Tuesday, September 30, 2008

#76: The Haunting


The Haunting
Directed by Robert Wise
Written by Nelson Gidding (based on Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House)
Released September 18, 1963

October is one of my favorite months, for two main reasons: Fall, and more importantly, Halloween.

Sure, when I was a kid, it was all about wearing costumes and grabbing that candy. The more important things for me, even then, were the scary movies. Most of my best costumes were based on movies I loved. One year, I was The Terminator, and another year saw me as a horribly disfigured soldier from Aliens, with bloody, blistered face makeup and a monster bursting out of my chest (since no real Aliens toys existed, I had to duct tape the Rancor Pit monster from Return of the Jedi to my body). Probably my favorite costume of all time, and the only one I repeated a few years later, was Robert DeNiro's greased up and tattooed Max Cady from Cape Fear.

I love "scary" movies, whether they fall under the genres of Science Fiction, Horror or Suspense. As far as I'm concerned, when they are done well, they can be the best pictures ever made (see The Shining, the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the aforementioned Aliens/Alien for a few perfect examples). Of course, when executed poorly, they can also be the most disappointing and unbearable of all movies.

This October, I'm going to try my damndest to cover nothing but scary movies, and primarily movies I've never seen before. Since there always tends to be the occasional Netflix delivery gap, I may pepper this month with a few of my favorites. Hopefully, those of you who don't consider yourselves fan of these kinds of movies might be swayed by a few of my picks.

While it's only September 30th, I'm getting an early start tonight with The Haunting, one of the all time fright classics that I've never seen. I did manage to take in the lamentable 1999 re-make that starred Owen Wilson, Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta Jones, and that was probably what scared me off of seeing the original. Aside from some hammy, embarrassing acting (Owen Wilson is not the only guilty party there), the movie was pretty much ruined by its reliance on computer generated special effects. I'm sorry, but knowing an actor is reacting to a green screen just tends to suck the tension right out of a scene.

There was none of that nonsense to be had in 1963, when The Haunting first reached moviegoers. Miraculously, this ghost story sheds not a single drop of blood in its running time, and relies heavily on the use of music, shadow and some clever camerawork to drum up most of its scares.

Director Robert Wise (I previously praised his work on The Day the Earth Stood Still) sets the tone early by showing us the history of Hill House and the lives that had been mysteriously taken within its walls. He then brings us to present day, where our narrator, Richard Johnson as Dr. John Markway, is attempting to rent the house for use in a paranormal research investigation. Markway is attempting to prove the existence of ghosts, and assembles a team that includes Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn), one of the potential heirs to the abandoned house, and Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris) and a woman named Theodora (Claire Bloom).

It doesn't take long for the house (if that's what is causing all of the commotion) to make its preference for Eleanor known. Eleanor, in turn, grows subconsciously fond of the attention, as we learn that she has spent the majority of her life looking after her sick and unhappy mother. Eleanor loves the attention so much that she claims to never want to leave. Is she the reason behind the strange incidents in the house? Is Dr. Markway playing tricks on his volunteers to observe their reactions? Just where is this lesbian subplot between Theo and Eleanor leading?

The Haunting may be a little slow by today's standards, but if you're the kind of patient viewer who can appreciate the slow building of tension, the movie definitely earns its classic reputation. I highly recommend watching this one late at night with the volume up loud. Without the sound, Humphrey Searle's ever present but constantly changing music combined with the eerie sound effects from Desmond Briscoe and the film's sound department, The Haunting just wouldn't work.

The blood and gore lovers will definitely be disappointed, but for those who long for "the good old days" of movie making, this is a great example of the belief that sometimes you don't need the bells and whistles of technology to get under the skin of an audience.

For more on The Haunting:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Buy the DVD.

The trailer for The Haunting:

Monday, September 29, 2008

#75: Richard III


Richard III
Directed by Richard Loncraine
Written by Richard Loncraine and Ian McKellen (based on the play by William Shakespeare)
Released December 29, 1995

Clerks II. Game 6. Richard III. I sure am watching a lot of sequels lately.

While I've never seen the first two Richards, I was pretty confident in the script, since it was based on the works of the same guy who wrote the Baz Luhrmann's William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. While this film lacked a hip soundtrack and awful actors like John Leguizamo, I was willing to give it a shot.

Okay, don't worry: I'm done acting like a dummy.

Shakespeare's original play is a historical tragedy, telling the story of Richard's attempted rise to power by overthrowing his brothers, King Edward IV and Clarence, the next in the line of succession. Unfortunately or fortunately, I don't have the hours it would take to get into all of the plot machinations and twists of the play (sorry, Shawn). That's why I'm writing about movies, not literature. To put it as basic as possible, Richard is a sociopathic, ugly, powerhungry, killing motherfucker. One of Shakespeare's longest plays, Richard follows themes of fate versus free will, along with religion and the power that one can wield through the manipulation of ideology and belief.

Richard Loncraine and Ian McKellen's adaptation moves the setting to a fictionalized version of England in the 1930s, an England that gradually becomes more than a little like fascist Nazi Germany of the same era.

The movie opens with more than a few bangs as a tank blasts through the walls of a military hideout and McKellen's Richard, hunchbacked and with one dead arm, makes a murderous entrance. This betrayal is followed by a ballroom party where almost all of the major players are introduced, including Robert Downey Jr. as Lord Rivers, Annette Bening as Queen Elizabeth, Maggie Smith as Richard's mother Queen Margaret, plus Kristen Scott Thomas, Jim Broadbent, and even a young Dominic West (McNulty from The Wire).

Before anything else, you can't help but be impressed and dazzled by the set design and costumes. This thing looks like several million bucks.

Then, you're pulled in by McKellen's devious performance as this duplicitous monster. There's a scene early on in a bathroom where he stares at himself in the mirror, and then realizes that we - the audience - are watching his every move. He turns and lets us in on his scheme to disrupt the normal order of things, and then, with the wagging of a finger, invites us along for the ride. He's like Ferris Bueller if he were turn to to the camera and rather than tell us that he's going to skip school, he's going to pit his friends and family into a massive battle against each other.

McKellen's performance is virtuoso acting at its best, as he slithers in and out of every scene, gleefully seducing and double crossing everyone in his path and then marvelling at us as he pulls it all off. His is an especially impressive feat since he has surrounded himself with so many other great actors.

Richard III's most impressive feat is also what many would perceive as its "gimmick," moving Shakespeare's story ahead hundreds of years and turning its themes of fate into themes of power and corruption. This modernization shows, to put it simply, how one bad apple really can spoil the whole damn bunch. In this case, Richard is the bad apple which tears a family, a government and a country asunder. In the same way that Hitler slowly seduced a nation, Richard slowly goes from ugly duckling to protected tyrant. The beautiful art, architecture and stunning colors of the beginning of the movie slowly give way to the streamlined mono-chromaticism of imperialism.

If anything is problematic about the movie, it is perhaps that it crams a massive story into its less than 2 hour running time. It may be initially hard to follow, especially if you're not used to Shakespeare's dialogue. Beyond that, all of the performances are exceptional save for some of Bening's work, and the fact that Downey is unfortunately a bit underused and disposed of too early. Regardless, Richard III is riveting, and features a number of perfect, memorable scenes (like the opening, the morgue scene between McKellen and Scott Thomas, and Richard's coronation).

For more on Richard III:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Wikipedia page on Shakespeare's Richard III
- Ian McKellen's website about the movie
- Buy the DVD.

The Richard III trailer:

Sunday, September 28, 2008

#74: Game 6


Game 6
Directed by Michael Hoffman
Written by Don DeLillo
Released 2005

"I could've been happy. I could've been a Yankees fan."

Damn it. Another very good movie pretty much spoiled by a sour, ridiculous and rushed final act.

This one had some great things going for it: a screenplay by novelist and playwright Don DeLillo, with a score provided by one of my favorite bands (Yo La Tengo, whose atmospheric instrumentals give the film a nervy edge), starring greats like Robert Downey Jr., Catherine O'Hara and Michael Keaton. Throw in the fact that it features the Boston Red Sox and their infamous game 6 loss in their run at the 1986 World Series, and this Yankee fan was sold.

