Thursday, October 16, 2008

Movie Watch-a-Thon: Don't Go in the House, Rolling Thunder, Darker than Amber, Riot on Sunset Strip, Truck Turner

Watch-a-thon Tally: 5 Brattle Films, 5 other films.

I don't think I'm winning the Movie Watch-a-Thon contests this year. My current tally is the five movies at the Brattle listed below and five at other theaters, and the month is already halfway past. I've got no sponsors because I haven't felt good about asking people for money - everybody I know outside of work has been talking about not having any money, and the last month or two at work has seen enough emails asking for donations that people were openly grumbling when another one arrived, so I might want to lay low there.

That leaves you guys. I've looked at my hit counters - there are dozens of readers here. Anybody who would like to make a donation to help the Brattle Theatre, you can use this link (or click on the widgets on this post and the sidebar). A couple years ago, when the first Movie-Watch-a-Thon took place, I put an article up on eFilmCritic and Hollywood Bitchslap about why the Brattle matters even if you've never been close to Boston; not much has changed since then.

Anyway: Give generously if you can. If you've been writing me about advertising or link exchanges, this would be a really fine way to get me to actually consider it. And if you're in the area, stop by The Brattle; they've got Carole Lombard movies this coming weekend, and I'm certain we'll see Evil Dead 2 for Halloween.

Don't Go in the House

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 3 October 2008 at The Brattle Theater (Return to the Grindhouse)

There are certain movies that home video just doesn't do justice, because even the best high-definition transfer and mastering can't quite capture the exquisite photography, or the way a larger-than-life image captures a larger-than-life performance, or how an entire audience finds itself in sync, jumping in fear or laughing at the same time. Then there's this one, which is best seen in a packed theater because it really doesn't get any better than the moment when the killer and a victim are standing outside the door and someone in the audience says "hey, don't go in the house."

The killer is Donny Kohler (Dan Grimaldi); he hears voices and is drawn to fire. His mother would burn him to punish him as a child, he currently works at the city incinerator, and when his mother dies, he decides to make one of their house's rooms into an oven, where he can roast girls with a flamethrower. After a few days of this, his co-worker and would-be buddy Bobby (Robert Osth) starts to wonder why he's not coming into work.

For all that one expects little from this sort of film, it consistently manages to deliver less. Forget wanting anything like good acting or an interesting story; Don't Go in the House is disappointing in terms of simple exploitation trashiness. It peaks much too early, with Donny's first kill; that scene combines nudity, chains, and fire effects that aren't bad for the period and budget at all. It's an effective torture porn moment, a generation before the term would be coined, but filmmaker Joseph Ellison doesn't have anywhere to go from there; Donny's a one-trick pony and mostly does that trick off-screen afterward.

Absent a parade of fire, blood, and skin, we're forced to try and enjoy the movie on the merits of such things as story, acting, and dialog, and that's just a disaster. People in this movie talk in a way that not only fails to stick in one's mind, but makes one worry that it might be realistic, with our own conversation being that bland. The acting has a lot of the same properties, with everybody tying so hard to act like ordinary people that they instead come across as half-hearted imitations.

There is, admittedly, a bit of mean-spirited fun to be had mocking a movie like this, especially when it devotes a long scene to outfitting Donny in now very dated fashions. That might be said to give the movie undue credit, though - this was a bad movie from the start, not one which has turned rotten with time.

Also at HBS, along with two other reviews.

Rolling Thunder

* * * (out of four)
Seen 5 October 2008 at The Brattle Theater (Return to the Grindhouse)

Given the people involved in Rolling Thunder, along with its generally decent quality and good reputation, it's kind of surprising that this movie has yet to get a DVD release, at least in the US. It was produced by Lawrence Gordon, with a screenplay by Paul Schrader. William Devane has worked steadily, and people like Tommy Lee Jones. Quentin Tarantino named his short-lived distribution label after it. And yet, the only easy option for seeing it is streaming via Netflix.

(Unless you're lucky enough to have a local theater that books oddball films every once in a while. In which case, make sure they get your support.)

In 1973, a group of American prisoners of war returned home to Texas from Vietnam. Major Charles Rane (William Devane) has been gone for seven years. The town tries to make him feel welcome back, gifting him with a new car and a silver dollar for every day he spent in captivity. At first, things are simply uncomfortable; his son doesn't recognize him and his wife Janet (Lisa Blake Richards) has grown close to divorced sheriff Cliff (Lawrason Driscoll) in that time away. That's before a group of thugs come over, wanting the money. They put him in the hospital and others in the grave, but probably don't give the proper amount of thought to how tough and determined someone who's survived more than half a decade of torture might be.

For a small movie likely marketed more for action than emotion, Rolling Thunder feels remarkably genuine. The Rane household doesn't devolve into a bunch of screaming matches, and for all that people are hurt and uncomfortable, there's not much blame thrown around - Janet and Cliff are never portrayed as bad people. The vets we see broken and haunted but functional, even if there is something angry and violent looking for a way to lash out not far under the surface. A character like Linda Forchet (Linda Haynes), the self-described "groupie" who attaches herself to Rane, is built up as someone who has an existence beyond falling in love with him.

Having a strong core of actors in the lead helps. Devane anchors the movie as Rane; there are a lot of earnest dramas about soldiers returning home from war that don't feature a performance as good as Devane's. He's a soldier through and through, so he's always tightly controlled, but he does a fine job of showing just how close to madness Rane's experience has left him. Tommy Lee Jones has a similar, though smaller, part - his Johnny Vohden outwardly seems a little less angry, but toward the end, there's often a look on his face that says he is really enjoying the chance to do some violence. Linda Haynes is quite good here, convincing us that her character has a history of her own. The script tells us that she's getting a little old for the cycle her personal life is in, but Haynes convinces us that Linda Forchet knows it. It's too bad she didn't have a longer career, and perhaps can be attributed in part to Twentieth Century Fox offloading Rolling Thunder onto a smaller company; if this got a studio push rather than just playing in drive-ins and grindhouses, then maybe she gets cast in a higher class of movie and doesn't leave Hollywood relatively young.

For all it does well, the movie isn't perfect. Subplots have a peculiar tendency to dead-end, sometimes literally. Other times it just feels like director John Flynn and editor Frank Keller were just relentless about clipping what they felt was non-essential, right through the very quick jump to the end credits. It almost feels like Schrader had a more ambitious film in mind, even though it mostly got boiled down to a revenge thriller.

Which isn't so bad; it's a good revenge thriller, with tough but vulnerable heroes and nasty villains. There's plenty of blood for those who want it, including a couple of examples of why one should not engage in a close-quarters fight with a trained soldier who has a prosthetic hook for a hand (one of which should make the male members of the audience involuntarily wince). The last action set-piece is especially well-done, with the extra layer of grit and grime that comes from taking place in a Mexican brothel.

It's a real shame Rolling Thunder is so tough to find as of this writing. It's mostly a bit of violent pulp, sure, but it's very well made violent pulp that aspires to be more. A lot of B-movies have ambitions to rise above their station; this one actually manages it on occasion.

Also at HBS.

Darker Than Amber

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 7 October 2008 at The Brattle Theater (Return to the Grindhouse)

Darker than Amber has a place in cinematic history, though probably not the sort its producers intended. They likely thought they were starting a franchise of films based on John D. MacDonald's novels, from the way some actors were billed: A couple of minor, peripheral characters are highlighted, and the opening titles starts with the oddly-ordered "Travis McGee is Rod Taylor". Instead, it got an extremely limited release and is now notable as the film which inspired Bruce Lee to hire Robert Clouse to direct Enter the Dragon.

One can tell it deserves better right from the start, when a group of toughs drive a pretty but defiant girl to a bridge and throw her over. A weight drags her to the bottom, but not before snagging the fishing line of a couple men stationed underneath the bridge. The younger man dives in after her. He's Travis McGee, and his companion is Meyer (Theodore Bikel). They take her back to McGee's houseboat, where the girl (Suzy Kendall) initially gives her name as Jane Doe, although after a while she opens up a bit to tell them it's Evangeline. The men who tried to kill her are still out there, of course, and once they realize she's not dead, McGee's going to have his work cut out for him.

Travis McGee isn't quite a private detective - he describes his business to Vangie as "finding lost things", which could put him in the maritime salvage line - but he does come out of the classic Philip Marlowe knight-errant mold. He seems to have some money: He drives a classic Rolls Royce ("Miss Agnes") when on land, and never seems to lack resources in hunting Vangie's pursuers down, but he's not shy about bruising his knuckles, either. Rod Taylor is a nice fit for the part; he's weathered but still has a sort of youthful vitality to him. He spent much of his career as a character actor, and that carries over to his Travis McGee - Taylor captures the laid-back vibe of the character, giving him enough personality and charm that we believe he can be interesting in any situation, while not making McGee larger than life so that he would stick out in a bad way or push other characters off the screen.

And the rest of the cast does deserve watching. I suspect James Booth and Jane Russell would have had more to do if other Travis McGee stories were adapted - Booth plays Burk, the cranky old Scot whose skiff McGee and Meyer were using when Vangie dropped into their lives, while Russell's Alabama Tigress is a widow whose yacht has been hosting the same party for a year and a half - but they don't get much to do here. Theodore Bikel's Meyer is McGee's boatmate and best friend (and, frequently, bartender), perhaps even more laid back but still a good man to have on your side. William Smith is a bulked-up psychotic monster, all intensity and brute force to counter Rod Taylor's cool confidence.

The movie star here is Suzy Kendall, though - we get to see her spitting in Smith's face before we're gobsmacked with just how beautiful she is. She draws eyes to her like a magnet, and it's always worth it. There are some scenes where she's playing excited by the promise of adventure, but the bulk of it is her playing Vangie as something of a reluctant femme fatale. She manages to charm us, making her default state sexy and fun, even though we've seen what kind of mess she's been a part of.

The scene that best illustrates that - a quick flashback while Vangie evades McGee's questions - is as much a testament to director Robert Clouse's skill as hers (it's a great editing choice). Enter the Dragon would later pigeonhole him as a martial-arts director, and you can see the beginnings of that in the fight scenes: It's American-style fist-fights, but they look and feel like real fights, complete with bone-crunching action. That's not all he's got going for him - he's got good timing, knows how to make bad guys appear threatening even when they're just lurking around the edges of the screen, and always manages to give the audience something interesting to look at, even though he doesn't go for a particularly stylized look.

Darker Than Amber came and went quickly during its original release, and has seldom been seen since, which is a real shame - it's a very impressive crime movie. It's a pity it never saw the same sort of success as its source material.

Also at HBS.

Riot on Sunset Strip

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 9 October 2008 at The Brattle Theater (Return to the Grindhouse)

It is perhaps fitting that Riot on Sunset Strip occasionally feels trapped between generations. This 1967 quickie - made to reference recent confrontations between Hollywood police and the local youth - is so earnestly trying its best to be fair that it sometimes doesn't seem to recognize just how little its parts fit together.

Consider its opening narration, something pulled out of a moralizing crime story of the forties and fifties. It introduces the teenagers and college kids who spend their evenings hanging out on the Sunset Strip - in booming, stentorian tones - as if they are some sort of alien culture, like subjects in an educational film of some sort. It's clearly speaking to the older people in the audience, but if that's the case, why feature so much music from bands like The Standells, The Chocolate Watchband, and The Enemies? To appeal to everyone, of course, but it serves to illustrate one of the central problems of the era - the constant tendency to approach the issues of the 1960s with a 1940s mindset which is so obviously out of place.

(Fun musical facts: The lead singer for The Chocolate Watchband was on-hand to introduce the film at its Cambridge, MA screening - because he teaches at Harvard these days. He mentioned that no-one on set thought much of The Enemies, who would soon disband and reform as Three Dog Night)

The movie itself can perhaps be described as affectionately alarmist. Meet Andy (Mimsy Farmer), the pretty good girl who moved to Los Angeles a week ago. When she and her friends get pulled in for a curfew violation, she opts to call a family friend she hasn't seen in four years rather than her drunk of a mother. Her father is Lt. Walt Lorimer (Aldo Ray), the officer who has the job of keeping the peace in that part of Los Angeles, trying to balance the college kids' pledges to police themselves with the older merchants who want a crackdown on the "longhairs" they see as a threat to their higher-end businesses. Father and daughter haven't seen each other in years, either, and aren't going to until a party that she attends turns ugly.

Riot on Sunset Strip is not particularly well-crafted in any facet, which is to be expected from something thrown together in a month and a half. The filmmakers seem to be earnest about the whole thing, which gives the movie the makings of a genuine camp classic. It veers wildly between points of view - it will present the kids as intelligent and reasonable in one reel and then have Andy's friend Liz-Ann absolutely inarticulate in the next - but its heart always seems to be in the right place. I'm not sure whether the script is all over the place or if it's the direction; writer Orville Hampton actually does a decent job of building a story that goes from point A to B to C smoothly, but much of the dialog involved clanks, and neither director nor Arthur Dreifuss nor the actors gets much out of the script. Even the best-known and most experienced, Aldo Ray, is just kind of there.

Except, that is, for Mimsy Farmer. I won't lie to you... This isn't great acting, but one extended sequence is in the top tier of on-screen hotness. Yes, you may feel a little guilty because this is after some ne'er-do-wells slipping some LSD into Andy's soda and it doesn't end well to say the least, but as hilariously over-the-top as her performance is, it drips more raw sex than many scenes where an actress actually undresses. Laurie Mock's manic, cackling, and high-as-a-kite Liz-Ann isn't far behind it, either.

Indeed, for all that Riot on Sunset Strip is often laughable when it's trying to say something intelligent and conciliatory about the late-1960s generation gap, it frequently manages to score big when it just goes for something visceral, whether that be "teen" sexuality or musical performances. It's no great movie, but it's got its pleasures, even if they are simple ones.

Also at HBS.

Truck Turner

* * * (out of four)
Seen 9 October 2008 at The Brattle Theater (Return to the Grindhouse)

I want to make this very clear: When I, at some future time, tell people that they've gotta see Truck Turner, I will be doing it because I really like Truck Turner. Not because I particularly like blaxploitation (most of what I've seen is pretty awful), but because this is a fun action movie. Granted, some of its exuberance is inappropriate at best coming out of my very white mouth, but I can dig the energy even if I can't duplicate it.

Mac "Truck" Turner (Isaac Hayes) was a pro football player until he blew out his knee; now he's a skip tracer; he and partner Jerry (Alan Weeks) mostly work for bail bondsman Nate Dinwiddle (Sam Laws). His girlfriend Annie (Annazette Chase) has just spent thirty days behind bars for shoplifting. It ain't a great life, but it's not a bad one, until Truck and Jerry go after pimp Gator Johnson (Paul Harris), and wid up taking him down rather than bringing him in. His woman Dorrinda (Nichelle Nichols) is furious, and puts a price on Truck's head. Most who would collect are no match for Truck, but king pimp Harvard Blue (Yaphet Kotto) might have what it takes.

Isaac Hayes was about as cool as a man could be, and Truck Turner frequently takes on his personality. Truck is no-nonsense when it comes to his work, but personable and always ready to crack a joke. Most of the time he's a big teddy bear, but he's quite capable of summoning a ton of power, so that there's no question of who's the baddest man in the room. He doesn't cry, but he's got a big heart. Truck is fun to watch because he doesn't vary too far from Hayes's own persona. And just in case you weren't sure this was Hayes's movie, he contributes a great, funky score, at least as good as his more famous work on Shaft.

Hayes alone would be a lot of fun, but the rest of the cast certainly manages to pull their own weight. Alan Weeks and Sam Laws are at their best when cutting it up with Hayes, and Anazette Chase is pretty good as Annie. She's the girlfriend, not there for much more, but Chase makes her seem like Annie's got a reason for existing outside of being threatened by the men after Truck. Scatman Crothers shows up. And Yaphet Kotto is fantastic as usual, making both a grand entrance and exit, giving Truck one heck of a worthy adversary.

And then there's Nichelle Nichols. I've seen her character of Dorrinda described as a "madam", but let's not be sexist about it: She's a full-on pimp. Those who only know Nichols from Star Trek (that is to say, everybody) will probably get a big kick out of her sleazing it up as the movie's villain. She goes as far over the top as anybody, and it's a gas. The funeral scene is a garish riot, although it's not long after that the movie starts displaying a real mean streak. Director Jonathan Kaplan handle that well - when it's time to get nasty, he lets you know playtime is over without making it seem like we've stumbled into another movie.

What's not to like? You've got Isaac Hayes being Isaac Hayes, Yaphet Kotto larger than life, and Lt. Uhura as a nasty mack. Even if it weren't a pretty darn enjoyable action movie, it's definite "you gotta see it" stuff.

Also at HBS, along with one other review.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Boston Film Festival: Appaloosa

I have to admit, I came pretty close to completely forgetting about the Boston Film Festival this year. That wasn't always the case; the BFF used to be a week and a weekend of going into work early so I could get out in time to make an afternoon show, running or taking the Green Line between Copley Square and Boston Common, and buying books of ten tickets even if I wasn't exactly what you'd call gainfully employed. Then it changed hands, they started scrambling to book anything (mostly locally-filmed mediocrity that the people running it knew from the Massachusetts Film Office), and the whole thing began to feel much more amateur hour.

This year, I actually liked the look of much of the lineup, but it seemed so low-profile - the Globe no longer puts it at the front of their Sunday movie section, for instance - that by the time I realized that it was that weekend, I had already bought tickets to see a ballgame in New York on Saturday, and then wound up working late for the rest of the festival.

For Appaloosa, they had Robert B. Parker, who wrote the original novel, as a guest, along with producer and screenwriter Robert Knott. I like Parker; he's got this thing going where he's self-deprecating, but winks while he does it to show that, in fact, he's got quite a bit of pride in his work. It could seem phony, but he was doing it next to the people of the Boston Film Festival, and even though Parker's persona is probably more of an act than theirs, they just feel more self-serving. They had the Q&A conducted by Joyce Kulhawik, a popular local TV-news personality who was recently dropped by her station, so it wound up feeling like a puffy entertainment piece; the questions were just as rote and uninteresting as the usual festival Q&A, but without the illusion of actual curiosity.

I probably mentioned it last year and the year before, but the staff just does not know how to work a room like the folks at the other festivals I attend. I think the key point is that they never seem to be talking about movies, as opposed to themselves. You go to Fantasia, and the people introducing the films and filmmakers will connect what you're about to see to other great pictures; the BFF people will say how hard they worked to put it together. Not that they don't at other festivals; it's just that where IFFB or Fantasia or a number of other festivals feel like they're about connecting audiences to movies and filmmakers, BFF gives off the impression that these folks want to be people who run a film festival. That's probably a totally unfair impression, but it's pretty inescapable.

Anyway, speaking of festivals, here's the last reviews of movies I saw at Fantasia: Gangster VIP, May 18th, From Within, Babysitter Wanted, Not Your Typical Bigfoot Movie, Seven Days, 4bia, Sasori, Tunnel Rats, Voice of a Murderer, and Pig Hunt. Still got a bunch of screeners from that and Fantastic Fest, but who knows how many of them I'll get to around the Brattle's Watch-a-thon. But that's the next post...


* * * (out of four)
Seen 12 September 2008 at Landmark Kendall Square #2 (Boston Film Festival)

It strikes me that westerns, as a type of film, are in about the same place science fiction was a few decades ago: They don't fit on a studio's balance sheet very well (kind of expensive to do right, not enough of an audience to do often), so only one or two make their ways to the multiplexes each year. There, they have the unenviable task of satisfying the fan who has been waiting for this annual treat and justifying their existence to the moviegoer who sees it as a simplistic genre that people grow out of.

Appaloosa is a good western that, at least initially, is unfairly dragged down by the pressure placed upon every new western to be exceptional. As the film opens and gets moving, one might wonder "why this movie? What is it about Appaloosa that motivated producers to invest in the production?" It seems to be made of standard parts: The old marshal is killed by villainous rancher Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons) and his men; the town of Appaloosa hires a pair of freelance peacekeepers to bring them to justice. New sheriff Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and his deputy Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) are certainly good with their guns, although they're uncomfortably authoritarian, enforcing the law because that pays better than breaking it - although that seems to change when widow Allison French (Renee Zellwegger) comes to town.

That's when some interesting things start happening. She gravitates toward Virgil, even though Everett has also shown interest. We see Virgil snap, seemingly out of nowhere, and how much he needs Everett around to keep him on an even keel. And then, when Bragg's trial does not put an end to things, we see what really makes Allison tick.

It is what goes on between Virgil, Everett, and Allison that forms the heart of the movie, and makes it a fine example of the western. Robert Parker, who wrote the original novel, described it as a love story between two heterosexual men, and though that description may earn some snickers, it's a fair one. Virgil and Everett are entangled by respect and loyalty rather than any kind of romantic or sexual attraction, but we see how well they function together, and how in some ways they need each other, with Everett able to rein Virgil in and Virgil supplying Everett with direction.

Then you bring Allison into the picture, and while on one level she is the woman who throws a monkey wrench into the men's unsworn brotherhood, she also embodies what I find to be the basic theme of the western: Civilized people in an environment that is, effectively, lawless. Allison keenly recognizes that she's in a world where might often makes right and a woman on her own doesn't have many options. The ones she chooses to exercise are not necessarily admirable - though they're not the obvious, simple ones you might initially suspect - but they're understandable and make her an interesting figure beyond how she affects the plot.

It's a nice performance by Renee Zellweger: She hits on a lot of familiar characteristics of women in westerns - the likable ones, the widows who probably belong someplace finer - and manages to make Allison somewhat sympathetic while still being manipulative. Ed Harris is playing a rather simpler character, and what he's doing doesn't look like much at first, just grunting out tough-guy dialog (though he does that very well indeed). It's not until Allison starts to get in Virgil's head that we see a whole lot in the way of nuance, and even then, the emphasis is on how Virgil is at heart a simple man, not made for this sort of confusion. Viggo Mortensen gets to do more from the beginning - Everett's our narrator, and though he isn't much more complicated than Virgil, he's smarter, and even though he doesn't say much, we can always see him assessing the situation.

With the main characters going on, the other actors seem almost underused: The likes of James Gammon and Timothy Spall are, quite frankly, overkill as the merchants who hire Virgil and Everett. It's a pleasure to see Lance Henriksen show up midway through, though, as a hired gun who may be Cole's equal but doesn't feel a particular need to brag about it; he's made for parts like this. Jeremy Irons is a villain whom I'd like to have seen as a more active participant - he makes a good chief thug and manages to seem even more sadistic when he steps away from simple violence.

In addition to starring, Ed Harris co-wrote on the screenplay and directs. He does a nice job of portraying how isolated the various outposts in the west were, and how a Randall Bragg or a Virgil Cole can become an autocrat within the borders of the United States. For all that the film is about the relationships between Virgil, Everett, and Allison, Harris gives us a few nice gunfights - mostly of the quick-draw variety, but a couple are more substantial.

This is clearly a labor of love for Ed Harris - heck, he even performs one of the songs over the end credits. He's one of the most dependably solid actors out there, so it's hardly any surprise that he does good work behind the camera as well.

Also at HBS, along with one other review.