movies I've already seen didn't really interest me, mostly because it seems like a waste of a week of movie watching.

So, with the holiday coming up and my first week of a new semester of school starting now, I'm just going to put everything on hold unitl Tuesday, September 2nd. From that point on, I've got 310 movies to watch in the 310 days that follow. I know, in "reality" I'm a couple movies behind, but September 2nd will be the reset button.

I blame Netflix. They provide a great service for a great price. But I still blame them.

See you in a week, whoever you are.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

#54, #55: GRINDHOUSE (Planet Terror and Death Proof


Planet Terror
Directed by Robert Rodriguez
Written by Robert Rodriguez
Released June 21, 2007

Death Proof
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Written by Quentin Tarantino
Released June 21, 2007

In the Summer of 2007, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez teamed up to pay homage to 70s B-movies and bring back the midnight movie double-feature experience. The whole package was called Grindhouse, a reference to the name given the brand of cinema shown at grimy old film houses that specialized in fare like kung-fu, horror and exploitation movies.

In my opinion, it was a goddamn shame that this package, which paired Rodriguez's sci-fi/horror Planet Terror with Tarantino's Jaws-via-cars thriller Death Proof, was not a box office hit. It kind of befuddled me... What's not to love about two movies for the price of one? About zombies and car chases? About machine guns and machine-gun mouths? Sex, blood and rock and roll?

Personally, I could sit at a movie theater for hours. In fact, I wish they just charged by the hour ($2 is a suggestion). I kind of hate summer, so when I used to live in Chicago, I would go to some cavernous multi-plex and plan out an afternoon of sneaking around inside. Grindhouse was right up my alley. I saw it three times in its theatrical release, and it was fun every time. Buy a giant soda and sneak in some booze and a few cheeseburgers... good times, good times.

Sadly, the pairing of those two movies pretty much bombed in theaters, and the double feature idea was nixed by the time the films saw release in the U.K.. Same goes for the DVDs: both films we released separately. Maybe I'm a purist, but the idea that these movies were meant as a whole experience, I can't watch one without the other. Tonight, with Netflix leaving me high and dry, I paired the movie, got properly inebriated, grabbed a bunch of sodas and snacks, and watched Grindhouse proper.

Save one exception: the fake movie previews that separated Rodriguez and Tarantino's films are not on either DVD. Rodriguez's awesome Machete preview still comes before Planet Terror, so at least they got it half right. Machete, by the way, looks like it could have been Danny Trejo's best role ever, and the movie doesn't even really exist. "He just fucked with the wrong Mexican!" Supposedly, Rodriguez is talking about actually filming the movie. That makes me happy.

We go from Danny Trejo and Cheech Marin blowing away whitey with double shotguns and a flying motorcycle attack to Rodriguez's almost note perfect tribute to the movies of George Romero and John Carpenter. Planet Terror is like Night of the Living Dead meets a Chuck Norris movie. The dialogue is appropriately keyed to those old movie scripts, with childish yet hilarious dialogue like:

"Where's the shit?"
"The shit's right there. The deal is still good."

and, my favorite:

"I want to eat your brains and gain your knowledge."

Rodriguez's masterstroke is hiring great B-movie actors like Michael Biehn, Jeff Fahey and Tom Savini (who is hilarious in his role as an inept police deputy) alongside a restrained Bruce Willis and the never better Freddie Rodriguez (no relation to the director). Rodriguez makes a great, if surprising, heavy, and it's his conviction that sells the movie. Everyone looks like they're having a blast, and playing their roles without once blinking at the audience to make sure we know this is all a tribute.

In addition, you've got pretty much the beginning of the resurrection of Josh Brolin. He looks as he if has stepped right off a classic Carpenter movie and into his role as a somewhat mad, definitely malicious doctor.

Throw in the barrage of nonstop and over-the-top violence (wait until you see what Rodriguez puts his own son through during the handgun scene!), the varied and effective score and special effects that make the movie look like you're watching it on a sketchy projector that could very well melt the entire reel of film at any time, and you've got yourself a damn good time.

This one got great crowd reactions every time I saw it in the theater, especially in the scene where Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas nearly gets run down in the middle of the highway and a driver yells, "Get out of the fuckin' road, bitch!" There's also an incredibly clever device at a key scene where Rodriguez employs a "Missing Reel" joke. A stand-up comic has daydreams about getting the kind of laugh out of a crowd this scene evoked from the audience when it suddenly snaps back to the next reel.

Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof has a tough act to follow, and in some ways, it fails in comparison to Rodriguez's movie. Comparing the two isn't wholly fair, since they are two very different genre films. Planet Terror is the movie of the two that is more capable of standing on its own, outside of the double feature format. Death Proof is, in some ways, about movies (and isn't that the case with almost all of Tarantino's films?). It's kind of the Scream of car chase/suspense movies; it takes time out to essentially deconstruct the genre it is attempting to enlighten you on.

Remember earlier, when I reviewed The Seven Ups, and said it was basically an average movie built around one very awesome car chase? That's what Death Proof is, and it's one of the greatest of its particular genre. These movies were typically low budget, and whatever budget they had was mostly reserved for that one white knuckle car chase. The rest was typically a bunch of random dialogue.

If it's random dialogue you want, Tarantino has never been more your man than in this movie. This is, unfortunately, part of the problem. The first 20 to 25 minutes is non-stop jibber jabber, mostly from an annoying character named "Jungle" Julia. Jungle Julia is basically Tarantino sees himself: as a black woman. Julia spouts off pop culture minutae and is trying so hard to act cool that it's embarassing. If you've ever seen Quentin Tarantino get interviewed on a talk show, this is exactly what he's like.

Of course, when Tarantino himself shows up as a bartender and annoys instantly (he's much better as the military douchebag in Planet Terror), which means for several minutes there are TWO Tarantino characters on screen, trying to out cool each other.

A "director's cut" of a movie can swing both ways. In the case of Death Proof, the added or extended scenes don't really add up to much here, but it is nice to watch Russell chew scenery for a few more minutes. Oh yeah, and there's the matter of that lap dance to The Coasters' "Down in Mexico." It's hard to explain how the lap dance arises, but the scene where Kurt Russell negotiates for it is a perfect level of creepy and seducing. When you see what Russell has planned for this crew of ladies (scored to the scorching garage rock of Dave Dee, Dozy, Mick and Tich), it makes the lap dance seduction that much more evil. Watch the "accident" I'm referring to in slow motion if you happen to rent the movie. You'll see what I mean.

The bulk of the extra scenes come right where brevity is needed. You know the killer, you've seen his m.o., lets get to that wicked awesome car chase. Instead, we're talking about, what, inport issues of ItalianVogue? Tarantino even manages to insert us into a long conversation about car chase movies between the four new targets of Stuntman Mike's attention. It's almost like he's apologizing for the sheer nothingness of the second half of his script: four women attempt to test drive a car. Hey, at least in this movie he's supposed to be stealing from other movies.

Again, the appearance of Russell pulls you out of the doldrums, and the movie explodes into a near 20 minute, three act deadly car chase, and it really is worth the wait. Zoe Bell, a stuntwoman playing herself, does some work on the hood of a car that will scare the shit out of you, and that's before Stuntman Mike shows up.

I won't give away any more, but I will say that revenge has had few better payoffs than the final scene in Death Proof.

Watching these two movies tonight was fun, but I would love to do something like this in a theater. I've been looking around trying to see how much it would cost to rent a theater out for a night. I'd love to screen a couple of movies, maybe even on Halloween night, for friends as a big party. Sneak in some booze, watch a couple of slasher flicks and yell at the screen. That's worth almost any price in my book.

For more on Planet Terror:
- The usual links at IMDB and Wikipedia.

For more on Death Proof:
- IMDB and Wikipedia.

