Thursday, November 29, 2018

Off Script: Ghost Ship

Films: Ghost Ship
Format: DVD from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on laptop.

There are certain expectations with a horror movie. I know that there are going to be characters who do exactly the wrong thing at exactly the wrong time, and that this is going to get them killed. Sometimes, a good filmmaker or a very good script can make that work. Most of the time, though, we in the audience look at the characters acting like idiots and realize that they’re acting that way because the story needs them to, or because it’s going to allow for them to be killed in spectacular fashion. No movie exemplifies this better than 2002’s Ghost Ship.

We start in 1962 aboard the ocean liner Antonia Graza where a party is going on. While members of the crew and passengers dance, we see sinister actions as a cable snaps across the dance floor, bisecting everyone but a single young girl. Yes, this is shown in graphic detail as blood starts to drip and people fall down in pieces. It’s seriously one of the best openings of a horror movie I’ve seen.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Off Script: The Crow

Film: The Crow
Format: DVD from Cortland Public Library on The New Portable.

There are weird moments when art imitates life and other weird moments where there are simply strange parallels. The Crow is one of those. The thing that most people remember about this movie is that it was the movie that caused the death of Brandon Lee, son of Bruce Lee. The parallel is that the character Lee plays is a revenant, essentially a corporeal spirit that has returned from the dead to wreak vengeance on those who deserve it. It would have easily been a star-making vehicle for Lee. It was one of the first important comic book movies, and more or less the first non-Marvel/DC title based on a comic book that got any sort of critical acclaim (although The Rocketeer could be argued for that).

Our story is dead simple, which is part of the reason it works as well as it does. Rocker Eric Draven (Lee) and his fiancée Shelly Webster (Sofia Shinas) are attacked the night before their wedding, which also happens to be the night before Halloween. Shelly is an activist who has been organizing, and is targeted by a criminal gang. During the attack, Eric shows up and is both shot and pushed out a sixth floor window. According to legend, crows carry the souls of the departed to the land of the dead, but when a terrible wrong has happened, the crow can bring the soul back. So, guess what happens. A year to the day after his death, Eric Draven reanimates his body, which apparently hasn’t gone through any decomposition. And now that he’s back, he’s going to track down everyone who killed him and killed Shelly.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Feet of Clay

Film: Camille Claudel
Format: DVD from Arlington Heights Memorial Library through OCLC WorldCat on The New Portable.

Every now and then I mention how much I enjoy it when someone goes against type. Seeing Tom Cruise play a villain, for instance, or having Alan Rickman play a romantic hero in Pride and Prejudice is always fun. And yet there are reasons that some people are typecast and play similar roles over and over. Isabelle Adjani is a case in point. While she is certainly a capable actress, she’s at her best playing crazy. Films like Possession and The Story of Adele H are a case in point, but Camille Claudel might well be the centerpiece of that fact.

Camille Claudel was a sculptor who began her career as a sort of protégé of Auguste Rodin. This was in a time when women simply weren’t artists. In saying that, it’s important to remember that Camille Claudel didn’t live centuries ago. She died in 1943, which means both of my parents were alive when she was. Rodin was (according to my very limited art knowledge) the last of the great realistic sculptors. Because of that, I always assume he was pre-Impressionist, but he absolutely was not.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

London to Brighton

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

There are multiple genres that seem to be on Oscar’s shitlist. Horror, fantasy, and science fiction tend to be ignored—although that’s happening less over the last couple of years. Comedy is also a bit of a redheaded stepchild when it comes to Oscar nominations. There seems to be a feeling that comedy is somehow easy or unimportant when it’s been demonstrated over and over that comedy can be much more challenging and difficult than drama. So it’s always refreshing to see a film like Genevieve swing a nomination.

This is a pretty simple movie, and there’s not a great deal of plot here. In fact, the plot doesn’t really start until the film is about halfway done. Genevieve is the story of two couples. Alan (John Gregson) and Wendy McKim (Dinah Sheridan) have been married for about three years. Alan’s passion is his old car. When I say he has an old car, I mean it; Alan drives a 1904 Darracq. This is a car old enough that everyone in it sits in the open air. Alan has to crank it to start it. Look at the picture. That’s Alan and Wendy, and the car they are in is the eponymous Genevieve.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Done and Done

Film: The Handmaiden (Agassi)
Format: DVD from Mokena Community Public Library through interlibrary loan on The New Portable.

Styles in any sort of art will mutate and change over time. A case in point is the idea of film noir. Not many people are making films in black-and-white these days, which certainly means that one of the clear defining characteristics of the style isn’t present. However, there are still noir films being made. It’s also very much an American style, but like just about any other film style, it has been copied by other national cinemas. A clear case in point is The Handmaiden (also called Agassi), a film from Park Chan-wook from a couple of years ago. Partly in Korean and partly in Japanese, this is a film that manages to do quite a bit with its running time.

The Handmaiden is a film in three parts, and while each of the three parts tell essentially the same story with additional information, the three parts are also significantly different. Part One gives us the basics of the story; Part Two gives us the disturbing and frankly awful details. It’s Part Three that drops the hammer, though, tying everything up in completely unexpected ways.

Thursday, November 15, 2018


Film: Funny Face
Format: DVD from NetFlix on The New Portable.

Funny Face is a movie that is going to give me agita. I like Fred Astaire; how can you not? I love Audrey Hepburn; how can you not? But who in his or her right mind would want the two of them to be romantic leads in the same movie? When Funny Face was made, Astaire was approaching 60. Audrey Hepburn was a few years short of 30. At one point in the movie, another character complains about the possible relationship—because he’s supposed to be above that sort of emotion and not because he could almost be her grandfather.

Anyway, Funny Face is one of those musicals that is really, really in the style of a classic Hollywood musical. Everyone in the film is an extreme character, and none is more extreme than Maggie Prescott (Kay Thompson). Maggie is the editor of a Vogue-style fashion magazine called Quality. Based on her behavior, she’s a good match for Anna Wintour, assuming we can believe the anecdotes in Tim Gunn’s book (and I think we can). She’s the sort of person who would walk into your house uninvited, eat your food, and complain that it wasn’t good and wasn’t what she wanted in the first place. This is not a joke; something similar to this happens in the early stages of the film.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Wednesday Horror: Strait-Jacket

Film: Strait-Jacket
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

I haven’t been shy in the past about the fact that I love William Castle and love the cheesy goodness of many of his films. Castle was the king of the gimmick, having moviegoers sign waivers that held Castle and the film legally innocent if someone died of a heart attack from fright in the theater, for instance. With Strait-Jacket, he got his ultimate gimmick: a cheap slasher movie featuring Joan Crawford as an axe murderess with a screenplay written by Robert Bloch, who also wrote Psycho. Having an Oscar winner as your psychopath pretty much voids the need for seat buzzers and ghost viewers.

Strait-Jacket comes directly from the world of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Suddenly, older actresses, like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, who both starred in that film, were bankable, but not really as romantic leads. This gave use the awesome little genre of hagsploitation, also known by the equally awesome name of psycho-biddy. Essentially, the genre consists of films about crazy older women, specifically women who were once glamorous and have descended into madness.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

It All Falls Down

Film: Save the Tiger
Format: DVD from Aurora University through OCLC WorldCat on The New Portable.

According to the legend, when on his deathbed, Edmund Gwenn was visited by his friend George Seaton, who commented that it must be difficult for him. Gwenn is reported to have replied, “Not nearly as difficult as playing comedy.” There some evidence that this is the source of the quote “Dying is easy; comedy is hard.” I bring this up because there’s a reason why dramatic actors often don’t do well in comedy but comedians are often really effective in dramatic roles. Case in point is Jack Lemmon’s Oscar-winning turn in Save the Tiger. Lemmon often had a touch of the dark in his comedy roles, but here he is in full dramatic swing, and the results are eye-opening.

It’s also a case where this is a movie that takes place in just over 24 hours. It almost takes place in a single day, but not quite. We start with Harry Stoner (Lemmon), the co-owner of a Los Angeles clothing company. He and his partner, Phil Greene (Jack Gilford, who was nominated in a supporting role) are on the cusp of their latest show and despite the fact that the designer Rico (Harvey Jason) and cutter/producer Meyer (William Hansen) are feuding, it looks to be a very successful line. It doesn’t really matter, though, because the company is going bankrupt. Harry’s biggest worry is an audit that will reveal some very creative accounting. In his mind, the only solution is a man named Charlie Robbins (Thayer David), a professional arsonist, who will burn down one of their factories, giving them an insurance payout. This is something that Harry is keeping from his wife (Patricia Smith), who is headed to New York.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

The Blue Note

Film: ’Round Midnight
Format: DVD from NetFlix on The New Portable.

I always wonder about those cases where someone is Oscar nominated in a debut. Dexter Gordon swung an Oscar nomination for a role where he more or less played himself. It was his first starring role and his first lead role as well as his first role in a feature-length film. This is because Dexter Gordon was not an actor; he was a jazz saxophonist. He happens to be incredibly influential as a jazz saxophonist, but that’s neither here nor there. There’s a part of me that views his work in ’Round Midnight much the same as I view Marlee Matlin’s role in Children of a Lesser God, although I like this movie a lot more.

In the 1950s, Dale Turner (Dexter Gordon) is a talented and influential jazz saxophonist (see what I mean about him playing himself?) who is troubled, to say the least. His main troubles are alcohol and drugs. Wanting to get something like a fresh start, he decides to go to Paris where he played years ago in the jazz heyday. The goal is to play at the Blue Note, more or less under the control of Buttercup (Sandra Reaves-Phillips), who will keep him on the straight-and-narrow until he has cleaned up. So off he goes, unable to get the drink he wants (he’s been cut off pre-emptively at the club), but playing again and playing well.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Wednesday Horror: Exorcist II: The Heretic

Film: Exorcist II: The Heretic
Format: DVD from Cortland Public Library on The New Portable.

There are a lot of things someone could say about sequels. There are great ones, of course, and terrible ones. There are sequels that were unnecessary and sequels that are inexplicable. Potentially the best sequel ever made is The Godfather Part II, a film that won Best Picture at the Oscars. But what about the worst sequel? There are hundreds of contenders for that title, of course, but Exorcist II: The Heretic holds a unique position. While probably not the worst sequel in history, it probably is the worst sequel in comparison to the original film. The Exorcist is arguably the greatest horror movie in history and objectively one of the five best ever made. Exorcist II: The Heretic is worse than terrible because it attempts to subvert the original film.

The movie initially doesn’t try to do anything untoward in that respect. We’re four years down the road from the original film. We start with Father Lamont (Richard Burton) and a failed exorcism that leads to the death of the young woman being exorcised. Now having a crisis of faith, Father Lamont is asked by his cardinal (Paul Henreid) to investigate the death of Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow), who died exorcising Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair). Evidently, there are some in the Church looking to posthumously excommunicate Merrin for his potentially blasphemous writings.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

All About Krystyna

Film: Anna
Format: DVD from Morris Library through OCLC WorldCat on rockin’ flatscreen.

I find movies like Anna incredibly frustrating. The reason is simple: the movie contains one of the great performances of its year without question and it’s done in service of a film that doesn’t deserve it. Sally Kirkland has never been better than she is in Anna. Sadly, the film itself is little more than a sub-standard remake of All About Eve in so many ways.

Anna (Sally Kirkland) is an expatriate Czech who had a successful film career in her homeland until she was imprisoned for anti-government rhetoric. When she was released from prison, she came to the United States (back when we still had a policy of caching Czechs), where she has struggled to find any sort of acting work. Anna lives in New York and, figuring her film career is gone forever, fights for anything she can get on stage. The film opens with her auditioning for a role and potentially getting a part despite being aggressively against what she is asked to do.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Cold Blooded

Film: Lady Macbeth
Format: DVD from Putnam County Public Library through interlibrary loan on The New Portable.

There are times when I have to shake my head at the summaries provided about films. Take, for instance, newcomer to the 1001 Movies, Lady Macbeth. According to IMDb, the plot is as follows: “In 19th-century rural England, a young bride who has been sold into marriage discovers an unstoppable desire within herself as she enters into an affair with a worker on her estate.” And here’s the thing—that’s technically true in terms of what this movie is about, and also about as far from the actual story as can be believed. Lady Macbeth is a hard core story of a woman placed in a terrible situation deciding to fight back with every weapon in her arsenal including a true viciousness, a ruthless quest for revenge, and the sort of callousness rarely seen outside of a prison camp.

Katherine (Florence Pugh) is forced into a loveless marriage with a man much older than she is in 19th century England. Her life changes immediately, and not for the better. Her father-in-law Boris (Christopher Fairbank) is of the mindset that Katherine’s job is to pop out heirs for his son at every possible opportunity. This is difficult for her because her husband Alexander (Paul Hilton) seems more interested in looking at her naked body than doing much in terms of producing a scion. In any event, she’s not supposed to leave the house, and her world becomes one of pure boredom.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Kids are Trouble

Film: Gloria
Format: DVD from Gail Borden Public Library through OCLC WorldCat on The New Portable.

Gloria was not the movie I expected it to be. Based strictly on the cover of the DVD, this looks like a movie featuring a bad-ass undercover cop protecting a kid. What it is instead is a movie featuring a bad-ass ex-showgirl/gun moll protecting a kid. That may not seem like a major difference, but it makes all the difference in the world.

Truthfully, Gloria isn’t really that tremendous of a film, but it features that singular standout performance from Gene Rowlands as the title character. She is far and away the best part of this movie, something that writer/director John Cassavetes (who was married to Rowlands at the time) had to know on some level. The story is that his intent was never to actually direct Gloria, but once he’d written the screenplay and his wife was starring in it, he was railroaded into directing. Ironically, Gloria netted him some of his most favorable reviews.