Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Lawnmower Man, The Beaver Kid, and The Clumsy Waiter

It's time for another of the seasonal movie quizzes at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, this time courtesy of one Professor Peabody ("Quiet, you." - did the Professor actually say that, or was it a Simpsons-only line?). I'm shockingly late to turn in my answers this semester, but luckily, there is no due date, so I encourage you to head over to SLIFR and try it yourself if you haven't already.

1) Favorite Biopic

My favorite movie about a real person is Lawrence of Arabia. Biopics tend to be way too formulaic for me, so I generally prefer ones like I'm Not There and Mishima that purposefully break the mold.

2) Dyan Cannon or Tuesday Weld?

Tuesday Weld. Pretty Poison was actually filmed in the town and county where I live.

3) Best example of science fiction futurism rendered silly by the event of time catching up to the prediction

Any of the early-'90s virtual reality-themed thrillers that tried to paint cyberspace as a dangerous alternate reality capable of turning mentally challenged lawnmower men into all-powerful daemons or unleashing a wisecracking Russell Crowe into the world.

4) Annette Funicello & Frankie Avalon or Troy Donahue & Sandra Dee?

Annette and Frankie - my, was Back to the Beach in heavy rotation on HBO when I was a wee lad.

5) Favorite Raoul Walsh movie?

White Heat

6) Sophomore film which represents greatest improvement over the director’s debut

The Terminator has less flying piranhas than Piranha II, but is otherwise superior.

7) Ice Cube or Mos Def?

Mos Def

8) Favorite movie about the music industry

My first thought was Nashville as a default answer, but a quick glance shows that few have mentioned it so far, so perhaps it isn't considered a movie about the industry (it is, but it's about everything). So honorable mentions to Almost Famous and Phantom of the Paradise, respectively the sweetest and most acidic takes on the music industry.

9) Favorite Looney Tunes short

The ending of "What's Opera Doc?" shocked me when I was a kid.

10) Director most deserving of respect or upwardly mobile critical reassessment

I think Sam Mendes is one of the best new directors of the last 10 years, but he's also completely unhip, which hurts his cinephile street cred.

11) Ruth Gordon or Margaret Hamilton?

Oh, Maude!

12) Best filmed adaptation of a play


13) Buddy Ebsen or Edgar Buchanan?

I laughed the first time I read the story of how Ebsen was the original Tin Man but had to be hospitalized because of aluminum dust inhalation. Am I a bad person?

14) Favorite Jean Renoir movie?

I've only seen a few Renoir films so far, and while they were all inarguably brilliant, I have yet to truly fall in love with one. But The Rules of the Game is hilarious and, as I said, inarguably brilliant.

15) Favorite one-word movie title, and why

Alien. It sums up everything that fuels the movie's scares in the most elemental way possible.

16) Ernest Thesiger or Basil Rathbone?

I must admit that I didn't recognize the name "Ernest Thesiger." But after looking him up and realizing he played Dr. Pretorious in Bride of Frankenstein, that alone puts him ahead.

17) Summer movies—your highest and lowest expectations

Highest: That Inglorious Bastards will be as insanely entertaining as a decade of Tarantino's hyperbole promises.

Lowest: That Transformers 2, which will surely be the highest-grossing movie of the summer, will do anything other than further confirmation of my most pompous, elitist assumptions about the horrible taste of most moviegoers.

18) Whether or not you’re a parent, what would be your ideal pick as first movie to see with your own child (or niece/nephew)? Why?

I'm hoping that my daughter will be ready to go to the movies by the time Where the Wild Things Are is released. I think about this subject quite often. When my wife was pregnant with Luna, I read an article in the New York Times (I think) about how kids are becoming increasingly "platform agnostic" - a movie, a tv commercial and a video game on a cell phone all have the same value. So besides wanting to pass on my geekiness, I actually think it's important for parents to encourage an appreciation for movies, books and all stories that inspire curiosity and wonder.

19) L.Q. Jones or Strother Martin

Probably the closest call on this quiz. I'll go with Strother Martin - I was delighted by his performance in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid when I revisited it a few weeks ago.

20) Movie most recently seen in theaters? On DVD/Blu-ray?

In theaters, Adventureland, which completely surprised me with its warmth and subtlety. On DVD, Brazil, which gets funnier and scarier every year.

21) Do you see more movies theatrically or at home? Why?

At home - we don't have much of a social life, but we have a pretty sweet home theater setup.

22) Name an award-worthy comic performance that was completely ignored by Oscar and his pals.

Though it's looking more and more like a one-off, Adam Sandler's performance in Punch-Drunk Love was the best of its year.

23) Zac Efron & Vanessa Hudgens or Robert Pattinson & Kristen Stewart

To be fair, I haven't seen High School Musical 3 or Twilight, so who knows, they could be really good. Kristen Stewart showed surprising depth in Adventureland, so I'll go with her and Babyface Nelson.

