Category: Oldies

Revanche1

 

In recent years, just about every Hollywood thriller is expected to have “the twist.”  At some point near the climax of the film, we discover that nothing is as it seemed, or no one is as we thought.

Problem is, very few of these twists hold up to scrutiny.  Most of them are ridiculous or, at the very least, implausible.  I walked out of The Sixth Sense in 1999 and thought to myself, “Wow — they really got me!”  Today, I generally soak in the obligatory twist and think, “What a load of bunk!”

There are twists in the Austrian thriller Revanche, but they are so subtle, so realistic and organic, flowing naturally from events and characters, that they really shouldn’t be called “twists.”  They are unexpected dramatic turns.

The plot:  An ex-con brings his girlfriend along as he robs a bank.  Tragedy ensues.  The action shifts to the countryside, where the robber takes refuge with his elderly grandfather, who happens to be neighbor to a cop and the cop’s unhappy wife.

What follows is slow-paced by Hollywood standards, yet it’s always absorbing — and often unexpected.       Grade:  B+

 

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Director:  Gotz Spielmann   Cast:  Johannes Krisch, Irina Potapenko, Andreas Lust, Ursula Strauss, Johannes Thanheiser, Hanno Poschl   Release:  2008

 

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Breakers1

 

At one point in The Ghost Breakers, a 1940 Bob Hope vehicle that features zombies in the Caribbean, a man explains to Hope the perils of voodoo:

Man:  “It’s worse than horrible, because a zombie has no will of his own.  You see them sometimes, walking around blindly with dead eyes, following orders, not knowing what they do, not caring.”

Hope:  “You mean like Democrats?”

In hindsight, and with an awareness of Hope’s ultra-conservative, hawkish politics, that line might raise a few hackles with certain members of the audience.  Ditto for the womanizing comedian’s frequent quips about redheads and brunettes, and his mental undressing of co-star Paulette Goddard (who, incidentally, does pop up frequently in various stages of undress).

But that line about the Democrats, no matter what your political leanings, is still funny and is delivered with impeccable timing — a big reason why Hope’s early films for Paramount are so entertaining.

 

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Hope plays Larry Lawrence, a radio personality who winds up stuffed in a trunk aboard a ship bound for Cuba.  The trunk belongs to Goddard, and together the pair investigates her inheritance:  a haunted mansion on “Black Island.”

By today’s standards, much of the movie is politically incorrect.  People smoke cigarettes (gasp!).  Hope makes sexist comments.  Willie Best, mumbling and shuffling as Alex, Hope’s black valet, is unquestionably a stereotype.  But his performance is still hilarious.

The Ghost Breakers is a modest production with big bonuses.  There are wonderfully atmospheric sets.  Hope’s false bravado was never more amusing than it is in this film, and he and Best make delightful comic foils.  The movie succeeds at something oft tried, but rarely accomplished:  It’s the perfect blend of creepy chills and genuine laughs.       Grade:  B+

 

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Director:  George Marshall   Cast:  Bob Hope, Paulette Goddard, Richard Carlson, Paul Lukas, Willie Best, Pedro de Cordoba, Virginia Brissac,  Noble Johnson, Anthony Quinn, Tom Dugan   Release:  1940

 

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Battle1

 

“Oki … you okay?”

So asks a young student of his classmate, Oki, who is staggering and stumbling down a woodlands footpath.  No, Oki is most likely not okay, because we can see that Oki is bleeding profusely from a hatchet that’s embedded in the top of his skull.  This encounter between two friends in the Japanese cult film Battle Royale sums up my feelings about the entire movie.  Watchable but brain-dead.

Battle Royale, beloved by many young people and a precursor to this week’s much-hyped The Hunger Games, exhibits the same traits as do a lot of teenagers:  It’s full of nonsense and energy, but man, does it take itself seriously.

If you are at all familiar with Lord of the Flies, The Most Dangerous Game, or any of several Stephen King books, then you already know the plot.  In the near future, a small group of people (in this case, ninth-grade students) are stranded on an island and pitted against each other in a deadly game of survival.  But unlike, say, Lord of the Flies, there is no gradual descent into barbarity; these kids are instantly good or instantly bad.  The movie doesn’t want to waste time on character development, not when there are so many heads to cut off.

This is the type of film in which people, most of them gangly teens, are shot multiple times but keep getting up to fight again.  And again.  I suppose that if you can just turn your brain off, it’s also the type of film you might enjoy.

