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The Forcing May Be With Him
This is one of those films that is considered rather a lesser effort by both the director and the female lead. But the more I see it, the happier I am with it. On reflection, and after multiple viewings, I suppose my fondness for this oddball noir thriller comes from its early use of super-hypnotism--blazing the trail for movies with similar angles, like The Manchurian Candidate, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, and Stir Of Echoes. Over-the-top cinematic use of hypnotism as mind-control in order to terrorize or murder gets pioneering treatment here in Whirlpool (although I'm sure a real film expert can weigh in with even earlier examples, and yes of course they all owe something to Svengali in Trilby), just as The Snake Pit, from a year before, gets credit for pioneering sympathetic and dramatic looks at mental health issues.
I'm not totally enamored of legendary Gene Tierney's performance in this film--which is ironic, given that the word often is that Richard Conte is the one who is miscast as her psychotherapist husband. I guess he's considered too handsome, and not possessed of that cerebral, ultra-brainy vibe that is supposed to be glowing off of anyone playing a character with a heap of college degrees. I remember James Caan getting a similar rap when he played a highly successful author, in the movie Misery; quotes like "he doesn't have the perceptive eyes of a writer supposedly adept at delving into the psychology of his characters...that sparkle is missing!".
Hmmm. If you don't like Richard Conte as a doctor/author then this film could be problem-- because the second half of the film belongs to him, not his wife Ann, played by Tierney, who is arrested for murder in what looks to be an open-and-shut case with no other possible suspect in sight. I love hypnotism stories, even the slightly gonzo implausible ones, but the other big reason I love this movie is its depiction of a husband who, despite grave doubts in the face of a heap of seemingly irrefutable evidence, finally realizes that he should listen to eight years of history of knowing what his beautiful wife could or couldn't do, and goes on a quest to expose the real killer. This leads to his focus on a slimy "quack" of a doctor who may be wearing a thin veneer of respectability over a devilish inner soul. This alleged fiend-- fiend with a perfect alibi thanks to incapacitating and agonizing pain!--is played with marvelous panache by the one and only Jose Ferrer, in splendidly snide and hideous form. The casting is traditional, here; the hero is cleft-chinned and handsome, the villain (if he's as villainous as he sometimes seems to be when we see him alone and apparently trying to wriggle out of some kind of massive debt and impending scandal), but the obvious casting works here. Ferrer, not the handsomest actor in the world, gives us the charismatic charmer who uses his mind-control talents to literally force women to get physically close to him. This is 1949, so his brutish attempt with a hypnotized subject involves him ordering her to take his hand only seconds after putting her under his spell; she refuses...and Ferrer takes a moment to show us the frustration of the "ugly duckling" rejected again, not even able to force women to desire him when they are hypnotized! It's a great, silent moment that suggest that Ferrer's plan for Tierney may have been rather shocking--forced sexual desire-- and only when that proves unattainable does he shift gears, tucking away his sexual frustration, and putting his hypnosis victim to an entirely different use. It's a quick moment, but it gives is a wonderfully sleazy look at the creep Ferrer is really playing, before he transforms back into the slick, intelligent charmer with a flair for words.
Charles Bickford is terrific as the weary, lonely detective who has no choice but to believe in the "orgy of evidence", thus being one more obstacle to Conte as he desperately tries to free his wife. Things play out kind of like a Columbo episode, but Richard Conte is not a cop, just a loyal husband who clings to the idea that he knows his wife better than anyone, despite new secrets bubbling up every hour. Conte's character has a strong heart, and it becomes the heart of the film. Underrated, especially if your interested in fleshing out your list of hypnotism thrillers.
Gloomy Me and My Gloomy Musical
It's probably not shocking that I have a strange fascination with this musical--though I barely sit through any musicals--when you consider my top 4 favorite films: Brazil (director- approved cut), McCabe & Mrs Miller, Blade Runner (director's cut), and Seconds. Brazil is a downer, McCabe & Mrs Miller is a downer, Blade Runner is a downer although there is a rather hopeful interpretation to certain epiphanies that take place near the end--and Seconds?! Seconds is, from front to back, the ultimate nightmare. Even my fifth favorite flick, Hitchcock's Notorious, though not an outright downer, features two people in love who only seem to know how to mistreat each other and squander any chance they have at happiness.
So it is too with Carousel.
I remember I was about 10 years old when Carousel got run on TV. The only musical in my life up to that point was The Wizard Of Oz, and that was all I needed. Oz was so fantastic, with clear characters, clear villains, and some great songs adorning a fantasy/sci-fi world such as I was lapping up in books, that bits and pieces of things like Singin' In The Rain, or West Side Story seemed too much like real people in the real world, albeit singing like there was something magical about it (admittedly, I finally buckled down and watched all of Singin' In The Rain when I was at home sick, maybe when I was 18 years old or so, and my gosh if that ain't the best ride in the park...anyway, back to when I was only about 10...).
So anyway, me joining Carousel in progress, and sticking with it just long enough for--what's this? The story has suddenly cut to...Heaven?! (Y'see, I had missed the opening scene, where of course the movie starts in Heaven and then jumps back to the past.) Whaa?--so, this movie is about a ghost? And judging by this dude's behavior when he was on Earth it's not hard to surmise that he's gonna end up a ghost--or rather, did end up a ghost--due to some kind of unpleasantness. He's got a lowlife friend who likes knives, and quick crime for quick profit, and talks casually of murder. But the main fellow, Billy, seems like he doesn't want to go down that path, what with a pretty girl who just wants him him to get a job (or does she? She sings like an angel, but she's fairly undemanding of this terminally unemployed grump; more later, on the film's weird gender messages and how they don't go over so smooth today).
So, with this delightful and unexpected fantasy angle whacking me in the face, thus was I cured of thinking only The Wizard Of Oz could take me to pure fantasyland via song and dance. I think I had already seen Heaven Can Wait, and loved it, and this Carousel thing, where no one ever quite seems happy but everyone keeps singing anyway, got around my defences with its lunkhead ghost who only knows how to make a mess of things, and its mood of restless regret. And any time I stick with a musical long enough, the wonderful dance numbers, the colorful costumes, the gorgeous sets, the mellifluous voices do start to distract me from the story, in a good way. There's a certain shot of some boats heading towards a sunset, used as the wrap-up to Mr. Snow belting out a tune as they sail towards the clambake, that is just breathtaking. Earlier, the colors of the women's dresses, as they dance on the rooftops, with the docks and ships and that beautiful coastal-town horizon in the background, is another favorite visual moment of mine.
But not all the colors or clambakes or cavorting can quite dispel the underlying sadness that oozes through this strange musical. Again, it's kind of like people singing and dancing happily almost as--a cover for their sadness, their regret? I'm talking of the main characters, the ones at the heart of the story. The key to understanding this mood seems to lie, at least in part, with the way we perceive Billy. In today's world, the references to his slapping his wife (possibly only once, but these days that reads as thinly-veiled, cowardly denial of slapping her more than a few times), his unemployable status, and his inability to apologize for anything could be enough to put a viewer off Billy, and perhaps off the film entirely. I'm not going to launch into a list of the film's trappings which make it a wonderful extravaganza despite its borderline offensiveness in the 21st century, and yeah, I think Billy is, well, a jerk. But, to my mind, if there's one message I get from Billy's case, it's this: look what happens to him--he gets what he deserves. As you sough, so shall you reap.
So now, decades later, I have watched all of Carousel. Is it the Seconds of musicals? Hey now, I'm not sure I'm being completely facetious! Regret, regret, regret. Ducking and running. Desire to be happy, to make others happy, as it starts to unravel. Carousel has a supremely odd vibe for a musical, and I find myself hooked on it.
True Romance (1993)
The spirit of Elvis inspires comic-bookstore employee Clarence (Christian Slater) to do great things. Or is it his sudden love for wild-girl Alabama (Patricia Arquette, who did a mini-run of playing women who fell only for comic-book/movie geeks with more guts than attention to detail; see the film Ed Wood, from the following year) that makes him stand up to possessive pimps, and skip to Hollywood to sell stolen cocaine? Clarence's charisma seems at first a bit implausible; his adeptness at surviving lethal situations would better suit a guy who has stolen drugs and call-girl from gangsters every other day. But Clarence is that much more charming as we realize he is simply unleashing the superman who has been waiting inside him for just such a chance to battle his way past anything that wants to spill his entrails. Clarence and Alabama are too likable for a viewer to want them any other way; the more they run from impending torture and death and gangster smart-aleckiness as only Tarantino can write such stuff, the more it seems like just a trick to lure various creeps into their clutches. The lowlifes never quite see what hits them--if Clarence and Alabama are good at one thing, it's being underestimated. Sometimes this even compensates for Clarence constantly leaving a trail that Wrongway Feldman could follow.
