Saturday, September 30, 2017

Misery Parfait

Film: Biutiful
Format: DVD from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

When a movie like Biutiful shows up, I wonder why I pursue the films that I do for this blog. As evidenced by many of the horror movies I post, I don’t object to a crappy movie now and then, but Biutiful is something else entirely. I cannot say that it’s not a well-made movie. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu doesn’t make cheap or shoddy films. But it’s depressing to the point of making the audience suicidal, and that always gives me pause.

“Misery parfait” is the term I started using a number of years ago to describe movies where nothing good happens to anyone and instead, the entire length of the film is a spiral of one depressing thing to something even more depressing. It starts out with a lot of potential for terribleness from all sides and manages to fulfill all of the promise of every horrible thing that can happen by the time the end credits roll nearly 150 minutes later.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Because an Eggplant Would Be Weird

Film: My Life as a Zucchini (Ma Vie de Courgette)
Format: DVD from Coal City Public Library on laptop.

I’m happy to complain about Oscar’s nominating habits all the time, but there are moments when they do it right. A film like My Life a Zucchini (Ma Vie de Courgette in its original French) is a Swiss-French stop-motion collaboration that would be virtually unheard of and completely unknown without its nomination. The truth is that a film like this has very little chance of actually winning Best Animated Feature. Even with screeners being sent out to voters, it simply doesn’t have the cachet of a film from the bigger studios. And yet, this is precisely the sort of film that should be nominated to give it greater exposure.

My Life as a Zucchini features stop-motion animation with a particular look unlike anything I’ve seen. The characters are clearly human, but somehow off. Their arms are far too long, for instance. Everyone’s eyes are rimmed with a color that matches his or her hair and everyone’s nose is a shade of red. Because of this, in many ways My Life as a Zucchini is the least attractive of the five nominees, and that is a part of how I judge films in this category.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Wednesday Horror: The Hunger

Films: The Hunger
Format: Streaming video from TCM Watch on laptop.

I knew going in that The Hunger as a sexy vampire movie from the time before vampires became the go-to teen love interest. I knew it had to be stylish since it stars Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie. The one thing that doesn’t scan is that The Hunger was directed by Tony Scott. Tony Top Gun, freakin’ Days of Thunder Scott. Who would have guessed that he had a stylish and sexy horror movie lurking in those veins?

Anyway, The Hunger really is about sexy vampires. While even the classic vampire stories have a great deal of gothic romance to them, The Hunger goes out of its way to make them dead sexy (you see what I did there?). Our vampire couple is Miriam (Catherine Deneuve) and John (David Bowie), who teach classical music (her on piano, him on cello). At night, they cruise discos and nightclubs to find new prey, something we see in the opening scene.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Off Script: Scarecrows

Film: Scarecrows
Format: Streaming video from Hoopla Digital on The Nook.

There’s a vibe to both ‘70s horror and ‘80s horror, so I find it entertaining when a film from the late 1980s has a feel that is a lot more similar to one from the late 1970s. Scarecrows is that movie. I’ll give you one guess as to what form the monsters take in this movie.

While a lot of this does seem to come right out of the 1970s, the plot is right out of the greed-obsessed 1980s. A group of special forces types hijack the payroll from Camp Pendleton and then hijack a plane to escape with the money, probably to somewhere without extradition, although they seem to be planning on going to Mexico. We learn soon enough that there is no honor among thieves, since one of them, Bert (B.J. Turner) tosses a couple of smoke grenades into the plane along with a real one and jumps out with $3.5 million.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Oil's Well that Ends Well

Film: Syriana
Format: DVD from personal collection on various players.

I seriously do not understand AMPAS. The closing credits of Syriana say that it was based on a book, and yet it was nominated for Best Original Screenplay. Seriously, I simply don’t understand how something like that happens. It certainly cheapens the idea of the specific categories if a movie that is specifically based on a book can somehow be nominated for original screenplay simply because the production company wants it nominated for that award.

