Formerly "Dave's Blog About Movies and Such"

Friday, July 30, 2010

Awesome Movie Trailers: The Beguiled

dir. Don Siegel

When the fuck will this movie be rediscovered and get the cult following it deserves?

[The trailer:]

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Demons 2 (1986)

dir. Lamberto Bava

Take Demons and change the setting from a movie theater to an apartment building.

[The trailer:]

Dave's Rating:

Monday, July 26, 2010

Ride the High Country (1962)

dir. Sam Peckinpah

[Let me say right off the bat that this review will be chock full o' spoilers. Tread no further lest ye wants to have this movie ruined.]

My writing partner and I were recently having a movie discussion when I made what I thought would be a major faux pas. Our conversation began innocently enough. It started as a bitch-fest over Zack Snyder's heinous over-use of slow-motion in his action sequences. Eventually, of course, we brought up other directors guilty of this crime. We both love John Woo, but we wondered how we would respond now upon rewatching such masterpieces (Hard Boiled and The Killer) that we enjoyed at a younger age. I think I'd still really like these flicks, but I would no doubt be unmoved by the slo-mo. Why after all these years of cinematic evolution have we been unable to rid our action flicks of this lazy trope?

I suppose an argument could be made that slo-mo lends a beautifully abstract quality to these movies, turning the violence into a delicate ballet. I wonder, however, why anyone would want action scenes to be beautiful. Pain shouldn't be pretty. When film-makers use slo-mo, abstracting the human form, they, in effect, fetishize the violence. A jolting, real-time, action scene, however, forces the audience to experience the brutality on-screen, and makes them question the violence. The primary response to a slo-mo action sequence, however, is, "Gee, that sure looks purdy."

Being that my writing partner and I are both fans of Sam Peckinpah I knew I was treading dangerous ground when I decided to mention this director.

"I love Peckinpah but I gotta say...I know it was novel when he was doing it, and it hadn't become a cliche yet...maybe it's just because it's been so overdone since then, since he was imitated so much...but, I gotta say, I don't even like slo-mo when Peckinpah does it...or did it, I should say."

"Tell me about it. That's my least favorite thing about his movies."

I know what you my readers must be saying to yourselves right now, "You like Peckinpah but you don't like his use of slo-mo? Huh? Isn't that all there is to him? That's the one thing he's known for, right?" While it's true that Peckinpah has become synonymous with stylized violence and slow-motion techniques, these are not the things that draw me to his movies. I am drawn to Peckinpah's films because of their unrelenting sense of place, nuanced characters, ambiguous morality, scenes of male-bonding, and deconstruction of Western myths.

I am also drawn to his movies because they are so often not pretty. Indeed, Peckinpah often makes it difficult to like his films and his characters. Despite any of the individual elements of Peckinpah movies I may enjoy, one or two aspects will inevitably force me to question not only a particular film but also the director himself. I am forced to actively engage with Peckinpah movies in ways that I am so rarely asked to do with the works of other directors.

Particularly troubling to me has been Peckinpah's treatment of women in his films. Accusations of misogyny had been tossed at the director throughout his career and long after his death. Although many convincing cases have been made for and against labeling Peckinpah a Neanderthal sexist thug, I remain on the fence. One could argue that he merely presents characters who are misogynistic but a counter-point could be made that his tendency to include violence against women in damn near everyone of his movies speaks to something about him. This, of course, will be discussed further at greater length.

I should confess that until now I had not seen any of Peckinpah's pre-Wild Bunch movies. In my discussion with my writing partner, I realized that my knowledge consisted only of the latter, stylized-violence pics. After our conversation, I decided to take a gander at the director's early outing Ride the High Country. In watching this film, I wanted not only to fill some of my Peckinpah gaps but also to watch one of his formative pictures, one in which he had not yet adopted the stylized action with which he would become later associated. Ride the High Country isn't quite as accomplished a picture as some of his later efforts, but it does contain elements that are superior to his post-Wild Bunch output.

Although not explored to the lengths Peckinpah would pursue in The Wild Bunch, Ride the High Country similarly plays with multiple narrative strands. In the A-story, aging, retired sheriff Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) gets hired by a banker to transport gold from a mining town. He enlists help in the form of old partner Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott in his final film role) who in turn brings his young protege Heck Longtree (Ron Starr). What Judd doesn't know, of course, is that Gil and Heck plan to steal the gold (ain't it always the way). They intend to invite Judd on their theft, but if Judd doesn't agree, they'll take the gold regardless. Being that he is an old friend, Gil wants to at least extend Judd the courtesy of joining him.

