Saturday, October 31, 2015

Ten Days of Terror: Stir of Echoes

Film: Stir of Echoes
Format: DVD from personal collection on rockin’ flatscreen.

When I started looking through the different horror and horror-related films on my various lists to do the two-posts-per-day thing I had planned for the end of October, I knew that I’d be watching Stir of Echoes on Halloween. I love Stir of Echoes and it’s been ages since I had watched it. This is a movie that benefits from both being remembered as good (it is) and from a long time between viewings so that a lot of the specifics can be forgotten.

I really like Stir of Echoes a lot. This is a film that was ignored in 1999 because it was released about six weeks after The Sixth Sense and it has a great number of plot similarities. Primarily it features a young kid who can see dead people. I contend that if the release dates had been reversed that this might well be the movie that people know. I think it’s a superior movie in pretty much every aspect.

Ten Days of Terror!: Leave Her to Heaven

Film: Leave Her to Heaven
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

For the last two years, I’ve focused on traditional horror movies in the last 10 days of October. I do this because I like horror movies in general, love great horror movies, and because I tend to be so focused on Oscar movies that I don’t leave a lot of room for the scary stuff. There are times when I’ll slide more into thriller territory during these horror binges, but most of the time, I stick with the movies that would be classified by almost everyone as horror. Leave Her to Heaven is my biggest deviation from that typical late-October film. This is sort of a film noir despite being in glorious Technicolor. Rather than a traditional noir, though, this is the story of the coldest femme fatale in cinematic history.

Leave Her to Heaven is a film that’s told almost entirely in flashback, but it’s also a film that we forget is told in flashback almost immediately. As it opens, we’re introduced to Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde), a novelist who has just been released from a two-year stint in prison and has returned to live on a remote island where he did his writing. A few of the locals gawk, and the story of the last few years is revealed by his friend and attorney Glen Robie (Ray Collins).

Friday, October 30, 2015

Ten Days of Terror!: Blood Simple

Film: Blood Simple
Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.

When the topic of directorial debuts comes up, it won’t go too long before I bring up Blood Simple, the first movie by Joel and Ethan Coen. I freely admit that I’m a Coen geek and so my opinion on this is going to be biased in some respect, but that doesn’t change the fact that Blood Simple would be a noteworthy film from an experienced director. As their first film, this is a strong showing, and they’ve only gotten better (mostly) from here.

Blood Simple has a twisted plot that goes in a lot of different places to get to the ending we eventually reach. Like any good noir, and Blood Simple is a vicious little noir, it starts simply and becomes much more complicated and convoluted as the story goes on. We begin with a simple extra-marital affair between Abby (Frances McDormand) and Ray (John Getz). Ray works as a bartender for Abby’s husband Marty (Dan Hedaya), who suspects that she’s being unfaithful. He’s hired a private detective named Loren Visser (M. Emmet Walsh) to catch them in the act, which he does easily.

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Animated Feature 2004

The Contenders:

The Incredibles (winner)
Shark Tale
Shrek 2

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Ten Days of Terror!: Night of the Comet

Film: Night of the Comet
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

Night of the Comet is one of those movies that separates the horror nerd from the rest of movie fandom. While there will be a few exceptions here, this is a movie that you either love or have never heard of. I don’t know anyone personally who has seen Night of the Comet who doesn’t appreciate it for what it is. This is a spin on a classic end-of-the-world scenario done with humor, some great characters, and a lot of entertaining qualities. I was so pleased to see this show up the other day and couldn’t wait to watch it again.

Let’s get to the horror movie tropes here so we can talk about the fun stuff. The Earth is in the path of a comet that is on an incredibly long trajectory. In fact, scientists estimate that the last time this comet passed near the planet was about 65 million years ago, which just happens to coincide with the disappearance of the dinosaurs. The people of Earth are promised a spectacular light show as the planet passes through the comet’s tail, and for whatever reason, almost everyone in the Los Angeles area is excited by the prospect of seeing a comet fly by.

Ten Day of Terror!: Threads

Film: Threads
Format: Internet video on laptop.

When I was a kid, The Day After was one of the most important television events ever. It was intended to be a realistic depiction of what might happen in the event of a full thermonuclear exchange between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Threads, produced for British television the following year, was the BBC’ answer to the American film. Threads is the logical extension of the 1960s movie The War Game, showing in frightful and horrible detail what could happen in the event of a complete thermonuclear exchange. The film, rather than giving a broad view of the nation as a whole, focuses instead on Sheffield and the progression of events that affect the people in that town. Threads is a film I think needs to be discussed fully, so you can consider the rest of this review under a spoiler warning.

Threads works in large part because it presents the escalation of hostilities in a natural and believable way. When the film start, there is the standard tension between the U.S. and Soviet Russia that was the everyday norm in the 1980s during the Cold War. It’s almost a cliché that the tension takes place over Iranian oil fields. Initially, though, this all happens in the background of the stories of various people in Sheffield. Life goes on as it always did even as the geopolitical situation becomes more and more tense.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Ten Days of Terror!: Screamers

Film: Screamers
Format: Internet video on The Nook.

I can’t remember the last time I’d seen Screamers, but it’s been years. I still remembered the basics of it, though. Screamers is a film with a solid pedigree despite its B-movie science fiction/horror sensibilities. It’s based on a story by Phillip K. Dick for starters, and it was adapted by Dan O’Bannon, who is rightly more famous for having written both Alien and Aliens. Seeing it now and knowing what I know, there’s some evidence that O’Bannon took some ideas from this to write Aliens, and then took them back when he adapted this into a screenplay.

Knowing the pedigree here is kind of important, though, because Screamers comes across very much like a movie that wants to be Aliens. There are a lot of the same elements here as in Aliens, although the earlier movie is better in almost every respect. That’s not a knock on Screamers; Aliens is one of the better science fiction movies in cinematic history.

Ten Days of Terror!: The Dead Pit

Film: The Dead Pit
Format: Internet video on The Nook.

What do you get when someone puts a dollar in the “Horror Movie Cliché” slot machine and hits the jackpot? You get The Dead Pit, a film from 1989 that contains not a single original idea. It looks like horror movie, acts like a horror movie, and sounds like a horror movie, but any horror movie veteran will find not a single thing here that hasn’t been seen before.

List off the clichés. Insane asylum? Check. Crazy, murderous doctor? Check. Crazy, murderous doctor back from the dead? Check. Amnesia? Oh, check. Psychotherapy that slowly reveals how the main character is connected to everything? Checktastic. Main character amnesiac who looks like she belongs in an ‘80s hair band music video? Checkaroonie. A patient with religious delusions? Chizzeck. The amnesiac heroine having a penchant for white, high-waisted panties? Check to the checkth power. Is there a single non-predictable death? Of course not. The Dead Pit has found its tropes and hugs them so tightly that it’s left marks on them. There’s even a scene where cops discuss what sorts of donuts they like.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Ten Days of Terror!: Kingdom of the Spiders

Film: Kingdom of the Spiders
Format: Internet video on The Nook.

Okay, I should come clean right at the start here: spiders scare the shit outta me. I figured, though, that a 1970s movie about spiders and starring William Shatner might just be campy enough that I could muscle my way through it. Kingdom of the Spiders has all of the earmarks of being exactly that. There’s a plague of slow-moving critters attacking people in the middle of nowhere and there’s the distinct possibility of Shatner hamming it up on camera. Man, was I not expecting what I got.

I’ll be clear on this: Kingdom of the Spiders is a low-budget critter movie, but it’s also surprisingly effective in a lot of ways. One of the main reasons for this is that it’s really just a version of Night of the Living Dead with tarantulas replacing the zombies. It has almost all of the same plot points and the same story moments as the horror classic, albeit with a lot less overt gore. But for all of its potential goofiness and high camp, it takes itself seriously and manages to work pretty well.

Ten Days of Terror!: The Fog (1980)

Film: The Fog
Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.

One of the reasons I’m fascinated with horror movies is that for whatever reason they seem to attract really good actors. Take, for example, John Carpenter’s The Fog. Okay, it’s got b-movie standby Adrienne Barbeau and Jamie Lee Curtis a few years after Carpenter made her famous with Halloween, but we also get Hal Holbrook and Janet Leigh and John Houseman. That’s impressive for a film that had a budget of around $1 million.

The Fog is a movie I’ve seen before and it’s one that I was looking forward to seeing again. Even when John Carpenter’s movies suffer from low budgets, he’s an interesting filmmaker who tends to make better films than his budget would normally make possible. Sure, there’s some cheese in his movies sometimes, but this is a guy who can produce some good scares without much in the way of money, and especially in his early years, was more than capable of putting together a film that is, if nothing else, entertaining as all hell.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Ten Days of Terror!: Monster House

Film: Monster House
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library through interlibrary loan on rockin’ flatscreen.