One of the best scenes involves a cadre of gunsels, led by Christopher Walken, getting led to Clarence's father, played Dennis Hopper, thanks to Clarence's carelessness. The gangsters want the father to lead them to the son and his new girl. Walken using scare tactics on Dennis Hopper--I mean, you could flip the roles around and have just as terrific a scene...and heck, it takes a Walken to scare a Hopper. Anyway, once that bit of ugly words and deeds comes to its conclusion, James Gandolfini gets sent off on his own to get the cocaine and bury our brave couple. Full marks to a superb Gandolfini, who corners Alabama/Patricia Arquette while Clarence is off in some washroom reading a book--ack!, no wait, he's off getting munchies. Now, ahem, James Gandolfini versus Patricia Arquette seems more of an easy bet than sorting out odds on Walken versus Hopper. That said, the scene contains a few surprises, and where it looked as if any later scene involving Clarence selling a monster bag of coke to a sleazy movie producer would be minus an Alabama, our wild, plucky heroine with the cocaine shows her hidden side too.
Tony Scott would later riff on his own finale to this movie by essentially borrowing it for another fun movie, Enemy Of The State, but both versions demonstrate that the bigger the crowd present for a drug buy (at least in the case of True Romance), the more rewarding for anyone who gets to watch it from a safe vantage point. The kitchen sink is not present for the final stand-off, but everyone else with a gun and an ego shows up. Perhaps Clarence and Alabama's dreams of flying to some tropical paradise with a couple hundred grand have finally led to a situation they can't charm their way out of: conflagration incarnate.
This is a cool, slick crime movie starring a loving couple who, though they are doing bad things to get their own slice of the pie, are not doing unspeakably horrendous things for more than their slice, while enjoying some nasty slicing. This separates our lovable anti- heroes from most of the other characters, and gives a fun, bubbly duo to cheer for, while the rats follow the cheese. Swiss cheese.
I think what I love about the film is that it looks as if the killer himself (herself?) made the movie. The mystery murderer who bumps off FBI Profiler hopefuls during training on a remote island is a precision expert, obsessed with time, meticulous preparation, and love of detail. The film, too, has spectacular visual polish--it's just a great-looking film, everything with this sinister, pristine quality that gives the viewer a fair chance to notice everything and solve the mystery.
One by one the trainees start dying, even though it's supposed to be a harmless test of young new recruits who all wanna join the FBI, figure out the sick minds of serial killers, and put them away based only on whatever gory evidence they leave, or don't leave, behind. So unless someone is hiding on the island, the killer is amongst the bunch; the killer is Profiling the Profilers and slaying them one by one. There are clues, fake clues, convoluted messages, arrogant predictions of when the next death will occur (and darned if the impending victims can't manage to get off the clock...another one bites the dust), and no matter how clever the countermeasures, the bodies stack up as suspicion turns to panic turns to failure at keeping the crowd from thinning out.
In fact, the deaths are quite gory. Not ultra-super gory, but definitely yuckville. The director has since gone on to express regret at the gore factor shown in his film--yet I can't help feeling that this film needs some gruesome deaths to make a memorable serial killer. This is some sick and twisted individual, and some pretty outrageous murder tactics help make the film an effective horror piece, not just a whodunit. Even if some armchair Sherlocks get within range of the right answer when it comes to the WHO of it all, the sheer demonic fun of getting there--those ghastly but memorable death scenes--makes up for any transparency in the solution. And with this kind of bloody, horrific style, we REALLY want to meet our killer!
And anyway, I didn't figure it out. The movie does draw on some trickery that has already been utilized in at least one earlier, classic "one by one they die" murder mystery, and I still missed the big fake-out! The pace is so fast, the shocks so deliciously vile (you would tone this down, dear director? No!!!), that I saw only what the film wanted me to see, at a crucial moment, not what was right there in front of me.
The performances go a long way in keeping this admittedly absurd scenario as believable as possible. In particular, I really loved LL Cool J, Kathryn Morris, and Jonny Lee Miller in this. Apparently, the soundtrack was a last-minute affair, relatively speaking, when original attempts didn't sound right in the director's opinion--and the music chosen is just perfect for the film.
If you want a gory whodunit, get your nerve up and take a look.
99 and 44/100% Dead (1974)
The 44 Things
44 things (out of 100) about this movie:
Ann Turkel is gorgeous. Bradford Dillman gives a supremely bad performance. Chuck Connors' scenes are the best scenes in the movie. Edmond O'Brien, one of my favorites, is decent in this forgettable film. The underwater opening is a lot of fun. Richard Harris is half cool, half wooden. Married To The Mob is better than this. Smokin Aces is better than this. Lucky Number Slevin is better than this. Frankenheimer isn't necessarily meant to do comedy. Richard Harris likes to take his glasses off in dramatic fashion, make sure they click-clack noisily as he fiddles with them, and then manfully put them back on his face. The blocks of cement seem too light. I'll say Ann Turkel is gorgeous twice, because it'll help me get to 44 Things faster. True Romance is a hundred times better than this. Snatch is much better than this (and I still must see Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels). I think you get what kind of (better) films this movie compares to. They probably should have come up with a different title for this thing. If you like accumulating Super-Guilty Pleasures you can't do much better than this. Hard to believe he's the same director of Seconds and The Manchurian Candidate. Richard Harris did his fair share of odd, somewhat unpalatable movies. The dialogue should have been more humorous. It's like they saw Live And Let Die and decided a gangster movie needs alligators and a guy with a hook for a hand even more than a spy movie does. I've seen much worse than this, but still, is this anybody's favorite movie??
The plot, gangster turf war, is pretty much irrelevant. Ronin improves on the car chases and the night-time bridge shoot-out stuff. Ronin is a better movie. Back to those phony-sounding bullet ricochets we had to endure in movies for years. Richard Harris also likes loading and unloading his guns, but then all these action guys like playing with their weapons. Thank goodness Tarantino found a way to attach a great script and story to this kind of vibe. Henry Mancini's music works fine. Early version of dude walking away from building as it blows up, and having absolutely no reaction at all (apparently the epitome of Cool). The 1970s are a hotbed of totally watchable bad movies. The secret to enjoying this is not to expect a masterpiece, but just sit back and don't think. I thought there'd be more blood. I think this one may be better than Johnny Dangerously. The young ladies in this movie are all quite pretty. Ann Turkel looks a bit like Raquel Welch, just in case that's a look you appreciate. Some of the fight scenes are less than convincing.
44/100% Dead should really be written as 22/50% Dead--or no, I guess not, that's stupid. Now I kind of want to check out Humanoids From The Deep. But I don't want to check out Island Of Dr Moreau (Frankenheimer version).
The next oddball gangster flick I plan to finally check out is Bound, which will probably be better than this. Ann Turkel drives a mean school bus. Dick Tracy is better than this, though we do get some cartoony colors here too, now and then.
Chuck Connors finds the right vibe for this film, and if the rest of the movie had taken a lesson from him, this could have been a lot more satisfying.
That was 44, unless I've miscounted.
The Damned (1962)
The kids are not alright
I thought I was watching Brighton Rock, but then it turned into The Chrysalids or something.
If there's something off-putting for me, it's that all the hard work put into the characters' relationships in the early part of the film doesn't seem to matter one whit once the science- fictional aspect of the movie comes roaring to the forefront, with those darn kids. We have a rowdy street-tough, King, who is just a little too possessive of his lovely sister, even while using her as bait to distract potential mugging victims for him and his gang. We have Joan's attraction to a much older man, Simon, the American tourist who's vacation is about to blossom into danger. We have Freya the sculptress, who borrows this fellow Bernard's cliff- top hideaway to mold her weird visions. The characters begin to intermingle, the connections are forged, Simon and King seem destined for trouble over Joan, Freya's isolation seems destined to be spoiled...and then suddenly the quandaries of the regular people all become completely irrelevant as these bizarre kids with the cold flesh but the good manners show up and take the movie into a whole other realm. A realm of mad science, soldiers in space-suits, and a futuristic secret lab, plus eerie caves, hidden from civilization.
I just feel that the downside to creating all this tension between Simon, Joan, Freya and King which is all grounded in regular stuff like jealousy, sexual attraction, and hooliganism (plus some sculptures) is that the movie doesn't need it for the second half, which has a completely different agenda. Sure, we know these characters and what makes them tick; their interactions in relatively normal circumstances (if occasionally violent or traumatic circumstances!) give us a handle on who these people are in daily life. But then daily life goes out the window, and BAM!, everyone's hip-deep in Science Gone Wrong. Does it even matter that Simon is maybe a tad old for Joan, or that King wants to smack Simon around? All that juicy stuff is built up...and then dropped for good when the movie unveils a Sci-Fi type of menace that threatens anyone climbing fences clearly marked No Trespassing and poking around where they shouldn't be. Kids always need so much attention, don't they! If you build up relationships that coagulate into a discernible plot and then just thrust those characters into a situation that has no bearing on any of the pre-established dynamics, or doesn't even require that any of those dynamics even be there--well, I think you've got a plot problem, a broken-backed movie. It's like if you were setting up a nice divorce scenario in Kramer vs. Kramer and then switched halfway through to Mars Attacks!, on the theory that showing people struggling with divorce issues makes the audience care about them more when the Martians are chasing them. Okay, it sorta works. The people seem real and we get to know them, but if we get too far into custody-battle details, then it's a custody battle we kinda expect to see resolved...not an alien invasion.
Am I nitpicking? Anyway, interesting film in its intent, well acted, and it's marvelously edgy throughout--whether a street gang is bullying a tourist, or super-powered kids are fleeing from scientists in rubber suits. But this is not my favorite approach to a Sci-Fi premise. Things are a little off. Oh, and I hate the song.
Twilight's Last Gleaming (1977)
They unWagered and lost...but...
Things are far too strange here to just say "so bad it's good". Far, far too strange.
Instead, let's say there are three ways to make a film out of a Walter Wager novel. First we have the Telefon example: do a straight-up, linear, by-the-numbers thriller that is so straightforward and escapist that you get a rather wooden, unmemorable--if somewhat entertaining--potboiler. Nothing risked, nothing lost nothing gained. That's Telefon.
Or, there's the 58 Minutes/Die Hard 2 model: change main-character Malone to John McClane, keep the airport-in-jeopardy setting while massively rewriting the novel so it works as a movie sequel to something it wasn't even connected to in the first place, and make sure it's more exciting than Telefon. Your cinematic thriller has soul, and is safely attached to a successful franchise. And for goodness sakes, stay away from polemic, political commentary or deep meaning.
This brings us to our third case of filming a Walter Wager escapist thriller tome: attach thought-provoking socio-political concerns to the escapism. Try to address some lingering bitterness or cynicism in the US macro-psyche over, say, the Viet Nam war. Homegrown terrorists as anti-heroes, trying to out the government's secrets over a futile conflict that lingered on as a political peeing contest that cost too many lives, by way of a captured missile base. Rogue Major Burt Lancaster tries to stare down US President Charles Durning with nine nuclear warheads set to ferment, unless some dirty laundry is aired right quick. Of course it's previous administrations' decisions that Durning's version of the President is getting slapped around for, but that's all part of the...fun? Uh, no, sorry, all part of the moral conundrum. The fun is somewhere else in the movie...and quickly seeping out of the movie, the more director Robert Aldrich decides this is not just going to be escapist thrills.
Personally, I feel the movie gets most obviously unwieldy, and dangerously over-ambitious, once it starts to abandon Burt Lancaster, in favor of Charles Durning. There's a big shift in focus as soon as we start hanging out with Durning and his boardroom full of mucky-mucks--and shut-in Lancaster becomes sort of a bit player in the proceedings, even though he's got nine nuclear missiles. This switch in character focus directly corresponds to the diminishing thrills, and the emphasis on deeper questions and concerns that Robert Aldrich decided were in tune with the USA zeitgeist of 1977. Less booby-traps, ambushes, shoot-outs, torture sessions and stealth attacks gone wrong--more talk, talk, talk, by suits, suits, suits, sitting comfortably in chairs, chairs, chairs, who wants more coffee? Meanwhile, the split-screen effect used deftly during action sequences (much in the way of the TV show 24 years later) gives way to less suspenseful split-screen sequences showing Burt Lancaster almost looking bored while the President dithers.
Then the ending comes along and finds a really unexpected and daring way to combine stark cynical commentary with a shockingly brutal final confrontation such as you would find in only a truly bold and cutting-edge thriller. And so, I'm going to do what the movie does: I'm going to end a review of what sounds like a bad movie deserving its flop status by shifting gears and saying Bravo! Why? Well, 8 out of 10 for this because--despite everything wrongheaded about the project- -I can honestly say that there is no other thriller, or quasi-thriller stuffed with deep thoughts and dark commentary, quite like it. It's a glorious misfire. I didn't take it seriously, but it had me trying. More lively than Telefon, less cheesy fun than Die Hard 2, and a unique experiment: sort of Inside Man meets Sum Of All Fears meets Point/Counterpoint. Crashes and burns in one of the most compelling ways I've ever seen, and that ain't hay!
Rolling Thunder (1977)
He was a quiet man...a very quiet man.
I thought I was gonna see a game-changer of a vigilante movie. Instead, it pretty much runs with the pack. As good as Vigilante, Slaughter, White Lightning--not as good as Death Wish, Death Sentence, or my big favorite The Brave One. Rolling Thunder is apparently a Tarantino favorite--and not just among revenge flicks, but among any movies! Frankly, I don't see it. William Devane is a welcome addition to any movie, and he fully commits to this taciturn pressure-cooker of a human being, back from a Viet Nam POW torture hotel, but once he has reason to seek vengeance against a gang of sadistic thugs, the character is much like what we've seen Bronson do, Seagal do, Arnie do. And an ultra-bloody finale doesn't exactly qualify as a fresh plot twist.
So what's to like? Well, Devane gets it mainly right, once he commits to playing a character who has very little to say, and a lot of shooting and, uh, pronging, to do. (Although, I do agree that Devane does not seem upset enough--even seems kind of jokey--in the hospital scene right after the major tragedy that ripped his life apart.) Linda Haynes does just fine as the younger woman who sort of worships this brooding, military mystery-man with all the sexy inner pain. And like any vigilante movie worth its ammo, the villains get up to some pretty shocking behavior, only to be outdone by a marginal hero who--once he guns up and hits the trail in search of prey--makes the baddies look like small-timers when it comes to shocking behavior. If I can slip in a complaint: it's a bit dull when the hero and his lady always use the same "decoy/distraction" ploy; sure...in real life, I guess you'd repeatedly go with what works,but in an action-movie, running the same trick more than once can cause viewer ennui.
I know this film has some loyal fans who rate it high, and I respect that. I really did get into its intense feel as I watched it, and there's no denying it's got a mean punch. But it did not become one of my favorite vigilante movies, that's for sure. I see a few warts, and an underused Tommy Lee Jones who seems to function mainly as Devane's secret weapon for the final dust-up...like a bazooka you keep stashed until you really need it. Also, I had just seen the film called The Outfit recently--same director, and Rolling Thunder seems to end pretty much the same way as The Outfit does, right down to what you see as the closing credits start to roll. So I'm back to repeating my complaint about repeating oneself, and I hate repeating myself.
Entertaining vigilante thriller that doesn't quite get full marks from me.
Words Cannot Express
This one is as creepy as it gets. It improves on the novel--which is also terrific--mainly because, on film, it gets a chilling, Gothic score from Jerry Goldsmith, plus an opening- credits sequence that trumps whatever cover they could ever possibly put on a reprint of the book, and a specific cinematography approach that probably outdoes anything a reader's imagination could supply for visuals. As a bookworm, it's not often that I get to say a director's vision for a horror novel turned into a movie is better than the horrors I could see in my head while interpreting nightmarish text. Director John Frankenheimer, in collusion with a genius cinematographer, got Seconds, the ultimate "be careful what you wish for" chiller, absolutely right.
The weak spot maybe could have been the casting of Rock Hudson in the lead, but apparently Hudson insisted that he not play the "earlier" version of his character in the beginning stages of the film--and what this means is that Rock Hudson understood this material and his place in it. This means that Rock Hudson knew that Arthur Hamilton's transformation into Tony Wilson should show, above all, that Arthur Hamilton is lost. We don't get some actor who wanted lots of screen-time getting worked over by the Make Up Dept. to look older, just so he can then become young and beautiful in the reboot of his life. Arthur Hamilton, weary old banker, is obliterated (on the outside, anyway), and the fact that two actors who of course bear no resemblance to each other play the same character--a Before version, and a supposedly happier After version--means that what we have a Miraculous Transformation that is really more of a Brutal Slaying, an Obliteration. My point is: if Rock Hudson could figure out that he should not play the earlier version of the main character, then it's not surprising that his deep understanding of what this character undergoes (or, unwittingly subjects himself to) means that he should provide us with an amazing performance. And that is exactly what he does.
So we have a secret organization that takes money to transform disillusioned older men into younger, handsomer men with the chance to start over and make their dreams come true. The movie is insidiously subtle in its constant hints of what this shadowy organization is really up to; the first telling point is the fact that the head of the "Rebirth" organization is a really old, wrinkled-up dude who needs glasses and has a creepy smile that doesn't seem to end at his ears (played magnificently by Will Geer). Hmmmm. I mean, how come this old guy has not partaken of his own "fountain of youth" process? As the film slithers along--old dude's smile notwithstanding--very few truly happy scenes take place. Tony Wilson (formerly Arthur Hamilton) seems stuck in some dreary rut right from the start of his "rebirth", and then later, when he has met a charming lady who lures him to a rowdy Bacchanalian naturefest so he can loosen up, Rock Hudson finally lets it all hang out and smiles in pure joy. Every iota of the film had been so sinister up to that point, that it's like a breath of fresh air when the main character actually seems happy. Heck---IS happy!
It is a fleeting, ephemeral moment. An indication that there is the slightest chance that Arthur Hamilton/Tony Wilson can turn the corner and do what his secret benefactors want him to do: don't worry be happy, for goodness sake! And above all, don't regret. But, at a cocktail party, the smile is less convincing as it comes in a sea of alcohol that can make lips smile, and make lips loose. The movie inevitably shifts from constantly unsettling to, of course, actively wicked. And the ending mercilessly beats down with a big stick any other entries for Creepiest Last Scene. Anyone not feeling total dread as the film bleeds out to the end credits is a, I dunno, is a toaster.
One of the great achievements in disturbing film-making. You have to see it.
Family Plot (1976)
That's a wrap for the Master
This is one of my favorite Hitchcock films, alongside things like Notorious, Psycho, North By Northwest, Frenzy, and Foreign Correspondent. Though Hitchcock applied the magic directorial touch to many of the sequences, I can't help but feel it is a small team of performers who make this a fun film to watch over and over again: William Devane, Barbara Harris, Karen Black, throw in Ed Lauter too--and most of all, of course, the marvellous Bruce Dern. I know that some of them were not first choices in the casting process, but what you end up with here are two teams of schemers who collide in splendid ways, all because one man's horrid past starts to intrude on his equally despicable present. You can hide, but you can't run.
I love the strong element of coincidence in the film, normally the mark of a tacky film. And how many of these serpentine machinations on display really do stem from coincidence? The first coincidence is a real one: Bruce Dern almost hits strolling stranger Karen Black with his car--and of course these two are destined to cross paths several times throughout the film. But Dern and Harris, as this wonderful contrast to the other sneaky pair of the film, Devane and Black, appear as ditherers, scatterbrains, goofs, even. We have the precise, cleanly- executed super-calm approach of Devane and Black versus what looks like a losing side in the bumbling obliviousness of the admittedly lovable Dern & Harris dysfunctional combo.
Or not dysfunctional, after all! Under all the histrionics, bickering and clowning around, Dern and Harris manage to function as plodding yet determined detectives--and they have an advantage over Devane's superior intellect: they are coming at him, slowly, from an angle he does not expect...his past. The few scenes with cops--wonderful scenes, playful scenes-- just indicate that if George (Bruce Dern) and Blanche (Barbara Harris) don't succeed in tracking a criminal (and his reluctant female accomplice) to his lair the hard way, no one will. The kidnapping-for-swag will go on and on because the villains are too perfect. Enter successful dysfunction, in just the most wonderful way shown in any movie.
I love all the intertwining, and I love Ed Lauter coming in from the sidelines and being that cool fifth-guy-in--and I love a last Hitchcock movie that has, of all things, self-absorbed faceless teenagers in a car, who--after accidentally forcing an oncoming car off a cliff, just sort of drive off to continue their partying. After all, who cares? Whimsy in death. And I do cherish the little wink at the end--as if it's Hitchcock himself taking the first brick out of the "Fourth Wall" and saying 'I'm just about done pretending". I love Frenzy, but I prefer a charming, breezy exit. With just a hint of menace. Vastly under-appreciated movie.
This is probably my third favorite film I've ever watched (so far), and the first one with what is not a downer ending (monkeying around with the ending of BRAZIL does not count). I suppose this also makes it my favorite spy movie. And if this is a person's favorite spy movie, then it means he or she also likes a splendid love story. Who woulda thot I had it in me?
Serious and generally unflappable spy Devlin (Cary Grant giving a brilliant performance--and this has got to be one of the most likable heroes we've got who really never gets to endear us the easy way, with jokes or a crazy moment or two) is meant to recruit the daughter of a convicted Nazi for spywork in Rio. The mission planned for her: use that unfortunate familial connection to infiltrate a scheming Nazi nest with a new, hidden agenda. The problem is: Devlin and Alicia (Ingrid Bergman looking stunning and matching Cary Grant in her performance) seem to be falling in love just when a crucial mission-detail filters down--Alicia is to seduce an old flame in order to join the Nazi circle effectively. Devlin and Alicia both push each other to admit that the Job will destroy the feelings that have been growing between them, but it all goes wrong as Devlin decides to seal his vulnerability up tight, and Alicia takes a similar tack. trying to goad Devlin into admitting his feelings rather than admit her own and abort the all-important mission. The day the mission actually starts--and Alicia "accidently" bumps into former lover Alex (Claude Rains at the top of his game, in the Lovesick, Jealous, Vulnerable, Mama's Boy, and finally Royally Peeved, Depts.)--Devlin and Alicia seem to hate each other. Two stubborn people who could have been the Romance Of The Ages are tougher on each other than all those Nazis hovering around them. Even if they win (or even just survive), it feels like they'll lose the most important thing.
Of course, Hitchcock makes sure that The Disintegration Of The Romance Of The Ages is somehow actually The Romance Of The Ages Anyway. With every cruel verbal barb Devlin and Alicia hurl at each other--and with the fleeting moments of shared vulnerability earlier, they each know exactly where to jab and make it hurt most--we know how much these two proud people are in love. But duty first, and suspicions can easily be aroused if supreme care is not taken.
The film looks stupendous; there are several famous visuals, among them Cary Grant's face as he turns from an airplane window and finds that heart-stopping Ingrid Bergman face closer than he thought (all this as the picture fades to another); and of course the wonderful creep-down from an all-encompassing swanky-party shot that zeros in on the key in our heroine's tense hand. Personally, I think the extended kiss of the early portion is out-done by the wonderful intimacy that just won't quit in Grant's and Bergman's final scene alone together, before they attempt to get down those stairs.
A perfect film.
The Killer Elite (1975)
Up against a team of international assassins
It's official; James Caan plays my favorite spy-hero with a limp and a cane. It certainly is a unique twist to have a physically-disabled fellow as the action guy, but of course it is the betrayal and shooting--in the knee and elbow--of Mike Locken, played wonderfully by Caan, that fuels the rest of the movie. Locken, who tends to joke his way through dangerous jobs and doesn't seem to believe in anything even as he serves his country (albeit as freelancer), wants revenge...but is physically unable to go after it.
At least, that's the prediction. Caan's two bosses, played by Gig Young and Arthur Hill, take the doctor's gloomy prognosis as writ, and Caan is to be forced into retirement, even as our hero insists that he will not be shelved. Soon after this, an Asian politician whose life is under threat in his native country arrives in San Francisco, but given what erupts before he and his entourage (including feisty daughter) are barely off the plane, it's clear that ninja assassins have followed him on his little visit. When the intended hit goes pear-shaped, the man who shot up Caan is brought in as back-up--and suddenly Caan is the flavor of the month again. Though Revenge and Bodyguard lines blur as Caan resorts to using the targets as bait to flush out the old friend who bushwacked him.
This strange film is one I have grown to like more than I ever did upon first viewing, when I went "enh, izz okay". I think what has happened with me and repeated viewings is that I am now well-distanced from the film I thought I was going to see, and am quite fond of what THE KILLER ELITE is actually doing...and doing quite well, mostly. This happened to me recently with the film starring Gene Hackman called THE CONVERSATION, which I was forced to reevaluate after a second perusal, and it's the exact same thing: expectations not met, but expectations were unfair. Part of it is the obvious: wanting more action, a faster pace, wanting a James Bond spy movie, or Bourne, more action, the modern pacing, maybe even more glitz and pyrotechnics. And even when the action scenes come in a 70s film, how can they compete with what gets cooked up for these thrill-rides we get today? They can't.
Caan is perfect as the "crippled" hero (his bosses use that word, so I repeat it), who, maybe, can think about walking in a year. His acting of frustrating body-pain is very convincing, which you already know if you've seen him in the great film MISERY. Earlier, I said Caan has many scenes showing a gradual physical rehabilitation, and I deliberately didn't say "and mental rehabilitation" because there is no mental rehabilitation. That is not a slight on Caan's acting--far from it. The character of Mike Locken never crumbles, mentally. He wants to walk again. He tries too hard to walk again. He is trapped in a body that was superbly conditioned for covert action, and he can't stand lying around hearing how it won't ever get much better. Once his tender nurse, Amy--who devotes all her time to helping this wise- cracking bear of a man get at least to crutches level--begins to fall for him, they go for dinner and Caan tries too hard, too soon, to prove he can move about like anyone without leg and arm braces. It's a fiasco. And by this time, Peckinpah and Caan have shown, expertly, that the action can wait while character is shown and romance blooms.
Anyway, once the crutches are tossed in the river and replaced by a cane that can be wielded in combat as well as just being used to walk about on dates with a loyal woman, we know that the film is slowly shifting gears, and the Peckinpah action, hiding for a while after the bloody start, is coming back. There could be another traitorous rat. There will be swordplay, gunplay, a bomb under a car, payoffs, and death drops. The lead-in to all that may seem a little ponderous, but for me it gives the film soul. And thank ruddy goodness that Caan's limp doesn't just dissolve into thin air when the carnage erupts!
In my review of THE NATURAL, I was a bit disparaging when it comes to icon Robert Duvall, but with THE KILLER ELITE, I must rebound a bit, and say that Duvall really delivers. As a guy with a lot on his mind at the start, he really nails that brooding concentration just sort of slipping out from his wise-guy antics and dialogue and hinting what he's really about. Then, when he comes back into the story, the menace is palpable but not overdone.
No, if anyone gets on my nerves in this film, it's Burt Young; bless him, but if I ever have to see a guy muck with his hat, and finger point, and wave his hand up around his head for no reason, and generally fidget his way through a performance, I'm going to go out of my mind.
The ending has been criticized as a "throwaway". Well, things do get a bit weird at the finish. Serious mood, gravitas, gets trashed as characters joke about some violence going on around them. But...we knew these characters were jaded, cynical, disillusioned, only half-believing in what they fought for the whole time. I don't love it; but I don't hate it. I sort of zone out on the martial arts free-for-all that erupts and zone in on the sudden death of a character, and the closure for Caan when it comes to settling up with the final betrayer.
Something different, and refreshing.
The Natural (1984)
Say He's A Loser, And Then Order Him Not To Win
A big, showy, flashy, museum-piece of a film--like a famous painting of a myth--that sure does leave me cold.
The film, which looks and sounds great, goes to such lengths to do up a mystery-man myth- -the stuff legend--that I find the more legendary it becomes, the more removed I become from the characters. Redford plays a fellow whose past is so hidden, and who is really only interested in playing baseball, and talking baseball, that I have no connection to him, no reason to be interested in him. I much prefer Redford with a wild side--see THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR, or BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID--over this tight, controlled, almost robotic knight of sport. Meanwhile, much as I respect the stature of Robert Duvall, I'm a bit weary of the patented nervous laughter, or sly, knowing leer he uses to buff up a performance. Admittedly, he tries to do a lot in a few scenes, but what he does is too familiar, too obviously easy for him. The same goes for my impressions of Joe Don Baker, who sometimes strikes me as a guy slipping into easy caricature--here and in GOLDENEYE-- rather than look for the subtler shades. I guess the bottom-line is: can I tell they're acting a role.
On the flipside, people like Wilford Brimley, Richard Farnsworth, and Michael Madsen are a breath of fresh air in this puffy-shirt of a movie. Brimley and Farnsworth don't work to undermine the mythic quality sought in the film (the aspect that doesn't always impress me), but their old-duffer, regular-guy, "I say what I feel" approach keeps them down among the mortal plane with me. As for Madsen, he doesn't get to be a regular guy, necessarily, and he doesn't get to add layers--but despite that the movie desperately needed a feral, wild-card quality, something or someone dangerous and unpredictable, and Madsen provides that with his egotistical, arrogant ballplayer. The most enjoyable scene for me, the only time I didn't really know where things were going to go, was when a jealous Madsen took hold of Redford's lucky bat and wouldn't give it back.
This brings me to the overall predictability of the film; It's not that hard to see what is leading to what. Combine this with the over-the-top hitting heroics that make our star player an almost unbelievable hero, and spectacular becomes corny. And the women's roles? Three talented actresses caught in, to my mind, negligible, paste-em-on characters, with only the amazing Glenn Close having some layers, and handling them well, predictable though they are.
I would love to love this more, but it's not my thing, by show's end. Beautifully lit, gorgeous period detail, stunning cinematography--and these people kind of bore me. I guess if I were a more rabid baseball fanatic, I would treasure more The Fairy Tale Where Everything Is Just Perfect. Instead, I was all "C'mon, Madsen--slug somebody, break a bat over someone's head.".
I just wish 'Legend' didn't mean we don't get to know anything about anybody.
Big Brown Eyes (1936)
What Movie Is That, Kind Sir?
Where I work, we do a fairly brisk trade in DVDs, including hard-to-find films, old films, some strange stuff too. And we are technically adept enough to have a nice big screen at the back which we have managed to hook up to something that will play the movies. If Stan is in, he basically picks what we will be watching for most of the day--special pleading or claims of overkill aside--but when Stan leaves, it generally devolves to me to select what will be showing. And this is fun. It means that, temporarily, MASTER AND COMMANDER, or LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, or PERRY MASON episodes are set aside, and we can loosen things up a bit, at my discretion. Into the realm of "What The Heck Are We Watching, And Why Am I Hypnotized By It?".
A rousing round of CULT OF THE COBRA, followed up by either DR CYCLOPS or FIEND WITHOUT A FACE (depending on whether I'm feeling a Marshall Thompson double-bill is called for), and onto NARROW MARGIN (Peter Hyams remake; not the suspense film of the ages, but I do like this director's work overall, plus the Lady Archer, and people our store will stop and watch the action, or the fun scene where Sikking confronts Hackman over drinks, on the train). If I'm feeling things should take a classier turn, Hitchcock's NOTORIOUS is a favorite, and just exactly how many times BRAZIL has been shown on the premises is a matter of debate...but it's somewhere between infinite, and whatever comes after infinite.
When it occurs to me to slap BIG BROWN EYES on again--a wonderful, if forgotten "crime comedy"--I always get a warm fuzzy feeling. I love going that far back and yet still playing a film nobody seems to know, but is ultra-cool, and a little bit before its time. Some early vigilante-movie stuff going on here. Very savvy leading lady, aggressive, gets it done, out-performs the male detective who is enthusiastic to kick crime where it hurts, but seems either befuddled or embittered next to our smart-mouthed superwoman. Speaking of smart- mouths, I've just come fresh from my review of THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT, and those who like the punch of a Shane Black script, and all that lightning-fast and super-entertaining dialogue, would do well to listen to everyone trading zingers in BIG BROWN EYES, decades ago. Try and listen; try and keep up.
Back to the screening of this film--me your Master Of Ceremonies--there are four huge reasons to watch this film, at the very least: Joan Bennett, Cary Grant, Walter Pidgeon, and maybe especially the amazing Mr. Lloyd Nolan. This was really my first look at Lloyd Nolan (I had seen HOUSE ON 92ND STREET, but that is a film that is trying not to draw attention to actors and acting, as it goes for docudrama as done by "regular people"), and I only really knew his name as if vaguely connected to THE TERMINATOR and lawsuits and THE TWILIGHT ZONE or some such complicated frippery. Anyway, when I run BIG BROWN EYES at the store, we are known to attract some curious viewers. Mainly the old fellows with the sentient beards, who realize they are watching something sprightly, and just a bit dangerous, filled with these big names giving energetic performances, and spouting sharp dialogue while weaving in and out of mayhem. These knowledgeable old film buffs with their beards and their trivia-packed memories try to connect Cary Grant, Joan Bennett, LLoyd Nolan, and Walter Pidgeon all together in a superior film which surely they must know, but don't--and all wind up asking me "Sirrah--(oops, or rather:) --Good Sir, stout fellow, what be yon film?". And I give them the scoop. And sometimes we sell a Cary Grant boxset. And everyone comes away happy. Especially me, as I watch flower-loving gangster prone to violence Lloyd Nolan define the breezy nastiness of this film in all his scenes.
Hitchcock seemed to do some culling here, for casting, Hey, isn't that the dude who shows up in FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT? That other guy there, playing one of the gunsels--he shows up in SABOTEUR, yes? Goodness me, I'm getting good at these old movies finally! And Cary Grant, I seem to recall him showing up in a few Hitchcock films, or am I wrong? Anyway, suffice it to say: I like BIG BROWN EYES better than ARSENIC AND OLD LACE, which I guess means there's something wrong with me and I can't be totally trusted, but there it is. A little less loudness and bombast going on, and I'm happy. A little more naturalism to the performances (even in 1936!), and I'm enjoying myself. Noisy where necessary, calm and cool where required.
A baby-killing in the middle of a "comedy" is probably not something everyone likes. I'm not saying that I sat there waiting for it to happen ("where's this big infanticide they advertised-- they sure are taking their sweet time!"--no no, nothing like that), but once the film commits to such a development, in a 1936 comedy, the film has one of those ahead-of-its-time moments. Is this Tarantino, shaking things up, making it edgy, making it a bit discomforting and depraved while still brilliant? No, it can't be. I don't think he wrote stuff before he was born. Anyway, I like risks; I like it when it gets in your face a bit. This film is charming enough--throw in some vigilante-justice stuff, and a vile act or two, and things percolate better. The social conscience of the film--before and after the life-taking gunplay in the park--means that it's wrong to see this just as a screwy comedy, and that's fine with me.
So, BIG BROWN EYES. Something a bit edgy for its time. Very slick and clever--great dialogue coming at you throughout, especially from the lady, who rips through things with guts and gusto. Hail Joan Bennett in this, liberated woman. I love this movie!
The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)
Smart Alecks With Bloody Faces
For the first 30 minutes, this otherwise amazing action movie seems to be targeting me personally for itemized torture. There are certain things that make me cringe, and either cover my ears, or avert my eyes, depending on what's going on. Now, there is no quicksand in the film; nor does a dog lick a person's face while the person seems to like it. Fair enough--but even with that really horrendous stuff not making a showing in this film, I am forced, instead, to endure the following:
(1) A character slices her finger with a knife while chopping carrots (this sort of thing, or someone cutting himself shaving, gives me the creeping willies). True, gratuitous blood oozing on the finger is kept to a polite minimum, but on to:
(2) A character is forced to mercy-kill an injured animal by twisting its neck (practice for the same maneuver naturally being applied to a villainous human). Always a toughie for me, and this is one where the hands fly to the ears.
(3) A character takes a tumble on some skates, and cracko goes a bone. See also THE DARK KNIGHT. Again, I'm supposed to feel let off the hook, somewhat, because we don't actually see a bone snapping and jutting out of a limb (see, for this, DEEP RISING, or THE FLY (1986); also starring Geena Davis, who seems to be some kind of marker for films ready to snap bones). But by this time I know that what is lacking in the visuals is being made up for in a sort of sound assault, exacerbated by:
(4) Villain brandishes pretty much the evilest-looking knife on the planet while threatening a bound torture victim. This is of course a lead-in to a rather terrible sound as this blade from hell is finally put to use.
Why do I tell you all this? Why turn a review into a Sickens-Me-Most List when I should be commenting on action, or pace, or characterization? Well, the movie's constant desire to make a squeamish viewer cringe using odd and sickening gimmicks--even sounds--is a good way of saying that the film has a personality unique in spy flicks. Especially when you throw in a Shane Black script as directed by Renny Harlin. Nauseating sounds, disturbing scenes, faces washed and scrubbed only to be bloodied again in the next round of action...it's hard to concentrate on the wickedly playful script. The film sometimes seems to be poking at the viewer, sticking toothpicks under the fingernails and lighting matches between the toes, and having Jim Carrey somehow present even here to provide The Most Annoying Sound In The World, in brief spurts, all while it zings along at frog-tongue speed and fits the cool repartee in between pain sounds.
It is so uniquely and unrelentingly nasty in its effect that I find I love it. It also helps that a few of my favorite people worked on this film. Samuel L. Jackson--well, he helps immeasurably in moving this up several subsections of notches. David Morse plays it so calmly and devilishly compared to all the frenzy bouncing around him, that he's a welcome quiet talker. Brian Cox fits into these spy films effortlessly, seeming like a guy who could have trained a killer, or hired a killer to solve a problem--and he gets some terrific lines. G. D. Spradlin--never out of place, and here gives a quick but tough-talking turn as the US President. And as for the homemaker turned spy herself--Geena Davis--while I confess that she is not one of my all-time favorite leading ladies, I loved her in THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST, and here at the opposite end of the Universe known as THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT, she gives us one of the best female action heroines in a movie. Basically playing two characters in one, she successfully burns the scented candle which is really a stick of dynamite at both ends.
Plus, I'm never one to disrespect an Alan Silvestri soundtrack...though I would say that jarring, rabbit-punch of sound he likes to apply only adds to the general edginess of the noise factor present in this film.
As for Renny Harlin; hey, he has his detractors and I'm not one of them. Over and over a again, when I need a fun time with broken brakes, I watch CLIFFHANGER, DIE HARD 2, DEEP BLUE SEA, MINDHUNTERS, and of course THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT. I love his snow and his gunplay and his carnage. I love his pace, and that ham-fisted impishness that gets stamped on things. This particular film shows that with a great script and a twisty spy premise, he can spin gold. Even if it does make me grit my teeth at something kind of vile every 10 minutes.
The Nanny (1965)
Just Left The John With The Water Turned On
A creepy nanny and a precocious kid butt heads, while a mother seems to be heading for a nervous breakdown, and the father simply leaves town. Of course it's more than it seems; we meet the bratty boy being taken home from a sort of lock-up for troubled kids and the doctor is out on the porch saying stuff like "Darn, never did manage to cure that little blighter.". Mom has refused to go, dad's attitude (before dashing away) seems to be punish-punish-punish, and only Bette Davis, as the Nanny, seems nice. No she doesn't. She doesn't seem nice. There was something I didn't like about this smiling old girl right from the get-go, Pamela Franklin eyes--sorry, Bette Davis eyes--or no Bette Davis eyes.
Speaking of Pamela Franklin, she's the one spot of good cheer in the film, playing the young upstairs neighbor to the little fellow brought home, and actually managing to have a few normal conversations with said terror-tyke, once they've met on the fire-escape of the building. These are the moments of calm, though the boy is always fast with a sassy remark. Yes, he's non-stop detestable. He's got nothing but horrid accusations against that poor nanny, and even before we get an idea of why he loathes the sweet cheery old helper of the household, he's razed the entire premises with nothing but antagonistic, vile behavior. No wonder they packed him off years ago. Mother constantly multi-tasking crying and headaches, with breaks only for zoning out in bed. Visiting auntie--somewhat cooler than the mother but slowed down by a bad heart--not quite able to soothe all the never-ending tension.
Of course the power of Bette Davis is such that no matter how unrelentingly bratty and vile the kid is, the smiling persecuted Nanny is scarier. I didn't care how nice and tolerant she was being; it's Bette Davis, so that kid's onto something. And when the cracks start to appear in this Nanny's outer shell of humility, one wonders if her apron should be checked for knives or throwing-axes. Is any kid with an unreasonable fear of Bette Davis really so maladjusted?
And we learn what happened to get the boy shooed off to a home for boys who elevate naughty to a fine art, all those years ago. And we find out why family pictures have a sweet little girl in the frame--but, funny, there's no little girl running around the house anywhere. And it all goes from unsettling to panic-inducing, before you can say poison, or smothering, or heart medicine, or head-pushed-under, or noose, or Boy who Cried Wolf, or not.
Terrific film for those who like highly stressed-out households where murder accusations pile up faster than the wastebaskets, and there's an implicit guarantee that someone living there has a bullseye on his or her back. It seems like the sort of family where a band of sadists perpetrating a home-invasion one night might bust in there only to find that the inhabitants have all finished each other off before the invaders even got in...or if still alive, were so busy tearing pieces out of one another that the home-invaders felt ignored and sort of fifth-wheelish.
I leave it to you to sample this nasty scrap of psychological horror, and find out if the nanny in question is a nice, loyal, cheery old soul harassed by a heinous little bugger of a child, or, well, kind of a bad nanny as nannies go. I confess she seemed like someone who could lose it and go ballistic at any moment, but it's Bette Davis, and strange thoughts can enter one's head in that case.
Recommended to me by: Fangoria Magazine # 300, featuring a List of the "300 Best" Horror films (2011). Write-up on THE NANNY done by Michael Gingold/MG (fine pick for the List, MG, especially amongst the non-gory yet admirably distressing entries).
The Wolf Man (1941)
Step Into The Lair of the Traditional
Trolls, Trolls...come out come out wherever you are! I invite you to attack!
I mean, isn't that what is going to happen if I give a Classic Horror film, much loved, a mere 7 Rating. A 7 Star rating ain't shabby--but let's face it together: I've just come from giving KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE a perfect score, and I am willing to give SESSION 9 a strong 8-Star ranking. And now, I tackle a so-called classic of the Horror genre, THE WOLFMAN from 1941, and I'm tempted to dole out a 6-Star ranking, only to stop short and call "Foul!" on myself, and stop at a 7.
It's all very traditional. And, of course, safe...by 2011 standards, the year outside as I write this review. I can't help that. I don't have a 2-minute attention span, I'm more patient than that, so don't say I'm guilty of that, like some kid hooked on video games. It's just that-- sigh--we have the traditional mist, and the the traditional night, and the traditional big music, and the screams of women in distress, and the traditional nice level-headed chap with the friendly father, and the traditional hunters of wolves with stern looks and big guns and their intrepidness (hey, I don't knock Ralph Bellamy channeling James Coburn before we even saw James Coburn on film, it works, and Bellamy is one of the best things in the film and not given enough credit for his steely determination mixed with a bit of humor). It all works nicely, and it's all very safe by 2011 standards, which, I'm sorry, but, I'm forced to apply.
I like this film. It's got mood, and star power, a story that rolls along effortlessly, and although I'm wondering why the original werewolf that bites poor Larry Talbot actually IS in pure wolf form (down on four paws and highly, savagely, canine), and the next werewolf look we get is the classic make-up and fur job that we all know, and that do generally rate as effective. Though repeated shots of the same stalking legs are almost as annoying as the same poetic incantation muttered over and over again, I find. And so, it's definitely 1941 at Universal. Meanwhile, also safe is smiling Lon Chaney Jr. in this, much praised for his nice- guy with the hound-dog look and the gentle manner, as balanced against the admittedly frightening, feral beast he's forced to become. But I can't help wishing for that modern touch we just can't have here--a guy who is not so nice and stray-mutt likable before he becomes a monster. Chaney Jr. is so big and menacingly-built, but all the menace is saved for the limited amount of screen time his wolf self has. Y'know, the most I've been scared of Lon Chaney Jr. is in THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE where he gets to terrorize without a lot of monster make-up on, and all that hugeness gets to run amok. Even in MAN MADE MONSTER, we have this big, intimidating guy who makes you want to hug him, and then he gets transformed; can't we just hate him? And if he's that nice, is he really gonna do anything that horrible? Darn. If only the Chaney Jr. wolf man got to do more menacing stuff, and if only Frank Talbot weren't so...gee-golly.
But he is. In 1941, you change a sweetheart into a wolf dude. You don't pick a Tobin Bell or Robert Englund, who look like the're just waiting to turn into some kind of demon.
So, it's a classic. And by golly, you should watch it. In fact, go crazy--immerse yourself in Classic Universal Horror. But if, like me, you come away oddly unfulfilled while people hate you for it, it's because you've seen ALIEN, HALLOWEEN, John Carpenter's THE THING. You dove in with the shark. I don't think THE WOLF MAN is dated, in the sense that "Oh, this doesn't wear well because it's old.". It's safe, rather. It's traditional. Lacking in subtlety--or what was considered subtle is actually now quite unsubtle. Subtle is not "oh how ironic when everyone is dismissing the werewolf legend for the first 20 minutes of the film, because I know what's going to happen". Subtle is Ash saying to Ripley: "The time it takes to get there, you'll--they'll know if it's a warning or not.". You gotta be quick to hear that "you'll" from Ash, and figure out what he almost said, and what it hints about him. But this is not ALIEN; this is THE WOLF MAN (1941).
A word about Claude Rains. Hey, I loved him in NOTORIOUS, one of my all-time favorite films! Here in The WOLF MAN, now that I've done repeated viewings, some of that amazing reservedness and charm in the face of crisis from the Hitchcock film comes off as a bit wooden and dull here--and it has more to do with passing him off as Chaney Jr.s father. It doesn't throw me as much these days; Rains gives it his all in THE WOLF MAN, and there is something really cool about seeing two so different actors as Lon Chaney Jr. and Claude Rains playing son and father. But I never really get past the weirdness of these two as playing relations...and I think Rains and Chaney Jr., though not working at cross-purposes, never really gel as father and admittedly prodigal, Americanized son.
Recommended to me by: Fangoria Magazine issue # 300, which features a List of "300 Best" Horror films--THE WOLF MAN write-up done by List contributor Brian Solomon (B.S.)
Also featured as a selection in the book 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die (Updated Edition, 2011), with the film's entry provided by SJS/Steven Jay Schneider (General Editor of the book).
Session 9 (2001)
Come For The Atmosphere, Stay For The Killings
Quite an effective piece of psychological horror. The whole thing feels like it's going to be a "haunted house" variant--they certainly picked a creepy locale--and then the little signals started going off in my brain that said the film was going to be a lot sneaker than I would figure out. So I watched carefully. But it's hard to pick up clues when you're scared most of the time. I did the best I could, and the mystery is not totally impenetrable, but regardless of how much of a Sherlock Holmes you can prove to be in a pinch--bring his bravery to the proceedings, not just his smarts; the film is a chiller.
There's a lot of daylight. This happens in some Horror films, I notice. THE HIDEOUS SUN DEMON actually tried to turn daylight into a new fear factor, and while that film may not quite cut the mustard out in the sunshine, this film very slyly got me fearful of the well-lit rooms, and extra-worried about the few dark rooms: the basement, the room with the chair. Then of course there's the moment when the lights go out when the guy with the fear of the dark is in the worst spot. Anyway, when you have a mental institution that would give Hannibal the willies you mostly show it (yuck), show it (blech), show it ("what the heck is THAT?!"). Then you put several troubled fellows in there clearing out asbestos. And you reveal that something awful erupted there, in sessions, long ago. Then you have someone find something sinister, and something cool. Then you make sure all the rumors to do with the creepy place just make it creepier. Then maybe someone goes missing, and the arguing heats up, and everyone seems to have a secret that they don't want revealed. And as the film makes you realize, with each day that passes, that it's difficult to tell if the edifice is warping the people or it just feels that way, you know in your heart that the blood will be near the end.
So it's edgy, picking at your nerves, and it works very well without too much splatter, as many complex horror efforts do. But you can just feel that the payoff will be fairly vile, and on that score SESSION 9 delivers.
This film will take multiple viewings by me to understand all the tricks and traps--where does human evil intersect with the supernatural malevolence that haunts the site of the ensuing tragedy, or are there any ghosts at work at all here?--but I certainly won't mind watching this nasty tale again. Psychological down-spiralling that happens to take place in a so-called haunted house means there is a certain beauty to the inexplicableness. The finale answers most questions, but like most horror of the mind, it's hard to say "I can explain every scene now.". How dull that would be.
The film is not wholly unique--and it is not brilliant in its premise; plus, the structure of the "big reveal" at the end, involving replaying scenes but with bits added in that show stuff that had been hidden, seems like the standard approach. A little bit of "Oops, we're near the end, we will now quickly feed you the explanation". I had basically copped to where most of the trouble had been coming from--that's all I'll say--but I was still in for a few shocks when it came to the numbing details. So, can't complain too much.
Well worth a look to Horror fans who like the sleek crisp tang of the modern stuff, and if you like a jigsaw puzzle (fresh from a blood-stained jigsaw, of course) then SESSION 9 will be Cloud 9. I liked it a lot and was never bored. It's a tricky, scary ooze with terrific acting smeared on the peeling paint and the cracked plaster. Mind the blood and the asbestos.
Recommended to me by: Fangoria Magazine issue # 300, featuring a List of "300 Best" Horror Movies. SESSION 9 has a write-up done by contributor David Goodfellow (D.G.), and I was intrigued enough to get around to this film quickly. A fine pick for the List, if not a true masterpiece of Horror. Should be viewed once by any Horror fan interested in psychological horror unfolding in a creepy setting (haunted?).
Laughed My Block Off
Some films leave you with a mixed feeling as you walk away from watching them. This especially happens with hybrids--the cross-genre stuff. For example: "I didn't know what it wanted to be. Half the time, it was more like a Horror movie, but then it would try and be a Comedy.". In the end, the film's lack of a consistent mood ruins the film because it can't find the right balance. Things don't gel. But this is not a problem for KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE--a film I saw for the first time little over a week ago, have watched twice, and would now proudly pick as one of my favorite movies ever. This comes as a surprise, but the secret to the film's success is...it doesn't try to gel anything. There is no blending; this is a comedy. This is not a horror film.
I'm not saying there are no Horror underpinnings to lure fright-fans into taking a peek. But the commitment is to getting laughs, and every clown (Klown) angle in the book is tossed in for maximum humorous effect. I could not stop chuckling, and if I wasn't chuckling, I was laughing my nose red. You don't pick this one when you want the deepest, darkest most disturbing horror movie you can find as a companion-piece for SE7EN, or HOSTEL. But no comedy collection should be missing this film, and--I don't know how this makes any sense, but it does--no horror fan should by-pass this one either.
The Klowns make the movie, there's no doubt. Their every gag, their unlimited power, their wonky spaceship complete with popcorn popper in the foreground of the storage room for their cotton-candy-cocooned victims, their striped mallets, their, uh, faithful dog (not sure what breed that was, probably some kind of folded hound)--the moment the Klowns come on the scene the movie takes off. It helps that the actors mostly ignore the big joke erupting around them and play it totally serious, because this just makes the whole thing that much funnier (the weakest part of the movie is the two goofs selling ice-cream and that's because they are the so-called comic relief in a film that doesn't need comic relief; they are slightly amusing, and don't hurt the film, but they are not necessary). John Vernon steps up and gives a stand-out performance of a cop who just refuses to be dummy enough to believe in killer klowns, only to find you can't fight Fate or floppy shoes.
There's some swearing and a dollop of gore...but it just figures that the goriest moment also happens to be one of the funniest (a bullying biker hassles one of the smaller klowns, and suddenly the klown is wearing boxing-gloves...a moment later, a dozen tough bikers can't get out of there fast enough). But again, this is a comedy, not a splatter movie. Some might argue for more gore, but I think the commitment to keeping things light on that score helps keep the brilliant humor as the key to this wickedly wonderful film. The movie is endlessly inventive, lots of in-your-face outrageousness, but trickling in some subtle stuff too (I love the footprints on the walls, and the odd bits of dialogue that are funny because they are so weird).
Do not miss this movie, no matter what reservations you may have about it being silly or a waste of time. It's a Comedy/Horror hybrid in the sense that lots of potentially scary stuff gets ripped and twisted and reformed into a crazy cartoon-like nightmare that is not interested in maintaining some kind of genre balance. It's a Comedy. Get through the first ten minutes with just teens and tight-collar cops and wait for the Klowns to land. In its own way, it's one of the most amazing films to experience, with a vibe that is seldom matched in copycat films that try to balance things too much--too much gore, too overdone, too stupid, leave that to the gel experts who muff it. To say I was pleasantly surprised is an absurd understatement.
I've seen a lot of movies before KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE, and there is nothing quite like this movie.
Recommended to me by: Fangoria Magazine issue # 300. listing 300 Best Horror Picks, film selected for List by Debbie Rochon (well done, Debbie! I like the way you think!)
The One With The Wrong Title (no "versus"!)
When the most beautiful woman in the world (on a scale of one in a million) pesters the biggest nerd in the herd for a first date, after he fixes her phone for her where he works in a Buy More superstore, it's a TV show. However, audiences are not stupid, and naturally would expect some kind of believable explanation for how such nonsense could actually happen. The writers of the Chuck Pilot were obviously concerned about that, and so have it that the blonde goddess is actually a CIA assassin--or spy, to use a nastier word--who wants to pick his brain and see if he knows government secrets he shouldn't. If he gets wise and runs, she is ordered to kill him--possibly with poisoned needles sticking in her hair, or the knife strapped to her chest. No, her ankle. The knife is at her ankle.
This premise helps ground the frankly ridiculous and implausible idea that this walking uber- example of pure pulchritude would go on a first date with a goofy slacker working in retail. While the stunner is at the Buy More, Chuck does, arguably save a ballet dancer's father from being murdered by his wife--in a kind of a roundabout way, I grant you--but basically he's not in her league, and if the producers of this show really wanted their little romance series to seem credible, it's good that they realized something as absurd as this Sarah woman asking this Chuck geek out for dinner and dancing had to be grounded in something we could believe--like a rogue spy having earlier downloaded a secret government program right into Chuck's head via an illicit email. Personally, I can think of no other reason that this first date would ever happen, and obviously the writers of Chuck realized that this had to become a spy show or no one was going to buy the romantic angle.
So, Sarah dates Chuck to pick his brain, because Chuck's old friend from Stanford, Bryce, picked Chuck's brain first--picked it for an illegal download of a stolen computer program that ends up literally implanted into Chuck's noggin, via email out of the blue. This immediately makes hapless Chuck a potential threat to United States security, but on the plus side, the CIA beauty is willing date an oblivious Chuck, and give him quite a dance on the dance floor, before possibly killing him. If you saw this dance, you might not feel this would be so bad, as first-last dates go. I might go on this date, even knowing what Chuck doesn't know up to that point.
It's very difficult for me to focus on the plots used in episodes of this series, but in terms of the Pilot, Chuck of course does get wise to the fact that something ain't kosher, when he has strange visions that seem to warn him of an impending assassination. Weird visual cues make his brain go shazam! and suddenly he's deduced a terrorist plot. If it was me, I would ignore all this and try mighty hard to have nothing ruin the date. But, suddenly there are the other assassins, and the car chase, and the explosions, and the rooftop Mexican stand-off, and something tells Chuck that this not how you get to a first kiss. Soon, he must get the bombshell to a bomb, where a specific US General is unwittingly speechifying towards his doom.
Clearly, someone was digging in some gold-mine somewhere and found Yvonne Strahovksi. What the heck, I'm on board. But besides that, this is a charming, funny show, with a stupendously successful pilot. It's very difficult for me to notice the supporting characters, but Chuck's best friend Morgan is severely amusing at all times, and Chuck's sister Ellie, perpetually worried about her brother's self-esteem, is the sister we all want.
The show is a nerd's fantasy, obviously dreamed up by nerds who took all the memories of all the cheerleader types they pined away uselessly for at school, and decided that, in fiction, there had to be a way to get the goddess to start falling for the nerd. I'm glad they didn't grow up to be rock stars who, at a live concert, belted out "This song is dedicated to SARAH, who wouldn't give me the time of day in school, even though I WORSHIPPED HER!!!", but instead channelled the pain into the Pilot of Chuck. Even with the credible scenario of ninjas and assassins and bombs and emails that download government secrets directly into the brain joined to the ridiculous first-date sequence, a nerd would not be so gullible as to believe that someone like Sarah would ask a nerd out. But it's TV! And it's almost believable, as presented here. And it's extremely entertaining to watch!