Monday, June 12, 2006

The SIX-MONTH Lighning Round (Part Two)

And with this, I'm caught up to the 26th of May. I'd write more, but I'm ready to drop.

Anyway, this is the stuff I've seen in the past six months that hasn't been reviewed wasn't first-run, with one or two exceptions. They're falling out the back of my brain, so full reviews that skew the numbers at HBS/EFC wouldn't be fair, but here's my movie viewing up to date:


The Passenger

* * * (out of four)
Seen 3 December 2005 at the Landmark Kendall #3 (re-issue)

So, here's what I don't get about this movie: Jack Nicholson is staying in the African desert and finds the guy in the next hotel room, who sort of looks likes him, dead, and decides to assume his life. Why does he then go back to London, where he appears on TV and people know him, even for a brief stopover? It just doesn't seem like good planning.

After that, he finds out that the person he's impersonating is an arms merchant and just sort of goes with it, even as the occasional stumbles get him in trouble. As nicely shot and well-acted as this film is, I think it's a little too laid-back and, for lack of a better word, European for my tastes. The casual way that Antonioni and Nicholson's character go about things, the unwillingness to show much if any tension or disapproval kept me at arms' length and not feeling much at all when the film reached its conclusion.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 January 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Antonioni x 4)

Blow-Up, on the other hand, is a different matter. In many ways, it's just as uninterested in bringing its conventional thriller plot front and center, but it's at least willing to acknowledge that there's something out of the ordinary going on. The fact that he may have captured a murder on film grabs hold of David Hemmings's fashion photographer, fascinating him (and us) and challenging his idea of being aloof and disconnected.

Plus, the world he inhabits is the "swinging London" later parodied in the Austin Powers movies, and it's a beautifully garish place, shattered by the violence he witnesses. The over-the-top color, nudity, and guest appearance by the Yardbirds is a fantasy world which is slowly stripped away, and he doesn't really know how to respond to the danger he's in, or understand its source. It's a neat trick to build that tension without really giving a whole lot of detail.


King Kong '33

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 14 December 2006 in Jay's (old) Living Room (KONG!!!!) and 19 February 2006 at West Newton Cinema #2 (SF/30)

I'd seen King Kong once before, about a year and a half earlier at the Brattle. It was a blast, but it wasn't the fully restored version that showed up on DVD just in time for Peter Jackson's remake. So after I bought the big deluxe set from Best But, I settled down to kind of make sure that the original wasn't dislodged by the new one. One thing I noticed was that this original theatrical cut was more obviously "pre-code" than I remembered; not only dig Kong peel the clothes off Fay Wray, but he enjoyed the mayhem he caused. The natives of Skull Island aren't just stepped on; Kong twists his ankle to grind them into paste. Despite the reputation it gained afterward, this isn't the story of a misunderstood giant; it's a monster movie, a cautionary tale that man can't control nature.

And it's a great one, executed pitch-perfectly. I remember meeting Matt that Saturday to go see the Peter Jackson version and how surprised he was that this is a pretty effective horror movie, and not really quaint at all. Sure, the effects are primitive by today's standards, but they also remind us that effects can be an art, as opposed to just a science: The filmmakers know how to hit the part of the brain that processes representation as well as just literal vision, so we're sucked in. Also, I think that in this post-CGI world, we as an audience have lost the knowledge of how old-school effects work was done, so there's still a strong "how'd they do that?" factor.

But mainly, it's fun swashbuckling adventure with a great soundtrack (one of the first orchestral scores recorded for a movie, if not the first). King Kong is a classic not just for how iconic it's become or how it has influenced later filmmakers, but for well it holds up.

King Kong '05

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 December 2006 at AMC Fenway #13 (KONG!!!!)

Peter Jackson comes darn close to improving on a nearly-perfect movie with his remake of King Kong. It's a little flabby in spots, but it manages just the right balance between revisionist and reverant, which is fairly impressive, considering how he allegedly didn't want the job.

After all, the legend says that when Universal offered Jackson the Kong remake, he turned it down. King Kong, after all, was the movie that made him love movies and want to become a filmmaker. To try and remake it, think he could improve on it, was just a sort of wanton hubris. But after sleeping on it, he realized that if he didn't take the job, then it would probably go to someone who didn't love the original so much - Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin, maybe. So he reconsidered, and got deep into pre-production before the Emmerich/Devlin Godzilla tanked and Universal put the project on the shelf. He then made an obscene amount of money on the Tolkein movies, leading to Universal wanting back in on the Peter Jackson business...