This YouTube video of Eli Roth's fake trailer for a horror movie called Thangsgiving, shot in a crowded theater, is a great example of what seeing these movies with a knowing crowd was like:

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

#52, #53: Star Wars: The Clone Wars vs. The Empire Strikes Back


Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Directed by Dave Filoni
Written by Henry Gilroy, Steven Melching, and Scott Murphy (story, characters by George Lucas)
Released August 15, 2008

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
Directed by Irvin Kershner
Written by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan (story by George Lucas)
Released May 21, 1980

For the second time this summer, George Lucas's complete ineptitude has sent me retreating backwards twenty years into my life in attempt to reassure myself that I'm not a complete idiot.

The first time came after witnessing the cinematic abortion that was Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The level of anger and betrayal I felt coming out of that movie (fucking aliens, a wedding scene, the goddamn TARZAN SEQUENCE?!) was like nothing I'd ever felt as a moviegoer... and I sat through Lucas's three horrible Star Wars prequels!

The level of inept creativity in that movie made me doubt the entire franchise, and I immediately went home and plopped the Raiders of the Lost Ark DVD into my player to make sure I hadn't misrepresented the quality of that movie in my mind.

I hadn't. Raiders is really a fantastic film that raises the bar on genre filmmaking by treating what would usually be a campy kind of nod to old serial adventure movies with utter seriousness and believability. The same thing goes for Star Wars, and especially the second film in that original trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back.

Empire is not just a great Sci-Fi/Fantasy film; it's a great movie, period. Lucas's defense of his ridiculous second trilogy has always included some sort of reliance on his belief that "These movies are for children." Lucas's terrible error with those movies is making the assumption that just because something is for children means it can get away with being stupid. Empire, in a way, defies that notion, or at least allows for the fact that children can and will deal with mature material. It has a love story. It has themes of brutal betrayal, with a father cutting off the hand of his own son and a friend selling out another friend to near fatal results. There's even a training sequence where Luke Skywalker essentially beheads Darth Vader and sees his own face behind the mask. In the first ten minutes alone you have Luke cutting an animal to pieces and Han stuffing Luke into the stinking fresh corpse of an animal to keep him warm.

Kids may like it, but this is not kid's stuff.

After struggling through the most recent Star Wars trilogy, I did not have high hopes for The Clone Wars. Honestly, I had no hope at all; with no intention of ever giving George Lucas another dime of my money, I snuck into a showing after a viewing of Tropic Thunder. The only plus I could see was that, much like Empire's use of a different director (which frankly made all the difference in the world), Lucas had given the reigns to film his ideas over to someone else. Unfortunately, it's his ideas that ain't what they used to be.

The Clone Wars takes place between the second and third of Lucas's new prequels, and tells a story that is completely unnecessary and quite boring. It bores me just to think about typing it out right here, so I'm going to make this short: amidst a series of mind numbing battle scenes, Anakin Skywalker (the young man who will become Darth Vader) and his newly assigned padawan ("trainee") Ahsoka Tano must rescue the kidnapped child of Jabba the Hutt to ensure use of Jabba's trade routes. So, yeah... it's the epic story of getting this asshole's baby back so they can use his interstate.

When I say "mind numbing battle scenes," I don't think you can really appreciate just how pummeling and constant these scenes are in the movie. Plus, these battles are primarily being fought by machines, robots and clones, so there is no dramatic heft to any of them. Since you know there is another movie following this that features almost all of the primary characters presented here, there is virtually no dramatic tension.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit to leaving The Clone Wars a little over an hour into the movie (actually, it was just as one character shouted, "We've got to get out of here!"). To put it bluntly, it was un-fucking-bearable. Put up against Empire, it turns to complete dogshit. There is more emotion in Chewbacca's cries, and so much more at stake, as Han is being frozen in carbonite than there is in the entirety of The Clone Wars. The animation is a mixture of computer animation that looks like scenes taken directly from the new trilogy and wood carvings that look exactly like the action figures I'm sure Lucas is salivating to put into stores.

The voice acting is almost uniformly irritating. Not only that, but there is no dialogue in The Clone Wars that can even come close to this 5 word exchange from Empire, one of the greatest dialogue exchanges in the history of film (Harrison Ford's line was ad-libbed, making it that much cooler):

(Just before Han is to be frozen and handed over to bounty hunter Boba Fett)

Princess Leia: "I love you."
Han Solo: "I know."

Hot damn! That's Casablanca-level Hollywood, baby, and that's the kind of subtlety that Lucas could never duplicate, "clones" or not. If you haven't seen it in a while, check out Empire again and take note of what a classic kind of movie it is, and how different it is from all the other Star Wars flicks. It's so much darker and more dramatic, with really good acting from Ford and Carrie Fischer, and even from Mark Hamill, who wasn't exceptional in the first film. There's virtually no space battles, especially compared to the constant shit you have to put up with in The Clone Wars and Lucas's other prequels. No Jar Jar Binks, no baby Jabbas, nothing cute at all, and it ends on an incredibly depressing couple of notes. Even when I saw it in the theater as a child, I could sense the complexity and appreciated the fact that I wasn't being pandered to.

Pretty remarkable, especially for a kid's movie.

George Lucas, you're a jackass.

For more on The Empire Strikes Back and The Clone Wars:
- TONS of information on the former at IMDB and Wikipedia. Learn more about the latter at the official site and
- Episode V at Star

- If you're looking to find Empire on DVD, I higly suggest picking it up used on Ebay or George Lucas does not need your cash. Look for the 2 DVD edition that came out for a limited time in 2006, because it's the only way you'll ever get to own the original, un-tinkered with version that came out in theaters. Ironically, it's included as "bonus material" on the second disc of the Special Edition version.

Luke vs. Darth Vader, from The Empire Strikes Bake:

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

#51: Tropic Thunder


Tropic Thunder
Directed by Ben Stiller
Written by Ben Stiller, Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen
Released August 13, 2008

You need no other reason than Robert Downey Jr.'s performance as Australian method actor Kirk Lazarus to see Ben Stiller's hilarious Tropic Thunder. After the success of Iron Man, Downey was on top of the world; this performance, as an actor lost inside of his role as the African American leader of a platoon of a Vietnam-movie-within-a-movie, sends him into the stratosphere.

If his performance was all this comedy had going for it, it would be worth the price of admission. Luckily, there is so much more going on here, from the spot-on fake previews before the opening credits (Jack Black's scatological The Fattys: Fart 2 being the most perfect lambasting of terrible Eddie Murphy-style comedies) to the incredible ensemble cast that brings out two very surprising performances from Tom Cruise and Matthew McConaughey.

The entire movie is pretty much the ballsiest comedy since... hell, I can't even tell you a movie in recent memory with the audacity and balls that Tropic Thunder has on display. The closest analogy I can draw is that it comes from the same well of bravery that inspired someone like Chris Rock when he wrote his famous "I hate N*****s" routine, or George Carlin's "7 Words You Can't Say on TV." Basically, "Damn your sensibilites, I'm getting laughs here, at any cost." Endangered species are murdered. Crew members explode violently. Cruise spews more curse words than he has in his entire career. Even Nick Nolte's insanity is wrangled and used to great effect.

I'm sure you know the plot by now: four pampered stars (joined by Jay Baruchel as the straight man) are dropped off alone into the jungle to inspire them to new performance heights while filming a Vietnam drama. Little do they know, the war going on around them (they are under attack by a local and very deadly drug cartel) is actually real. Luckily, what could have been just a one-joke movie quickly spins out of control and pretty much devolves -- in a good way -- into near complete insanity.

Tropic Thunder is a movie about crazy people, seemingly made by crazy people. The craziest thing of all is how much money was spent to make it (the budget is rumored to be more than $150 million). While assembling this cast certainly cost a chunk of change, you can really see a lot of that money up there on the screen, with explosive action set pieces and the kind of top notch cinematography (John Toll, director of photography of The Thin Red Line and Gone Baby Gone) that you'd normally find in the kind of films Tropic Thunder lampoons.

