Friday, December 18, 2015

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens ***1/2 (2015)

After a seemingly never ending wait, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is now playing in theaters near you.  Star Wars stirs up a different sort of anticipation you don't get with other movies. Hard to put into words. One may call it nostalgia, but it's a multi-layered nostalgia, not your run of the mill sort.  These movies shaped the imagination of a generation.

In 2012, after George Lucas decided to sell Star Wars to Disney, the keys to the kingdom were given to J.J. Abrams.  Abrams developed several popular TV Shows in the 90s and early 2000s, most notably Lost and Alias.  He graduated into feature films and revived the Mission Impossible and Star Trek franchises.  Of all modern filmmakers, Abrams unabashedly takes inspiration from Spielberg, Zemeckis, and Lucas.

With The Force Awakens, Abrams seems at total ease with the Star Wars universe. They made the right choice for rebooting the series.  There's a wonderful blend of humor, action, character development, and special effects.

Fans of of the original Star Wars film from 1977 will appreciate how the Force Awakens continually pays homage to it.

That is the greatest strength and weakness of The Force Awakens.

I'm thinking J.J. and veteran screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, desperately wanted to remove the bitter taste of the prequels.  That they did.

Rian Johnson will take over for the next two installments.  He directed some of the best Breaking Bad episodes, as well as the time travel movie Looper.  Now that Star Wars is back on track, Johnson will hopefully experiment and try something more adventurous. We shall see.

I'm not gonna get into plot details.  Force Awakens takes place 30 years after Jedi.  Much has changed and little has changed.  Same old best of times worst of times.

The new cast of characters display great promise, especially Daisy Ridley as Rey and John Boyega as Finn.  Oscar Isaac, arguably one of the best actors working today, is a tad under used as Poe.  As for the original trilogy cast- it was great to see them again.  Adam Driver is a moody villain.

It's always awkward to introduce new characters and to reintegrate old ones. For the most part, the screenplay did an exceptional job.

With the release of Creed a few weeks ago and now The Force Awakens, the nostalgia train is running at full speed this year.  And that's not all bad.




Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Creed ***1/2 (2015)

In Sylvester's Stallone's seventh appearance as Rocky Balboa the epic saga finally comes full circle. Like the original from 1976, Creed relies on old fashioned story telling to magnificent effect. Michael B. Jordan gives a star making performance and Stallone exudes wisdom and quiet strength as an aging Rocky.

I'll provide some backstory, although it's not essential at all to enjoying Creed.  In the first Rocky film (Best Picture Winner 1976) Rocky Balboa is a struggling professional boxer living on the gritty streets of Philadelphia, working as a loan shark on the side. When the reigning heavyweight champ Apollo Creed, based on real life Muhammad Ali, randomly selects Balboa as his next opponent (a previous boxer backed out) for a New Years Eve bout, Rocky gets one last chance to prove himself (the original had a great tagline "His Whole Life Was a Million To One Shot"). Rocky manages to "go the distance" with Apollo and the film ends on a soaring note.

In the string of sequels that followed, Rocky rises to become the Heavyweight champion, gets rich and famous, falls from grace, and is redeemed once again. In Rocky III, after being crushed by a younger and stronger opponent, Rocky's old adversary Apollo Creed trains him and they end up becoming best friends, only to have Creed tragically die in the ring in Rocky IV.

That's where Creed picks up.  Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) is the illegitimate son of Apollo who was taken in by Creed's widow (Phylicia Rashad) and raised in privilege. Working as a business professional while moonlighting as a boxer in Mexico, Creed leaves a lucrative career to pursue boxing.  He journeys to Philadelphia to look up his father's old friend Rocky, who manages a restaurant.  At first reluctant, Rocky steps into the trainer/mentor role.

The script follows a similar course to the original film: there's a romantic subplot, the mentor and protege iron out their relationship, a young man finds his place in the world. There's humor and pathos, both done with dignity.  The boxing scenes, always a challenge for to put on film, are well shot and edited (minus the absurd sound effects from the previous fights in Rocky).

Ryan Cooglin, writer and director of Creed, coming off the impressive Fruitvale Station (2013), a film composed of poignant moments documenting the beauty and tragedy of everyday life, does much of the same with Creed.  I would not call Creed a "reboot", instead Cooglin crafted a movie well versed in series lore while pointing the way towards the future.

Boxing serves as such a great metaphor, proof of why the sport always makes for dramatic cinema.  There's more here on heroism and human emotion than any of those video game comic book extravaganzas.  Everyone must step into their own ring and fight their own battles. That's the underlying magic of Rocky and why those films will never fade away.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Suffragette *** (2015)

As a historical film, Suffragette supplies a healthy dose of reality to offset the formulaic trappings that often come with period pieces.  The acting and direction are understated much to the film's benefit, reminiscent of Selma from last year.  Carey Mulligan stars as Maud Watts, a young working class woman who develops a political awakening and ends up involved in the Suffrage Movement.  Set in 1912, Suffragette effectively depicts the harsh conditions in the textile factories, employed mainly by women, with men in positions of power.  Female workers were paid low wages with no chance of advancement. The Suffragettes petitioned for voting rights, seeing the power of the ballot as the key to achieving reform for working class women. Facing the usual resistance from the establishment, the Suffragettes did resort to violence to achieve their aims (one even attacked Winston Churchill with a whip).  Mulligan's honest performance as a strong, unassuming heroine carries the film.  Ben Whishaw plays her husband who is unable to cope with with his wife joining the movement. My main criticism is the film's tendency to oversimplify the issues. Everything unfolds a bit too neatly.  Directed by Sarah Gavron and written by Abi Morgan, Suffragette is clear in its message: real change requires taking a brave stand in the face of intimidating adversity.

Monday, November 9, 2015

SPECTRE ***1/2

The newest James Bond film SPECTRE hits all the right notes. It is respectful of the franchise history and expands the mythology of the character.  Purists may not like the newer more somber tone of the Bond movies, but I like the new tone - it adds a Shakespearean breadth to the long running series.

While the Connery/Moore films set the template for the franchise, the Bond character never developed from movie to movie.  In their later installments, Connery and Moore appeared bored with the role.  When the character did display some complexity in On Her Majesty's Secret Service fans turned up their nose.  

Daniel Craig plays Bond as stoic and melancholy and yet displays an empathy lacking in previous incarnations of the character.  The next actor to play Bond will have a hard act to follow.

As 21st century spy films like The Bourne Identity and Mission Impossible explored character in greater depth and moved from bombastic action sequences to gritty realistic ones, the Bond series rightly imitated them.

SPECTRE deals with an ultra secret organization responsible for several acts of terrorism, the ultimate bane to Bond's existence.  In the Ian Fleming novels and early films SPECTRE often tried to manipulate the United States and the Soviet Union into a war for their own benefit.  Due to litigation over the authorship of SPECTRE, the Bond series could not legally use the organization in the movies.  In 2013 the legal issues were resolved and director Sam Mendes immediately brought SPECTRE back into the story.

The return of SPECTRE also means a return of the most iconic Bond villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld, last officially seen in For Your Eyes Only. Christoph Waltz makes a convincing Blofeld, although I was hoping for a more flamboyant interpretation. The fact that Waltz already played a German villain in Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds draws unfortunate comparisons.

Although the script problems for SPECTRE are well documented, I like the way they reintegrated SPECTRE into the Bond universe with a clever 21st century twist.  The world feels more vulnerable to such an organization than during the Cold War.

The film jumps around from one exotic global locale to another in almost hypnotic fashion. The opening sequence in Mexico City gets things off to a thrilling start.  With the "double o" program about to be retired, Bond goes off to investigate SPECTRE.  He is helped along the way by M (Ralph Fiennes), Miss Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), and Q (Ben Whishaw). In previous films those characters were usually relegated to one scene - expanding their roles was another excellent idea.

So I highly recommend SPECTRE. Madeleine Swann as the "Bond Girl" brought intelligence and is a nice counterpoint to Craig.  And there are many references to previous Bond films including From Russia With Love, Live and Let Die, and On Her Majesty's Secret Service. All those allusions add a suave post-modern undercurrent.

The flaws are minor.  The first half flows nicely and while the second half felt flabby at times the narrative never went completely off the rails. 

Ignore the logical inconsistencies, SPECTRE is a supreme cinematic entertainment designed for the big screen.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Thing (1982) ***1/2

John Carpenter's The Thing is cold, unsettling, extremely gory, and unabashedly nihilistic. One can see Carpenter honing the techniques he developed in Halloween: empty rooms, long silences, Kubrickian tracking shots - an atmosphere suggesting the evil is everywhere and nowhere. An all male (adding to the sense of doom) research post in the Arctic gets infected with an alien entity able to imitate its victims.  Watching The Thing I was struck at how much it resembled Ridley Scott's Alien: the claustrophobia, the paranoia, the assault on the body, and even the use of computers as agents of doom (the terror of a computer basically saying you are screwed).  Kurt Russell's stoic performance is as chilly as the Arctic itself.  Pay attention to Ennio Morricone's subtle score -  only there if you notice it. You really feel like the world's ending after watching The Thing.  So much fire and ice, fire and ice, fire and ice. Not a fun trip, effective cinema nevertheless.



Steve Jobs *** (2015)


Despite the number of cliches associated with the bio film, Hollywood keeps making them. 21st century biographical movies usually begin at a pivotal moment in the subject's life and then proceeds on with flashbacks and flash forwards hinging on that one moment e.g. Beyond the Sea, Step on Up, Walk the Line.

Others focus on a portion of the subject's life such as Lincoln, Frost/Nixon, The End of the Tour.  I like the snapshot approach.  Many of the cliches are avoided: aging makeup, death scenes, and soundtrack cues to mark the passage of time.  The only drawback to the "snapshot" approach is the movie can seem too much like a stage play.

Steve Jobs synthesizes these two approaches: we get three moments in the life of Jobs with the occasional flashback included for good measure. Sorkin's 1930s screwball comedy writing style and Boyle's exuberant visuals make for a fascinating, but not an altogether successful combination. A style over substance issue.

Michael Fassbender delivers a commanding performance as Jobs.  All the usual ticks associated with Jobs are present: tyrannical towards his subordinates, fraught relationship with daughter, the artistic visionary in conflict with conservative corporate types (personified in Jeff Daniels as the Apple CEO who fired Jobs).  Kate Winslet got the thankless task of playing his put upon assistant.  Seth Rogen as Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak is the jilted former sidekick.

If Steve Jobs proves anything it is our persistent obsession with the lone genius illuminating the future. We see it in The Imitation Game with Benedict Cumberbatch and to satiric effect with Oscar Isaac in Ex Machina. Maybe we need a movie about the people at Apple who created the technology by working together?

So the triple threat of Fassbender, Boyle, and Sorkin are very much worth seeing, despite the awkward attempt to transcend genre.



Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Storm of the Century *** (1999)

Storm of the Century, a novel Stephen King wrote for television, is a modern version of Shirley Jackson's The Lottery, with elements of Rod Serling thrown in for good measure. As an ominous blizzard approaches an island off the coast of Maine a mysterious stranger (Colm Feore) enters the town. Despite the best efforts of the island constable (Tim Daly), things quickly go to hell.  When the visitor demands an unspeakable sacrifice from the townsfolk we see humanity at its worst.  The performances are strong all around and Feore makes for a charismatic and creepy representation of evil.  All builds to a shocking conclusion, a real gut punch in the tradition of The Twilight Zone.  

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Dead Zone (1983) ***1/2

The Dead Zone is hands down one of the best Stephen King adaptations ever to grace the screen, standing right along side The Shining and The Shawshank Redemption.  David Cronenberg's icy direction and Christopher Walken's heartbreaking performance transcend horror genre trappings because its primarily character driven.

Walken plays Johnny Smith, an unassuming English teacher living an ordinary life.  He's about to marry fellow teacher Sarah (Brooke Adams) until a car accident puts him in a coma for five years.  When Johnny wakes up he learns Sarah has moved on and married someone else and that he's acquired psychic abilities.

As word spreads of Johnny's gift many begin to seek him out for help.  The local Sheriff (Tom Skerritt) drafts Johnny to aid a murder investigation.  After a horrific encounter with the killer, Johnny realizes his gift is more of a curse and decides to live as a recluse.

Some have speculated The Dead Zone was an autobiographical novel for King.  People with unique gifts are often exploited by society.  King's ability to write terrifying stories gave him money and fame, but also unwarranted speculation in the media about his mental state and misguided fans stalking him.

Cronenberg's direction emphasizes Johnny's isolation; Walken's performance humanizes him.

Stellar supporting performances adds so much to The Dead Zone: Brooke Adams as Sarah, Czech actor Herbert Lom as Johnny's compassionate doctor and conscience, Martin Sheen as a demagogic politician, and Sean Sullivan as Johnny's father.  

It's hard to believe Walken did not earn an Oscar nomination. Few actors have captured the everyday hero with such quiet eloquence.

I like the references to Edgar Allan Poe and Washington Irving as Johnny resembles characters from their work: notably The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and The Raven

Although it was filmed in Canada, the cinematography perfectly evoked the beauty and solitude of a New England winter.  A classic horror film.

Friday, October 23, 2015

The Amityville Horror (1979) ***

A box office hit in 1979, The Amityville Horror told a traditional haunted house tale refashioned for President Carter's "crisis of confidence" America.  Purportedly based on a true story as told in Jay Anson's bestseller of the same name, the film plays fast and loose with the facts.  In late 1975, the Lutz family moved into 112 Ocean Avenue and abruptly left 28 days later (a house where terrifying murders did take place).  Starring James Brolin, Margot Kidder, and Rod Steiger, Amityville Horror verges on outright camp, making it oddly compelling. Whether the story's factual or not, the financial anxiety of moving into a new house works as an appropriate subtext.  Steiger as the Priest is rather ridiculous, a parody of all the heroic clergymen of the 70s.  There's a rickety old fashioned style to The Amityville Horror, evoking a pleasant sense of nostalgia.





Halloween (1978) ****

Whenever I go back and watch John Carpenter's Halloween I am struck by its flawless structure and matchless style.  Halloween is a triumph of 70s horror, reinventing Hitchcock's Psycho while inspiring countless imitations.  A triple bill of Psycho, Halloween, and It Follows would be a great way to examine the troubled American psyche. Everything works: from the iconic soundtrack to the long tracking shots. Jamie Lee Curtis as the original "final girl" Laurie Strode and Donald Pleasence as Dr. Loomis brought poignancy and courage to the story.  Michael Myers can be interpreted in so many different ways making him all the more terrifying, the "bogeyman" personified.  That's the beauty of it: Halloween is the Rosetta Stone of modern horror.  When encyclopedias of the future will be written the entry on 20th century horror should simply read: See John Carpenter's Halloween.



Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Rosemary's Baby (1968) ****

Roman Polanski's eerie adaptation of Ira Levin's novel Rosemary's Baby is the ultimate Urban Gothic.  The unnerving post-60s sensibility relies solely on psychological horror: paranoia, treachery, and the perpetuation of evil all figure into the story.

Newlyweds Guy (John Cassavetes) and Rosemary (Mia Farrow) Woodhouse move into a luxurious new apartment building with a sordid history of witchcraft and bizarre crimes. Guy's a struggling actor desperate for a breakout role to launch his career.  Meanwhile their nosy neighbors the Castavets begin to intrude on their happy marriage.

When Rosemary discovers she's pregnant it becomes apparent no one is as they appear to be including Guy, her doctors, the Castavets, even the world itself.  Her only ally, the worldly Hutch (Maurice Evans), succumbs to the dark forces aligned around her.

The entire film is told from Mary's point of view.  Farrow plays her as naive, but never stupid. Her vulnerability adds to the sense of dread.

Polanski's direction feels claustrophobic, intrusive, yet chillingly realistic. A character study disguised as horror film.  

William Friedkin imitated the style for The Exorcist, only in that film we actually see the horror up close. Polanski never reveals the evil: we know it's there but cannot get a handle on it. Terrifying.

There's a sense of the old betraying the young to advance own nefarious agenda.  Evil never vanishes despite the best efforts of youth.

I won't even get into the odd coincidences that followed the release Rosemary's Baby, needless to say it makes one take pause, if you believe in that sort of thing. 

So next time you watch Rosemary's Baby, turn off the sound and put on the first Velvet Underground record to get you into the "let's get ready for the apocalypse" mood.





Monday, October 19, 2015

Willow Creek *

When annoying couple Jim and Kelly go into the woods to locate Big Foot they get much more than they ever expected.  Jim's had a life long fascination with Big Foot and has vague plans to make a documentary about his passion, much to the chagrin of aspiring actress Kelly.  They condescend to locals, argue about their relationship, and make many stupid decisions. What follows is a Blair Witch Project ripoff minus the scares.  I was rooting for Big Foot. Directed by Bobcat Goldthwait, Willow Creek offers nothing beyond the typical found footage film.  The first half feels like a mockumentary, while the second half makes a feeble attempt at horror. However a metaphysical question is raised: Can you really have a "Monster Movie" when the monster never actually appears?



Friday, October 16, 2015

Bridge of Spies *** (2015)

In Bridge of Spies, the fourth collaboration between Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, they document a pivotal moment during the Cold War. Promoted as an espionage film, I would classify it more as a procedural along the lines of Lincoln.  Almost as if Daniel Day Lewis's Lincoln rematerialized as Tom Hanks.  After making Saving Private Ryan and Munich, two films about violent conflict and its consequences, Spielberg's now telling stories about conflict resolution in a political age where fiery rhetoric is the norm.


Tom Hanks is James B. Donovan, a straight laced lawyer assigned the difficult task of defending Rudolf Abel, an alleged Soviet spy. As America is transitioning from the Eisenhower to the Kennedy era, Cold War tension continues to intensify. Reluctant to take the job, he nevertheless defends Abel to his fullest ability.



Then the plot thickens.  In 1960 American spy planes began flying missions over the U.S.S.R. to photograph nuclear missile sites. On May 1, 1960 Francis Gary Powers was shot down and captured by Soviet authorities and paraded on television to reveal the Eisenhower administration's cover up.  The incident agitated an already tense international situation.



Donovan is approached by the C.I.A. to negotiate a prisoner exchange with the Soviets: Abel for Powers.  Bridge of Spies really picks up when Donovan goes to Berlin and find himself ensnared in Cold War intrigue. With Soviets building a wall in East Berlin the Cold War is no longer an abstraction for Donovan.  These sequences recall Saving Private Ryan because the aftermath of the Second World War is on full display.  The wintry Berlin adds an authentic atmosphere.



Cold War Intrigue
In recent years I've sense an audience weariness with Tom Hanks always playing the generic liberal hero. I'll admit his character is too good to be true, Hanks playing Hanks.  But my attitude changed as the film unfolded.  In one scene he's approached by a CIA agent who tries to intimidate him.  Donovan replies with a thoughtful speech on American identity, the idea being a belief in the constitution is the one thing above all else that unites Americans, not ethnicity or heritage.  That's a worthy notion.

Chaotic Scene in Berlin
Engaging with people who have different ideas is another key theme. Donovan's a tough negotiator who manages find common ground with the Soviets and the East Germans. Talking things out may lack drama, but it beats war.


In a moment between Donovan and Abel they discuss music they both enjoy, proving art can break cultural barriers.  The mutual respect between Donovan and Abel achieves a nice resonance.



Written by no less than Joel and Ethan Coen, along with Matt Charman, their dialogue keeps the movie humming along.  Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg's cinematographer since Schindler's List, wonderfully captures the panorama and grittiness of 1960s Berlin. Spielberg, now in the latter stages of his career, continues to use cinema as an arena to examine history and do what he does best - tell stories.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

It Follows (2014) **1/2

I'll give It Follows an "A" for effort.  While visually impressive and well directed there's an off putting chilliness to its tone.  Many have compared the film to John Carpenter's Halloween and Wes Craven's Nightmare on Elm Street and those allusions are evident throughout.  I even picked up a Scooby Doo influence.

David Robert Mitchell, writer and director of It Follows, obviously studied Carpenter and Craven's movies closely and used them as a starting point to tell his story by inventing a new approach for an exhausted genre.

The cliche of all slasher films are that the kids who have sex will die and those who don't will survive.  Many movies have deconstructed the idea, Scream and The Cabin in the Woods being two examples.  It follows goes in another direction, what if sex leads to horrible things happening to you and the only cure is to pass it on to someone else? Why deal with the problem when you can make it vanish? 

Protagonist Jamie (Maika Monroe) faces such a dilemma.  She begins the film in the middle of typical suburban summer hanging out at her pool, watching movies, going on dates.  After a brief sexual encounter she is informed something will begin chasing her.  At first Jamie refuses to believe it, but then people really do start to follow her.

The promising first half gives way to a lackluster second half. Jamie and her friends make one illogical move after another, I guess they are teenagers after all.  The dialogue also turns stale: "let's go to my uncle's cabin by the lake." For myself, a bridge too far. Even the final sequences, which are visually interesting, never achieve a satisfactory payoff.

There's a recurring theme of lost innocence reinforced through the visuals: empty swimming pools, change from summer to autumn, fading photographs. The teens even act like old people.  They constantly talk about the past, sit around the couch eating (soooooo much eating in this movie), watch old horror movies, and spend much of their time at the hospital keeping the ER busy. Apparently they have awesome health insurance.  The kids seem so bored I was expecting an Arcade Fire song to kick in at some point.

Suburban alienation and urban decay are in the subtext as well, the setting of Detroit is not a coincidence here.  If the suburbs of the 70s and 80s were safe havens against urban decay, in the 21st century the neighborhoods are looking less and less idyllic.

I admire It Follows for its retro style and unique look, but the thin narrative and empty characterizations prevent me from loving it.






Monday, October 12, 2015

Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) *1/2

I have visions of studio executives sitting around and thinking any film with Exorcist II in the title would make money (they were right).  After all, the sheer audacity of topping the original would get people in the theater.

With a seasoned director like John Boorman at the helm, the man who made Point Blank and Deliverance, one can imagine a cinematic masterpiece existing in an alternate universe.  While there are some memorable visuals in The Heretic, they inspire laughter instead of terror.

Starring Richard Burton and Linda Blair (unfortunately reprising her role as Regan). I can only describe their performances as catatonic.  Burton shows no emotion for the entire movie and reads every line in the same mechanical tone.  Blair matches Burton for lack of enthusiasm; their scenes together are awkward and ridiculous

As for the plot. . . We reunite with Regan a few years after her exorcism of which she has no memory, although she is still being monitored at a psychiatric institute under the care of the dull Dr. Tuskin (Louise Fletcher). Meanwhile Father Lamont (Burton) is assigned by church authorities to investigate the circumstances of Father Merrin's death during the original exorcism, Von Sydow appears looking confused in pointless flashbacks.

Under hypnosis and the use of a "synchronizer" Lamont comes into contact with Pazuzu, an ancient demon.  The somnolent priest heads to Africa and discovers the origins of Pazuzu and realizes Regan is still in danger.  Don't miss a trippy performance from James Earl Jones as a shaman/locust scientist guy.

According to Linda Blair and others the original script was good and I can see the potential of a compelling movie somewhere in the mess they produced. Maybe a 70s New Age investigation of spirituality, connecting modern religion to its pagan origins as a compelling and ambitious story?

Burton seems to be in his own world, when asked if he longs for the company of women he says "Yes!" Then a sudden cut to another scene!  

A pointless cabaret sequence looks like a weird outtake from The Muppet Show.. Scenes in Africa look like they were filmed on a Star Trek sound stage. .  And the locusts . . . Those things are a nuisance!

If the first film sent audiences back to church, the sequel is best followed by a few drinks . . . for Richard Burton at least.





The Exorcist (1973) ****

The Exorcist remains unsettling on so many levels. It's a wonder it ever got made. Since we live in an ever more materialistic times where science and technology appear to have all the answers - The Exorcist seems all the more prescient. 

But what if science fails us? What if logical explanations fail? What if our own sense of values folds up when confronted with real evil?  The Exorcist throws these questions at you like 100 mph fastball flying towards your head.

The Exorcist suggests two things: 1)Evil is real and 2) We dismiss the supernatural at our peril.

Director William Friedkin's documentary filmmaking background brought the right sensibility, making every scene feel natural.  William Peter Blatty's smart dialogue and philosophical themes brought structure and irony.

After a ten minute prologue filmed in Iraq the story jumps to contemporary Washington D.C. where movie star Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) has arrived to shoot her latest film. She's raising her daughter Regan (Linda Blair) after a separation from her husband.  Early in the film Chris and Regan are playing with an Ouija Board (I've heard too many creepy stories surrounding Ouija Boards over the years I will never get near one) and angelic Regan first mentions her imaginary friend "Captain Howdy."  

As Regan's behavior grows increasingly erratic the sense of dread grows unbearable. The WTF scene occurs during an evening cocktail party.  Everyone's having a great time singing around the piano until Regan walks up to the astronaut and tells him he will die and then proceeds to urinate on the floor.  We've entered into uncharted territory. All sorts of awful possibilities enter the mind of what might be coming next.

As Regan undergoes various medical procedures doctors fail to diagnose her change in behavior. The way Friedkin shot the spinal tap and CAT scan scenes feels medieval and unnecessarily cruel - recalling the real witch hunts from history.  As Father Karras explains to perform an exorcism would be like going back to the 16th century.

In the lead up to the exorcism scenes I believe a sea change happens with the audience: We are ready to fight for Regan.  It feels (and looks) like a confrontation with the heart of darkness.

In addition to the excellent writing and direction, the cast did an amazing job under difficult circumstances.  Jason Miller brought courage and a tragic sense of fate to his part.  Max Von Sydow looks like he literally walked off a Bergman film, a face made for theological thrillers.  Ellen Burstyn rightly earned an Oscar nomination (she would win the following year for Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore).

Behind the scenes tales on The Exorcist have taken on a life of their own. Friedkin fired guns on the set to scare the actors for their close ups. A mysterious fire set back production for weeks.  Nine crew members died as well, on the DVD documentary Burstyn still seems shaken by the experience (a Priest had to be brought in to bless the set).

Legends aside, The Exorcist works as a smart and relentless horror: challenging the audience to think about faith, not in the way dopey religious movies do, but by presenting evil and the precarious nature of good.









Saturday, October 10, 2015

Jacob's Ladder ** (1990)

A curiosity from 1990, Jacob's Ladder contains some horror elements, but is more of a supernatural thriller.  File it under a "What is reality?" type movie. Starring Tim Robbins as a Vietnam vet who endured awful trauma and subsequent amnesia.  Early on it's clear Jacob's world is way out of joint. Experiencing terrifying visions he's unable to explain to the people around him, Jacob starts to question his sanity. As Jacob's visions intensify it is revealed the army conducted drug experiments on his unit. The dreamlike logic and urban noir make for a haunting atmosphere but an incoherent story.  The script's all over the map and I suspect the studio meddled with the final cut.  Despite its flaws, Jacob's Ladder is worth a look for its strange tone and thoughtful meditation on memory and mortality.

Friday, October 9, 2015

An American Werewolf in London (1981) ***

From a script John Landis had written over a decade before, An American Werewolf in London proved his third box office smash on the heels of Animal House and The Blues Brothers.  With Oscar winning makeup effects from Rick Baker, American Werewolf stands as one of the best horror films of the 1980s.

American Werewolf has a great sense of humor to compensate the often bleak story line (it never ends well for the werewolf).  The movie opens with two American students David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) hiking through the English countryside and are attacked by a werewolf.  Wiseguy Jack perishes, but David survives.  

While recuperating in the hospital David experiences terrifying nightmares and receives visits from an "undead" Jack.  Dunne often gets the best laughs and is quite menacing as a ghoul.  David begins a romance with a sympathetic nurse wonderfully played by Jenny Agutter. So all seems well until the next full moon.  

American Werewolf works for me, because like The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby, there's a strong sense of reality thanks to the on location shoot.  When watching those films it's hard to believe something supernatural will happen, making it all the more terrifying when the scares hit. The unforgettable transformation sequence, which took weeks to film, stands alongside John Carpenter's The Thing for most intense pre-CGI effects.

Landis wrote a great homage to monster movies of the past.  The film rightfully earned its "R" rating with the gory effects and raunchy humor.

An American in Werewolf in London remains the best of its kind for the jarring shifts in tone - a first rate entertainment for the Halloween season.  

Notice how the trailer plays up the horror elements.



Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Psycho (1960) ****

After years of watching Psycho on TV, thanks to TCM, I finally got a chance to see it on the big screen.  Over 60 years later Alfred Hitchcock's thriller has lost none of its power to unsettle and implicate the audience.

At a Pop Culture conference I attended a few years ago I stumbled upon a panel discussion on Psycho.  One presenter argued Psycho should be considered a comedy!  While Hitchcock typically injected humor into his films and Psycho does contain moments of levity, no one leaves the theater laughing.

Another speaker did a gender analysis.  In 1960, with the Cold War turning hot and with Vietnam War a few years away, some psychologists viewed moms as a threat to American masculinity.  The logic being that if young boys get too attached to their mothers they might end up like Norman Bates. An intriguing analysis, but I believe Hitchcock offered something more than armchair psychoanalysis.

Cultural interpretations aside, Psycho remains a masterpiece of modern cinema. Saul Bass's opening title sequence and Bernard Herrmann's ominous score set the tone from the outset.  Then the camera pans down to a hotel room where an illicit act has taken place, at least for 1960, a secretary Marion (Janet Leigh) and a divorced man Sam (John Gavin) are having an affair. They want to marry, but financial obstacles stand in their way.

Later that day, Marion runs off with a cash deposit her office entrusted to her in hopes of eloping with Sam.  In another film, we would have the basic plot: Will Marion escape and build a new life with Sam?  Almost immediately her plans go awry: her boss spots her and then she is pursued by an intimidating cop.  She trades in her car and ends up at the Bates Motel.




Then we meet Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) a seemingly decent young man. Intrigued by the attractive woman in his lobby, Norman makes awkward attempts to converse with her. With a grotesque bird of prey looming above him, Norman speaks glowingly of his mother, while also sensing Marion's not the innocent she presents to the world.

Then the course of cinema history changes.  While the shower scene's been copied a million times in every slasher film, the terror of that moment lingers.

For myself, the real horror comes during the quiet aftermath: a zoom out from Marion's lifeless eye resembles the stuffed birds in the lobby. A stark silence fell across the theater, as I'm sure it did in 1960.  At that moment Hitchcock intrudes upon and implicates the viewer; forcing the audience to ponder what just took place.




The second act follows Norman's clumsy attempt to cover up the murder as Marion's sister Lila (Vera Miles) and Sam slowly discover the truth.  It's hard not to sympathize with Norman Bates.  The idea of a sympathetic killer, a victim in their own right, suggests there are no laws to the universe.

Many object to the procedural ending when the psychiatrist provides a rational explanation of Norman's troubled psyche.  The scene reminds me of when something awful happens, say a mass shooting or an act of terrorism, and the media trots out experts to explain the unexplainable.  We just get the illusion of order being restored, but is it really?

Hitchcock's final close up of Tony Perkins negates everything the psychiatrist just said. In reality, no one can definitively explain why people do the things they do.  Despite all our tools and technology the human mind remains a haunting mystery.  Therein lies the power of Psycho.







Friday, September 11, 2015

Stripes *** (1981)

Bill Murray, originally known as the "new guy" who replaced Chevy Chase on Saturday Night Live, grew into one of the most dynamic cast members in the show's history.  His early film work included the popular Meatballs, playing Hunter Thompson in the disappointing Where the Buffalo Roam, and another goofball in Caddyshack, but in Stripes he perfected the wiseguy persona to carry him through several movies. 

The film opens with Murray and his bookish sidekick Harold Ramis as a couple of underachievers who decide to take their chances with Uncle Sam. And why not? Reagan made the army cool again, the decade of "Be All You Can Be."

Stripes painted a mostly positive portrait of the army, one of the first films in the post-Vietnam era to do so. Apocalypse Now, released two years before, took the Vietnam film as far as it could possibly go.  Stripes offered a kinder, gentler army that helps young people find their place in life, a theme it shared with Private Benjamin and An Officer and a Gentleman.

But unlike the Tony Scott/Tom Cruise vehicle Top Gun, an extremely nationalistic film, Stripes expressed a patriotism I could get behind:




Great stuff -  Beetle Bailey meets Henry V.

It's hard not to believe Stripes is thirty years old.  Three iconic actors from the era have passed on: John Candy, Harold Ramis, and Warren Oates are all at the top of their game in Stripes.  Oates especially as the tough Drill Sergeant, funny but never the buffoon and always the match for Murray.

Director Ivan Reitman duplicated his success in big budget comedy a few years later with Ghostbusters.  Stripes holds up for many reasons, mainly because it remains pretty damn funny.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Talk Radio (1987) ***

Oliver Stone was on a roll in late 80s, at the peak of his powers with Platoon, Wall Street and Born on the Fourth of July. Talk Radio rarely comes up. Based on the play written by Eric Bogosian which follows a controversial radio host who likes to push the envelope, tapping the raw nerves of the American psyche.

Barry Champlain takes calls from the fringe: the angry, the dispossessed, the jilted, the vigilantes, and the bile spewing haters.  The issues discussed are very much 80s: AIDS, the war on drugs, racism, distrust of government - the midway point between Post-Watergate cynicism and Tea Party paranoia. Like so many shock jocks, Barry browbeats his callers, it's an Est seminar on the radio.

The film takes a few unfortunate detours when exploring the backstory of Barry and how he got into radio.  Those scenes slow down the momentum, but I suppose they were meant to humanize Barry - a lost soul himself.

On the verge of going national, Barry's under pressure to take the craziest, most outrageous callers.  He talks to a zoned out metal head, Neo-Nazis, and extremely creepy callers detailing the crimes they have allegedly committed.  All edgy high drama that TV cannot capture, the kind of content to make audiences salivate.

By the late 80s, the loudest and crudest voices took over the airwaves. Barry would never command such a large audience today, but he would find a niche audience of malcontents. One could read Talk Radio as the death of liberalism, predicting the new politics to come. It's all sound bytes with no context - the loudest voices always win.  And Barry's the garbage man, processing all the trash that people do and say with violence as an ever present possibility. 

Bogasion delivers the performance of his life, portraying media star pushed to the brink of madness and ego, reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman in Lenny.  Talk Radio remains a potent film for its uncompromising portrait of 1980s America.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

The End of the Tour ***1/2


Based on the book Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, The End of the Tour recounts David Lipsky's five day interview with David Foster Wallace shortly after the publication of his epochal 1996 novel, Infinite Jest.  Lipsky, on assignment for Rolling Stone, taped his conversations with Wallace. All the dialogue in the film derives directly from those tapes.  As a film, The End of the Tour is Planes, Trains, and Automobiles meets My Dinner With Andre.  Jason Segel as Wallace and Jesse Eisenberg as Lipsky are compelling and do a fantastic job in their respective roles.

At its heart, the film is about the friendship between Wallace and Lipsky.  An aspiring novelist himself, Lipsky's intimidated by Infinite Jest and all the critical praise heaped upon it. His writing seemed conventional by comparison, a fact made all the more annoying when his girlfriend cannot stop praising Wallace.  Meanwhile, Wallace envies Lipsky's ability to charm his ex-girlfriend. Meanwhile Rolling Stone pressured Lipsky to prod Wallace on his struggle with addiction, creating a dramatic tension throughout.

Snarky reviewers have compared the Wallace/Lipsky relationship to Mozart and Saliari in Amadeus, the genius toying with the mediocrity.  I would disagree, the proper analogy would be James Boswell and Samuel Johnson, for when the biographer illuminates their subject they provide a great gift to future generations.

I watched the film in a packed theater.  While the audience laughed at the banter on Alanis Morissette and junk food, I sensed an uneasiness when Wallace pontificated on the dangers of technology. His words do seem prophetic as you can sense people itching to check their phones as the movie's playing. Their looks seemed to say, How could this brilliant guy with the brightest future before him feel so unhappy and lonely?  I'll credit Segel's performance for refusing to turn Wallace into a tortured artist cliche, provoking the conflicted reaction from the audience I sensed in the theater.

In addition to his fiction, Wallace shined in his non-fiction writing, most famously "A Supposedly Fun Thing, I'll Never Do Again," an uproarious chronicle of his week on a luxury cruise ship.  His journalism is a great place to start.

As a drama, The End of the Tour hits all the right notes: the bleak beauty of winter in the Midwest, the cold comfort of chain restaurants, and the millennial unease of the 90s. When they share an awkward goodbye at the end (should we hug or shake hands?) we feel a sense of loss as Lipsky drives away. The ending echoes My Dinner With Andre because we're sad to leave our friend, especially when you know they're never coming back.





Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Limey ***1/2 (1999)

A neo-noir from 1999, Steven Soderbergh's The Limey is a revenge tale told with verve and poignancy.  It gets better with each viewing.

The Limey begins with cockney ex-con Wilson (Terence Stamp) arriving in Los Angeles to investigate the death of his daughter. He's a stranger in a strange land. Eventually Wilson learns aging record producer Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda) could be responsible for her death.

The passage of time figures prominently in The Limey, a theme reinforced by an editing style that evokes a spinning wheel narrative.  A circular story, instead of a linear one.

The Limey also plays upon the cultural memory of the 60s, specifically the lost hopes and ideals of the decade. Many conversations in the movie reflect on the passing of time and the need to make sense of the past. Soderbergh went as far to include clips from the 1967 film Poor Cow, which starred a younger Terence Stamp.

A combination of razor sharp editing, top notch acting, and stunning daylight cinematography mark The Limey as a modern classic.

Also, don't miss the DVD commentary track with Steven Soderbergh and veteran screenwriter Lem Dobbs. They openly discuss their creative differences and the challenge of adapting the written word to the screen.




Tuesday, June 23, 2015

A Deadly Adoption

As a piece of performance art/satire, the Lifetime movie A Deadly Adoption may be one of the funniest things to ever air on basic cable.  Will Ferrell looks like he wandered off the set of Falcon Crest.  And Kristen Wiig's pitch perfect as the supportive, quasi-Stepford Wife. Everything from the tone of the dialogue, the soft rock/new age music, and the string of cliches familiar to a schlocky TVM: a sick child in danger (Gene Siskel hated it when movies put a child in danger), a devious heavy on the mascara fake pregnant femme fatale, semi-competent cops, an ominous lake, organic bake sales, and fake revolvers.  Look out Hallmark Hall of Fame - You're Next!

Monday, June 22, 2015

Why Jaws Remains a Great Film 40 Years Later

Forty years ago this weekend Universal Studios released Jaws. I had a chance to finally see Jaws on the big screen, while the film plays wonderfully on television, it's a far more immersive experience in a theater. Despite all the inferior sequels, countless rip offs, and parodies, the original remains as compelling as ever.

Setting: The decision to shoot the film at Martha's Vineyard added a sense of place and local flavor.




Casting: The three leads Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw were not Universal's first choice, they wanted A-list stars like Charlton Heston and Paul Newman. Casting lesser known actors added so much because they created characters we care about. As Chief Brody, Scheider plays against the traditional hero type. Out of his element, he makes mistakes and shows real fear at times, but manages to triumph against great obstacles.


Robert Shaw, Roy Scheider, and Richard Dreyfuss

Special Effects (or lack of): Ironically, the lack of dazzling effects works in the movie's favor.  The actual mechanical shark appears on screen for maybe 30 seconds, due to problems with getting the machine to work.  Spielberg used the absence of the shark to build up the suspense, but the idea of the shark is ever present.


John Williams: John Williams' minimalist score remains one of the most effective soundtracks ever composed for a movie.  Spielberg credited 50% of the film's success to the music.

A Superior Adaptation: Jaws is an excellent case study of how to adapt a potboiler novel. There's no doubt Peter Benchley created amazing source material, but those who read the novel will be taken aback at the racy subplot involving an affair between Ellen Brody and Hooper and a tedious storyline involving the mob.  Removing those elements saved the movie.




A Realistic Sea Adventure: Really Jaws is two separate movies: the first half is Amity dealing with the threat to their livelihoods, while the second part is a hair raising sea adventure with many allusions to Melville's Moby Dick.  The two act structure is rare in mainstream movies, but it works perfectly in Jaws.  Verna Fields earned an Oscar for her meticulous editing.




A Siege Narrative: I'm not sure if I would classify Jaws as a horror film, but it has some horror elements.  The people of Amity island, cut off from the mainland, cannot go about their everyday lives because of the shark.  Later on Brody, Hooper, and Quint are under siege when the Orca is crippled, increasing the sense of isolation for the viewer. Classic siege narratives such as Night of the Living Dead and Halloween achieve a similar effect.


The town debates what to do after a string of deadly shark attacks.


Political Dimensions: Jaws also played upon the anxieties of the 70s. The mayor attempts a cover up because he places the town's economic interests ahead of the safety of his own people, his own little Watergate. The shark works as a metaphor of consumerism, as Hooper says "all sharks do is swim and eat and make little sharks."


Brody and Hooper argue with the Mayor.


Spielberg's Signature: Putting the family drama at the forefront would become a familiar trope in many Spielberg films  One can argue Brody joins Quint to protect his family.  We also see Spielberg's amazing ability to blend reality with the fantastic, a method he would perfect in his follow up to JawsClose Encounters of the Third kind.




Robert Shaw as Quint: Robert Shaw created a truly mythical character in Captain Quint. He dominates the last act of the film.  There's the obvious parallel with Melville's Captain Ahab and Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea, but the USS Indianapolis speech feels like a separate movie, adding another layer to the character's myth.  According to The Making of Jaws on the DVD screenwriter Howard Sackler suggested the Indianapolis backstory for the character, then Spielberg's friend and fellow filmmaker John Milius wrote the speech, then Robert Shaw added his own revisions. Although remembered for his acting, Shaw was an accomplished playwright and novelist in his own right.


Humor: Watching Jaws with an audience reminded me of all the humor in the film, the slapstick Woody Allen type banter still works.  Screenwriter Carl Gottlieb who went on to write The Jerk earns much of the credit here.





A Shout Out to Duel: Spielberg's first feature Duel had a similar plot, an everyday man being chased by a maniacal truck driver.  The shark explodes in Jaws with the exact same sound effect when the truck crashes in Duel.




The Original Blockbuster: The making of Jaws went way over budget and almost derailed Spielberg's career. Instead the film went on to shatter every Box Office record, the first to make over $100 Million.  I don't wanna criticize every blockbuster Hollywood releases as inferior to Jaws - that's not the case.  However, I will point out Jaws did not rely on special effects, 3D, merchandising, or any other type of gimmick. Instead it relied on the basics of good storytelling: a strong sense of setting, well developed characters, and a compelling man vs nature conflict.