I think there are plenty of kids who like to be scared. Look through the Best Animated Feature nominees and there’s a surprising number of them with horror elements. The only one I had left is Monster House, which is also one of the most obvious horror-themed kids movies in the 14 years of this award. After all, it’s about a freaking monster house that comes alive and eats people.

That is pretty much the story here. Barely pre-teen DJ (Mitchel Musso) lives across the street from Mr. Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi), the neighborhood crank. Any toy that winds up on Nebbercracker’s lawn is immediately confiscated by the old man, who continually yells at all of the children in the neighborhood to leave him and his house alone. This becomes an issue for DJ and his friend Chowder (Sam Lerner) when Chowder’s new basketball winds up on Nebbercracker’s lawn. DJ goes to fetch it, is confronted by the old man, and as DJ attempts to make his escape, Nebbercracker has a heart attack and collapses.

Ten Days of Terror!: God Told Me To

Film: God Told Me To
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

When it comes to his films, Larry Cohen was always better at coming up with really interesting ideas than he was communicating those ideas to an audience. Cohen’s films were clunky at best, frequently ham-handed, and generally amateurish. They’re plagued by poor editing, often grainy film, and acting that left a great deal to be desired. But for all of the problems with Cohen’s films, his ideas were often so astonishing that they demand to be seen. Such is the case with God Told Me To, a little-remembered film from the mid-‘70s. Cohen’s film is a weird take on religious belief and faith with a good dose of science fiction thrown in for good measure. That the whole thing doesn’t really hold together completely is less important than the ideas that attempt to hold it together.

We start with an almost literal bang. A young man (Sammy Williams), for no evident reason, has taken a rifle to the top of a water tower and started shooting people on the streets of New York. The death toll hits double digits when detective Peter Nicholas (Tony Lo Bianco) arrives on the scene. Nicholas climbs up the tower to talk to the gunman, who has evidently been picking people off at long distance with a mail-order rifle. When asked what has triggered the rampage, the gunman says, “God told me to,” and jumps to his death.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Ten Days of Terror!: The Sentinel (1977)

Film: The Sentinel (1977)
Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.

I saw The Sentinel for the first time in 2009 when I was writing the now-defunct and long gone first version of this blog. I was relatively unimpressed with the film then, so I can’t say it was one that I was dying to revisit. But, I’m going to get to them all eventually, so I might as well knock it out now. On a rewatch, I ended up liking this more than I did my first viewing, so I’m ultimately glad I chose to watch it again. While not everything the movie sets up is fully realized in its 92 minutes, this is a surprisingly ambitious little film. It also sports the single greatest cast list for a B-horror movie in cinematic history.

This is not one of those Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, before-they-were-stars cast lists, either. The Sentinel is filled with well-known, respected actors well into their careers in roles both big and small. Included in this are the following people: Ava Gardner, Eli Wallach, Chris Sarandon, Christopher Walken, Beverly D’Angelo, Sylvia Miles, Burgess Meredith, John Carradine, Martin Balsam, Jose Ferrer, Arthur Kennedy, Tom Berenger, William Hickey, Jerry Orbach, and Jeff Goldblum. Richard Dreyfuss has an uncredited role as an extra, and this is post-Jaws and from the same year in which he did Close Encounters of the Third Kind and won an Oscar for The Goodbye Girl. It causes one to wonder what sort of demonic pact director Michael Winner must have signed to arrange this.

Ten Days of Terror!: Alice, Sweet Alice

Film: Alice, Sweet Alice
Format: Drive-In Classics on rockin’ flatscreen.

Alice, Sweet Alice (originally called Communion) is a film I’ve heard about for years but just haven’t gotten around to watching. I’d been told that this was an upsetting film that went places we don’t normally have films take us. I was also told that there were some things here that were visually disturbing or weird. Both of these things are true. The problem is that it’s not a great film. There are aspects of it that are at least really interesting, but I’d call this more a thriller than a horror film. The events of this film are entirely possible, which at least for me moves it out of the pure horror realm.

This is more or less the story of two girls and it quickly becomes the story of one girl. Karen Spages (Brooke Shields in her first-ever movie role) is preparing for her first communion. It’s quickly evident that her mother Catherine (Linda Miller) dotes on Karen. This is particularly obvious to Karen’s older sister Alice (Paula Sheppard, who was 19 and playing a pretty believable 12 or 13). Alice seems to always be in trouble, especially with Catherine’s sister Anne (Jane Lowry). Alice has some pretty serious issues. She likes to wear a bright yellow raincoat and a disturbing mask that looks almost human. Alice seems to terrorize everyone around her—her Aunt Anne, Karen, her mother, and Mrs. Tredoni (Mildred Clinton), who works at the local parish.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Ten Days of Terror!: Cujo

Film: Cujo
Format: Movies! Channel on rockin’ flatscreen.

Cujo is not a film I looked forward to reviewing. This is not because it’s a bad film (it’s not) or not scary (it is) or that it doesn’t contain some good scary moments (it does). The problem is that Cujo is enough story for maybe a 30-minute film and it’s been stretched to just over 90 minutes. There’s a lot of story here that feels like it’s included specifically to pad the movie since it has nothing to do with the story being told. Or it does, but only obliquely. As a short film, it would be gripping and terrifying. Full length, it’s merely got some good moments and a lot of waiting around for the next good moment.

Cujo can be fully explained in a couple of sentences. A friendly St. Bernard is bitten by a rabid bat and becomes rabid. Through a series of events involving chance and the dog attacking and killing a couple of people, the dog traps a mother and her young son in their car for a couple of days. That’s it. Like I said, it’s not a bad premise for a short, but for a full-length movie, it requires a great deal of extra bits.

Ten Days of Terror!: Under the Skin

Film: Under the Skin
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on laptop.

When the new 1001 Movies book came out and I saw that I had just four movies to watch to finish for the year, I planned to end with Under the Skin. This is, after all, a science fiction movie with horror elements, two genres that tend to be overlooked on the 1001 Movies list in general. It’s a movie I’d heard a lot good about, it having received a great deal of universal acclaim. I like to end October with a bunch of horror movies anyway, so it seemed like a natural fit. What could go wrong, right?

What could go wrong is that the emperor could have no clothes. I’m certain that our filmmaker here has some deep meaning attached to this film, but I’ll be damned if I know what the hell it is. Under the Skin is almost certainly an allegory of some sort, but an allegory only works if your audience can actually figure out what the meaning is. Sadly, Under the Skin is almost completely opaque in that respect. This is not a film that offers much to the viewer in terms of help. It also doesn’t offer much in terms of entertainment.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Ten Days of Terror!: Crimson Peak

Film: Crimson Peak
Format: Goodrich Randall 15 Theater.

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a sucker for Guillermo del Toro. I admit it—I like the guy’s movies. A big part of that is that I like how he uses monsters. For del Toro, monsters and ghosts may be agents that alert us to horror but are never the true purveyors of horror. No, for del Toro, humans are always both the best and the worst creatures in the world. We are, for him, capable of the greatest good and of the most shocking atrocities. I knew the minute I saw the trailer for Crimson Peak that it would be one of my rare trips to the theater. And so it was.

We begin with Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) standing bloodied and cut telling us that ghosts are real. The bulk of the film then takes place in flashback to show us how Edith came to this state. We flash all the way back to her childhood and the death of her mother, who returns as a black and skeletal figure to Edith to warn her of Crimson Peak. This warning is repeated years later when Edith has grown and has tried her hand at writing a ghost story novel. Denied publication by a New York publisher probably because she is a woman in Victorian-era society who has written something without a romance, she endeavors to type her novel instead to not be betrayed by her feminine handwriting.

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Original Screenplay 1979

The Contenders:

…And Justice for All
All That Jazz
Breaking Away (winner)
The China Syndrome
Manhattan

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Ten Days of Terror!: Coraline

Film: Coraline
Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.

I remember liking Coraline the first time I watched it. I thought it was a cool story, and one that would likely interest kids because of its fascination with creepy things. There are some real scares in the film, and I think that a lot of kids like to be a little scared. Plenty of animated movies have a stripe of darkness running through them, and I appreciate it when a film designed for kids is willing to explore that and not shy away from going dark.

So I was certainly interested in watching the film again. I hadn’t seen it since its original release and while I remembered the basics of it, I didn’t remember the specifics. One thing I remember vividly is that my older daughter (11 at the time) was upset at the inclusion of the character Wybie, who was not in the book. In her world at that time, that meant that it was a terrible, worthless version of the original story. Gail didn’t like Coraline on her first viewing. I don’t know what she thinks of it now.

Ten Days of Terror!: The Brood

Film: The Brood
Format: Internet video on laptop.