Be forewarned, though: this movie is for the kind of people who know the movie industry well enough to understand why things like the controversial use of "retard" and Downey's "never go full retard" acting lesson to Stiller AREN'T MAKING FUN OF THE DISABLED. They are making fun of Hollywood, actors and their pretentious attempts to win awards and accolades by making self-important movies that manage to dehumanize the very afflicted they think they're honoring.

To accuse Stiller and friends of anything otherwise is pretty re--.... ridiculous.

For more on Tropic Thunder:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia
- Check out the official site.

The Tropic Thunder trailer you've probably seen a thousand times:

Monday, August 18, 2008

#50: King Corn


King Corn
Directed by Aaron Woolf
Written by Aaron Woolf, Ian Cheney, Curtis Ellis and Jeffrey K. Miller
Released 2007

Just a little bizarre trivia note before I kick off the synopsis: when you type King Corn into a search on the Internet Movie Database, the first link that comes up is not to this movie, but rather to porn legend Ron "The Hedgehog" Jeremy. I don't even want to know why.

Unfortunately, that may be the most interesting thing I have to present in this review.

King Corn is a 2007 documentary about farming, the corn industry and the effect that the prevalent use of the little yellow grain has had on our diets, our economy and our landscape. While the premise behind it -- two college friends return to the small Iowa town where both had distant relatives in the corn industry to grow their own acre of corn -- is original, it's a stunt that doesn't completely pay off.

Part of the problem is that the subject matter doesn't exactly lend itself to the kind of homegrown, aw-shucks, wanna-be-funny documentary these guys are trying to make. To be quite honest, I don't give a shit about the acre of corn they're growing. Frankly, I don't give a shit about them, either. If you're going to pick a topic that walks on the borderline of boredom like corn, step it up a little, do your homework, and present me with some more information in a more timely manner. Quit messing around in the frozen field with the wiffle ball bat (these guys are so green they move to Iowa in January to start their crop) and shock me, for Christ's sake!

I know, I'm overreacting a little bit. King Corn was made with the best of intentions. It's just that if you're going to go through all the trouble to make a movie and talk about important issues like the dangers of high fructose corn syrup or the disastrous effect that commercial farming has had on the family farm, I'd rather you didn't waste time wandering around in a field pretending to be completely naive about a topic you obviously care about deeply. Shit, The King of Kong was just a documentary about two nerds battling for a high score in Donkey Kong, and yet it had more dramatic tension in its opening credits than you fit into this entire movie. Seriously, go rent that movie; that is how you make a documentary out of a subject that could have been completely boring.

If I may examine my own project for a moment, I must admit that it is movies like this -- the ones that fill me with neither love nor rage -- that are the hardest to write about. It has taken me HOURS to spit out this horrible review. It proves to me yet again that I'd rather watch a bad movie than a boring one.

For more on King Corn:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia
- Buy the DVD from the official site

The official trailer from YouTube:

Sunday, August 17, 2008

#49: If. . .


If. . .
Directed by Lindsay Anderson
Written by David Sherwin and John Howlett
Released December 19, 1968 (UK), March 9, 1969 (USA)

"One man can change the world with a bullet in the right place."

Maybe I needed to be British to "get" If..... Or maybe I had to be growing up in the late '60s. Maybe I need a more nuanced understanding of the English class system of the era. Maybe I need to be 10 years older, or more likely 10 years younger.

If.... is a really well made (fine acting, great use of color, great set decoration, a stunningly beautiful transfer that probably looks better than it even did on screen) -- yet not exceptionally good -- movie. It wants to be a satire, but it lacks the sense of humor or storytelling focus to pull off making any type of grand statements. At best, the movie is a revenge fantasy, with an emphasis on fantasy.

The story involves three nonconformist boys, including Malcolm McDowell in his first film role, at a strict-to-the-point-of-fascism private school. Gradually, they are given harsher punishments for their behavior, and make a pact to rebel. As the film progresses, things get more surreal and dreamlike, making it harder to follow and even more difficult to understand if any of this is actually happening, or if this has all become McDowell's daydream.

A key scene which really begins the blurring of reality -- and one of the better scenes in the movie -- involves McDowell's Mick Travis stealing a motorcycle and riding off into a nearby town with a friend. They enter a seemingly abandoned cafe, and McDowell has a bizarre sexually charged (and most likely imagined) moment with the girl running the counter. She appears in later scenes, including the violent finale, possibly to signify that what you're seeing is not really happening.

Another confusing aspect of the film is use of black and white and color film. There is seemingly no reason for choosing one over the other in different scenes (and listening to the commentary track proves this theory correct). The effect of switching between the two becomes somewhat annoying once you realize there is no modus operandi behind it.

Thinking of the finale, I must admit that I can see how it was controversial, and would be probably even more controversial if used in an American film today. I'm afraid, however, that a massive school shoot-out would not have the same countercultural relevance in our country, but more of an antisocial, deplorably exploitative vibe. But then, we've been shooting our schools up for years.

For more on If. . .:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia
- Buy the Criterion DVD

The cafe scene from If.... (be forewarned, there is a brief bit of nudity here):

#48: Bad Taste


Bad Taste
Directed by Peter Jackson
Written by Peter Jackson, Tony Hiles and Ken Hammon
Released December 1987 (New Zealand), June 1989 (USA)

There is no way anyone could have ever predicted that Peter Jackson, director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, could have ever gone from a movie like Bad Taste to behing at the helm of one of the highest grossing, most popular series of films of all time. No way in hell.

Bad Taste is pretty much a bloody mess, and I mean that both literally and figuratively. If you're not into low budget horror movies that look like they were made on a home video camera, you might as well walk away right now. But, if the thought of an insanely gory movie about aliens who have come to a quiet New Zealand town to capture and kill humans to use as meat in their intergalactic fast food chain appeals to your less-than-delicate sensibilities, you might have a little fun with this movie.

Made on a shoestring budget that was apparently used solely on fake blood, brains, vomit and other violent special effects, Bad Taste is like a mixture of Heavy Metal Parking Lot and Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead. Cinephiles be forewarned: this movie looks like shit. While Jackson obviously has an eye for how to frame a shot or how to pace and edit for suspense or action, the grainy 16mm film virtually murders the use of any color or contrast.

The film quality can't, however, destroy the zany spirit of the movie. Let's face it: an exploding sheep is an exploding sheep. You don't need a $100,000 camera or high quality film stock to get a laugh out of that kind of imagery.

While Bad Taste isn't much of a movie (weak plot and acting, very little dialogue), it's a monument to homemade movie making and unstoppable creativity. Not a great movie, but worth a watch for the sick bastards who might be inclined to watch something like this.

For more on Bad Taste:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia
- Buy the DVD

The Bad Taste trailer:

Thursday, August 14, 2008

#47: The Boys from Brazil


The Boys from Brazil
Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner
Written by Heywood Gould (based on the novel by Ira Levin)
Released October 5, 1978 (USA)

Here's a sentence that may blow your mind: The Boys from Brazil is a Oscar-nominated film starring Gregory Peck, Sir Laurence Olivier, James Mason. . . and Steve Guttenberg.

Yep, before good old Officer Mahoney was lighting up the screen in gems like Police Academy, Cocoon and Short Circuit (and those were the good ones), he was rubbing elbows with greatness in a film directed by Franklin J Schaffner, who directed Patton and Planet of the Apes.

Fear not, movie watchers, for Guttenberg plays only a minor part in the larger story of Ezra Lieberman (Olivier), a Nazi hunter who is tipped off about a gathering of former Nazi war criminals gathering in Paraguay in a scheme to murder 94 civil servants. The head of the operation is none other than the ultimate Nazi villain, Dr. Josef Mengele (played with evil glee by Gregory Peck).

Mengele's master plan is far more sinister: **SPOILER WARNING**he intends to use DNA to create clones of Adolf Hitler. By inundating the world with these clones, he hopes that eventually one will again rise to power and return the Third Reich to its former glory.END SPOILER

Combining elements of horror, science fiction and suspense, The Boys from Brazil is a damn fine movie that would have fallen apart with lesser actors. Peck is imposing as the diabolical "Angel of Death" Mengele. His German accent is pretty terrible, but he's so good it doesn't matter. It's refreshing to see the noble Atticus Finch in a darker role, and you can tell that the usually heroic Peck is relishing the chance to do something new.