Keaton and DeLillo were my two biggest reasons for wanting to check out Game 6. Keaton because it's sometimes good for an actor to get knocked down a few pegs so they can go back doing work for the love of their craft. It's nice to be able to brush aside dreck like Multiplicity and Jack Frost and see him act again in something respectable. DeLillo, an exceptional writer, brings some great, realistic (if sometimes flowery) dialogue to the table.

The flowery dialogue is forgivable because most of the main characters in the movie are playing actors and writers. Keaton plays successful playwright and lifelong Red Sox fanatic Nicky Logan, whose newest work premiers the same night as the World Series game that has consumed him to the point that his own life seemingly hangs in the balance between the Sox's chance at winning or losing. Downey is Steven Schwimmer, a Broadway critic so eccentric that he prays to Buddha and yet carries a gun, and so hated that he lives in an abandoned building with no plumbing because he's afraid of his subjects seeking revenge. To show the power of what a scathing review from Schwimmer can do to a writer's career, Griffin Dunne plays Nicky's friend Elliott, a once talented man whom, in the wake of one of the critic's reviews, has turned into a crazed street urchin.

Taking place over an approximate 12 hour period, Game 6 shows Keaton's Rogan as the tension slowly rises prior to his play. Already just as worried about his premiere (one of the lead actors has just discovered a parasite in his brain that is literally chewing through his short term memory), he also becomes overly consumed with the knowledge that Schwimmer will be attending -- and probably lacerating -- his work.

The downturn for me comes at the point where Keaton goes a bar to watch the game (instead of his premiere) with his cab driver and her son. The endless advice and positivity this woman lays on a character whom she has confused as a murderous gangster is incredibly annoying. Keaton's response to the outcome of the Red Sox/Mets game is somewhat over the top, and the events that transpire between him and Schwimmer are even more ridiculous.

There's a somewhat cliched Hollywood notion that has always bothered me... (skip this part, as it may contain spoiler hints): why the hell are people in movies so forgiving about being shot at? You've got one character opening fire on another, and then when they realize they have something in common, they just cool the hell out. I'm all for bygones being bygones, but give me a fucking break. Especially when they fire multiple shots! I don't give a shit how much we might find we share; if you have tried to kill me SIX TIMES, you're getting thrown out of my apartment the second that hammer goes "Click."

For a film made for under $500,000 in less than 3 weeks, Game 6 is still a fairly impressive and mostly fun piece of work. Don't worry, if you're not a fan of sports movies, the game in this movie is the backdrop and not the main focus. It primarily exists as a symbol of failure, disappointment and the way that we avoid our own problems by becoming deeply attached to things outside of ourselves.

For more on Game 6:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Buy the DVD.

The Game 6 trailer:

#73: To the Devil a Daughter


To the Devil a Daughter
Directed by Peter Sykes
Written by Christopher Wicking, John Peacock and Gerald Vaughan-Hughes (based on the novel by Dennis Wheatley)
Released March 4, 1976

The last gasp of Hammer Horror pictures, To the Devil a Daughter was one of Hammer's few attempts at capitalizing on the success of "supernatural"/occult horror films like Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist. Obviously, their film was not rewarded with the same level of success.

Nastassja Kinski, just 15 years old and appearing in the second film of her career, shares the screen with Richard Widmark and horror staple Christopher Lee. Kinski plays Catherine, a nun from a mysterious Bavarian church who is allowed to visit her father in England once a year, on her birthday. Little does she know that on this, her 18th birthday, she is being sought by a group of Satanists to be used in a ritualistic sacrifice so that her body may become an avatar for one of the Princes of Hell.

While Lee dons the cloth of a Catholic priest throughout the movie, any knowledge of Christopher Lee's career in acting should signal you that something is rotten in Bavaria. I'm not giving too much away here; it's less than 15 minutes into the movie before we're seeing Lee's evil grin as he watches the bloody birth of an apparently hideous demon baby (or, as they call it in the horror business, "Another Tuesday afternoon for Christopher Lee").

The movie moves along somewhat slowly, but has moments of shock and pure creepiness (shocking like the young Kinski's full frontal nude scene, and creepy like the dream sequence where she lets the demon baby enter her body). The acting is decent, especially Lee, and from Denholm Elliot as Catherine's frightened father. The production itself looks and feels right, with an especially cool use of color near the end as Widmark enters "enemy territory" to attempt to rescue the endangered young girl, and some great camera work and interesting individual shots (like the one above Elliot as the lightbulb swirls around him).

What is an absolute disappointment is the almost hilariously abrupt ending. When you see how easy it is, according to To the Devil, to take on the mighty Satan, you may never be afraid of the Prince of Darkness again. Apparently, just bring a rock and you're going to be fine. This unfortunate turn of events can't help but leave a bad taste in your mouth, turning a pretty decent movie into a bad one in a matter of minutes.

More interesting and entertaining than the film itself is the short but brutally honest documentary included on the DVD, where the filmmakers and a few of the actors discuss (in interviews filmed somewhat recently) problems with the production, including the flawed ending (which greatly angered most of the people involved, including Lee), the end of Hammer films, and Richard Widmark's disruptive, prickish behavior during filming. It's too bad the movie itself was nowhere near as riveting.

For more on To the Devil a Daughter:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Buy the DVD.

Trailer for To the Devil a Daughter:

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

#72: The Foot Fist Way


The Foot Fist Way
Directed by Jody Hill
Written by Ben Best, Jody HIll and Danny R. McBride
Released May 30, 2008

Dear Kevin Smith:

My apologies. Compared to The Foot Fist Way, Clerks II is the Citizen Kane of plotless, dipshit comedies.

Still, you should be embarassed,

This was easily one of the worst movies I've watched out of the 72 I've seen so far. I never knew that 80 minutes could go by so slow. I'd elaborate, but If I spend another second writing a review, I will have spent one more second than anyone behind the making of this thing spent on its creation.

Kudos to Danny McBride for having the audacity to parlay what should have been a three minute (and fifth rate) Will Ferrell sketch into not only a feature length movie, but also into an already fruitful Hollywood career in hits like Pineapple Express and Tropic Thunder.

(Sorry for the short entry. I really did watch the movie, and I really have nothing to add. Total waste of time.)

For more on The Foot Fist Way:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Visit the official site.

The red band trailer:

Monday, September 22, 2008

#71: Payback: Straight Up (Director's Cut)


Payback: Straight Up
Directed by Brian Helgeland
Written by Brian Helgeland (based on Donald Westlake's "The Hunter")
Released to DVD April 10, 2007

I already mentioned the story behind this version of Payback, the 1999 Mel Gibson remake of Point Blank (which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago). Director Brian Helgeland was fired as the film's director mere days after he won an Oscar for his work on L.A. Confidential. Reportedly, the producer's (and probably Gibson, though the star did help to get this director's version out years later) didn't like how dark Helgeland had taken the story.

Dark is right, and in this case, dark is good. Gibson's Porter is not "morally ambiguous" as one reviewer describes him; he's a bad guy. Christ, the movie opens with him choking and robbing a homeless man for enough cash to buy himself a cup of coffee and a piece of pie. Porter just happens to be the better man compared to most of the bad guys in Payback.

Since I've already gone into depth about the story in Point Blank, I'll cut to the chase and say simply that while the original Payback is a pretty damn good movie, featuring one of Gibson's last interesting performances (he's no Lee Marvin, but he still makes for an intimidating heavy), Helgeland's cut is an even better, leaner film. It's 15 minutes shorter, with no voiceover narration and a vibe that seems more like an ode to the late 60s and early 70s crime films that the producers were going for.

The supporting cast is especially good, including Lucy Liu as a sadistic prostitute, William Devane as the head of the crime syndicate, the always lovable Bill Duke as a corrupt detective, and the always shady Gregg Henry as Porter's betraying buddy Val.

While not as as great in that hypnotic, psychedelic sense that Point Blank is, Helgeland's Payback is still a damn good time. Plus, there's even a pretty hilarious cameo by James Coburn.

For more on Payback: Straight Up:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- A interview with Helgeland about the DVD.
- Buy the DVD.

The Payback robbery (Note: this footage is not from the director's cut... I am having the damndest time actually finding footage from that version online):

#70: Clerks II


Clerks II
Directed by Kevin Smith
Written by Kevin Smith
Released July 21, 2006

L. Ron Hubbard, douchebag creator of Scientology, once said, "I'd like to start a religion. That's where the money is." He did, and eventually it crept its way into Hollywood and led to awful films like Battlefield Earth.

Kevin Smith is like the L. Ron Hubbard of nerds. His cult is the cult of himself and his little crew of buddies, who have been making virtually the same movie for about a decade and a half and raking in a small pile of money from the reliable geeks who keep eating this shit up. Think I'm being cynical? Even the credits of Clerks II features a call out for shut-ins to visit their website and "buy my shit."

And if you think I'm exaggerating about his fanboy mafia, go check out all of the 9 and 10 star reviews over at IMDB.com. Ten fucking stars for this movie? Really? You think that dialogue amounted to a perfect movie? The embarrassingly cheesy musical montages? The use of cameos with no value beyond getting the audience to whisper, "Hey, that's Ben Affleck"?

The guy found a niche, and you have to respect him for knowing how to milk it for all he can get. And god forbid if he step outside of his universe, because the viewing public gets crapped on by epic fail turds like Jersey Girl.

I'm not saying Clerks II is awful. I'm just saying that 20 minutes into the movie, I started thinking, "I really should get my homework done." I wish I were being anecdotal. I really did have homework.

Honestly, I can't say I was too surprised in my disappointment. Smith's movies have followed a downward trajectory since the beginning. Without Jason Lee, Mallrats and Chasing Amy would be virtually unwatchable. Dogma was so hamfisted and poorly acted it felt like Smith was forgetting more than he was learning. Pretty much the only sign of growth as a filmmaker Smith had shown by that point was the intelligence to know his movies looked like shit so he should hire a Director of Photography.

Okay, fuck it, I'm saying it: Clerks II is awful.

Part of the immense charm of the original movie was that it showed so much potential for Smith, especially as a writer. If this guy could make a filthy, chatty and laugh-out-loud funny movie for $25,000, imagine what else he might be capable of, right?

Turns out it wasn't the budget that was limiting Smith, but rather his own skillset. Clerks II (and I'm sure this is not lost on the writer/director) is the story of Smith himself: a bunch of guys stuck doing the same shit, having the same conversations and pretending to have their eyes and minds on something bigger when we all really know they... he... we... are going nowhere.

For more on Clerks II:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Buy the DVD.

The trailer:

#69: Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains


Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains
Directed by Lou Adler
Written by Nancy Dowd
Released ... almost never (Made in 1980)


I've been waiting to see Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains since I'd read of its existence in about 1995, when I found an article about the long lost cult classic in a random zine I'd bought at a record store. How a movie about an all girl punk rock band, fronted by Diane Lane (pretty much the crush of my childhood, beginning with her love-at-first-sight appearance in The Outsiders) and featuring members of The Clash and the Sex Pistols, had escaped me for so long is impossible to explain. I guess the fact that the World Wide Web had just begun to blossom the year prior could be partly to blame.

Prior to the Rhino re-release of this film just last week, I had only seen footage from a terrible Internet-circulated bootleg sent to me by a helpful reader named Ray. I'm not even sure if this movie ever got a proper VHS release back in the day, as every account and review I've read of it mentions the show being aired on "Night Flight" back in the early '80s.

The curious need be no longer, since the Stains have finally made their way to DVD.

Lane stars (and gives easily one of the best performances of her career) as an angry, disenchanted teenager named Corrine Burns, who starts a fairly terrible punk band with her sister and her cousin after her mother dies of cancer. Renaming herself Third Degree Burns, she attends a concert at a local dive and witnesses a life-changing show from opening act The Looters, fronted by an incredibly young looking Ray Winstone and featuring Paul Cook and Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols and Paul Simonon of The Clash.

A bit unrealistically (well, this is pretty much satire), Burns' band is asked to join the tour. After hopping on the bus and performing one show -- where Burns lashes out at the audience and reveals her new look to her shocked bandmates -- the bassist for the lame headlining act dies and the Stains and The Looters continue the tour together.

Burns quickly learns how to manipulate the media to promote herself and her ideas ("We're the Stains, and we don't put out."), and in the process becomes a massive influence on the country... before her band can even properly play their instruments. As media coverage of the Stains' tour continues, young women across the country begin popping up at shows dressed as Burns. The Fabulous Stains predates and yet predicts the phenomenon that would be Madonna. I've always though it was somewhat unfortunate that personalities like Madonna took off while truly powerful women like Joan Jett got left in her dust.

Judging from The Fabulous Stains, Jett (and her pre-Blackhearts punk band The Runaways) had more influence that we may have realized. The Stains may even have returned the favor as a cultural milestone for bands like Bikini Kill or Sleater-Kinney and possibly even The White Stripes (I wonder if they got their name from a line that Winstone says to Lane, describing her great image but lack of talent: "At the moment, you're just too white stripes").

For more on Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Buy the DVD, and learn about its background and resurgence here.

The trailer:

Sunday, September 14, 2008

#68: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly


The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Directed by Julian Schnabel
Written by Ronald Harwood (based on the book by Jean-Dominique Bauby)
Released May 23, 2007 (France)

If there's a more jarring double feature than the one I had tonight, pairing the ridiculously campy The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires with Julian Schnabel's moving, beautiful The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, I am unaware of its existence. To quote the boys in Monty Python: "And now for something completely different."

Diving Bell is the dramatization of magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby's autobiography, which he miraculously wrote after a stroke rendered him unable to move or speak, a condition referred to as "Locked-In syndrome." I say "miraculously" because Bauby wrote his autobiography by working with a speech therapist on a frequency-of-use alphabet and then blinking the entire book, letter by letter, to a transcriber hired by his publisher.

One of my favorite books (which was also made into a film) is Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun, a fictional story about a soldier who survives a mortar attack, only to lose his sight, speech and limbs. The book is his inner monologue, and portions of Diving Bell feel much like that book, as if we are trapped in Bauby's body with him as the rest of the world acts upon him.

The effect of seeing the movie from Bauby's eyes is jarring, immediately stirring your emotions and forcing you to sympathize with the character whom you now inhabit. You can almost feel his frustration. Whey Bauby cries, the screen clouds over. As he slowly recovers, you and he fade in and out of consciousness. When he imagines himself in a different place, we go there with him.

The whole thing is emotionally overwhelming, but in a good way... a valuable way. Put in Bauby's place, we confront an affliction in a more realistic way than most movies have ever been able to show us. We learn about what it's like to be on both sides of that eyeball, and we slowly learn to stop taking for granted the immense gift of communication.

In a strange way, and maybe it's just because the news was at the top of my mind, watching The Diving Bell and the Butterfly made me think of David Foster Wallace, one of my favorite writers, who just committed suicide a couple of days ago.

Foster wrote the epic Infinite Jest, possibly the greatest book I have never finished reading. I've often wondered if I haven't finished the book because the act of finishing it will make the act of immersing myself in it complete. When it's over, what will I do? Just scanning over a few pages convinces me of this man's obvious genius, so why rush things?

I felt like that watching this movie, wanting to savor it minute by minute and take away from it all of the sublime moments of beauty, sadness and victory. Ronald Harwood's script is naturalistic and poetic (of course, a lot of credit should go to Bauby), Juliette Welfling's editing is impeccable, and Schnabel (with the help of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski) achieves one of the rarest feats of direction: he manages to turn his camera into a human being. Of course, none of this could be achieved without a half dozen great performances, spearheaded by Mathieu Amalric's moving work as Bauby. His "narration" is the backbone of the entire movie, but Max von Sydow's few scenes as Bauby's father were the ones that sent me into fits of unstoppable tears.

Much like Infinite Jest, I was sure I was seeing something remarkable and extraordinary just a few minutes in. It didn't matter to me how the movie ended, or even where it was heading. I just wanted to keep experiencing it, regardless.

My friend Olivia once told me years ago that she wrote David Foster Wallace a letter after reading Infinite Jest. I think she felt a little silly admitting this to me, but I think I remember telling her that it was absolutely nothing to feel silly about. I once wrote a letter, when I was 15, to Eddie Vedder, and another one years later to Chuck D (who was on the same train as I was, but I was too afraid to approach him).

Tonight, when The Diving Bell and the Butterfly finished with the imagery of crumbling glaciers rising from the sea and reassembling themselves, I wanted to write Bauby a letter. I wanted to write Schnabel a letter. I even wanted to write Joe Strummer, whose "Ramshackle Day Parade" plays over the closing credits, a letter. I wanted to thank them all for what they just gave me, but two of those three men are gone from this world.

I'm not sure if Olivia sent that letter, but I hope she did. You should never feel silly communicating with anyone who may have touched you deeply, regardless of whether you know them or they know you. You never know when that other line will go unanswered, forever.

For more on The Diving Bell and the Butterfly:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Visit the official site.
- Buy the DVD or the book.

The movie trailer:

#67: The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires


The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires
Directed by Roy Ward Baker (uncredited assist by Cheh Chang)
Written by Don Houghton
Released October 6, 1974 (UK)

Hey, William Friedkin: remember when I was saying that sometimes the title is everything? Well, take a lesson from The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires. Now that is a movie title. Not only does it tell you what you're getting before you set foot in the theater (clearly, you're getting a legend, a lot of vampires, and either horror or an adventure movie), but it just sounds cool rolling off the tongue. If you're in line at the movie theater and you feel like you're going to be embarrassed to say "One for The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, please," clearly you're not going to like the movie.

Clearly, the makers of the Blade comic books and movies owe a debt to director Roy Ward Baker for coming up with this undeniably successful formula: Kung Fu + Vampires = Money. Although, I suppose that the fact that The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires isn't exactly title known worldwide, I guess the makers of Blade really mastered the "Money" part of that equation.

If there was ever a team to pull off the Kung Fu + Vampires part of the equation, it's the combination of the two studios who came together to make this film, Hammer Films and the Shaw Brothers production companies. Hammer was virtually synonymous with horror films from the 1950s through the late 1970s, while the Shaw Brothers are so enshrined in the history of Hong Kong cinema that Quentin Tarantino called them out (and used their studios) in his Kill Bill films. In the mid-70s, you couldn't do Dracula without Hammer, nor Kung Fu without Shaw Studios.

Legend is both studios working at their cheesy, campy best. As the movie opens, a servant of the dormant 7 Golden Vampires has made his way from China to Dracula's castle in Transylvania. He awakens the king of all vampires, begging Mr. D to return with him to his homeland and awaken his masters so that they may once again rule the region. Dracula essentially decides (and I'm paraphrasing here), "You know what, I'm tired of this dump. Yeah, I'll go. But I'm doing it in your body." Dracula makes good on his vow, pulling some kind of Freaky Friday body switch with the servant, who hilariously acts shocked and betrayed. Really, if you woke up Dracula -- on purpose -- would you be surprised if he fucked you over?

We follow Dracula to a village in China, where he now presides over the seven mummified vampires, along with an army of skull-faced zombies (that's right, we've even got zombies in the mix), as he hangs out and sacrifices female locals in various states of undress. I have to admit, it's kind of an awesome promotion for a guy who normally just hangs out in his basement, sleeps in a coffin and occasionally turns into a bat.

Cut to Chungking, where visiting Professor Abraham Van Helsing has become unpopular as he spreads this legend of Dracula and his seven minions to a crowd of suspicious, non-believing students. There is one believer among them, a young man named Hsi Ching, who begs Van Helsing to return with him and a small army of Kung Fu killers to his village and destroy Dracula and his minions.

The acting, with the exception of Cushing, is uniformly pretty awful, while the script is full of unintentional laughs. Still, if you're the kind of person who is able to look past all that and see this for what it is (sword fights, excessive nudity, spraying blood and decaying corpses), you'll probably have a good time.

As someone who spent a good deal of his childhood catching all manner of double feature karate flicks on "Kung Fu Theater," I could tell that this was still a step above most of those movies. Not a big step, mind you, but a step.

And in fairness to William Friedkin, I must add that despite your movie's title, you've got this one beat by several milese.

For more on The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Visit Hammer Films or Shaw Studios
- Buy the DVD (though, really, this is more of a rental kind of movie. When you're really drunk.).

An assortment of Kung Fu-lery from the movie:

Friday, September 12, 2008

#66: Sorcerer


Directed by William Friedkin
Written by Walon Green (based on Georges Arnaud's Wages of Fear)
Released June 24, 1977

I was talking with a co-worker about this blog, and they were telling me that they had never heard of almost every single movie I've written about here. I told her that there are a few reasons for that, but mostly because I have already seen in my lifetime THOUSANDS of movies and have seen most of the obvious choices.

The other day I did a tally of the movies I've reviewed here and noticed that I haven't watched a single movie that came out between 1990 and 2000. Astounded by this, I started going through Netflix's list of 90s movies. In the 20 minutes it took me to sort through 300 movies on the list, I found less than 10 I hadn't seen.

Growing up in Omaha, Nebraska, going to movies was my #1 pasttime. If you aren't drinking age in a city like this, there aren't that many pasttimes from which to choose. Frankly, there's not much I'd rather be doing.

Anyway, this is all my long-winded way of trying to say that a lot of the movies on this site are movies that even I have never heard of, including tonight's action/suspense movie Sorcerer. A remake of the French film Wages of Fear, Sorcerer was the financial flop that ended director William Friedkin's early 70s winning streak of The French Connection and The Exorcist.

I'm no marketing genius (though I did work in marketing), but I'm guessing the biggest reason this movie bombed was the awful title. There is no sorcerer in Sorcerer (it's the name painted on the side of a truck driven in the film). Why Friedkin didn't just keep the name of the original film is beyond me. It reminds me of what I think is one of the dumbest album titles in recent memory: Mariah Carey's Charmbracelet. What the fuck are you talking about? Really, you worked and toiled over this new album... and the best you can come up with when forced to try and encapsulate all you've put into is... Charmbracelet? (Before you point out to me that it's Mariah Carey and probably no thought or work went into its creation, I know. It's the principle(s).)

Forget about the title: Sorcerer is badass, definitely different and a very interesting entry in Roy Scheider's catalogue of starring roles. It's a strangely suspenseful story of four very shady characters who have been exiled from their homelands and given one very dangerous way to escape said exile. These men -- a small group of terrorists, killers, and in Scheider's case, a robber on the run from the mafia -- volunteer to drive two volatile truckloads of nitrogylcerin through the jungles of South America in the hopes of walking away with enough money to change their fates.

Having never heard of the movie (I discovered its existence after Scheider's passing), I was surprised that it seemed to benefit from a very decent budget. Aside from all of the expensive location shooting, the movie opens with one of the most jarring and realistic terrorist bombings this side of Children of Men. There are several impressive setpieces of destruction, including a massive oil fire, a riot, a violent car wreck and much more. For something as seemingly mundane as a movie about four guys driving a couple of trucks, Friedkin wrings every bit of tension possible out of the action. The creepy score, the first movie score ever done by Tangerine Dream, ups the ante significantly.

All of the acting is pretty top notch, but most impressive is Scheider, whose character gradually breaks down to the point of near insanity by film's end (imagine yourself driving an ancient truck that could explode at any moment over rocky terrain or even a rickety rope bridge and you've got an idea of what his character faces). With equal weight given to each of the four criminals' stories, and with none of them being innocent, you have no idea who will make it out alive. There's even a very cool, Rififi-esque stretch of chatter free planning that makes you long for this kind of moment in a modern film.