On their trip to the mining camp, the three men find refuge with an old farmer who warns the men to keep their hands off his supple young daughter Elsa Knudsen (Mariette Hartley) (ain't it always the way). And so is introduced the B-story. Heck, of course, becomes smitten with Elsa, but her father cuts off all shenanigans. After the three men leave, Elsa gets in an argument with her father and then runs away to join the men. The older men become upset that they'll burdened by a woman on their journey, but Heck is overjoyed—that is, until Heck attempts to rape Elsa and she fights him off. She then informs Heck that her purpose in joining the men on their trip is to wed Billy Hammond (James Drury), a man at the mining town.

Upon arriving at the camp, Heck begrudgingly sees Elsa off and everything seems jim-dandy for her. When Billy brings his brothers to the whorehouse where he and Elsa are to be married, it becomes apparent that they intend to either gang-rape her, turn her into a prostitute or some other such evil thing. Goddamn, talk about out of the frying pan and into the fire. Although, Judd and Gil do not want to get involved, Heck informs them that unless they help her escape, he will stay in the mining town. Judd and Gil begrudgingly lend a hand. In the film's thrilling conclusion all the narrative strands come to a head.

True to Peckinpah form, Ride the High Country traffics in moral ambiguity aplenty. In the A-Story, Gil is never presented as completely evil, and Judd is never presented as a knight in white satin armor (that's the saying, right?). Gil is well aware of his old partner's psychology and so, in his conversations with Judd, never outright asks him to join him in the theft. Judd, of course, also well versed in Gil's thinking, knows exactly what the man is getting at. Gil argues that they have never been properly compensated for all of their previous good deeds. Judd agrees that the amount of money owed to them would be a ridiculous sum. Gil feels entirely justified in taking the gold from the bank. When push come to shove, however, Judd takes Gil prisoner. As unjust as it may be that they will not be properly compensated for aiding the rapacious bankers, Judd is a law man. He can not let a crime go unpunished no matter how justified it may seem. Although it may personally pain him to be locking up a friend, he feels he has no other choice.

The morality in the B-Story is even hazier. Billy marries Elsa under false pretenses, and then, when she has learned her fate, Elsa attempts to flee. Heck knows that the just thing to do is help her escape. The two old men shudder at the thought—Gil, because she will interfere with their plans, and Judd because she will be a burden on their journey. Gil, being the pragmatist that he is, realizes that if Heck stays in town, his gold-stealing plans may fall apart. He then forces the minister/whorehouse operator to tear up his marriage-givin' license. Although, his intentions may not be pure, Gil willfully bends the law to aid Elsa.

Judd on the other hand, as was mentioned before, is a law-man first and foremost. The marriage was legal, so therefore, he has no right to interfere. In his eyes, he would just be stealing property that now rightfully belongs to Billy. To the viewers, especially us modern types, it is only too obvious that the proper thing for the older men to do in this situation is rescue Elsa from Billy and his brothers. In this instance, the law-breaker is more morally justified than the law-abiding Judd.

This film has made it only harder for me to place myself in either the Peckinpah was a misogynist, or "he was just showing it as it was" camp. In the early scene in which Heck attempts to rape Elsa, he is thwarted by both Gil and Judd. Sure, they're upset with him but their anger seems to stem more from the Heck's impetuousness. Heck's actions are presented as youthful indiscretion, something the older men know he will grow out of. When Heck later drops Elsa off at Billy's camp, Billy is suspicious that she rode such a long way with a man. Elsa sneeringly says that Heck was a perfect gentleman. Billy and his brothers mock Heck, chiding him for not forcing himself on Elsa. One of them states that they never see gentlemen in these parts. We all know that in Western jargon, gentleman is code for homosexual—the lowest of the low as far as these men are concerned. Jesus Christ, Peckinpah is a sick fuck. I made up my mind. He's a sexist sack of shit. Or is he?

Things get muddied as the film progresses. First and foremost, it should be noted that, unlike some of Peckinpah's later outings, the female protagonist here is slightly more nuanced. It could be argued that Peckinpah was merely presenting the reality for women in the Old West. As awful as Heck's actions are, Billy and his brothers exist in another realm of evil. These were the kinds of options that women had at the time.

Although this film is all about hard choices, Elsa is never presented as having a free-hand in any of the goings-on. In the eyes of the law, women were nothing more than property. They had to make do with the only non-existent choices before them. In much the same way as Mad Men, Ride the High Country is full of misogyny, but is not necessarily a misogynist work (although some convincing arguments have been made stating the opposite). Although, the movie may superficially end well (the baddies get killed), when viewed from Elsa's perspective, this film is a tragedy.

[The trailer:]

Dave's Rating:

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Story of Everest

I have seen every episode of Mr. Show at least four times. It would be fair to say that I'm obsessed. Few other sketch shows, aside from Monty Python and Kids in the Hall, so perfectly mastered both video and stage scenes. Mr. Show premises could range from the utterly brilliant and innovative to the most familiar. Bob Odenkirk and David Cross could make even the hokiest set-up, something fresh and unconventional. Bob has stated that he didn't want to reject any ideas. No matter how poorly a sketch was received at a table reading, it would be reworked until it was funny. A ridiculous amount of work and thought went into even the most seemingly inconsequential elements of the show. Such was one of the many geniuses of Mr. Show.

As much as I love this show, however, I haven't had a chance to rewatch it for a few years. Lately, I've been focused on plowing my way throw as many new-to-me movies and TV shows as possible. Why waste time with stuff I've already seen when I could watch fresh 1940s drug scare movies. Recently, though, because the AV Club has begun reviewing all the Mr. Show episodes, I've become nostalgic for it. What the hell, I'll give it another go around.

After rewatching Mr. Show this time, I have become reminded of something that has amazed me over my many repeat viewings of the show--my complete turnaround in regard to the "Story of Everest" sketch. In this sketch, Jay Johnston plays a ye olde adventurer who becomes the first person to climb Mt. Everest. Upon relaying his story to his parents he accidentally falls backward and knocks over two cases of thimbles. Every time he puts the thimbles back in place he accidentally knocks them over again. This is repeated about five times. When I first saw this sketch, my heart sank. "How could they do this?" In the words of Sweetie Pie Jonus, "How many times is this motherfucker gonna fall down? This shit aint funny."

Whereas previous uses of hokey set-ups would subtly subvert the tropes and act as a comment on such hokiness, this one just used the hokiness verbatim. Sure, the ending piece, in which the story is adapted into a hokey silent comedy, comments on the scene, but this isn't until the long scene is over. That's a heck of a lot of hokey build-up for a punch line. [Side note: how many times do you think I can use the word hokey and its variants in one piece? The answer may surprise you.]

When I first rewatched the series, I dreaded reaching this episode. "Ok, here we go. Let's get it over with." Something clicked the second time, however. Despite all my best efforts, I laughed at the goddamn scene. "Ah, it's still stupid," I thought. "Maybe I'm just in a giggly mood." Upon multiple viewings, however, I ended up laughing more each time. Eventually, not only would I rewatch just this episode, but also, just this sketch. After all these years, and rewatching the entire series numerous times, this is the scene that consistently gets me laughing the hardest.

How did this happen? What is it about this scene that works so well for me now? First and foremost, props must be given to Jay Johnston's physical comedy. He falls with such force and abandon that each spill seems entirely genuine. The naturalness of Johnston's falls becomes even more pronounced when viewed in contrast to the forced fall of the comedian in the silent picture ending the piece. Also, listen to the reaction of the audience as Jay falls the first time. They are so boisterous that I wouldn't be surprised if they assumed this was a blooper. Of course, as the point of the scene becomes obvious, each fall is met with less laughs and some groans. [The groans may also be due to the fact that it took the cast and crew about ten minutes to clean up the thimbles after each fall.]

Perhaps more than any other scene in the history of the show, this one is reliant almost entirely on the performances. Although Jay, Bob, Jill Talley, and especially David deliver their lines in a purposefully forced, old-timey, actory way, their reactions to Jay are utterly genuine. Their frustration and anger seem to come from a real place. [Of course, this scene also has some classic yelling from Bob—one of my favorite things to watch on Mr. Show.] Watch for instance, on one of the last falls, the way a desperate Jay extends his arm to Bob only to have it angrily slapped away. These characters, realizing that they have become stuck in a neverending, hokey premise of Sisyphean proportions grow from anger into despairing acceptance.

Which brings me to another point: predictability. This is by far the most telegraphed scene the show had ever assembled. Most of my favorite Mr. Show moments come from the unexpected. When a scene caught me off guard, I laughed the hardest. This one, because it was so predictable, left me cold the first time. "I get it; he falls a lot." I was surprised at first when I read that this was the most re-written scene the show had made. But it makes sense. Although it may not seem it, a lot of thought goes into a scene in which the joke is based on repetition. Something that is somewhat amusing the first time, after repetitions, grows frustrating and eventually funny again. Add too many repetitions, however, and it becomes frustrating again. Just how many repetitions are required for maximum hilarity is a mystery. The Story of Everest, more than any other sketch of its kind, comes the closest to the perfect number.

Of course, I could just be analyzing everything too much. Comedy's for laughing, not for thinking.

[The sketch:]

Monday, July 19, 2010

Demons (1985)

dir. Lamberto Bava

It used to happen with startling regularity. Every month or so movie theaters would be awash in grue. Even before the employees had a chance to clean up the mess, another sadist would come by and splatter the walls with blood. Such was the eighties. Horror directors were not worth their salt if they couldn't make the most use of prosthetic appliances and gallons of red-dyed karo syrup. Logic, continuity, plausibility, intelligent characters, and genuine fright be damned. As long as a cartoonish amount of gore (and tits) was thrown across the screens, asses would be in the seats.

None were more accomplished in this arena than the Italians. Master imitators that they were, they jumped full force onto the Romero living dead band-wagon as soon as Dawn of the Dead struck it rich. Although Italy had a long tradition in this field, and many accomplished Italian gore-meisters had been at their craft for years (Dario Argento, one of Demons' producers), some, such as Mario Bava's son Lamberto Bava, were riding the Dawn of the Dead wave. In his mid-eighties picture Demons, the younger Bava did everything but fellate the American director.

In Demons, a random group of people attends a free screening for a horror flick. While there, a hooker goes and gets herself possessed by a demon (Hey, that's the name of the movie). She then infects others, the demonic possession virus spreads, and clusterfuckery ensues. Aside from riffing freely on the films of George Romero, Bava uses the occasion to test out scads of special effects. Although his movie is a standard zombie- er I'm sorry, demonic outbreak affair, a few moments stand out (the samurai sword wielding, motorcycle riding, zombie- er demon hunter comes to mind).

Most notable, perhaps, is a scene in which an infected theater-goer stumbles behind the screen, pounds on said screen and cries for help. The others in attendance, oblivious to the goings-on behind the screen, continue watching the movie, ignoring the fact that the screen repeatedly bulges out. Some may find the lack of a response from the theater-goers unrealistic, but I can't remember the last time I went to a movie theater and the screen wasn't undulating and crying for help.

Bava was no doubt aware of what he was doing here. Was he reinventing the wheel? Sure as fuck no. He was just giving the audiences what they were clamoring for. Sure he was just regurgitating stuff that others before him created with more imagination and panache, but he delivered the goods. For much the same reason that fifties westerns are so comfortably reassuring, eighties splatter flicks like Demons act as comfort food. Demons is, in every way, run of the mill. With a movie like this, you know exactly what you're going to get. That doesn't make it any less satisfying, of course.

[The trailer:]

Dave's Rating:

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Movies I'm Anticipating: Inception (2010)

dir. Christopher Nolan

In this day and age when every movie is either a remake, sequel, or adaptation, it's nice when an original idea comes along. Let's hope that Inception does well enough to start a new trend. Unfortunately, I can't embed the trailer, but you can watch it here.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Terror in a Texas Town (1958)

dir. Joseph H. Lewis

A Harpoon wielding Swede marches down the street of a dusty Western town. Behind him follows a horde of bloodthirsty townspeople. As the group arrives at the town saloon, a man in black (seen only from behind) emerges to face the angry horde. He taunts the Swede, telling him to move closer. He wants to give the harpoonist a fair fight. You see, in whaling harpoon/six-shooter duels, distance of the essence. Reluctant, the Swede turns around to face the crowd. Bluntly, credits appear. Throughout the titles, random clips from scenes to appear later in the film, form a back-drop.
[The film's opening:]

And so begins Joseph H. Lewis' final feature film, Terror in a Texas Town. To say this is an unconventional opening for a fifties western is an understatement. Although cold opens were becoming more commonplace at this time (especially in the TV world), few were non-chronological scenes to appear later in the film. Even more striking is the use of later movie footage during the credits. The effect is especially jarring.

And Lewis doesn't even let up after the opening credits have run their course. He cuts bluntly from the titles to a nightmarish nighttime scene. Rowdy cowboys torch a house and ride off into the darkness. Close-ups of teary-eyed adults and children punctuate the scene. Just what is going on here? Few directors of the time (or now, for that matter) had the cojones to so tease and confuse an audience. Master that he was, Lewis waited until the breaking point before bringing any kind of meaning to all these disparate, striking images.

Such was the norm for Lewis. Why this stylish director of B Noirs and Westerns is not better known, is a mystery to me. Given even the most routine scripts he still managed to churn out movies distinctly stamped with his unique vision. Indeed, a formative filmmaking period in the thirties spent on poverty row Westerns, instilled in the young director an attention to visual detail. So bored was he by the hackneyed scripts he was assigned, that he began to gussy up the images (many times with foreground images of wagon wheels) so as to distract the audiences from the pablum they were watching. Employing a fluid camera and inventive compositions, Lewis' work behind the camera rivaled such contemporaries as Ophuls, Hitchcock, and Ford. Perhaps Lewis' lack of recognition is due to his propensity for filming trite scripts.

Such was not the case with Terror in a Texas Town, however. Working from a script by blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (fronted by Ben Perry), Lewis helmed a film on par with the best psychological Westerns of the era. The Swede in the opening scene, George Hansen (Sterling motherfuckin' Hayden), is the son of a landowner who was the victim of intimidation and finally murder at the hands of the black-clad gunman, Johnny Crale (Nedrick Young, another black-listee and one of the film's uncredited screenwriters). The elder Hansen wasn’t alone, of course. All of the homesteaders in this quiet Western town have been feeling pressure to leave. What these peaceful townsfolk don’t know is that they sit atop one of the biggest oil deposits in the region. Unfortunately for them, oil tycoon Ed McNeil (Sebastian Cabot) uses the black gold to pleasure himself and will stop at nothing to have complete access to the stuff. McNeil employs Johnny to scare the bejeezus out of those who refuse to sell their land to him.

Essentially a revenge picture, Terror in a Texas Town also acts as a treatise on the decreasing value of human life in a rapidly expanding, continually civilized Western frontier. In this town, a life is only as valuable as the few hundred dollars it takes to pay off the law, or to hire a gunmen. Thematically this film would see echoes in David Milch's brilliant, canceled show Deadwood. Although Lewis' picture may be a film-history footnote, its influence can't be discounted. It's also a helluva way to finish a film career.

Dave's Rating:

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Experiments in Pointlessness: Let Me In (2010)

dir. Matt Reeves

When I first heard that Matt Reeves would remake the Swedish movie Let the Right One In, I became angry that America would yet again dumb down such a perfect movie. I have nothing against remakes in principle but I don't understand the need to mess with perfection. After watching the trailer for the upcoming movie, retitled Let Me In, I became even angrier, as most of the shots seem to be directly lifted from the original film. They're not even trying. Reeves et al could at least go in a completely crazy new direction instead of playing it safe. Sure their version wouldn't be as good, but at least it'd be different. Cowards. Of course, I haven't seen this movie yet, so what do I know.

[The trailer:]

Monday, July 5, 2010

Night of the Demons (1988)

dir. Kevin Tenney

Director Kevin Tenney's Night of the Demons, like many of its eighties horror contemporaries, functions mainly as a Linnea Quigley nudity delivery system.* Not that Tenney's picture isn't without its own distinct charms. In his Evil Dead inspired (lazy theft is more like it) picture, a group of horny teenagers travels to creepy Hull house for a crazy Halloween shindig. While there, they decide to get there seance on. Demonic possession ensues, and one-dimensional, stereotypical characters do really stupid things while giving wooden line readings.

Watching Tenney's film made me all squishy and nostalgic. It's a terrible, derivative film to be sure but it made me feel like a kid again. Although I'm new to this specific film, it is the kind of horror picture I used to love. Filled with tits, gore, and decent effects, Night of the Demons' lack of goodness is not a drawback.

*Quigley's performance in Return of the Living Dead as the nudity inclined punk girl Trash ushered many a young horror nerd through puberty.

[Side note: I apologize for the brevity of this review. I am not able to write an in depth post this week. I've got too much vacationing going on. Rest assured, I'll be back full force soon enough.]

[The trailer:]

Dave's Rating:

Friday, July 2, 2010

Happy Birthday, America!

With the fourth coming up this weekend, I thought I'd celebrate early with the opening scene from Chris Bell's documentary Bigger Stronger Faster*.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Awesome Possum

People who know me know that I am obsessed with comedian Louis C. K. I have not only been a fan of his incisive, hilarious stand-up but also of his side projects, be they Pootie Tang, "Lucky Louie", or his many cameo appearances in movies and TV. After watching the first two episodes of his new TV Show, "Louie", my love is only growing. This is one of the most brutally honest (not to mention hilarious) pieces of comedy out there. Since I'm in a Louis C. K. mood, here's some of his stand-up.