Sunday, January 25, 2015

& WISE BLOOD (1979) - John Huston

My abbreviated John Huston month kicked off this week with two literary adaptions about lapsed Southern preachers. The Night of the Iguana is Huston's prickly take on the Tennessee Williams play set mostly within a crumbling Mexican resort. Richard Burton plays a fallen man of the cloth turned South of the Border tour guide after being ousted from the church for "inappropriate relations" with a young Sunday school teacher. Old troubles rear their head (as they tend to do) when Burton is tasked to escort a gaggle of Baptist ladies to the beach, one of them being the flirtatious under-aged stunner Sue Lyon (apparently, the go-to girl for inappropriate May-December romances after Lolita) and her Puritanical aunt Grayson Hall. When Hall catches Burton and Lyon taking a chaste dip in the ocean, she freaks and threatens to "have his job." Burton, in a brazen act of further self-sabotage, kidnaps the whole busload to old pal Ava Gardner's beachside hotel where many an iguana scampers about, many a moody Tennessee Williams monologue ensues.

Huston doesn't give in to total melodrama though. He keeps the brooding inherent in the source material as fleet-footed as possible (like those lizards!), injects humor where he can. He gets much comic mileage (maybe too much) out of Ava Gardner's perpetually shirtless Mexican manservants, Pepe and Pedro, who seem to be shaking maracas and dancing whenever they enter the frame. There's one particularly amusing scene where a bus driver attempts to intervene during a frisky cha-cha-cha number between the boys and Sue Lyon and thereby has his ass handed to him in a sort of boxing match cum dance number. In this one sequence, you can see how, yes, this same man directed both Fat City and Annie.

But mostly Iguana is an actor's piece, and Burton is fantastic as always doing that world-weary but well-spoken thing he does so well in movies like this and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Not to mention Deborah Kerr as a traveling artist who entertains Burton's sizable ennui for a bit and Ava Gardner as the very liberated resort proprietor looking to finally settle down.

Next up was Wise Blood, Huston's adaptation of Flannery O'Connor's first novel. Brad Dourif plays a disillusioned veteran, Hazel Motes, returned home from war to his Georgia hometown. Angered and motivated by his churchly upbringing (John Huston plays his preacher father in a cameo), Dourif sets out to the city to begin his own fumbling anti-religion, the Church Without Jesus Christ. There he meets other assorted religious crackpots-- Harry Dean Stanton as a blind but not really blind seer, Ned Beatty as preacher-promoter looking for a new evangelist to cash in on (regardless of what gospel he espouses), William Hickey as an sermonizing alcoholic spin-off version of Dourif himself. Hazel reluctantly takes on a few followers, both male and female, and an automobile that is always in the process of breaking down. He attempts (and mostly fails) to spread the message of "hard truths."

Like O'Connor's short stories, Huston jam-packs this movie with peculiar Southern goofballs and actors/non-actors great at playing same. There's a lived-in Dixie quality to this small production from the opening credits on down, something which Hollywood tends to ape and mostly get wrong. And speaking of apes, yep, there's a guy in a gorilla suit for much of this movie (see below). "Conga" is his name and huckstering children out of pocket pennies is his game. Huston's sly stab at Hollywood remakes (King Kong, 1976)? Apparently, one doesn't need an entire religion to be a successful charlatan, just a handy monkey suit.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015


John Huston is one of those great Old Hollywood directors I have a tendency to forget. Many people know him as an actor as much as director, whether it be as Noah Cross in Chinatown or that other Noah from The Bible. Younger folks might only know him as the father of Anjelica or Danny, possibly the grandfather of Jack (Boardwalk Empire). But to browse the man's extended filmography is to be reminded: "Holy shit!" This is the same man who BEGAN his directing career with the classic The Maltese Falcon, then followed it soon after with the likes of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Asphalt Jungle, and The African Queen. He has a ton of great literary adaptations to his name, one of my personal favorite boxing films, Fat City, and the guilty pleasure Stallone-Pele soccer flick I watched a zillion times on HBO as a kid (Victory). As a director, Huston could navigate virtually any genre. Can you believe this "Ernest Hemingway of the Cinema" also helmed the original musical version of Annie?