I challenge you not to burst out with laughter when Peck attacks one of his own accomplices at a Nazi dinner party, choking the man and throwing him to the ground. His wife cries out for a doctor, to which Peck responds, "I am a doctor, you ugly bitch!"

Olivier is also great as the aging Lieberman, who grows more serious and seemingly empowered as he pieces together the puzzle of Mengele's plan. His questioning of a German orphanage worker from her prison is riveting, and his clash with Mengele is as good as a fight scene between two old men can get.

One of the more interesting parts in the movie is the "role" played by a young teenager named Jeremy Black, in his only film role ever. **SPOILER WARNING**Black plays four of the Hitler clones, using varying accents and bringing a necessary air of creepiness to the film. I guess if you're only going to be in one movie in your lifetime, playing the role of four Hitlers is a pretty good way to go out. END SPOILER

I suppose it's a bit ridiculous to suggest that the director of classics like Patton and Papillon does a fantastic job behind the camera here, but I would be remiss not to mention it. A Sci-Fi premise like this could so easily have become campy and hilarious, but Schaffner plays it serious.

For more on The Boys from Brazil:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia
- Buy the DVD or Ira Levin's novel.

A scene from The Boys from Brazil between James Mason and Gregory Peck:

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

#46: La Strada


La Strada
Directed by Federico Fellini
Written by Federico Fellini, Tullio Pinelli and Ennio Flaiano
Released July 16, 1956 (USA), September 22, 1954 (Italy)

"La Strada" is Italian for "the road," but it also basically means "the way."

Much, much darker and sadder than I had anticipated, Federico Fellini's classic La Strada is a very simple story that, depending on your level of humanity, resonates in you long after viewing.

That simple story involves a cruel travelling strongman named Zampano (played by a brooding Anthony Quinn) who visits a poor family and pays 10,000 lira to make their oldest daughter Gelsomina (a strange bird played with Chaplin-esque physicality by Fellini's actual wife, Giulietta Masina) his wife and assistant.

Gelsomina, constantly beaten and shamed at the hands of Zampano, struggles to remain upbeat, finding joy in the smaller things like travelling, meeting new people and performing. Zampano's constant jealousy and domineering nature awaits her at ever turn, squashing her self-esteem. She is determined to keep her spirit intact until Zampano has a series of clashes with another travelling performer, a goofy (and honestly, annoying) clown played by Richard Baseheart.

In the scenes that follow, Quinn learns how the consequences of his ugly behavior make the difference between "the road" and "the way." Zampano may not learn how to be a better person, but he certainly learns that he is a bad person.

Like I said, it's not exactly the most uplifting experience (unless watching someone berate and slap the shit out of Charlie Chaplin in a non-amusing way puts a smile on your face), but the movie is very well made with some great photography and wonderful music by Nino Rota (you may recognize the name behind the music from The Godfather).

La Strada on disc is a fantastic example of the kind of commendable work that Criterion pulls off in their DVD releases. The picture quality, especially the purity of the black and white images, was so incredible that even scenes shot in drab and mundane locations popped off the screen with such contrast that they felt like you could run your fingers through the sands or feel the shade beneath a lone tree. It's no coincidence that this 365 movie excursion will see me trying to view as many of their re-releases as possible in the coming months.

For more on La Strada:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia
- Buy the DVD from the official Criterion site
- An interesting profile of Fellini

A brief clip from La Strada which somehow encapsulates the vibe of this film in under a minute:

Monday, August 11, 2008

#45: The Seven-Ups


The Seven-Ups
Directed by Philip D'Antoni
Written by Albert Ruben and Alexander Jacobs (from a story by Sonny Grosso)
Released December 14, 1973

Not to be confused with the 1964 documentary Seven Up!, The Seven-Ups is an all-but-forgotten early '70s crime film starring Roy Scheider (Jaws, All That Jazz) as a cop hunting down the person or persons responsible for the murder of one of his partners.

Scheider and his cohorts are part of the Seven-Ups, a secret crew of NYPD officers that uses questionable tactics to catch criminals seemingly out of reach from the usual arm of the law. (Their name comes from the minimal length of time their arrests will serve in prison: seven years or up.)

Scheider's crew is mistakenly blamed for a rash of kidnappings where mob kingpins are captured and held for ransom by men posing as police officers. Unfortunately, there's not a lot of mystery to this crime thriller, so we can pretty much see where it's heading from the moment Scheider's partner is killed.

More criminal than the film's predictability, though, it's just how damned drab the whole thing looks. There's virtually no color, no eyecatching scenery and no really impressive shots. There's very little keeping it from looking and feeling like a made-for-TV movie.

Well, there is one thing that raises The Seven-Ups above a certain level of forgetability: the tense, white knuckle car chase that occurs about halfway through the movie. Assembled by the same team of stunt drivers and coordinators that put together two of the greatest car chases in the history of film (Bullitt and The French Connection), this ten minute sequence belongs in the pantheon of all-time great chase scenes. It's a damn shame the rest of the movie, both preceding and following, can't live up to the intensity of this scene.

There are some good moments (like Scheider's character interrogating via the threat of death a mobster in his hospital bed) and some solid acting, but there's just no art to the thing. One of the final scenes of the movie, where the Seven-Ups hunt the movie's main killer, ends so lamely that you catch yourself wondering, "Is that really all there is?"

If you find yourself with the DVD on hand some night, check out the unintentionally hilarious "making of the scene" documentary about the car chase. The featurette was made at the time the film was made, so the Boogie Nights-era porn-esque narration can't help but make you laugh. It's pretty incredible when you learn that the chase scene took weeks to film. It's too bad the rest of the movie wasn't pored over with such intent.

For more on The Seven-Ups:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia
- Buy the DVD cheap at
- Roy Scheider was a damn fine actor, and was never better than in All That Jazz, a "musical" I regrettably forgot to mention the other night when I was bashing the genre. Check out this Sheider fan site for more.

The official movie trailer, on YouTube:

#44: The Man Who Laughs


The Man Who Laughs
Directed by Paul Leni
Written by J. Grubb Alexander, Walter Anthony, May McLean, Marion Ward and Charles E. Whittaker (from the Victor Hugo novel)
Released November 4, 1928

I was at first hesitant to watch The Man Who Laughs, a bit wary of taking in my first "silent" movie (I'm putting silent in quotes because the movie comes accompanied with a soundtrack of choreographed music and sound effects, along with background dialogue; the movie was completed just as movie houses were beginning to be equipped for sound). Part of what made me leery was, aside from my curiosity at how I'd respond to a movie with no dialogue, the movie's near 2-hour run time. Good god, that's a long time to go in silence.

Surprisingly, once I'd settled in to the idea, I found watching The Man Who Laughs almost soothing to watch, like a strange mixture of movie and novel (while there is no spoken dialogue, there are still a number of title cards interspersed throughout the movie).

It didn't hurt that the production value was pretty much as top notch as you can find for a movie of this era. Universal Pictures reportedly spent three years and upwards of $1,000,000 making it, essentially making it the Spider-Man 3 of its era. While I'm on the subject of comic book superheroes, I should mention my true motivation for renting The Man Who Laughs: the main character of Gwynplaine was the inspiration for the look (and in some cases, the backstory) of Batman's #1 enemy, The Joker.

As the story goes, Gwynplaine is the son of Lord Clancharlie, a political enemy of King James II. To lure Clancharlie, James kidnaps Gwynplaine. When the Lord comes out of hiding to retrieve his son, he is told -- before being executed -- that James has sold his son to gypsies, who have surgically carved a permanent grin on the boy's face so that he will always be laughing at his foolish father. Clancharlie is killed and Gwynplaine is abandoned by the gypsies in the midst of a horrible snowstorm. He saves an abandoned child and finds the doorstep of a philosopher and playwright named Ursus, who takes the children in and raises them.

