Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Uninvited (1944)

That is an interesting promo poster, isn't it?  Just how large is that candelabra?  Comparing it to the man who has thrown it at what appears to be cigarette smoke, I would estimate at least three feet tall.  Unless, of course, the "uninvited" are miniature people.  I was also intrigued by the quotation in the top: "From the Most Popular Mystery Romance since 'Rebecca'."  Now, I've seen Rebecca, and it hasn't aged all that well --- from a story perspective, that it; the direction is fine.  Does that mean that The Uninvited will also suffer from old age?  That is a definite possibility.

I was already familiar with the plot of The Uninvited before I sat down to watch it.  My lovely and talented wife co-starred in a local theatrical production of the play, which was based on the same book as the film.  With the element of surprise gone, I was free to study the film as if this was my second or third viewing.

The Uninvited opens with Roderick (Ray Milland) and his sister, Pamela (Ruth Hussey), losing control of their dog while trespassing on private property.  Being fairly reckless with their terrier, the pair apparently opted to not bring a leash with them and, when the dog saw a squirrel, it was all over; the dog chased the suspiciously slow squirrel into a lovely but empty house, as a piano played in the soundtrack, a la Tom and Jerry.  Many people would be embarrassed enough to leave quickly, but not Roderick and Pamela.  They decided to give themselves a tour, and they fell in love with the house.
"Yes, house...I must murder my sister so we can be alone..."
And what luck!  The house is for sale!  What follows is a powerful drama as the siblings go through the long, arduous process of purchasing a new home, complete with offers, counteroffers, inspections and closing costs the fastest house sale in history.  They make a ridiculously low bid, it is accepted, and Roderick returns to London to finish business, while Pamela moves in as soon as the furniture arrives.
How low was the bid?  Instead of dollars, they used day-old herring
Once Roddy moves in, though, he starts to notice some weird things; one room in the house is inexplicably colder and sadder than the rest of the house, animals won't go near the room, and the sound of sobbing can be heard late at night until dawn.  Pammy knew all this before Roddy showed up, but opted to not mention it to him.  No big deal.  The house they sunk their life savings in just happens to be haunted.  But why is it haunted?  And what does it have to do with the previous owner's twenty year-old granddaughter, Stella Meredith (Gail Russell)?
Hint: it involves dramatic running

The Uninvited stands out from other mid-1940s movies for a few reasons.  Most notably, this story uses a ghost haunting as a legitimate plot device.  To the best of my knowledge, that makes it the first (at least in Hollywood) drama to not have the haunting be an elaborate ruse.  This is a ghost story, plain and simple.  Of course, there were not many special effects back then, so we don't see much of the ghost.  I was impressed that they showed it at all, even as a barely visible smoky image.  That said, The Uninvited is clearly uncomfortable with its subject matter.  Every time the film started to take advantage of its creepy mood, the tension was undercut by comic relief or Roderick trying to seduce Stella Meredith.  While that may be a product of the times --- how often did Hollywood really try to frighten its audiences in the 40s? --- that still doesn't excuse comic relief that deserves to be accompanied by a wah-wah horn riff.

The acting in The Uninvited is decent, but there are no great performances here.  Ray Milland is likable enough in the lead, but his character is too shallow for a quality leading role.  Similarly, Ruth Hussey is okay as Milland's sister, but her character has some serious logic lapses --- why didn't she mention the haunting to her brother earlier? --- without adequate explanation.  Gail Russell was better as a pleasant, but naive, love interest for Milland, but her role wasn't very deep.  Donald Crisp was pretty over-dramatic as Stella's grandfather.  Cornelia Otis Skinner gave the most interesting performance in the cast, as the painfully proper (and probably evil) Miss Holloway.  I found it interesting that the filmmakers opted to hint that the character was gay; not surprisingly, she is cast as a bit of a villainess.
Only lesbians keep portraits with such well-defined busts

This was the first film to be directed by Lewis Allen, and it remains one of his most widely recognized.  Personally, I was not impressed with Allen's direction at all.  I thought the acting varied between unnecessarily campy (Milland's seasick scene and all the humor) and overly dramatic.  Every time he managed to make a scene somewhat tense, he undermined it.  It doesn't help that ghost stories do not age particularly well, especially ones that involve little to no outright horror.  I thought he did a decent job starting to make the film scary, but he never went that extra step for a satisfying conclusion.  Ouija boards and rooms filled with a menacing evil are decent starting points, especially in 1944, but Allen always opted for the least disturbing way out of those scenes. 


I think it is telling that The Uninvited is one of the few classic horror movies to not have a recent remake.  The premise is fine --- the house is haunted and there is a family secret --- but the way the story is told removes a lot of the drama.  This is a ghost mystery, where the main characters try to decode a twenty year-old drama to put the ghosts at rest.  That means that there is really no action or villain that can be overcome in a satisfying manner.  Instead, the main characters wind up having a lot of exposition in their dialogue to explain what is happening in the film, because it can't be shown.  Sure, the acting is decent and the movie looks pretty enough, but the story is lackluster.