I've seen a good number of Huston's films over the years, already reviewed a couple on this blog. But there are a few of his lesser known works I have still lingering on disc. Lincoln Center had an extended retrospective of his work over the holidays, which I missed due to travel and having some small measure of a life. But I'm going to make up for it on the homefront, watch as many as I can squeeze in before the end of the month. Given it's already mid-January and I'm getting a late start, it may only be a three or four Hustons and probably those films with two hour run times or less. So maybe don't hold out for blog post on Dino De Laurentis' The Bible (174 minutes) anytime soon. After all, I endured Darren Aronofsky's Noah (Worst Film of the Year '14). Haven't I suffered enough?


2014 was a middling year at the movies. The highs not so high, the lows not so low. Despite a few exceptional outliers (the top three or four entries on the Best list), rarely did I feel wowed, elated, enlightened or appalled. Extreme reactions, positive or negative, came in short supply. Von Trier's two-part Nymphomaniac (my Most Anticipated Movie last year) left me limp at the start of 2014. Inherent Vice at the close elicited a bemused shrug. My prevailing mood coming out of the theatre (or, more often than not, hitting Stop on my USB feed) could be summed up: "Entertained but Underwhelmed." Did someone prescribe the global film industry a mild antidepressant? Or was it just me? Maybe someone slipped a Celexa capsule into my Jujubes.

That said, I'm looking ahead to 2015 with childlike optimism. Why? Because it seems like every movie or movie franchise from my childhood is either being remade, rebooted or expanded this year. Mad Max, The Terminator, Poltergeist, a new James Bond, another Vacation movie, more Mission: Impossible. Everyone knows a new Star Wars is hitting next December. But did you know there's a Swayze-less Point Break due in July? Or that a major studio made a biopic about NWA? Oy vey!

I'm keepin' my chin up and my face as to at least better view the screen. I'm reading Pynchon's Inherent Vice for comparison's sake. Time permitting, I may give the five and a half hour Nymphomaniac: The Director's Cut a second chance on Netflix. Of the 93 new theatrical releases I saw in 2014 (mostly at home), here are the ones that made an impression, good, bad or somewhere in between...


10. Birdman

Once famous actors obsessing about the sorry state of their mid-life careers generally fail to captivate my attention. But when that actor is Michael Keaton and his sustained meltdown filmed with such manic exuberance by Inarritu's restless lens (yes, those long takes are amazing) it's hard not to indulge the self-indulgence. Birdman is "look-at-me" filmmaking in the best possible sense, in that you never once care to look away.

9. The Homesman

This Tommy Lee Jones directed western about a spinster (Hilary Swank) and rogue outlaw (Jones) escorting three mentally disturbed women across the plains won me over with its odd, jangly rhythms, gorgeous cinematography (so much umber!) and the only truly surprising plot twist I saw all year. I won't spoil the mid-movie surprise other than to say there is one character to whom you should not get too attached.

8. Night Moves

More than last year's similar, flashier The East, Kelly Reichardt's film about three environmentalists/eco-terrorists plotting to blow up a dam grounds its radical politics in rich characters and comes out the more revolutionary for it, exploring the steep price paid for unwavering adherence to one's beliefs. Was it all worth it? The life of extreme loneliness Jesse Eisenberg faces at the end of Night Moves seems to suggest "maybe not."

7. The Babadook

Who ever thought a movie about a children's pop-up book could be so unnerving? Aussie first-timer Jennifer Kent mines the murkier aspects of single motherhood in a surprisingly scary thriller about the mom of a special needs child whose nightly reading material begins to unhinge her in the most disturbing ways. We're talking early Polanksi levels of unhinging. If you thought The Shining's Danny Torrance ("Redrum") was weird, wait until you've seen young Samuel (Noah Wiseman) on a rocking horse in a top hat.

6. Mr. Turner

Speaking of top hats... Mike Leigh's warts and all biopic of painter J.M.W. Turner proves that talent sometimes comes in the unlikeliest of packages, that the sublime can spring from the most ordinary of lives, the least extraordinary places. Turner, as Timothy Spall renders him, is a grumbling, grunting, piggish brute. He has little time or sympathy for the women in his life (maids, wives, lovers). His only good relationship for most of the film is with his father who has just died. But to watch him mercilessly attack one of his own finished canvases mid-show and make it that much better is to watch a thing of beauty, a not-so-precious man do something in art he'll never be able to do with his own life.