When you write about a David Cronenberg movie, you have to be prepared for the body horror. That’s beyond a cliché when it comes to talking about Cronenberg, particularly in his earlier years. There are a few films that are deep enough that body horror can be touched on without being the main theme of the review. That’s not the case with The Brood, since this is a film that is almost exclusively about building up to the last 15 minutes and one of Cronenberg’s most disturbing scenes. In fact, I might go so far as to say that The Brood is much more a psychological thriller until we get to the final act, when it goes full-on into horror.

We start with some rather ridiculous psychological premises. Dr. Hal Raglan (square-headed Oliver Reed) has developed a new technique he calls psychoplasmics. Essentially, he forces his patients to undergo traumas from their past, which then manifest on their skin as welts, bruises, cuts, and other sundry injuries. His prize patient is Nola Carveth (Samantha Eggar), who is dealing with an alcoholic and abusive mother, and alcoholic and weak-willed father, and an estranged husband. Part of her worries with her husband Frank (Art Hindle) concerns custody of their daughter Candice (Cindy Hinds). For now, Candice stays with her on weekends, but when she returns with scratches and bruises, Frank wants to put a stop to those visits.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Married to the Land

Film: The River
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

There is a mystique about the American family farm that for whatever reason has long been a staple of a certain brand of American story. It’s only natural that film producers would jump on this particular bandwagon from time to time. The mid-‘80s was definitely that time. The River came out in 1984, a year before John Mellencamp released Scarecrow about the plight of the small farmer and the year before FarmAid, the benefit concert to benefit the same. It’s not much of a shock that The River would highlight the same basic plight.

Just so you know what we’re getting into here, The River is going to be two hours of misery even if we wind up with an uplift in the last couple of minutes. We’ll have good guys who we root for and who get constantly kicked and a bad guy who we’ll root against. And for two hours we’ll watch the good guys get screwed by the bad guys and we’ll feel bad for them. I wasn’t 10 minutes into the movie when I figured out that this was going to be one of those misery parfait movies of bad things piled on top of people who struggle mightily under the weight of the rich guys who want to run them off their land.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Your Face Picks Movies (Jason): Blood Feast

Film: Blood Feast
Format: Internet video on laptop.

This is the tenth in a series of twelve films suggested by the guys at YourFace. This is Jason’s fourth and final pick.

When I agreed to take on the task of watching 12 movies from Jason, Nolahn, and Nick, I kind of expected to be at least partially buried in low-budget oddities and schlock. I was willing to do exactly that. I also expected a good deal of horror, but only Jason gave me straight horror movies in The Signal and today’s movie, gore “classic” Blood Feast. The minute I got everyone’s list, I knew that Blood Feast would be the October movie. I mean, how could it not be?

Blood Feast is famous, or perhaps infamous, for its lack of budget, terrible acting, and extreme gore. In fact, it’s the gore that’s really the only reason for the film. The goal of Blood Feast was to put as much violence on the screen as possible with as much artificial blood (and it really does look like Italian horror film red paint) as could be used. That is literally the only thing the movie has going for it. This is a master class in bad acting, non-existent direction, sloppy camera work, moronic characters, bad plotting, and oppressive music that consists of little more than tympani, massive organ chords, and brass instruments playing the same two notes over and over. There are moments of someone sawing a cello as well.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Life is for Living

Film: Boyhood
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on laptop.

Boyhood took me two tries to get through. I tried to watch it a couple of months ago, got about 25 minutes into it, and just wasn’t feeling like I wanted to continue. I got it from the library again, and have waited on it, the disc sitting on top of a pile of DVDs for almost three weeks. It’s due back at the library tomorrow, and it’s one of the two movies standing between me and recompleting the 1001 Movies list for the year. It wasn’t “now or never,” but it is a case of needing to get it watched or delaying for even longer.

This is evidence that mood can really affect the way we perceive a film. I don’t think I got the point of Boyhood the first time I tried to watch it. In my defense, Boyhood is a slow-starter. Actually, it’s a slow movie all the way around, but that’s really the point. It’s a film that is simultaneously too much for the medium and not nearly enough at the same time. That’s a drawback, certainly, but it’s also the main strength of the film and the concept behind it.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Payback's a Bitch

Film: The Last Command
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

There’s a hefty little subgenre of films about the making of films. There may be some that exist before The Last Command from 1928, but I’m not aware of any (although I’m certain that should they exist, I’ll be corrected in the comments below). The Last Command uses the movie industry as an actual plot point—this is a movie that wouldn’t work as it does without the movie industry, which serves as something like a framing story for the flashback that contains the bulk of the actual story here. It also contains one of Emil Jannings’s performances from this year, one or both of which won the first-ever Best Actor Oscar.

In the early days, directors, actors, and actresses were often nominated for multiple performances. In fact, there were four performances nominated for Best Actor for 1928 but only two actors; Emil Jannings was nominated for two and Richard Barthelmess was nominated for the other two. It’s not unlikely that his work in The Last Command was what secured the win for Jannings.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

No One Has Ever Escaped From...

Film: Stalag 17
Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.

Stalag 17 is an interesting film for a lot of reasons. The movie takes place in a prisoner of war camp, but it’s absolutely in part a comedy. It has a truly dislikeable character who is ultimately the hero of the film. There’s a lot that works against Stalag 17 from the start, and yet the whole thing works. It’s helped by a diverse and interesting cast and the solid direction of Billy Wilder. That’s what turns Stalag 17 from a movie that seems like a collection of terrible ideas into one that generally works from end to end.

At points in the narrative, we’re given a voiceover from Sergeant Clarence “Cookie” Cook (Gil Stratton). Actually, in the case of this film, “Sergeant” is unnecessary in most cases since all but a couple of the Americans in the titular prison camp are of that rank. As the film opens, two inmates, Manfredi (Michael Moore) and Johnson (Peter Baldwin) are looking to go through the wire. They’ve got a plan and a tunnel and are all set to go. When they leave, the other men in the barracks start to bet on how far they’ll get. It’s all in good fun until J.J. Sefton (William Holden) puts down two packs of cigarettes that they won’t make it out of the forest surrounding the camp. Ultimately, Sefton is right; the pair is gunned down before they even reach the forest.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Grief

Film: A Single Man
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on The Nook.

As a heterosexual man, my relationship to queer cinema is hardly unique. In some respects, my relationship with it is similar to the one I have with the cinema of any demographic group of which I am not a member. Queer cinema isn’t telling my story, but it’s telling a story that I can try to understand and relate to. A Single Man is certainly not the definitive film of the classification/genre, but it’s a fine example. It works not because it’s specifically a story about a homosexual man but because it’s a story of a man who happens to be homosexual. That distinction is important and makes all the difference. The film speaks to the gay experience, but speaks equally to the human experience.

George Falconer (Colin Firth) is an ex-patriate Brit teaching at a college in Los Angeles. When the film begins, it has been eight months since the death of Jim (played in flashback by Matthew Goode), his partner of 16 years. Since Jim’s accidental death in a car accident, George has more or less lived on autopilot. All of A Single Man takes place around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a time when homosexuality was one of the more serious social sins. This reality means that George and Jim have kept their relationship a secret from all but the closest and most trusted friends. It’s also what prevents George from being able to attend Jim’s funeral, since Jim’s family does not want him there.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Love Polygon

Film: Four Daughters
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

My DVR goes through periods of boom and bust. Suddenly, out of nowhere, half a dozen movies I want to see will appear in the same week on various channels and the damn thing starts to get clogged. And, like most people, I have things I’ve recorded months (or years) ago waiting around for me to get to them. It’s a constant battle between what I have available to me through various means, what I want to record, and removing things from the DVR’s memory. When I get the chance, I like to remove something. One of the oldest recordings I had was Four Daughters, which I recorded last year. That’s long enough.

That said, Four Daughters is the kind of film I wish I had already watched or had left in the queue. It commits what is in my opinion the cardinal sin of movies: it’s boring. A boring film, at least in my opinion, is far worse than a bad one. I’ve no doubt that the people involved were earnest in attempting to make a good film, and in some respects they succeeded; this was nominated for Best Picture, after all. But it’s been a long time since I’ve found something so dreary. It’s a shame, too, because there are good people involved in this and it comes from a talented and acclaimed director.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Picks from Chip: 3 Idiots

Film: 3 Idiots
Format: Internet video on laptop.

This is the tenth in a series of twelve movies selected by Chip Lary at Tips from Chip.

Twice this year, Chip Lary has given me tasks of epic length coupled with subtitles. The first was the Jean de Florette/Manon des Sources double-feature from a few months ago and 3 Idiots, today’s film. If I’m honest, in both cases, my lizard brain recoiled from these choices, this one more than the double-feature. It’s a big commitment. On the other hand, 3 Idiots was on my NetFlix queue for more than a year before Chip suggested it to me, so I can’t really complain too much that he finally made me watch it.

The bulk of 3 Idiots is told in flashback. Two former college friends, Farhan (R. Madhavan) and Raju (Sharman Joshi) are contacted by a third former classmate named Chatur Ramalingam (Omi Vaidya). Chatur tells them he has located their friend Rancho (Aamir Khan). Farhan, who is on a plane taking off, fakes a seizure to be returned to the ground. Raju is so excited that he runs out of the house without his pants. What they find is Chatur, their old nemesis, gloating about his success in the 10 years since college. Rancho is nowhere to be found, but Chatur claims he knows where he is. As it happens, Chatur and Rancho had a bet—to return in 10 years to see who had become more successful, and Rancho hasn’t shown up.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Diamonds are a Thief's Best Friend

Film: Out of Sight
Format: DVDs from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

I didn’t know going in that Out of Sight was based on an Elmore Leonard novel, but I guessed that that was the case not too long into the film. There’s a feel to this film reminiscent of Get Shorty, for instance. A lot of Leonard’s main character criminals are too clever by a half. We discover immediately that they are criminals and that they are real criminals, but his good guys tend to be non-violent, smarter than the average, and to have a particular ethical code surrounding them. Leonard also gives us true bad guy criminals who are violent and don’t shy away from committing violence.

But really, with Elmore Leonard good guy criminals, it’s all about being cool. In Out of Sight, our sympathetic criminal is bank robber Jack Foley (George Clooney), who is busted when his car won’t start after his last job. Jack does a turn in a Florida prison. He gets out by warning the guards of a prison break by a man named Chino (Luis Guzman), knocking out a guard and wearing his uniform. Unfortunately for him, his escape involves a U.S. marshal named Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez). Jack and Karen spend some time in the trunk of a car together while Jack’s getaway is driven by his friend Buddy (Ving Rhames).

Saturday, October 10, 2015

On the Lam

Film: Running on Empty
Format: DVDs from personal collection on laptop.

A little more than a week ago, there was a discussion of Oscar category fraud. I bring this up because Running on Empty is a case where this concept rears its ugly head once again. River Phoenix was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his role in this film, but was evidently bumped down because nothing was going to stop the juggernaut that was Dustin Hoffman for Rain Man. Since the entire movie turns on Phoenix’s character and since he is in more scenes than anyone else, calling him a supporting actor seems like a real stretch.

Like many a movie, Running on Empty explores the very real human issues of loss and separation, but does so by giving us an extreme situation from which to view that situation. The Pope family consists of father Arthur (Judd Hirsch), mother Annie (Christine Lahti), and sons Danny (River Phoenix) and Harry (Jonas Abry). But that’s only for people who really know them. Their lives are nomadic, moving from place to place and putting down temporary roots before leaving virtually everything behind and starting over somewhere else.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

The State of Denmark

Film: Hamlet (1996)
Format: DVDs from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

I’ve seen four cinematic versions of Hamlet. From worst to first, I would rank them with the German version made for television (and skewered on Mystery Science Theater 3000) as the worst, the 1990 version with Mel Gibson good but sort of “Hamlet-lite,” the 1948 Best Picture winning Olivier version as a traditional and solid version, and Branagh’s 19th-century reimagining as the best. This is not the first time I’ve hunkered down for Branagh’s 4+ hour version of Hamlet, and I was happy to watch it again because I think it’s the best film version available. I know there are others. I’ve heard the Ethan Hawke 2000 version is good or at least interesting. I may get there someday.

I’m not going to run through a plot summary of Hamlet. If you don’t know the story, shame on you or shame on the school system you came up through. You’ve had more than 400 years to familiarize yourself with Hamlet, so if what follows ends up being a spoiler, you have only yourself or your old literature teachers to blame.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

I've Got My Philosophy

Film: The Razor’s Edge
Format: Movies! Channel on rockin’ flatscreen.

Older movies are often preachy. It more or less comes with the territory, and so I try to ignore it whenever I can. With a film like the Razor’s Edge, though, the moralizing happens a lot in the first part of the film. It more or less goes away in the second two acts, but boy is this thing preachy at the start. The good news is that if you can bear down on the film for the first hour or so, it opens up into something that becomes interesting.

Larry Darrell (Tyrone Power, and a part of me hopes that this character’s middle name is also Darrell) has returned from World War I in a deep psychological funk. On the last day of the war, one of his friends died, and specifically died saving Larry’s life. Larry’s existential crisis has led him to a place where he is motivated only to determine what his life means. He’s turned down so potential jobs to “find himself,” which means heading to Paris and delaying his proposed marriage to Isabel Bradley (Gene Tierney). This is all to the good in the opinion of Elliott Templeton (Clifton Webb), Isabel’s uncle. Elliott is not a fan of Larry because Larry has turned down multiple chances to join society and has opted instead to be a much more common man.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Show, Don't Tell!

Film: Enchanted April
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

I’ve done this blog for almost six years. I think in that time I’ve earned a bit of credibility in terms of going into movies with enough of an open mind that I like movies that aren’t made for me. I genuinely hope everything I put in the spinner will be a movie that I like. I don’t want to waste my time watching movies that I dislike. So I did go into Enchanted April hoping that it would be closer to my enjoyment of films like Sense and Sensibility and not something that ended up with me shaking my head.

As the last paragraph hints, I ended up shaking my head. It’s a shame, too, because there’s real potential in Enchanted April and a wonderful cast. The story touches on aspects of magical realism, and I love magical realism when it’s done well. There’s something really special about a story that puts the real world in that sort of context. So when it’s done in a way that comes out as half-assed, I get frustrated with it.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage

Film: La Cage aux Folles
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on laptop.

A new quarter at the school where I work begins tomorrow, which means I’ll have a harder time with foreign films again in upcoming weeks. That being the case, it made sense to knock on the one sitting on the table in front of me today: La Cage aux Folles. I hadn’t seen this before except that I kind of already had. I’ve seen the American remake from the ‘90s starring Robin Williams, Gene Hackman, and especially Nathan Lane. That 1996 film is not merely a remake in spirit of this French original. They are very much the same movie.

Renato Baldi (Ugo Tognazzi) owns a transvestite cabaret club called La Cage aux Folles in Saint-Tropez with his partner and star of the show, Albin (Michel Serrault). Albin is not merely a diva on stage; he’s constantly worried that Renato is cheating on him and that everyone laughs at him behind his back. This night is a special one, though—Laurent (Remi Laurent) is returning home. Laurent is Renato’s son, conceived in a one-time heterosexual fling with Simone (Claire Maurier), but has been raised by Renato and Albin as the equivalent of father and mother respectively.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Austen City Limits

Film: Pride & Prejudice
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

I genuinely like to give every movie I watch a chance. The best way to be surprised by something is not to go in with preconceived notions of the film in question even if that’s hard sometimes. In the case of Sense and Sensibility, I went in with suspicions and came out a believer. So when Pride & Prejudice, another Jane Austen romantic soap opera showed up in the mail, I was guardedly optimistic. It’s evident that I’m not the target demographic for a costume romance set in the decade or so before 1800, but I’ve been surprised plenty of times before. I had reservations, but I had hopes, too.

And you know what? The hopes paid off. Pride & Prejudice is a pretty good film. Oh, I didn’t rush out and find a copy of any of Jane Austen’s novels to start reading (although I did literally find a copy of the book in a restaurant a couple of hours after finishing the movie—true story), but I think I liked this as well as could be expected for someone who favors horror and science fiction over other genres. I still like Sense and Sensibility more. Part of that is the story itself and part of that is Ang Lee’s superior direction. But I was pleasantly surprised by this all the way through.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

A Stolen Life

Film: Philomena
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

The movie(s) I watch on a given day are watched from a combination of availability, mood, and the need to remove movies from my various lists. I have a stack of movies checked out from the library sitting in front of me including the last two I need to complete the latest 1001 Movies list. But tonight I was in the mood for something lighter, something that didn’t require me to think that hard. I wanted something I could just sit back and enjoy. At the 1:37 mark, the trailer for Philomena calls it “…a comedy about two unlikely companions.” The trailer is also filled with scenes of Judi Dench being whimsically outspoken and brash. Sounded like the perfect thing for what I was in the mood for.

Philomena is not a comedy. There are a couple of funny moments in it, but all of the funny moments are in the trailer. All of them. In fact, aside from genocide and terminal illnesses, there aren’t a great many topics that are less funny than what Philomena explores. I’ll cut to the chase here early—this is a very good, perhaps even great movie—but it might be the most misleading trailer I’ve encountered this decade.