Thursday, April 20, 2017

April Quick Picks and Pans

Gimme Danger (2016) Jim Jarmusch’s no frills documentary chronicles the rise and fall of seminal proto-punk band The Stooges, featuring archival footage and interviews with Iggy Pop and the surviving band members. The film traces Iggy’s humble beginnings in a Michigan trailer park, and covers his early days as a drummer for a high school rock band in the mid-60s. Gimme Danger allots equal time to his other bandmates, as we learn about the formation of The Stooges. Jarmusch’s film avoids the pitfalls of lesser rock documentaries, by focusing on the root of The Stooges’ music, and what made their songs unique. Instead of dwelling on the band’s downside, we get a three-dimensional portrait of the musicians and a group that was under-appreciated in its time, but now considered one of the most influential. Some favorite moments are a summation of Iggy’s songwriting ethos, adopted (believe it or not) from the Howdy Doody show (“25 words or less”), and an anecdote recounting when one of the band members allegedly called ‘The Three Stooges’ founding member Moe Howard seeking approval for their group’s name. It’s a must-watch for punk fans of all generations.

Rating: ****. Available on DVD and Amazon Video

City of Ember (2008) This blatant attempt to be the Next Big Thing in the wake of the Harry Potter franchise shows much promise, but ultimately fizzles. Director Gil Kenan and writer Caroline Thompson (based on Jeanne Duprau’s novel) set up a fascinating premise. After an unspecified worldwide cataclysm, an underground city is constructed and sealed, along with its occupants, for 200 years. Something goes wrong after two centuries, and the city begins to fall apart. It’s up to two young Ember residents, Lina and Doon (Saoirse Ronan     and Harry Treadaway) to uncover the city’s secrets, and find a way to save everyone before the generator and pipes fail. The best part of the film is its depiction of an imaginative subterranean city and its culture, which hasn’t exactly thrived as much as survived. Bill Murray is good as Mayor Cole, the self-centered leader of the dying underground metropolis. Unfortunately, many of the characters, especially the leads, are underdeveloped. The talents of other veteran actors (Tim Robbins, Mary Kay Place and Martin Landau) are mostly wasted. Atmosphere and setting go a long way to carry the picture, but it runs out of steam by the derivative, effects-laden third act.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD

Nightmare Castle (aka: The Faceless Monster) (1965) Barbara Steele is the main draw in this low budget Italian production, playing a dual role. Steele appears as Muriel Arrowsmith, a woman married to a cruel nobleman (Paul Muller). They live in her family castle, where he conducts a series of evil experiments. After Muriel and her lover are tortured to death by her sadistic husband, he plots to take the castle away from Muriel’s mentally unstable sister Jenny (also played by Steele). Muriel exacts her revenge from beyond the grave, using Jenny as a medium. The film suffers from corny dialogue and sub-par production values, as well as a sloth-like pace. Things pick up somewhat for the vengeful ghost-filled ending, but it’s not enough to entirely redeem the movie.

Rating: **½. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Video

The Greasy Strangler (2016) If nothing else, director/co-writer Jim Hosking’s The Greasy Strangler lives up to its lurid title – a guy covered in a thick coating of grease strangles people. Hosking goes out of his way to disgust audiences in every scene, featuring repulsive characters doing repulsive things. You have to admire it on some basic level for achieving its modest goals so well, but that doesn’t make the film any easier to endure. The nominal story concerns the contentious relationship between Big Ronnie, an elderly man (and greasy food enthusiast), and Big Brayden, his middle-aged son (played by Michael St. Michaels and Sky Elobar, respectively). They run a daytime tour, taking people around the city to view some sites alleged to be connected with disco celebrities. By night, Big Ronnie roams the streets, searching for his next victim. If you’re looking for something to test your gag reflexes, you’ve come to the right place. All others might want to steer clear. Hosking and crew were obviously gunning for the late-night gross out crowd with this one, but you’re better off seeing an early John Waters or Herschell Gordon Lewis movie instead.

Rating: **. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Video

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