5. Nightcrawler

Jake Gyllenhaal's bug-eyed crime scene paparazzo is the nightmare reality rotting at the core of the American Dream. He cruises the streets of late-night Los Angeles fueled by craven ambition, hollow self-help bromides, a black hole in the place where his non-existent moral center should be. "If it bleeds, it leads." But if it's putrefying within inches of your lens and you've got the sole exclusive, even better. As a character study of a sociopath personality, Nightcrawler is merely good. As an enjoyably gnarly bit of modern pulp, it's pretty great.

4. Force Majeure

Avalanches...they come suddenly and bring out the worst in us. Especially us menfolk, apparently. But they do make for compelling Swedish film fodder. The story of a vacationing family's slow disintegration after Pop flees the scene of an emergency leaving Mom to fend for herself and the kids, Force Majeure is so much more than a dressing down of modern masculinity. It's a slyly hilarious movie about an entire humanity in crisis where the bravest act of all is living honestly with the truth of our horrible, horrible selves.

3. Ida

This Polish import about a serious young nun visiting her carefree, bohemian aunt and learning a few family secrets along the way is classical filmmaking par excellence. That is not code for "boring" or the fact that it's filmed in black and white. Its utter refusal to be radical is what makes Ida seem so fresh. Like its chaste protagonist, still and simple wins the race here. And thus the modest handheld tracking shot at film's end comes as more of a revelation than any of Birdman's showy 20-minute takes.

2. Boyhood

Forget the 12-years-in-the-making backstory. Forget the awards Boyhood is surely (and deservedly) set to win. The pleasure of this film is not only watching a child grow and mature right before our eyes but watching director Richard Linklater's career come full circle. It's like one of those ape-to-man evolutionary progression charts, except the ape/man gets hairier as he gets older and still walks with a slight hunch. Mason may be an adult male by the end, but he is also on his way to becoming one of those beautiful "slackers" straight out of Linklater's first film.

1. Under the Skin

What? A Scarlett Johansson space alien flick sitting proudly atop the Best Of List? The one that I so jokingly referred to the majority of the year as The Woman Who Fell to Earth? Under the Skin is indeed all those things but, oh, so much more. It's the only movie his year that felt truly original from beginning to end. It's the only film where the images stayed with me long after the first viewing, the only one I was compelled to see more than once, and not just for the killer limbo scenes (see above). A movie like this walks the exhilarating tightrope of absolute failure every other frame. To director Jonathan Glazer's credit, he never once takes a false step.


Cold in July

Like Kill List several years ago, I give this underseen indie big props for successfully hopscotching several genres (thriller, horror, drama, western) and never once telegraphing where it was headed. Don Johnson, Sam Shepard and the dude from Dexter sporting a hellacious '80s mullet join forces for a brutal but honorable Peckinpah-esque Texas revenge. Yes, I realize I'm exactly the target audience for this type of thing.

Listen Up, Philip

Alex Ross Perry (The Color Wheel) delivers again with a character study of prick-ish novelist who idolizes a Philip Roth-style blowhard who's even more of an asshole than him. But the movie's most interesting turn involves neither asshole...a section where it abandons these two self-involved jerks to follow Philip's girlfriend (Elisabeth Moss) for nearly a half hour as she learns to appreciate herself on her own. Inspired choice or failed narrative experiment? Anyone's call. It at least made for an interesting argument on an otherwise uninteresting OKCupid date.


Locked in a speeding automobile with no one but Tom Hardy (and his bizarre Welsh accent) for 1.5 hours. He talks on a dashboard phone, sustains a nasty head cold and navigates numerous personal and professional crises. Sound like a dull night at the movies? Sir, you are wrong. In case anyone thought they made a mistake casting Hardy as the new Mad Max, I offer this film as contrary evidence. Look what the man can do in just a compact car. Now imagine what he will do at the helm of a post-apocalyptic 18-wheeler truck.

Stranger By the Lake

Ever wondered what a Hitchcock thriller would have looked like if old Alfred was into rough trade? Probably a lot like Stranger By The Lake. A moody French serial killer tale set at a waterside gay cruising spot, this very explicit film is not for the faint of heart, regardless of that heart's chosen persuasion. But for lovers of artful suspense filmmaking, it is, indeed, a commendable thing.