The movie is a good fit for teens because it feeds fantasies in which 1)  adults are evil and out to get youngsters; 2) there is a girl/guy of their dreams out there, somewhere, if only he/she can find her/him; and 3) it’s packed with gory, frenetic, nonsensical action.  For what it is, Battle Royale is well done.  But let’s hope that The Hunger Games appeals to more than teen fantasies.        Grade:  C+

 

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Director:  Kinji Fukasaku   Cast:  Tatsuya Fujiwara, Aki Maeda, Taro Yamamoto, Kou Shibasaki, Masanobu Ando, Chiaki Kuriyama, Takeshi Kitano   Release:  2000

 

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Mandingo1

 

Mandingo is a curiosity that should be embraced by two groups:  historians, and fans of schlock cinema.  It’s a film that depicts reality — and that’s why you might feel the need to take a shower after watching it.

The 1975 movie, based on a novel by Kyle Onstott, presents 1830s Southern slavery without revisionism, without sugarcoating.  Nothing is implied when it can be shown:  slave auctions, whippings, rapes, and sex between masters and slaves.  Historians should have no objections.

And why should fans of schlock cinema love Mandingo?  Nothing is implied when it can be shown:  slave auctions, whippings, rapes, and sex between masters and slaves.

 

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James Mason is all bluster and bigotry as the patriarch of decrepit Falconhurst, an Alabama plantation.  He wants a grandson, and that means son Hammond (Perry King) must marry and procreate.  Hammond chooses Blanche (Susan George), a conniving belle who makes Scarlett O’Hara seem shy and reserved, by comparison.  When Hammond learns on their wedding night that Blanche is no virgin, he takes it poorly and continues his extracurricular activities with a comely black slave (Brenda Sykes).  Blanche seeks retaliation, and all melodramatic hell breaks loose.

Mandingo is vulgar but has lots of hooks, including Mason as the gravel-voiced, rheumatic plantation owner; former boxer Ken Norton as a “Mandingo” (an ethnic branch from West Africa) named Mede, who is unlucky enough to attract the attention of Blanche; and some of the most gratuitous sex and violence to come out of 1970s cinema — a decade not known for skimping on sex and violence.

 

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But mostly, Mandingo has British actress Susan George.  George, so memorable as Dustin Hoffman’s unhappy wife in Straw Dogs, is mesmerizing as Blanche, a vixen who personifies evil and yet — when you look closely at her circumstances — is not entirely unsympathetic.  The fairly graphic sex scene between lusty George and hesitant Norton was quite daring in 1975.

Mandingo is a potboiler (quite literally, in one scene) with strong moments.  Whether those moments strike you as historically important, or mere titillation, is of course up to you.     Grade:  B-

 

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Director:  Richard Fleischer  Cast:  James Mason, Susan George, Perry King, Richard Ward, Brenda Sykes, Ken Norton, Lillian Hayman, Roy Poole, Paul Benedict,  Debra Blackwell, Laura Misch Owens  Release:  1975

 

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Cottage1

 

Maybe the bar has been set so low for horror-comedies that I no longer expect much from them, but heaven help me, I liked The Cottage.  I liked it more than the Scream movies, which are often too cute for their own good.  I liked it more than the camp classic Motel Hell, which doesn’t live up to its reputation.

The Cottage is engaging mostly because of its characters.  When teens take a pickaxe in the skull in most horror spoofs, I tend to silently cheer.  But in this film, I actually wanted the people to survive the inevitable carnage.  (I won’t say whether or not they do.)

Bug-eyed Andy Serkis, who’s made a name for himself acting in motion-capture roles (Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Gollum in The Lord of the Rings), plays it straight as one of two bumbling brothers who make the mistake of kidnapping the foul-mouthed daughter (Jennifer Ellison) of a mobster.  Reece Shearsmith, as the other brother, and Steven O’Donnell, as the mobster’s son, complete this Three Stooges redux.

 

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The Cottage is a strange hybrid of genres.  The first half of the story is a kidnapping caper; the second half is a bloody, stupid, and funny send-up of horror favorites like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Psycho.  The last half of the movie, nonsensical as it is (how in hell does the story go from crime thriller to slasher flick?), is nevertheless the most effective.  The killer, a deformed farmer, looks like he’s wearing a rubber mask and makes noises that seem filtered through … a rubber mask.  If that sounds ridiculous, rest assured, it is.

But I liked the characters, I dug the tongue-in-cheek tone, and there were just enough creepy scenarios and amusing one-liners to keep me hooked.  Says one bumbling brother to the uncooperative kidnap victim as they flee the deranged farmer:  “This is the worst night of my life.  Not only have I met you, I’ve stumbled into the only house in the country with someone worse than you.”      Grade:  B

 

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DirectorPaul Andrew Williams  Cast:  Andy Serkis, Reece Shearsmith, Steven O’Donnell, Jennifer Ellison, Logan Wong, Jonathan Chan-Pensley, Dave Legeno  Release:  2008

 

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Bull1

When this biography of World’s Greatest Jerk Jake LaMotta was released in 1980, it went on to gross $23 million in the United States, a modest haul proving that the American public – at least on occasion – has more sense than do critics, because most moviegoers opted to stay home.

According to Entertainment Weekly, Martin Scorsese’s boxing drama is the fifth-greatest film of all time.  Number six all-time, counters a poll in Sight & Sound.  One of the ten greatest movies ever made, says Roger Ebert.

Raging Bull is a “knockout” alright:  It nearly put me to sleep half a dozen times.  What a long, boring slog of a movie.  It is made up entirely of unlikeable characters, a script filled with boxing clichés, and a predictable plot.  You have to be emotionally invested in a character – any character – to follow a film this dispiriting for more than two hours.  There is absolutely no one to root for in Raging Bull, just actors to stare at.

Jake (Robert De Niro) gets married.  Jake gets jealous.  Jake boxes.  Jake gets jealous again.  Jake boxes some more.  Jake retires and feels sorry for himself.  There is lots of swearing and yelling and Brooklyn accents; if that’s your idea of compelling drama, then this is the movie for you. 

 

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The acting is generally good, although a wooden Cathy Moriarty, as Jake’s child-bride Vickie, doesn’t remotely resemble the 14-year-old she’s supposed to be at the beginning of the film, and she exudes all the personality of a petrified turnip.  Joe Pesci, acting in his first big role, plays the kind of character Pesci always plays (“feisty”).

So why is Raging Bull such a critical favorite?  I have three theories:  1) It’s in black and white, which signifies “serious” to some folks.   2) The boxing scenes, full of slow-motion blood, sweat and tears, seemed edgy in 1980.  3) The project reunited critics’ darlings Scorsese, De Niro, and writer Paul Schrader, who gave us the superior Taxi Driver.  I guess some critics were also taken with the film’s profound message, which is apparently “Be nice.”

I’m siding with the American public, because most of them were smart enough to stay away from this tedious, unpleasant movie.       Grade:  C-

 

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Director:  Martin Scorsese  Cast:  Robert De Niro, Cathy Moriarty, Joe Pesci, Frank Vincent, Nicholas Colasanto, Theresa Saldana, Mario Gallo, Frank Adonis, Joseph Bono, Frank Topham   Release:  1980

 

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Extreme1

 

“This movie is like a roller-coaster!”  That’s the tired phrase that critics sometimes use to describe American horror films.  A scary movie might dip into dark territory, but the audience knows that it will eventually be lifted back to daylight, either through comic relief or with a happy ending.  But some Asian horror, like this film, is more like a mine-shaft cart:  You descend into the depths … and never come back up.

Three … Extremes is an anthology of eerie short films from three of Asia’s top directors:  Hong Kong’s Fruit Chan, Korea’s Park Chan-wook, and Japan’s Takashi Miike.  All three stories are gloomy and filled with a sense of foreboding.  They are not particularly “scary,” but they do suck you in.

“Dumplings,” the first story, features what can only be described as a repugnant plot.  But director Chan’s use of glossy photography and soothing piano music lulls you away from the horror of what you’re actually seeing — temporarily. 

“Cut,” from director Park, is probably the least effective entry of the anthology.  Its revenge theme is nothing new,  but the film-studio setting is striking, and Park’s bungee-cord camera shots are flashy.

The last episode, “Box,” is a bit too artsy for my taste, but there are two images that could well give you nightmares.  And the twist ending is unsettling, to say the least.

 

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The shorts in Three … Extremes all have social themes —  abortion, class warfare, “daddy issues” — but that isn’t what will keep you intrigued.  You watch because you need to know what the hell is in those dumplings.  And what will happen to the imprisoned director and his wife?  And what is up with that mysterious sister?

In most American horror movies, bad things happen to good people.  In Asian horror like Three … Extremes, bad things are the people.   Grade:  B+

 

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Directors:  Fruit Chan, Park Chan-wook, Takashi Miike  Cast:  Bai Ling, Lim Won-hee, Kyoko Hasegawa, Miriam Yeung, Lee Byung-hun, Atsuro Watabe  Release:  2004

 

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Annie1

I smiled a lot during Annie Hall, but I never really laughed.  I liked the main characters, New York comedian Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) and Midwestern transplant Annie Hall (Diane Keaton), and they kept me amused, but when the two lovers eventually broke up, I can’t say that I was particularly sad (or surprised).

I suspect that the more you personally relate to Allen’s autobiographical Alvy – i.e., you are a) a New Yorker; b) Jewish; c) nerdish; d) intellectual; or e) a neurotic artist-type – the more you’ll enjoy his signature film.

Alvy is the kind of guy who is entertaining in small doses, but a complete headache for any prolonged period of time.  This is what Annie eventually comes to realize, but not until after she endures a rocky relationship that comes under the psychoanalytic microscope of professional shrinks and – incessantly – Alvy himself.

Keaton is adorably quirky in the title role, but the movie should really have been called Alvy Singer.  Annie is on hand to serve as a sounding board for Alvy’s constant ruminations.  He has choice barbs for Los Angeles, the Midwest, pseudo-intellectuals, love, sex, and fame.  His best pokes come when he’s deflating pompous, left-wing intelligentsia.

But I didn’t blame Annie for wanting to escape.  There’s not a whole lot of emotional sustenance to be gotten from a neurotic know-it-all, and this odd couple was mismatched from the start.  Alvy/Woody amused me for the film’s 94-minute duration but, like Annie, eventually I felt that enough was enough.          Grade:  B

 

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Director:  Woody Allen   Cast:  Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Tony Roberts, Carol Kane, Paul Simon, Shelley Duvall, Janet Margolin, Colleen Dewhurst, Christopher Walken  Release:  1977

 

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Disturbia1

 

Yeah, I know.  Shia LaBeouf is no James Stewart, Sarah Roemer is no Grace Kelly, and director D.J. Caruso will never be mistaken for Alfred Hitchcock.  But I like their movie Disturbia, anyway.

In this 2007 reboot of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, LaBeouf stars as Kale, a high school senior who, following the tragic death of his father, acts out in such an aggressive manner that he is sentenced to house arrest, confined to his messy bedroom, his electronic toys – and the dubious pleasure of spying on his suburban neighbors.  One of those neighbors turns out to be a serial killer, but will anyone believe bad boy Kale’s story?

Yes, this tale was told much better in Rear Window, but if you don’t go into Disturbia expecting “instant classic,” you will have a voyeuristic good time.  That’s because Caruso does a fine job blending John Hughes-inspired teen comedy with Hitchcock-style suspense.

 

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The movie also works because LaBeouf – think what you will of his off-camera exploits – has charisma out the caboose.  Caruso said that in casting his young star, he was seeking an actor “who guys would really like and respond to, because he wasn’t going to be such a pretty boy.”  Mission accomplished.  I can’t imagine Robert Pattinson carrying this film.

LaBeouf has some solid support.  David Morse, as menacing neighbor Mr. Turner, is good enough to make you forget Window’s murderous Raymond Burr.  Roemer, although no model of sophistication, a la Kelly, would make any teen boy hyperventilate (not to mention, ahem, some older males).

But Disturbia is LaBeouf’s movie.  His Kale is troubled, intense, insecure, and sometimes annoying.  He is also compulsively watchable.  Hell, I even liked his messy bedroom.         Grade:  B

 

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Director:  D.J. Caruso   Cast:  Shia LaBeouf, Sarah Roemer, Carrie-Anne Moss, David Morse, Aaron Yoo, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Matt Craven, Viola Davis   Release:  2007

 

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Sisters1

 

There are three good reasons to check out Brian De Palma’s 1973 thriller, Sisters.  You are rewarded with 1) the fun of spotting allusions to Alfred Hitchcock movies;  2) a killer performance by Margot Kidder; and  3) one knock-your-socks-off murder – you can pretty much see it coming, but when it does, it punches you in the gut, anyway.

Kidder is all fluttery innocence as Danielle, a French-Canadian model/actress who recently, uh, parted ways with her twin sister, Dominique.  Or so it seems.  When Danielle’s apparently jealous ex-husband intrudes on her date with a handsome black acquaintance, things turn nasty.  A nosy neighbor (Jennifer Salt) sees a murder through Danielle’s apartment window.  Or does she?

De Palma has great fun weaving elements of Psycho, Rear Window, and even North by Northwest into the murder and subsequent investigation.  The first thing you notice when the credits begin for Sisters is the dramatic musical score by legendary Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann.  Nobody did “disturbing music” better than Herrmann (he came up with the shrieking strings in Psycho), and his contribution to the mayhem in Sisters is a reminder of his value to Hitchcock.

Sisters’s low budget does come with a few drawbacks.  Some of the acting is less than stellar, some of the dialogue is less than sharp, and the final 15 minutes of the film, although visually engrossing, is narratively weak.  De Palma’s 38-year-old script also includes some rather dubious psychology regarding the nature of Siamese twins.  But, hey – get ready to be punched in the gut.          Grade:  B

 

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Director:  Brian De Palma  Cast:  Margot Kidder, Jennifer Salt, Charles Durning, William Finley, Lisle Wilson, Barnard Hughes, Mary Davenport, Dolph Sweet, Olympia Dukakis  Release:  1973

 

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