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Love Serenade (1996)
Sisterhood is powerful
This movie comes in cute and goes out really weird. It is one of the best black comedies ever made and one of the finest films to come out of Australia.
Two dorky, love-starved sisters live together in a house in the Aussie backwater town of Sunray. Their lives are thrown into a dither when a hotshot radio DJ moves into the house next door. The DJ, named Ken Sherry, has the personality of a lugubrious bloodhound and is thrice divorced, but the sisters are smitten. He's a celebrity!
One of the sisters, Vicki, is a hairdresser with delusions of tabloid grandeur, and the other, Dimity, is a painfully shy waitress in a forlorn Chinese restaurant with the absurdly grand name Emperor's Palace. The restaurant owner is, on his off hours, a proud nudist (Did I mention this movie is weird?).
When you begin watching, you may think you know where this flick is headed. You don't. Things get stranger and stranger and casual American audiences, seeing familiar sitcom elements unfold, will likely be stunned by the bizarre directions the movie takes.
For those looking for "something else," I cannot recommend this highly enough. Oh, and a terrific Barry White soundtrack.
Bad Fever (2011)
A poor soul
"Bad Fever" is a touching character study of a young man so socially out of touch he is unaware that the stage act he is working up in an effort to become a stand-up comedian is woefully unfunny (Sample joke: Q: Who do you think I saw at the supermarket? A: The workers at the supermarket).
When not at his job at a tree-trimming service, Eddie (Kentucker Audley) wanders alone through rail yards in his hometown of Salt Lake City and tells his jokes into a tape recorder. At home, he tries fitfully to have a conversation with his sourpuss mom. He is the poster child for loneliness.
When he meets Irene (Eleonor Hendricks), a young drifter who hits him up for a pack of cigarettes the instant she meets him, he thinks he now has a girlfriend. But we can see Irene is a hustler who just wants to use him in her peculiar occupation of humiliating men on camera and selling the film to "a guy in Iowa."
How this all plays out is not what you might imagine as the film heads to a poignant climax in a motel room.
This first-time microbudget effort by filmmaker Dustin Guy Defa (Dee-FAY) screened at the Maryland Film Festival in Baltimore over the weekend and Defa and some of his cast and crew were on hand for a discussion with the audience. The shy-seeming writer-director acknowledged there are autobiographic elements in the movie. The title, he said, resulted from a sickness he had while writing the script.
"Bad Fever," which so far has apparently only screened at festivals, deserves to find an audience.
Long Weekend (2008)
Offbeat Aussie horror movie
What to do when your marriage is on the rocks? Go camping!
That's what the attractive couple do in this remake of a Seventies Australian horror flick. Of course, they bring along a pile of expensive camping gear in their expensive SUV. Wouldn't ya know, that includes a spear gun and a scoped rifle. Hmmm.
They are supposed to meet another couple. But on their way to the beach, they get lost and, ignoring all kinds of warnings, drive into a "keep out" forest. But there's a beach! Let's camp here!
Let the bickering begin. Few couples are so in dire need of a divorce as these two. She hates nature. He is tone deaf to her feelings. She sprays insecticide on ant hills. He throws a beer bottle into the ocean and blow it up with his rifle. They have contempt for their natural surroundings. Hmmm.
Things start to happen. Nature's revenge? Oh yes, but in subtle ways that serve to incite their nastiness to each other. What that other family camping a few miles away? And what about the dead dugong (manatee) on the beach? Is it really dead? This is not going to end well.
"The Long Weekend," also known as "Nature's Grave," is a well made and gripping horror flick, especially because most of it is filmed in broad daylight. It has tense set pieces and several jump moments.
Mainly, it is one of a kind, although it borrows from "The Birds." It will keep your attention if you give it a chance.
Banlieue 13 (2004)
By Woo! I mean of course John Woo! But there's also John Carpenter (Escape from New York). And Don Siegel and Walter Hill And a whole host of Hollywood action directors. It's all here in an amazingly condensed 85 minutes of flat-out action.
And I mean flat-out. Not a dull moment. In fact, there's not even a romantic element. The woman to be rescued is a sister, not a lover.
Luc Besson, the main writer, is a name brand to be trusted. He seems to be on a quest to prove the French can make exciting violent thrillers. Which this is.
The main actors are stunt men. And the stunts they perform are, and I hate to use this overused word, but I will, awesome. One shot where our hero flings himself through a transom in an escape actually looks impossible. No CGI was used.
Some people should avoid this movie. That would be those who dislike subtitles. Otherwise, Those who are not hate-French-movies yokels should sit back, pop some popcorn, crack a beer and get ready for fun.
Thriller with a capital T
I give this low-budget indie with no big name cast members 10 stars because it is does exactly what it sets out to do keep you on the edge of your seat the entire time. The pace is relentless, the plot twists keep coming, the music pounds. Shoot outs? Oh yeah.
Two medical students on their way home through Oregon stop at a rural roadhouse to take a nature call. The bar is packed with dancing cheerleaders (there's a cheerleader convention nearby), so why not stay for "just one beer." Before long, there's an altercation in the parking lot, someone gets shot and our boys are on the run in their Mustang, cops in hot pursuit. The stakes keep going up as more and more people get shot. There's even some black humor.
This movie is pure muscle and bone. No fat. There's a quiet interlude when the boys run across a survivalist living in a cabin in the woods, but that's about it. It is almost reckless how tautly edited this movie is. Shot for shot, the climax on a remote bridge is so well shot it ought to be shown in film school.
Plausibility? Not so much. It is full of "It just so happens that ..." moments. So what.
For a pure adrenaline rush, you can't beat "Pressure."
Can an evil act be forgiven?
I loved this movie. "Troubled Water" is a Norwegian film about a young man who inadvertently kills a child in the course of a stupid theft. He serves his time in prison and returns to society to a job as a church organist, a skill he developed in prison. Since this is his home town, he is eventually recognized by the mother of the child he killed. She flips out.
This is the bare bones of a remarkable and suspenseful story that explores the usual elements of guilt, atonement, redemption and possible forgiveness that would be expected.
But it is more than that. The performances bring these themes down to earth. We sympathize with both Thomas, who is both trying to redeem himself but in denial about his guilt, and the mother, who has gone on with her life and has adopted kids and a loving husband only to be confronted unexpectedly with her son's murderer living in her town.
We see the story from both points of view and come to realize neither the young man or the mother fully understands who the other really is. He is seeking normalcy. She thinks he's still dangerous.
When the one-on-one confrontation finally happens, it is absolutely riveting. Rarely has a movie's climax had me on the edge of my seat this way.
To discriminating American viewers, this movie is worth your time, even though you have to read subtitles. It is such a compelling story, I wouldn't be surprised if someone in Hollywood envisions an American remake.
The Pillars of the Earth (2010)
Epic novel brought grandly to the screen
I have read everything Ken Follett has written, but I pretty much had him pegged as a writer of extraordinarily readable suspense potboilers. Better than Stephen King, but no Cormac McCarthy. Then, in 1989 he unveiled "Pillars of the Earth" and I was stunned. Follett gave full rein to his incredibly vivid and compelling storytelling abilities. When I finished I was sad. I could no longer follow the adventures of these heroic and scheming English men and women in the the tumultuous 12th Century, a time of uncertainty over who should be on the throne.
I have now watched the first six episodes (available on Netflix for instant viewing) and am dying to see the final two when they come available. I didn't know what to expect, but I can declare myself fully satisfied.
What worried me most going in was the series was what the tone would be. Follett is a master of grand, operatic gestures. The mini-series captures that.
He also is far from shy about sex, barbarism and vulgarity. There's a scene when the monks put Ellen on trial as a witch that made my jaw drop. No F-bombs, but one startling c**t bomb. The incest theme between William and his mother is not explicitly shown, but very clear.
Occasionally, it's a bit "stagey" and the CGI is good, but not state of the art.
Still, "Pillars" is a triumph of epic storytelling.
Frygtelig lykkelig (2008)
Jim Thompson lives on in Denmark
Few posters here have referenced American crime novelist Jim Thompson, but this is his turf, unquestionably. Small town. Everyone knows everyone. Secrets are buried by the residents. Town has a bad person. The local police force (one man, in this case) get pulled in by the town's sinister past. A murder is covered up. But then there's another, related, murder. Suspicion grows exponentially.
"Terribly Happy" begins with the punishment posting of a Copenhagen cop to a distant village because of something bad he has done (we learn the details later). This village is in the nastiest possible place, Jutland, a part of Denmark that looks like Kansas, but without the corn and loaded with swampy bogs. Really depressing. The cop, Robert (Jakob Cedergren), tries his best to bring professional law enforcement to the town, but is almost immediately in trouble over his head.
This is a town that doesn't cotton to strangers. It doesn't help when the town nympho, an abused wife who is married to the town bully, starts coming on to him. This is the kind of town where if someone talks to someone in public, everyone knows immediately. These are not friendly people and they love to gossip.
"Terribly Happy" works as a primo noir because it is utterly plausible, right down to the bitterly ironic ending. This is an outstanding crime drama.
Never saw anything like this
In a nutshell, well-off Greek parents are trying to raise their children a 20-something son and two teenage daughters in complete quarantine from the outside world inside their walled-in homestead. The kids display a naivete so complete that any stimulation from the outside world can have explosive consequences.
Dad brings home a female security guard from the plant he owns to sexually service his son. Soon bizarre ideas about sex, including acting them out, are spreading among the youngsters. They come to think licking each other is an appropriate way to show affection. Then oldest daughter forces the security guard to cough up some VHS cassettes she carries around.
Soon, oldest daughter is quoting lines of dialogue from "Rocky" and "Jaws" (and, hilariously, performing shark attacks on her brother in their pool). Finally, in a jaw dropping dance performed in front of their parents to celebrate their anniversary, while brother plays classical guitar, she does the "Maniac" dance from "Flashdance." This has to be seen to be believed.
This is all done utterly deadpan. Should we be laughing? Maybe not.
I know this review makes the movie sound shallower than it is. I just want to intrigue Americans who otherwise would shun something like this.
Along the way, there are pointed references to totalitarian politics and religious extremism. I am certain North Korea and what has been going on there was an inspiration. If you watch it, don't try to figure it out (though, there's plenty of that on the IMDb discussion boards). Just let it wash over you.
You will not have seen anything like it before.
The Long Goodbye (1973)
"It's OK with me."
I was 23 when I first saw this in a theater. I left scratching my head. I was already an Altman fan, but he seemed the last guy on earth that would adapt Raymond Chandler. Elliott Gould, known mostly at the time as a comic actor, as Phillip Marlowe? That was like replacing Bruce Willis with Steve Carell in a "Die Hard" movie.
Watching it now, I see how much I missed watching it as a callow youth.
Gould/Altman decided to portray Marlowe as a man out of time. From the dim alleys and sleazy nightclubs of Bogart-era Chandler, was are transported into sun-drenched SoCal. Everyone's dressed for the beach or a patio party. Marlowe's in a black suit. People are drinking, but Marlowe has a perpetual cigarette in his mouth. He twitches and mumbles. His neighbors are a gaggle of cute girls who are usually topless. Except when he needs their help finding his cat, he ignores them.
Tough "knight errant" Marlowe has a cat? Oh yes. In fact, the entire first ten minutes of the movie are devoted to him and his cat as he goes on a middle-of-the night quest to a supermarket for cat food. He can't find the brand his cat likes, so he buys another brand, brings it home, shuts his cat out of the kitchen, transfers to cat food to an empty can of the kind the cat likes, lets the cat into the kitchen, shows it the label on the can and dishes it out. The cat turns up its nose and ends up running away.
Why is this scene in a detective movie? It shows the length he will go to take care of someone (or some cat) he cares about, even though he ends up betrayed. And that's the bottom line on Marlowe.
He's a man of deep integrity, plain and simple. That is why, handed a case, he can stroll blithely through all kinds of corruption, vanity, stupidity, sadism and treachery with total equanimity. "It's OK with me," is his constant refrain. It simply doesn't rub off on him.
The entire cast is superb. Sterling Hayden roars his way through the movie as an alcoholic Hemingwayesque writer. Henry Gibson is a sleazy doctor. Nina Van Pallandt is the glamour, floating around in billowing clothes. Marty Rydell is a gangster boss who has the second most shocking scene in the movie when he uses his meek girlfriend to demonstrate to Marlowe what he is capable of.
Marlowe himself has the most shocking scene, at the end, when he delivers justice. His final moment on camera, a long shot on a cheerful moment, reveals that we didn't really understand this guy at all.
Classic noir. Classic '70s cinema. Classic Altman.