The Immigrant

Director James Gray (Two Lovers, We Own The Night) continues to make fantastic under-the-radar Joaquin Phoenix movies that virtually nobody sees. Add this early in the year entry to that list. More importantly, put it in your Netflix queue.


10. Interstellar

I still consider Christopher Nolan one of the more intellectually curious, exciting directors working in big-big budget Hollywood filmmaking today. I've liked virtually everything he's done, and I don't care to count how many times I've had to apologize for appreciating The Prestige. Interstellar is the first of his movies that failed me start to finish. A bloated, pseudo-philosophical space opera with 2001: A Space Odyssey aspirations, Nolan strives for Kubrick heights but free-falls (weightlessly) into a mushily sentimental Spielberg-Zemeckis abyss. Better yet, he crashes head-first into Stanley's humming Monolith. The Evil Matt Damon-McConaughey moon wrestling scene is (unintentionally) fun, but that's about it. And don't get me started on the home library tesseract.

9. Sex Tape

Years ago when I was a fledgling, sometimes working screenwriter, this hacky producer pitched me a terrible idea for a movie about a husband-wife sex tape that he wanted me to write on the cheap. I have no way to confirm this, but I think Sex Tape might be that movie. I watched it (for free) out of mild curiosity to see if I'd made a horrible mistake by not pursuing the job. I'm ecstatic to say I did not. Somehow, the finished product was even worse than that pitch.

8. A Night in Old Mexico

I love Robert Duvall. I love movies where cantankerous aged men go down to Mexico to settle old scores (see The Wild Bunch, et al). So, in theory, I should have loved this tiny movie. But in actuality I loathed it in a big budget sort of way. Sorry, Bobby D., but this movie screams vanity project, a misguided attempt to remind us all that, though aging, you retain every ounce of your early career virility. We didn't need the reminder, at least not in this way.

7. Lucy

A permanently dumb movie about a temporarily smart person. Forgive me for asking, but I have to wonder: If a person truly held all the world's intelligence at their fingertips (smart drug-induced or not), wouldn't they be able to find a way out of sticky situations without so much collateral damage, the age old action movie fallback of blowin' shit up? I suspect they probably would. But then I'm not the genius here. I suspect Lucy was my punishment for liking Under the Skin so much.

6. The Expendables 3

Yes, I knew the tired stew of action movie cliches I was getting myself into. After all, both previous Expendables movies ranked highly on prior Worst lists. I have no good excuse for watching this dross other than it being free and readily available. I have no one to blame but myself and, possibly, Wesley Snipes.

5. Godzilla

And so begin the Bryan Cranston post-Breaking Bad career doldrums. Bigger budgets, less interesting choices. I eagerly await his Better Call Saul cameo and little else. BB was built upon the premise of watching a good man (Walter White) slowly turn bad. Fingers crossed this brilliant actor's future resume does not follow the same trajectory.

4. The Monuments Men

Though a fine actor/philanthropist, George Clooney's always been hit-or-miss as a director. It's hard to say exactly what went wrong with Monuments Men. A fine cast, interesting source material, a World War II story as yet untold. But somehow the result is CRUSHINGLY DULL. Too earnest? Stakes not high enough for his merry band of art preservationists? I'm not sure. What I know is it took me several attempts to make it through after repeatedly falling asleep.

3. A Million Ways to Die in the West

Further evidence that the Family Guy guy's fratboy sensibilities are not my cup of tea and that he should never cast his own smarmy self as the lead. Blazing Saddles? Not by a long shot. Not even the campfire bean fart scene.

2. Unbroken

The Coen Brothers worked on the script, so I was kinda curious. Whatever they brought to the project, director Angelina Jolie must have by her mere presence erased. Because what's left is Oscar bait at its worst, unexceptional storytelling at best.

1. Noah

Were there battling rock monsters in the Book of Genesis? I don't know, I didn't pay a lot of attention in Sunday School. You tell me. Darren Aronofsky is fine filmmaker on the small-scale (The Wrestler, Black Swan, Requiem for a Dream). But when he goes big (The Fountain, this) he tends to go very bad. Let's hope for his next outing he avoids the Good Book all together, goes guerilla, shoots a documentary about one of the lesser bunions atop his feet.