24) Name a great (or merely very good) movie that is too painful to watch a second time (Thanks to The Onion A.V. Club)

I've never been able to rewatch Boys Don't Cry. The film's second half is brutal not just for the violence and simulated rape, but because Kimberley Peirce and Hilary Swank do a frighteningly strong job of putting you in Brandon Teena's shoes - I left the movie feeling violated and emotionally drained. I tried watching it once on cable, but when Brandon and Lana kiss for the first time I decided to change the channel and leave the movie on high note.

25) Beyonce Knowles or Jennifer Hudson?

I truly don't have an opinion. Hudson, because who doesn't like to root for an underdog?

26) Favorite Robert Mitchum movie?

My favorite movie featuring Robert Mitchum is Dead Man. His best performance, of course, is Night of the Hunter.

27) Favorite movie featuring a ‘60s musical group that is not either the Beatles or the Monkees

Blow-Up (featuring the Yardbirds)

28) Maria Ouspenskaya or Una O’Connor?

Maria Ouspenskaya

29) Favorite Vincent Price movie?

His performance in Edward Scissorhands was one of the first to make me teary-eyed. As far as leading roles go, Theatre of Blood is one of the best black comedies.

30) Name a movie currently flying under the radar that is deserving of rabid cult status.

Due to rights issues, The Beaver Trilogy is one of the few cult films left that can basically only be seen on seventh-generation bootlegs. And it's well worth the effort - check out this and other YouTube clips and you'll see what I mean. Sidenote: I've just found out, through the comments on that page, that Groovin Gary died in February. That totally sucks - RIP, Olivia Newton Dawn.
31) Irene Ryan or Lucille Benson (or Bea Benaderet)?

Lucille Benson

32) Single line from a movie that never fails to make your laugh or otherwise cheer you up. (This may be obvious, but the line does not have to come from a comedy.)

"Well, Wildcat was written in a kind of obsolete vernacular...Wildcat...wild...cat...pow...wildcat...I'm going to go."

33) Elliot Gould or Donald Sutherland?

Elliot Gould's performance in The Long Goodbye is one for the ages, but Donald Sutherland is maybe the most underrated '70s-era actor. MASH, Don't Look Now, 1900, Animal House, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Ordinary People, Kentucky Fried Movie...

34) Best performance by a director in an acting role

David Cronenberg is frighteningly convincing as a killer in To Die For and Nightbreed. It's also fun to see him get killed by Jason Voorhees in Jason X.

35) Favorite Barbara Stanwyck movie?

Double Indemnity

36) Outside of reading film criticism or other literature about the movies, what subject do you enjoy reading about or studying which you would say best enriches or illuminates your understanding and appreciation of life, a life that includes the movies?

Good question. I read a lot of philosophy, particularly the existentialists. It's all in the mind, you know.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Spring Cleaning

The combination of the late winter/early spring awards movie glut and my newfound tendency to take more time to write a review has led to a backlog of movies I'd intended to write about but are surely nearing the point where I can hardly remember what I meant to say and you could hardly care. So, in honor of the annual editions of Video Movie Guide I relied on in the pre-internet days, here are some brief thoughts on the a handful of recent movies before I move on to longer responses to two I saw last week - one great, the other an out-of-left-field masterpiece - and my answers to the latest quiz at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule.

The true test of a great actor is whether one can deliver a strong performance not just in a well-written tailor-made for him/her but in a weak movie that requires the actor to create something out of very little. In The Reader, Kate Winslet is the only compelling element of a movie that never knows what it is about. The frank eroticism of the first half clashes with the vaguely defined ethical quandaries of the second - the explicit sex scenes feel distateful in light of the Holocaust-related material, which end up feeling trivialized as they're framed within the story of one guy's traumatic, lifelong cock-block. If they weren't bound by the expectations of an Oscar-bait prestige picture, director Stephen Daltry and screenwriter David Hare would have been better off pushing the movie into The Night Porter territory, which at least would have been more interesting. That said, whenever Winslet is onscreen, The Reader briefly comes to life - she finds a complex inner life in Hanna Schmitz that the movie can't support. And yeah, as good as it was to see her finally win the Oscar, she should have won for Revolutionary Road.

Surprise of the year: I sort of liked Knowing. All signs pointed to Nicolas Cage's newest codebreaking thriller being a steaming turd, and I mostly went to figure out what Roger Ebert was thinking when he named it one of the best sci-fi movies he's ever seen. And while it's far from that, I was relieved to find out that the list of numbers predicting global disasters was merely a plot device and I wouldn't be in for two hours of Cage glumly working out code. The film actually shows an interest in the question of whether the universe is random or deterministic (in a popcorn-movie kind of way, but still), and Alex Proyas lends the film a haunting end-of-days atmosphere. It's goofy but likeable, with one of the best plane-crash sequences in memory, and I admired it for following its Biblical allusions through to their logical end (you may enjoy this more if, as a child, you were told that the literal apocalypse was not only real but just around the corner). More writing remains to be done about the ongoing performance art piece that is Nicolas Cage's filmography.