Now, a caveat: I cannot recommend renting the DVD for one major reason: it has yet to be released in Widescreen format. To go back to my music analogy, this is like listening to Pet Sounds on one shitty computer speaker. While the framing doesn't take away from the positive aspects, you can just tell when watching Sorcerer in this abridged format that you're missing out on a lot of brilliantly composed action and scenery. Had I known in advance that it was unavailable in Widescreen, I may not have rented the movie.

For more on Sorcerer:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- If you don't care about Fullscreen vs. Widescreen (you damn fool), buy the DVD.

The Sorcerer trailer:

Thursday, September 11, 2008

#65: Fido


Directed by Andrew Currie
Written by Robert Chomiak, Andrew Currie and Dennis Heaton
Released March 16, 2007 (Canada)

This might sound crazy to some of you, especially to those of you who might know me and know how busy I am on a day to day basis, but the tally for movies I've seen since starting this challenge is higher than the daily numbers here.

For example, I've seen Tropic Thunder twice. Or, the other night as I finished a project for an online class, I watched Rob Zombie's The Devil's Rejects (the sequel to the much more abominable House of 1000 Corpses). Now, had that movie been worth a shit, I would probably have written about it here. Even if it had been awful enough to be interesting, I would have included it here. But it was just... something that happened for 90 minutes. There was no value to it -- positive or negative -- to even bother discussing here.

I had to chalk that one up as a loss.

I caught Fido, a sort of comedy/horror/satire, as a free digital cable movie a few days back and have been considering my review ever since. Don't get me wrong: there's much more of value in Fido than there is in The Devil's Rejects.

First, it is at least an original twist on the zombie movie, a genre that already has plenty of terrible movies clogging up the pipes. Fido takes place in an alternate 1950s America that has just survived the zombie attacks in George Romero's Night of the Living Dead. In this America, humans have finally overcome the zombie menace with the help of a large corporation called Zomcon, who have cornered the market on menace control with the special collars they've invented to domesticate the walking dead. Zomcon has also created special fencing that keeps cities all over the country safe from "wild zones" that house the remaining uncontrolled zombie population. Picture "Leave it to Beaver" set amidst 28 Weeks Later.

Second, the look of the movie is perfect for the world that director Andrew Currie is trying to create. The set design and use of color perfectly captures that idealized 50s feeling that we've seen so much in advertising and entertainment of the era.

The casting, including Dylan Baker as the distant father figure, Carrie-Anne Moss as the longing mother, and a near unrecognizable Billy Connolly as the titular Fido, the family zombie who handles chores and plays catch with young Timmy, is spot-on. For the normally verbose and wild Connolly, Fido may be his best performance. He does wonders with just the changes in his eyes and the gnashing of his teeth.

What has me sitting on the fence about Fido is the fact that it just isn't all that funny. There are moments of amusement, and one or two moments that may make you laugh out loud (like the scene where Connolly acts as the zombified version of Lassie), but for the most part the movie winds up being a great premise without a complete execution. None of the lampoonable targets (and you can take your pick, from the conservative 50s setting to the commodification of the military to society's desensitization to violence) get skewered as much as they could. The third act, where Timmy and his creepy neighbor (played by Tim Blake Nelson) break into Zomcon, goes a little too dramatic and falls apart in a way that feels like the writers were confronted with, "Shit, we've got to finish this thing somehow!"

So, maybe I've been a little harsh on Fido. If you find it for free on your local digital cable movie channel, it's a worthwhile distraction. It's not substantive enough for me to fully endorse, but I can think of worse things to do with an afternoon.

Like Gerontology homework.

For more on Fido:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Watch some scenes at the official movie site.
- Buy the DVD.

The Fido trailer:

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

#64: Point Blank


Point Blank
Directed by John Boorman
Written by Alexander Jacobs, David Newhouse and Rafe Newhouse (based on Donald E. Westlake's novel "The Hunter")
Released August 30, 1967

To say Point Blank starts out with a bang would be an understatement. Lee Marvin isn't onscreen for more than a second before he's catching bullets. The opening credits haven't even finished and one of cinema's greatest badasses -- and the star of this movie -- is seemingly dead before our eyes?

Well, of course he's not, but it's a hell of a start to one of the coolest action movies of the late 1960s. Point Blank, directed by John Boorman (Deliverance, Excalibur and one of the worst movies of all time, Zardoz), is the story of Marvin's Walker, a criminal double crossed and left for dead by his wife (Sharon Acker) and his partner Mal Reese (John Vernon). By the time those opening credits finish, Walker is on the war path and out for revenge.

Unfortunately for Walker, Reese has made good use of his time away from his old friend and is now a member of a crime family called The Organization. If this sounds at all familiar, it might be because this film was remade in 1999 as the Mel Gibson vehicle Payback, one of the few movies where Gibson plays a "bad" guy and easily one of his best films. Of course, Gibson couldn't resist fucking with the movie, taking the film from director Brian Helgeland and hacking out 15 minutes that would be restored in a later version (to Gibson's credit, he also added some great stuff as well). I intend to review the Payback director's cut here in the future.

Point Blank, like Walker and Marvin, is a machine of a movie; there's no fat on the bones, and not a wasted second. Even the few moments of dreamlike calm lull you into a sort of false sense of quietude before they're shattered by unexpected explosions of gunfire and violence. Walker moves at such a breakneck pace that you're convinced the movie is only going to last about 20 minutes.

Lee Marvin is pretty much the Terminator, and his $93,000 is his John Connor. Luckily, this Terminator has a little time for Angie Dickinson, who plays his ex-wife's friend (and, as a few lines of dialogue hint, possible lover) and one of the pawns in his game at getting his money back. She's pretty much the only woman who can go toe-to-toe with Marvin, and the scene where she slaps the shit out of him and raises a little of her own hell is so relentless that it borders on hilarious.

Cold, calculating and practically emotionless, Point Blank's shark-like methodology is echoed in the set design and costumes, with splashes of color used sparingly (and usually to distract the eyes of the "bad guys," like Dickinson's clothes or the psychedelic lights in the club scene). Walker's need for his payment is like that shark's need for food: it knows no emotion, and nothing can distract it from its singular goal.

For more on Point Blank:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Buy the DVD.

The Point Blank trailer, which - like all 60s and 70s trailers - gives away too much:

#63: Confessions of a Superhero


Confessions of a Superhero
Directed by Matthew Ogens
Released November 2, 2007

Christopher Dennis is Superman. Well, he thinks he is Superman.

Matthew Ogens' enlightening documentary Confessions of a Superhero documents the lives of four misguided souls who spend their days dressed up as fictional characters who walk the streets of Hollywood greeting and posing for photos with tourists.

While the movie bounces back and forth between the lives of the faces behind Hollywood Boulevard's Batman, Wonder Woman and The Hulk, Dennis in the movie's central focus. True to the good nature of Superman, Dennis is probably the most pure of the people walking around in these costumes. He doesn't get angry when people don't tip him for the photos they take. Early on in the movie, Dennis is shown teaching a man in a Ghost Rider costume the ropes. He chastises the newcomer for smoking cigarettes in front of the public.

Superman: Just remember, superheroes don't smoke. It's an image.
Ghost Rider: Except for Ghost Rider.
Superman: Nope. Ghost Rider doesn't smoke.
Ghost Rider: He's made of fire.
Superman: But still, he doesn't smoke cigarettes. You can't make exceptions for something that doesn't exist.

This amazing conversation is soon interrupted by a woman who barrels out of a restaurant to get her photo taken with Dennis. Before the picture is snapped by her friend, she reaches down and grabs his crotch. To his credit, Dennis is unfazed (though he does offer "Thank you very much" at least one too many times).

Of course, Dennis displays a little bit of insanity here and there as well. For example, he claims that actress Sandy Dennis is his mother, and that she told him on her death bed that he should get into acting. Ogens interviews other members of the actual Dennis family, who all seem fairly certain their mother did not have a secret child. Dennis hints at some trouble in his past, especially when he says, "You know how if you do enough speed, you start getting delusional?"

While Dennis's Superman is the centerpiece, the real tragic character of the film (and that's a feat, especially after you meet everyone else) is Maxwell Allen, a shady character with a dark past who acts as Batman, circa George Clooney. Allen makes a number of dubious claims, including the fact that he learned Kung Fu during his "special forces" training, or that he became a gun nut after being a bodyguard and collector for the mafia (when he wasn't fighting for money as some sort of back alley gladiator). He has anger issues, which we eventually get to experience as he shows up for an appointment with his psychiatrist... in full Batman costume. While he tells the psychiatrist that he killed a man, his own wife later suggests about his wild imagination, "I would believe about 50% of what he says."

Rounding out the "cast" is Jennifer Gehrt (Wonder Woman) and Joe McQueen (The Hulk), two aspiring actors who should serve as a cautionary tale to anyone who believes that everyone can make it in Tinseltown. Both actors take their punches as they struggle to land parts, with Gehrt's marriage crumbling and McQueen's self-image in as many tatters as The Hulk's shredded clothes.

Gehrt gives off the vibe that she can't believe where her road has taken her. Visiting her family in Maynardville, Tennessee, we see home videos of her as a young girl is like watching similar footage on A&E's Intervention, where the junkies and addicts are shown in home movies before their lives became ruined by addiction.

McQueen goes so far as to say he feels like a loser and agrees with the assessment of one of the LAPD officers interviewed: these people, himself included, are essentially panhandlers.

I don't know if it's sad or impressive to watch Christopher Dennis's obsession with Superman, but it's definitely heartbreaking. If your jaw doesn't hit the floor when Dennis talks about the 18 movies he has acted in, followed immediately by a clip of him as an extra in a random movie in 2001 where he's blends into a crowd as they watch a little kid dance with a little person in genie costume, I don't know what to tell you.

Confessions of a Superhero is a complicated documentary in the vein of American Movie. It's one of those perfect "character study" films that piles on layer after layer of humor, tragedy and little nuggets of redemption that puts a smile on your face and then makes you feel a little guilty for laughing at such fragile, real people.

If you're like me, you'll be a little disappointed when it's all over. Make sure you check out some of the hilarious, touching and sometimes super creepy bonus footage, including scenes like the ones where Dennis and "Batman" alternately ask Margot Kidder out (and fail) and sit for Polaroid photos with adult film actresses. And don't miss the revealing scene where Dennis's wife explains her own fetishistic fascination with Christopher Reeve while Dennis sits next to her and smokes pot.

For more on Confessions of a Superhero:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- The official movie site has bios and more clips to check out, along with a downloadable press kit.
- Buy the DVD.

The official trailer:

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

#62: Days of Heaven


Days of Heaven
Directed by Terrence Malick
Written by Terrence Malick
Released September 13, 1978

I'm not sure if there's an Official Dictionary of Film, but if there is, the word "Visionary" had better be followed by the name Terrence Malick. He's one of our greatest living directors, and if you've never heard of him it's probably because in the last five decades the reclusive film maker has made only four feature-length films (five if you count his upcoming Tree of Life), none of which has been hugely successful in the financial sense.

A Malick film is pretty much like nothing you've ever seen (the closest I've seen a "mainstream" film come to the look of his films was Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will be Blood). They move at their own pace: ponderous, poetic and sometimes almost glacial. Nature is always a theme, and one never as powerful as his loose adaptation of The Thin Red Line, where he shows not only the toll of war on man but the natural and beautiful world around him.

Days of Heaven, which stars Richard Gere shows all of the hallmarks of a Malick film, including offscreen "narration" (more like the thoughts and inner monologues of his characters), stretches of natural soundtrack rather than dialogue, and a eye for realism. Gere plays Bill, a hotheaded laborer who travels the country with his young sister and Abby, the woman he loves, working hard jobs and trying to save money. When Bill discovers that the rich farm owner he works for (played by playwright/actor Sam Sheperd) only has a year left to live, he tries to convince Abby to play his sister, marry Sheperd's farmer and inherit his empire.

Since Malick is no Hollywood director, this is no Hollywood love triangle. There's still jealousy, longing, and betrayal (and pretty much every one of the seven deadly sins), but if you're waiting for the story to turn into some variation on Unfaithful or Indecent Proposal, don't hold your breath. When the shit hits the fan here, it's Biblical.

Days of Heaven is undeniably beautiful, a work of art, but I really can't recommend enough the haunting The Thin Red Line if you've never seen a Malick film. It's definitely the best test to see if you like his kind of film. If you enjoy it as much as I did and still do, then check out Heaven and especially his feature debut, Badlands.

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

The Days of Heaven trailer:

Sunday, September 7, 2008

#61: Son of Rambow


Son of Rambow
Directed by Garth Jennings
Written by Garth Jennings
Released April 4, 2008 (UK)

Beginning in 1982, three young friends in Mississippi began shooting a shot-for-shot remake of the first Indiana Jones film, Raiders of the Lost Ark. It took them seven years to complete, and by the end of the process, their friendships had been torn apart. It took almost two decades - and a lot of Internet legend - for that film, which became known as Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation, to surface. I first heard about the remarkable accomplishment on the Aint it Cool website, but the March 2004 issue of Vanity Fair featured a story about the movie, called Raiders of the Lost Backyard. (I highly rec' following that link for the whole, unbelievable story of how these kids made a movie.)

Now, I can't say for certain that Garth Jennings knew about this story when he wrote Son of Rambow, but I couldn't help but think about those Raiders kids as I watched Jennings' uplifting, heartwarming film about two unlikely friends who come together to pay tribute to the action classic First Blood.

Son of Rambow opens with an immediate juxtaposition of its two main characters: as young Will Proudfoot (Bill Milner) joins his family and the other members of the oppressive religious "brethren" in a protest outside of a small movie theater, Lee Carter (Will Poulter) - the bully at Will's school - sits inside smoking a cigarette and making a VHS bootleg video copy of the aforementioned Stallone film.

Soon, a chance meeting in the hallway of their school (Proudfoot is not allowed to watch anything on television, so he is sitting in the hallway when Carter is booted from class) leads the two boys to begin spending time together. Proudfoot "accidentally" watches Carter's bootleg of First Blood and his mind, already bursting with fantastical images that he draws on any surface he can find, becomes obsessed with his own version of the Rambo story: he is the titular son of John Rambo, and must save his fictional father from the clutches of an evil character named Scarecrow, an army of followers, and a flying dog with machine guns on his wings.

The boys also cross paths with a charismatic French foreign exchange student, who has become so bored with making out with every girl at their school that he and his band of hangers-on attempt to co-op the making of the film. This intrusion leads to various places, namely a hilarious scene involving a very Wes Anderson-ian "backstage" party and the splintering of Carter and Proudfoot's friendship. Really, the whole movie has this Rushmore through the eyes of Michel Gondry vibe, if Max Fischer loved movies instead of Mrs. Cross.

I pretty much loved every single thing about Son of Rambow, from the incredible performances by all the young actors (Poulter's comic timing is insane for a boy his age, and he reminded me a lot of River Phoenix in Stand by Me) to Jennings' gorgeous directing and Jess Hall's sumptuous cinematography (if you think I'm being a little flowery with "sumptuous," wait until you see how cool Hall manages to make burned out buildings and wreckage look). I had to work immediately after watching this at home, and really regretted not being able to take in a second viewing, with or without the commentary track.

Son of Rambow marks the 1/6th point of my completion with this 365 movies in a year project, and I couldn't think of a better way to reinvigorate myself to keep this going. This movie was truly a hidden gem that I am really disappointed I didn't see at my local arthouse theater in Omaha in the one week it swept through town. It's a killer meditation on childhood, friendship, and the kind of sense of fantasy and adventure that the world eventually tears away from us as we grow older.

For more on Son of Rambow:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Check out the official site.

The Son of Rambow trailer:

YouTube has the first 10 minutes of Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation:

Saturday, September 6, 2008

#60: Hardcore


Directed by Paul Schrader
Written by Paul Schrader
Released February 9, 1979

Paul Schrader, the writer and director of Hardcore, is no stranger to the seedy side of life, having directed sexually charged movies like American Gigolo, Auto Focus, The Comfort of Strangers and Cat People, along with writing the script for Taxi Driver. Please don't confuse "sexually charged" with "sexy," as they are definitely not synonymous in the hands of Schrader, who tended to seek out the underlying menace beneath sexuality and desire.