The film flashes forward to find Gwynplaine and Dea (the abandoned child, who is blind) travelling with Ursus and performing plays for commoners who find absurd joy in his permanent disfigurment. Dea is in love with Gwynplaine, but he fears he is not worthy of her love because in her blindness, she does not know his true face. Gwynplaine's true identity is learned and his royalty is reinstated by Queen Anne, but for nefarious purposes.

The role of Gwynplaine is performed by Conrad Veidt, who makes the most of a performance where he is forced to show incredible sadness with a massive grin on his face (Veidt wore dentures with hooks in the corner of his mouth to produce the disturbing grin). Other actors turning in impressive performances are Phantom of the Opera's Mary Philbin as the blind Dea, Freaks' Olga Baclanova as the duchess who tries to seduce Gwynplaine, and Cesare Gravina as the fatherly Ursus.

While there remain very few silent movies of my list of "must see films," I'm open to any suggestions after catching The Man Who Laughs. I was definitely impressed with the craft (especially the stunt-filled finale, which includes a fairly gnarly attack from a dog named Homo, who may have given the film's best performance), the direction and the editing, especially considering the limitations and lack of technology of the era.

Sometimes you have to go back in time about 80 years to be able to see cinema in a "new" light.

For more on The Man Who Laughs:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia
- Roger Ebert's 2004 review of the movie. I hadn't read it before writing my review, but Ebert really nails some of the thoughts I had while watching, namely, "Silent films, like black-and-white films, add by subtracting. What they do not have enhances what is there, by focusing on it and making it do more work. When images cannot be discussed, they must explain themselves; when no colors are visible, all colors are potential. Watching the film again last night, I fell into a reverie, sometimes moved, sometimes amused, sometimes involved in a strange dreamlike way."

Since there is no official trailer, here's someone's homemade preview for the movie:

Sunday, August 10, 2008

#43: The Long Riders


The Long Riders
Directed by Walter Hill
Written by Bill Bryden, Steven Smith, Stacy Keach and James Keach
Released May 16, 1980

After taking in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford last month, my interest in both James and Ford was piqued. I searched around for other movies that might have told the same story and I stumbled into The Long Riders, a 1980 Western directed by Walter Hill (most famous for films like The Warriors and 48 Hours).

The Long Riders is a much different film from the slow moving Brad Pitt/Case Affleck, in much the same way that Tombstone is different than Wyatt Earp. The former, in both cases, plays more loosely with the truth while relying as much on action as drama. Unfortunately for The Long Riders, it does not follow Tombstone in being the better film of its pair.

That's not to say it's not a decent movie. There is much to recommend about The Long Riders. It benefits from a very interesting casting "gimmick" where the four groups of siblings in the film are portrayed by four groups of Hollywood brothers. Keith, David and Robert Carradine portray the Youngers, James and Stacey Keach portray the James brothers, Dennis and Randy Quaid play the Millers, and Christopher and Nicholas Guest play Charlie and Robert Ford.

Hill does a decent job with the action scenes, and I appreciated his (intended?) tribute to Sam Peckinpah through his use of slow motion during scenes of violence. The music, by Ry Cooder, is authentic. There's some nice scenery and a few memorable scenes... and...

Well, that's the problem. As a movie, this is a sturdy, serviceable piece of film making. It's not great, it's not bad, and it's a decent way to kill 100 minutes if you happen to stumble upon it on cable some afternoon.

While the aforementioned casting gimmick is interesting, it doesn't really pay off. Some of the acting, like that of James Keach, David Carradine and Keith Carradine, is very good, while other performances (the Quaid brothers, for example) just seem out of place or not on par with the story being told. Then, you have decent but minuscule performances from Stacey Keach and more notably the Guest brothers, making you wish you could have seen a bit more of them.

The story is a bit meandering, and it's easy to lose track of both the passage of time and the location of the action. I can remember two occasions where I was surprised to discover that months had passed between scenes, and that the characters were suddenly in Texas without my knowledge. I still can't decide if it was a plus or a minus when The Warriors' James Remar showed up for a somewhat ridiculous and extraneous knife fight.

To anyone who has seen The Assassination of Jesse James, the ending of this movie comes so abruptly that you might have to stifle a laugh. That thing you waited for two hours to happen in Assassination seems as if it was crammed into this movie for the lack of a better ending. It wouldn't seem like such an odd finale if the film had up to that point presented a singular point of view. It's almost as if you were watching The Breakfast Club and, in the final 4 minutes, you were told to believe that this entire movie had been about Anthony Michael Hall's character and not the rest of the people in the room.

Although, it would be kinda awesome if Brian got shot in the back at the end of that movie.

For more on The Long Riders:
- Movie information at IMDB and a slight entry at Wikipedia
- Buy the DVD.

The official trailer:

Friday, August 8, 2008

#42: Rififi


Directed by Jules Dassin
Written by Auguste Le Breton, Rene Wheeler and Jules Dassin (based on the novel by Le Breton)
Released April 13, 1955 (France)

Cold fucking blooded, and one of the greatest heist films ever made.

If you ever need single handed proof that the French are not a bunch of softies, Rififi (a title which basically translates to "rough and tumble") is the movie for you. The story of a criminal just out of jail who plans a massive heist as a sort of revenge against the people who wronged him, Rififi, despite being made 54 years ago, holds up as one of the best heist films ever made, and certainly a classic of French cinema.

One of most creatively daring and impressive things about the film is director Jules Dassin's decision to film the half hour heist, which takes place about halfway through the movie, with no dialogue or background movie. It pays off, creating tension by not interfering or overly inserting himself by distracting the audience from how a jewel heist like the one filmed here would need to be pulled off. Dassin even covers the planning of the heist with such a meticulous hand that the IMDB Trivia section for the film claims that the film was taken out of theaters in Mexico because thieves were learning too much about how to plan similar crimes.

Everything about Rififi is way ahead of its time, from the numerous acts of violence (like Jean Servais' character beating his ex with a belt before sending her out in the street) to Dassin's virtually flawless direction.

This was an especially special film for Dassin because the filmmaker was one of many in Hollywood who were blacklisted during the McCarthy era of communist witch hunting. He had been unable to make a movie for half a decade before Rififi came along, and this film became a hit in Europe and began the restoration of his reputation and good name.

Thank God for that, because this film is a triumph in every way. Fantastic acting, great dialogue, dark moments of classic film noir highlit by sly bits of dry humor. There's even a sexy musical number, and a riveting closing "car race" to end the movie that gets you to dig your toes into your carpet one last time before the credits roll.

Naturally, Hollywood has just announced a remake (they haven't changed the title yet, but I'd bet you dollars to doughnuts they will) starring Al Pacino. I'm trying not to get a bad taste in my mouth about that idea, but it's hard not to when the original is so masterfully made. Remember when they remade The Omen, or even worse, Psycho? What a waste of time and energy.

Part of the charm of a movie like this, or Psycho, is that joy of seeing a movie that came out so long ago and yet is so bold and in your face you catch yourself thinking, "They might not even be able to make a movie like this today."

Judging from some of those remakes, they simply cant.

For more on Rififi:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia
- Buy the Criterion DVD.

The official trailer:

Thursday, August 7, 2008

#41: Once


Directed by John Carney
Written by John Carney
Released March 22, 2007


You must know something about me: I hate musicals. Save for a few exceptions (Fiddler on the Roof, Hair, the kinda silly Jesus Christ Superstar for example), the genre is my Kryptonite. Honestly, if you gave me the choice between a swift kick to the nuts or a viewing of Mamma Mia, there's no question I would take the kick. It would be over in less than two hours, and at no point would I have to hear Pierce Brosnan singing, no matter how hard you kicked.

One of the biggest problems I have with musicals is the jarring transitions when characters go from dialogue into song. I realize that I'm supposed to be suspending some sense of. . . I dunno, not really "disbelief," but some sense of reality so that it can be completely logical for people to spontaneously break into song and dance routines. Sorry, folks, I ain't the one.

Once is the perfect musical for doubters like myself. Calling it a musical really does it a disservice in a way, because it's completely natural for these characters to break into song. Why? Because they are musicians. Is it really "breaking into song" for me to play you something I've been working on, or explaining my relationship with someone by grabbing a guitar and plucking out an autobiographical tune?

Once is much more than a musical; it's a movie about how music gets made. How someone can inspire another person to write a song. How adding other people into your world, musically or otherwise, can create new textures and harmonies that you hadn't heard before.

Forgive me for getting all autobiographical here, but this movie just touches on a nerve that I think any musician, amateur or not, can identify with. I used to be in a band, and have recorded music with several of my friends in the past. Whether we were using a handheld tape recorder, a 4-track or actually working in a studio, there is a certain complexity to that collaborative relationship that Once absolutely nails.

If you've ever written a song and then had the opportunity to play it with someone else who might be musically inclined, you're well aware of the strange kind of "magic" (yes, it's corny, but there's virtually no other word to describe it) that hearing another person's input can have on the song. There's a delicate, beautiful scene in Once where the guy and the girl (played by The Frames' Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová in two of the most preternatural performances by non-actors ever put to film) play a song (the Oscar winning "Falling Slowly") together in a piano shop that encapsulates all that is transcendent about making music.

Sure, there's a love story here as well, and a very realistic and bittersweet one, at that. The fact that Hansard and Irglová are actually a couple in real life, and that the song they wrote together went on to beat out more traditional (read: "boring and obvious") music for that Oscar, is icing on the cake.

But the fact remains that Once is more than that love story, more than the music in the film. It's far more than the sum of its parts.

It's goddamn pitch perfect.

Note: I found, on first viewing, it might be a good idea to watch this movie with the English subtitles on. There are a few thick accents that you may find hard to understand at first.

For more on Once:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia. Again, be forewarned that the Wikipedia entry summarizes the entire movie.
- Listen to the soundtrack, watch fans cover the movie's songs, and all kinds of other fun at the official site.
- Buy the DVD.
- The official site for Hansard's band The Frames
- Glen and Marketa's The Swell Season

The video for "Falling Slowly" (watch the actual performance scene from the movie here:

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

#40: Killer of Sheep


Killer of Sheep
Directed by Charles Burnett
Written by Charles Burnett
Filmed in 1975, remained unavailable on DVD until 2007

"You're not a child anymore. Soon you'll be a goddamn man!"

Judging Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep against, say, Hollywood movies isn't exactly fair; Sheep was a student film made in 1975 with amateur actors with a budget of about $10,000. And yet, this student film contains a number of images and scenes of poignancy that you couldn't find in a Hollywood drama at a budget 100 to 500 times its size.

Of course, that $10,000 budget did not include the many songs Burnett used as his soundtrack. It wasn't until decades later, with the help of director and Hollywood heavyweight Steven Soderbergh, that the $150,000 price tag of securing the music rights was covered so the film could finally see the light of day, commercially.

It's hard to recommend this movie without a number of caveats, the most important being that THIS IS A STUDENT FILM. The acting for the most part is pretty shaky, though the best performances come in the most naturalistic scenes of everyday life. Really, the best acting comes from the children in the movie, who rarely regard the camera while turning in the most believable performances.

The second thing a viewer must consider is the complete lack of "plot." Killer of Sheep is more a collection of vignettes, a sort of slice-of-life assemblage of moments meant to give you an impression of the lives of one family, and specifically one man, coping with a life that is gradually becoming more bleak and repetitive by the day. Some of the more literary folk out there might consider the stories of Raymond Carver as a sort of reference point.

Forget the flaws. What's more important than conventional plotting, than often poorly recorded sound, or even acting here is imagery and tone. Certain images, like a little girl in a dog mask, or the opening scenes of boys playing violently by throwing rocks at each other, or the no-wires-attached shots of the kids jumping from rooftop to rooftop, pop with originality.

The final montage, set to Dinah Washington's "This Bitter Earth," may not provide the ending that most people would hope want, but it does provide a chilling sort of closure.

Killer of Sheep definitely isn't for everyone, the same way that the lo-fidelity music of a band like Guided by Voices won't appeal to fans of Top 40 radio. This is for the kind of viewer who can appreciate something that, literally, does not look or sound like a million bucks. It's not great, but it is what it is: one of the most impressive "class project" pieces of homegrown, amateur cinema you can find.

For more on Killer of Sheep:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia
- Buy the DVD.
- The official movie site

The official trailer:

#39: Pineapple Express


Pineapple Express
Directed by David Gordon Green
Written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (based on the novel by Charles Dickens... just kidding)
Released August 6, 2008

I found myself in my third to last microbiology class this afternoon, feeling every single wasted second of my life go by as my "professor" mangled and mispronounced almost every word she was trying to teach us. Nine weeks into this class and she was still mispronouncing my name. I could feel my blood pressure rapidly rising.

To say I was in the mood for a good comedy would be to severely understate the point.

So, the moment she turned her back to fetch something from the wipe board, I grabbed my book and my bag and high tailed it out of class, hopped into my car and drove to the nearest movie theater. Two hours later, my mood was completely flipped. Pineapple Express is completely hilarious.

If you've sworn off television and somehow managed to miss the deluge of advertising, here's the plot in a nutshell: a pothead witnesses a murder and drags his pot dealer into the ensuing pursuit/race to stay alive. Unlike most "stoner" comedies like Cheech and Chong's Up in Smoke or Dave Chapelle's Half Baked, Pineapple Express is not really a movie about pot. While pot use is fairly prominent in the movie (and sure, it gets its name from a mythical strain of pot that leads to most of the hijinx within), it's more of an action-comedy in the vein of something like Midnight Run.

I don't want to get into too much regarding the plot or individually funny scenes, so I'll address two main components that really jumped out at me. The first was the direction by David Gordon Green, who has previously directed haunting indie dramas like George Washington and Snow Angels. Pineapple Express is easily the best looking, most skillfully shot of the Rogen/Judd Apatow movies, and is an impressive new direction for Green as a filmmaker.

I've been reading reviews that complain about the film's final 20 minutes, when it turns into a hyper-violent action movie/gangland-style massacre. For many viewers, this somehow felt like a change in tone, but to me, it still felt completely hilarious. While some of the violence may be a bit extreme and shocking, the fact that it seems so out of place is what makes it so amusing. It's like slapstick times 1000.

The second most impressive thing is the performance by James Franco as kind-hearted drug dealer Saul Silver. It was a brilliant move by Rogen to recast himself as Dale Denton and hand the more juicy role to Franco, and Franco returns the favor by becoming the true heart and soul of the movie. I know it sounds absurd, but it's a performance worthy of a few award nominations. Only a special kind of actor can make you love a character, even when that character is corrupting a group of junior high kids by selling them fistfulls of pot.

I must also note that Express almost seems to hum along on some kind of new definition of comic timing. It may take a few minutes to get your footing in this bizarre amoral world these characters are coasting through (Rogen's character is dating a high school girl and at one point hilariously cusses out one of her teachers), but once you start feeling the vibe, you'll find yourself cracking up at the racy dialogue, bizarre line readings and even the sudden moments of violence. I almost wanted to hug the grey haired couple in front of me for cracking up as much as they did.

For me, the final scene where a few characters chat over breakfast in a diner contained as many laugh out loud moments as the entire 90 minutes that preceded it. I can't wait for the DVD, because I've got a feeling the outtakes are going to be just as enjoyable.

For more on Pineapple Express:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia, though I would avoid the Wikipedia entry because some dickhead basically just wrote out the entire movie.
- Catch clips and showtimes over at the official movie site

The official trailer:

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

#38: The Animation Show, Vol. 1 & 2


The Animation Show Volumes 1 and 2
Curated by Mike Judge and Don Hertzfeldt
Released 2003 (v.1), 2005 (v.2)

"Damn the illusion of movement! Damn the illusion of movement to hell!

