Saturday, December 27, 2014

THE BABADOOK (2014) - A Review
 
So we went from seeing a not so good movie the day before (The Interview), where the show was sold out and then some, to seeing a much better film (The Babadook) where we were literally the only ones in the theater. Yes, my wife and I had our own private screening. Hopefully business will pick up, because, imperfect though it may be, The Babadook certainly deserves to be seen.
 

Here's a film that's in a bit of a bind, though, audience attracting-wise. It's being marketed as a horror film, which, in a sense, it is. But it's actually more of a dark drama, with the horror coming from the all-too-common terrors of mental illness and family dysfunction. If you take the single worst moment of stress, frustration, exhaustion, anger and loneliness that every parent must have felt at some time, and extend it out over 90 minutes, then you probably get something like The Babadook.
 
Essie Davis plays widowed mom Amelia. Noah Wiseman is her seemingly troubled son, Sam. Her late husband died in a car crash while driving Amelia to the hospital while she was in labor. She hasn't been the same since, and hasn't been able to move on - especially since Sam is quick to talk to anyone and everyone about how his dad died while driving his mom to the hospital to have him. Loneliness and a deep sense of loss hang over them like a dark cloud.
 

A more literal dark cloud appears when Sam becomes convinced that a character named Mister Babadook has entered their lives, and is bent on doing them harm. Sam's increasing paranoia and acting out over this are all it takes to push the family over the edge, with disastrous consequences at work, school, with friends, etc. Soon, what had been a shaky foundation for Sam and Amelia has crumbled altogether, and what had been a slow downward spiral becomes a headlong plunge into Hell.
 
Is the Babadook real, or imagined? If the Babadook is real, who is really the Babadook? Is the menace to Sam and Amelia internal, or external?
 
Lots of questions, and I won't answer any of them here, because they're open to interpretation, and you should see the film and decide for yourself. This is the first feature written and directed by former actress Jennifer Kent, and it is a very accomplished piece overall. The acting and direction and (notably gray and black) production design are all excellent. This is very much a women's picture, in the best sense, which raises another quandary for the film, since I suspect that this might well be a story that a lot of women - well, women who are parents, anyway - might really dislike, or feel uncomfortable with. Far from being some out-there horror fantasy, this is a film that goes to some all too real dark places.
 
Though I liked the film quite a bit, I did have some minor issues with the ending - details of which I will not (SPOILER NON-ALERT!!!) go into here. I urge you to see it for yourself, and then discuss.
 
In the meantime, here's hoping that some smart producer somewhere is, even as we speak, offering Jennifer Kent lots of money to do something else. Creativity and talent such as she has demonstrated here should be rewarded and encouraged. Here's hoping.
 

Thanks to Paul at the Darkside for bringing this in. Here's also hoping (again) that business picks up for this film. 

Friday, December 26, 2014

THE INTERVIEW (2014) - A Review
 
Well, first of all, let me just say that, in a strange way, all the controversy around this film is probably the best thing that could have happened to it. Without it, I think it would have been released on Christmas Day (an odd choice for a release date, to be sure), and been something of a flop, and then quickly forgotten.
 
Instead, it's a cause, a small piece of Cinema History, and somehow the sum will end up being greater than the parts.
 
Which is to say, as a film, and just as a film, The Interview is nothing memorable. An interesting and challenging idea, to be sure, but in its execution (mind the pun!) mostly a series of missed opportunities and shallow performances.
 
But, you ask, is it offensive? I would say yes, because I find comedies that aren't actually very funny offensive. As someone who is fascinated by North Korea, and has read literally dozens of books about the dystopian "Hermit Kingdom," I would also add that I found the gentle and sympathetic way that Kim Jong Un was (mostly) portrayed to be offensive as well. Imagine if Hitler had been portrayed as just being a frustrated painter, and you'll have some idea of how Kim is portrayed here. Given the decades of brutality that his family has personally overseen, I for one am past the point of wanting to "understand" or "empathize" with Kim - he just needs to be gone.
 
Given all that, as I said above, I think the plot about a shallow celebutante TV host being engaged to assassinate Kim to be both an acceptable and potentially workable plot. But the film both fails to convince, and, more fatally, fails to entertain. Though it was a cheap B-movie,1942's Hitler - Dead or Alive worked similar territory and, if nothing else, delivered the goods in terms of entertainment. Bizarrely enough, I kept thinking how this would have been a great plot for Bob Hope (slick-but-dopey host) and Bing Crosby (fast talking producer) back in the day.
 
I would pin the blame here on two big problems. One is that co-star/co-writer/co-director Seth Rogen probably should have focused in on just one or two of those jobs, rather than trying to (co) shoulder all of them. The script is mostly limp and juvenile, the direction is hit or miss, and as a screen presence, well, he really isn't.
 

And his co-star, and ostensible star of the film, James Franco, is just not up to the task - especially given the weak script. His character and performance aren't even one-note, so much as half-note. Yes, it's a farce, but there's absolutely no center to his character, and little continuity - he veers from near-imbecile to sex-obsessed man-boy to would-be serious reporter and crusader and back again - which undercuts the whole film. Especially since the script goes too lightly on Kim (in my opinion).
 
So, while the movie starts off well, with several good laughs, and a great cameo by Eminem, it quickly bogs down into anal penetration jokes and Franco's wildly unentertaining preening. And, once the story moves to North Korea, it also incorporates a great deal of graphic violence and bloodshed that is, at best, an uneasy mix with the would-be wacky comedy surrounding it. Gore and guffaws can be successfully mixed (paging Mr. Robocop), but the filmmakers here clearly aren't up to the task, leaving us with a film that isn't quite action movie fish or buddy comedy fowl. It winds up being the equivalent of someone shouting the none-too-funny punchline to a joke over and over again, hoping you'll laugh this time.
 
Uh, no.
 

The only bright spot to come after the post-opening slump is Diana Bang, who plays the prim and proper contact between the North Korean government and the debased American TV people. She manages to nail both the uptight, authoritarian soldier role, as well as one scene of Jennifer Coolidge-scale uninhibited wildness. Not at all believable, however, is her character's supposed instant attraction to the pudgy and deeply unattractive Rogen. Hollywood male wish fulfillment is on full display here, to be sure.
 