Hardcore tells the tale of a Midwestern father (played by George C. Scott) wading through the cesspool of the Los Angeles porn underground to try and find and rescue his teenage daughter.

As Hardcore opens, we're presented with scenery from an idyllic, snow covered small town where people just can't seem to stop discussing Jesus and the Bible. It's the kind of town where a man turns off a Christmas special featuring a pack of dancing Santa Claus because he's just so offended by what Hollywood is doing to his sacred holiday.

This may initially seem to be an overreaction, until we learn that these people - namely Scott's Jake VanDorn and his daughter Kristen are strict Calvinists. VanDorn sends his daughter and her friend off to a Youth Calvinist Convention in California, where (after the mildest hint of a sexual conversation between Niki and her friend) this "sheep" abruptly strays from the "flock." I'd probably think I was being a little heavy handed if VanDorn himself weren't the head of a furniture manufacturing company, essentially making him the mass marketed version of a carpenter.

In the blink of an eye, VanDorn is on a plane to L.A. and hiring a sleazy private detective played by Peter Boyle. The next time VanDorn speaks with Boyle's Andy Mast (we are to assume that at least a few weeks have gone by), his private detective reveals what may be the most dreaded thing a father can see or hear: Kristen is now a porn actress. Of course, rather than reveal this information delicately or with a modicum of tact, Mast takes VanDorn to an adult theater and screens for him a clip of his daughter getting taken by two men.

George C. Scott's reaction defines the tonal change for the entire movie: we're not in Grand Rapids, Michigan anymore, kids. Forgive my play on words, but Hell hath no fury like a Calvinist father porned. VanDorn fires Mast off the case and takes matters into his own hands, and Hardcore becomes The Searchers meets Boogie Nights, with the Old West replaced by the new one. VanDorn is so in over his head that Schrader makes the brilliant choice of playing Neil Young's "Helpless" on the soundtrack as the lost father stares into a glass cabinet full of dildos.

It doesn't take long for VanDorn to find his feet as he adopts the persona of Jake DeFreese, a manufacturer from Detroit who wants to finance a feature porn film. The persona is almost just as much a cover as it is a way for VanDorn to cope with his own unease with becoming so deeply involved with an underworld filled with such cleverly named characters as Big Dick Blaque and Jism Jim.

Whether intentional or not, Schrader's film is a very dark and sometimes very amusing black comedy. If you need further proof, just examine the scene where VanDorn tries to explain Calvinism to the porn actress he has hired to help him find his daughter.

VanDorn: If God is omniscient, if he knows everything -- and he wouldn't be God if he didn't -- then he must have known even before the creation of the world, the names of those who would be saved.
Niki: Well, than it's all worked out. It's fixed.
VanDorn: More or less.
Niki: (Sighs) I thought I was fucked up.
VanDorn: I'll admit, it's a little confusing when you look at it from the outside. You have to try to look at it from inside.
Niki: Well, if you look at anything from the inside, it makes sense. I mean, you should hear perverts talk. A guy once had me convinced to let his German shepherd screw me.
VanDorn: It's not quite the same thing.

Of course, the comedy aspect is pretty much gone by the time VanDorn has dug deep enough to find the whereabouts of his daugther. Unfortunately, Schrader doesn't go as dark as he could have, and the movie is wrapped up almost too easily. Schrader throws in just a taste of a Chinatown ending with its last few lines of dialogue, but for a movie that spent so much time getting dirty, Hardcore ends with an all too tidy washing of the hands.

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

George C. Scott loses it:

Thursday, September 4, 2008

#59: El Topo


El Topo
Directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky
Written by Alejandro Jodorowsky
Released April 15, 1971

Since it has long been one of the most famous (and oft bootlegged) midnight movies, I watched Alejandro Jodorowsky's psychedelic Spanish language Western El Topo at midnight. Unfortunately, I also watched it completely sober. I'm guessing this is the kind of thing that was made for heavy users of LSD.

You know how movie posters are typically used to sell you on a movie, or hint at what you might see when you plunk your ticket money down?

See the naked young Franciscans whipped with cactus. See the bandit leader disemboweled. See the priest ride into the sunset with a midget and her newborn baby. What it all means isn't exactly clear, but you won't forget it.

For any other movie, this description might make me think, "What the fuck?" For El Topo, this might be the most sense you're going to make out of the picture. Within the first ten minutes, you watch a cowboy in black (the main character, played by Jodorowsky himself) make his naked 7 year old son bury his favorite toy with a picture of his mother, a soldier cut up a banana with a sword, another man make out with a woman's shoe, and that same 7 year old boy shoot a man and put him out of his misery at the scene of a literal bloodbath.

Oh, but it gets more weird. Lest we forget the scene where the four criminals dance and kiss their imprisoned monks. Or the part where the cowboy ditches his son and takes a bizarre trip to the desert with a woman he saved. Or the armless guy carrying the legless gunslinger. Or the part where El Topo is forced to have sex with a dwarf in public.

You know, just another day at the movies.

Hands down one of the strangest movies I've ever seen, El Topo is some kind of absurd series of paintings come to life. It's not that the "plot" is confusing or hard to follow. It's just a completely strange and singular vision, like a spaghetti Western directed by Salvador Dali. Symbolism, sex, religious iconography and splashes of yellow, pink and Technicolor blood. It's the kind of thing you have on in the background at a party to give the whole thing a creepy, surreal vibe.

If you've got a few hours and the kind of patience needed to ponder or diagram the underlying meanings behind the visions in El Topo, this is an easy film to recommend. It left me with an odd feeling; I can't say I particularly enjoyed it, but it was so different from anything I'd ever seen that I felt like it had earned my respect. Have you ever felt that way at a museum or gallery, when you can't take your eyes off a painting so disturbing or "ugly" that you almost marvel at its ability to get under your skin? There's undeniable craft and thought put into this work of art, but it's nothing you'd ever physically take home with you (mentally, however, you'll never be able to let it go).

If that sensation sounds completely foreign to you, avoid El Topo at all costs.

For more on El Topo:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Roger Ebert's DVD review perfectly encapsulates why this is such a hard film to sum up, and why my review tonight seems like a laundry list of imagery and not much else.
- Buy the DVD.

A trailer for El Topo:

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

#58: The Monster Squad


The Monster Squad
Directed by Fred Dekker
Written by Shane Black and Fred Dekker
Released August 14, 1987

Never underestimate the power of nerds.

That sentence is just as applicable to the characters in The Monster Squad as it is to the fans who made it a cult classic and video hit. Without those nerds and their largely Internet-based support, this horror comedy would never have seen the light of day on DVD (in a double-disc "collector's edition," no less).

Had it not been for this deep well of geek love, I wouldn't be reviewing the movie today. Don't get me wrong; when I was a kid, I remember gleefully watching this movie a couple of times. When you're 11 years old, what's not to love about a Goonies-esque gang of kids taking on the classic Universal Studios monsters (Dracula, The Wolfman, Frankenstein and The Creature from the Black Lagoon)? They cuss, smoke cigarettes and murder the undead. It's an adolescent boy's dream come true.

When I stumbled upon this geek worship while reading websites like Ain't it Cool (ground zero for pretty much all movie geekdom, and a pretty unreliable site if you're looking for objectivity because of that same unchecked geekdom), I wondered where all of this crazy Monster Squad nostalgia was coming from. Was this movie really as much of an awesome classic as these geeks remembered? I was hesitant to add it to my Netflix que, but then I figured that this 365 movies project of mine wasn't above a visit to my childhood (see my Empire Strikes Back review for further proof).

As the "tough kid" from Kids Incorporated pulls up on his bike, lights a smoke off the heel of his penny loafers, and defends "fat kid" Horace from a bully (played by classic bully Jason Hervey, who played Kevin Arnold's asshole brother on The Wonder Years), I smiled and tried remember how cool this movie was to me as a kid.