Friday, December 30, 2011


I start to think of Christmas movies right after Thanksgiving is over.  I don't always watch them right away, but I make a flexible list of movies that I'd like to watch as I prepare to buy useless trinkets for others.  I had had Antichrist in my Netflix queue for several months now --- mostly because the idea of Willem Dafoe in a Criterion Collection movie that I was oblivious to intrigued me --- and I figured that it might balance the saccharine-sweet movies I knew I would be watching just before the holiday.

Note to self: being right is not the same thing as being happy.

Antichrist begins in black and white, with a close-up of sexual penetration.  So, if you are the sort of person who doesn't like seeing testicles (prosthetic or otherwise) in their movies, this might be a good time to turn the movie off, because it will get worse.  While He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) are enjoying themselves, their toddler-aged son, Nic, is wandering about their home.  Ultimately, Nic falls out an open window to his death.
Meanwhile, his parents sing "Tears in Heaven" softly in the shower

That was just the prologue, and the film doesn't get any more cheerful than that.  The film switches to color, and we learn that this is a film with chapters, which doesn't make it seem pretentious at all.  Chapter One is Grief, Two is Chaos Reigns, Three is Despair (Gynocide), and Four is The Three Beggars.  Obviously, the couple is devastated by the loss of their son.  She is hit harder than He is, and she winds up in a hospital numb from grief and medication.  He happens to be a therapist, so he makes the entirely wise decision to take her home and treat her himself.  Not surprisingly, that doesn't work so well.  He adjusts his methods and decides that the best treatment for Her is exposure therapy; in other words, he will discover what makes her afraid and will help her confront it in a safe way.  Why the film veered from grief to fear, I'm not entirely sure, but the two can be connected, so I won't nitpick.  The couple hikes to a remote cabin, called Eden (this film is absolutely not heavy-handed), where they spent time last summer as She tried to write a thesis paper on Gynocide.  Here, He will try to help Her overcome her grief and fear by making her face them.  Of course, that doesn't always lead to peaceful interactions...
The Green Goblin loves "girl talk" time

Antichrist is a bizarre experience.  Those familiar with Lars von Trier's other movies might not be surprised by that fact, but if you put this on with the assumption that you are going to be entertained, you will be grossly disappointed.  This is my first von Trier film, so I won't make any generalizations about his work, but Antichrist is definitely meant to be harrowing and artsy.  If that sounds like your brand of whiskey, you might find something redeeming here.  The cinematography is, for the most part, effective.  I didn't care for the amount of hand-held photography or how frequently the camera went out of focus in the first third of the film, but von Trier definitely succeeded in capturing the most uncomfortable moments in the story on film.  There are tons of camera shots that are filled with Meaning, but much of the symbolism was lost on me, since I was busy being horrified.
The "bullet time" shot seemed unnecessary, though

Von Trier did a great job with the actors; aside from some basic stupidity on His character, Willem Dafoe was very good and Charlotte Gainsbourg managed to grieve convincingly on camera, even as her character went bat-shit crazy.  It is difficult for two characters to carry an entire film, but these two did it well.  They weren't fun to watch, but I have to admit that they gave some quality performances.

I wasn't sure I would be able to take that rational of a look at Antichrist.  My immediate reaction to the film was something along the lines of "Wait...what?  AAAA!  Why would you do that?  AIEEEE!  What is that supposed to --- AAAUGH!  $@@#%#^&!!!  &#$%#$*@%*$!!!"  And I went on speaking in symbols for the rest of the day.
"Chaos Reigns"

I went into this movie expecting it to be kind of weird.  When Dafoe does independent films, they are rarely typical and I was aware of von Trier's reputation.  But  What an uncomfortable experience.  I could handle the weird crow, the deer with the dead fawn sticking out of it, and the fox or weasel or whatever the hell it was that was shredding itself.  Those are all bizarre and unsettling things, but that is within the range of things I will accept on film.  I was not expecting frequent nudity from the two stars, but I can handle that, too, even if the scenes are not intended to be erotic.  On a side note, why do non-porn movies featuring masturbation scenes usually involve crying?  Is that the only way directors can indicate that a scene is not meant to be porn-y?  The genital mutilation pushed Antichrist over the edge for me.  Once that started happening, I checked out.  I managed to finish the movie, but more to prevent any temptation to ever watch the film again (to combat any argument that I "missed" something) than out of any affection for the story or characters.
Not pictured: THE HORROR

I assume that my reaction was something close to what von Trier was going for.  Antichrist is a film steeped in directorial intent, and it was obviously not mangled in post-production to make the film more palatable for the masses.  I get that the characters are handling the grief process absolutely incorrectly; instead of accepting, there is treatment and punishment.  I also understand that these two were probably already a little off before the death of their son; she had come to believe that women are evil and he was a controlling man that apparently ignored his infant child and (probably) his wife.  I am sure that there is a lot more here that I do not understand, because I don't want to have to go back and revisit the film and its symbolism.  As much as I appreciate the acting in the film and the unusual story, I cannot overcome my revulsion to the film.  Some might see Antichrist as a triumph of artistic will and another example of a provocative filmmaker shocking his audience.  I see this as a miserable way to waste 100 minutes, observing self-satisfied direction, on-screen torture, and delusions of artistic grandeur.  I would give this a lower rating, but it is not incompetent.  It is just intentionally painful.
Yes, cuddle with His torso.  How tender.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

Mission: Impossible is kind of a strange series.  The first film, directed fifteen years ago by Brian "subtlety's my middle name" De Palma, was an entertaining but logically dubious special effects feature with quadruple crosses galore.  The second film, directed by John "I rape subtlety for breakfast" Woo, was a ridiculously over-the-top and incredibly stupid tribute to slow motion effects; it also featured a theme song by Limp Bizkit.  Ugh.  The third film, directed by J.J. "Blue F'n Lights" Abrams, went back to basics, but narrowed the scope down so far that it felt more like an awesome TV show than a blockbuster movie.  Honestly, I didn't have high hopes for Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, the fourth entry in the franchise.  It's not that I haven't enjoyed the other movies in the series--- they are entertaining for what they are --- but experience warns against the probability of a fourth movie in a franchise being good.  There are a few facts about Ghost Protocol that indicate that it may fare better than, say, X-Men Origins: Wolverine.  First of all, this is the first live-action feature film directed by Brad Bird, who wrote and directed one of my favorite films of the past decade, The Incredibles.  Second, despite being a blockbuster, this was not filmed in 3D, but in IMAX; I may be petty, but 3D still feels like a gimmick in most films and, as Christopher Nolan has proved, IMAX can make some awesome special effects scenes breathtaking.  Finally, Ghost Protocol makes sure to keep the heroes from donning the ridiculously perfect Mission: Impossible masks that have plagued the series so far.  But is that enough to make this fourth volume worth watching?
Look!  An actual disguise!  Times have changed since 2000.

The plots of Mission: Impossible movies can be nosebleed-inducing if examined in too much detail, so I'll try to keep this relatively simple.  A bad guy, Kurt Hendricks, (the Swedish Millennium Trilogy's hero, Michael Nyqvist) wants to start a nuclear war.  That's bad.  Worse, he has framed the IMF (Impossible Missions Force) for an international catastrophe, so the entire organization and its agents have been officially disbanded and disavowed.  Specifically, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and friends have been framed for said international catastrophe, so they top the international wanted list.  Of course, they are the only ones who realize that Hendricks is planning to ruin the world, so they need to stop him.  They are all alone, without their usual bag 'o' tricks to help them and without international government support for their actions.  But that's why it's called an impossible mission, right?

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol was never designed to be an acting Goliath, but it's not half bad.  While it certainly won't net Tom Cruise the Oscar he obviously desires so desperately, I thought he was perfectly fine in this movie.  His character is clever and pretty bad-ass, without much angst or annoying principles to get in the way.  Simon Pegg returns for a second film, and he once again provides comic relief as the nervous tech guy.  I like Pegg, but I wish he would try something a little different in his next big budget movie.  I wasn't too impressed by Paula Patton, though; she had a sizable role and had the opportunity to be sexy, conflicted, and awesome, but was missing something --- depth, for starters --- to make her character work.
A lot was made of Jeremy Renner being added to the cast of Ghost Protocol,  with rumors suggesting him as a possible heir to headline the franchise when Cruise is finished.  If so, this isn't the movie that will make that happen.  Renner is perfectly fine, but he doesn't steal any scenes and just hints at his character's potential --- he's supposedly an Ethan Hunt-level bad-ass with an analyst's mind --- instead of doing anything particularly awesome.
I said "awesome," not "a clear homage to M:I I"
Lost alumni Josh Hamilton (who I barely recognized without his signature long locks) makes a brief appearance as a good guy, but he doesn't get a chance to do much.  The good guys also had some brief appearances from Ving Rhames, Michelle Monaghan, and Tom Wilkinson; of the three, Wilkinson had the most to work with and was the most fun to watch, if only because his character defied the expectations of a bureaucrat in a Mission: Impossible movie.  As for the baddies, Anil Kapoor was fairly entertaining as a bumbling sex fiend; I will admit that I found Kapoor especially fun to watch because his hair and beard reminded me of a friend who works for NBCLéa Seydoux got to look disinterested and sexy as an assassin, but how hard is that if you're already bored and French?  As for the main villain, Michael Nyqvist was given surprisingly little to say or do.  Sure, he has a crazy scheme, but he doesn't talk much and --- aside from his final fight scene --- doesn't do much in the film.  I'm not slighting the man, even though he looks ready for a nap, despite having a nuclear holocaust on its way any minute.

In all fairness, Nyqvist was never meant to be the draw for this film.  Mission: Impossible has never been about the villains, so much as it has been about having high stakes and fantastically elaborate stealth and action missions to pull off something even more ludicrously difficult.
That's what I'm talking about!
So, how are the ridiculous action and stealth sequences?  Pretty well done.  As usual, Tom Cruise is the centerpiece for most of these scenes, and he showcases why he is such a big damn action star.  It doesn't matter how ridiculous the premise behind a scene is, Cruise commits to making the action as bad-ass as possible.  And it usually works.
Even Cruise being chased by sand turns out to be decently cool
It would be hard to argue that the action in Ghost Protocol is anything but top notch, and I also enjoyed the film's sneaky moments, too.  The combination of unusual set pieces and exotic locales really helped keep this entry in the series from being boring.

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol is the first live-action directorial effort from Brad Bird.  He did a pretty good job.  The pacing of the film was fantastic, the action sequences were very well done, and the story wasn't too convoluted.  Heck, even the scenes that looked stupid in the movie trailer turned out to be pretty cool in the feature film.
Case in point
There aren't any impressive acting performances in the movie, but nobody was distractingly bad, either. 

As fun as Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol is, it's not quite a complete victory lap.  I understand that Ethan Hunt is the main character in the series, but it is getting a little old, watching him do all the ridiculously hard stuff while his team is given fairly remedial tasks.  The action in this film maybe nonstop, but I would have liked to have been surprised by a truly awesome action sequence that showcased another character.  I was happy to find that this film's plot didn't rely too heavily on the earlier movies, but the mystery behind Ethan Hunt wasn't as fascinating as the script had hoped.  All in all, this is a fast and fun action movie, but it is missing that special something --- a fantastic villain, a more charismatic hero, an iconic plot twist, etc. --- to make it truly great.  Still, I would argue that this is in a close race for the best entry in the Mission: Impossible series.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Look at that movie poster.  If you didn't know better, you might suspect that this is kind of like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; a creepy old man falls in love with a little girl, and when he inexplicably de-ages as she ages, their disembodied torsos get to share longing, sex-crazed grins.  But you do know better; this is the story of how people dissolve into a yellow background --- and love every second of it!  Or not.  Miracle on 34th Street is a Christmastime movie classic, but it obviously wasn't advertised as such when it was first released.  I don't know why they went to such lengths to hide it (aside from being released in May), because this is a pretty great example of what a holiday movie should be.

Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) is enjoying the Macy's Thanksgiving parade in New York when he happens across the parade's hired Santa Claus; this Santa is sloppy drunk and about to make a fool of himself in front of the children of New York.  Kris won't stand for such a slight against the good name of Santa Claus, so he brings this the drunken lout to the attention of Doris (Maureen O'Hara), the parade organizer.  With so little time to solve the problem, Doris implores Kris to put on a Santa suit and play the part for the parade.  He does, and everyone with a speaking part in the film remarks on what a good job he did.
Santa is a sucker for praise
Kris is so good that Doris hires him to play the part of Santa Claus for the holidays inside the famous New York Macy's department store.  And boy, is he great.  His methods might be unusual --- he tells customers to shop elsewhere if Macy's doesn't have what they need --- but his friendly attitude and astounding knowledge of toys makes him not only a customer favorite, but an accidentally influential person on the business policies of New York department stores.  He is also surprisingly influential on the people he meets.  He stirs up a sense of optimism in lawyer Fred Gailey (John Payne), introduces the concept of childhood to Doris' daughter, young Susan (Natalie Wood), and makes the pragmatic Doris consider the importance of life's intangibles. 
Like giving a crap about her kid
Of course, that's before anyone realized that Kris actually believes that he's the real Santa Claus, and isn't just a method actor.  This revelation, along with Kris giving someone a well-deserved noggin tap with his cane, leads to a sanity hearing.  After all, this guy thinks he's the real Santa Claus --- he must be insane.  That is, unless Fred can legally prove that Kris is the one and only physical representation of Christmas, derived from a Christian saint, a Dutch folk tale, a poem and a satirical cartoonist.
"He really, really looks like Santa, your honor.  I rest my case."

Miracle on 34th Street doesn't really approach the Christmas theme in the same way as most holiday films.  While most focus on the importance of family, this one takes a left turn and tries to implore its audience to have faith in things that are obviously ridiculous.  If nothing else, it does not take the easy way out.  It was interesting seeing a movie show Santa Claus in a real-world environment, handling modern cynicism in a variety of ways, not all of which are saint-like.  I really enjoyed the legal angle in the story, too.  I'm a sucker for silly arguments, so I thought the courtroom scenes were pretty clever.

The acting is pretty decent, and rarely as schmaltzy as the film's Christmas pedigree might indicate.  Maureen O'Hara is okay in the lead, and she plays her logical part with the appropriate amount of cold killjoy-ness.  John Payne is also adequate; he doesn't do anything wrong, but his is a fairly generic part that any number of 1940s leading men could have done just as well.  Edmund Gwenn is the true star of the film, even though his is only a supporting role.  It's difficult to play exceedingly good or nice characters and make them interesting, but Gwenn was a sweetheart that also managed to be convincingly childish and irritable.  Plus, he happens to look an awful lot like Santa.  This was Natalie Wood's first major role, and she was actually pretty good.  Child actors are always a little difficult to judge, but she didn't play a brat, a mischievous genius, or overact.  That might not sound like much, but when you consider what passed for child acting at the time, it is more than respectable.
Respectable, I tell you!
The other supporting characters are less impressive, but they are really just props in the story.  The only stand-out was veteran character actor Porter Hall, once again playing an unpleasant person, this time as a wannabe psychiatrist with a chip on his shoulder. 
Chin up, you've got a pretty decent IMDb resume for a character actor

The direction of George Seaton was pretty standard for the time period.  His focus is on telling a story, and he does a good job with it.  Seaton also wrote the screenplay, which is fairly clever.  Is this a tour de force for acting or direction?  Definitely not, but it is a story with a message, and it delivers where so many family films do not.  Seaton made a cute, slightly unusual movie in an efficient manner.

Miracle on 34th Street has definitely aged, though.  Not all of it is bad; some parts of this film are filled with friendly nostalgia for a time that probably never existed off-camera.  Still, there are some awkward moments.  The YMCA kid that volunteers to play Santa?  He does it A) because he is so fat, he doesn't require padding and B) it makes him "feel important." 
Keep sweeping, fatty!
Neither admission earns even a raised eyebrow from Kris Kringle, even though you can use the same points to validate smothering someone with your own body.  The drunken "Santa" in the parade was also a little odd.  I get that his drunkenness was intended for comic purposes, but the explanation Doris gives little Susan is a little disturbing, something along the lines of "remember when so-and-so did such-and-such?"  Great.  That's what I needed in my holiday movie: an underlying current of alcoholic abuse.  And Fred was occasionally more than a little creepy.  He made a point of finding out whether Santa Claus slept with his beard out or under the covers when he went to bed.  It's meant to be a little funny throw-away joke, but it made me uncomfortable, as did Kris' nonchalant answer; it's not as intimate as "boxers or briefs" or "manscaped, or untended wilderness" between two strangers who are sharing a room, but a simple "beards are awesome" would have sufficed.

I went into Miracle on 34th Street not expecting a whole lot.  I've seen bits and pieces of the various versions of this story before, but never in one sitting that I can remember.  It's a surprisingly well-made and charming film.  It does have a healthy dose of remarkable coincidences, but they fit the miraculous tone of the story.  The laughably fast-paced closing minutes --- whoever heard of dating? --- and Fred's awkward closing lines are the only real problems I had with the movie.  In a genre filled with eye-roll-worthy moments, it was a pleasure to see a cute film that didn't overdo it.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Jesus Christ Superstar

I am not much of a musical fan.  To date, the only ones I have reviewed are Christmas-themed ones, and I have watched them more as a concession to the season than to the genre.  When asked what my favorite musicals are by people who are musical fans --- for the record, they are South Park: Bigger Longer and Uncut and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory --- I usually get "Well, I don't know if those count" as a response.  And while I am more than willing to defend my choices, when pressed for a more traditional answer to the question, I usually mention Singin' in the Rain and Jesus Christ Superstar, although I haven't seen either one in many years.  With Christmas nearly upon us, I thought I would put the Superstar back in Christmas and revisit the only musical to impress me during my teenage years.  Although, to be fair, I guess this is more of an Easter movie than a Christmas one...

At its most basic, Jesus Christ Superstar is the story of the last days in the life of pre-zombie Jesus Christ (Ted Neeley).  Jesus knows his awful fate, but also knows that he is a man-godling on a mission.  While he deals with the frustration and depression of his inevitable crucifixion, his followers struggle to understand him.  Some, like Mary Magdalene (Yvonne Elliman), struggle to ease his burden while others, like Simon, expect Jesus to lead them on a violent revolution any day now.
Why would he think that?
Jesus' right hand, Judas (Carl Anderson), worries that his friend is buying into his own hype too much and will get them all in trouble with the ruling Romans.  Meanwhile, the Jewish high priests see Jesus as a problem; if the rabble decide to crown Jesus as any type of king, literal or not, the Romans will be rather upset.  But what to do?  For Jesus to be taken out of the picture permanently, he would have to be arrested --- but for what crime?
Cross-dressing, maybe?

Of course, this movie is not that simple.  Jesus Christ Superstar is a rock opera, a musical perhaps inspired as much by Woodstock-era rock 'n' roll as it is by Fred Astaire or Bing Crosby.  The film is metatheatrical --- the cast is seen arriving out of costume and setting up props at the beginning of the film --- and much of it is purposefully anachronistic (guns, grenades, postcards, hairstyles, etc.).  Character appearances and costumes are often more indebted to the 1970s than Biblical times.  Every line of dialogue is sung, and songs frequently bleed into one another; since the songs act as dialogue, that makes some of the dramatic settings for their songs/dialogue seem silly, like when Judas asks why Jesus won't listen to him...while he complains from a mountain top.  The dancing tends to be spasmodic, although it can also be pretty silly, too.  The film's tone is also unusual for a Biblical tale.  Judas is the most sympathetic and well-developed character in the cast and Jesus can come across as smug or irritable, which is far more human than he is usually portrayed on film.
Awkward pause after Jesus lets slip a "Goddammit"

Director and co-writer Norman Jewison made a lot of interesting choices with this film, and I thought many of them worked surprisingly well.  I haven't seen the stage musical, but I have to imagine that most people (especially in 1973) would have expected a more dastardly Judas and Pontius Pilate and a more divine portrayal of Jesus.  I definitely enjoyed the complexity and multidimensional characters Jewison helped bring to the screen.  I have absolutely no idea why the film includes tanks and jets at seemingly random moments (symbolism of Rome, yes, I get it, but why tanks and jets, specifically?), or why the High Priests spend their time on scaffolding.
Maybe to avoid discussing their hats?
If nothing else, I have to admit that Jesus Christ Superstar is a well-shot film that rarely takes the expected route with a story that is not new to its audience.  Whatever your opinion on the singing and dancing in this movie, it is hard to deny that Norman Jewison directed the hell out of this material.

The acting, on the whole, is not that great.  There are a number of smaller parts that could have been great with better actors, and several characters that could have been important were relegated to minor supporting roles (Peter, Simon, the High Priest, etc.).
One song, and that's all we hear from Simon
Here's an interesting side note:  Philip Toubus, who played Peter, is actually longtime porn actor/director Paul Thomas; in other words, the apostle that denied Christ three times is also the director of Savannah's Anal Gangbang.  I'm not saying that there is causation there, but I thought it was interesting.  Interesting post-movie tidbits are fine, but movies --- especially musicals --- need magnetic lead actors.  Luckily, the stars of the film are pretty good.  Ted Neeley gives a very vulnerable performance as Jesus.  It's not the sweetest Jesus you will ever see, but it was interesting to see the character handled as a good person with a lot to handle.  Carl Anderson's performance as Judas was a show-stealer, though. 
Just ask Judas Pato
Is there a more reviled person in The Bible than Judas Iscariot?  Lucifer doesn't count, since he's not a person, so the answer is "no."  Anderson made Judas' actions seem reasonable and gut-wrenching.  He also had the benefit of being the key part in the opening and closing songs, which doesn't hurt.

Since this is a musical, I should probably address the quality of the songs.  This was where the movie falls apart for me.  I just don't like the structure for most of these songs.  Don't get me wrong; there are many memorable bits and pieces of music in this musical --- "What's the Buzz," "Superstar," "King Herod's Song (Try It and See)" --- but few of them were shaped into their own full-fledged songs.
Herod is unexpectedly awesome
I thought the music suffered under the weight of singing all the dialogue.  I understand that this is an opera, but that doesn't mean that I have to enjoy Ted Neeley's rock star shriek when he's just singing lines that would have been far more effective spoken or shouted.  And, to be perfectly honest, I just plain disliked at least a third of the songs in this movie.  Am I the only person who hears the beginning of the Batman TV theme in the opening chords of "Damned For All Time"? (it starts at the 1:17 mark)

Just listen to that!  As awesome as Carl Anderson is there, shredding his vocal chords and giving his all, the ridiculous bass/falsetto of the High Priests undercuts the greatness with lame silliness.  For every song I genuinely liked, there at least one song I genuinely disliked, with another third as just neutral.  If this was a normal film, I think I would have enjoyed it more because the direction is impressive and I really liked the lead actors.  Unfortunately, I wasn't much of a fan of the music.

Oh, but it is hard to not like the rock 'n' soul of "Superstar."  So good!  If the rest of this musical was as solid as this song, I would absolutely love it.  But it's not, so I don't.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Dead Man

For many years, if you asked me who my favorite actor was, I would immediately answer "Johnny Depp."  To date, I have seen 37 of his 42 films, and I have enjoyed most of them.  With the success of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, though, I have felt that Depp's roles have been significantly tamer than the glorious weirdness that marked his career from 1990-1998.  Just as I was starting to question whether or not Depp was still my favorite, I noticed that Dead Man was LAMB's Movie of the Month.  That was a good enough reason for me to revisit this film for the first time in fifteen years.

Dead Man is the story of Bill Blake (Johnny Depp), an accountant from Cleveland who has gone West to get over heartbreak and seize a business opportunity.  It turns out that the West he winds up in is significantly further West than he probably had anticipated; his train started with men in suits and well-dressed women, but as the miles wore on, the train car became populated with gruff drunkards with wild hair, animal skins, and lots and lots of guns. 
Blake's stop is at the very end of the line, in a town called Machine.  After taking in the sights (a horse pissing in the street, Gibby Haynes receiving oral sex in an alley, etc.), he heads to work.  Unfortunately, it took Blake too long to make the trip; since he received the letter guaranteeing his employment in Machine, another man has been hired for the post.  Blake tries to protest, but it does little good against his rough would-be employer, John Dickinson (Robert Mitchum).
You're not going to beat two barrels of Mitchum

Without enough money to return home, Blake is at a loss.  He manages to postpone making any real decisions when he befriends (in the Biblical sense) Thel (Mili Avital).  In their post-coital bliss, Thel's ex-boyfriend, Charlie Dickinson (Gabriel Byrne) walks in; he shoots at Blake, the bullet goes through Thel and lodges in Blake's chest, and Blake shoots Charlie in the neck.  Gravely wounded, Blake manages to grab his belongings, steals a horse, and wakes up lost in the woods with a fat Indian poking his wound with a knife. 
Not the ideal wake-up call
It's not as bad as you might think.  Well, maybe it is.  The Indian, Nobody (Gary Farmer) was trying to dig out the bullet (which was a pleasant surprise for Bill), but it is too close to his heart (which is bad news for Bill).  Blake is essentially living on borrowed time.  Meanwhile, John Dickinson hires a trio of murderous thugs to bring Blake back, alive or (preferably) dead and has wanted posters put up all around, offering a large cash reward.  What is an accountant to do in the wild, with every armed man in the West looking to kill him for money?  What do you do when you are a [clever use of the movie title]?
You cry lighting?

Dead Man was written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, and is the only film I have seen of his to date.  I was a little surprised by that, so if you have any Jarmusch recommendations, please leave me a comment.  If there is only one thing you can say about Dead Man, it is that it is definitely stylized.  The entire film is in black-and-white.  The passage of time is shown only through scenes fading to black, sometimes after only a few moments.  It has a very atypical score for a Western; Neil Young provides a sparse soundtrack, consisting almost entirely of harsh and abrupt electric guitar riffs.  This is not the Wild West from classic Hollywood Westerns, where you go West to find freedom and start anew.  Jarmusch's West is surreal and nightmarish.  I loved the direction in this film, and I thought the actors were all handled quite well.  As for the writing...well, I'll come back to that later.

The acting in Dead Man is good, although most of the surprisingly deep supporting cast is limited to shallow bit parts.  Johnny Depp is good as the perpetually out-of-his-depth Blake; what I liked best about his portrayal was just how much calmer and worldly Blake got as he approached death.  Gary Farmer was also very enjoyable as Blake's companion, Nobody.  The last film I watched that had a prominent Native American role in it was Windtalkers, so it was nice to see an ethnic character that wasn't a stereotype.  Lance Henriksen was good as a truly nasty killer, but he was overshadowed by Michael Wincott's gravel-voiced (and often surprisingly funny) chatterbox; Eugene Byrd was fine as the third hired killer, but he definitely had the least developed character in the bunch. 
If nothing else, Westerns typically deliver mean-looking bad guys
Robert Mitchum was pretty awesome as an elderly bad-ass in his few moments onscreen.  I also enjoyed Billy Bob Thornton, Jared Harris, and Iggy Pop as a bizarre trio of fur-traders.
Depp's paper rose is discussed in detail here.  Thankfully, Pop's dress and bonnet are not
The rest of the noteworthy cast (including Crispin Glover, John Hurt, Gabriel Byrne, and Alfred Molina) are certainly adequate, but their appearances generate more of a "is that who I think it is?" reaction than a "what a great performance!"

Dead Man is a dark, trippy, surreal and surprisingly funny Western.  It is sometimes referred to as an Acid Western, following the example of non-traditional Westerns from the 60s and 70s and turning the sense of dread from films like Ride in the Whirlwind into an extended nightmare.  The dialogue is crisp and clever, and the fact that the various Native Americans languages were not subtitled or translated only emphasized Blake's outsider status.  The first time I saw this movie, I was oblivious to William Blake, but now that I'm somewhat familiar with his work, I found Nobody's references and plan far more amusing and less random.  As much as I enjoyed most of Jarmusch's writing in Dead Man, I have one major complaint.  The story just seems to go on and on.  Don't get me wrong --- I enjoyed the film and the two hour running time wasn't excessive.  The story just didn't have much structure.  Blake heads West, gets shot and then another hour and a half go by.  As an exercise in style and fun writing, Dead Man is great, but it is lacking a story that makes you care.  Still, good performances, enjoyable writing and interesting direction makes this better than most movies, even if it is imperfect.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Troll 2

I had been putting off the notoriously bad Troll 2 for quite a while.  I'm not exactly sure why; I often enjoy movies that are amusingly bad.  Maybe it was because I haven't spent time with friends who enjoy a nice, terrible movie lately.  Maybe I just didn't want to be frustrated by another bad film.  Whatever my reasons were, I was mistaken.  You need to watch this movie.  Seriously, it will change your life.  You may ask "Just how bad is this movie?"  Well, they made a documentary about it and named it Best Worst Movie, for starters.  "But shouldn't I watch the original Troll to have something to compare it to?"  No need; Troll 2 is not a sequel to Troll, nor is it a prequel.  Troll 2 has absolutely nothing to do with any other Troll movie.  In fact, there isn't a single troll to be found in this film.  Are you intrigued?

The Waits family --- father Michael, mother Diana, daughter Holly and son Joshua --- are doing something unusual for summer vacation this year.  They are swapping homes with a family that owns a farm; the Waits will live off the land for a few months and the other family will enjoy suburbia.  Apparently, the farming family doesn't mind the very probable odds of city folk ruining their crops without help or supervision.  Also worth noting is the fact that the Waits parents must be crazy, sadistic bastards to put their kids through this experience.
"One step closer, and I will snap my son's neck, I swear to God!"
And what kind of jobs do these parents have that they can take three months off to enjoy backbreaking labor?  Just before the family leaves on their trip, Joshua is contacted by the ghost of his grandfather --- which appears to be a common and unexplained occurrence --- who warns Joshua about the dangers of goblins.  Goblins are vegan monsters who eat people...but only after they somehow turn their victims into vegetables.  This brings up two important questions.  How does dead grandpa ghost know about goblins?  More importantly, why don't goblins just stick to eating vegetables that have never been human?
Because fear is delicious

The Waits leave for the town of Nilbog before those questions can be answered.  Once they arrive, young Joshua has a revelation:

Joshua has a bright future as a detective, as you can see.  When the Waits family arrives in their newly-swapped summer home, they find a vast "feast" laid out for them.  The quotations marks are deserved, since most of the meal appears to be made of green Play-Doh and colored whipped cream.
I Can't Believe It's Not Butter
Ghost grandpa shows up again and freezes time to explain to Joshua that the food has some sort of magical potion in it that will turn anyone who eats it into vegetable people.  But grandpa ghost froze time too late!  Nobody will believe Joshua is getting advice from a ghost, much less follow that advice.  With only seconds to act, Joshua springs onto the table and urinates all over the food, table, and anyone with food near their mouth.  It might not have been the perfect solution, but it certainly was the most eloquent.  The scene left me with a burning question, though: if grandpa is powerful enough to STOP FREAKING TIME, how is he so weak that he has to speak only to the smallest and dumbest member of the family?

Of course, sooner or later it becomes obvious to the Waits that Nilbog is full of goblins.  In fact, it is comprised entirely of goblins.
Only some of whom are forced to wear crappy costumes
Luckily for the Waits family, the cast of Troll 2 is padded with Holly's boyfriend and his buddies.  These youngsters act as cannon fodder and show off the variety of ways goblins can kill people.  Will goblins eat the Waits family?  Or will ghost grandpa manage to save the day by explaining the one goblin weakness and give Joshua a bologna sandwich for protection?  I can't believe that sentence makes sense within the context of this movie.

What sets Troll 2 apart from so many other bad movies is how fantastically inept it is, in every way.  No matter what aspect of the movie-making process you want to focus on, Troll 2 does it wrong to a hilarious degree.  Let's start with something simple, like costumes and make-up.  Not every movie is going to have a huge budget for special effects or convincing inhuman costumes.
Some can afford only masks and potato sacks
But that's why few movies have towns full of goblins in the plot.  If you ignore the shoddy costuming of the goblins, their irregular appearance from goblin to goblin, the fact that the lips of the goblin masks don't move when the actors speak, and the confusion caused by adult-sized people wearing the goblin costumes and still being called "dwarves," you are still left with some pretty awful costume and makeup work.
Battle of Crazy Eyes
When even the most basic concepts, like not making rouge look like a facial burn, are screwed up, you just can't help but laugh.

From what I've researched, it seems that this film was written by the director and his wife, who were both Italian and neither of whom spoke fluent English.  Furthermore, it seems that the director insisted on the cast reading their lines as they were written, regardless of grammar or common sense.  That definitely explains much of the acting in Troll 2.  If you like flat line delivery, odd emphasis, and bizarre vocal cadences, this is the movie for you.
It's not over-acting if she doesn't know what she's saying
Troll 2 has developed a bit of a cult following over the years, and the acting plays a large part in that.  There are several dozen instances in the film, but the most infamous is this scene (I've provided the English and Spanish translation for your viewing pleasure):

Isn't the Spanish dubbing far superior?  I think my favorite part of that scene is how obviously awful it is, and yet the director was apparently satisfied with it.  A fly landed on the actor's forehead while he screamed, which practically begs for another take, but apparently the director came from the Ed Wood school of direction and marched on.

I could go on and on, examining the ridiculous music, direction, editing, and story, but that would just make me want to watch the movie again.
Story problem: sex scenes involving corn cobs are not sexy
I don't really have anything original to add, regarding Troll 2.  It is truly one of the worst films I have ever seen, in every aspect of filmmaking.  It is surprisingly lovable, though; as bad as it is, this movie is a lot of fun to watch.  From a strictly objective point of view, Troll 2 earned a rating of
But whoever said I have to be objective?  I had a blast watching this alone, and it will only get better as I share it with others.  Hell, I will probably watch Best Worst Movie when I do my next October run of horror movies.  Troll 2 is, indeed, the best worst movie and the finest case of Lefty Gold I have ever encountered.