The Animation Show is the name given to the collection of animated shorts that animators Mike Judge and Don Hertzfeldt toured around the country in attempt to get these pieces seen by as large an audience as possible. The touring show started in 2003 and is currently on its fourth "volume." Tonight's double-disc DVD represents the first two tours, in 2003 and 2005.

It's an admirable thing these two guys have done, highlighting an aspect of entertainment that we so rarely get to see these days. Decades ago, people would get a little more for their entertainment dollar when they went out to the movies, with one or two short films played before their main attraction. That was one of my favorite things about the theatrical release of Grindhouse: the fake movie trailers were not only a throwback to those old double features, but they were also these little short films made for no other real reason than for the love of making a short film.

I suppose that now with things like YouTube so ever present, there's a sort of rise in popularity of the kind of thing you can email your friend and say, "Check this out!" Hell, many of the films in this collection can be found on YouTube, which makes it easy for me to show you the hilariously surreal Hertzfeldt introduction to the Volume 1:

The beauty of The Animation Show is finding what appeals to you, and maybe even seeing a particular style of animation and storytelling that you'd never seen before. It's a visual mix tape. You might find some of the pieces transcendent, brilliant or simply hilarious. Others you may find off-putting, boring or bizarre. For example, you might find Koji Yamamura's "Mt. Head," where a stingy man's refusal to throw away the pits from his cherries results in a tree blossoming out of the top of his head, moving. I found it annoying.

One of the more enthralling pieces for me was Jeremy Solterbeck's "Moving Illustrations of Machines," a commentary on cloning done in what appears to be a combination of computer and hand-drawn animation. Of course, you may find it annoying.

The admirable thing about these short films, whether they succeed or fail, is that they are all labors of love. No one makes a 5 minute cartoon with the intent to strike it rich. The people who made these animations somehow felt compelled to make them. They spent days, weeks and years of their lives putting these movies together. Commerce was, at best, secondary. Realistically, commerce was never even in the picture. They just envisioned something that had to come out of them. Sometimes, that compulsion is even more interesting than the art itself, whether you're watching Georges Schwizgebel's operatic "La Course A L'Abime" (set to the music of Hector Berlioz's "The Damnation of Faust") or Hertzfeldt's sublime "The Meaning of Life." (It's pretty safe to say that, among many great contributions, Hertzfeldt is clearly the star of both volumes presented here, with a number of hilarious pieces including "Billy's Balloon" and "Intermission in the Third Dimension".)

With so much to choose from over the course of these two discs, you could even put together your own "program" to share with others, especially if you have a couple of friends over for the night with the intention of tying on one. (I must make an aside here and strongly insist that you NOT be sober if you intend to watch this collection. I'm not saying my sobriety affected my viewing in a bad way, but I just know that I could have enjoyed it on a whole other level with a buzz on.)

Using my mix tape analogy, it's hard for me to review a collection of short films like this. Of course, you could say the same thing about this site and the entire roster of movies I will wind up reviewing. One man's refuse might be another man's paradise. The motto, both for this entry and the site in general, is essentially, "Your mileage may vary."

Unless we're talking about California Dreaming. Some things just aren't subjective.

For more on The Animation Show:
- The Wikipedia entry on the touring show and the IMDB page for the first DVD, and the second.
- Check out what's going on with the most current program, and tons more, at the official Animation Show site

The Academy Award nominated "Das Rad (The Wheel)", another favorite from Volume 1:

#37: California Dreaming


California Dreaming (previous title: Out of Omaha
Directed by Linda Vorhees
Written by Linda Vorhees
Released to DVD...

There have been a couple of decent (some even great) films made wholly or partially in my hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. Sean Penn's The Indian Runner. Alexander Payne's first three films, Citizen Ruth, Election and About Schmidt. Parts of The Assassination of Richard Nixon. Terms of Endearment (okay, that was Lincoln and Kearney, but still...).

Linda Vorhees' California Dreaming is not one of those finer films.

In fairness, no film could hope to follow The Night of the Hunter, so I swung in the opposite direction and went with something that had the stink of dogshit on it before I even hit the Play button.

To explain, I need to go back a few years, to when I had just moved back to Omaha to start a second bachelor's degree, this time in Nursing. I was spending my days working at a record store called Drastic Plastic, and my weekend nights DJing with a friend of mine at a bar called the Goofy Foot. Not long after my arrival in town, filming on California Dreaming began (it was called Out of Omaha at the time. I remember there being the slightest bit of buzz that Lea Thompson and Dave Foley were in town, and I figured I'd bump into them at some point.

Thompson and Foley began to frequent the Goofy Foot, among many bars in town, as they seemed on a sort of drunken parade... probably trying to drown the fact that they were co-starring in what would obviously be a straight-to-DVD movie. Thompson, who was married, even went so far as to have an affair with a musician who was a part of the local music scene, and whom shall remain nameless. To Thompson's credit, she did at least go "method" in this affair, stopping by our record store and buying pretty much every major release by almost every available local band. She was at the bar one night when I was DJing, but did not seem to get the joke when I played The Rolling Stones' "Miss Amanda Jones" (the song appears in Some Kind of Wonderful, Amanda Jones being her character's name in that film). She did, however, yell "WOLVERINES!" whenever anyone asked.

Well, at least they were having fun, right? They were drunk. I just really wonder what everyone else's excuse was.

Honest to God, California Dreaming might be the worst movie I've ever seen. If you knew the movies I'd seen, you'd know what a bold statement that is.

It's so ineptly made that they should teach it in film school. Don't Do This 101. God, I wish I could show it to you so you wouldn't think I'm overreacting. I've seen locally produced commercials with more attention to the simple details of filmmaking. Simple details like: if you're going to have a dog chase through a "park," try to make it less obvious that your film permit covers about 30 feet of space. Details like: rehearsing a shot at least one time, so you don't have to jostle the camera to keep an actor in frame when someone moves. Details like: if you're going to make what seems to want to be a comedy, WRITE A FUCKING JOKE.

My brother called me a few days ago to tell me he'd seen this movie (it's airing on Showtime this month), and that I should get my hands on a copy as soon as possible. He told me it was awful. I just called him back to tell him he undersold how much it sucked.

For what audience was this movie made? No one from outside of Nebraska is going to know what the hell these people are talking about, and no one who lives here is going be happy this thing was made within our borders.

Jesus. I'm embarrassed for Foley and Thompson. I'm embarrassed for anyone who helped make this movie. I'm embarrassed for humanity itself. I had a moment while watching this movie where I noticed a few of the extras, a few little kids sliding down a park slide behind the "stars." I felt bad for those kids, that they would have to sit through this thing just to be able to say, "Hey look, that's me." Sorry kid, you didn't get to be in the background of E.T. or even that most recent, awful Indiana Jones movie. Nope, your 15 minutes of fame are right here, in a movie you will NEVER get to brag about. To anyone.

This movie is truly one of the worst things to happen to me. I swear to you, I'm not joking. I felt physically ill afterwards. I only had to watch it. It's a wonder I didn't catch Thompson or Foley in a dumpster behind the record store, with heroin needles jammed into their eyeballs.

A closing message to Lea Thompson:

It's going to take a lot more than a few stiff drinks and a torrid affair with a kid half your age (at least) to erase the memories of this blight on your career. And you were in Howard the Duck, for Christ's sake.

For more on California Dreaming:

Who are we kidding? You're not watching this movie.

The official trailer:

Monday, August 4, 2008

#36: The Night of the Hunter


The Night of the Hunter
Directed by Charles Laughton and Robert Mitchum (uncredited)
Written by James Agee and Charles Laughton (uncredited) (based on the novel by Davis Grubb)
Released September 29, 1955

Okay, before I review this movie, I have to just say this: Netflix, what the fuck are you doing sending out fullscreen versions of classic movies? Is this the only way this movie is available? Utter bullshit!

Whew. Sorry. Normally I wouldn't be this annoyed, but The Night of the Hunter is a groundbreaking movie from the mid-1950s that feels every bit like the Coen brothers went back in time to film their debut.

The film, the only movie ever directed by Charles Laughton, is a dark, electrifying masterpiece that features Robert Mitchum in one of his most frightening turns as a preacher (really, a "false prophet") who steals cars, carries a switchblade and has LOVE and HATE tattooed across his knuckles. Mitchum played Max Cady in the original Cape Fear, and his work here as Harry Powell is equally unsettling.

As Hunter opens, Mitchum's preacher is thrown in jail for stealing a car (the police arrive just in time to save a burlesque dancer the agony of his knife), where he shares a cell with Peter Graves' Ben Harper, who is incarcerated and set to be hung for stealing $10,000 that the police have yet to uncover. Mitchum, offscreen, manages to figure out where Harper is from and where his family lives.

Soon, Mitchum's Powell is literally casting his huge shadow over the house of the Harper family. He slowly earns the confidence of the widow Harper (played by Shelley Winters) and her daughter. He meets resistance with Harper's son John, who may know where the $10,000 is hidden.

Within no time (and frankly, a bit abruptly), Powell and Ms. Harper are married, but Powell has no interest in her or their marriage. On their wedding night, he begins to break down her confidence, mentally abusing her from their first moments alone together by blaming her for the downfall of her previous husband.

From there, I really can't say much more than the shit really hits the fan.

I'd say it was a shame that Laughton never went on to direct another film, but Hunter is the kind of movie I can't imagine he could top, no matter how many more films he made. There are so many great shots and memorable images, like the foreboding arrival of Powell's train to the scene where the paper dolls that young Pearl Harper has cut from the hidden money go floating by Mitchum's legs. The music, the lighting (and the shadows), the editing... all are pitch perfect and largely ahead of their time.

The Night of the Hunter has been one of the most enjoyable discoveries for me in this first 10th of my yearlong project. I just can't believe I hadn't given this movie a shot before now.

For more on The Night of the Hunter:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia
- Director Charles Laughton at Wikipedia

The official trailer:

Saturday, August 2, 2008

#35: The Lookout


The Lookout
Directed by Scott Frank
Written by Scott Frank
Released March 30, 2007

My next stop on the Joseph Gordon-Levitt (the star of the previously-viewed Brick) takes me to 2007's The Lookout, a different kind of heist film written and directed by Scott Frank, who previously penned the screenplays for two superb and supremely underrated favorites of mine: Get Shorty and Out of Sight (both based on novels by Elmore Leonard).

I say it's a "different kind of heist film" because the heist is almost a bit of a MacGuffin (a plot device that advances the story but whose details are of little concern. . . the Shankara stones in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom are a good example of this idea). No, The Lookout is more of a character study and a drama with a heist skillfully weaved within.

Gordon-Levitt is 2 for 2 on this blog, turning in a nuanced and subtly moving performance as Chris Pratt, a one-time high school hockey star who one night makes a stupid, tragic mistake that leaves him with permanent brain damage. Pratt, having accidentally killed two of his passengers, including his best friend, and disfigured his girlfriend, spends his days a shell of his former shelf, slowly learning how to do the simplest of tasks like piecing together and documenting his memories from a single day.

Pratt's condition, in addition to his job as the night cleaning man at a small town bank, makes him a prime mark to a crew of men planning the aforementioned bank heist. Playing on Pratt's memories of his past, and using a beautiful woman to lure him in, the crew seduces Pratt into joining them.

The Lookout is well crafted, well written and well acted (Jeff Daniels steals his scenes as Pratt's blind roommate), and contains only one major flaw: predictability. The odd thing is, it doesn't really matter here. Predictable doesn't mean formulaic in this case. With Gordon-Levitt playing the kind of character who needs to write down his every move in a notebook he carries with him at all times, it's not surprising to find yourself a few steps ahead of him at every turn. The suspense comes in hoping that Pratt can catch up with you before someone else catches up with him.

For writer/director Frank, The Lookout is a masterfully low key first effort.

For more on The Lookout:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia
- Order the DVD from the official movie site. Plus, check out behind the scenes clips and an 8 minute chunk of the movie.

The official trailer at YouTube (a high res version is available at the official site):

Friday, August 1, 2008

#34: On the Beach


On the Beach
Directed by Stanley Kramer
Written by John Paxton and James Lee Barrett (based on the novel by Nevil Shute)
Released December 17, 1959

"We're all doomed, you know. The whole silly drunken pathetic lot of us, doomed by the air we're about to breathe."

You know you're probably not in for a happy ending when a movie opens with "Waltzing Matilda," a classic old folk song about a poor man who steals a sheep for dinner and then commits suicide when the police arrive. His ghost goes on to haunt the camp site, just as this song threads throughout On the Beach, growing more sad as the film progresses.

I guess all the damned moroseness is to be expected when you discover pretty early on into the film that most of the world has been destroyed by nuclear war and the only people left -- Australia and a single U.S. submarine -- are simply waiting idly by for the cloud of radiation to come and kill them off.

To put it plain, On the Beach is just a god. damn. bummer. And this is coming from a near manic-depressive who loves to wallow in a good pool of sadness. This flick is over 2 hours of over-serious wet blanket-tude. It makes The Panic in Needle Park look like The Muppet Movie.

The first problem, as I hinted at earlier, is that the music is so incredibly maudlin. Also, it never stops. Simple conversations between characters are sometimes nearly drowned out by the constantly surging strings. By the time the viewer gets near the end of the movie, when "Waltzing Matilda" is being sung by those anticipating their inevitable end (a moment that should be the dramatic peak), you can't help but feel exhausted.

Most comical is the balance between silence and overbearing musical punctuation as Gregory Peck uses a periscope to search for life on the San Francisco shore. Every time the camera cuts to the shore, you're blasted with "DUN DUN DUUUUNNNN!" Then, a brief moment of quiet inside the sub, followed by another "DUN DUN DUUUUNNNN!!!"

Sometimes I have a real problem with this certain style of old school movie acting, where people over-emote with dramatic gestures as if they're stage actors. It's hard to explain without a visual aid, but I'm thinking of the kind of acting where people dramatically throw their forearms against their foreheads to express grief. You know, the way no one actually does in real life. On the Beach suffers a bit from this style of acting, especially in the performance of Anthony Perkins.

The real revelation, acting-wise, doesn't come from Gregory Peck or Ava Gardner, but from Fred Astaire. On the Beach was his first non-dancing/non-musical role, and he knocks it out of the park here as Julian Osborne, a scientist shouldering the blame for helping create the disaster that they and their comrades now face. Astaire gives the most natural, believable and touching performance in the film.

Don't get me wrong, I really do appreciate the message conveyed in On the Beach, and I know that, for the time it was released, it was truly heavy and profound. The movie goes further than your typical Cold War scare picture, touching on some truly frightening and humane themes (Perkins' dilemma of trying to teach his wife when and how to take the pills that will lead to the death of her and their child comes to mind).

Kramer's direction is great, although the pacing seems much too slow, much too often. By the end, I just felt... oppressed, like I was joining these characters on this sad slow decline of moping and loping towards the end. Even the scenes that are supposed to show these characters embracing their final moments, like Astaire driving his Jaguar in an explosive race or everyone gathering at the beach for a boat race, are just so damned agonizing. It's in these moments that the people are supposed to be overcoming the dread for a final taste of life. Instead, it tastes like sour grapes.

It's the end of the world as we know it, and I feel like taking a giant nap.

For more on On the Beach:
- A link to the movie's IMDB entry, and its Wikipedia entry
- The Wikipedia entry for Nevil Shute's book. For what it's worth, Shute was not entirely pleased with the film version of his novel. Gregory Peck also fought hard to keep some of Shute's original ideas in the movie, but Stanley Kramer won out.

A scene from On the Beach featuring Fred Astaire: