Formerly "Dave's Blog About Movies and Such"

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Awesome Movie Scenes: Monty Python's the Meaning of Life - Every Sperm Is Sacred (1983)

dir. Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam

Over the years it has been said, even by members of Monty Python, that The Meaning of Life is a subpar Python film. I don't disagree with most of the criticisms of this film. It is uneven. The Python's rightly realized with their previous two cinematic efforts that in order for a film to succeed, it would have to abandon the sketch show format. If you put an over-arching plot on the proceedings, you can mask the weaker bits. An audience will be more forgiving because all of the pieces work as a whole to a solid conclusion. With a sketch film, on the other hand, weak bits stand out like sore thumbs. There is nothing to anchor them. They are more likely to leave the viewer with a bad taste. Although The Meaning of Life has some weak moments, it also contains, what I consider, some of the group's best sketches. Over all, I think it was a worthwhile effort. Even if none of the other sketches had worked, this movie would have justified its existence if it gave us only "Every Sperm Is Sacred."

Monday, August 30, 2010

Deep Red (1975)

dir. Dario Argento

With Deep Red, as with all Dario Argento films, logic and common sense have no place. Although not necessarily meant to be surreal horror deconstructions, Argento's work inevitably lays bare the absurdity at the heart of the scare genre. Authority figures are either ineffectual or completely absent, and characters engage in the most boneheaded behavior, making the stupidest decisions at every point.

What truly elevates Argento, however, is his keen eye for details. His over-saturated color palette is a feast for the eyes. His kinetic, inventive camera-work rivals such New Hollywood auteurs as De Palma and Scorsese. That he doesn't command the same level of respect, is attributable to his slumming in the most disreputable of genres (Of course, De Palma with his Hitchcockian thrillers, was only a couple notches above).

In Deep Red's opening (Side note: immature giggle), famed psychic Helga Ulmann (Macha Meril) gives a performance at a theater in which a murderer sits. After realizing that a murderer is present, Helga decides to announce the person's presence, stating that she knows who it is. Although some of you may say that Helga's actions are none too bright and that you would instead keep mum about the murderer during the show and then quietly go to the authorities afterward with your valuable information, your plan would not cause you to be murdered. So, who's so smart now?

The murder of the psychic actually proves fortuitous, in that it enables a wannabe sleuth to stupidly track down the criminal. After witnessing the murder of Helga, and having his face plastered all over the newspapers as the one person who witnessed the crime; instead of fleeing town, pianist Marcus Daly (David Hemmings) decides to stay and investigate the crime. As can be guessed, Daly gets mixed up in a world of intrigue, with his life constantly in danger. Deep Red works its way to a twist filled ending in which Daly's first suspicion of the killer's identity is so obviously wrong that the only possible reason he could have come up with such an abysmally stupid assumption is that he had been disembrained at an earlier age. Deep Red is nevertheless entertaining throughout.

It has been announced that George Romero has plans for a 3D update of Deep Red. If I were to remake this movie, I would make only a few superficial changes. In my version, Daly still witnesses the murder of the famed psychic. The next day, however, when his face is plastered all over the papers as the one who could finger the perpetrator, Daly has a revelation, "Shit, I better leave town." Daly high-tails it to a town in rural Argentina where he takes up with Maria, a sexually adventurous dancer. She teaches him the ways of the tango, love.

The two lovers soon run afoul of the town's old-fashioned conservative anti-dancing sentiments. Maria's conservative father Marcos, in particular, gives Daly an ultimatum to leave the town. It seems that Marcos has done a little investigation and uncovered Daly's criminal past as a yak counterfeiter. Daly is unable to stay and to tell Maria why he must leave. Wordlessly, Daly watches Maria from afar as he prepares to leave for the airport. Maria only discovers his absence when she discovers the perfumed note he has left for on her pillow.

Daly travels to England where he becomes a chartered accountant. Maria never loves again.

After twenty years of drudgery, Daly has a revelation, "I've run my whole life. I want to live. The international Yak counterfeiting watchdog association be damned. If I have to go to jail, so be it. As long as I can see my beloved one last time."

Daly spends the rest of his life searching for Maria, the woman who taught what it means to love, tango. On his way through Italy, he passes a newsstand where newspapers report the capture of the elusive psychic killer from many years back. Daly gets runned over by a car. The End.

Your welcome, Hollywood.

[The trailer:]

Dave's Rating:

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Elvis Was a Python Fan

I recently watched IFC's six part documentary on The Python's "Monty Python: Almost the Truth - The Lawyer's Cut". It was quite entertaining but it didn't give much new info for anyone who has already read "The Pythons Autobiography by The Pythons" or watched the various featurettes available on the Python DVD's. One story did quite amuse me, however.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Furies (1950)

dir. Anthony Mann

The Jeffords are about as fucked up as they come. The siblings wish ill of each other, and the daughter/father relationship is nearly as steamy as a harlequin novel. Anthony Mann's Western The Furies is about as icky as they come. Riding on a string of great movies, Mann helmed this Western in a year in which he made three other films (two of them Westerns). As great as Mann's work is here, however, The Furies is undeniably anchored by the standout performances of Barbara Stanwyck as Vance Jeffords and, in his last film role, Walter Huston as the irascible T.C. Jeffords.

T.C. Jeffords has incurred the anger of just about every person he's encountered throughout his long and storied life. One doesn't get to be the owner of one of the largest tracts of land in the southwest without stepping on a few toes...and then cutting them off...and then eating them in front of the poor people who mistakenly got in his way. Although we don't witness T.C,'s rise to power, we more than get a sense of it, from the relationships he's formed with those around him. Indeed the only cordial relationship he has is the gross, psuedo-sexual one with his daughter (Side note: yuck).

T.C.'s son despises him. Local rancher Darrow has never forgiven T.C. for robbing him of the beautiful Darrow strip. The young man has spent most of his life plotting to get it back from the old man. T.C.'s land may be plagued by many groups of squatters (including Vance's friends the Herreras), but as some characters note, T.C. never acquired the land in entirely legal ways to begin with.

No matter. T.C. will continue to reign over his land by any means, by which I mean this mean son of a bitch will torch all the squatters' huts (side note: mean). All of this is fine by Vance as long as T.C. keeps his word not to harm the Herreras. A monkey wrench is thrown into the works, however, by the introduction of T.C.'s new gold-digging fiance. When she tries to wrest control of the property, not to mention steal away Vance's man (side note: gross again), a chain of events is set in motion that leaves Vance hell-bent on revenge.

Mann has become renowned as one of the men who reinvented the West. In his string of Jimmy Stewart starring psychological Westerns, the man raised the bar for this genre. He perfected the adult Western. Still, The Furies is an unconventional film even for Mann. Except for a few key scenes, this lacks the explosive action that would mark his later Westerns. Mann is more concerned here with the inner workings of the highly unconventional, dysfunctional Jeffords family. Indeed, The Furies bears more resemblance to such psycho-sexual, family melodrama tinged Westerns as Giant and Track of the Cat, than Winchester '73 or The Naked Spur. Although this is a great film, I would not recommend it to anyone looking for a Mann Western. In terms of melodrama, however, this is about as good as anything Douglas Sirk directed.

[The trailer:]

Dave's Rating:

Thursday, August 19, 2010

He Walked by Night (1948)

dir. Alfred L. Werker (and Anthony Mann uncredited)

Last week in my review of Armored I mentioned that an otherwise mediocre movie can always be saved one or two great strengths. This week's He Walked by Night is another great example. A by-the-books police procedural (with an uncredited Anthony Mann behind the camera), He Walked by Night is saved from adequacity by the performance of Richard Basehart as the methodical criminal Roy Morgan.

Roy is in the business of stealing electronic equipment. His ultimate motive for stealing the electronics is never made entirely clear, but one can only assume he has some sort of demented, sexual, self-induced, electro-torture fetish (I mean what other explanation can there be). One night while attempting to break into an electronics store (so that this sick nut can get his rocks off) he runs afoul of a policeman who wants to know about all the goings-on transpiring. Roy responds by releasing his inner Ice-T.

No, not that Ice-T.

Yep, that one.

The LAPD assumes it won't be no thing to catch this psycho-electro-sexual pervert. After all, they've got they entire force looking for one man. Trouble is, Roy used to work in the police department and thus knows all the ins and outs. Try as they might, the cops are always one step behind this elusive cop killer. In a scene to be emulated in the subsequent year's The Third Man, the film climaxes with a police pursuit of Roy through the Los Angeles sewer system.

Numerous iterations in both film and TV (Rabid, red-hunting, robot Jack Webb got the idea for his Dragnet series while working on this police procedural) would eventually rob He Walked by Night of its impact, but it remains a thoroughly engaging thriller. This film also employs certain techniques (such as the voice of God narration) that Mann would employ to greater effect in T-Men, his superior procedural from the subsequent year.

Dave's Rating:

Monday, August 16, 2010

Bigger Than Life (1956)

dir. Nicholas Ray

A director whose reputation was cemented years after his most productive period, Nicholas Ray's legacy rests on a surprisingly small number of pictures. Indeed, the only film of his with any name recognition today is Rebel Without a Cause, and that is attributable mostly to its starring of James Dean. Like other great directors of his time (namely, Sam Fuller), Ray was a man who spent most of his later years struggling to get films off the ground (for a heartbreaking recounting of this, watch Wim Wenders' documentary Lightning Over Water). Why, you may be asking, is a man responsible for so few films so revered among cineastes? Those few movies must have been pretty decent, right? And right you would be.

Aside from a handful of great noirs (They Live by Night, In a Lonely Place) in the forties, Ray also distinguished himself with probing dramas and westerns deconstructing everything from the nuclear family (Rebel Without a Cause, Bigger Than Life) to traditional gender roles (Johnny Guitar). There have been some speculations that Ray was a closet homosexual. A viewing of his key fifties pictures would seem to bear this out. Not only did he present veiled gay characters (such as Sal Mineo in Rebel Without a Cause and possibly Walter Matthau in Bigger than Life), but Ray also questioned the legitimacy of the so-called fifties nuclear family ideal. Never was this more apparent than in Bigger Than Life.

Ed Avery (James Mason) is a man at his breaking point. Not so much emotionally worn as physically exhausted, Ed struggles with two jobs, one as an elementary school teacher and the other as a cab dispatcher, just to make ends meet. After Ed collapses one night, the doctors discover that he has a rare deadly disorder for which the only possible cure is to take the then new drug cortisone. This is an as yet untested drug and Avery is warned to take only the properly prescribed dosage. Instead of listening to the doctor, like any good film character, he starts forging prescriptions and going Rush Limbaugh on that pile of pills.

Wouldn't you know it, one of the side effects of cortisone abuse is psychosis (side note: I don't know anything about this drug, so this side effect may have been debunked in later years). As Ed plunges deeper into cortisone addiction he proceeds to terrorize his wife Lou (Barbara Rush) and son Richie (Christopher Olson), hold a Glenn Beck sway over captive PTA audiences, spend money like crazy, and engage in other general crazy behavior.

I know the term gets thrown around left and right, but goddamn, what a groundbreaking fucking film. This is a surprising film in a number of ways. Although not the most obvious, one of the most unconventional aspects of Bigger Than Life is the presentation of economics. Rare in a Hollywood film (especially one made during the booming middle class era of the fifties), the Avery family at the center of this picture constantly worries about money. Hollywood is supposed to be a place of escape. Families don't want to spend money at the movies only to be reminded of the fact that they struggle day in and day out with paying bills and putting food on the table. (Coming as I do from a ridiculously poor background, I may have focused more on this aspect of the film than was warranted).

More important, of course, is Bigger Than Life's depiction of the American family. As anyone who has seen enough movies (especially fifties message movies) can attest, when a problem such as drug addiction is presented, it is usually a metaphor or acts as a catalyst for something bigger. As Ed succumbs fully to addiction, he grows increasingly dissatisfied with his life, calling his marriage a sham, opting to stay in it just so that he can train his son not to be mediocre. Whether or not Ray agreed with any of the stuff coming out of Ed's mouth, these scenes are terrifying. Ray exposes the fragility of the construct of the happy nuclear family, and by extension civilized society. With the slow unraveling of one string everything can come crashing down.

During the fifties, when gender roles were more rigid and men were thought to be kings of the home, Ray threw a bomb at the construct. Ed's descent would have been especially terrifying to an audience of the time because it shows that the man supposedly in charge of the family unit isn't even in charge of himself. Lou urges her son Richie to obey his father because she knows that everything must turn out ok. All appearances must be maintained to prevent Ed from being hauled to the funny farm. If Ed loses his job, the Avery's will also lose their financial core. The terrified son is reduced to a cowering mess. The man who is supposed to be his provider and protector is nothing more than a raving lunatic. The moral, emotional center has disappeared.

Sure, Bigger Than Life ends in a superficially happy way (as with most movies about mental illness and/or drug addiction, the problem here is presented as an either-or switch whose remedy can be found with a simple gimmick). With Bigger Than Life, as with most films of its ilk, the ending isn't the point, however. Indeed, an argument can be made that the ending is so over-the-top saccharine that it is merely a parody of such conventions. What audiences would take away from the film were the ideas in the preceding eighty or so minutes. Sure everything was fixed in the end, but Pandora's Box had already been opened. To put it another way, you can't put the shit back in the donkey.

[The trailer:]

Dave's Rating:

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Vintage Siskel and Ebert Interview

In this 1983 Letterman interview, Siskel and Ebert bemoan the numerous awful 3D movies being churned out at the time. It's a good thing Hollywood has evolved since then.

I've said it before and I'll say it again, I love youtube.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Armored (2009)

dir. Nimrod Antal

It is amazing the extent to which one great quality can compensate for so many other mediocre elements in a movie. Take Armored, a movie that, despite a lack of flaws, is as generic as they come. This film doesn't require nor ask for an emotional involvement in the characters. These are all stock types. Even the banter between the men seems recycled from the "Men Hanging Out in Movies" handbook. But goddamned if I wasn't entertained. This sucker moves. Armored is one of the more efficient movies I've seen in some time.

Ty Hackett (Columbus Short) is an Iraq War vet who now works for an armored truck company. To say he's a having a rough time is an understatement. Now that his parents have passed, he is responsible for the well-being of his delinquent, yet artistically gifted, younger brother. Enter Mike (Matt Dillon), longtime friend and co-worker of Ty. Because Ty is such a do-gooder he initially bristles at Mike's invitation to join him and a group of other co-workers in a heist. Even though the plan is supposedly fool-proof (I mean, after all, what could possibly go wrong?), Ty doesn't have a bad bone in him. He abhors the idea of thievery. Eventually, however, Ty has his mind made up for him by a social worker who intends to take away his younger brother, a kid who has skipped more school days than he's attended. Ty needs the scratch if he wants to keep what's left of his family unit intact.

When the group goes through with the heist, everything is turning out swell...that is, until something goes awry, then askew, then afoul, then awry again, and Ty locks himself in an armored truck. Much of the rest of the film involves the other men attempting to break into the truck, while Ty figures a way out. Every moment in this section is more nail-biting than it has any right to be.

Armored is chock full o' great performers (Jean Reno, Fred Ward, Laurence Fishburne). Why such a talented group would perform such nothing roles is beyond me, but I love seeing them on screen, regardless. The screenplay is so generic that each character basically announces his purpose in the film: "Hello, I'm the psycho who's gonna go crazy and kill people, messing everything up." "Hi, I'm the guy who seems crazy, but turns out to be not so bad." "Hi, I'm the war vet who's gonna use his military training to figure a way out of the mess." Everything is exactly as it seems in Armored. It is nevertheless a fun way to spend 88 minutes. Director Nimrod Antal (side note: poor guy) knows what kind of movie he is making and mercifully keeps it short. No sense dragging out the inevitable.

[The trailer:]

Dave's Rating:

Friday, August 6, 2010

Ladies and Gentlemen, Dig The Who

What better way to start the weekend than with The Who, here courtesy of The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

My Favorite Opening Scenes: Pickup on South Street (1953)

dir. Sam Fuller

Perhaps more than any other director, Sam Fuller is associated with slam-bang opening scenes. Bred in the hard-bitten world of yellow journalism, Fuller understood the importance of grabbing the viewer (or reader) by the balls with a catchy hook. Not surprisingly, most of the opening scenes in his oeuvre consist of some manner of attention grabbing action. As much as I love these scenes, I thought it would be interesting to examine a Fuller opening devoid any balls-to-the-wall action, one in which everything is conveyed in subtle hand and eye movements. Of the few subtle Fuller openings, the most accomplished is the dialogue-free, subway scene that begins Pickup on South Street.

A young woman, Candy (Jean Peters), stands in a sardine-tin cramped subway car. Unbeknownst to her, a couple of mysterious men suspiciously eye her. The train makes a stop and in enters the pickpocket Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark). He squeezes his way through the throng, eying the crowd for the perfect mark. Eventually, he sidles up next to Candy. The experienced Skip pulls out a newspaper to use as a diversion. As he pretends to read it, his hand reaches down to enter Candy's purse. To keep her focus away from the purse, Skip looks lustfully into her eyes. The two exchange sexually charged glances as Skip's magic fingers work inside her purse. As soon as Skip finishes, he quickly exits the train. The two mysterious men realize what has happened and attempt to chase him but can not catch the elusive Skip.

This is perhaps the most sexually suggestive scene ever to come out of the Production Code era. (Interestingly, this scene is mirrored later in the film, this time involving two men and the stealthy snatching of a pistol. Hello!). This scene also says more with a few glances than an entire chunk of expository dialogue. From this brief encounter, we know that Candy is carrying something in her purse of vital importance to the two shadowy men. All the while, Candy has been unaware of any of the goings-on: neither of the two men watching her nor of the man who has just stolen her property. Skip, of course, is also unaware of the two men tailing her. He was just attempting to make a quick buck. Skip and Candy have just unknowingly been caught up in affairs that are bigger than they possibly could have imagined.

[The opening:]

Monday, August 2, 2010

Tango & Cash (1989)

dir. Andrey Konchalovskiy and Albert Magnoli

Turn off your brains, folks. Thinkin' ain't got no place here. If you want mindless one-liners, stupid characters, and fuckable, untamable Kurt Russell hair, look no further than Tango & Cash. A film notorious at the time of its release for its numerous production problems, this Stallone, Russell vehicle has become renowned for its unbridled awesomeness/stupidity.

Rivals Tango (Stallone) and Cash (Russell) are the two best cops in the LA police Department. It would seem that they have netted more arrests and seized more drugs than every governmental agency combined. Drug kingpin Jack Palance don't like this, no he don't like this one bit--a fact he conveys to his underlings as his limo slowly drives past the scene of a highway drug bust where a shitload of his dope was seized, and at which it would seem the entire police force, not to mention the hated Tango, survey the area.

Let's stop to think about a couple of facts here. First, Palance was able to rise to the top of the drug trade and remain undetected while, every now and then, putting himself out in the open and saying, "look what I did." Second, Tango and Cash have put an entire small city's worth of criminals behind bars, and were able to interdict enough white powder to make Tony Montana cum. Not only did Jack Palance go undetected at the afore-fucking-mentioned crime scene, but neither Tango nor Cash are aware of his existence. This could mean either one of two things: Tango and Cash just got extraordinarily lucky in the rest of their stings, or, the more likely scenario, the criminals are so aggressive in their stupidity that if they saw Kurt Russell in a dress they would mistake him for a pretty lady. Oh, wait a minute, that actually happens in the movie. I rest my case.

Jack Palance, is aggressive in his pursuit to do away with Tango and Cash. Why, I have no idea. I think it's been proven quite effectively that Tango and Cash ain't gonna find him. Nevertheless, Palance sets them up, framing them for the murder of a federal agent. When the duo gets put away in maximum security prison, Palance has no trouble getting in and gathering the entire prison population to watch a little Tango and Cash electro-torture. After he's had his jollies, Palance leaves back to his impenetrable military training camp/drug producing warehouse/palatial compound. Because Palance so often puts himself in the open, the two cops eventually track him down after escaping from prison.

Recounting the minutiae of this film's plot would be a pointless affair. Aside from the fact that characters eat sometimes, nothing in this movie, in any way, represents any kind of reality. Just let it be know that stupid things happen, stuff gets blowed up good, and people fight a bunch. Tango & Cash doesn't just ask its audience to suspend its disbelief, it begs them to cut off all circulation to the brain.

[The trailer:]

Dave's Rating: