Wednesday, March 27, 2013

March Quick Picks and Pans

Wake in Fright (1971) This obscure drama from Australia, directed by Ted Kotcheff and written by Evan Jones (based on a novel by Kenneth Cook), was thought to be lost for years until a copy recently surfaced.  Thankfully, it’s now available on DVD for all to watch and debate.  It’s a fascinating, disorienting portrayal of one man’s bewildering, downward spiral.  Gary Bond plays John Grant, a vacationing schoolteacher on his way to Sydney to visit his girlfriend.  After he loses his money in the small outback town of Bundanyabba, he plunges headfirst into a nightmare he can’t escape. The tension is palpable in the early scenes, and never lets up, as the protagonist wallows in a pit of despair, alienation and madness.  Donald Pleasence is great in a supporting role as the cynical 'Doc' Tydon, a learned man who’s checked out of society and embraced the harsh, ugly lifestyle of the locals.  It’s a memorable, unsettling experience, that’s sure to win new fans along with some detractors (thanks to a disturbing kangaroo hunt sequence).

Rating: ****.  Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming

Juan of the Dead (2011) Before you think, “Oh no, not another zombie movie,” give the Spanish/Cuban-produced Juan of the Dead a try.  Writer/director Alejandro Brugués puts a new spin on the tired zombie invasion formula with a tale about ne’er-do-well Juan (Alexis Díaz de Villegas) and his pals surviving an undead apocalypse on the streets of Havana.  Juan becomes an entrepreneur in the face of adversity, offering to kill loved ones for profit.  While there’s nothing particularly new about the zombie action scenes, there are some inventive gore effects for anyone who’s keeping score.  The real draw, however, is the interaction between Juan and the small band of survivors he’s managed to cobble together.  It’s gratifying to see him evolve throughout the film, as he tries to mend his fractured relationship with his estranged daughter, and how he matures from someone without a clue to someone with a plan.  Juan of the Dead doesn’t re-invent the zombie genre, but it fits nicely within, comparing favorably to some of the better examples.  It’s also quite funny, peppered with clever nods to other zombie flicks, including Evil Dead 2, Dead Alive (aka: Brain Dead), and Zombie.  Check it out!

Rating: *** ½.  Available on DVD

[REC]³ Génesis (2012) While I consider the original [REC] to be one of the most effective and genuinely creepy entries in the overcrowded “found footage” genre,  I wasn’t a fan of [REC]², which seemed to exhausted the goodwill generated by the first film.  The first sequel beat the premise to death, relegating its characters to running around aimlessly, and adding a pseudo-theological twist that added nothing to the story.  Consequently, I faced the latest entry in the REC series with a mixture of trepidation and a smidgen of hope that director/co-writer Paco Plaza would come up with something new.  In this regard he succeeded.  [REC]³ Génesis starts out as just another found footage film, with a wedding being captured on video, but as things start getting out of hand it switches from the first-person POV to a more conventional narrative.  The scares are only sporadic, and the stabs at humor are hit and miss at best, but I admired the attempt to try something different this time. [REC]³ Génesis gets a modest recommendation.

Rating: ***.  Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix Streaming

The Liability (2012) Adam (Jack O'Connell) wrecks his mob-boss stepfather’s Mercedes, and winds up driving for a hit man as a form of punishment. John Wrathall’s script, which is never as wry or edgy as it aims to be, takes many twists and turns but never really adds up to much.  Most of the characters are rough sketches, at best.  Tim Roth, as the hit man Roy, does the best he can with what he has to work with, but his character makes too many dumb mistakes for someone who’s supposed to be a grizzled veteran.   Peter Mullan has a nice, albeit one-note, supporting performance as Adam’s ruthless stepfather.  Adam, on the other hand, isn’t very likeable, and just comes across as obnoxious and obtuse.  All things considered, it probably would have been better if Roy had simply shot Adam early in the film so we would be done with his character.  The Liability had all the components for a slick action thriller, but in the end it just seemed underdeveloped. 

Rating: ** ½.  Available DVD

Monday, March 18, 2013

Classics Revisited: The Blob

(1958) Directed by Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr.; Written by Theodore Simonson and Kay Linaker; Starring: Steve McQueen, Aneta Corsaut, Earl Rowe and Stephen Chase; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ***½

“We were too stupid to think we could fail, so we succeeded.” – Jack H. Harris (Producer)

The Blob may never be regarded as a classic among stuffier cliques, but it’s notable in its own right as one of the finest teen monster flicks.  The Blob succeeds within its modest goals because it treats its characters with respect and never forgets that the film’s target audience just wants to have a good time.  As with many low-budget independent movies, the road from concept to production was fraught with numerous obstacles.

First-time producer Jack H. Harris aimed to combine the sci-fi and juvenile delinquency genres in one movie.  He hired Theodore Simonson and Kay Linaker to flesh out a script, retaining the original concept of a liquid, cosmic mass that grows as it ingests every human it encounters.  Strapped for funds, Harris took out a second mortgage on his house and cashed the family life insurance policies.  Harris enlisted the aid of Pennsylvania-based Valley Forge Studios to shoot The Blob (its working title was The Molten Meteor). Although the studio had no previous experience with feature-length motion pictures, they had created 3,000 religious short films.  Directorial chores for The Blob were relegated to Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr.,* who had only helmed one other film.  Shooting commenced in 1957,** on location in nearby Chester Springs and Phoenixville, Pennsylvania.    Attempting to complete The Blob on schedule and within budget only proved to be half the battle.  The film was initially turned down by all the major studios, but Paramount eventually picked it up for distribution as part of a double bill with I Married a Monster from Outer Space. 

* The Blob would prove to be the first (and arguably best) of Yeaworth’s three collaborations with producer Harris.

** By the time The Blob reached theaters, it was already 1958, which explained the inconsistency of the 1957 calendar on the wall of the police station set.

While shooting wrapped in only 30 days, it took six months to create the unique special effects featured in the film.  The filmmakers relied on ingenuity and experimentation to bring the cosmic menace to life.  The Blob itself was fashioned from a weather balloon in the film’s early scenes, and red-colored silicone in the later scenes.  The monster stands apart in The Blob because it’s not the typical man-in-suit variety, but a faceless, amorphous shape with no recognizable link to Earth-bound life.  By virtue of creating a creature whose design was simplicity itself, the effects crew introduced something that was truly frightening and original.

Aside from the titular creature, one of The Blob’s greatest strengths is the performances of the lead performers, Steve McQueen and Aneta Corsaut as teenage protagonists Steve Andrews and Jane Martin, respectively. Although the actors were well into their 20s, they managed to do a credible job of capturing the angst and mischievousness of their youthful characters.  McQueen, who studied acting under Strasberg, was ambivalent about working on a relatively low-profile project such as The Blob, and gained a reputation for being difficult to work with.  Despite any misgivings, however, McQueen turned in an excellent performance, which proved to be a pivotal role for the then-unknown actor, and would lead to bigger and better things as a result.

There are also some nice supporting performances by veteran actors Olin Howlin (in his final film role), as the old hermit who becomes the Blob’s first victim, and Stephen Chase, as Dr. T. Hallen, who futilely attempts to help the old man.  Also noteworthy is Earl Rowe (appearing in his only feature film credit), as the amiable Lieutenant Dave.  Unlike his peers at the police station, he’s willing to give Steve the benefit of the doubt, and entertain the notion that there could be something (other than delinquent teenagers) endangering the town.  His character adds some dimension to a genre where authority figures are generally viewed as the enemy.

The Blob is not a perfect film, but it was never meant to be.  It rises above many other teen monster flicks, thanks to good pacing, smart characters, and a sense of fun, contributing to its much-deserved status as a minor classic.  Subsequent efforts to revive The Blob have met with mixed results.  The original film spawned a belated, unnecessary sequel in 1972 Larry Hagman-directed Beware! The Blob, as well as an excellent 1988 remake (although Jack Harris wasn’t a fan), which was co-written by Frank Darabont and directed by Chuck Russell.  In a Criterion DVD commentary recorded in 2000, Harris mentioned a proposed television project was in the works (we’re probably fortunate that this never saw the light of day).  It probably wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to hypothesize that right now, a studio executive is gauging if the time is ripe for yet another re-imagining.  No matter which form it may take, however, I’ll always hold special affection for the original, warts and all.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Holy Motors

(2012) Written and directed by Leos Carax; Starring: Denis Lavant, Edith Scob, Eva Mendes and Kylie Minogue; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ***½

“I miss the cameras.  They used to be heavier than us.  Then they became smaller than our heads.  Now you can’t see them at all.” – Mr. Oscar

Aside from the knowledge that I was in for a strange viewing experience, I made it a point to avoid learning much about Holy Motors in advance.  In retrospect, it wouldn’t have made much of a difference.  It’s a disorienting film that demands to be watched and re-watched – a puzzle with pieces never intended to fit together perfectly, but somewhat askew.  Writer/director Leos Carax’s first feature-length movie in over a decade follows the chameleon-like Mr. Oscar (Denis Lavant) as he rides around Paris in his chauffeur-driven limousine, adopting one identity after another.  He changes in and out of makeup and various personas while flipping through the dossiers of different individuals.

Holy Motors is full of surprises around every corner, anchored by Lavant’s remarkable, multi-faceted performance.  As the aptly named Merde, a sewer-dwelling troglodyte, he stomps through a graveyard, munching on flowers and pushing aside anyone who gets in his way, accompanied to the strains of Akira Ifukube’s rousing Godzilla score.  In another scene, Lavant appears in a motion capture suit – two bodies engage in an erotic embrace, accompanied by their similarly entwined CGI avatars.  Later, he assumes the identity of a father picking up his teenage daughter from a party.  He punishes her for deceiving him, with the admonishment that she remains herself.  His day begins and ends with very different families, promising that he’s destined to begin the cycle again, only with a whole new set of characters to inhabit.

The peripheral characters in Mr. Oscar’s life provide a few cryptic cues to the bigger picture.  He runs into an old flame, Eva Grace (Kylie Minogue), and they enjoy a brief interlude between appointments.  Eva sings the plaintive song, “Who Were We?” – an ode to their lost past and uncertain future.   The other major player in Holy Motors is Oscar’s laconic chauffeur Céline (Edith Scob).  She clearly cares for her charge, but seems determined to keeping him at arms’ length.  In an affectionate nod to Eyes Without a Face, Scob appears in a mask resembling the one she wore half a century ago, still as graceful and ethereal as ever.

What does it all mean?  The events in Holy Motors were probably never intended to be taken literally.  Shakespeare probably said it best when he wrote, “all the world’s a stage.”  The roles Mr. Oscar occupies are a metaphor for the many faces that each of us wear throughout our day.  We appear differently to our families than to our friends, lovers and business associates.  With many more limos roaming the streets, each presumably with their own Mr. Oscar counterparts, replete with stories of their own, it’s implied we’re only watching the tip of the iceberg.  We’re playing out our respective parts, governed by the cosmic machinery.  Mr. Oscar’s lament about the size of the cameras provides another ambiguous clue to the nature of his world.  Everything is being recorded at all times.  Nothing is intimate. By self-consciously putting on an act for the benefit of others, he’s losing his grip with reality.  His encounters with others like himself beg the question, who are the actors and who is the audience?   He professes his love for “the beauty of the act,” but then poses the question, “what if there’s no beholder?”

Mr. Oscar remains an enigmatic figure, which will likely make Holy Motors a polarizing experience for those who might be looking for solace from easy answers and pat resolutions.  It’s easy to see how the film could be dismissed as pretentious nonsense, but that would be overlooking its many inherent charms.  Carax’s film resides in that sweet spot, somewhere between incoherence and profundity.  You need look no further than the vintage Muybridge clips of bodies in motion, bracketing several scenes, to understand this film is merely a part of a greater legacy.  Like the limousines perpetually roving the city streets, we’re all moving about in the dark, hoping to make a connection, if only for one brief moment.