Let the Right One In definitely lives up to the hype and would have easily been on my Top 10 of 2009 list had I seen it in time. I didn't quite think it was a masterpiece, though I may like it a bit more when I see it with the corrected subtitles, which I'm told lend the movie the humor I felt it needed. Either way, it's head and shoulders above all the so-called "horror movies" that a horror fan has suffered through in recent years in search of the real thing. It's beautifully photographed, sincerely creepy (with a too-rare understanding of the importance of atmosphere) and ultimately moving for anyone who has felt like an outsider. I'll definitely revisit this one in greater depth, perhaps around Halloween.

Two Lovers reminds what a shame it is that Joaquin Phoenix was eaten by a pretentious, drug-addled Kodiak bear. His performance as Leonard, an emotionally fragile guy living at home with his parents and torn between two women, is remarkably complex and layered - I was particularly impressed with the way Leonard acts differently depending on who he's interacting with, the way everyone does in real life. I'm more mixed on the film itself - it's handsomely shot, and the performances are believable all-around, but the script ultimately felt a bit thin to me. Still, James Gray clearly knows how to tell a story with images, and I look forward to checking out his earlier films.

Something you probably already know: Sally Hawkins is terrific as Poppy, the incurable optimist whose life we observe for a little while in Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky. The spiritual opposite of David Thewlis in Leigh's Naked (another great performance), Poppy is filled with gratitude for her life and a desire to brighten the day of everyone she meets. The character could have easily been insipid and annoying, but in Hawkins' eyes we can see that Poppy is hardly naive; the movie is ultimately a winning argument for the virtues of relentless optimism. The scenes between Poppy and Scott (Eddie Marsan), her bitter, misanthropic driving instructor, are easily the highlight of the movie. En-ra-ha, Poppy, en-ra-ha...

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Mola Ram, prepare to meet Kali - in Hell!

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom opens with one of the best non sequitors in cinema. After the Paramount logo dissolves to the image of a mountain emblazoned on a gong, the camera pushes in on a large dragon statue spewing smoke from its mouth. But the dragon isn't a priceless artifact or the entrance to a lost city - it's a kitschy stage prop, and we're thrown directly into a lavish, Busby Berkly-style production number ("Anything Goes" in Mandarin). While tentpole sequels usually have an inflated sense of self-importance, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom sets its self apart with its complete irreverance of its audiences' heightened expectations - even the film's title, blocked from our view by the introduction of nightclub singer Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw), is mocked for its arbitrariness. And though the willingness of creators Steven Spielberg and George Lucas to try anything resulted in many of the elements Temple of Doom is routinely criticized for - the gore, the frenetic pace, the perceived racism and sexism - it's the film's borderline-sociopathic nature that made it a favorite of mine as a kid. No director can adapt a child's perspective like Spielberg, and if I say that Temple of Doom feels like it was adapted from the bloody classroom scribbles of a gifted, manic 8-year-old with antisocial tendencies, I mean it in the best possible way.

Starting in 1930s Shanghai, Temple of Doom starts with Indiana Jones escaping crime boss Lao Che (Roy Chiao), ultimately landing (literally) in India. Jones, Scott and Jones' ten-year-old Chinese sidekick Short Round (Ke Huy Quan) are asked by the shaman of a small village to travel to nearby Pankot palace, which the villagers believe is location of a secret Thuggee cult that has stolen Shiva lingam (an ancient stone said to posess supernatural powers) and kidnapped the village's children. Thinking the stone may be his ticket to "fortune and glory," Indy agrees, and that's all the setup needed for a movie that moves breathlessly from bugs and booby traps to heart-ripping and zombification without ever apologizing for being the cinematic equivalent of a two-hour amusement park ride. More than its predecessor, Temple of Doom embraces the absurdity of its serialized ancestor. We're barely introduced to Wu Han (David Yip), one of Indy's many sidekicks, before he's shot and dies in Indy's arms alluding to past adventures we'll never see. He's just as quickly replaced by Short Round, the rare wisecracking movie kid who isn't completely insufferable - I love that we get the least possible justification for why Indy is travelling with a Chinese boy,I love the abrupt reveal (scored to Short Round's theme music) that reveals a ten-year-old drives Indy's getaway car, and I love that Short Round has his own theme music. Short Round's introduction is one of countless joyous movie moments in the first reel - Spielberg piles one sight gag on top of another in a way that recalls 1941 but without the bloat. Perhaps realizing that he was making a movie about nothing, Spielberg makes Temple of Doom a movie about the joy of moviemaking.

The film famously gets darker when Indy discovers the titular temple, where Thuggee high priest Mola Ram (Amrish Puri) presides over human sacrifices to Kali and forces the kidnapped children to dig for the missing Sankara stones. While Temple of Doom's tendency towards gross-out disturbed many parents and led (along with the same summer's Spielberg-produced Gremlins) to the creation of the PG-13 rating, the movie is actually gory in a way that certain kids are likely to embrace. Movies like Temple of Doom, Gremlins and Poltergeist were, in retrospect, healthy experiences for a literate young kid becoming aware of his own mortality and the resulting anxiety - the famous heart-ripping scene was more amazing than scary, an awesomely graphic externalization of the scary awareness that my body was filled with blood and guts. The whole movie can be seen as taking the perspective of a young boy both curious and afraid of the world beyond his doorstep, which goes a long way towards explaining many of the things it's been criticized for - the perceived xenophobia of the "chilled monkey brains" scene, the increased brutality of the action and particularly the movie's fear and derision of femininity in the form of shrieking, hysterical Willie Scott stem from the puerility that Spielberg understands as clearly as the earnest wonder that is its flipside. And when such willfull immaturity leads to a setpiece as perfectly born out of a child's sense of play as the awesome climactic mine cart chase, Temple of Doom makes a pretty strong case for willful immaturity as a virtue.

The film's casual imperialism is harder to defend, and I must admit that I cringe during the denouement when British troops arrive (accompanied by a triumphant John Williams fanfare) to blow away the Thugees and save the day. It's hard to imagine Spielberg, whose films have grown more morally complex over the years, ending one of his films with such an offhandedly irresponsible white hat/black hat moment today. Indeed, Spielberg has basically disowned Temple of Doom, and as his next feature, The Color Purple, continues a process of maturation begun in E.T., it's hard not to see Temple of Doom as something of an anomaly. And though I think it's a generally positive and perhaps necessary thing that Spielberg grew up, I sometimes miss the wunderkind with Peter Pan syndrome - nobody has ever made tastier cinematic junk food.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

You spare me nothing!

The following is my contribution to the 3rd Annual White Elephant Blog-a-Thon.

Few filmmakers understand the importance of economy like Roger Corman. The exploitation auteur has directed over 50 films in his career and produced over 300, his low-budget epics famously giving directors like Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme and Francis Coppola their first break as well as financing the U.S. distribution of classics by Bergman, Herzog and many others. The stories behind the breakneck production of Corman's films are often more famous than the movies themselves; making very cheap films for a distribution system that nearly guranteed a project, Corman frequently saw an unused set or a few extra days in his shooting schedule as reason enough to conceive and shoot an entire film. Sometimes, as with Little Shop of Horrors (shot in two days), the hectic pace would result in an offbeat, irreverent classic that never stops to second-guess itself. 1963's The Terror is less successful; born out of Corman's realization, near the end of production on The Raven, that both a castle set and Boris Karloff would be available for two more days, it actually took an additional nine months for Corman and four other directors, including Coppola, Monte Hellman and star Jack Nicholson, to make it remotely comprehesible. The result is an uneven and somewhat nonsensical film, though it's a testament to Corman's talents that it's a very watchable mess.

Nicholson plays Andre Duvalier, a French lieutenant (ha!) separated from his regiment and wandering the coast (of?) when he meets a mysterious young woman (Sandra Knight) who disappears as he is attacked by a bird. Andre's quest to find the young woman leads him to a castle occupied only by the Baron Von Leppe (Boris Karloff) and his manservant Stefan (Dick Miller). Duvalier uncovers an old mystery involving reincarnation, mistaken identity and other tropes left over from Corman's superior Poe films. But it doesn't really matter what the movie is about - Corman spent much of the two days with Karloff shooting the actors walking down staircases and across corridors, figuring he'd be able to piece it together later. The lack of a functional plot might not matter if it were interesting to watch the actors play off each other - just last week I saw The Big Sleep, a great movie with a lame plot. Unfortunately, Karloff phones it in and Nicholson has yet to find his rebellious onscreen persona - he's surprisingly bland and uncomfortable on-camera. Even the usually dependable Dick Miller is given little to do. The result is a movie that is consistently almost interesting and frequently suggests better movies.

Still, The Terror reminds of what separates Roger Corman from B-movie peers like Ed Wood and Phil Tucker. Even at his worst, there's a basic understanding of classical narrative filmmaking and a decent attempt at creating atmosphere. Though I was never really engaged, I was also never bored, and at 80 minutes, the movie knows when to quit. The final scene also delivers one memorable image that made me wonder if Stanley Kubrick saw the film before The Shining. The Terror, for its many problems, is the work of a real filmmaker (five, actually), and it's probably as good as a movie constructed out of establishing shots could be.