Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Man on a Swing

Frank Perry | 1974 | 110 mins | USA

Director Frank Perry followed up '72's awesome Play It As It Lays with this strange thriller, loosely based on a true story. Originally, the chilling real-life tale was written up as the non-fiction book "The Girl on the Volkswagen Floor" (a considerably more sensible title - even after watching the entire film and seeing the 'man' on the 'swing' mentioned in the title and visible on the poster, I have no idea why the film was called that - Frank Perry's own esoteric reasons, no doubt). The few changes that were made in the adaptation to film didn't help the story much, but screenwriters have their own mysterious motives, I suppose.

A small town police chief (Cliff Robertson) is investigating the murder of a young woman found on the floor of her VW Bug, in the parking lot of a mall. There are few leads and even fewer clues, until a strange man (Joel Grey) claiming to be a clairvoyant comes to the cops offering help. His spastic trances, intense visions and eerily accurate details about the crime provide help at first, but ultimately make him the chief's prime suspect.

In the original story, the man investigating the crime and delving into the mysterious realm of the occult is a reporter, which actually makes a lot more sense than making the guy a police chief, who would hardly be able to take off from his job for days at a time to go chat with occultist professors about ESP. Still, in spite of the inconsistencies and loose ends that never quite get tied up in the story, Man on a Swing is a compelling and creepy thriller.

The film's appeal is owed almost entirely to Joel Grey's over the top, terrifyingly bizarre performance as the spindly little psychic in the white suit. His near-epileptic fits and feverish pronouncements keep you guessing until the end, exactly as the tag line on the poster predicts:



Murder By Death

Robert Moore | 1976 | 94 mins | USA

There appears to have been a strange and mysterious time in US history when Neil Simon could just write anything at all and it would instantly turn to gold. Perhaps this Midas touch made it impossible for his contemporaries and fans to imagine that one day we would look back on some of that work and think "what the fuck, 1976?" Still, here we are.

The mysterious happenings in Murder By Death take place in a gloomy old castle, perpetually shrouded in fog and thunderstorms, at the end of a long and winding road and on the other side of a rickety bridge. The doorbell sounds with a piercing woman's scream. The butler (Alec Guinness) is blind, the cook is deaf and dumb, and the eccentric millionaire host, Lionel Twain, is a sinister fiend. In the '30s, he was arrested for smuggling a truckload of rich Americans into Mexico to pick melons! Har har har.

The guests to this mysterious party are a familiar bunch - spoofs of the world's five greatest criminologists. They include Sidney Wang (Peter Sellers), the famous Chinese detective; Sam Diamond (Peter Falk) the hard boiled San Francico private eye; Milo Perrier (James Coco), the fat Belgian sleuth; Miss Marbles (Elsa Lanchester - a.k.a. the Bride of Frankenstein), the tweed-swathed English granny; and Dick and Nora Charleston (David Niven and Maggie Smith), cool as cucumbers and never without a martini in their hands.

After the detectives and their companions (assorted chauffeurs, secretaries and adopted sons) arrive at the creepy castle, the purpose of their get together is revealed. The occasion is murder!

It seems that the eccentric host (played by none other than Truman Capote) of the night's festivities has planned a crime so brilliant that he didn't think a motley crew of the greatest detectives in the world would be able to solve it, so he brought them all together to prove a point.

The idea of a parody of the pulp crime novels and films of the '30s and '40s is compelling, but its execution in this film is at times shockingly unfunny. Full of so many bad puns and lame gags, the whole thing is saved from being a total fiasco by the performances alone. Peter Falk's Bogart impression is impeccable and his straight talk is a welcome breath of fresh air among the otherwise stuffy Brits (and, oh yeah, the "Chinese guy"). Alec Guinness is terrific as the blind butler. In fact, everyone in the absurdly stacked cast does a great job. It's too bad the script is such a groaner.

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Statue

Rodney Amateau | 1971 | 84 mins | UK / USA

David Niven plays Alex Bolt, a stuffy British linguist who's just been awarded a Nobel prize for his work on an Esperanto-esque universal language called "Unispeak". Virna Lisi is his hot Italian wife, Rhonda, an internationally renowned sculptress who's been commissioned by an ambitious U.S. diplomat (Robert Vaughn) to create a statue for a London square which will honour her husband's achievement.

Rhonda, upset that she's only seen her busy husband "eighteen days in the last three years", decides to sculpt an 18-foot nude, giving it Bolt's face but someone else's you-know-what.

Believing that she's been unfaithful, Bolt goes on a jealous rampage across Europe to find the man who modeled for the statue. Cue an hour or so of wacky sex comedy involving a stiff-upper-lipped David Niven trying to see a variety of mens' peckers by trolling bathhouses, sending sexy dames to seduce temperamental painters and sneaking around in a generally unseemly manner.

Of course, we never get to see the contentious member (though we do get to see a pair of boobs or two), because the prudish film is like a barely modernized update of a century-old sex farce. When it comes time for the grand reveal, you pretty much know what's coming, but it's so silly anyway that it doesn't really matter.

Worth it for the very young John Cleese in a small part as Niven's friend - a psychiatrist who hates psychiatry and wants to be an advertiser.


Stanley Donen | 1969 | 96 mins | France / USA / UK

A late '60s comedy about a gay couple who run a hair salon together, take care of their beloved aging mothers (one in an old age home and one in the couple's spare room), and constantly fight about everything under the sun.

Harry (played by an uncharacteristically dowdy Richard Burton) is sort of round-ish, fussy, dour and has his head constantly swathed in an unflattering bandage, an odd accessory for a hair stylist, to say the least. Charlie (a dandied-up Rex Harrison) is in his fifties, still handsome in an aged-leather sort of way. He's a bitchy queen in tight pants and mascara. "I'm wearing tight Italian pants on the inside", Harry tells him at one point, lamenting the loss of his own girlish figure.

Casting the former Julius Caesar and Marc Antony as a bickering pair of decaying lovers in a dingy East London flat was an inspired but perhaps misguided choice on Stanley Donen's part. Putting the Hollywood heavyweights in this otherwise humble adaptation of Charles Dyer's play makes the whole endeavour seem more campy and ridiculous than the premise and script would have on their own. Still, Staircase has its glimmering moments of pure genius, and it's so bewilderingly funny, besides.

The storyline here concerns the mounting tensions between the two men as they await a summons for Charlie to appear in court on a charge of behaving "in a manner calculated to bring depravity" - that is, performing in drag at a nightclub called "Adam's Apple". As they wait for the important piece of mail to arrive, they go on with their daily drudgery - working at the salon, taking care of their mothers, and spewing vitriol at each other for the "30 turgid years" they've spent together.

Dudley Moore's sparse score underlines the film's subtle sadness with clever uses of old hymns (most memorably "All Things Bright and Beautiful" being sung by a grave digger and his young son, down the street from the pair's hair salon). Dyer's script is acrid and vitriolic, but deep down you know Charlie and Harry love each other too much to ever stop being such mean jerks.

Really worthwhile, but essentially impossible to track down (it's never been released on DVD and VHS copies are rare at best) except through a few torrent sites specializing in obscurities.

My favourite line (uttered by Harrison to Burton): "If you don't shut up I'll stick a skewer in my ear and go to hell as a kebab!"

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

How to Murder Your Wife

Richard Quine | 1965 | 118 mins | USA

Stanley Ford (Jack Lemmon) lives the perfect bachelor lifestyle. He's a successful cartoonist whose rough and tumble hero Bash Brannigan leaps from adventure to adventure (each storyline meticulously tested by Ford in real life). He's got a luxury townhouse and the world's best full-time valet, Charles. He works out at a men's club every day, wines and dines a variety of women every night, and is quite deliriously happy to be unmarried.

When Stanley wakes up the morning after a very boozy stag party to find that he's married to the knockout who popped out of the party cake, he assumes he can quickly take care of the boo-boo at his lawyer's office. Unfortunately, the new Mrs. Ford (Italian sexpot Virna Lisi) doesn't speak a word of English, and as it turns out his lawyer is delighted to see that Stanley's finally settling down.

Pretty soon, Bash Brannigan has gone from daredevil crime fighter to fumbling family man. The female readership of the strip is skyrocketing, Ford's publishers are ecstatic, and even poor Stanley is slowly and reluctantly adapting to the married life. Determined not to slip too far into marital comfort, Ford cleverly hatches a plot to murder his wife, which plays out step by step in his comic strip. The problem is - will his wife (or his readers) take the story too seriously?

This is the kind of gender-relations comedy that would never get made in the present day. There's something about a man convincing a jury of his peers that he should be acquitted of murder because wives kinda deserve it that wouldn't fly anymore, but it's fantastically hilarious when Jack Lemmon does it. How to Murder Your Wife is a fun and sexy romp, and if you're a Jack Lemmon fan, let me tell you this - he's brilliant in it, but relative unknown Eddie Mayehoff (who plays his lawyer, Harold) steals the show from him a couple of times, and it's worth watching for those moments alone!

Time Walker

Tom Kennedy | 1982 | 83 mins | USA

This film is about a time traveling mummy. Need I say more? Actually, yes I do, because that thumbnail sketch (exciting though it may sound) doesn't truly do this weird '80s sci-fi horror justice.

An Egyptology department at some miscellaneous university gets a mummy from King Tut's tomb. They begin by X-raying the mummy, which leads one student to discover a stash of crystals buried deep within the sarcophagus. Thinking they might be priceless gems, he tries to pawn them, but when the shop owner declares them to be worthless junk, he sells the five stones to his buddies to give to their girlfriends as gifts.

This careless theft of some ancient artifacts might even have gone unnoticed, if the mummy itself didn't disappear from its resting place the following day. Assuming it was stolen by some frat boys on a dare, campus police (and the university president) approach the investigation as a prank gone too far. Little do they know that the previous day's X-rays woke up the old guy, and he walked out on his own mummified legs.

Of course, campus party animals respond to the mummy "theft" scandal by throwing an Egypt themed party, oblivious to the fact that the mummy is walking around among them, searching for his lost crystals.

The crystals seem to be the only thing our mummy needs in order to complete an elaborate and mysterious machine, some sort of "communication device", our clever investigators eventually figure out. As the mummy's rampage gets more and more dangerous, the professor and his crack team of cops and students get closer to discovering the unbelievable truth about this traveler from another time.

Director Tom Kennedy never directed another film. In fact, other than two or three editing gigs in the '70s, Time Walker was the only film he ever worked in, in any capacity. I can't quite decide whether that fact is significant or not. All I can tell you is, he managed to include the following joke in his masterpiece:

Q: Do you know what happened to the girl who went into King Tut's tomb?
A: She came out nine months later and she was a mummy!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Terribly Happy [Frygtelig lykkelig]

Henrik Ruben Genz | 2008 | 90 mins | Denmark

Terribly Happy is loosely based on some very grizzly real-life events, and it's the kind of story that would have been adapted into a gritty, tension-soaked crime drama anywhere else in the world. In Denmark, though, they turn it into a tension-soaked, nearly Twin-Peaks-esque black comedy, which actually rescues it from being a so-so drama and turns it into a truly eerie thriller.

Robert (Jakob Cedergren) is a policeman with a shady past who's been reassigned from Copenhagen to a quiet provincial town surrounded by grim expanses of grey clouds and muddy swampland. The townsfolk are predictably suspicious of the prim, proper, by-the-book young man, and soon local customs and disturbing secrets start to come knocking on the cop shop door.

The "everything's ok down here" facade of the creepy little town begins to crumble pretty much the second Robert moves in, when we see him walking down the desolate, rain slicked streets of the town, observed by a small, lone girl walking a squeaky (and empty) baby stroller. Robert soon finds himself pulled into the orbit of the local beauty, Ingelise, who needs his protection against her abusive husband - the most dangerous man in town.

Robert arrives in the south Jutland community as a good cop and a good man who's trying to sort out his own life while injecting a little bit of civilized order into a place that's too set in its weird ways. Instead, our hero finds himself being changed by the place and its inhabitants - bit by bit, but irrevocably.

Based on an Erling Jepsen novel (he also wrote The Art of Crying) and apparently on a true story before that, Terribly Happy is a surreal and spellbinding nightmare about a world so realistic and similar to our own that the slight differences are all the more horrifying and grotesque. The churning bogs that hide a bubbling mass of dark secrets create an atmosphere so oppressive that it's hard not to worry from the start that Robert has accidentally stepped outside of time and into a forgotten place that one cannot easily escape from.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Dracula's Great Love [El Gran amor del conde Drácula]

Javier Aguirre | 1972 | 85 mins | Spain

It's hard to say what you see more of in Dracula's Great Love, boobs or candelabras. But the combination of the two definitely sets the tone of the film - gloomy, gothic, brimming with forbidden desire.

I thought this was going to be a very different kind of movie during the opening credits, which repeat a sequence of a man falling down some stairs in slow motion about 20 times. The sequence became so abstract and near psychedelic by about the 15th repetition that I wondered if the film itself would get all kooky and trippy with ye olde dracula. In fact, even though there's more sex in this than in the average Hammer film, it otherwise feels quite the same.

Four young women are stranded when their carriage loses a wheel (and a driver) on an isolated patch of woodsy road, and are forced to stay the night at the deserted and spooky old sanatorium where a young, handsome-but-strange doctor lives. One by one, they fall for the doctor and meet their inevitable fate: becoming hot vampire bitches.

A trio of vampire babes go on a rampage around town, capturing young maidens for the doctor, while he earnestly attempts to woo the final (and most innocent) of the girls. His ultimate goal is to enact some ancient ritual in order to revive his long-dead daughter, who is buried in a tomb under the sanatorium. But love might just make him rethink his priorities!

Paul Naschy is the sensitive doctor, perhaps the most Emo Dracula ever to grace the screen. His shocking finale in this film is touching enough to make you believe in love again.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Harry and Walter Go to New York

Mark Rydell | 1976 | 115 mins | USA

I love Elliott Gould more than could be expressed in a simple blog post. I'd rather watch him on screen than the vast majority of actors in Hollywood, so when I discovered that he once starred in a wacky caper / heist comedy with James Caan and Michael Caine, I thought "this is going to be 100% pure solid gold".

I was wrong in so many ways that it's hard to count them all. There was nothing the absurdly star-studded cast (which also features Diane Keaton, Carol Kane, Lesley Ann Warren, Jack Gilford, Burt Young and many others) could possibly have done to rescue this bizarre period clunker from a grim death. Actually, I think the film probably had a chance at a life as a cult favourite if it weren't for the unfortunate musical number featuring Elliott Gould in blackface.

In case you're thinking "Heist comedy? Blackface? Gould and Caine facing off mano-a-mano? What doesn't sound awesome about that?", let me clarify.

Gould and Caan play Walter and Harry, respectively. They're a pair of small time shyster Vaudevillians who get caught stealing dough during their phony fortune teller act and end up in the same prison as the notoriously wealthy, classy and powerful bank thief Adam Worth (Michael Caine). When the two hapless would-be criminals discover Worth's scheme to break into the world's most impenetrable bank vault, Harry convinces the reluctant Walter that they should try to beat him to it.

The film isn't bad because of the dumb plot, the casual racism, the excessively wacky slapstick sequences that go on too long, or the repetitive and too frequent Vaudevillian musical numbers. It's bad because in spite of all of the above (which you'd think would at least make it a hilarious thing to watch while you're drunk on a Friday night), it manages to be kind of slow paced, plodding and dull. Even Diane Keaton manages to be so shrill and annoying that it's hard to believe Annie Hall would make her a universal love object for nerds only a year later.

The one fascinating thing about this debacle is Caine's character, Adam Worth, who was based on a real 19th century thief known as the "Napoleon of crime". One of William Pinkerton's worthy adversaries ('scuse the pun) and allegedly the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes great nemesis, Professor Moriarty, Worth would make a better subject for a movie than Harry and Walter do. Apparently, a fictitious one was already made starring Christian Bale in the title role. Someone should make a real one.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Road House

Jean Negulesco | 1948 | 95 mins | USA

No, this isn't the Patrick Swayze film by the same name. This is another Ida Lupino gem that I discovered recently on my Noir kick. This time, she plays a tough lounge singer from Chicago named Lily Stevens who takes a six week gig at a backwoods road house owned by rich boy Jefty Robbins (Richard Widmark). It's not quite clear why Lily takes the job at first, but she obviously needs the dough, doesn't want any funny business from Jefty, and probably thinks it's none of your damn business why she took the offer anyhow.

Jefty's manager and lifelong friend Pete Morgan (Cornel Wilde) assumes Lily is just another pretty face with no talent that Jefty has dragged in to seduce until he tires of her. Instead, Lily's cigarette-soaked voice and melancholy air charms not only the road house customers, but Pete Morgan himself.

When Jefty leaves Lily in the care of his trusted pal while he's on a business trip, the inevitable happens. The two argue so much that they end up falling in love with each other, and are left with the considerable problem of what to tell Jefty when he returns.

The last couple of Ida Lupino films I've seen make me wonder if she had it in her contracts that she had to be smoking in every scene because she couldn't do otherwise in real life. Her hauntingly hoarse voice and dazzling outfits certainly thicken the atmosphere, but what really makes this an effective thriller is Richard Widmark's remarkable transformation from affable (if spoiled) playboy to menacing psycho who will stop at nothing to squash his former friend's every chance at happiness. Teetering on the edge between hatred and insanity, Widmark's Jefty is dangerous, volatile and relentless in his drive to get what he wants and ensure that nobody else does.

Plus, the film is almost worth watching just for the brilliant misty-woods set in which the grand finale takes place. It's an example of the kind of perfection that makes you not care that the forest was built in a studio lot somewhere, because it looks better than real woods anyway.

While The City Sleeps

Fritz Lang | 1956 | 100 mins | USA

I'm not sure if this Fritz Lang gem is "little known" or if I've been under a rock lately, but I'd never heard of While The City Sleeps until tonight, when my Noir mood led me to it.

Dana Andrews plays Edward Mobley, a Pulitzer prize winning reporter who works on the TV portion of the media empire of Amos Kyne, an aging mogul who kicks the bucket just as a hot news story comes in about the "Lipstick Killer" who's been offing young single girls around New York.

Kyne's wastrel son Walter (played with an impecably smarmy tone by Vincent Price) takes over the family business and immediately sets about pitting the top men in the office against each other for a spot as his right hand man. The news wire chief, Mark Loving (George Sanders), the managing editor John Day Griffith (Thomas Mitchell) and photographer 'Honest' Harry Kritzer (James Craig) are in a race against time to catch the killer before he strikes again, and snag the coveted Executive Director position. Meanwhile, Mobley just tries to keep his fiancee Nancy (Sally Forrest) happy while fending off the advances of womens' columnist Mildred Donner (hot hot Ida Lupino).

Of course, it's all really up to Mobley (a man without a lust for power) to find the killer, save the media empire from falling into the wrong hands and restore peace to his relationship. It's a tough job, but if anyone can do it surely it's a smooth talking, hard drinking newspaper man.

While the City Sleeps isn't more newspaper-romance than it is a mystery story, but it's still fun, fast paced noir thriller with plenty of razor sharp banter and sexy dames. Oh, and John Barrymore Jr. is fabulous as the menacing, silent 'mama's boy' killer. Don't worry, that's not a spoiler. You get to see him in action before the opening credits even roll.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains

Lou Adler | 1981 | 87 min. | US

The Fabulous Stains starts so jarringly that you get the feeling you've missed a scene. Maybe even an entire reel. Unfortunately, that feeling never lets up. As the film bounces from scene to scene you are repeatedly faced with nagging sense that it keeps forgetting to show you key moments. Maybe its possessive. Maybe its senile. Whatever the excuse, the tagline for The Fabulous Stains should be, "Hold on. . . why is she. . . what?"

To be fair, The Fabulous Stains had its work cut out for it. The film was faced with a very difficult task in 1981: simultaneously trying to cash in on and critique the commercial success of punk and new wave. The Stains are a trio of teenage girls headed by a fresh-faced Diane Lane in her debut role as magnetic Corinne "Third Degree" Burns. When the girls have the chance to join an upstart punk band on tour they jump at the opportunity. Soon after hitting the road a chance interview with Burns appears on the national news. She instantly inspires a (suburban teen) cult of personality who begin showing up to the bands increasingly large shows in full hero worshiping costume. But will Corinne handle the sudden success with aplomb? Will she stay true to her friends as the spotlight focuses on her? Will her awful, awful music stay pure? Important issues, to be sure.

In addition to Diane Lane, the film includes the very young faces of Ray Winstone and Laura Dern, as well. All three are charming, even if they can't come close to approaching the desperation and urgency we are supposed to feel from their characters. Rounding out Winstone's band, The Looters, are Paul Cook and Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols and Paul Simonon of the Clash. Cred alert!

The problem with Stains is that the Corinne and her band come off as such myopic opportunists that you could not care less what happens to them. More than that, the success or failure of teenagers who have been playing lousy music for about a month carries little gravity. The film only satisfies as an artefact of the early eighties which, of course, is not very satisfying at all.

Director Lou Adler has only made two films: Up In Smoke, the massively successful Cheech and Chong vehicle, and Stains. So basically this is the movie that murdered his career. He wasn't able to sustain the momentum of a one-joke dope comedy. That's how unimpressive this is. File this one under, "Answers to Trivia Questions."

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Before the Fall (3 dias)

F. Javier Gutiérrez | 2008 | 93 mins | Spain

A meteor five times the size of the one that wiped out the dinosaurs is on a crash course for Earth, and of course the government has left it until the very last moment to alert the public. A worldwide television broadcast informs everyone that they will cease to be in roughly seventy-two hours (the original Spanish title’s ‘three days’). As twenty-something misanthrope, Ale, and his mother stare at the broadcast in shock, riots and looting have already started. Among the chaos; there’s a large-scale prison break nearby.

20 years ago, Ale’s older brother Tomas aided in the capture of a child murderer. That man is one of the prison escapees, and he swore when put away that he would one day get his revenge. Knowing that Tomas is out of town, and won’t be able to get back to his children in time to protect them, Ale’s mother and Ale (grudgingly) hop in Ale’s van and go to Tomas’ home to look after their four grandchildren/nieces and nephews.

When they arrive to the house, they find that the children’s mother went to the store earlier in the day and hasn’t returned, and that they’ve had no television reception all day or any success in making phone calls. They don’t know about the impending apocalypse. Their grandmother decides to keep them in the dark on the matter, in hopes that they can live out their few remaining days with their innocence intact, and that they won’t be too curious about why Grandma’s walking around with a loaded shotgun.

Don’t worry. Grandma doesn’t get her way, Ale ends up having to take control of the situation, and things get much worse before they get better (‘better’ in this film is the end of the world).

To put together end-of-days drama and child murder thriller genres requires impeccable balance, and Gutierrez nails it. The film’s drama is pointed and full of a lot of strong moments that effectively put forth the sadness and frustration that its characters are going through. Knowing that the world is coming to an end in three days is bad enough, but Before the Fall’s protagonists aren’t even able to live it up for those days in an attempt to forget. There’ll be no fulfilling of fantasies. No farewell BBQ. They’re forced to deal with the reality, sober, and alert, while potentially winding up dead before the rest of the world even, in order to protect their young family members from horrible ends. The thriller element of the film is tense, and as stylish and beautifully shot as the rest of the film, which helps a lot in blending it into the film without feeling out of place.

Before the Fall isn’t the best end of the world film that I’ve seen, or the best film about child murder but it’s a really good one, and one that effectively puts together two genres you’re not likely to ever see together again (sadly).

Friday, October 31, 2008

Tower of Evil

Jim O'Connolly | 1972 | 89 mins | UK + USA

This groovy-age-of-horror gem falls squarely between a cheesy Hammer film and an '80s gore-fest / excuse to show boobs. Some American backpackers go to a deserted lighthouse on mysterious "Snape Isle" and end up butchered, possibly by one of their own. The surviving girl (near-comatose from shock and terror) is brought to a doctor on the mainland who tries to extract some story about what happened from her by hypnotizing her with flashing multi-coloured lights.

Meanwhile, a group of archeologists, excited by the golden dagger with which the girl seems to have murdered her friends, head to the isle to search for ancient Phoenician treasures, or possibly a shrine to Baal. Baal was apparently the Phoenicians' sun god, worshiped in orgiastic rituals in ancient times, but has since fallen out of favour and is in the Christian tradition known only as a demon and harbinger of evil.

So much for the historical back-story. When the scientific posse arrives on Snape Isle, there's a bit of creepiness and a whole lot of soap-opera-esque melodrama. It seems that saucy Nora (Anna Palk) once slept with prim Rose's (Jill Haworth) fiancé, Adam (Mark Edwards). But now that they've broken up, Rose has taken up with Nora's estranged husband, Dan (Derek Fowlds, the secretary from Yes Minister). Now the bickering foursome are stuck in an old lighthouse with a mysterious investigator and a couple of hapless locals who seem to be hiding something rather sinister.

Throw in some fabulous '70s outfits, a few boob shots, some goofy gore and some unrealistic but fun sets, and voila: you have Tower of Evil! It's fairly obvious who's behind the creepy killings about midway through the film but it doesn't keep the ride from being fun.

I Sell the Dead

Glenn McQuaid | 2008 | USA

I was so exhausted on the final night of the Toronto After Dark festival that I assumed I'd end up napping through half the closing night film, not because I wasn't looking forward to it but because I wouldn't be able to help it. I'm happy to report that this fun, Hammer-esque period horror comedy had just enough charm, gore and bewildering monsters to carry me through the night fully awake.

The setup is easy: a priest (Ron Perlman) comes into Arthur Blake's cell the night before his execution by hanging in order to hear his last confession. Blake (played by Dominic Monaghan, who was one of those adorable hobbits in LoTR) launches into a weird and wonderful tale about his life as a grave robber alongside mentor/partner Willy Grimes (a hilarious Larry Fessenden).

Seems that the unlikely pair were making a decent living stealing corpses for the creepy Dr. Vernon Quint (Phantasm's own Tall Man, Angus Scrimm) until they discovered there was even more to be made in pilfering undead corpses. Why do people need so many fresh bodies that grave robbing is a viable profession with stiff competition in old-timey England? Why are vampire cadavers worth so much dough? Why do Blake and Grimes' rivals (the scary Murphy gang) seem to have zombies in cages? The answer to this and so much more is: who the hell cares?

This film is a fun, humorous and loving homage to the schlocky horror films of yore, and can be enjoyed in absolutely the same way as an old Peter Cushing gem. If you like this stuff, you'll like this playful updated version of the genre.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Tell No One [Ne le dis à personne]

Guillaume Canet | 2006 | 125 mins | France

This tight little thriller starts out quite promising, with the story of a man whose wife was mysteriously snatched while they were away together at the family's lakeside cottage. The man himself (Dr. Alexandre Beck, played by François Cluzet) was hit in the face with a bat, fell in the lake, but later woke up in a hospital not remembering anything. The wife (Marie-Josée Croze) was found mutilated and killed, and everyone assumed she was the unfortunate final victim of a serial killer who was soon captured.

Eight years later, the good doctor (a pediatrician who lives a quiet life) receives an email from an unknown address, with a subject line that refers to a shared moment only his wife could know about. They were childhood sweethearts, after all. They knew each other better than anyone, and until this moment he never doubted that she had been dead all this time. He clicks on it, only to see a clip from a closed circuit security camera in which his wife appears to be standing.

From there, Dr. Beck's life takes a sharp and vertiginous turn for the worse, as new evidence in his wife's murder points to him as a likely culprit. The cops are after him, some shady characters seem to be tailing him, and people are turning up dead. Kristin Scott Thomas is fantastic as Hélène Perkins, Beck's lesbian sister in law. Who the hell new she was fluent enough to carry a leading role in a French film without even the hint of an accent?

Without giving too much away about the film's twists and turns, I have to say that I felt the first half was expertly crafted and full of great action sequences and funny characters (the thug with the hemophiliac son, one of Dr. Beck's patients, for example). Unfortunately, in the final act, when all the mysteries are finally explained, I was left puzzled by a few obvious holes in the internal logic of the film. It tries hard to tie up loose ends, but ends up leaving a few big questions anyway.

Still, I'd recommend this film based on the charm and acting ability of veteran French actor François Cluzet alone. Plus, some of the action sequences and interesting shots make it much more interesting than the average Hollywood thriller. One moment in particular, when Beck slips on some pavement while running and takes a sideways fall, made me cringe more than any gory shootout or punch-up ever could.

Bonus points for the most tense use of an old U2 song in a movie, ever. "With or Without You", in case you were wondering.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Big Fix

Jeremy Kagan | 1978 | 108 mins | USA

A very young and astonishingly charming Richard Dreyfuss stars as an ex Berkley activist turned private eye in this love letter to 1960s radicalism. Dreyfuss was riding the highest wave of his career, in the aftermath of Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Goodbye Girl, so I guess it's no wonder that he plays the character of Moses Wise in this fun little crime-comedy with so much natural charm that you just want to pinch his cute, rosy cheeks all the goddamn time. After all, he was on top of the world!

Seriously though, the film is terrific. Moses Wine is a gumshoe and divorced dad who's perpetually late on support payments to his exasperated ex, Suzanne (Bonnie Bedelia). When former flame Lila Shay (Susan Anspach) comes back into his life and asks him to investigate possible sabotage on the campaign of one Miles Hawthorne, a dull liberal running for Governor of California, everything goes haywire.

It seems that someone has been passing around fake flyers on which '60s radical Howard Eppis (now living underground after a famous conviction) is shown endorsing Hawthorne. Since associating with a known criminal and wanted man could sink the whole campaign, Moses is sent off by ambitious campaign manager Sam Sebastian (John Lithgow) to find the elusive Eppis.

Eppis (F. Murray Abraham) is a prankster activist whose appearance and notoriety were obviously modeled after real-life radical Abbie Hoffman (who was living underground at the time the film was made), with a bit of Weathermen-esque violence thrown in for good measure. As Moses draws closer to Eppis and to the answers, a torrent of nostalgia for the '60s rains down upon the film so intensely that you're gonna miss the good old days even if you weren't even a glimmer in your hippie mom's eye at the time.

I could easily watch a series of five or six Moses Wise films, in which the pot-smoking P.I. takes his kids on stakeouts and solves mysteries in his yellow convertible VW Bug.

Halfway through this film my movie date turned to me and asked "who's the Richard Dreyfuss of today?", and I have to admit we were both stumped. Please weigh in on this important question, loyal readers.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Last of Sheila

Herbert Ross | 1973 | 120 mins | USA

I love gambling in a video store on something I've never heard of that either has an interesting cast, an curious sounding description or some other factor that will, on the basis of the box alone, compel me to rent it (or, if it's a dollar rack in a used store, buy it - see: Impulse, for an example of how this strategy can be incredibly successful).

The Last of Sheila was just such a video store gamble, and one that worked out amazingly well. The all-star cast and intriguing plot were enticing, but I wasn't really and truly sold until I discovered on the back cover of the video box that this film was co-written by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins. Just the thought of those two drunk queens sitting around some beachside villa and coming up with the story for this Hollywood insider whodunit was so appealing, I couldn't resist.

The story goes like this. James Coburn is Clinton Green, a rich, mean (but oh so funny) producer whose wife Sheila was killed in a hit and run accident a year earlier. Incredibly wealthy and clearly successful, Clinton has invited all the people who were there on the night of Sheila's death to spend a week on his yacht (aptly named Sheila), discussing the possibility of making a film about her life. In attendance are Philip the director (James Mason); Tom the writer (Richard Benjamin) and his rich wife, Lee (Joan Hackett); Christine the talent agent (Dyan Cannon), Alice the sexy starlet (Raquel Welch) and her rough-around-the-edges Brit boyfriend, Anthony (Ian McShane).

All six cloying guests are a bit too desperate to work on a hit picture, so they naturally go along with Clinton's desire to play a little game. Each is given an index card which reveals a secret crime that occurred in the past. The others must discover the identity of each "criminal" through a series of clues and activities while they are in port. Soon the guests start to realize the game may be more than a bit of fun, as real secrets from their own pasts start coming out to haunt them.

Is any of this connected to Sheila's death, or is the host just playing a cruel joke on his travel companions? As tensions and suspicion rise on the boat, everyone starts to wonder whether they've seen or heard the last of Sheila.

This film really made me wonder where the hell Richard Benjamin's been lately. Shouldn't he be playing all the roles that keep going to Alan Alda?

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Donkey Punch

Ollie Blackburn | 99 min | 2008 | UK

Donkey Punch starts by introducing its characters underneath a blaring, try-too-hard mix of hip indie pop music like The Knife and Broadcast. The characters are three pretty cardboard cutouts with tits who're on vacation in Spain, and four pretty cardboard cutouts with dicks and access to a yacht.

Things obviously wind up on the yacht, which is well stocked in booze and drugs. During a swim in the sea, the guys and girls get talking about the most "hardcore" sex acts they've heard of. One of the guys schools them all on what a donkey punch is, they do more drugs, and a bunch of them go below deck to get really hardcore. After some skin is bared, a donkey punch is delivered (look it up if you don't know what it is) and one of the girls' neck is broken.

In the middle of the sea, and now outnumbering the girls by two, the guys decide to throw the body overboard and tell the authorities that she fell over the rail drunk. Obviously the girls don't like the idea of covering up the killing of their friend, and tensions flare.

Because the girls are outnumbered and overpowered, the film actually achieves some great tension when it's focused on their vulnerability in the situation. If Blackburn had spent more time with the girls, rather than spending a near equal amount with the guys, who don't even really seem that worried ever, it could have been a solid thriller. There's very little time spent on the morality of the spot they've found themselves in either. The guys seems to be on auto-pilot, only interested in saving their own asses; the value of human life be damned.

The girls eventually fight back and bodies start to pile up in supposedly creative ways that fail to shock or entertain, which leaves the film with very little going for it. Director, Ollie Blackburn was at the screening to introduce the film and do Q&A. He was very keen on letting the audience know that the film has received an NC-17 rating in the US, that penises are going to have to be blurred out when released in Japan, and that we were seeing the uncensored version. Speaking as though they were badges of honor somehow; like he'd really shaken things up and shown the Man something he'd never seen before. Unfortunately by the end of the movie, I felt a bit like I'd been on the receiving end of a really weak donkey punch where the sex wasn't very good, and then whose final blow was more of a flick to the back of the head than the full forced whack that it should have been.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Let the Right One In

Tomas Alfredson | 2008 | 114 min | Sweden

Set amid the darkness of the Swedish winter, Let the Right One In is essentially an adolescent love story: two misfits, a young boy and girl, find each other and make both of their days a little more bearable. Many of it's tropes will be recognizable. The awkward first meetings, the slow confiding in each other, and the growing to help each other with the trials of bullies and family are all there. The difference in this story is that the young misfit girl is actually a vampire with an elderly lover who harvests the blood of innocents for her to survive on. Granted, that difference is a significant one, but at it's heart Let The Right One In is still a story of naive human desire and affection in a world of fantastic horrors.

The boy, Oskar, is lonely at home and abused at school. He spends his empty nights fantasizing about revenge on his tormentors and filling a scrapbook with stories of brutal local murders. When the strange young Eli moves into his building he is immediately drawn to her. She is mysterious, strong-willed, and, most importantly, responds to Oskar's intense desire for companionship. As it dawns upon Oskar that Eli is a vampire, her nature is still less monstrous to him than the tortures he endures each day at school. And that's why Let The Right One In is so striking. The banal human ordeals are more recognizable and more horrible than the warmth and protection offered by Eli. The eerie performances of both young actors bring this home in each scene. Those creepy fucking young actors.

I will cut short this review to spare you too many reveals. All you need to know is that Let The Right One In is visually stunning, and by turns awful and beautiful. It hit all the right notes for me and is a film I expect to be thinking fondly of for a long time to come. This is a rare gem that surpasses the qualifier of being a "great horror" and is simply a great film.

Repo! The Genetic Opera

Darren Lynn Bousman | 2008 | 98 mins | USA

The man who brought you Saw II, III and IV is back, and this time he's got a futuristic goth musical starring Paris Hilton and Giles from Buffy! Wait ... what?

Repo! The Genetic Opera is a bizarre experiment which is unsurprisingly (but perhaps unfortunately) creating some of the most excited buzz at the Toronto After Dark Festival, which launches on Friday, Oct 17.

Essentially, the film is a musical set in a not-so-distant dystopian future, in which a biotech company called GeneCo saves the world from an epidemic of organ failures by offering transplants with an easy payment plan. Unfortunately, those who miss their payments are hunted by the dark, mysterious, merciless Organ Repo Men.

Alexa Vega plays a young woman named Shilo (the daughter of quiet scientist Nathan Wallace, played by Anthony Head), who's looking for a cure to a rare disease that keeps her locked away in her father's mansion. She's also looking for some answers about her family's shady history and her mother's mysterious death, which seems to be in some way connected to GeneCo.

Meanwhile, in the GeneCo offices, patriarch Rotti Largo (Paul Sorvino) rules a roost of petulant, spoiled children - plastic-surgery addicted Amber Sweet (Paris Hilton), the abusive and murderous Luigi (Bill Moseley) and the gross-tastically faceless Pavi (Nivek Ogre of Skinny Puppy).

I know what you're thinking. How could something so star studded possibly be bad?

Well, let me tell you.

First of all, the music. Like many musicals, Repo! is packed to the gills with songs - in fact, it's so full of songs that there's hardly a moment of spoken dialogue. This would get a bit tiresome in the best of musicals, but unfortunately Repo! has at least three so-so numbers for every catchy hit, so the mediocre-melody fatigue starts to set in pretty early.

Secondly, the editing. The sets and costumes in this film are impressive (Sarah Brightman as Blind Mag is probably the best designed character, but the rest are nothing to sneeze at either), but unfortunately we hardly get to see any of it as the camera zips around maniacally. It's hard to appreciate the work that went into all that art direction when there are no moments of stillness. Elaborately choreographed dance numbers are hard to take in when the DP never pulls back into a wide enough shot that we can actually see it all.

Initially, I thought I also disliked the weird character of the Grave Robber (Terrance Zdunich) who functions as an omniscient narrator, and whose commentary bookends the film but is mostly absent in the middle. On second thought, I realised that I really enjoyed this guy, found him charming and fun, and thought his musical numbers were among the best in the whole film. "I wish I'd seen more of that Grave Robber" is what I left the theatre thinking!

Here's the thing about Repo! The Genetic Opera. I thought it was shit, but I think goths are the dumbest subculture, and I've never been to see Rocky Horror on the big screen. If you enjoy Dark Raves or have ever dressed up like Death from the Sandman comics, then you will unapologetically love Repo!, and that's ok. This isn't just any bad film. This is a bad film with a built in audience who will revel in it (and quite possibly turn it into a cult fave over the years, thought the jury's out on that) the way I go batshit insane for dollar bin VHS finds, y'know?

So, if you read the above and are vaguely curious but undecided about this train wreck, I advise you not to bother. Instead, go see Let The Right One In, Red, Donkey Punch, Tokyo Gore Police or I Sell The Dead - or any of the other more intriguing titles TAD has to offer. If, however, any part of you was like "Oooh, Sarah Brightman!" or "what part of goth musical doesn't sound awesome?!" or "OMG Giles from Buffy" then please, knock yourself out. This one's literally made for you.

The Thin Man

W.S. Van Dyke | 1934 | 93 mins | USA

If you find the this-year's-Juno tone of the advertising for Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist unappealing at best, why not treat yourself to the original Nick and Nora, the quick witted, silver tongued, utterly charming pair from the Thin Man films. This was my thinking the other night when I finally rented The Thin Man, a mid-30s whodunit that I'd always meant to see but never had.

Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy) are a married couple whose wedded bliss seems to consist of a never ending string of quick witted conversations had over an array of appetizing cocktails. No hangover is bad enough to keep tomorrow's party from happening, or crippling enough to keep the jokes from flowing.

When we first meet the duo, Nick (an ex-detective) is in a bar teaching the bartender how to shake a martini (always to a Waltz rhythm, apparently). Nora (his sassy, rich, fabulously independently-minded wife) joins him at the table, orders a martini and immediately asks him how many drinks he's had. Upon learning that he's on his sixth, she beckons the waiter to bring her five more. Hard not to fall in love with them, right?

Nick and Nora are in New York for Christmas, and even though Nick's retired from sleuthing, the disappearance of an old friend, inventor Clyde Wynant, under seemingly shady circumstances threatens to bring him back into the game. It doesn't help matters much that the missing man's money-hungry ex wife Mimi and his loving daughter Dorothy (Maureen O'Sullivan - you might know her as Jane from 1932's Tarzan the Ape Man and about four other early Tarzan films) desperately want Nick to take the case. Not to mention the fact that an assortment of underworld characters (including Mimi's new beau, played by a very young and swarthy Cesar Romero) all assume he's involved from the get go.

When the simple missing person's case leads to a young woman's murder, the sleuthing marrieds have no choice but to get more deeply involved. In what would become a staple of all six Thin Man films, the debonair Nick Charles invites all those involved over for a dramatic showdown. What better way to solve a murder than by having the suspects for dinner?

This terrific comedy/mystery privileges witty banter and razor-sharp wit over action and suspense, and is a much more memorable film because of it. Plus, Myrna Loy's costumes are out of this world.

Oh, if only married life were an eternal cocktail hour full of quips as sharp as olive spears!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Burn After Reading

Ethan Coen + Joel Coen | 2008 | 96 mins | USA

I heard a lot of hubbub about how amazing John Malkovich is in this film before I saw it, and now that I've seen it I have to say that the real killer performance award belongs to Brad Pitt. I mean sure, Malkovich is very good as the beleaguered, drunk ex-CIA agent whose frigid bitch of a wife (Tilda Swinton) intends to divorce him as his life falls apart. But really, considering the depths of weird creepiness that the man is capable of reaching, this feels a bit like phoning it in. Don't get me wrong, he nails this role. But it's a bit like being impressed with an Olympic gymnast for doing a really good cartwheel.

I will concede that he deserves major bonus points for his amazingly annoying and accurate (you know these people and they make you cringe too) insistence on pronouncing words like chèvre and memoir the "proper French way".

Pitt, on the other hand, is pure perfection as the carefree gym-rat (read: idiot) sidekick to Frances McDormand's plastic surgery obsessed Linda Litzke, a simple woman trapped in an elaborate game of international espionage that is entirely of her own invention.

There are some laugh out loud moments, and one or two instances of unsettlingly out of place violence, but on the whole the film is good-but-not-great. I don't say this because No Country For Old Men blew everyone's minds last year and now the bar's been set too high. For me it just falls into the Coen-crime/suspense film versus the Coen-comedy. I love the former and find the latter almost always good ... but not great. And yes, that includes Raising Arizona.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


Ed Harris | 2008 | 114 mins | USA

Ed Harris returns to the director's chair for the first time since 2000's Pollock, and the result is, at best, a so-so western. Harris and Viggo Mortensen star as Virgil Cole and his trusty sidekick Everett Hitch, two lawmen-for-hire who arrive in the dusty town of Appaloosa in order to rid it of the scourge of Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons) and his men, a crew of miscreants who have been abusing the town's reluctant hospitality.

Cole and Hitch quickly lay down the new law, and bring Bragg in to stand trial for the murder of a local Marshall. Of course, then a woman has to come into the picture and muck it all up. Enter Mrs. Allison French (Renée Zellweger), a recent widow who falls for Virgil (or is it Everett)? It's too bad Zellweger, a native Texan, sounds so wooden and awkward with her half-southern accent, and is so hopelessly unsexy as the woman who seduces everyone. Maybe they're just into her because she is literally the only woman in the entire territory.

When Ring Shelton (Lance Henricksen) blows into town and kidnaps Mrs. French (banking on Cole's affection for her as a bargaining chip to exchange her for Bragg), our two lawmen are forced to embark on a mission to set things right.

There's an obvious morality play at the centre of this story between what's lawful and what's right, but it's all too often awkwardly articulated in ham-fisted, expository conversations between Mortensen and his hooker confidante (Spanish actress Ariadna Gil), who only appears in the film to give him an opportunity to voice things that might have been more subtly communicated or even left unspoken. As if the opening and closing voice-over narration weren't enough!

I wanted to see more of the struggle between the Cole and Hitch. While Hitch is moral to a fault, overly bold and often guided by an emotional compass, Cole's tough guy facade hides a passive doormat whose adherence to the law comes at the price of his personal happiness, making him a spineless cuckold. The tension between the lifelong friends would have been a more interesting avenue to explore than the tepid pseudo-love-triangle.

Jeremy Irons is pretty good as the cold-hearted Bragg, but it's unfortunate that his low voice and semi-successful attempt to not speak with a British accent makes him sound a bit like Daniel Plainview. He's better than that, but it's not always apparent in this film.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Turkey Shoot

Brian Tranchard-Smith | 1982 | 93 mins | Australia

After seeing the doc Not Quite Hollywood at TIFF this year, my interest in Ozzsploitation was understandably piqued. I'd seen a few of the films described in it, but not enough! Perhaps the most simultaneously hilarious, action packed and nonsensical seeming option was Brian Trenchard-Smith's Turkey Shoot, which I got a chance to experience last week.

Turkey Shoot, a.k.a. Blood Camp Thatcher, a.k.a. Escape 2000, takes place in a futuristic, fascistic Australia in which "deviants" are sent to a sadistic rehabilitation camp, where they are reprogrammed through a strict regimen of abuse, torture and the like.

Steve Railsback is Paul Anders, an honest to goodness revolutionary who's escaped from every detention camp there is and has finally ended up in the toughest of them all - Thatcher's. Olivia Hussey is Chris Walters, a girl who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and is now stuck in the camp. Along with a few other inmates, they are about to become the human targets in a Most Dangerous Game-esqe amusement planned by the camp's vicious leader and some other miscellaneous mean rich people. Each hunter has his or her own target and weapon of choice (exploding arrows, machetes, big red ATVs - you know, standard human hunting accessories), and while poaching is against the rules, the contestants seem disinterested in following them.

There's enough zany action and over the top gore to keep the film interesting, but just in case your attention wanes, Trenchard-Smith introduces a few genuinely bizarre surprises along the way (hot tip: when a character named "Alph" shows up, this movie will go up at least 10 points on the awesome scale).

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. Enjoy the turkey!

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Emperor of the North Pole

Robert Aldrich | 1973 | 118 mins | USA

There was a whole spate of films about the depression made in the 1970s. Paper Moon, Hard Times and Where the Red Fern Grows come to mind right off the bat, but I'd never heard of Emperor of the North Pole until last night, but it's a bit of a star studded gem.

Lee Marvin is A-No.1 (that's pronounced A Number One, in case you had any doubts), a top notch hobo who won't take anybody's guff and is determined to take down "The 19", a train that no hobo has ridden before. Ernest Borgnine is Shack, the merciless and sadistic railway conductor who wields a hammer against any hobo who dares set foot on the 19. An young and pretty-faced Keith Carradine is Cigaret, the brash young hobo-wannabe who latches onto Marvin's star and tries to ride it into the sunset.

I'm not sure that this strange, train-hopping adventure qualifies as one of my top ten Lee Marvin films, but considering the fact that Marvin starred in some of the best movies of all time, I guess that's not too harsh a criticism. The character of A-No.1 is loosely based on real-life Hobo King Leon Ray Livingston, who hoboed it up under that alias and is credited with being one of the gents who perfected the hobo symbol system. Livingston died in 1944 and did most of his rail riding before the Great Depression, so this isn't exactly based on real events, but it's still a really fun ride.

A-No.1 manages to get onto Shack's train only to find that he's been tailed by a loudmouthed tenderfoot (the adorable Carradine). In order to keep the kid from fouling up his plans, A-No.1 sets their hay filled train car on fire and crashes through the partially burned wooden side, leaving Cigaret inside to face the consequences of being found.

When rumours start to spread about some dirty 'bo riding Shack's train, A-No.1 takes it up a notch by announcing his intention to ride it all the way to Portland, by writing his travel itinerary right up on the a big tower adjacent to the train station. Shack gets ready for a battle, Cigaret gets ready to tag along, and A-No.1 gets ready for an epic battle.

There's a great deal of hobo wisdom to be learned from Emperor of the North Pole (for example, men are not trains, because men who are out of fuel can still run on dreams). Lee Marvin's climactic "you coulda been a meat eater" speech (delivered, of course, from the back of a speeding train as it careens through the scenic western countryside) is so stirring, it's almost the hobo version of Brando's "I coulda been a contender" speech from On The Waterfront.

The title itself is a nod to some Depression Era hobo lingo, referring to the joke that the world's best hobo was "Emperor of the North Pole" (i.e. the ruler of a desolate tundra). On the whole, this [essentially woman-less] film is about the romance of the rail-riding life, and it does paint a pretty compelling picture.

Extra points for an incredible poster.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior

George Miller | 1981 | 91 mins | Australia

I can't believe it took me this long to see the goddamn Road Warrior.

When I watched and loved Doomsday earlier this year amid the flurry of critiques about whether it was an "homage" or a "rip off" of Mad Max, I kept saying to myself "you've really got to finally see Road Warrior". It took a few months, but here we are!

Handsome, young Mel Gibson reprises his role in the original as the lone wanderer, scavenging for (now-priceless) petrol in the devastated wastelands of Australia's outback.

He finds a compound of good people running a small oil refinery and becomes embroiled in their efforts to transport their gas to safety without getting killed by a vicious post-apocalyptic motorcycle of punks in terrifying gimp masks and ass-less chaps (they're more awesome/scary but no less gay than I'm making them sound).

Chock full of amazing car chases, death defying crashes and at least one totally incredible explosion sequence (that must have comprised about 75% of the film's budget), Mad Max 2 is really quite awesome (and incredibly topical in our peak-oil obsessed world).

Leave it to the Australians to be 20 years ahead of the game in terms of pithy social commentary in their action flicks. After the third Mad Max joint, director George Miller went on to do The Witches of Eastwick. His most recent film was Happy Feet. What is he trying to tell us about women and the environment that we just aren't ready to hear yet?! His next project is Justice League: Mortal. Clearly the end is nigh.

Perhaps I overdid that tangent. The point is: am I telling anyone anything they don't already know about the Mad Max franchise? Probably not. Am I encouraging you all to rent a copy of this and watch it on the largest TV you can find? EMPHATICALLY YES.

Next up on my "catching up on things I should have seen already" list: Babe: A Pig in the City.

Exte: Hair Extensions

Sion Sono | 2007 | 108 min | Japan

A young girl is found inside a massive shipping container, dead, without many of her vital organs, and with a VERY full head of hair. So full that her hair fills the shipping container. Yamazaki, a worker at the morgue notices that even after her corpse has been shaved by the coroner, her hair begins to grow back. A hair fanatic, he can't help himself; he takes the girl's body home with him and puts it a hammock that hangs in his apartment.

Meanwhile, a young aspiring hair stylist named Yuko (Battle Royale and Kill Bill's Chiaki Kuriyama) is training with great enthusiasm to become one of the best stylists in all of Japan. She's given the responsibility of looking after her young niece, Yuki, however, while her bad seed sister spends time with her dirtbag boyfriend. When Yuko discovers that Yuki has been abused, she has to juggle her studies and helping Yuki overcome the damage that her mother has caused her.

Yamazaki decides he can make some money if he makes hair extensions from the hair of his hammocked beauty, and starts selling them around town (out of a bird cage). The hair, we soon find out is filled with the angry spirit (or something like that) of the murdered girl, and anyone who puts the extensions in their hair becomes violent.

Obviously later, Yamazaki, Yuko, and Yuki's paths all cross through the hair extensions and CGI hair violence ensues to a satisfying climax.

Exte doesn't have much to offer in the way of story, and could have been thirty minutes shorter, but the acting is all around solid, and its effects sequences are inventive gross out fun that if you have long hair might stay with you longer than you want them to.

The Butterfly Murders

Tsui Hark | 1979 | 88 min | Hong Kong

Set in a time when 72 martial arts clans roamed China, all wanting to be no. 1 in the martial art world; a number of martial artists and Fong, a martial arts writer, find themselves at Shum Castle to investigate a number of deaths said to have been caused by butterflies. As they investigate the mystery of the poisonous butterflies, members of the party start to drop off like common flies.

The Butterfly Murders was Tsui Hark's first feature, and it shows. Not in terms of quality, but rather in terms of how much Hark stuffed into the one movie. Martial arts? Check. Butterfly horror(!!!)? Check. Scooby Doo style mystery? Check.

Some of the horror stuff isn't very effective, but it's a difficult task, to make butterflies seem threatening on film (which is accomplished on a few occasions). The action is good, solid stuff, just like you'd expect from Hark. It's not as kinetic as his later films, but his visual flair is very present; as is his impeccable sense of geography in his camera setups and editing.

What's most impressive about the genre hodge podge nature of the film is that never do any of the different elements seem out of place. I quickly accepted that it's a loose movie that has no interest in being straight-forward and conventional. If you're looking for that kind of film, look elsewhere. This one's called The Butterfly Murders!

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Harsh Times

David Ayer | 2005 | 116 min | US

So David Ayer is kinda just into this one thing, hey? This "crazy day of drugs and guns in LA" thing? The writer of Training Day made his directorial debut with another of his screenplays here. At least this one is better than Training Day. That statement might not seem like much, but it is remarkable when you consider how over the top Christian Bale's performance is here. Despite his wild-eyed, screaming, crying, overwrought acting, he is still surpasses Denzel Washington's horrible scenery chewing by leaps and bounds.

Bale plays Jim Luther Davis, a fucked up Gulf War vet who has come back to Los Angeles as an unemployable, drug-addled psychopath. He clings to his last shreds of sanity in the form of best friend Mike Alonzo (Freddy Rodriguez). The two laugh, drink forties, pretend to look for jobs, steal from drug dealers, et cetera. Typical summertime fun. Then things get weird, people get high and uncomfortably weepy, and the whole back-to-normal-life-after-the-war fantasy falls apart mightily. Its a light snack for Bale, but if you like him, you should enjoy Harsh Times. It looks, feels, and sounds like Training Day, except its good. Why did anyone like that movie?

The Opening of Misty Beethoven

Radley Metzger | 1976 | 85 mins | USA

After falling in love with Camille 2000 last year, I decided it was time to check out some of Radley Metzger's other sexy fare. This hilarious porno-Pygmalion provided fewer incredible costumes, but a much more lighthearted and fun storyline overall.

Misty Beethoven (Constance Money) is a cute but prudish hooker. Dr. Seymore Love (the semi-legendary Jamie Gillis, who notoriously inspired that limo scene in Boogie Nights) is a sexologist who's determined to transform her from "the nadir of passion" into someone who inspires it.

Dr. Love and his wealthy patron Geraldine Rich (Jacqueline Beudant) take Misty to Geraldine's mansion in Europe for some intensive months of training. At the lavish estate, Misty is forced to endure a variety of strict but sexy practice regimens (often depicted as wacky montages, complete with dildo bloopers), while Dr. Love looks on critically and an assortment of butlers and maids give head to anyone who happens to pause for more than a second.

Misty's many "tests" include having to seduce an obviously gay art dealer and ultimately vying to become the new "Golden Rod Girl" (European sex-society's top honour, apparently). All the while, in true Pygmalion-esque fashion, she's clearly falling for Dr. Love, who does nothing but mistreat the poor dear.

Great cinematography, a top notch score but some genuinely funny dialogue (not to mention competent acting) make this film one of the crowning achievements of classic '70s XXX cinema.

Interesting Factoid: The Opening of Misty Beethoven has the distinction of being the first widely-released porn movie to feature female-on-male pegging, during a ménage a trios between Constance Money, Ras Kean and Gloria Leonard. Apparently, Kean used an ass double. No joke!


Graham Baker | 1984 | 91 mins | USA

I purchased Impulse for a buck or two from a VHS rack outside the local BMV a few weeks ago because the back cover entertainingly promised a tale about "desperate lovers caught between terrifying fantasy and brutal reality". I was totally unprepared for the incredible gem Impulse would turn out to be.

Jennifer (Meg Tilly) and Stuart (Tim Matheson) are an upwardly mobile couple who return to her hometown after her mother's unexpected (and failed) suicide attempt. The town is recovering from a minor earthquake, but the young couple can feel that there's more going on than just a few aftershocks.

As time passes, a sinister recklessness seems to grip everyone around them - people are losing their inhibitions and willfully disregarding social conventions, as if every internal filter and censor had been switched off. A parking spot misunderstanding turns into full-on road rage, a child's prank nearly turns a farmhouse into a towering inferno and a young man's fit of barroom jealousy provides one of the most intense moments ever committed to film.

Bizarre, unsettling and self-destructive behaviour abounds as Jennifer and Stuart try to understand what is happening around them without being swept up themselves. Impulse manages to be both explicit and suggestive at the same time, walking the fine line between suspense and horror.

There's a creepy subplot involving Jennifer's brother Eddie (Bill Paxton doing his very best Angry Young Man) that's fascinating even though it's left barely explained.

If Impulse came out in 2009 (I envision Christian Bale in the Matheson role), very little would need to be updated for it to be one of the best suspense films of the year. Seriously worth seeking out!


Russell Mulcahy | 1986 | 116 mins | USA

Sometimes, after a festival like TIFF, it can take weeks to get back into normal habits and movie watching patterns. It's easy to develop a severe case of film fatigue, and even easier to slip quietly into a post-fest depression that makes it difficult to drag oneself out of bed and to the couch, no matter how warm or inviting the VCR or DVD players look. For me, two weeks of silent weeping over the sudden, brutal lack of Clancy Brown in my daily life have finally given way to a sort of dull resignation that this is just what reality is like now. Sigh.

Sometimes, the only thing you can do is dust yourself off and watch some old favourites to get back in the game. And what better choice than the 1986 Clancy Brown classic, Highlander?

I haven't seen this film since I was about 10 or 12 years old, and I have to say that while it didn't terrify me nearly as much this time, it really held up amazingly well. Probably, nobody needs the plot of this stellar classic re-capped for them, but here it is anyway, for readers who were born in the '90s.

After being killed (but not killed!) by a mysterious, skull-helmet wearing opponent (Clancy Brown as The Kurgan) on the Scottish plains in 1536, Connor McLeod (Christopher Lambert) finds himself banished from his village (after all, who but the devil can come back from the dead?) and befriended by a dapper gent with a pearl earring named Ramirez (Sean Connery). Connor spends the next 400-ish years learning about his immortality and preparing for "The Gathering" at which all the remaining immortals (who haven't had their heads lopped off over the centuries) battle for "The Prize", because, as Clancy often reminds us, "there can be only one".

Between 007's bedazzled Spaniard and Clancy's immortal-punk psychopath, there's a lot of awesome star power supporting Lambert's beleaguered swordsman. When The Gathering turns out to be taking place in modern day NYC, pure awesomeness ensues.

Plus, I had nearly forgotten the great Queen soundtrack. I was probably too young to appreciate it in 1986.

Side Note: I realized while watching this film that every idea I've formed in adulthood about what my dream home might look like is straight out of Highlander's awesome, multi-story, floor-to-ceiling-windowed New York penthouse. Yep, even the circular weapons room with the sunken couches.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

C'est pas moi, je le jure!

Philippe Falardeau |2008 | 108 mins | Canada

I thought based on the incredible amount of hype this film received during the fest that it would either be the most hysterically funny comedy out of Quebec in years, or that it would be the world's most endearing story about a young boy's troubled childhood.

It's true, the film is funny and endearing, and the young actor who plays the central character, Léon Doré (Antoine L'Écuyer), is really great. Still, there was something about this film that didn't sit well with me.

Based on Bruno Hébert's critically-acclaimed novel, C'est pas moi, je le jure! takes place in the technicolour summer of 1968, and is essentially about a young boy whose family is so dysfunctional that he's got little choice but to try to hang himself in the front yard, or sneak into the vacationing neighbours' house and smash their stuff. His father is a successful, high profile human rights activist and his mother is frustrated that her husband's career dominates their family life. He drinks, she yells, and the boys act out.

Unfortunately, the film seemed undecided about whether it wanted to jovially make fun of the dysfunction or genuinely disturb the audience. Rather than creating a successful tension between these two tones and playing on the juxtaposition between the boy's funny actions and his actually sad reality, the film came off as kind of mean-spirited.

It felt a bit like listening to someone try to make a joke about something that they're actually angry about. That sort of thing feels awkward in real life, and it felt awkward in this film. Perhaps that awkwardness was the point, but I'm not sure it worked.