A dull two-hour advertisement for Twitter feeds and trendy food trucks. @cashiersdecinema says #avoidthismovielikeacaseoftheruns.

Dying of the Light

After last year's abysmal Lindsay Lohan vehicle The Canyons and now this flaccid Nic Cage CIA disease of the week thriller, director Paul Schrader is starting to become a permanent fixture on the yearly Worst list. Which is a shame because he's a brilliant writer and, at times, a great director (Blue Collar, Hardcore, American Gigolo). Here's hoping his creative firelight is not entirely dead, only temporarily dimmed.

Obvious Child

Juno in reverse with added poop jokes. I like Jenny Slate on Parks and Rec, but her spoiled, hipster stand-up shtick here was just the pits.


Not the worst Paul Verhoeven remake ever made, but, honestly, did we need a humorless RoboCop? More Michael Keaton, yes. More Gary Oldman, sure. New Detroit was fine the way it was. Now stay far, far away from Starship Troopers, Hollywood, will you please?

St. Vincent

Somewhere in the blind spot between a legitimately funny '80s Bill Murray comedy and a nauseatingly heartwarming '90s indie falls St. Vincent. Wherever you place it, it seemed curiously aged far beyond its expiration date.



A two-way tie: Enemy and The Double


The Guest




The two old guys' Iceland trip in Land Ho!


Gerard Depardieu's five-star hotel to no-star prison cell reversal in Welcome to New York


Tilda Swinton's oversized choppers in Snowpiercer


Justin Long's walrus teeth in Tusk


Caesar in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes


The poorly rendered fox that follows Reese Witherspoon around in Wild


300: Rise of an Empire (barely edging out Sin City: A Dame to Kill For)


Nic Cage's killer pit in Joe


The unseen rover in The Rover and the pup left in the trash in The Drop


John "The Dog" Wojtowicz in The Dog (the Dog Day Afternoon doc)


Palo Alto, The Interview, Child of God


The Dance of Reality and Jodorowsky's Dune


Two-way tie...Ben Wheatley's J.G. Ballard adaptation High Rise and Mad Max: Fury Road.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

NIGHT MOVES (1975) - Arthur Penn

The character Gene Hackman plays in Night Moves may ultimately be a better cuckhold than private dick. On finding out about his wife's affair while following her coming out of a Rohmer film, he takes it rather well. He doesn't throw any major tantrums or punches at her tubby lover, Harris Yulin. He drops a few insults, some words of weary disappointment then goes back to work.

The fact that his current case is more convoluted than his love life almost seems a relief to Harry Moseby. Aging starlet's runaway daughter (Melanie Griffith), some intrigue involving Hollywood stuntmen, a trip to the Florida Keys, several grand and expenses. Yes, this sounds like a quick buck and a good way to take his mind off things. But this being a detective movie and, what's more, a 1970s movie such is not the case. Conspiracy abounds faster than adultery. Harry's so deep in it he only has time for one revenge screw and not even with his employer's all-too-willing runaway daughter.

I remembered Night Moves mostly for its ending. And re-watching it, I reconfirmed it is indeed a doozy, a product of its paranoid, increasingly disillusioned time more so than any dangling subplot of a subplot in Inherent Vice. Hackman is left stranded and gun-shot on a boat putting in circles out at sea. A man in a single engine plane has just taken a crack at him then crash landed within inches, nearly taking out the boat. As the plane goes down, Hackman desperately tries to see who the man is through the boat's glass bottom, but his view is liquidy, heavily distorted. His identity, like Harry's fate and the fate a country far adrift of its moral center, is entirely up for grabs.

THE LONG GOODBYE (1973) - Robert Altman

Of all the Philip Marlowes, Elliot Gould and Robert Altman's shambolic, perpetually mumbling, bed-headed private dick is still my favorite. His attitude is laissez-faire ("It's OK by me") and his greatest concern, far outweighing the details of any case in progress, is securing his yellow tabby the right brand of cat food (Curry Brand, in case you're wondering). When the supermarket runs out, he will even involve himself in an elaborate charade (switching out cans, miming a can opener) for said cat to convince him he's getting the real thing. It's one of the best (and longest) opening sequences in a movie, and definitely the best one involving a house pet. It tells you everything you will need to know about this character through the semi-domesticated animal he is to which he is beholden.

Like this easygoing feline, Marlowe is too wily to be tricked. Sure, a thug like Marty Augustine can put a gun (or smashed Coke bottle) to his head and force him to strip down next to a young Arnold Schwarzenegger while cracking jokes all the while. But do him wrong as a friend (we're looking at you, Terry Lennox) and that laissez-faire demeanor will turn a sudden gun on you faster than a stray pet the wrong way. Marlowe might be skipping to Hollywood showtunes in Mexico by the end, but one thing's for sure...not everything is OK by him.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

CHANDLER (1971) - Paul Magwood

As the old saying goes, I could watch Warren Oates read the phone book and be happy (Muhlenberg County, Kentucky Edition preferably). In the case of this private dick misfire, Chandler, I'd seriously rather have watched him read the phone book for an hour and a half. Because the script he was given otherwise, oof, what a stinker.

The film starts out promisingly enough. World-weary Oates plays a fallen-on-hard-times investigator named simply "Chandler" working a thankless job for a factory security outfit. He quits out of frustration, possibly to have more time with the bottle, until an old friend shows up to offer him a chance at redemption...a job tailing a myserious French woman arriving at Union Station. The mood is intriguingly lethargic. By the time Oates goes to get his old revolver out of hock at the pawn shop, I was all settled in for a nice character piece, Cockfighter but in the world of the gumshoe. I was wrong.

Because by then we've already been witness to one of cinema's most grievous exposition scenes, two men in a room explaining how they need a patsy for a corporate-government regime changing plot that's of little interest then, lesser interest as the story plays out. Basically, Oates is their hired fall guy, the washed-up schlemiel who they know will go for the girl, thereby providing decoy for...oh, screw it, it's not worth it. Even in the ever convoluted world of noir and detective movies, it makes very little sense.

I feel for Oates. He's exactly the actor you want when you're in the market for world-weary, an off-the-rack and very relatable everyman rube. But the script and direction in Chandler does him a disservice. Even the love interest he's paired with (Leslie Caron) is a bad fit. About the only funny line in the whole film--"Emancipated women can be a pain in my ass"--isn't directed at her but a minor side character. There's no chemistry, no spark. Though Oates name-checks the Grandfather of all Detectives at one point in a phonebooth (" in Raymond"), sadly, all similarities end there.

MARLOWE (1969) - Paul Bogart

Of all the filmed Philip Marlowe incarnations I've seen, this one may be the breeziest. A pre-Rockford Files James Garner (fantastic, R.I.P.) plays the eponymous dick, gliding through crime scenes dropping more quips than picking up clues. The character's dry humor is foregrounded, everything else (suspense, melodrama, etc.) rides backseat. Sure, The Long Goodbye had its light moments (practically the first half hour), but there's always a sense of danger in Altman's constantly zooming lens, something to remind you that, though Marlowe has a wisecrack for every situation he shambles through, these situations are still matters of life and death. In this version of Marlowe, with its TV-friendly framings and obvious production sets, you're not even too worried when Garner goes head to head with Bruce Lee.

This may be a sign of the times or just evidence of lesser directing. Maybe a little of both. Paul Bogart is no Robert Altman. But then Philip Marlowe smack dab in the Age of Aquarius does warrant a lighter touch. As in The Long Goodbye, Marlowe's a walking anachronism here, a '40s throwback that doesn't quite fit. The direction (and Stirling Silliphant's solid script) doesn't quite push it to the breaking point of parody, but there are humorous moments of culture clash, whether it be Garner visiting a hippie drug den in the opening murder scene or being later dosed unconscious in a doctor's office with what seems little more than a marijuana cigarette. All in all, it's not a bad take on the material, Marlowe Light as in Marlboro Light, though this Marlowe rarely smokes in this. Garner's not even much of a boozer in this one. He takes a few nips from a whiskey bottle in his mini-fridge now and then. That's about it.

And what about those early Bruce Lee scenes? After all, that's the only reason most people remember this film. Well, like everything else in Marlowe, they're generally played for comedy. As a henchman who comes to shakedown the nosy dick, Lee fumbles out some awkward lines then proceeds to karate chop and high-kick Marlowe's office to shreds as an amused Garner looks on. Later, when the pair run into each other again at a restaurant atop a high building, a hand-to-hand fight begins to brew until Garner impugns Lee's manhood, suggesting that the kung-fu master's "maybe a little too light on his feet." This sends the young Dragon into such a rage that he flying kicks himself right off the edge of the roof. Suggesting Bruce Lee's "a little bit gay"...apparently, that's all it takes. If only the hundreds of other opponents in his later films knew, they could have saved themselves a world of pain.

Monday, December 01, 2014


As in detective. As in shamus, private eye or gumshoe. Though, who knows, one or two of these paid snoops may end up being kinda douchey too.

In celebration/preparation for Inherent Vice later this month (the only movie I've really wanted to see all year other than Nymphomaniac), I'll be checking out a handful of other films featuring private dicks from a similar era, kissing cousins to Doc Sportello. I considered calling this month "'70s Dicks", until I realized I might be off by a year or two in a few cases. Then I considered calling it "Stoner Dicks", though for some of these ambling flatfoots booze will more likely be the drug of choice. I very nearly called it "L.A. Dicks," which will more than likely be the setting for all these films, but, you know, I didn't want any West Coast friends to take it the wrong way. In the interest of accuracy/simplicity, we'll keep it simple...just plain dicks. OK?

Mr. Anderson, here's hoping you don't disappoint. Von Trier's two-parter earlier this year was a bit of a letdown. But you've been knocking them out of the park lately, and the trailer looks great. Will you be the first to crack the Pynchon adaptation case? Good luck, Doc. Good luck, dicks. Let's get this investigating/ingesting/inebriating underway.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

INGLORIOUS BASTERDS (2009) - Quentin Tarantino

How could I bring November to a close without revisiting this most recent of Nazi scalpin' epics?

I've had plenty of qualms with Tarantino's output post-Jackie Brown (his last truly great movie in my humble opinion, along with Pulp and Dogs). Some of them have been nitpicky issues of excessive length and indulgent cameos in otherwise fine films (Django Unchained). Some of them top-to-bottom problems with execution (Death Proof) or method of exhibition (I still see no good reason for Kill Bill to be more than two hours total, much less two separate films). So it's no big surprise I had some "issues" with Basterds when I first saw it five years ago in the theatre. Watching it again over the weekend, most of those quibbles still remain, those certain showboating Tarantino-isms that tend to pull me right out of an otherwise engaging film. To name just a few...

1. The randomly placed Sam Jackson voiceover (either explaining the flammable properties of silver nitrate film or giving unnecessary exposition about a character--Hugo Stiglitz--with accompanied anachronistic guitar sting)

2. The wildly self-indulgent and unnecessary and nearly half-hour basement tavern scene where the characters are, for some reason, playing the very modern college mixer "Who Am I?" drinking game (what's next, we ask, Beer Pong in Hitler's Bunker?)

3. The very on-the-nose David Bowie Cat People sample ("I'm putting out the fire with gasoline")

4. The bloated run-time, as per usual

5. The unfortunate presence of director/actor Eli Roth, Bear Jew or no Bear Jew

That said, as with most things Tarantino, the cringe-worthy and the inspired often go hand in hand. There are tons of things to admire in this film, and after the disappointments that were the Kill Bills and Grindhouse, overall I considered (and still do) Basterds to mostly be a return to QT's early career form. Historical settings (WWII, the Old West) seem to be serving him well these days. Alternate histories more so. Here are a few of the things that I loved both times around, things that absolutely no director but Tarantino could get away with, and he does...

1. The masterly suspenseful opening twenty minutes at the French dairy farm, on par with anything Hitchcock ever did (or DePalma ever copied)

2. The lovingly detailed close-up inserts of Shosanna's strudel ("Wait for the cream!")

3. The microscopic attention to foreign languages (accents and subtitles not as boring things to trudge though but modes of subterfuge and suspense!)

4. Every single line that comes out of a perfectly cast Christoph Waltz's mouth (especially "It's a bingo")

5. The laughably fake Hitler dummy that gets chewed to a machine gunned pulp at the end

As far as historically freewheeling revenge fantasies go, you could do worse than treat yourself to a second or third helping of Basterds. If only things could have gone the way they do in that fictitious Parisian movie theatre (i.e., Tarantino's head), the world might have been spared a lot of misery. Cinema as a redemptive force...yes, but only in Tarantino Land. Set those silver nitrate reels ablaze. Kill all Nazis. Burn that fucker to the ground.

THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL (1978) - Franklin J. Schaffner
& THE FORMULA (1980) - John G. Avildsen

What do you do when it's cold outside and the Thanksgiving weekend gives you an extra day or two off from work? Why, you throw a couple more Nazi Plotsies into your queue, of course! By "Nazi Plotsies" I mean two films that, while set in modern day (modern day being the late '70s), are indebted to the long shadow cast by The Third Reich. More specifically, the inventors and mad doctors once employed in Adolf's cabal.

The Formula centers on the hunt for a long buried Nazi recipe for synthetic fuel and one modern oil tycoon's (Marlon Brando) attempts to foil it, as it might seriously compromise his profits (which in this gas-shortage plagued era were a'boomin'). Sustainable resources...apparently the Nazis accidentally did one or two good things while perpetrating tons of horrible crimes.

George C. Scott plays the L.A. cop put onto the formula's trail after his old partner's death. He's reliably gruff, doesn't stand for a lot of nonsense, and really, really wants to spend more time with his son (and keeps letting everyone know). John Gielgud plays the old Nazi formula inventor. Comely Marthe Keller (also in Marathon Man) plays a German spy, seemingly on loan from a Bond movie, who trails Scott and later becomes his ill-fitting love interest. Marlon Brando plays the deeply corrupt (and deeply blasé) oil tycoon Adam Steiffel, though most of the time it seems like he's channeling Dick Cheney years in advance with a little of Paul Schrader's slurry speech style thrown in for good measure. 

Brando's presence and the Avildsen directing credit is the reason I put this one on disc years ago. Granted, it's one of those later phoned-in Brando performances. He wears a hearing aid in the film that you KNOW someone off-set is reading him lines through, and his mouth seems stuffed with wet cotton (or maybe just craft services M&Ms). Still, Brando is Brando, always interesting to watch. And though the investigation is slow-footed and the action (when there is action) rather plodding, the corporate headquarters showdown finale between Scott and Brando is a treat if just to see these two acting titans go head to head. As far as Avildsen films go (Rocky, The Karate Kid, Save the Tiger, Joe), this is not one for the highlight reel. As far as Nazi Plotsies go, not nearly as good as the film which came next...

The Boys from about a surprise treat! An absolutely over-the-top Nazi conspiracy theory gem! And talk about great actors going head to head! Elder statesmen Laurence Olivier and Gregory Peck actually throw down on the carpet and grapple WWE-style at one point (see above). Plus, there's a pre-Police Academy Steve Guttenberg running around Paraguay with a ham radio before being killed at point blank range. What more could you ask for? Hulk Hogan as Himmler? No, not even close.

Olivier plays Lieberman, an old school Jewish Nazi hunter on the lookout for leftover Reich members. With Guttenberg's assist, he stumbles onto Josef Mengele (a hammy, wonderful Peck) now hiding out in Brazil and in the early stages of enacting a plot to unleash little Hitler clones all over the world. Mengele's plan is a tad convoluted-- it involves splicing der Fuhrer's old DNA into laboratory baby boys and replicating Uncle Adolf's childhood upbringing in each one. This requires a doting mother and civil servant father who must later die, in this case in ritual assassinations all over the globe ala The Day of the Jackal.

Never mind all that. Schaffner and his fantastic cast really make this patently absurd material sing. Have you ever fantasized what it would be like to see the Nazi's mad doctor Mengele mangled by angry Dobermans? Now you don't have to. Schaffner and writer Ira Levin enact this alternative history wish fulfillment for you. Have you ever wondered what Hitler reincarnated in a child's body might look like? I'll give you a hint: a black cowlick, unnaturally piercing blue eyes, a generally bad attitude. He also tends to wear a lot of flannel and has a certain Damien in The Omen vibe. In case you want to keep an eye out for this tween Hitler in the street, he kinda looks like this...