In any case, Bang, like Ann Savage, lives up to her name, and since she seems to have a lot of projects in the pipeline, I look forward to seeing her again.
 

The same cannot be said of The Interview. I don't regret seeing it, but see no need to repeat the experience. We came, we saw, we (were not) conquered.
 
Silver Lining Department: Not only has Paul at the Darkside brought in The Interview, but also, starting today, The Babadook (2014) is finally here! This is a film I've been interested in and excited about for months, so we'll be headed back to the Darkside for the first show of that today. I have no doubt it will be much better than The Interview. 

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Well now...If you know me, or have read my various blogs, then you'll know that two things I'm very interested in are movies and the amazingly dysfunctional twilight zone of North Korea.
 
So, many, many months ago, when I heard about the movie The Interview (2014), needless to say I was intrigued and, given the plot, somewhat amazed that such a thing had been made. It is perhaps also needless to say that I immediately made a mental note to see it when came out.
 
Oops.
 

Then, before all the Official Revisionist Lackey Malarkey stared spewing out of North Korea, a few early reviews of the film started circulating. Frankly, they did not sound promising. The backwards, bizarro world of North Korea I find disturbing and fascinating; a movie full of male anal anxiety jokes, on the other hand, just sounded like torture. So I started thinking, well, maybe I wouldn't see The Interview when it opened after all.
 
Oops.
 

So now, after Sony caved, the President raved, and indie theaters waved, The Interview is back on track - at least in a small way. It will be playing here tomorrow, and, coming full circle, we're planning to go see it. I in no way believe that by doing so, we're "fighting terrorists on Christmas Day" like a young guy quoted in an AP article about this whole debacle. But at least we can see for ourselves, decide for ourselves, and yes, in some small way, give the finger to Fat Baby Kim Jong Un.
 
Speaking of which, it's great that I FINALLY have the PERFECT occasion to wear my new Comrade Red Kim Jong Un Fat Baby t-shirt! (See picture below.) Thanks to Paul at the Darkside for making it all possible. You're an unlikely Santa, Paul, but this year you're bringing the presents and then some.
 


Sunday, November 30, 2014

KARATE-ROBO ZABORGAR (2011) - A Review
 
As a follow up to my previous post...I should mention that the DVD of the Watcher in the Attic was put out by Mondo Macabro, and it contained a whole slew of teasers for other films they've released on video. This trailer reel was so great, my wife and I watched it three times, and took notes of titles we want to try and track down, mainly crazy looking movies from the 1980s made in Indonesia and the Philippines.
 
With that search in mind, we went down to the library yesterday and, for the first time in a long time, went through their large collection of foreign DVDs. Though I didn't find any of the specific films we're looking for, I did continue my recent run of "Z" movies (I neglected to mention that another DVD I got from Grocery Outlet was the none-too successful "electric western" Zachariah from 1971). I was very pleased to find a copy of William Castle's Zotz! (1962), which, I believe, is the only one of his gimmick-era films that I haven't seen, though I have read the book. And I stumbled across the recent Japanese film, Karate-Robo Zaborgar.
 

Apparently intended as an homage to the sci-fi transforming robot TV shows of the 1970s, Zaborgar turned out to be pretty delightful, if an acquired taste. Too adult for kids, and too juvenile for adults (in theory), this is the story of a pair of twin brothers. Raised, and nursed, mind you, by their scientist father, one of the boys dies, but is secretly reborn by being exposed to the element "daimonium," which has the property of turning anything it touches into a robot, or some such strangeness. Whatever.
 

Anyway, the remaining human brother, Daimon, trains in martial arts for ten years, then becomes a crime fighting "secret agent" aided by his robot companion (and brother) Zaborgar, who, in addition to his human form, can also transform into a motorcycle. Together, Daimon and Zaborgar must fight the evil organization Sigma, who are kidnapping the leaders of the world to extract their DNA in order to build a huge, world conquering robot of their own. Unfortunately for Sigma, this process is taking quite a long time, as it turns out.
 
But the plot is, I think intentionally, pretty silly, and it's not really necessary to follow it in great detail to enjoy this film, which offers much to laugh and marvel at. Action in the first half of the film includes Zaborgar fighting a Diarrhea Robot, as well as a Bulldog Car Robot. Dialogue runs from goofy exposition to goofy expressions of personal angst, such as "I don't want to be a homicidal robot!" 
 
Then, at the halfway mark, the film jumps to "25 years later," and Daimon is played by a new, older actor. All other returning characters are played by the same actors who played their characters earlier and younger. The leader of Sigma, meanwhile, is still working on his giant robot. It all comes to an end when Daimon and Zaborgar must fight the ultimate weapon of destruction: An immature 20-something woman who is over one hundred stories tall, and talking to her friend Janine on her cellphone - the signal waves from which cause people's heads to explode!
 

As a menace, it was certainly novel, and a makes for a clear representation of the day-glow, good-natured, good vs. evil silliness of this movie. It has action, robots, robot ninjas, cyborgs, plenty of special effects, martial arts, spy stuff, jokes, drama and tons of colorful costumes and corny music. So, yes, this is a film in which the police officers from the first half of the film become the League of Smiles in the second half - a team of superheroes (without any super powers) who wear insanely bright matching uniforms, and literally launch themselves into the final battle of the film by lighting a fart for propulsion. I told you it was too juvenile for adults, didn't I? Or is that too offensive and adult for children? Whatever.
 
At any rate, I don't know that I will ever need to see Karate-Robo Zaborgar again, but I certainly did enjoy it last night. The ten year olds and/or cyborgs in your life would probably like it, too. Go, go, Zaborgar!
 


Friday, November 28, 2014

The Chase is (Sometimes) Better Than the Catch
and
THE WATCHER IN THE ATTIC (1976) - A Review
 
We're in an age of transition. Movie attendance in the U.S. continues its decades long decline. The sell-through DVD market has also shrunk greatly from its not-so-long-ago heights. Video rental or retail stores are, for all intents, nonexistent. Meanwhile, streaming and bootleg formats for movies are the areas experiencing growth. Kids, literally damning their eyes, are watching movies intended to be seen on the big screen on their cellphones. It may not be the End Times for movies (just yet), but it is a period of instability and change.
 
I'm not a streaming movie kind of guy. I want to know I can watch a movie even if the internet is down, and without the myriad technological difficulties that these more involved systems can fall victim to. That being the case, I still absolutely love DVDs. They're tangible, dependable, and can come with posters, artwork and extras that can make for a fuller experience of a particular film.
 
Being that DVDs are cheaper to produce and lighter to ship than VHS tapes ever were, there are still a lot of places that sell DVDs, despite the shrinking market for them. And, given the death of thousands of video stores across the country, used DVDs are cropping up all over the place, too - and not just in thrift stores - often for incredibly low prices.
 
One of the perks, if you will, of working where I do, is that my walk home takes me right past both a Goodwill and an Arc thrift shop, so I generally check in at these stores multiple times a week. Usually there's nothing of interest to me, but it doesn't cost me anything time-wise to find that out.
 
Ah, but every so often, persistence pays off, such as the day I found a huge treasure trove of 1940s film noir and 1950s sci-fi that had just been put on the shelf. However, such large scale payoffs are rare.
 
But it's not unusual to find a couple of films I'm interested in that make for very odd combinations indeed. Such was the case last week, when I came across a still sealed copy of the Academy Award-nominated nature documentary Winged Migration (2001) and a used copy of the Ray Dennis Steckler "classic" The Hollywood Strangler Meets the Skid Row Slasher (1979). What do these two films have in common? Not much, really, other than that I wanted them both, and they both cost three bucks. (Which is probably close to the full budget for the Steckler movie...)
 
So now, whatever the virtues or demerits of these individual films, my personal enjoyment of them will forever be enhanced and colored by the fact that I bought them as a sort of double-feature. It made me think about how much the experience of finding a movie, or getting to the point of seeing it, can become part of your personal experience of that film. My epic adventure in getting to see the Bollywood film Mr. Bechara (1996) in Chicago is a great story, though too long to go into here. The epic search my wife and I went through in trying to find the local movie theater in Thimphu, Bhutan is another classic - even though it ends with us not even making it into the theater.
 
 
As odd DVDs continue to pop up in odd places, I have come to have a deeper understanding of the full breadth of the potential cinematic experience they offer. Where it used to be that you might come across a crazy great movie you'd never heard of on late night cable, now you might find that movie at the checkout aisle at the grocery store, or at a gas station, or pretty much anywhere, really. Unlike seeing it on TV, if you buy the DVD, that film is now yours, available for you to watch again at any time. You just have to stumble across it.
 
And that's what happened to me in the last week or so. Our local Grocery Outlet, which is also on my path home from work, acquired a huge stock of used DVDs that had come from a Hollywood video store (or stores) somewhere. They're selling them for $2.99 each - but if you buy one, you get another one for free. Needless to say, the day I discovered these, I was a little late getting home from work.
 
Not surprisingly, most of the DVDs were fairly modern, and fairly mainstream, even the straight-to-video crap titles. But there were some delightful oddities scattered throughout the bin. I got the Something Weird exploitation double-feature of the Wild, Wild World of Jayne Mansfield (1968) and The Labyrinth of Sex (1969). I also picked up a couple of Gene Autry westerns. They had multiple copies of the gruesome 1966 mondo "documentary" Africa Blood and Guts (AKA Africa Addio). They also had many, many copies of the Takashi Miike western, Sukiyaki Western Django (2007).
 

One of the films they only had one copy of was something I had never heard of before, but hey, for a buck and a half I was more than willing to take a chance on something called The Watcher in the Attic (1976). It turns out to be a strange Japanese erotic thriller, based on a short story by the writer Rampo Edogawa (1894-1965). His stories have been made into dozens of movies, and this particular story has been remade several times since this version.
 
Set in 1920s Tokyo, Watcher centers on a creepy landlord who, just as the title implies, watches his tenants from the attic. Given that this is an erotic thriller, a generous helping of fetish play, death and murder follow, before (SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT!) an earthquake flattens everything.
 

Is it any good? Well, sure. Is it weird? Yes, but nowhere near as out there insane as some similar Japanese films from that time period. Did I enjoy it? For the most part, yes, though I personally found the recurrent use of clown make-up to be anything but erotic. But as my wife and I watched this old, foreign, sex and violence thriller, I kept remembering that I had gotten this at a down market grocery store. Most of the people who work there would probably die of shame if they knew they had been selling a film like this. This aspect of my experience of The Watcher in the Attic added immeasurably to my enjoyment of the film. No doubt it will make me smile and laugh whenever this particular film comes up.
 
I think that's a lot of context, a lot of story, to get for a buck and a half. Certainly I more than got my money's worth. Hopefully the chase is not always better than the catch, but if you're lucky, the chase can enhance the catch, making it sweeter and weirder than it would have been otherwise.
 

When I was a kid, one of the stock phrases used in old science fiction trailers was "keep watching the skies!" Now, while I do still watch the skies, I also keep a pretty keen eye on the shelves, too. You never know what's going to turn up.


Sunday, October 26, 2014

SCARED TO DEATH (1947) - A Review
 
Where do I even begin? I am really, really fond of this film, bordering on love. But why? Why?
 

Is it the unbeatable B-movie dream cast, headlined by Bela Lugosi, who is more than supported by George Zucco, Nat Pendleton, Joyce Compton, Douglas Fowley, Molly Lamont and Angelo Rossitto? This is literally a case where the supporting players have taken over the asylum. What a cast!
 

Is it the fact that this is the only color film that Bela Lugosi starred in? Not, as some misstate, the only color film Bela appeared in. No, this is his only starring role in a color film - and what color it is! Filmed in "Natural Color," this film is anything but natural. Rooms are painted blue, or green, and the whole thing is like a candy coated nightmare. Garish is a good place to start describing the color scheme here. Wow!
 

Or is it the fact that this movie has a plot, such as it is, that is totally bonkers, thus creating a colorful B-movie miasma of madness that is sure to satisfy those seeking something a little different? This isn't so much campy as it is just plain insane, and it's an insanity that I find irresistible as a viewer.
 
Without giving too much away, this entire film is a flashback, from the perspective of a corpse (Molly Lamont, as the bizarrely named Laura Van Ee), a gimmick that was later used to open the better known classic Sunset Boulevard (1950). But unlike the later film, this one keeps cutting back to the corpse as a way to transition from scene to scene. It's not really necessary, but again and again we get a shot of Lamont on the slab, and voiceover lines like "A gruesome surprise was in store for me the following morning," or "I became afraid and my mind started to crack," before moving on to the next scene. This constantly repeated refrain makes this a perfect film for a drinking game. Cut to the body on the slab - take a drink! You'd be loaded in no time.
 

Anyway, given the title, I don't suppose it's giving too much away to reveal that the story, such as it is, revolves around how poor Laura Van Ee wound up being...scared to death. Bela plays a mysterious visitor, with Rossitto as his mute companion. Zucco is Dr. Joseph Van Ee, the head of the sanitarium where all the action takes place, and Lamont's father-in-law. Pendleton is a dumb detective hoping to break a big case. Fowley is a fast-talking reporter hoping to break a big story. Compton is his none-too-bright girlfriend. Add an eerie bluish death mask that keeps popping up at windows to the cast and stir until dizzy. Must I explain that some people here are not what they seem?
 
Though the cast and color absolutely generate and hold your interest, much credit must go to the script by Walter Abbott - the first of only two scripts that he had produced. Keeping logic and sense at a safe distance, Abbott's dialogue contains some classic howlers. In one scene, after quickly listening to Lamont's heart through a stethoscope, Zucco proclaims, "Her heart's in a very depressed condition. Someone has been giving her orders by mental telepathy." Well, of course. What other explanation could there be?
 

There's also a truly marvelous moment in which Fowley greets Lamont with the classic, "Welcome to your living room, Mrs. Van Ee." It's a great little weird line in a great little weird movie. I laugh out loud every time I hear it.
 
But the line that may sum up the appeal of this movie for me comes courtesy of Joyce Compton, who, witnessing all the strange things going on all around her asks, "Is it Halloween?"
 
Oh yes, yes it is. And I can't imagine that anyone who loves Halloween wouldn't find much to love about Scared to Death. It's certainly in my Top Ten of Crackpot Classics, and it's perfect viewing for this spooky season.
 
As for poor Bela...Well, just a few years after this, he'd go on to star in yet another Crackpot Classic...


Tuesday, October 14, 2014

DOCTOR X (1932) - A Review
 
Horror movies? Love 'em! Horror movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood? Even better. Two-Strip Technicolor? One of my favorite "looks" for films - so dreamlike, so uniquely unnatural.
 
 
All that being the case, it's no surprise that I love this movie, given that it's a very rare creature indeed - a Golden Age horror film in Two-Strip Technicolor. The fact that it's also got a great cast (Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Lee Tracy, Preston Foster, Robert Warwick, etc.), a cracked plot and script, and is genuinely weird and creepy in parts only adds to my affection for it. It would seem strange and wrong to make it through October without visiting Doctor X.
 
This is one of those films where the plot is very much secondary to the mood (and, when first released, to the novelty of color), so it doesn't really matter much that Lee Tracy plays a wisecracking newspaper reporter who is trying to crack the case of the "Moon Murders." He winds up at the institute run by Doctor Xavier (Atwill). Xavier's daughter, Joanne (Wray) also lives there, along with the craziest collection of mad scientist types ever assembled at one location. This movie doesn't just have one or two oddball, suspicious characters - oh no, that would be skimping. At Doctor Xavier's place, pretty much everyone is in full-blown, eyes-bugging loony mode. It's like a whole house full of Dwight Fryes, or a Technicolor Dwain Esper movie.
 

The creepy, crazy aspects of this film are super-strong, and extremely enjoyable, and fortunately, most of the story focuses on these elements. Unfortunately, in more ways than one, Lee Tracy plays the kind of snappy patter comic relief part that was more suited to, say, Ted Healy. Tracy is a much better actor and comedian than this role calls for, and he is pretty much wasted here. (For the record, I am a big Lee Tracy fan. But this film is, to say the least, disappointing from that perspective.)
 

In addition to the overall lunatic tone of the entire film, there are also multiple elements of deformity, disability and infirmity. Characters have missing limbs, missing eyes, get around on crutches, etc. And - SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT! - it's the element of deformity that ultimately turns out to be the driving force behind the man/beast committing the "Moon Murders." Though, to be honest, I still am not quite sure exactly why the killer kills people - other than perhaps because he just looks so monstrous.
 

But never mind. This is 76 minutes of fairly pure cinematic delirium, the real stuff. It starts strong, and builds towards a truly creepy scene near the end in which the killer smears himself with icky pink putty, while muttering about the virtues of "synthetic flesh." It's a scene that I think is still powerful, nightmarish stuff, and I can only imagine how shocking and scary it must have been to audiences with 1930s era sensibilities. And yes, it's all in glorious, unnatural color. As my late criminology professor Doctor Sims would have said: "Outstanding!"
 
FOOTNOTE: IF there had never been Doctor X, then there would never have been the a-little-too-late non-sequel sequel, The Return of Doctor X (1939). And that probably would have been good news to Humphrey Bogart, who starred in that famous turkey which, by the way, didn't actually feature a character named "Doctor X" at all. But it did allow Bogart to make his one and only, terrible, terrible appearance in a horror movie - an experience he would doubtlessly liked to have avoided.
 



Sunday, October 12, 2014

PIRANHA (1978) - A Review
 
What a great film.
 

I mean, this is a perfectly calibrated and executed horror film that genre fans should find impossible not to enjoy. It's also a great example of what is generally thought of as the Roger Corman, less is more, shoot 'em quick aesthetic, having been shot in less than a month on a budget of $600,000. (It earned ten times that amount at the U.S. box office alone.) The plot is also comfort food for creature fans: Mutant piranha developed by the U.S. government get released into a river. Downstream? A new resort, a summer camp for kids, and plenty of clueless potential victims seeking some summertime fun in the water.
 
In any case, let's start by noting the smart, lightly politcal and (intentionally) funny screenplay by John Sayles - his very first. It starts with a bang - well, with a bite, actually - and then moves right along at a brisk pace, inserting enough necessary exposition and gratuitous bloodletting to simultaneously keep the plot afloat and the fans shrieking in their seats. (Sayles also makes a cameo appearance in the film.)
 
Then there's the direction by Joe Dante - helming his second film. Already he shows the sure hand with fantasy material that would become even more evident with his better know films such as The Howling (1981) and Gremlins (1984). And, now that I think about it, this film is almost a hybrid of those two future projects, combining the humor and small scaly creatures of Gremlins with the full-on bloody horror of The Howling. (However, the next stop for Dante was working on 1979's Rock 'N' Roll High School.)
 
Then there's the cast. Forget about top-billed Bradford Dillman, who, though generally enjoyably grumpy, comes across as a low rent Charlton Heston. And forget about second-billed Heather Menzies, whose character isn't really believable, but hey, whatever. No, the real strength and joy of this movie is the truly great cast of characters supporting the two leads.
 

Literally starting everything off is Kevin McCarthy, who plays the scientist who helped develop the mutant piranhas that end up causing so much trouble. Keenan Wynn is a sweet, drunk old codger who finds out the hard way that drinking and fishing can be fatal. The always reliable Dick Miller is a glad-handing, sleazy resort developer. Paul Bartel, most improbably, is an uptight children's camp counselor. Richard Deacon shows up briefly for no good reason at all. And the beautiful and fierce Barbara Steele arrives midway through as a government scientist (the evocatively named "Dr. Mengers") who is interested in the piranhas, but doesn't seem too terribly upset by the destruction they're causing.
 

As for the piranha themselves, praise must be given to the effects crew and filmmakers for making what turns out to be such simple effects work look so realistic and ferocious. Between the editing and the generous bloodletting, you'd think you were seeing real, live, gnawing beasties. Between this and Jaws (1975), the 1970s were a bad time to go swimming.
 
Now, I well know that some will disagree with saying anything positive about a film like this. Okay. Point taken. It's inherently a questionable genre, and might not be your thing. I get that. Movies like this are never in much peril of being burdened with Oscars.
 

But, for those open to fantasy, for those actively seeking some horror - say, around Halloween-time - Piranha is like a perfectly baked, perfectly sweetened cinnamon roll. It offers up layer after layer of delicious, gooey goodness, sure to hit your sweet spot. And after that first bite (as mentioned above), you'll doubtlessly want to finish the whole thing.
 
Ah, but be warned. This first goodie is just that, but approach the sequels and remakes that followed with a bit of caution.
 


Wednesday, October 1, 2014

THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 (1986) - A Review
 
 
So, before kicking off our annual month of horror movies, there was a brief discussion between my wife and I about whether or not we'd start in the shallow end of the pool, say with a Universal monster movie from the 1930s, or just dive right on into the deep end. Well, given the fact that today brought us further news of the first Ebola case diagnosed on U.S. soil, in Texas, and given the further fact that today is, per NPR, the 40th anniversary of the release of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), it just seemed right to start with a movie I'd been wanting to revisit - The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986).
 
In other words, we dove right on into the deep end.
 
I can still vividly recall seeing TCM 2 in the theater with friends when it first came out. Now, obviously, we all went in expecting a horror film, but I think it's safe to say we weren't really expecting anything as intense as this film. When the movie was over, I left the theater a little stunned and with a headache - both of which I counted as positive signs, mind you. You can't say this is a film that doesn't make an impression.
 
Years later, and viewed on DVD, TCM 2 can't hope to have the same impact. But it still packs a wallop. Boasting much higher production values, some truly effective acting, and a razor's edge balance of humor and horror, I think this sequel is much better than the first film - though, admittedly, both have the ability to make an audience very uncomfortable.
 
Picking up years after the first film, TCM 2 finds a vengeance-seeking "Lefty" Enright (Dennis Hopper) obsessively trying to hunt down the murderous hillbilly family that killed his brother. Said family - Drayton, Chop Top and Bubba ("Leatherface") Sawyer - has gone into the catering business - in a sense, hiding in plain sight. An ambitious radio DJ, "Stretch" Brock (Caroline Williams) winds up getting caught in the middle of it all after accidentally recording a couple of Texas yuppies who called into her show - and promptly got chopped up by the Sawyers while still on the phone. 
 

The sharp script, by L.M. Kit Carson, hits the right notes to please genre fans, while also deftly inserting some character development and psychological motivation for the far-out characters brought to life here. Dennis Hopper, an outsider making his way back in (the more critically acclaimed Blue Velvet and River's Edge both came out the same year as this), wisely underplays his role, and never seems to be "playing down" to the horror genre.
 
But most importantly, and impressively, Caroline Williams is simply great in what is the real lead role in the film. I find her extremely believable, very appealing, and she handles some genuinely difficult and horrific scenes perfectly. The scene where she talks her way out of getting killed by Leatherface at the radio station is tense, uncomfortable, and memorable, and Williams rises far above the average horror film screamer. Why she never went on to bigger and more mainstream roles, I don't know, though I'm happy that she's still acting.
 

Special note must also be given to Jim Siedow, who plays Drayton Sawyer, and to Bill Moseley, who plays Chop Top. Siedow, all toothy grins and stiff, awkward movements, is way too believable as the disgruntled and demented redneck patriarch. A returning cast member from the first film, Siedow acts as a sort of rotten foundation on which to build all the outrageous and vile things that make up this story. Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, Moseley is wild and way over the top in what was only his second film role. Over the top, yes, but extremely creepy as the ever-manic Chop Top, Moseley also gets some of the film's choicest lines of dialogue. After watching this movie, you'll never hear the phrase "lick my plate" the same way again.
 
The film starts off on a fairly light note, before night falls (literally and figuratively) and the story becomes darker and darker. By the final section of the film, when the action has moved into the Sawyer's underground maze of a home, the film becomes truly nightmarish, and the pace becomes faster and faster. Finally, the film doesn't so much end as simply jolt to a halt - not unlike a dreamer being jolted awake. Everyone but Stretch is dead (or so it seems at any rate), but, even though she has survived physically, it's not clear that her psyche is intact.
 
Really, after watching this film again, the only complaint I can muster is that the original score, by director Tobe Hooper and Jerry Lambert, is truly terrible - cliché, cheap sounding keyboard washes and squeals that add nothing to an otherwise excellent and unsettling experience. But even that cloud has a silver lining: the soundtrack features a number of strong songs by "horror-friendly" bands like the Cramps, the Lords of the New Church, and Oingo Boingo, among others.
 

And it's a line from one of the Lords songs on the soundtrack that I always think of when this movie comes up: "You can get away with murder out here/If you don't run out of gas." This is a film that comes with a full tank, and gets away with murder and then some. It is not for the faint of heart.
 
And let the Halloweening begin!

Sunday, September 7, 2014

TALES FROM THE GOLDEN AGE (2009) - A Review
 
AKA: AMINTIRI DIN EPOCA DE AUR
 
 
And subtitled Romanian Urban Myths of the '80s. Being that a little historical context is necessary, let's start with just a bit of text from the DVD cover: "The final fifteen years of the Ceausescu regime were the worst in Romania's history. Nonetheless, the propaganda machine of that time relentlessly referred to that period as the country's Golden Age."
 
Before we watched this film, I read a little about it online. Several reviews essentially said that, if you weren't there (for the Ceausescu years), you wouldn't get it. Well, that's a load of bunk. This is a film that speaks a universal language - satire. And the thing it's satirizing is a nearly universal source of angst - the stupidity of bureaucracies. Anyone over the age of, say, twelve, who's ever had to deal with a dysfunctional human system will understand what this film is all about.
 
One aspect of this film that is fairly unique, though, is that it's a comic anthology. Golden Age consists of six different stories, all written by Cristian Mungiu, and directed by Mungiu and four other directors. The titles of the episodes often give a hint of the type of foolishness to come: The Legend of the Official Visit; The Legend of the Party Photographer; The Legend of the Zealous Activist; The Legend of the Greedy Policeman; The Legend of the Air Sellers; and The Legend of the Chicken Driver. I don't think it will spoil anything to tell you that a recurring theme is the search for the basic necessities of life, generally food. This search is, of course, both caused by, and impeded by, the aforementioned dysfunctional human systems.
 

The Official Visit is somewhat self-explanatory, and concerns a small town preparing ("Clean up that cow shit!" "Bring the cow over! Bring the cow over!") for a visit from high officials - only to have things go horribly wrong.
 
The Party Photographer portrays the efforts to manipulate an official news photo so it meets party requirements - only to have things go horribly wrong.
 
The Zealous Activist is about just that - a zealous activist who volunteers to bring the literacy rate in a remote village up to 100%. Of course, things go horribly wrong...
 

I think you get the idea. We enjoyed each episode, and the film as a whole, though some stood out above the rest for me. The Official Visit was the most laugh out loud funny of the legends, and, since it's the first story, the film starts off on a high note. The Party Photographer was a truly classic representation of how you generally make things worse, not better, when you start massaging the truth, and it builds to a very good (visual) punchline. The educated urbanite versus the wise country folk theme of The Zealous Activist was also very enjoyable, and showed the very real perils of being overzealous. I also very much enjoyed the final legend, The Chicken Driver, though it was more lightly humorous than full-on funny, and had a pleasantly bittersweet tone to it.
 

So while some stood out more than others, none of the episodes here were less than perfectly enjoyable. I don't know why there aren't more comic anthologies, frankly. Lord knows we still get horror anthologies turning up. And, since dying is easy, but comedy is hard, it seems like a smart move to hedge your bets by putting together several short humorous stories like this film does. That way, even if one or two bomb, the film as a whole may still be worthwhile.
 
But in my zeal, I digress. Suffice to say that this film was a pleasant surprise, and is a little satirical gem. My only real complaint might be that it has a running time (well over two hours) that generally gives me pause. But, given the episodic nature of Golden Age, it can easily be taken in a legend or two at a time.
 
One definition of comedy is that comedy is tragedy that happens to someone else. In this specific case, the tragedy happened to Romania. But the greater tragedy, the one that will speak to anyone watching this film, is the human tragedy. In other words, whether you're Romanian or not, you will doubtlessly find many things here you recognize, and much to recommend.
 
Comrades! Life is beautiful! Now, clean up that cow shit!


Sunday, August 24, 2014

DEATH NOTE (2006) - A Review
 
AKA: DESU NOTO
 
 
So, you're walking down the street and you find a black notebook laying on the ground. Even though it's raining, the notebook is resting inside a mysteriously dry circle. You pick up the notebook and take it home. Later, upon opening the notebook, you find instructions explaining that this is the Death Note, and if you write a person's name in the notebook, they will die within ten seconds of a heart attack.
 
That's the fantastic but believably presented scenario for Death Note, and this is the situation the main character, Light Yagami (Tatsuya Fujiwara), a college student, finds himself in. Not surprisingly, he doesn't believe what he's reading, but, when he sees a news report about a vile criminal on TV, he impulsively writes the man's name in the notebook before going to bed. In the morning, the newspaper reports the sudden death - by an apparent heart attack - of the criminal whose name Light wrote in the Death Note.
 
In case that's not enough to convince Light that he's in possession of the real deal, he's soon visited by Ryuk, the God of Death, who dropped the notebook and explains that it's Light's to keep - and use - for as long as he likes. Ryuk quickly becomes a regular presence in Light's life, seeming to take a deep interest in how this human wields his new death dealing power. Generally, Ryuk neither advocates for use of the Death Note, nor argues against the use of it, though he does ask Light the occasional probing question as the young man's life becomes more and more centered around the lethal notebook.
 

At first, Light does what he sees as a public good, by targeting and eliminating criminals who seem to have escaped being punished by the legal system. He reasons that ridding the world of these despicable individuals is an inherent good, and, hopefully, will send a message to other would-be criminals that just because they escape the law doesn't mean they will escape justice.
 
Soon enough, dozens of rapists and murderers around the world are dead, and the authorities are both interested in how this is happening, and concerned that it will continue. As the investigation into the deaths grows, it becomes clear that the person or persons behind them are in or near Tokyo. So, in order to try to get the authorities to back off, Light begins targeting various law enforcement investigators, hoping their deaths will frighten those who remain away from continuing with their efforts to find him.
 
And this sets up the central dilemma in the film: How much bad can you do in the pursuit of doing good, while still being able to convince yourself that you're still doing good? It's watching Light try to navigate this moral quandary that seems to engage Ryuk. Even though he's the God of Death, and literally takes his life force from those who die, he appears to be genuinely surprised at the lengths to which Light goes (killing numerous members of the law enforcement community) in order to continue with his supposedly righteous crusade (killing numerous members of the criminal underground). So, sure, this is a fantasy film with teen appeal, but that doesn't mean it couldn't spark some interesting conversations about the nature of good and evil.
 

In the end, the film offers some nice twists and surprises, and there are a lot more details about the Death Note itself offered, all of which I've avoided talking about here, and this film certainly seems perfectly calibrated to appeal to the youth market. So perfectly, in fact, that as we were watching this, I found myself marveling that it hasn't been remade by an American filmmaker. Well, oops! As soon as I looked this up online, I discovered that a remake is indeed in the works, directed by Gus Van Zant, of all people. Sounds like Mr. Van Zant knows he needs a more commercial property on his resume right about now.
 
Though, unlike my wife, I was less than taken with the character of "L," a young, brilliant super sleuth (played by Ken'ichi Matsuyama), he made perfect sense from a commercial angle. Personally, I found Ryuk to be more believable and engaging, even though he is an over-the-top CGI creation. It took me a few minutes to buy into his super stylized and cartoonish appearance, but once I did, the humor and observations he brought to the story worked well. As Light becomes more and more of a one-note(book) character, bent on enacting his personal justice, Ryuk comes to be the more thoughtful and nuanced personality of the two. What's more, despite Ryuk's monstrous appearance, he doesn't behave in any of the ways that a typical (American) CGI creature would be expected to. He doesn't growl or threaten, or act aggressive in any way, really. He just hangs out talking with Light and eating apples.
 
It is perhaps needless to say that this film ends with a perfect set up for a sequel - and one did indeed come out later the same year, one of the three films that director Shusuke Kaneko helmed in 2006. (He's also directed projects with characters that should already be familiar to American audiences: three Gamera movies, one Godzilla movie, and multiple episodes of an Ultraman TV show from the 2000s.) We certainly enjoyed this enough to seek out the sequel, and I'll be curious to learn a bit more about the American remake as well. In the meantime, if you're looking for something that mixes fantasy, humor and the moral issues surrounding the power of life and death, well then, I'd say this is the film for you.
 
Just be sure to have plenty of apples on hand when you're watching it - just in case.


Thursday, August 14, 2014

LAUREN BACALL (1924-2014) - A Tribute
 
Bye, bye, Baby - The Look has left the building. When someone is nearly 90 years old, it's not exactly surprising to hear that they died, but it's still sad to lose Lauren Bacall - though, up in Movie Star Heaven, I'm sure that Humphrey Bogart is looking forward to having her company again. As for the rest of us, well, we still have her films.
 
The general outlines of her biography - young model makes her first movie with big star Humphrey Bogart and they live happily ever after together until his death - are pretty well known, so there's no need to go into the details again here. Little Betty Perske became Lauren Bacall in the time when Hollywood was still forming real, honest to goodness Stars, and goodness knows, they certainly created a hot celestial body with her. While I think she was somewhat limited as an actress, there's no denying that she had magnetism and Star Power to spare. Those eyes, that voice, that attitude - who could resist?
 

Such was her appeal that it's not much of a stretch to say that Lizabeth Scott started her career as a sort of Bacall knock-off. (A statement that is not in any way intended as a knock of Lizabeth Scott, mind you.) Both co-starred with Humphrey Bogart early in their careers, and both had bedroom eyes and distinctive husky voices - but only Bacall managed to achieve the status of being an A-List Star and Hollywood Legend.
 
To be sure, the films she made with Bogart are all infinitely watchable and enjoyable. I've seen them all multiple times, and have even made the pilgrimage to the very cool art deco house in San Francisco that her character in 1947's Dark Passage lived in.

But my absolute favorite Lauren Bacall film is a little obscure - in more ways than one. It's The Cobweb (1955), an all-star oddball that I still marvel at. I am not joking when I say the plot is all about the conflicts that erupt at a ritzy mental hospital over getting...new drapes. Richard Widmark is a psychiatrist, Gloria Grahame is an oversexed nut, and Oscar Levant is a neurotic nut. Trouble ahead! Bacall is the calm in the eye of the storm in a movie that is often over the top, totally inexplicable, and highly entertaining.
 

Still, no matter how long her career, or what other projects she was involved with, it's likely to be the films she made with Bogart that people remember the best. Much of the press about her passing has focused on the four films she made co-starring with Bogart - but they actually appeared in five films together. Yes, five. There are the four iconic ones, and then there is Two Guys from Milwaukee (1946), a Jack Carson and Dennis Morgan vehicle in which she is mentioned throughout, and then, at the end, she and Bogie make cameo appearances as themselves. (See video clip below.)
 

 
So long, Slim. You'll be missed, but very fondly remembered. 

Sunday, August 3, 2014

THE OUT-OF-TOWNERS (1970) - A Review
 
Or, in a sense, The Purge for two, in a film that is really just one joke played out in multiple ways.

The set up is simple. George Kellerman (Jack Lemmon) has to fly from the Midwest to New York for a job interview. His wife, Gwen (Sandy Dennis), goes with him. And from the moment their plane lifts off, everything that can go wrong, does go wrong. Rerouted landings, missing luggage, missed trains, canceled room reservations, a transit strike and a garbage collectors strike, crooks, conmen and a really big dog - these are but a few of the things to plague the unlucky couple.
 
So yes, it's one joke, offered up in a variety of ways, for an hour and a half. In most cases, this would probably be a fairly effective recipe for boring or annoying an audience. But in this case, with the truly great Jack Lemmon in the lead, the film manages to be funny nearly all the way through, as Lemmon does a feature film-length slow burn, before finally melting down completely. His comic skills save the day, and elevate the script (by Neil Simon) to a higher level. (He had already done this same trick a few years earlier, in 1967, in Simon's The Odd Couple - a DVD of which I picked up just this weekend at a thrift shop.) I personally think that a little Neil Simon goes a long way, and I fail to completely understand his sterling reputation as a writer. But this is a case of "It's the singer, not the song," as Jack Lemmon tucks into the simmering fury of the ever more frustrated George Kellerman.
 

Further adding to the fingernails on the chalkboard fun is Sandy Dennis. A nasal, toothy presence, she adds immeasurably to the aggravation Lemmon's character is visibly feeling every time she whines his name - "George." Though in the end she manages to maintain her composure better than Lemmon, it's only because he has to bear up under everything she is also experiencing, while also bearing up under her. And, while she may not get as many laughs as Lemmon does, she does manage to perfectly nail several laugh lines, including one or two ("Oh my god, the children!") that aren't necessarily, in and of themselves, that funny, save for her delivery.
 
I would never call this a great film, but it does offer a fairly choice leading role to the great Jack Lemmon, who more than makes the most of it, ably supported by Sandy Dennis. It's no stone cold comedy classic, but you could certainly do much worse than this for entertainment. (Say, for example, watching the remake of this? Hmmm?)
 


Sunday, July 20, 2014

JAMES GARNER (1928-2014) - A Tribute
 
Likeability.
 
It's an overpraised and too heavily focused on concept in the entertainment industry. If you're a performer, it's the equivalent of a happy ending for a movie - a must-have item.
 
Well, as a performer, James Garner well and truly had likeability. Though he once said, "I don't think acting is that difficult if you can put yourself aside and do what the writer wrote," there clearly seems to have been some aspect of Garner that still came through in even the best written of his roles - he generally seemed like a decent, likeable guy.
 
James Garner was one of those people who took a roundabout path to stardom: Coming out of Oklahoma, dropping out of school to join the Merchant Marines, getting wounded (twice) during the Korean War, and eventually ending up in small parts on Broadway, then moving on to Hollywood and fame and fortune. Surely this equal parts earthy and salty background as a person informed his performances as an actor.
 
After doing time in supporting parts on TV for several years, Garner first hit it big as the star of the TV western Maverick, which aired from 1957-62. From there, he made the jump to starring roles in a wide variety of movies.
 

One of my favorite of his films is 1962's Boys Night Out, in which Garner co-starred with Kim Novak, Tony Randall, Howard Duff and William Bendix. Though a terribly dated film today in many respects, it still entertains, and Garner has a terrific scene in which he explains that he is drunk because he had "tee many martoonis."
 
Garner followed this light sex comedy with the classic action film, The Great Escape (1963), co-starring with Steve McQueen. In 1965, he made another of my personal favorites of his films, the World War II thriller, 36 Hours, with Eva Marie Saint and Rod Taylor. Based on a Roald Dahl story, it tells the tale of Major Jefferson Pike (Garner), who is captured by the Nazis, who then try to convince him that the war is over, so that he'll divulge information about an upcoming U.S. military invasion. It's a tight, lightly Hitchcockian film, and Garner is very good as the beleaguered Pike.
 
In 1967, in Hour of the Gun, Garner played the iconic Wyatt Earp opposite Robert Ryan as Ike Clanton, and Jason Robards as Doc Holliday. A couple of years later, he played Raymond Chandler's iconic detective, Philip Marlowe, in the film Marlowe (1969), a role that had previously been played by Dick Powell, Humphrey Bogart and Robert Montgomery. (And that would soon also be played by Robert Mitchum.) Even if Garner's career had ended here, he was obviously already in heady, and very manly, company.
 
But 1969 also found Garner in lighter fare, starring in the popular comedy, Support Your Local Sheriff! This was followed by a sequel, Support Your Local Gunfighter, in 1971. Both of these films seemed to be in endless rotation on TV when I was a kid, and I would always tune in to watch Garner (and Jack Elam, his sidekick in both films) bumble their way through the Wild West.
 
Then, beginning in 1974, Garner scored the role that would well and truly define his career for all time - low rent private investigator Jim Rockford on the TV series The Rockford Files (1974-80).
 
To digress for a moment...The 1970s were an awful, ugly decade. The colorful tie dye swirls of the 60s degraded into what I call the terrible Taco Bell trio of colors - everything seemed to be mustard yellow, orange and the world's worst shade of brown. Energetic psychedelic freak out rock became bloated "progressive" rock. Pop music became disco. Bellbottoms and pet rocks. Culture-wise, it was pretty rough going most of the time. For years I've said that the only two good things to come out of American pop culture during the 1970s were the Ramones and The Rockford Files. That might be an oversimplification, but I'll still stand by that statement.
 
The Rockford Files took a well established and tired genre - the TV P.I. - and breathed new life into it, and created a show that was greatly entertaining at the time, and still is greatly entertaining today. And at the heart of it all was the infinitely watchable and charming James Garner. (Who was, admittedly, also surrounded by a rock-solid supporting cast that included Noah Beery, Jr. as his father, Joe Santos as the ever put upon Dennis Becker, and Stuart Margolin as the world's greatest weasel, Angel. Other recurring performers included Bo Hopkins, Isaac Hayes, Strother Martin, my friend Mills Watson, and even Lauren Bacall.)
 

Jim Rockford was a far cry from the often glamorous and/or tough guy private investigators that had populated TV and movies for decades. Rockford seemed to be on the losing end of fights more often than not. He couldn't necessarily run faster than the people he would chase - or who would chase him. He got things wrong. He fell behind on his bills. But his dogged determination (mixed with a healthy dose of self-preservation) and Garner's skill as an actor made almost every episode of the original series a delight. Growing up in the 1970s, I watched a lot of TV shows, but The Rockford Files is the only one that's still vivid in my memory - and is the only one I'd want to watch again as an adult. It's not weighty, it's not meaningful, but as entertainment, it has more than stood the test of time.
 
John Wayne once called James Garner the best American actor. Well, maybe - or maybe not. But there's no denying his talent and charm. We have literally hundreds of examples of that captured for all time on tape and film. Though I certainly wouldn't say that I like everything he ever did, James Garner created some performances that I will always enjoy, and that I will want to revisit from time to time throughout my life. On a more routine and daily basis, it's hard for me to see an answering machine and not immediately hear him saying, "This is Jim Rockford..."