The plot, in a somewhat convoluted nutshell, goes as follows: this crew of kids, who have built their own club based on their love of horror movies, stumble upon a crate containing the body of Frankenstein's monster. I know, convenient, right? In addition, one of the kids gets a gift from his mother: a diary from the legendary vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing. The coincidences keep piling up. A 2,000 year old mummy escapes from a museum... a man shows up at a police station claiming to be a werewolf and begging to be locked up... and Dracula drops in on the same town. There's a little bit more about an amulet that can control the fate of good or evil and an incantation from that aforementioned Van Helsing diary, which of course must be read by a virgin.

Yeah, it's a bit convoluted and silly. This is basically an action/horror movie for kids, after all. Of course, there's a level of violence and scariness that really puts that "for kids" label to the test, including make-up genius Stan Winston's well done effects make-up. Director Fred Dekker (creator of the silly cult zombie classic Night of the Creeps) co-wrote the script with Shane Black, who is probably best known as Hollywood's go-to action guy in the late '80s and early '90s. Among other bloated massive actioners, Black wrote scripts for Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout and The Last Action Hero before disappearing for over a decade, returning only to write and direct the excellent Robert Downey Jr./Val Kilmer comedy Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

I was honestly surprised at how much The Monster Squad has held up. There were a few scenes that actually made me laugh out loud, especially one brilliant blink-and-you'll-miss-it scene where the kids ask their older buddy if he knows any virgins and he responds with a spit take.

It's to Black and Dekker's (wow, never noticed that pun before) credit that the script does not make fools out of the young characters, and it's to the young cast's credit that they don't annoy the shit out of the viewer for the duration of the movie. Try watching The Goonies again if you haven't seen it in a long time and try to tell me the same about that cast. Sure, it has its moments, but I can't imagine an adult viewer who can endure the entire movie without wanting to fastforward through some of the nonstop yelling and hijinks.

Look, nobody is saying it's Fellini, but The Monster Squad is still pretty damn fun.

For more on The Monster Squad:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Buy the 20th anniversary DVD.

A couple of scenes from The Monster Squad:

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

#57: The Conversation


The Conversation
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Written by Francis Ford Coppola
Released April 7, 1974

Gene Hackman. The late, great John Cazale. Harrison Ford. Francis Ford Coppola directing at the height of his powers.

And, we're done.

Oh, I'm sorry. Do you need me to say more than that?

In The Conversation, Hackman gives one of his most varied performances as Harry Caul, a surveillance expert who is so obsessed with his own privacy that he gives an irritated call to his landlord and changes his mailing address when he discovers that she has left him a birthday gift. Even Amy, the woman he is romantically involved with (played by Teri Garr) doesn't know where he works, how to get a hold of him or even that it's his birthday.

We eventually learn that some of the reason for Caul's withdrawn and secretive nature is because of his intense guilt over a mishap with one of his previous surveillance jobs, which caused the deaths of three people.

As the movie begins, Caul and a few of his colleagues are taping, from various vantage points, a conversation between a couple in a San Francisco park. Caul constantly reexamines this conversation throughout the movie, focusing in on certain bits of conversation and trying to figure out what they really mean. What seems like a fairly mundane conversation piques Caul's interest when he tries to return the tapes to the man who paid him to record them and is met with suspicious interference. The tables become turned and Caul becomes suspicious that he is being followed and recorded.

As I said before, The Conversation finds Coppola at his near peak as a director and screenwriter, able to turn a scene of a man listening to a looped bit of taped dialogue over and over into a tense several minutes of uncomfortable paranoia. Coppola even manages to wring palpable tension out of a scene at a surveillance and security convention. Now that takes some skill.

There's also something very 1970s about The Conversation. I don't mean to say that it seems dated, because it doesn't; what I mean to say is that there are these contemplative stretches of scenes, like a post-party scene in Caul's warehouse office, that basically go on for about 20 to 30 minutes. It's a kind of narrative pace we just don't get to (or aren't trusted to) enjoy today. If this movie came out now, there would have been two murders and a car chase thrown in just to placate our shortened attention spans. So much happens in this stretch that I think could potentially be lost on today's audience, like how Caul's vulnerability, loneliness and mistrust finally start to make his guilt rise to the surface.

Hackman is great here, and does not turn in the performance you'd expect. This isn't Popeye Doyle from The French Connection here, this is a somewhat cowardly man who is obviously haunted by the mistakes of his past. Even minor roles, like a creepy performance by Harrison Ford as a potential villain and even an uncredited turn by Robert Duvall, are all of vital importance.

The Conversation is like a reverse Taxi Driver; where Travis Bickle was driven to violence by his surroundings, Hackman's Caul is driven to a sort of insulated paranoia by his inability to avoid his surroundings. The movie speaks to themes of voyeurism and compliance, and how even observing someone can make you a part of their life... or, their death.

For more on The Conversation:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- A brief but very interesting analysis of the movie by a film/lit teacher.
- Buy the DVD. Insanely cheap and worth the money.

The trailer for The Conversation:

#56: Gojira


Directed by Ishirô Honda
Written by Ishirô Honda and Takeo Murata (story by Shigeru Kayama)
Released November 3, 1954

When I was a kid, I had two pretty powerful memories attached to the giant radioactive lizard known as "Godzilla." The earlier memory occurred so early in my childhood that I remember it in that strange way you can only remember things from so long ago -- where it seems like it could either have been a dream or reality. It was one of my first movie experiences, and if I can trace it back correctly, it may have been 1978's The Terror of Godzilla.

The second memory is much more clear. I remember going to a friend's Godzilla-themed birthday party and watching Godzilla 1985, itself a re-edited version of 1984's The Return of Godzilla. At the party, we were given tiny stuffed Godzilla dolls, and my mind immediately turned to a thought I became obsessed with: "I must make a stop-motion Godzilla movie with this doll." Alas, I never had the chance. Video cameras were insanely expensive and hard to come by, and no one I knew owned one. They were certainly way too expensive for anyone to loan to an 8 year old kid to make a stop motion animated movie.

What's kind of ironic is the fact that the use of the old "guy in a suit" technology by Ishirô Honda and his special effects team was a compromise for their lack of ability to do the very stop motion animation that I was hoping to use for my movie. The filmmakers, inspired by the financially successful international re-release of King Kong in 1952, along with the stop motion animation in that movie and 1953's The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, wanted Japan to have its own signature creature movie. Since they could not duplicate the effects, they combined the Godzilla suit and hand puppets for close up shots.

While Godzilla would go on to appear in dozens of campy low budget films, including some aimed at children that were so ridiculously comic that he performed karate moves, the original Gojira lacks the silly dubbed dialogue, bad acting and campiness that became a signature of the series.

Frankly, it's downright serious and a little bit of a bummer. There's even a fairly brutal late night attack on Tokyo that must have been somewhat shocking to the Japanese audience so few years after the bombings that essentially ended World War II. In this attack, where the Japanese plan to electrocute the monster goes horribly awry, Godzilla reveals his atomic breath, setting fire to a fairly accurate representation of a massive portion of the city. Unlike most Godzilla movies, where these attacks are somewhat faceless in regard to individual citizens, this one gets pretty personal. I'm thinking especially of a brief shot where a woman cowers in a doorway with her children and screams, "We'll be joining your father in a moment!"

Gojira is almost more of a drama than it is a "monster movie." While the allusions to Japan's loss in the war are not obvious, there's a theme that runs through the movie about science, weaponry and war that never seems preachy. Before seeing this original version of the movie, I definitely expected more of a postwar, anti-American propaganda vibe. Instead, the movie takes the high road.

One of the most surprising bonuses of the DVD (which also comes with the re-edited American version, featuring Raymond Burr) that I discovered was the absolutely insane commentary track, hosted by Godzilla experts Ed Godziszewski and Steve Ryfle. It's one of the most informative and exhaustive DVD commentary tracks I've ever heard, and it kept me up into the middle of the night watching the movie a second time.

For more on Gojira:
- Movie information at IMDB and a Wikipedia entry that discusses the "character" in a larger sense.
- Check out this and other Godzilla movies on DVD.

The trailer for Gojira: