Movie Diary 2/28/2011

Beastly (Daniel Barnz, 2011). Beauty and the Beast, done with teens and Neil Patrick Harris. Aren’t they releasing this a little early for the Oscars? (full review 3/4)

Carbon Nation (Peter Byck, 2010). Of all the global-warming movies, possibly the sprightliest in tone. Still, we’re screwed. (full review 3/4)

Of course, there were also the Oscars. I go over the ceremony and its strange randomness Wednesday morning on KUOW’s “Weekday” program, at 10:20, 94.9 FM/

At my other website, What a Feeling!, today’s 1980s obscurity is actually something I like a lot: Sharma and Beyond, one of the titles in David Puttnam’s “First Love” series.

Not of This Earth (The Cornfield #20)

Beverly Garland, Paul Birch: nurse and emissary

Because I have been tooling around the state of Washington giving a talk on the subject of the alien-invasion movies of the 1950s, the Shout Factory DVD release of a Roger Corman triple comes as a welcome refresher on this title. Attack of the Crab Monsters and War of the Satellites will have to wait their turn, because it’s been a while since Not of This Earth (1957) was available on a decent home-vid format.

When Roger Corman won his honorary Oscar, the gesture was received with a great deal of affection and much fond talk about Corman’s savvy business techniques and his tutelage of future Hollywood stars and filmmakers. Along with all that stuff, his own directing skills are authentic, and should be acknowledged when talking about the good ol’ days of shooting two movies in a week. Corman treats the zany storyline of Not of This Earth (screenplay by Charles B. Griffith and Mark Hanna) with his calm, “why couldn’t this actually be happening?” hand, complete with nondescript yet nicely chosen locations and an alien menace who looks like an insurance salesman, albeit with funny accent and sunglasses.

In fact, the plainness of the presentation is why it succeeds. Opening scene: two lovebirds necking in a convertible parked at an everyday sidewalk (it costs too much to get the whole crew up to shoot in a scenic lovers’ lane); the chick gets out by hopping backwards over the passenger door – the way a cool kid would – and turns to enter one of those California low-bungalow apartment clusters. When the boyfriend’s jalopy is gone she pauses to look down the sidewalk, and Corman cuts to a long, empty, nothing sidewalk, and by god if it doesn’t raise the gooseflesh a little – because it looks like your sidewalk in your hometown, and the light is fading, and it doesn’t have a movie-luster. She goes inside the gate, saddle shoes skipping, and (following an obligatory cheap scare involving an owl) there he is: a man in a fedora and sunglasses, solid as a truck. He takes the glasses off, gives her the hoodoo look, and she drops. Something here is not of this earth. Great dreamy Rorschach-y credits follow.

Paul Birch plays the visitor; supposedly he left the production after an argument with Corman, and a body double filled in his role. The visitor, who calls himself Paul Johnson, comes from the usual dying planet and requires blood transfusions, which he mind-warps a doctor into providing; Beverly Garland plays the nurse hired for live-in duty, Jonathan Haze (future Little Shop of Horrors star) plays Johnson’s chauffeur, a vaguely beatnik/j.d. type. Corman may have the soul of a mogul, but he clearly had an appreciation for 1950s sick humor, and so the appearance of a desperate vacuum-cleaner salesman (Dick Miller) at Johnson’s front door becomes a five-minute vaudeville routine with a murderous punch-line.

Johnson communicates with his otherworldly commander by sitting in the armchair in his living room and speaking with a contraption inside a hidden bureau. Who needs a secret lair? This is much more sensible. Get a Coke from the fridge, sit in your favorite chair, and receive orders from your intergalactic masters. This is what works in the movie – the mundane made weird, an appealing trait of low-budget moviemaking.

On the B-movie resonance scale, Not of This Earth falls shy of A Bucket of Blood and Masque of the Red Death, but well above a score of other Corman projects. If the alien-invasion scenario is in vogue, and you can’t afford special effects of flying saucers, this is exactly the way to get in the game. There is a monster-movie monster, a flying thingie that lands on people and makes their heads bleed. But most importantly, there is a final scene in a cemetery, with a fantastic final shot that seems to predict Night of the Living Dead‘s opening sequence. A great opening, a great finish – the movie is half-earned already.

I Am Kaboom Pass (Weekly Links)

Jason Sudeikis, guilty of the sin of Onan, Hall Pass

Reviews I wrote for the Herald this week:

Hall Pass. “A basically conventional scenario dressed up with a few naughty bits.”

Kaboom. (link dead; review below)

By Robert Horton

Hints of the “end of days” come in all shapes in sizes—none more cheerfully garish than Gregg Araki’s “Kaboom,” a smiley-face indie account of some very odd things happening.

At first glance, we seem to be in familiar territory for the director of “The Living End” and “The Doom Generation”: a story of young people bed-hopping with a variety of partners. The hero is Smith (Thomas Dekker), a wispy bisexual who daydreams about his dorm roommate (Chris Zylka) but has a fling with a co-ed (Juno Temple). He tells his best friend Stella (Haley Bennett) about these unsettling visions he’s been having lately, which seem to be coming true. One of them involves Stella’s new girlfriend (Roxane Mesquida), a sultry type who, like the hero of last week’s “I Am Number Four,” is able to shoot light beams out of the palms of her hands.

And then there’s the night Smith spots the people in animal masks roaming across campus, just before a classmate turns up dead. Are these failed auditioners for the “Donnie Darko” sequel, or has Smith come across some really bizarre harbinger of doom?

The answers to these questions tumble out across a candy-colored series of scenes, strung together with a busy soundtrack of drop-dead cool songs. Araki is a magpie when it comes to collecting great sounds and costumes and bits of lingo, and he loves smashing them together in a jangly mix.

Make no mistake: while “Kaboom” has a certain underground-movie rattiness, it moves along with confidence and authority. Araki knows how to flip one scene into the next and build suspense, even if the movie’s main tone is comic.

The ending may leave people wanting more, me included. I realize the entire movie is built around a particular ending—but still.

Also, Thomas Dekker, probably best known for the TV series “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles,” doesn’t quite have the heft to give this wacky outing a strong central spine. Haley Bennett and Juno Temple have a good time spitting out the one-liners, and James Duval is a hoot as the dorm’s Resident Advisor, so stoned he does everything but quote Cheech and Chong routines.

Independent films have gotten into something of a rut in recent years, all decent and respectable and Oscar-nominated. One thing to say for “Kaboom”: there’s nothing decent or respectable about it, and that is oddly welcome.

I Am. “An evolutionary case could be made for cooperation and communication.”

Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today. “The motion picture has no equal when it comes to furnishing evidence.”

On KUOW’s “Weekday,” I talk with Steve Scher about Nuremberg and its emphasis on film as proof, a subject much in the headlines right now. Listen here; the movie bit can be heard commencing at the 15-minute mark.

Next Wednesday night, March 2, I will be in Clarkston, Washington, delivering a lecture in the Humanities Washington Guest Speaker program: “Alien Encounters: Sci-Fi Films and the Cold War Culture of the 1950s.” That’s at 7 p.m. at the Asotin County Library. May the mountain passes be clear by then. Series info here.

At my other website, What a Feeling!, I post an original review of The Lost Boys, in which Joel Schumacher does vampires.

Movie Diary 2/24/2011

Lost Boys: The Thirst (Dario Piana, 2010). Corey Feldman top-lines a direct-to-DVD sequel to the 1987 original. While not to be confused with The King’s Speech, it is also not as bad as it sounds.

The Human Resources Manager (Eran Riklis, 2010). An irresistible plot from the director of the excellent Syrian Bride and Lemon Tree, about a very reluctant middle-management guy (see title) stuck with handling the sudden death of an employee he didn’t know after she is killed in a suicide bombing. Plays in the 2011 Seattle Jewish Film Festival.

At my other website, What a Feeling!, a first impression of An American Werewolf in London, plus a decidedly lesser horror offering, Night Visitor, which features Allen Garfield and Michael J. Pollard as sibling Satanists.

Movie Diary 2/22/2011

Hall Pass (Peter and Bobby Farrelly, 2011). This isn’t 1998 anymore, and the Farrellys have got some catching up to do (translation: the sound of someone having a gastric emergency is no longer enough, and the Farrellys know it, so when a party girl in Hall Pass mentions that her stomach is gurgling, be ready for the worst). A scene in a gym changing room also goes there, in a way that makes me pray no unsuspecting parents will accompany their adolescent children to this R-rated film. The movie has another good final line and cut to black (just as the F-brothers did with The Heartbreak Kid), although the obligatory end-credits extras tend to blunt the rightness of an ending these days. In other news, the long-developing project about The Three Stooges – the Farrellys’ Other Side of the Wind – is supposedly set for next year. (full review 2/25)

At my other website, What a Feeling!, a moment for a needlessly obscure (in the U.S., anyway) French comedy: Life is a Long Quiet River.

Movie Diary 2/21/2011

Crashout (Lewis J. Foster, 1955). Jailbreak with good people: more here.

Loophole (Harold D. Schuster, 1954). Sometimes these “undiscovered noirs” turn out to be justifiably undiscovered, but this is actually pretty swell, with a straightforward line of action and a splendid antagonist – not really a villain – in the form of Charles McGraw. He’s the insurance investigator hounding accused bank teller Barry Sullivan.

Kaboom (Gregg Araki, 2010). At this point Araki is old guard, and it shows in his command of rhythm and story-teasing-out, however zany the subject matter gets. (full review 2/25)

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1974). Certain movies keep showing up in a working life as a critic, for a whole variety of reasons; and here’s this one yet again. And there’s Fassbinder, dismantling the status quo – the status quo of society and filmstyle – because the status quo is an impediment to human happiness. The more you watch this director, the more human happiness keeps coming into view as his true subject.

Over at my other website, What a Feeling!, we keep turning up more impediments to human happiness – like Police Academy 6: City Under Siege.

Crashout (The Cornfield #19)

No prelude here, just men running through sun-baked California brush as the opening credits play – the setting, drained of nighttime mystery or noir glamour, is the first of the film’s offbeat touches (the movie will end in a howling blizzard on the side of a mountain, as though measuring the distance traveled in this greedy journey). It’s a jailbreak in which the ringleader (William Bendix) is promptly shot by a guard operating more as sniper than policeman, an opening volley that establishes the film’s exceptionally violent mode.

Lewis R. Foster’s Crashout (1955) tracks these six escapees as they make their way toward a goal: Bendix, weak as a kitten but full of murder, promises them a split of his hidden loot if they help him get free. Until that goal is established, you wonder where the movie is going; the first stop is a watery hillside cave not far from the prison, where the men slide through the muck, and bicker. Damn, they wouldn’t set the whole movie here, a Beckett play with lowlifes – would they? They wouldn’t, and the escapees make their way out after an extended first act.

Like many a sentimental crime drama, Crashout uses the idea of women as contrast to the uncivilized protagonists, but unlike many such pictures, works intriguing variations on the idea. Luther Adler’s cardshark boasts of his unlikely prowess with women, then takes the first opportunity he has to kiss a woman caught in a roadside-diner hostage situation – a creepy violation that seems as brutal as any of the film’s killings.

The youngest of the escapees, played by Marshall Thompson at his most Bambi-like, enjoys a quietly effective interlude on a train with a woman (Gloria Talbott, the same year she played the daughter in All That Heaven Allows) returning to her small town. She opens the doorway to another life, he knows it, and he’s ready to take the leap, but that’s not how things can work. A really first-rate scene at a train station in the middle of the night settles the issue, and then the gang moves on. And so does Talbott, walking away with an accepting air, as though not expecting much from a stranger on a train in the first place – the males are the ones with the big dreams and fantasies (Thompson sees an entire small-town life spring before his eyes in a five-minute conversation, as one can sometimes do) while the women remain grounded in the world as it works.

Unusually good cast – for once, you believe that these grubby people might really have been in the can: Bendix and Gene Evans all bearish and snarly, William Talman employing his haunted-eye stare as a Christian type with a talent for knife-throwing (not the circus variety, but the snuffing-a-guy-in-a-train-station-at-night variety), Adler getting to strut his actorly energy and taking over that small stage of the cave whenever he talks (you can always spot a theatre man when he lands in a movie ensemble), Thompson armed with Astroturf Fifties crewcut, and Arthur Kennedy doing what he did best, bringing the human side to a miscreant. Kennedy meets Beverly Michaels, who lives on a farm, and while the outline of their thing is perhaps the usual hogwash, there’s something grown-up about the actual interplay – she’s an unwed mother who has clearly seen some things, and open to the damaged fugitive Kennedy does so well.

Crashout barrels along to its end, a useful if somewhat incredible mountain climb with metaphorical possibilities. It doesn’t need to rise above its B-picture level too dramatically because it does its B-picture business with such force, and because its structure is so fundamentally sound. It also dispatches people with a brutality that takes the romance out of the usual genre pleasures – including an offscreen demise for high-pitched character actor Percy Helton that qualifies as a true gut-punch.


Cedar Rapids Version Number Four (Weekly Links)

Reilly, Helms, Whitlock: Cedar Rapids

Reviews I wrote this week for the Herald:

Cedar Rapids. “A pretty wonderful movie.”

Unknown. (link dead; review below)

By Robert Horton

After years of credibility as an actor, Liam Neeson scored an unexpected box-office hit as an action hero in 2008 with “Taken,” a standard role in an effective chase picture. Neeson’s new one, “Unknown,” can be seen as something of a follow-up, although its plot is quite different and its storytelling less secure. Still, the towering actor gets to throw a few punches and exact a little payback, so all is not lost.

Something very strange happens to Dr. Martin Harris (Neeson) while attending a big biotech conference in Berlin with his wife (January Jones). Knocked into a coma for four days after a car accident, he wakes up to find that he’s not welcome at the conference and his wife doesn’t recognize him.

It gets worse. Standing alongside his wife is a man who calls himself Dr. Martin Harris—and he’s played by Aidan Quinn, not Liam Neeson.

Granted, the first Harris is a little dazed from his accident, but what is going on here? And is it possibly he’s not the man he thinks he is?

That’s not a bad set-up, and there are a few scenes that suggest somebody watched a Hitchcock movie or two: Harris getting drugged in a hospital and having to fumble his way out, or his meeting with a puckish private investigator (the great actor Bruno Ganz), who fondly recalls the “good old days” of being a Stasi agent in East Germany.

The movie’s premise becomes increasingly incredible as it goes along. I’m willing to suspend disbelief for some pretty big whoppers, but in this scenario, would it really be likely that Harris couldn’t think of anybody in his life he could contact, outside of a single university colleague (Frank Langella)? The selective-amnesia excuse of his injury only goes so far.

He is aided in his quest by a cab driver (Diane Kruger, late of “Inglourious Basterds”), who is attractive enough to make the viewer wonder which couple is going to walk off into the sunset at the end.

I liked Neeson in the role just fine; he’s got his rugged depth, even if the character doesn’t. January Jones, so eerie in “Mad Men,” has less to do here, but plays blankness very well.

The story needs a Polanski to shape it up; but Jaume Collet-Serra, who directed the notorious Paris Hilton remake of “House of Wax,” does not have those kinds of skills.

The choice of Berlin as a setting is good: alien enough for our hero to feel lost in, and carrying creepy echoes of Cold War spy movies of the past. There’s just enough here to qualify “Unknown” as a passable popcorn movie. But that’s being generous.

I Am Number Four. “His number is, as they say, up.”

The Housemaid. “Classic situation of lust and caution.”

Barney’s Version. “Giamatti stamps and snorts his way across this movie’s otherwise bland surface.”

Saint Misbehavin’: The Wavy Gravy Movie. “Good vibrations are the main export.”

And an interview with Cedar Rapids director Miguel Arteta.

On KUOW’s “Weekday,” I talk with Steve Scher about recent movie comedies (Cedar Rapids in particular), and how a new generation of comedy stars is always showing up to take over. It’s archived here; the movie bit kicks in at the 14-minute point.

More 1980s review up at my other website, What a Feeling!: a double review of B-movies from ’86, Born American and Bullies; plus Satisfaction, a Justine Bateman starring vehicle that worked out well for a couple of supporting players.

At the Frye Art Museum on Sunday, I’ll be introducing a free showing of R.W. Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, at 2 p.m. More info here.

And in Rotten news, you can pre-order the “Lost Diary of John J. Flynn, U.S. Agent,” a volume kept by one of the men whose unfortunate exploits are chronicled in Rotten: here. No one can explain why the diary was suppressed for over one hundred years….

Movie Diary 2/16/2011

I Am Number Four (D.J. Caruso, 2011). Number four is number one in a new franchise that will be sure to stretch out over many installments – Remo Williams, look out. (full review 2/18)

And at my other website, What a Feeling!, what it was like to see The Thing in 1982.

Movie Diary 2/15/2011

Unknown (Jaume Collet-Serra, 2011). The director of the Paris Hilton House of Wax tackles Neeson’s new one in the Taken vein, and ah, do we ever miss you, Luc Besson. (full review 2/18)

Saint Misbehavin’: The Wavy Gravy Movie (Michelle Esrick, 2009). And why shouldn’t Wavy Gravy get his own documentary? He should, and he does. (full review 2/18)

And at my other website, What a Feeling!: catch up with a couple of 80s titles, Hot Pursuit and Dangerously Close, the latter of which has some interesting comments going.

Wednesday morning on KUOW-FM’s “Weekday” at 10:20: sorting out the new-arriving generation of movie comedy.