Anyway, Syriana is one of those movies like Babel that has a bunch of different stories all circling the same set of issues. The early and mid-2000s seem rife with films like this: Crash and Traffic spring to mind. It was as if everyone suddenly decided they wanted to make Soderbergh movies, or perhaps there was a sudden revival of interest in Robert Altman. Movies like this are certainly potentially entertaining, but they are also a pain in the ass for someone like me, who tends to focus on narrative structure. I don’t know that Syriana is easily summarized.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Prepping for Surgery

Film: The Hospital
Format: Internet video on laptop.

I haven’t been shy about my reasons for doing the Oscar round-up posts every week. These aren’t so much a celebration of Oscar as they are an accounting of just how often AMPAS gets it wrong. Still, there are times when I have to admire the balls they sometimes show. In 1970, George C. Scott won the Best Actor Oscar for Patton and he was my pick as well. Scott turned down the Oscar, though, becoming the first person to do so. So the Academy nominates him the following year for The Hospital anyway.

Scott was known for, among other things, being able to turn on the anger at the drop of a hat, something he shared with Lee J. Cobb, and the main reason I sometimes get the two mixed up. In The Hospital, he plays Dr. Herbert Bock, Chief of Medicine at a teaching hospital. The problem is that at the hospital, everything is coming off the hinges, much like his own life. Bock currently lives in a hotel since he has separated from his wife, he’s kicked his son out of the house, his daughter has had two abortions and has been busted for dealing drugs, and he’s currently impotent.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

If It's Thursday, This Must Be Italy

Film: The Four Days of Naples (Le Quattro Giornate di Napoli)
Format: Internet video on laptop.

Sometimes, I can’t always get a great version of a film to watch. That’s certainly the case with The Four Days of Naples (or Le Quattro Giornate di Napoli in the original Italian). The copy of the film that I found was a bit grainy, which I can deal with. A bigger problem was the inconsistent subtitles. There are chunks of the film that don’t have any subtitles, so the screen is filled with shouting Italians saying things that I can’t understand. I get that they are excited or angry or at least passionate, but I’m not always sure of the specifics of those emotions.

That said, The Four Days of Naples tells a truly interesting story. The film takes place in the latter part of World War II, and as the story opens, Italy has surrendered to the Allies, causing a brief celebration among the people of Naples. The city lies about mid-way up the Italian boot, a touch north and west of the ruins of Pompeii and southeast of Rome. So, while the Allies are marching up the Italian countryside, they haven’t reached Naples yet.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Wednesday Horror: Castle Freak

Film: Castle Freak
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

You’re not going to get a great deal of subtlety from a direct-to-video movie directed by Stuart Gordon. What you are going to get in this case, though, is plenty of Jeffrey Combs, and that’s never a bad thing. When the movie is named Castle Freak, you should have a pretty good idea of what is on offer. There’s going to be a castle, and there’s going to be a freak inside the castle. Honestly, I had a hard time not having “Super Freak” running through my head for most of the film’s running time.

Enter the Reilly family, John (Jeffrey Combs), Susan (Barbara Crampton), and daughter Rebecca (Jessica Dollarhide). John Reilly has inherited a castle in Italy. We learn soon enough that the Reilly family has suffered some significant tragedies at the hands of John. One night, while driving drunk, he got into an accident that killed his young son J.J. and blinded daughter Rebecca. Things are naturally tense in the family, with Susan blaming all of the problems, evidently quite deservedly, on John.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Off Script: Quatermass and the Pit; Quatermass 2

Films: Quatermass and the Pit (Five Million Years to Earth); Quatermass 2 (Enemy from Space)
Format: DVD from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

I tend to like movies from Hammer Studios in its heyday. Sure, they’re not all great, but there’s an earnestness to them that I appreciate. Quatermass and the Pit is later in their run, but it’s a fine example of what Hammer could do on a very small budget. This is actually the third Quatermass film, based on a character created for the BBC. Despite it being the third film, the character name didn’t have the same recognition in the States, so it was released here under the awesome title Five Million Years to Earth.

In London in the mid-1960s, construction is going on at a tube station in Hobb’s End when a set of skeletal remains are unearthed. Dr. Matthew Roney (James Donald), a paleontologist, is called in to examine them. He determines that the remains are of a pre-human ancestor and he estimates them at five million years old—far older than any other previous finds of definably human ancestry. Around the same time that Roney reaches this conclusion, evidence of something metallic is located. It is decided that this metallic object is likely an unexploded bomb from World War II, and a bomb disposal squad is called in.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Little, Chiron, Black

Film: Moonlight
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on laptop.

Every year in January, the Oscar nominations are announced, and that means I need to get to work on knocking out the films that have been nominated on the blog here. I typically put some stress on Best Picture nominations because there are more of them than there are for the other categories, and because knocking out Best Picture nominees means that I’m usually reducing the numbers in other categories as well. I often watch the Best Picture winner soon after the awards, because there’s generally that brief span of time where I’m missing having viewed a single Best Picture winner. This year, I did the opposite, waiting to watch Moonlight last of the nominees.

I knew very little going in other than that it won. I knew it was the first LGBTQ-themed film to win Best Picture, or at least the first that had overt homosexual themes (you could argue, for instance, Midnight Cowboy had some leanings in that direction). I knew it was based on an unproduced play called “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.” And I’d heard that Mahershala Ali was great, something kind of unsurprising given that he’s good in Hidden Figures and one of the two best things in the second season of Daredevil on NetFlix.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Homeward Bound?

Film: Ironweed
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

I’d love to tell you that Ironweed is a fun-filled romp of joy and happiness, but it is completely the opposite. This is one of those movies I have dubbed a “misery parfait” in the past, a film in which nothing good happens to anyone, and there is little but layers of sadness and misery piled one atop the other. That it stars both Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep only means that the misery we witness is going to be acted about as well as it can be. It’s not going to make it any easier to experience, but it is at least going to be done well.

It’s evident right from the start that we are in for this sort of experience. Francis Phelan (Nicholson) is a bum who has wandered around the country for a few decades. Now, in 1938 around Halloween, he has returned to Albany, NY, his old home town. Over the course of the first act, we learn a few things about Francis. We learn that he was married and had children, but abandoned his family because he dropped his infant son, killing him.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Free at Last

Film: Selma
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on laptop.

I tend to save my Oscar rants for Mondays and Fridays, but in the case of Selma, it’s hard not to start off there. Selma, perhaps the most ambitious movie about the Civil Rights movement since Malcolm X, was nominated for exactly two Oscars: Best Picture and Best Original Song (which it won). For all of its efforts to be visibly color blind and progressive in many things, the Academy is still very traditional at heart in many ways. Ava DuVernay, a black woman director, was overlooked, as was the powerhouse of a performance by David Oyelowo. There’s still a long way to go, evidently.

Selma is not the biography of Martin Luther King Jr. (Oyelowo), nor is it the story of the Civil Rights movement as a whole. It is instead the story of the march in Selma, in many ways the spiritual beginning of the movement. The film attempts to take a comprehensive look at everything that happened immediately before and during those days in Selma, both in Selma itself and in the rest of the country, particularly in Lyndon Johnson’s (Tom Wilkinson) White House.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Wednesday Horror: The Stepfather

Film: The Stepfather (1987)
Format: Internet video on laptop.

An inventive screenwriter can find horror anywhere. Some of the most interesting horror movies around started with odd little premises or simple “what-ifs.” In the case of The Stepfather from 1987, that what-if question concerns just how far someone might go to try to create the perfect family. It’s an incredibly simple idea, and The Stepfather takes that question in a particularly disturbing direction.

The film opens with an unnamed man (Terry O’Quinn) washing blood off his hands. He then cuts his hair and shaves off his beard, altering his appearance dramatically. When he is done transforming, he goes downstairs and we see that he has evidently brutally murdered his entire family. He walks out of the house with a suitcase, gets on a boat, and when the boat is in the middle of the water, he drops the suitcase over the side.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

It's in the Way that You Use It

Film: The Color of Money
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on laptop.

When you discuss Oscars, eventually the conversation will get around to people who won a career Oscar in the guise of a competitive one. None may be more clearly a case of this than Paul Newman’s win for The Color of Money. Newman had so definitively deserved an Oscar before 1986, but lost for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Hustler, Hud, Cool Hand Luke, Absence of Malice and The Verdict and wasn’t nominated for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or The Sting, and so, finally, the Academy gave him one for a 25-years-after-the-fact sequel to The Hustler. Don’t get me wrong; Newman deserved an Oscar in his career, and while The Color of Money is a lesser film in many respects, he’s still worth watching in it. It just seems a shame that he won for something that pales in comparison to so much of his other work. Sad, but true.

Anyway, The Color of Money is a sequel to The Hustler 25 years later. Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) has given up the pool hustling game and now works as a whiskey salesman, something for which he is well suited. He also functions as a stakehorse for Julian (John Turturro), covering his bets and taking the lion’s share of the winnings. One day at one of his stops while flirting with his girlfriend bartender Janelle (Helen Shaver), he watches Julian lose over and over to a new player named Vincent (Tom Cruise). After spending a little time observing both Vincent and his girlfriend Carmen (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), he offers them a proposition. Go out on the road with him for a few weeks, learn how to really hustle pool, and then show up in Atlantic City for a 9-ball tournament and clean up both in terms of winning and in betting.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Marriage Gone Bad

Film: Two for the Road
Format: Turner Classic Movies on big ol’ television.

I think it might be impossible to dislike Audrey Hepburn. When I’ve got an Audrey Hepburn movie on the docket, I’m always at least going to be mildly interested in it. In Two for the Road, she’s paired up with Albert Finney, which makes for an interesting pairing. Two for the Road pairs these two as a married couple who appear to be on the verge of a divorce. What we’re going to get, then, is both a look at the state of their marriage as it stands as well as the story of how they met, courted, and why their marriage began to splinter.

The other thing that we’re going to get is a few solid and well-established tropes. It probably won’t be a surprise to you that Two for the Road features a couple that, while they start poor, has become fabulously wealthy. Much of the attraction of putting Audrey Hepburn in a film, after all, was having her serve as a fashion plate, and that she does with her typical style and aplomb. So, the marital problems we’re going to be witnessing are happening within the context of people who have enough money to ship their car to Europe. The second significant trope here is the profession of Albert Finney’s character Mark. If you had to start making guesses, it wouldn’t be too long before you guessed his profession as architect, the default occupation in the movies for a guy who is creative and has an artistic soul but is also sensible and capable of generating the sort of wealth that puts Audrey Hepburn in designer clothing.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

I've Heard They Make Good Neighbors

Film: Fences
Format: DVD from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

There are a few things that, when I see them in a movie, I take as something like a warning sign. One of those is an actor turned director. Sure, sometimes you discover that the actor really direct, but that’s not always the case. In the case of Fences, Denzel Washington obviously did a good enough job to get himself an Oscar nomination and Viola Davis an Oscar win. The second warning sign, and one that I take very seriously, is when a film is based on a stage play. Fences is based on the play of the same name by August Wilson. It’s a Pulitzer Prize and Tony winning play, which clearly works in its favor, but there’s always a danger that filming a play will end up just being a filmed version of a staged play.

With Fences, it turns out that Washington is capable of getting really good performances out of himself and his cast. Unfortunately, the fact that this is only his third feature as a director demonstrates the limitations of his directorial experience, because Fences, with the exception of a few shots here and there, really is a filmed version of the play. There are a few scenes added here that almost certainly aren’t a part of the actual play script—montage-like moments as we see the characters living in the world without any dialogue. When we’re back to the script, though, we’re very much looking at something that wouldn’t be out of place for a moment on a stage.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Sensory Deprivation

Film: The Miracle Worker
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

I was under the impression that The Miracle Worker was sort of a biography of Helen Keller, or at least something like a memoir. It’s not. It’s actually a memoir of her teacher, Anne Sullivan. I won’t go into a big screed here about who Helen Keller was. You already know, I’m certain. She was stricken with scarlet fever as an infant and lost both her sight and hearing and eventually learned to communicate thanks to the tireless effort of the aforementioned Anne Sullivan.

The Miracle Worker is based on a stage play. Originally, the plan was for a much bigger name to take the Anne Sullivan role. Director Arthur Penn stuck to wanting Anne Bancroft, who had played the role on stage with Patty Duke playing Helen Keller. Because he insisted on this, the studio cut his budget from $2 million to a half million, and Penn still managed to direct his two lead actresses to Oscar-winning performances.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Wednesday Horror: Fire in the Sky

Film: Fire in the Sky
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on The Nook.

I like science fiction as much or more than the next guy, but I put the emphasis heavily on the word “fiction.” I also happen to be a science geek, and a great deal of my pleasure reading (when I have time for it) is in different science fields. In my movies, though, I’m a lot less stringent. If things happen that don’t comport with the known physical laws of the universe, I’m not that put out. Fire in the Sky requires a different sort of willing suspension of disbelief, though. Taken at face value, this is the true account of Travis Walton (played in the film by D.B. Sweeney) and his alien abduction.

So let’s go there for a minute. Our universe is an awfully big place and I think it’s unbelievably likely that life has evolved on other planets. On some of those planets, I’m betting there’s sentient life. However, the distances involved in moving from solar system to solar system are so great that I think it’s unlikely that we’ll ever encounter intelligent aliens, and I doubt very seriously that those aliens have been here abducting people, making crop circles, or performing medical experiments on our livestock.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Queen of the Jungle

Films: Gorillas in the Mist
Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.

Gorillas in the Mist has been sitting on my shelf for literally years. I knew I was going to have to watch it eventually, but I didn’t really want to because I know how the story ends, and I knew the end was going to piss me off on some level. That’s kind of the problem when you’re dealing with a story based on real events. If you know the real events and they don’t end in the way you’d like them to, you know you’re setting yourself up for a frustrating finish.

Dian Fossey (Sigourney Weaver) was a physical therapist who, inspired by the work of Louis Leakey (Iain Cuthbertson) decides to chuck it all and work in the Congo helping to create a census of mountain gorillas. This is a problem for several reasons. First, she has no experience, and Leakey tries to fend her off because she has no real science training. She eventually wears him down, though, and is soon on her way to the Congo. The second problem is that there is a Congolese civil war, which makes the place incredibly dangerous, and a white woman in the middle of the jungle is going to raise some eyebrows. Third, the mountain gorillas are rapidly going extinct because of poaching. Fourth, and in many ways most critically, the poachers aren’t about to let some wannabee scientist end their income stream.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

A Life Unlived

Films: Rachel, Rachel
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

I’ve commented in the past on the concept of coming-of-age movies and my singular problem with them. The tendency is that coming-of-age movies for boys involve coping with death and coming-of-age movies for girls involve coping with sex, often with someone wholly inappropriate. I get tired of these stories. So what to make of a coming-of-age story for a woman who is 35? That’s exactly the story we’re getting with Rachel, Rachel.

Rachel Cameron (Joanne Woodward) is a 35-year-old elementary school teacher still living in the house she grew up in with her mother (Kate Harrington), her father having died years before while she was in college. Rachel’s life is dominated by her mother, and in many ways, she is still terribly sheltered. Because of the presence of her mother, Rachel has never had a serious relationship and is completely naïve in terms of sex. Most things seem to be terrifying for her, although, Walter Mitty-like, she has a rich fantasy life.