What he does is to take th eoriginal movie and re-envision it through a modern lens. The movie is still set in 1933, but it's a 1933 looked at from seventy years later, knowing that the audience is going to be a little more up on the details. So he doesn't expect us to believe that Carl Denham is going to shoot a movie with just a camera and a girl, and gives us a male lead to the film within a film, a writer, a cinematographer, etc. He knows we'll ask where the big ape comes from, and shows us the big guy beat up enough to let us know he's survived a long time, and shows us giant skeletons to imply that he's the last of his kind. It adds a layer of dignity and sadness to the beast that the original didn't quite have.

I love the way he pays tribute to the 1933 version in ways that made me laugh but other folks in the theater missed. The scene on the boat where he has the actor characters recreate a scene from the original sort of points out how primitive movies then could be, but it's done with affection. I like how Jackson gives us time to see Kong and Naomi Watts's Ann Darrow getting to know each other; Kong almost looks at Ann as a pet, rather than the kind of nasty idea of the ape thinking of her some other way.

The cast is well-chosen, especially the two big names. Naomi Watts is not just beautiful but luminous; she makes Ann a woman of charm and principle. She spends some time screaming, but grows some steel in her backbone fairly quick. I go back and forth on Jack Black; at times it seems like he doesn't quite blend into the role like he probably should, but in a way, because he's Jack Black, it's all the more disappointing as we slowly realize that there's not a heart of gold beneath his fast-talking exterior.

The movie is a visual feast. Giant apes! Dinosaurs! Insect monsters! It's all beautifully rendered and shot - a late scene with a frozen pond in Central Park is dreamlike until the military shows up and shatters the reverie. The action scenes are just absolutely fantastic.

Random Stuff


* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 December 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Staff Pick)

That's right, folks - I'd never seen Airplane!. One of the perils of being an oldest child is that it takes the parents a little experience to know when to let up on certain things, and I vaguely recall not being allowed to watch Dune until I turned 13 even though I'd devoured the books - it was, after all, rated PG-13. An R-rated movie would be out of the question. (Or my recall could be off. Truth was, even though my friends referenced it a lot, it may just be that it was never the movie I hadn't seen I wanted to rent most on any given weekend)

It is, of course, very funny and I wish I'd seen it sooner, but that's how it works out sometimes. One thing I noticed is how well it plays relatively cold. When it was made, Airplane! was a spoof of seventies disaster movies in general, and likely the Airpot movies in particular, but it's still pretty darn funny even without familiarity with its source material. Now, for all I know, there are dozens of little references in there that folks who've seen Airport laugh at, but it's not essential; it's not the MAD Magazine or Spaceballs style of parody that's become so popular, where the joke is basically replaying a scene and then nonsensically veering right when the original goes left. Genre conventions are hit, but the jokes are the movie's own, which makes the movie quotable and enjoyable in its own right.

North Country

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 11 January 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Recent Raves)

Charlize Theron being an awards-quality actress sort of snuck up on me; my memories of her back in Two Days in the Valley were that she or her character could barely speak English and she was the one winding up topless because her more well-known co-star wouldn't (and in an example of how times change, I can't remember the names of any of the half-dozen people billed over Ms. Theron in that movie). As time's gone on, her accent has vanished and her skill has slowly but surely increased to the point where this movie holds together because she is in it and she is good.

Because once you get past Charlize Theron's performance, it's more than a bit overbaked. Sure, it's inspired by a true story, and I have no doubt that some of the stories which women who worked the coal mines are just as horrific, but the melodrama seems to be a little overcranked on this one. She's not just harassed and assaulted, her best friend and mentor becomes terminally ill. And she's got a no-account ex whom her family wants her to reunite with. And her mother winds up leaving her father because of this. And, way back when she was in high school...

It's piling on, although (sadly) probably more true to life than it seems. Ms. Theron's awful good, though, and even when the rest of the movie seems over the top, she's heroic and grounded.

The Aristocrats

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 12 January 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Recent Raves)

How many ways are there to tell a dirty joke? Hundreds, maybe thousands. Truth be told, the title joke isn't that funny, even when you take into account that the set-up and punchline are just meant to be the most basic structure for improvisation of the most vulgar idea that a comedian can put together. Heck, the laughter comes in part from knowing the lame punchline that's coming and seeing how far away from it they can get.

Distastefulness aside, it's worth watching to see how some of hte mechanisms of comedy work - how something unpleasant becomes funny through sheer technique. George Carlin handles the philosophy of that. Some of the more creative retellings of hte joke are a stitch, too - there's a mimewho left me on the ground in convulsions, while Sarah Silverman uses it as a jumping-off point for a stream-of-consciousness thing. And the matter-of-fact way Bob Saget and friends describe his rendition is probably much funnier than hearing the joke itself.

Battleship Potemkin

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 23 February 2006 at the Harvard Film Archive (Special Presentation)

There's something fascinating about watching propoganda from a failed nation. Potemkin is not as flagrant a work of propoganda as, say, Aelita, but it's obviously a film made by the Soviet Union with the intention of reminding its people of the cruelty of the czars and how communism was the way things should be. Eighty years later, some of its ideology looks a little quaint, but Eisenstein's filmmaking remains attention-worthy.

The basic story is simple - the crew of the titular ship plans to refuse orders because of their lousy work conditions, the officers clamp down, and by the time they arrive in Odessa, it's a cause celebre that causes a riot. The riot is one of the most impressive crowds scenes filmed during the silent era, and the hysteria is still sharp today.

Kairo (Pulse)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 February 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Special Engagement)

In the trailer for the American remake of Pulse, there's a shot of people examining rolls of red duct tape with a note attached: "It keeps them out; I don't know why." I may have been pretty wiped out by moving the previous day, but I don't think there's even that much explanation in Kiyoshi Kurosawa's original. Looked at rationally, that should be a bigger flaw than it feels like. It's a little silly to ask for explanations of everything in a horror movie, since part of the fear comes from the unknown, but regular human beings acting on information they probably couldn't know is something different.

I overlook this because the movie is, in fact, pretty darn unnerving. I don't know if scary is the right word for it, but the movie got under my skin. I've only seen one other movie by Kurosawa, and Bright Future created the same feeling of looming dread, even if it's not explicitly a genre film. He creates a real apocalyptic feel, with the world suddenly refusing to obey the rules we're used to and becoming increasingly hostile. There's the occasional thing that makes you jump, but by the end, those are pretty small problems compared to the collapse that brings them about.

Werner Herzog

Wild Blue Yonder

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 21 January 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Salute to Werner Herzog)

It's funny; when I saw Wild Blue Yonder and then visited the Brattle's messageboard to discuss it (one of sadly few conversations on that site, I had close to the exact opposite reaction everyone else had. They saw it as a movie about the environment and its fragility, and how we are ruining our planet much like the alien species a stranded-on-Earth Brad Dourif represents. That's a factor, sure, but there's also a call for boldness, and a recognition of how humanity can perhaps do great things if it makes the effort.

As a science fiction fan, it also makes me realize how uninspiring science fiction in mass media is. Herzog stitches a story together entirely out of altered context - Dourif narrates with a tale of NASA sending an expedition to another world, and footage taken from space shuttle flights and a submersible poking around below an Antarctic ice shelf is a far more convincing interstellar mission than anything dreamed up with models or computers. That's sobering - that creative people apparently can't even conceive of something as awe-inspiring as what can be gleaned from freely-available video.

Nosferatu the Vampyre

* * * (out of four)
Seen 23 January 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Salute to Werner Herzog)

F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu is the best vampire movie ever made, and nothing in the past eighty years has changed that. Which is why I'm glad that Herzog's version doesn't try to recreate the feel of the original, which was gothic and perfect with a cadaverous Orlock; instead, he casts Klaus Kinski as Dracula (with no lawsuit looming, they dispense with the thin disguise), and his vampire is an active fellow, racing across Wismar as he and the corruption he brings with him devastate the town.

Where the original was gothic, this one tends toward the garish. The version screened was in English, which I initially thought was dubbing, but apparently they shot two versions - a tribute to the English and Spanish Dracula, perhaps? At any rate, Herzog's Nosferatu doesn't come close to displacing Murnau's as my favorite vampire movie, but it's certainly a lot closer than most.

Cobra Verde

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 25 January 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Salute to Werner Herzog)

So, I saw four of the five (?) Herzog-Kinski collaborations in a little more than a week, and this is the one that didn't do much for me. Maybe it just caught me on the wrong night or something, because it's not really qualitatively different from Fitzcarraldo or Aguirre; there's just something about it that doesn't quite sit right with me. This one seemed significantly slower, and Kinski's character is merely ruthless, as opposed to crazy.

It's a nice-looking movie, shot on location in Africa and not feeling like modern people in the colonial era; it's thoroughly unenlightened and bleak amid the beauty. Maybe that's what I didn't love about the movie, or maybe I was just tired that night.


* * * * (out of four)
Seen 29 January 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Salute to Werner Herzog)

Fitzcarraldo is my first indication that Herzog is insane, and not in a "creative and thinks of unconventional things" way. Shot in the middle of a South American rain forest, it tells the story of a music lover looking to bring opera to his small town - but to achieve it, he must mount an expedition deep into the interior, where the local tribes are known to be extra-special vicious. His crew will abandon him, he'll befriend some locals, and, in order to return home, have them pull his fairly large boat over a mountain.

The theme of the movie is grand dreams, and the outrageous efforts needed to realize them. Herzog rewards us for dreaming along with Fitzcarraldo with an astonishingly beautiful film. I particularly like how he shows us the engineering required to accomplish this wonder. The details are fascinating, and while many directors might have allowed the film to rest entirely on Klaus Kinski's captivating performance, the sense of just how impossible his dream has become elevates the film to something really special.

Burden of Dreams

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 29 January 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Salute to Werner Herzog)

A making-of documentary well before such things were commonplace, Burden of Dreams takes us inside the making of Fitzcarraldo to show what an impossible undertaking it really was - why Herzog was insane to try it. We get clips from ihs initial stab at the project, with Jason Robards in the title role and Mick Jagger as a sidekick who would eventually be excised from the movie. We hear nightmares about a months of shooting in the jungle, recruiting extras from local tribes who had probably never even heard of movies, let alone seen one made. We hear about battles of wills between Herzog and Kinski, and see Herzog at the end of his rope, calling the jungle an evil place, launching into a tirade that those who venerate the rain forest would likely rather not hear.

And they show how getting the boat over the mountain actually happened, but took equipment not available in the movie's timeframe - and took even longer. Crazy.

My Best Fiend

* * * (out of four)
Seen 1 February 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Salute to Werner Herzog)

We start My Best Fiend by watching a young Klaus Kinski in a one-man show where he screams at the audience, and it's like watching film of Hitler - just violent oratory that is almost as intimidating as it is enrapturing (even if you don't speak a word of German). That initial impression of Kinski will stick with us through the rest of the movie - a volatile genius, whom its perhaps best to admire from afar - and with whom director Werner Herzog did perhaps his best work.

The film traces Herzog's collaboration with Kinski, from living in his apartment at the age of thirteen to their five films, showing how these two iconoclastic people clashed even while bringing out the best in each other. Herzog dismisses stories that he had to direct Kinski with a loaded gun on the set of Fitzcarraldo, although he's sure that Kinski loved the idea of people thinking this.

The film is affectionate, even as it's pretty clear that Herzog doesn't necessarily regret not being able to work with the late Kinski again - you can become fond of a wild animal, but that doesn't mean you should become any less afraid of it.

Aguirre The Wrath of God

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 1 February 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Salute to Werner Herzog) (projected video)

Herzog and Kinski in the jungle again, this time as an officer in the Spanish army in the early days of the New World's exploration and exploitation. As his party makes their way on a river, the danger and distance from home and accountability make the title character crazy. He takes control of the party, navigating through dangerous waters to where he believes a treasure city is located, abandoning or murdering all who would oppose him.

As usual with Herzog's colonials, he's uncompromising in representing things historically - it's hot, buggy, the uniforms are dirty and worn, and civilization is something that only exists, temporarily, because the characters have agreed it does. Thus, the descent to madness and violence becomes inevitable and unstoppable. The final sequence, where a group of monkeys overtake the raft, is a great way to show how far Kinski's Aguirre has fallen - where at the start he might have been fit for the company of men and women, now he's moved closer to the lower simians.

Fear on Film


* * * * (out of four)
Seen 6 February 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Fear on Film)

Roman Polanski makes an absolutely fantastic psychological horror movie here, working from a fairly simple premise - pretty Carole Ledoux cracks up when her sister leaves her home alone for the weekend. Carole (the astonishingly beautiful young Catherine Deneuve) is scatterrained and irresponsible under the best circumstances, left on her own, every noise in the apartment becomes magified and terrifying, every English-speaking neighbor becomes foreign and threatening, and it's not long before she jumps from insecurity to full-fledged hallucination and mania.

The genius of what Polanski and Deneuve do is to allow us to see the situation both from Carole's perspective and as a horrified observer simultaneously. As real as her fear is to us - fantastic set design and special effects drive it home during her hallucinatory episodes - it's also almost completely irrational. So while we're able to identify with Carole, we also want her to stop or be stopped, because what we're seeing is horror, in the truest sense of the word. After all, what's more creepy, a monster, or someone with whom you identify doing monstrous things?

Something Wild

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 6 February 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Fear on Film)

It's an obvious and perhaps insensitive thing to say, but being raped messes a girl up. So when innocent teenager Mary Ann Robinson (30-year-old Caroll Baker) is attacked in the bushes just steps away from her home, it's not unexpected that she'll act strange, especially since her devoutly religious family has no idea how to handle the situation. Running away from home to start a new life quite frankly almost seems reasonable. Eventually, though she winds up a virtual prisoner of the man she thinks is helping her back to her apartment, and that's where the movie started to break down for me.

That she survived one encounter with a sexual predator in the first act almost seems to be thrown in for cheap shock value, because it doesn't really seem to inform the way she acts toward her captor, and her eventual domesticity is, well, kind of sickening. There's a big enough jump in time between the second and third acts that I really couldn't connect Mary Ann-at-the-end with Mary Ann-at-the-beginning. Also, the middle is staged like a play, staying mostly in the basement apartment where she's being held, but none of its scenes really crackle with any sort of confrontation between the two parties.

Let's Scare Jessica to Death

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 7 February 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Fear on Film)

My first question after seeing this film at the Brattle: "Is everything in the movie supposed to be this red, or did Paramount supply the theater with a really crappy old print?" Because this print? Extremely red. I think some of it's deliberate - anything that reasonably can be red seems to be - but an old print with yellow breakdown is part of the problem. Pity, because there's a not-bad thriller in there somewhere, but I'm not quite sure how silly it is. The extremely red scenes might mean we're seeing it from Jessica's perspective and she, fresh out of a mental institution, isn't seeing things clearly. Or it might be random.

See, this is why film preservation is so important.

This winds up being a somewhat better-than-average movie, though - it plays the "vampire or all in Jessica's head?" game pretty well, and its early-seventies design isn't completely snicker-worthy. it's certainly good enough to merit a DVD release - hopefully after some restoration work.

Gaslight (1944)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 9 February 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Fear on Film)

You think remakes are out of control today? Throw "Gaslight" into IMDB - this play was filmed five times within a ten-year period back in the WWII era, with this the middle one. And, yes, a new remake is being planned for 2007.

But, put that aside. It's a nifty little mystery, even if what's actually going on isn't really under much doubt - Ingrid Bergman's Paula Anton returns home to where she found her aunt's murdered body as a child with her new husband, and it slowly becomes clear that he is re-inforcing her agoraphobia. But to what end? Director George Cukor reveals everything in good time, building to a satisfying cilmax. And if there just happens to be a handsome young policeman to caputre Paula's heart when her husband is revealed to be a cad, so much the better.

I'm kind of interested to see how the '07 version turns out, since I have a hard time seeing it set in modern times. And, of course, some poor actress is going to have to be compared to Ingrid Bergman, who is as stunningly beautiful as ever and manages to make Paula looks something other than pathetic as she defers too much to her husband than is good for her.

Classic Romances

The Awful Truth

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 13 February 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Classic Romances)

The trouble with most romantic comedies is that in order to create tension, you either have to have to keep the characters separated or have them bicker. The first keeps you from seeing the chemistry you're coming for; the second runs the risk of making the characters unlikable. "They deserve each other" isn't quite the vibe most directors are going for. The Awful Truth goes for the second solution, but Cary Grant and Irene Dunne make it work. They are, after all, likely equally guilty of infidelity when we meet them, so their anger is both petty and understandable.

And, besides, their sniping isn't really directed at each other, it's jealousy. It is, after all, clear from the start that they really love each other and are frequently too stupid to realize it, so Grant's Jerry Warriner makes a target of the new man (Ralph Bellamy) romancing Dunne's Lucy, while she sabotages his engagement to a high-society girl (Molly Lamont). Bellamy, in particular, is all kinds of funny as a nouveau riche mother's boy from Oklahoma. My only minor complaint is that Grant gets a somewhat more positive character than Dunne - outwardly, Jerry needles her about what her life in Oklahoma would be like because he knows her, while she apparently seems to try to sabotage his new relationship out of little more than spite. But that's a very minor complaint, especially after the rest has been so funny.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 13 February 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Classic Romances)

If I've learned one thing from the movies, it's that if I'm in a relationship that doesn't feel quite right, I should check out her sister. Biologically, I suppose there's a certain logic to that - after all, they've got a lot of the same genes, and their upbringings will be similar. The sister will be similar enough to that what I was attracted to will likely be there, but just different enough that the chemistry might be a little better. And, hey, in Holiday, it lets Cary Grant jump from Doris Nolan to Katharine Hepburn.

I suspect, however, that in real life, even if it does allow me to find my real soulmate, the girl I was with wouldn't wind up being willing to shrug it off nad move on to the next guy, the sister would find me a creep rather than romantic, and their brother would kick my ass rather than being a drunk who wishes he had the guts to plot his escape, too.

But, my life is improvised rather than directed by George Cukor Which is a crying shame, I'd love to have a young, free-spirited, and filthy rich Kate Hepburn in my life.

SF/30 - The Boston Science Fiction Film Festival


* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 February 2006 at the West Newton Cinema #2 (SF/30)

This is not a good movie. Kind of fun to laugh at, but while I can't say I don't enjoy that kind of experience, there are many more fun ways to spend an hour or two. This King Kong ripoff feels stupid on top of cheap, and the hilariously phallic exotic plant life is really the only "fun stupid" part of it. Plus, what the heck happens to the comely co-ed at the end? The movie just forgets her.

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 February 2006 at the West Newton Cinema #2 (SF/30)

I always feel like I should like this piece of pulp fiction more than I do. Where it's on, it's really on - the spaceship FX look damn good, as do the Lectroids. But, contrary to my previous beliefs, something can actually be too dry. A lot of the movie plays like kids making a movie with a camcorder, which is cute when they're kids, but as the work of adult professionals...?

The Tingler

* * (out of four)
Seen 19 February 2006 at the West Newton Cinema #2 (SF/30)

Eh. I can see this as one of Joe Dante's favorite movies, but I don't necessarily feel the love myself. It's got the audience participation thing, and Vincent Price tripping out on LSD. Tough to get a read on the Vincent Price character's medical ethics in this one - he goes from being the dangerous mad scientist to the sensible citizen and back five times or so.

The Crazies

* * * ¼ (out of four) (incomplete?)
Seen 19 February 2006 at the West Newton Cinema #2 (SF/30)

This was around the midnight mark, so I'm pretty sure I wound up napping a bit - the party went from 5 to 3 when I wasn't looking. Romero really seemed like a director ahead of his time here. The paranoia, and the feeling of the Federal bureaucracy failing feels very modern. It's probably too long if you see the whole thing, but what I saw was excellent.

The Naked Monster

* * (out of four)
Seen 20 February 2006 at the West Newton Cinema #2 (SF/30) (projected video)

About as good as this kind of movie can be. This sort of deliberate camp only works if you can feel the love the filmmaker has for his subject, and you definitely could feel that here. It's a total fanboy project, and the director spent ten years shooting scenes with the stars of fifties sci-fi and other B movies. Still, a little bit of that goes a long way, and this had a lot.

Eight Legged Freaks

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 20 February 2006 at the West Newton Cinema #2 (SF/30)

This was probably the biggest surprise hit of the marathon, for me. This movie is easily the most I've liked Kari Wuhrer or David Arquette in anything, and it's got Scarlett Johansson and Matt Czuchry from Gilmore Girls in early roles. It's the sort of fast, fun monster movie where a lot of people get killed but no-one really gets hurt. This means it's not quite Tremors or Slither-class - those movies could bring genuine thrills with their comedy and action - but it is exactly the kind of entertaining, high-production value movie that keeps a 24-hour marathon moving in the wee hours.

Last Man on Earth

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 20 February 2006 at the West Newton Cinema #2 (SF/30)

This was one of two or three movies in the marathon that were just too long; in particular, there's a flashback seemed to take forever. Anyway, this is the I Am Legend adaptation with Vincent Price (as opposed to Charlton Heston). Price's hamming is this dystopia's biggest attraction.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 20 February 2006 at the West Newton Cinema #2 (SF/30)

I found this movie surprisingly charming; it's a tense and enjoyable story of a teenage-equivalent android's first encounter with human beings other than his creator on a space station - only they happen to be escaped convicts (the pretty young woman, of course, is the least evil). Klaus Kinski is the robot's creator, and he's always great to watch, even if he doesn't reach the bombastic heights here that he does in his roles with Werner Herzog. The android's naivete is an involving counterpoint to the prisonors' viciousness.

The last plot twist, though - what the hell? That's one of those things the writers probably thought would be ironic, but doesn't have enough set-up to really register as such with the audience.

12 Monkeys

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 20 February 2006 at the West Newton Cinema #2 (SF/30)

I always liked this one, and still really do. If you don't get a bit of a headache the first time you watch it, you're not paying attention, but it's fantastic each time thereafter. I love time-travel stories that are set up like a jigsaw puzzle, with all the pieces inexorably fitting together. It's also another great reminder of how excellent Bruce Willis can be when given good material and a good director.

Fire Maidens From Outer Space

* (out of four)
Seen 20 February 2006 at the West Newton Cinema #2 (SF/30)

This was just bad. It makes each and every one of its 70-odd minutes feel like an eternity, and it is severely padded to get to that length. Scenes in the rocketship are excruciating; a character will say "countdown biegins fire in one minute", nothing will happen for sixty seconds aside from the camera panning back and forth, and then we get "ten.. nine.. eight..." And no matter how many scantily-clad women are standing around, it's like the intrepid space explorers don't quite know how to react to them.

I'm reasonably confident that an "extended special edition" of this movie would drive people insane.

Shelly Winters

Cleopatra Jones

* * (out of four)
Seen 8 March 2006 at the Brattle Theater (A Tribute to Shelly Winters)

A blaxploitation "classic", meaning lots of garish colors and painfully clunky fight choreography, but absolutely no question of what it meant to its audience back in the day. Tamara Dobson's Cleo is a sort of hilarious fantasy creation, universally beloved in her Detroit neighborhood even though she fights crime and works for the CIA. Shelly Winters is over-the-top villainous as her nemesis "Mommy". The whole thing winds up being a lot more interesting for what it represents than the actual entertainment content.

Wild in the Streets

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 8 March 2006 at the Brattle Theater (A Tribute to Shelly Winters)

Another B movie with Ms. Winters in a supporting role, this one's fun because it's like watching someone get terribly worked up about a subject, just frothing at the mouth with anger and outrage, jumping to absolutely irrational conclusions, only with the part that makes such a display really scary - the sincere belief in and willingness to act on something clearly wrong-headed - drained away. The result is this absurdity about teenagers taking over and running amok; it's a pretty funny fever dream even as it's absurd. Nice ironic finish, though.

Hiroshi Teshigahara

Woman in the Dunes (Suna no onna)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 2 April 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Man in the Dunes: Hiroshi Teshigahara)

It's a story as old as time itself: An amateur entomologist takes a fall in the middle of a desert area, locals bring him to a lonely woman, and he is trapped in a pit that cannot be escaped without the help of those outside - and they aren't helping. The only company Niki Jumpei (Eiji Okada) has is a nameless woman (Kyoko Kishida) who lost her husband in a sandstorm. They dig in the pit which holds her house, looking for her husband and selling the sand to those at the top.

Over time, they learn more about each other; even though he's her prisoner, there is a sort of familiarity that develops. The photography is sublime; wherever they shot it had, in addition to unusual topography, a stark beauty. Okada and Kishida are excellent in their roles, throwing off a chemistry that is hostile yet still erotic. You also can't help but be struck by this pit that cannot be escaped as a metaphor for their emotional state - sooner or later, a hole - whether it be a literal pit or feelings of depression and loneliness - begins to feel like home.

The Face of Another (Tanin no kao)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 6 April 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Man in the Dunes: Hiroshi Teshigahara)

A couple years later, Teshigahara would reunite with Kobo Abe, who wrote the screenplay from his own novel for Woman in the Dunes and does the same for The Face of Another. This is a quasi-sci-fi film (you know, the kind of movie that takes place in the present day but includes plot devices that are the stuff of fantasy) starring Tatsuya Nakadai as a man badly scarred in a factory explosion who is given a remarkable face mask that does not resemble his old face as part of an experiment. Rather than attempt to re-enter his own life, though, he rents a new apartment and sets out to seduce his wife.

The film enters dark territory as the freedom Okuyama finds in being somebody other than himself leads him to cut off contact with those who care for him, with sometimes surprising results when he engages them in his new persona. Nakadai shows he can play more than just samurai as this haunted man, and Machiko Kyo is every bit his equal in their scenes together. Somewhat less successful is a thread featuring Miki Irie as an otherwise beautiful teenage girl with her own scars whose loneliness is so acute that she yearns for her brother to fill the new voids in her life, as he is the only man who has ever treated her kindly. The parallels of how their scars have isolated them, either by their own choice or by those who would protect them, but the two lines don't quite seem to reach the same place.

As with Dunes, the cinematography is by Hiroshi Segawa, and his scenes of the siblings' home on the shore are as full of natural beauty as the previous film. They also shoot the city very well, giving a sense of how it teems with people but can still leave one very much alone. The scenes of the lab where Okuyama receives his new face are especially good, both in terms of their odd design and how normal and professional the people there behave. It acknowledges the science-fictional aspects without allowing them to take the picture over.

Pre-Code Barbara Stanwyck

Baby Face

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 10 April 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Pre-code Stanwyck)

The pre-code-ness of this movie is a huge part of what makes it so much fun. You have to get into the period, remember that it's the Depression and Prohibition and as much as Stanwyck's Lily Powers is being a self-centered bitch, she's pulling herself up from nothing, and a large chunk of the audience is all over that. And if the bank president and her eventually fall for each other, well, so much the better.

For the full effect, though, you've got to watch the newly-restored version which is followed up by the scenes that were added and changed to please the New York State film censors' board in 1933. It's hilarious; Lily's mentor Adolf Cragg (Alphonse Ethier) goes from a Nietzche-quoting opportunist to a man concerned with rising to the top "the right way"; a coda where Lily and her new rich husbad are now happily working in a mining community is added. Again, hilarious; as much as the original film is kind of so-so, the bowlderized version must just be an object lesson in how ridiculous and damaging censorship can be - this movie is twisted inside out because of prudishness that didn't last forever.

Night Nurse

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 10 April 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Pre-code Stanwyck)

Night Nurse is no classic; move it forward seventy-five years and this Barbara Stanwyck vehicle is somewhere between a Lifetime movie of the week and a tawdry Skinemax flick. Stanwyck charms her way into nursing school, makes a friend (Joan Blondell), and in her first assignment, suspects that her young charges are being poisoned. It's up to a kindly bootlegger (Ben Lyon) to protect her from the evil chauffeur (Clark Gable) poisoning the poor girl.

To call this movie thin is to severely understate the case. The two halves are almost entirely separate movies, and each of them takes a bunch of time out to watch the ladies change outfits. It's lowbrow-ish melodrama for the masses, and just because it's old doesn't make it any classier.

Ladies They Talk About

* * (out of four) (incomplete)
Seen 13 April 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Pre-code Stanwyck)

And we finish with a movie that did a pretty good job of knocking me out. Stanwyck is entertaining as always as a gun moll eventually going straight as she falls under the spell of a radio preacher with political aspirations. What I saw was kind of bloated, but kind of entertaining. I'd like to see the whole thing someday, to see if it's better than I remember.

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