Monday, June 25, 2007

Olivier Centennial: Sleuth and Marathon Man

The Brattle had a couple weeks of these - well, probably just a week total, splitting time with the grindhouse films - and I only got to one double feature. I think it was a rainy week where getting to the movies would mean going there straight from work, and the grindhouse stuff was making me feel kind of movie-d out.

That shouldn't be too much of an issue with their summer schedule; they go back to the "vertical" design I love, and I think I'll be able to comfortably skip most of the Wednesday "Great Adaptations" series (which includes Adaptation but not Great Expectations) - although ironically that's the day I actually come into Harvard Square after work for comics anyway. I'm all over the Barbara Stanwyck and Animation programs, along with weekend series for Raymond Chandler and one delightfully titled "Charlton Heston's Apocalypse". Plus, oh yes, after nearly a year, Election 2 (aka Triad Election, because Magnolia didn't want to try and release both) finally shows up at the end of August (it had been booked for last Octobers Boston Fantastic Film Festival) as part of a double feature. Amusingly, if you do the usual route of starting at 7:30, you'll see the sequel first.

(Two surprises found when composing this post - Sleuth is apparently not available on DVD for less than a hundred bucks, and the Brattle seems to be eschewing midnights this summer)


* * * * (out of four)
Seen 20 May 2007 at the Brattle Theater (The Entertainer: A Centennial Tribute to Laurence Olivier)

It is easy (inasmuch as any creative process is actually easy) to do parody or pastiche; one simply has to be aware of the familiar elements of a genre and repeat them, either mockingly or slavishly. Homage is a more difficult, and is sometimes as awkward. What writer Anthony Shaffer and director Joseph Mankiewicz do in Sleuth is almost scholarly in comparison.

The Agatha Christie-style puzzle mystery has always taken a lot of flack, in part because its priorities are complementary to those of modern critics (that is to say, there is nearly no overlap between the two groups): Mysteries are simple where Quality Literature is complex (they frequently use plain language to describe cardboard characters whose motivations are straightforward, and have a straightforward moral code) and vice versa (the smallest details must be observed, and characters often act upon their simple motivations in roundabout ways). Taking place as they so often do among England's landed gentry, there's often unspoken classism hidden just below the surface. By the time Sleuth premiered on stage and in cinemas, the classic mystery was looking a bit long in the tooth; a relic of a bygone age.

And, indeed, Shaffer and Mankiewicz expose it as such. Mystery writer Andrew Wyke (Laurence Olivier) lives in a sprawling mansion complete with a labyrinth of shrubbery and hidden passages, filled with curios, reminders of a more genteel time, and in the most prized position, the Edgar Allen Poe award he received from the Mystery Writers of America. He's an imperious snob, and he has summoned Milo Tindle (Michael Caine) because he wishes to make his wife's lover a deal: Although he figures he would be well rid of Marguerite (Eve Channing), he knows that she will want money, more than even a successful hairdressing entrepreneur like Tindle can provide. So he hatches a plan by which Milo will break in, steal some of Marguerite's jewelry, and sell it to a fence Wyke knows. As the first act wears on, it becomes clear that behind Wyke's jovial mask is a man whose attitude toward the lower classes is patronizing at best and hateful at worst, with a mind geared toward elaborate schemes where simple ones will do, and whose ultimate plan is far more sinister than the one he initially outlined. Sinister, but not necessarily perfect, as the second half of the film finds him matching wits with Inspector Doppler (Alec Cawthorne), a working-class detective who is unimpressed with Wyke's status but has a keen eye for forensics.

Full review at EFC

Marathon Man

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 20 May 2007 at the Brattle Theater (The Entertainer: A Centennial Tribute to Laurence Olivier)

Not many thrillers these days start with the sort of slow burn we see in the first act of Marathon Man. The obvious comparison is right there in the title - marathon runners have to keep up a steady pace rather than run the risk of burning themselves out - but just because it's obvious doesn't make it any less true.

The movie does get a good jump at the starter's line, when an old German and an old Jew clash at a traffic light, leading to a frantic chase and a fatal result. After that, he film introduces us to some new characters, not immediately connected to the open: Thomas (Dustin Hoffman), nicknamed "Babe", is a graduate student in history haunted by his father's suicide; he's just met a nice girl (Marthe Keller) in the library. Henry (Roy Scheider) and Peter (William Devane) are operatives for an unnamed agency; right now they're in Europe. Dr. Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier) is a Nazi war criminal who has been living in Uruguay for the past thirty years. An attack on Henry's life alerts them that something's up, which will have them all converging on New York.

There are a couple action beats in the movie's first half, and they're fairly brutal fights you would not want to be in. Mostly, it's a slow and deliberate examination of Babe's and Henry's worlds. We see the punks in Babe's crappy neighborhood laugh at him as he trains for marathons and the tradecraft Henry uses. We can't quite be sure that Henry's one of the good guys, even when we see that there's a connection between him and Babe. It's not until Szell arrives in New York that things start to get nasty.

Full review at EFC.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Not a bad weekend, I guess: Paris, je t'aime, DOA: Dead or Alive, and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

I guess I felt magnanimous this weekend; all the movies I saw had issues - some of them big issues - but I enjoyed all three more than not, and have a tough time holding their faults against them. Even DOA, which is pretty deeply stupid, put a smile on my face more often than not.

I had to go out to Revere to see it, which wasn't as bad as I'd feared: It takes two buses, but the connection between the 91 and 109 was relatively painless, and the walk from there to the gigantic Showcase cinemas was pretty short. It's pretty close to the first time I've been to something labeled "Showcase" since college, when I worked at a couple, although I've been to the Circle a few times. My experiences at Showcase weren't really that bad. This is probably the most elaborate megaplex I've seen outside the Metreon in San Francisco (and I guess that's really more mall than movie theater); the lobby looked more like a food court, although I recognized the basic design as the same as Showcase Cinemas Worcester North. Not the best design, really - even on slow days, you need two ushers on duty because the lobby divides two wings, and the huge concession stand creates a wall in the middle of the lobby, making the place feel much smaller.

As nice as Revere is as a theater, it's unfortunate that DOA: Dead or Alive (can't allow it to be confused with the real D.O.A.) was exiled there. It's not exactly a good movie - it's dumb as a box of rocks, and just because most of the cast has a dance background doesn't necessarily mean they can screen-fight convincingly - but it's not bad enough to hide, either. I'm surprised the Weinstein's couldn't have found a better weekend for it; there must have been a spot during January garbage time.

Paris, je t'aime

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 June 2007 at Landmark Kendall Square #6 (First-run)

The idea behind Paris, je t'aime was to tell a Paris love story for each of the City of Light's twenty districts, each from a different director. It falls a bit short of its lofty potential - two of the twenty arrondissements don't make it into the film, and many of the tales don't seem terribly specific to Paris. I don't mind, though, the way I see it, Paris is just an excuse for a passel of talented filmmakers to tell us a story in six or seven minutes.

Six minutes is not a lot of time; filmmakers used to working at feature length might find themselves feeling cramped. Fortunately, that is seldom a problem for any of them. In some ways, the directive to make a love story is a big help; all you really need for a romance is two people; adding many more will likely complicate things and distract from the basic idea the director is trying to get across. As much "love story" might seem restrictive, it turns out to be a fairly flexible description. We get the expected types of stories, the ones that cover the start of a romance, but we also see a number of parents and children, people set in their relationships, people having second thoughts, and relationships reaching their ends.

Expecting all eighteen stories to be top-notch, and a few do turn out to be let-downs. I found that those tended to be the talkiest sequences, though that takes several different forms. The first segment, Bruno Podalydes's "Montmarte", has writer/director/star Podalydes talking to himself a lot, and he's not quite so charming as he seems to imagine himself. Gus Van Sant's "Le Marais" gives us a one-sided conversation, and I found that one side pretty annoying. Scruffy guys not saying much seems to be Van Sant's thing lately; pity the film's only gay love story couldn't be more interesting. Olivier Assaya's "Quartier des Enfant Rouges" isn't terribly verbose, but is kind of charmless.

Full review at EFC.

DOA: Dead or Alive

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 June 2007 at Showcase Cinemas Revere #17 (First-run)

I had to take two buses from one end of the line to the other to get to a theater that was playing DOA: Dead or Alive on its opening weekend, and I cannot honestly say that it merits that kind of effort on my part. The flip side, though, is that it doesn't deserve that kind of exile from its distributor, either.

This isn't a lost masterpiece by any means. Its story is giggle-worthy. The good (or at least decent) actors coast while the bad ones try too hard. It's adapted from a video game and fully embraces that aesthetic - it's frantic and insubstantial. Complaining about this movie's plot, though, is like dismissing a root beer float for not having the properties of a fine wine. The important question is whether or not it's a good root beer float.

It's not the best; to torture the metaphor, it's not made with premium ice cream (the type that has little bits of vanilla bean) suspended in homemade, small-batch root beer. Still, it provides a nice sugar rush. Every moment serves to move things along faster, right down to the scene transitions inspired in equal parts by video games and TV sports. The characters all have a distinctive look that lets the audience pull them out of the crowd, and they live in fun, colorful environments. And give the filmmakers some credit where story is concerned - there is one, it makes a certain amount of rudimentary sense within the confines of this cartoonish world (sci-fi silliness about injected nanomachines recording a person's fighting style), and the film never really stops dead for exposition. And director Corey Yuen can put together a fight scene.

Full review at EFC.

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

* * * (out of four)
Seen 17 June 2007 at Regal Fenway #8 (First-run)

The by-now obligatory Stan Lee cameo in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer will make comic fans smile a little: In a moment pulled from Fantastic Four Annual #3 over forty years ago, he's not let into the wedding of Reed Richards and Susan Storm. Jack Kirby was thrown out alongside Lee in that original story, but the late artist is not mentioned here, which is a shame; it's the willingness to embrace Kirby as well as Lee that makes this film a heck of a lot better than its predecessor.

Part of the appeal of the Fantastic Four has always been what Lee brought to the team: The family dynamic and focus on relationships as well as super-heroing. What the 2005 film was missing was what Jack Kirby brought: Huge, larger-than-life adventure, told with bold art that practically crackled with energy. The last movie was all about the heroes squabbling, and ended with the four of them fighting one guy in an unimpressive sequence, so it's very good to see this one open with a planet being destroyed. We know, right away, that they're thinking bigger.

Soon we're back on Earth, where the celebrity scientists and adventurers Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) and Susan Storm (Jessica Alba) are trying to pull off a wedding (Reed, of course, has his head in the clouds) while Johnny Storm (Chris Evans) and Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) argue good-naturedly. Their plans are interrupted by an army general (Andre Braugher) with news of climatological anomalies and a mysterious fast-moving object sighted from orbit. It's the Silver Surfer (body of Doug Jones, voice of Laurence Fishburne), and Reed soon discovers that where he goes, planetary destruction follows. The army brings Reed's longtime rival Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon) in to assist, which everyone should have realized was a bad idea from the start.

Full review at EFC.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Welcome to the Brattle Grindhouse

Man, I don't think I've ever seen so many prints with the type of damage that makes them turn red in one period of time. Before the first one I saw, Vanishing Point, Ned came out to apologize, saying it was the worst print the Brattle had ever played, which is saying something. All that stuff Rodriguez and Tarantino did to make the print of Grindhouse look like crap? This is the real deal.

Vanishing Point

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 12 May 2007 at the Brattle Theatre (Welcome to the Grindhouse)

Quentin Tarantino has a habit of name-dropping in his movies, and no movie is referenced more in his latest, Death Proof, than Vanishing Point. As per usual, he's got good taste; while many of the grindhouse movies he and Robert Rodriguez were meaning to invoke were not actually very good, this one is worth tracking down - at least if you like chase movies.

Credit Vanishing Point, especially in the early going, with clarity of purpose: Kowalski (Barry Newman) speeds across the Western U.S. in a white 1970 Dodge Challenger that he's trying to deliver from Denver to San Francisco in less than a day. While he's driving, his mind occasionally flashes back to an earlier time... when he was a race car driver. As the film goes on, we learn a bit more about his history, and we encounter a few other characters that he meets on the road, as police in four states try to capture him and disc jockey "Super Soul" (Cleavon Little) spins the soundtrack, feeds him coded advice on what the cops are doing, and elevates the driver to the level of a folk hero.

Vanishing Point is an essential movie for the speed junkie; director Richard Sarafian and cinematographer John Alonzo communicate the feelings of joy, freedom, and power that come from driving a fast car, but they don't overdo it. As we look out Kowalski's window, the road is moving fast, but never quite so fast that we doubt his ability to control the car. Unlike the action filmmakers of a generation later, they favor a steady camera showing the road going by or a majestic cloud of dust to overstating the issue by shaking it. The photography does a nice job of setting the scene, too - for example, even seen on this pretty terrible print, the punishingly hot vastness of the Nevada desert is overwhelming.

Full review at EFC.

Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 May 2007 at the Brattle Theatre (Welcome to the Grindhouse)

There are some horror movies that use their first half to tease the audience, setting up a palpable dread or quietly dropping hints about information that may prove useful later. Then there's the likes of Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things, which frantically tread water for an hour because they've only got the budget for maybe thirty minutes' worth of action and theaters are reluctant to book a film much shorter than an hour and a half.

So we've got Alan (Alan Ormsby) and his troupe of actors taking a boat to an island within sight of Miami which features a graveyard and an abandoned inn. He's trying to psyche them up for a spooky play he's written. This involves getting them to participate in a ceremony where he will attempt to raise an exhumed corpse - that is, when he's not on a power trip, reminding them that without the jobs he's given them, they're not working in showbiz. He appears genuinely disgusted and angry when his incantations don't actually bring a corpse to life. Of course, it does, and not just one; it's just that their muscles are stiff and don't get limber until the group is gathered together in the inn, with the graveyard between them and their boat.

The good news is that once the dead crawl out of their graves, the movie delivers the goods. We came for killing, and the zombies deliver, tearing into the roughly nine or ten people on the island with gruesome gusto and splattering nicely when they fight back. The makeup, blood, and guts are pretty good for a cheapo grindhouse picture; the filmmakers certainly aren't worried about saving any for their next picture. Co-writers Bob Clark and Alan Ormsby (Ormsby also stars; Clark directs) opt for fairly slow, inarticulate zombies with rudimentary problem-solving and tool-using capabilities, and that works out pretty well for them. The living can take out one, but get in trouble pretty quickly when they have to face a crowd.

Full review at EFC.

Satan's Cheerleaders

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 May 2007 at the Brattle Theatre (Welcome to the Grindhouse)

I first became aware of this movie about twenty years ago; it was used in a cryptogram or "spot the fake" puzzle in Games Magazine. That's about the right amount of contact to have with this movie - it's fun to know that it exists, and to imagine what such a movie might be like. One should not sully those happy thoughts with actual first-hand experience.

The actual experience involves a group of four cheerleaders being bratty, but still being enticing to their school's janitor Billy (Jack Kruschen). Unfortunately for them, Billy is both a Satanist and able to sabotage their coach Ms. Johnson's car, and turns up just in time to give them a list - not to the game, but to the local Satanic altar where he tries to make blonde Patti (Kerry Sherman) his love slave. The girls and Ms. Johnson (Jacqueline Cole) escape, but when they find the local sheriff (John Ireland), he and his wife (Yvonne De Carlo) turn out to be Satanists, too - indeed, pretty much everyone in the area is, and they see the fulfillment of a prophecy in these girls.

The biggest problem with Satan's Cheerleaders is that no-one is really trying very hard. The script by Greydon Clark and Alvin Fast doesn't have a single memorable line, and worse, is lazy in creating its threats. So, all these guys are Satanists - what's the big deal? None of them display much in the way of supernatural powers, they bicker too much to ever come together as a real threat, and they never really seem to have that sinister a plan. If they were really interested in making a genuinely suspenseful horror movie, they might well have been better off just making the villains nasty rednecks. The story only comes close to wit once, toward the end, as it follows up the obvious bit of finding a virgin to sacrifice on the cheerleading team with something dark and mean which enough that the audience may feel a little bad about laughing at it.

Full review at EFC.

Nightmare City (Incubo sulla città contaminata)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 19 May 2007 at the Brattle Theatre (Welcome to the Grindhouse)

Usually, my trouble with zombie movies is that it's hard to believe that the situation is really apocalyptic - most zombie outbreaks, from Night of the Living Dead to 28 Days Later, look like they could be contained. Nightmare City has the opposite issue - I have a bit of trouble believing it could be contained as long as it is. Neither is really a big problem, since the people we meet are still in danger.

The first person we meet is named Dean Miller (at least in the English-dubbed version shown), a reporter for a local television station. He's covering the arrival of a plane filled with government scientists and military types, which turns out much more interesting than it sounds: After landing without any contact with the control tower, it disgorges a cargo of atomically-mutated zombies, eager to chew on flesh and drink blood. When Dean (Hugo Stiglitz) tries to get this on the air, he's taken off the air by General Murchison (Mel Ferrer), who doesn't want a panic started, but still sends the message to his daughter Jessica (Stefania D'Amario) and her husband Bob (Pierangelo Civera) to barricade the doors and let no-one in. Murchison's assistant, Major Holmes (Francisco Rabal), delivers roughly the same message to his young artist wife Sheila (Maria Rosaria Omaggio), while Miller takes what is likely the more sensible route of going to the hospital where his wife Anna (Laura Trotter) practices and trying to convince her to get the heck out of town.

All of these places, of course, are spots zombies particularly enjoy turning upside down in movies: Hospitals are multi-level mazes where "sick" people are brought for examination; houses generally have one forgotten method of ingress and can seem much less safe once the power goes out; television stations have studios full of pretty girls shooting a live disco-dance hour whose flimsy tops can be pulled off by clawing mutants just before the biting starts, inciting the panic that the military had hoped to avoid. Director Umberto Lenzi has a grand time throwing his marauders at the place, since it gives him the opportunity to jump between chase, siege, and ambush sequences, rather than settling for doing them in relatively predictable sequence. He's good at giving each the sort of energy they need, and jumping between them does make things like the friend showing up at the door a little less predictable because one's head is still in "chase" mode.

Full review at EFC.

Return of the Living Dead

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 May 2007 at the Brattle Theatre (Welcome to the Grindhouse)

Return of the Living Dead is something close to a failure as a horror movie, if it was even trying to be one. That's no bad thing; of all the hyphenated genres, "horror-comedy" is the one whose components are most at cross-purposes, and in a case like that, it's better to do one thing very well than to do two poorly.

The film posits that the events of Night of the Living Dead actually happened, although Romero took some liberties in adapting the story. Afterward, the military put the zombies into containers, some of which were accidentally shipped to a biological supplies distributor in Louisville, KY. The place's night manager, Frank (James Karen), is showing these barrels to new employee Freddy (Thom Mathews) when he breaks the seal, letting one zombie out. Frank, Freddy, and their boss Burt (Clu Gulager) subdue it somewhat, but no amount of dismemberment will actually stop it moving. They get the bright idea of bringing it to the funeral home Ernie Kaltenbrunner (Don Calfa) owns next door and burning it in the crematorium. It's not a bad plan, but the smoke coming out of the stack combines with the rain clouds overhead, basically putting the virus that reanimates corpses into an aerosol form. That's the bad news; the worse news is that there's a graveyard nearby where Freddy's punk friends are waiting for him to finish work.

It's easy to make a zombie movie sound silly just by listing what happens in it, but writer/director Dan O'Bannon embraces that silliness better than most. The little details are funny, and he gets his cast to play it not quite straight, but far short of mugging. When Burt and Frank are trying to convince Ernie to let them burn a few rather active garbage bags full of zombie parts, they spin a lame story about the bags being full of rabid weasels which is obviously ridiculous, and there's this look on their faces that says they're sorry it's the best they could come up with, but, you know, this isn't a situation they're prepared for. That's the feel of the whole movie in a nutshell, from the paramedics examining someone who has recently been infected to the military liaison (Jonathan Terry) who has been waiting for a call like tihs for a while - we're doing the best we can, but the whole zombie thing is throwing us off.

Full review at EFC.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 25 May 2007 at the Brattle Theatre (Welcome to the Grindhouse)

David Cronenberg hits a lot of buttons in Rabid, playing on his audience's fears of anything particularly intimidating. Everything from science to sex to harshly implemented authority has its moment in here, and it all comes together in some a way that's as interesting as it is scary.

A motorcycle incident leaves Rose (Marilyn Chambers) and Hart (Frank Moore) injured - Rose especially is badly burned - but though it happens too far out in the country to get them to an emergency room, there is a clinic nearby where the wealthy receive plastic surgery. Word of the accident gets Dr. Dan Keloid (Howard Ryshpan) out of a meeting with his financier, Murray Cypher (Joe Silver), and he quickly determines that the only way to save her is with a new type of graft he's developed. The surgery does more than just restore Rose's health and beauty, though - it's mutated her internally, giving her a new organ that allows her to feed on blood. Nothing else satisfies her, and to make things worse, those she feeds on quickly develop symptoms of rabies - only much, much worse. A trail of outbreaks between Keloid's clinic and Montreal soon bring the World Health Organization and the military into the picture.

Rabid was released thirty years ago, but Cronenberg's vision remains fascinating for a number of reasons. He's using some classic horror devices - Rose could easily be called a vampire; her victims are close to the now-famous zombie template - but rather than try to do what many have done and try to come up with a real-world explanation for all the trappings of vampirism, he builds something like a vampire from science-fictional building blocks. It feels more real that way - a modern horror, rather than an attempt to recreate something familiar. And while Cronenberg isn't the first to make a horror movie that features soldiers becoming a threat to the citizenry in response to a crisis - and, obviously, he's far from the last - he strikes a nice balance between the necessity of some form of martial law in response to a crisis and the potential for disaster.

Full review at EFC.

The Crazies

* * * (out of four)
Seen 25 May 2007 at the Brattle Theatre (Welcome to the Grindhouse)

Go figure; I've seen this as part of events twice (previously, at the SF Marathon), and I think I nodded off at the exact same spots both times. I've got no idea how the party gets thinned out.

Fortunately, it's one of those movies where you can drift off for a bit and the end result doesn't feel disjointed; George Romero keeps a very steady tone throughout.

Maybe I'll rent this sometime. At the very least, it'll be a good way to catch a nap on demand.

Beyond the Door II (Schock)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 26 May 2007 at the Brattle Theatre (Welcome to the Grindhouse)

Beyond The Door II, also known as "Shock", has the title of a sequel (at least in America) and relies heavily on prior events. Knowledge of these prior events is not a necessity, though, and that's good - this is a thematically linked if not makeshift series about haunted houses rather than one where characters carry over. I'm not even sure knowing the history beforehand would help, rather than kill suspense.

Dora Baldini (Daria Nicolodi) and her husband Bruno (John Steiner) are moving back into Dora's family home. Bruno is Dora's second husband; her first died several years back, although no body was found; the house has been shut up ever since. Not surprising she wanted nothing to do with the place; he and Dora did a lot of drugs back then, and she can't remember the exact circumstances of his death. Son Marco (David Colin Jr.) was a product of that first marriage, and though Marco is fond of his stepfather, he's still not "Dad". Since Bruno is an airline pilot, Dora and Marco have a lot of time alone at the house, with its spooky basement and new imaginary friend for Marco.

If we have learned anything from the movies, it's that a new imaginary friend for your kid when you move to a new home is a pretty clear warning sign to get the heck out while you've still got all your blood. Even if that ghost is friendly, there are probably others whose intentions aren't quite so benign. This one certainly isn't; either through influence or straight-out possession, it's having an unsettling effect on Marco, who is not only starting to practice some basic thaumaturgy, but is starting to look at his mother in a way that sons generally don't.

Deep Red (aka The Hatchet Murders, Profondo Rosso)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 May 2007 at the Brattle Theatre (Welcome to the Grindhouse)

Dario Argento doesn't make false promises with the title of this movie; as someone with even just passing familiarity with giallo and Argento might expect, the film has plenty of blood and the picture is photographed to maximize the shocking red. Beneath Argento's gloss, though, is a fairly competent murder mystery undermined by some rather hammy acting.

The opening introduces us to Helga Ulmann (Macha Meril), whom we're told is a powerful psychic. She swoons slightly at a lecture, claiming she feels terrible evil from someone in the room. Whether she was for real or got "lucky" doesn't matter; the next time we see her she's being attacked with a hatchet. Her neighbor Marcus Daly (David Hemmings), a visiting English pianist, witnesses the attack, but before he can do anything, the woman is dead. Convinced he's seen something the police don't, Daly investigates on his own, finding reporter Gianna Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi) alternately helpful and a nuisance.

There's an air of the paranormal around the mystery, thanks to the dead medium and an abandoned house that the locals certainly treat as being haunted. Argento and company don't lean too heavily on that, though; while Blood Red probably isn't a solvable mystery, it's not one that will spring "character X can move the murder weapon with his mind" on you without any warning, either. Nor does it give Marcus much information that it doesn't share with the audience; it plays fair enough. I don't quite think it makes sense, even beyond the killer being kind of insane - I'm still trying to puzzle out just how one character fits into the story beyond the need to have another murder midway through the movie. That may partly be an artifact of the cuts, though - the English-dubbed print screened is half an hour shorter than the Italian version.

Full review at EFC.

The School That Couldn't Scream (aka What Have They Done To Solange?, Cosa avete fatto a Solange?)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 26 May 2007 at the Brattle Theatre (Welcome to the Grindhouse)

There's something about The School That Couldn't Scream that remains oddly restrained, even as it happily heaps on more and more lurid subject matter. Slasher films have always had a peculiar moral code, though, and it's just a question of whether this one is more or less peculiar than others.

It starts out innocently enough, with teenager Elizabeth Seccles (Cristina Galbo) and her gymnastics teacher Enrico "Henry" Rosseni (Fabio Testi) making out in a canoe. Elizabeth thinks she sees something strange, but when they row to the riverbank to investigate, they find nothing. What they just missed was one of Elizabeth's classmates getting murdered, and when Henry stops by that spot on his way to class the next morning because he sees police cars, Scotland Yard becomes suspicious. Strangely enough, his wife Herta (Karin Baal) never does, and even helps him as he tries to clear his name. What they eventually discover is that the mounting victims shared a connection to a younger girl at another school named Solange (Camille Keaton), who may hold the key to what's going on.

The materials for an enjoyably trashy mystery movie are all here, and the problem may be that this movie identifies itself as a mystery rather than a thriller or what would later become known as a slasher movie. It's not that I necessarily want there to be more exploitation or graphic violence; it's that by framing it as a murder mystery, the writers wind up focusing on Henry, who has an alibi from the start. More visceral thrills would probably come from focusing on the girls, as they are the ones that could potentially be knocked off at any moment. This may be the fault of adhering too closely to the source material: I haven't read Edgar Wallace's The Clue of the New Pin, but it certainly sounds more like a detective novel than something pulpy. It's as though the filmmakers got caught between a genteel English detective story and a lurid Italian giallo and wound up doing a mediocre job on both.

Full review at EFC.

Paranoia (Orgasmo)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 29 May 2007 at the Brattle Theatre (Welcome to the Grindhouse)

Paranoia (or Orgasmo, its original Italian name) could almost be a play, so tightly does it focus on its core set of characters. This allows it to be single-minded in slowly turning the screw on its main character, working the audience's nerves without distraction.

Kathryn West (Carroll Baker) arrives in Italy a recent widow, remembered in New York more as a gold-digger than a once-promising artist. She's not quite welcomed to her new villa with open arms by longtime housekeeper Teresa (Lilla Brignone), and defying her is part of the reason she opens the house to Peter Donovan (Lou Castel), a handsome expatriot American. Sparks quickly fly, but threaten to fizzle when she sees him with sultry Eva (Colette Descombes). Not to worry, though - she's his sister. Yeah, that's it. His sister.

Kathryn's an interesting character, and Carroll Baker is interesting casting, because the temptation might be to go with someone younger, more obviously a trophy wife. If that's what Kathryn is, she's at least put some time in for her inheritance. Yeah, she's connecting with with Peter kind of fast, but even with as little as Kathryn begrudgingly says about her marriage, it doesn't seem unreasonable that she's ready for somebody to see her that way. She may have genuinely loved her husband, but she spent her youth on him and maybe it was a while since they'd been intimate. You can read a lot into her words and actions, even when she's saying that the details of her marriage are no-one's business but her own.

Full review at EFC.

Autopsy (Macchie Solari)

N/A (out of four)
Seen 29 May 2007 at the Brattle Theatre (Welcome to the Grindhouse)

Yeah, this knocked me out. Too bad; it looked pretty good.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Snow Cake

Snow Cake is one of those movies that doesn't really seem to be doing a lot wrong, but never really captured my attention. I was thinking of a lot of things that had nothing to do with the movie while watching it, such as what Sigourney Weaver is doing in this part.

Honestly - are there so few parts available for a woman in her fifties that she winds up in this, playing an autistic character who seldom seems like more than a series of mannerisms? It's not a bad performance, and I imagine the part looks more interesting than ____'s strong-willed mother/grandmother, but there's really not that much to Linda. Part of it's the movie star thing; seeing someone who has been one of the strongest, most interesting women on-screen for thirty years all but imitating a child plays havoc with one's image, but that would be okay if Weaver had a character interesting enough to overcome that baggage (although I feel kind of strange saying that Ellen Ripley is "baggage").

Ah, well. I just noticed that the last of my five-for-$33 passes at Landmark has to be used by Thursday; probably should have used one on Paprika or this. Guess I'm seeing Paris, Je t'aime this week.

Snow Cake

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 3 June 2007 at Landmark Kendall Square #9 (first-run)

Alan Rickman is an underappreciated treasure. It sounds like an odd thing to say, because he's been a quite memorable part of some huge hits, but movies where he's the feature attraction appear and disappear quickly and quietly (if they do that; ask EFC writer Jason Whyte about the distribution of The Search for John Gissing sometime). Snow Cake isn't that great a movie, but you'd think Rickman and Sigourney Weaver would at least draw some notice.

Rickman plays Alex Hughes, just out of jail and just arrived in northern Ontario, aiming to drive to Winnipeg to meet an old friend. On the way, he meets Vivienne Freeman (Emily Hampshire), a young wannabe writer looking for a ride to Wawa. The chatty Vivienne eventually gets under the taciturn Alex's skin, and just as they're arriving in town, a semi plows into the rental car. Afterward, a dazed Alex feels the need to visit Vivienne's mother Linda (Sigourney Weaver), only to find that she's a high-functioning autistic who depends on Vivienne for many everyday difficulties. He agrees to stay long enough to take out the garbage on Tuesday, but it's not all bad; Linda's neighbor Maggie (Carrie-Anne Moss) seems pretty nice.

Rickman is excellent. As always, his deep voice with a bit of a sneer just drips sarcasm when it's called for, but that's not all he's called on to do. His bafflement at Linda's behavior is something we share, and it evolves to acceptance without ever losing track of how difficult Linda can be. There's a lot of guilt wrapped up in the character, but Rickman doesn't simply spend the movie hunched over in self-pity. Underneath Alex's brusque exterior is a caring person, and Rickman knows how to play guilty without being paralyzed.

Full review at EFC.

Saturday, June 02, 2007


I opted to pass on the Brattle Anime Marathon today; I felt a little out of place at the last one, in part because anime is not my strongest area of geek expertise - just because I gave my niece a Totoro stuffed toy for Christmas and got a reaction of "I'm sure Dagny will love her Japanese... bunny... thing" doesn't mean that I am not incredibly ignorant when compared to those who do eat, drink, and sleep this stuff (I strongly suspect that the trivia question about Survive Style 5+ was throwing me a bone). I like anime in large part because it's a great source for imaginative science fiction; while that's not the only anime I like, the form itself doesn't have much more special appeal to me than Japanese pop culture or animation in general.

Besides, I had a strong feeling that I wasn't going to make it to the end awake, and I also wanted to catch two Red Sox games and the two Zhang Yimou films that the Brattle would be showing after the anime folks clear out tomorrow. There's only so much weekend to do that and get the grocery shopping done and actually get rested up for another work week. So I made up for it, a little, by catching Paprika at Kendall Square. Yeah, it's the Chlotrudis Monday night movie, but... Zhang Yimou again. I'm sadly lacking in seeing Zhang films that don't involve punching and kicking and hacking at each other with swords, and mean to correct that while the Brattle is showing them.

In short: Pretty darn great, enough that I can forgive certain plot holes a truck could be driven through (and I'm not generally forgiving that way). In long...


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 2 June 2007 at Landmark Kendall Square #3 (first-run)

That star rating generally indicates that Paprika is a nearly perfect film, which I'll admit isn't the case. Here's the thing, though - there is just so much good stuff crammed into it that I'm willing to overlook that. It's a dense, beautiful piece of work that I love despite its faults.

It initially looks like an ordinary murder mystery, albeit one with a sci-fi twist, as Detective Toshimi Konakawa's dreams lead him to a confrontation with the unknown target of his investigation. The twist is that he's being shadowed by "Paprika", a young woman who is able to enter his dreams with the "DC Mini" headset. But it turns out there's another mystery: The developers of the DC Mini have discovered that some of their prototypes - unapproved as yet - have been stolen. Attractive-but-severe Atsuko Chiba, overweight, immature genius Kosaku Tokia, handsome Morio Osanai, and diminutive lab chief Torataro Shima follow a trail that leads them to Tokia's assistant Himuro, but the technology has become increasingly dangerous, as now the dreams and even waking moments of anyone who has used it (which includes the entire research team) can be invaded, and one dream in particular is driving them mad. The wheelchair-bound chairman of the lab, Seijiro Inui, is calling the DC Mini and science in general an affront to nature and is shutting the program down.

A lot happens in this movie. Claiming that a film feels longer than its running time is often an indication that it drags, but here it's a testament to adapter/director Satoshi Kon's efficiency and good pacing: Despite bringing the film in at a tight ninety minutes, he has plenty of time for the mystery to take several twists and turns and for a side plot like the origins of Konakawa's cinema-influenced nightmares to play out. He's also a master of this animated medium, and as such frequently allows his visuals to carry the movie. Time is never wasted describing with words what the audience can clearly see.

And what the audience can see is glorious. The images are stunning, full of innocent images made dangerous and dangerous situations shot through with whimsy. Kon fills his disturbed dream worlds with intricate parades and detailed crowds that fill the entire screen, but seldom falls prey to self-indulgence. Rather than linger too long on these painstakingly realized sights, he quickly has Paprika or the other characters doing something that advances the story rather than just gawking along with the audience. The style is mostly hand-drawn, although there are digital techniques used at appropriate times: A virtual-reality bar is appropriately slick and shiny, tracking shots don't contrast too much with the rest of the movie's look. The character design (credited to Masashi Ando) is very nice, and flexible to boot: Paprika undergoes an impressive number of transformations, and a younger Konakawa is instantly recognizable. Normally-proportioned characters like Paprika, Chiba, and Konakawa exist seamlessly next to the half-sized Shima and gargantuan Tokia. Maybe Tokia belongs to the former category, though; as much as Kon tends to show him as being to big for elevators or chairs, he's one of the most realistically drawn overweight animated characters I can remember seeing; his weight seems to hang properly, rather than being perfectly rounded.

The voice acting is, as far as I can tell not speaking Japanese, very good. Even serious, adult-oriented animated films from Japan can sometimes lean heavily on very enthusiastic line readings, that's extremely rare here. Only Akio Otsuka really gets to indulge in that, and it's not screaming; Konakawa's film-inspired dreams lend themselves to a slightly stylized delivery by the end, which got knowing and appreciative laughs from the audience. The most impressive job requires a slight spoiler warning - it's something revealed early on in the film, but also something I appreciated not knowing beforehand, so jump to the next paragraph if you want to stay safe. Megumi Hayashibara is excellent in what turns out to be a dual role of both Dr. Chiba and Paprika; she's got a strong, assertive delivery as Chiba but doesn't sound less intelligent when she raises her voice a register to give Paprika a younger, more playful sound. If I can get back to character design for a second, Kon and Ando give these characters very distinct looks, but transition scenes seem very natural. All those factors make Paprika an impressive film, but far from a perfect one. The grandiose climax is in some ways more aggravating than awe-inspiring; I'm not quite sure whether it took place in reality or a dream world, and saying that it doesn't really matter is hard on my hard-science-fiction-loving soul. It's also kind of unnecessary; the resolution to Konakawa's story shows we don't need something apocalyptic to feel excited and, besides, aren't we all a little desensitized to seeing Tokyo get leveled by now? The villain has at least two different and mutually exclusive motivations given at various points. And though Kon supposedly cut a lot of technobabble from Yasutaka Tustsui's original novel, there's a lot left in, and I know just enough science for to think they should have stopped while they were ahead.

That said, the technobabble does get beautifully skewered in one scene where the characters (and audience) are alarmed by the transition from pseudo-scientific nonsense to flat-out aphasia. And even if the film doesn't seem to outright dismiss the emotion, it never forces a scientist or engineer to say "we were wrong to attempt to learn new things and develop new therapeutic technologies; doing that is just a dangerous act of hubris, since there are Things Man Was Not Meant To Know." Not making the science fiction fans in the audience gag on that in order to make it an easy fable is worth half a star by itself.

Nearly perfect? No. But I love Paprika dearly; I can't think of another movie to come out in the U.S. (so far) this year that I enjoy more.

(Originally at EFC)