Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Blow Out (1981)

Take generous helpings of Antonioni's Blow Up and Coppola's The Conversation, add a dash of Hitchcock's Rear Window, stir very slowly, bake for two hours, and what you get is this leaden cinematic souffle consisting mostly of hot air from Brian DePalma. A Foley artist (a blank John Travolta) is out collecting sound effects in Central Park when he witnesses a horrific car crash. After pulling the lone survivor from the wreckage (a worse than blank Nancy Allen) he discovers the other passenger was the front-runner in the presidential election and starts suspecting foul play. I like Brian DePalma, there are images from his films (mainly Sisters and Carrie) that are hard to forget. But the man takes himself way too seriously...I suspect all the "genius" talk that was going on at the time was starting to go to his head. All the things that ruin otherwise good DePalma movies are rampant here: Deadly pacing, bad acting, ridiculous soundtrack, split-screens, nauseating camera moves, and momentum-jarring slow motion. By the time he employed slow motion for what had to be the fifth time, I was fast-forwarding. When the only likable characters are an alcoholic paparazzo/rapist (Dennis Franz) and a serial killer (an all-too-brief John Lithgow) you know things aren't working. Indeed, it is hard to muster up any suspense for the heroine's well-being when you, the audience, has been dreaming of butchering her since she uttered her first line of dialogue. Bloated and highly overrated.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Paul (2011)

A comedy written and starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, who play geeks touring the U.S. on holiday. One night they pick up a hitchhiking extra-terrestrial, voiced by Seth Rogen (Am I the only one who's getting sick of this guy?) and try to outrun government officials in order to return him to his home planet. Vaguely funny. Kristin Wiig, as a foul-mouthed evangelical, brings a nice contrast to the otherwise broad comedy with her appealing deadpan. But Pegg's formula, celebrating nerdiness and spoofing movie cliches, was used to better effect in Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. Here, it's wearing thin. Enjoyable while it's happening, then completely vanishes from the memory once it's over.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Trip (2010)

A whittled-down version of the British television series of the same name, directed by Michael Winterbottom and starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon playing fictionalized versions of themselves. Coogan takes a writing job from the London Observer to do a restaurant tour in the North of England. At the last minute Coogan's girlfriend decides not to go, so he asks his comedian friend Brydon to go in her place. They basically eat at expensive restaurants and do celebrity impressions to one-up each other and fill the silence (the dueling Michael Caines sequence is very funny). The mostly improvised conversations are always competitive, they just want to make the other person laugh, with an occasional thinly veiled swipe designed to undermine. No serious inquiries are made of the other person's life…the conversation is a series of jokes and insults and remains on the surface (I've had friendships like this, they are simultaneously exhilarating and exhausting). This film seems like it was more fun to make than watch. Though it is still quite satisfying, it could've been more. Maybe my expectations were a little high. The deleted scenes are a hoot, particularly the "Trevor Eve" sequence. They try to perfect the delivery of a BBC announcer by uttering the phrase: "Extreme Measures, with Trevor Eve…Sunday on BBC 1" nearly a hundred times, in a hundred different ways. This keeps going for fifteen minutes (they later visit an Abbey where Coogan states: "This chapel received a papal blessing." To which Brydon says "Papal Blessing, with Trevor Eve…Sunday on BBC 1.") By the twentieth "Trevor Eve" variation, I was laughing to the point of tears. I recommend this, I just wish it had more good natured, Trevor Eve-style idiocy.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Get Carter (1971)

I believe when I reviewed another Mike Hodges movie (the unspeakably dreary I'll Sleep When I'm Dead), I wondered how the same guy who directed the excellent Get Carter could have directed that pile of excrement. Well, I lied. I hadn't seen Get Carter. In my memory, I think I had mistaken it for another classic Michael Caine thriller, The Ipcress File (a great movie…I'm lying again, I haven't seen that either). I'm relieved that for once a movie lives up to its reputation. Michael Caine plays Jack Carter, a feared member of an organized crime gang who travels to London to attend his brother's funeral. He's certain his brother has been murdered by a rival gang and proceeds to punch, fuck, cut, bludgeon, and shoot his way across the city in search of the person or persons responsible. Caine grabs this part by the balls, he is magnetic and terrifying. Hodges manages to blend action, violence, drama, and comedy effortlessly. There is much texture and sense of place, you feel like you're in London while watching this. This also isn't filmed in a "hip" fashion, and therefore seems to have aged very well. The film has an ease to it, it doesn't try to impress…it just does.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Red Desert (1964)

I don't know why I'm so drawn to Michelangelo Antonioni's films. They're essentially plotless, very arty, and usually concern the listless musings of depressed rich people. I suppose they're about loneliness. In the six films of his I've seen, he consistently photographs people alone in a landscape. And nothing we do, not talking, fucking, fighting…can change the fact that we are all alone. Red Desert falls between two big hits in his career (at least on the art house circuit): The Eclipse and Blow Up , and I think hasn't received the proper amount of attention because of it. It's also his first film in color, and Technicolor at that. He was famous for doing crazy shit like painting entire forests grey, burning vast meadows because they looked too uniform, hand painting entire streets down to the last cobblestone (look at the frame above). The way he uses color in this to dramatize what is happening in a scene is breathtaking. No one composes a shot like Antonioni. In visual terms, his films stand alone…they are a standard for beauty that still seem ahead of their time. I had actually already seen this, about fifteen years ago. My reaction at the time was befuddlement mixed with a weak-in-the-knees feeling that I had just witnessed one of the most stunning looking movies I'd ever seen (there is a scene in this that is probably the most idyllic and ravishing passage in film history). Yet, I'm still befuddled, and a little more exasperated with the slow pacing. The goings-on concern the unhappy wife (Monica Vitti) of an industrialist who has an affair with one of his colleagues (a dubbed and confused looking Richard Harris), after which she is still unhappy. That's it. If Antonioni just strung together this vague story as an excuse to stage and photograph exquisite images, then I'm fine with that. People like to read a lot into his films, but like other directors whose films are commonly dissected (Welles, Lynch, Hitchcock…who was a big admirer), Antonioni himself was reluctant to admit to any symbolism. David Thomson compared his films to the beauty of watching a shifting sand dune. Maybe it's the loose ends, the mystery, that make me watch, and cause his films to linger in my mind. An elegant cryptogram.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Session 9 (2001)

Horror film starring Peter Mullen (normally a supporting actor, and a fantastic one at that, he always steals scenes) Brendan Sexton, and the usually irritating David Caruso, who's actually good in this. They play an asbestos removal team assigned to clean up a shuttered and sprawling Victorian mental hospital that's scheduled to be renovated and repurposed. Now, this has some bullshit in it that ruins many horror films, mainly arty editing and a cliched faux-industrial music score. However, the script and the acting are a cut above. And there are a few scenes (one in particular that occurs roughly at the halfway mark) that creeped the shit out of me. The ending is kind of a let-down, and I still have some questions concerning what, when, and why…I won't voice them here, mustn't give anything away. Yet the first 75 minutes or so work very nicely. Don't go in expecting too much, and you'll be pleasantly surprised (and maybe have a little pee-pee in your pants).

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Innocents (1961)

Adaptation of Henry James' gothic novella The Turn Of The Screw by screenwriter Truman Capote and director Jack Clayton. Deborah Kerr plays an inexperienced governess hired to tend to an orphaned brother and sister, all alone in a sprawling and creepy English estate. The little tots are not as angelic as they first seem, and the governess starts to lose her marbles when she becomes convinced they are possessed by ghosts. I don't get why so many film people (most notably Martin Scorsese) hold this film in such high regard. It isn't scary or creepy in the slightest. It's beautifully photographed by a distinguished cameraman (Freddie Francis), but aside from a famous moment where the seven-year-old boy plants a very long and adult kiss on Deborah Kerr, this ain't much. And I don't think the age of the film has anything to do with it. There are films made twenty and thirty years earlier that can still scare the pants off of you (the Val Lewton films at RKO, for example). I think the problem here is the "stiff upper lip" attitude (it's a British film). Director Jack Clayton smothers all of the Freudian subtext in Capote's script and generally flinches from the sinister aspects of the story. And nobody embodies British gentility more than the terminally prim and proper Deborah Kerr, someone I find very "one-note". The more I watched this, the more I wanted her to be done in by falling statuary or a tumble down the stairs. Dull stuff.