Sunday, September 29, 2019

September Quick Picks and Pans

They Live by Night (1948) Director Nicholas Ray’s debut feature is a gripping film noir about doomed love between Bowie (Farley Granger), an escaped convict, and Keechie (Cathy O'Donnell), an inexperienced young woman who wants to escape her father (Will Wright) and her humdrum life. Granger is excellent as the conflicted Bowie, who’s torn between his new marriage and allegiance to his former cellmates (Howard Da Silva and Jay C. Flippen). O’Donnell is the film’s true revelation, however, appearing as if she’s never experienced a day of happiness. After a final bank heist goes wrong, they’re on the run from authorities. Ray keeps the focus on the two leads, rather than Bowie’s criminal activities, keeping the movie from becoming a standard cops-and-robbers drama. We want the star-crossed lovers to succeed, despite the odds against them, which only makes everything more tragic.  

Rating: 4 stars. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Fear in the Night (1972) This nifty Hammer thriller from director/co-writer Jimmy Sangster is filled with suspense and surprises that will keep you guessing until the end. After experiencing a nervous breakdown, young teacher Peggy Heller (Judy Geeson) moves with her new husband Robert (Ralph Bates) to the country (where he works at a boarding school) for some peace and quiet. She soon finds that her troubles follow her, as she suffers attacks from a mysterious figure with an artificial arm. Unfortunately for Peggy, everyone around her, including Robert, believes the incidents are in her head (or are they?). The suspects continue to add up, including Robert’s employer, the eccentric headmaster Carmichael (Peter Cushing) and his antagonistic younger wife Molly (played by Joan Collins, doing what she does best). Sangster does a nice job planting the seed of doubt about Peggy’s sanity in the audience’s mind.

Rating: 3 ½ stars. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Prophecy (1979) John Frankenheimer’s environmental horror is a monster movie with a social conscience. A doctor (Robert Foxworth) is hired by a lumber company to smooth things over with a Native American tribe living in the Maine wilderness. Something is out there killing people, and the company officials point fingers at the tribe. The tribe members, however, led by John Hawks (Armand Assante) know there’s something else responsible, a terrible creature that could be the incarnation of a vengeful god.

Despite some missteps (some laughable mutant bear creature effects and the questionable casting of Armand Assante as a Native American), Prophecy has a lot to like. It’s more thoughtful than the usual nature on rampage flick, with its strong anti-pollution message, and sympathetic leanings toward disenfranchised members of society. It’s too bad that the story ultimately leaves us hanging about the fate of the people in the tribe, in favor of the two leads (Foxworth and Talia Shire, as his pregnant wife), but it’s an entertaining ride.  

Rating: 3 stars. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Prime

The Box (2009) Writer/director Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko) tries his hand at adapting the short story “Button, Button” by Richard Matheson, with mixed results. Cameron Diaz and James Marsden play Norma and Arthur Lewis, a married couple presented with a strange dilemma. They’re given a box with a button – by pressing it, someone they don’t know will die, but in turn they will be awarded $1 million. Frank Langella does a nice job as the enigmatic Arlington Steward, who explains the rules of the box to the confused couple. The intriguing premise is stretched to the breaking point, expanded as a two-hour movie. It’s a perfect concept for an anthology film or series (it was adapted for the ‘80s revival of The Twilight Zone), but needless exposition and an alternate dimension/alien subplot do little to justify the bloated running time.

Rating: 2 ½ stars. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

The Once Over Twice – Three O’Clock High

(1987) Directed by Phil Joanou; Written by Richard Christian Matheson and Tom Szollosi; Starring: Casey Siemaszko, Annie Ryan, Richard Tyson, Stacey Glick, Jeffrey Tambor, Philip Baker Hall and Mitch Pileggi; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ****

“I was really working overtime to try to make the movie as memorable as I could, because my biggest fear was high school movies were generic, and it would just kind of fade into the woodwork of what was an extremely popular genre at the time. So, I needed to separate it out from the world of John Hughes and I really thought the casting was a real chance at that.” – Phil Joanou

Since it’s back to school time across the county, I thought it only appropriate to discuss a favorite, almost forgotten relic from a time not so long ago (well, not so long ago to me, anyway). Starting around the time of Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), high school comedies became all the rage. Three O’Clock High rode this wave, which continued throughout the ‘80s, but wasn’t afraid to march to the beat of its own drum. Phil Joanou, who directed an episode of the TV series Amazing Stories, was approached by Steven Spielberg with a movie script called After School. Fearing the resulting film would be a John Hughes clone, Joanou initially turned down the opportunity to direct, but returned to Spielberg (serving as ghost producer) for a second chance. The script was re-written to reflect Joanou’s darker sentiments, eventually adding some touches from his own high school experience. Instead of a familiar Southern California setting, the comedy was shot in a real high school in Ogden, Utah (due to its “gothic” look), with hundreds of actual students as extras to offset the older leads.*

* Fun Fact #1: Casey Siemaszko and Richard Tyson, who played adversaries in the film, were both 26 at the time.

The resulting film contains many of the familiar high school comedic elements, twisted into a unique viewing experience. At its core, it’s an updated spin on the 1952 western High Noon. The basic story is transplanted from the classic flick, with one man standing alone against a vicious outlaw. The film that Joanou cited as his primary inspiration, however, was Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (1985), featuring someone trapped in a situation beyond his control, with no means of escape. Joanou’s film features multiple shots of ticking clocks, a constant reminder that the minutes are counting down until the protagonist’s inexorable doom.

Casey Siemaszko (probably best known as “3-D,” one of Biff’s sycophants, in the Back to the Future movies) plays the role of a lifetime as Jerry Mitchell. He’s an ordinary honors student who keeps his nose clean and doesn’t make waves with other students – until the new kid, Buddy Revell (Richard Tyson) arrives on campus. The movie builds a legend around Revell as we jump from student to student to hear about his misanthropic exploits. Revell has an unprecedented reputation for violence, leading to a history of bouncing around from one school to another. When Jerry is recruited to write a piece on him for the school paper, he inadvertently ends up on Revell’s bad side, setting up an after-school confrontation.

It’s a mismatch of mythological proportions against Jerry, the everyman, and Revell, an unstoppable force of nature. The comic tension builds, because we know Jerry doesn’t stand a chance in a fight with his adversary. Jerry’s dire predicament is reinforced by a scene in his science class, where he watches an instructional film* depicting a scorpion preying on a helpless cricket. Richard Tyson establishes just the right tone with Buddy Revell. He takes no joy from what he does, but he makes no bones about asserting his dominance over all he surveys. He’s enigmatic and unfathomable, suggesting there’s much more lurking beneath the surface. In one scene, we learn that we’ve underestimated his intelligence, which becomes another power move.

* Fun Fact #2: Joanou shot the footage himself, in 16 mm, and purposely distressed the film so it resembled a vintage ‘50s- or ‘60s-era nature documentary.

Each scene has a distinct payoff, with a surprise around every corner. We’re right there with Jerry, sharing his angst about how he’s going to survive the day. Each attempt to reverse the inevitable fate that awaits him at 3 p.m. fails miserably (as when he hires a jock to beat up Revell or tries to get expelled from school). His girlfriend Franny (Annie Ryan), who resembles Molly Ringwald’s goth cousin, channels her energies elsewhere to help him. After consulting her “spirit advisor,” she concludes she must “bond” with Jerry, but the resulting love scene doesn’t end up quite the way we’d expect.

Three O’Clock High boasts a collection of memorable, eccentric peripheral characters, including Mitch Pileggi in a pre-X-Files role as Duke “The Duker,” Herman, who takes his job as a school security guard a bit too seriously. His boss is the Dean of Discipline Voytek Dolinski,* who runs his office like the commandant of a POW camp (check out the books on his desk). Philip Baker Hall does a nice turn as a suspicious police detective, investigating a $500 theft at the student store. Jeffrey Tambor is sufficiently deadpan as Jerry’s student store boss and mentor, while Stacey Glick shines as his plucky, supportive younger sister Brei.

* Fun Fact #3: According to Joanou in his enjoyable DVD commentary, the character’s name was from an actual person in his high school. Using the same name could have potentially ended in legal trouble, but the character’s real-life counterpart apparently approved of his cinematic simulacrum.

Joanou and crew effectively capture the disorienting sights and sounds of the high school experience (thanks in part to Barry Sonnenfeld, who was one of the directors of photography). Frequent low angle shots of authority figures make them appear larger and more menacing. Multiple zooms and inserts (Joanou stated there were more than 200 inserts, done on a soundstage at Universal) contribute to the frenetic tone, conveying how everything is converging on Jerry. In one particularly nightmarish scene, a pep rally in the gym becomes a hellish harbinger of death and dismemberment. Another key contribution to the bewildering tone of the film is the atmospheric score by German electronic group Tangerine Dream. The music conveys a sense of urgency, as Jerry’s tension rises. In his DVD commentary, Joanou (citing the unique American high school experience) noted that something was lost in translation as the music was originally scored. The composers saw this as a life or death struggle for Jerry, rather than a black comedy, including much darker, ominous themes. Joanou worked with them to re-mix and re-score the film to match the dark (but not too dark) feeling he intended.

Sadly, Universal didn’t share the filmmakers’ enthusiasm for Three O’Clock High and its unorthodox sensibilities, restricting marketing to newspaper ads. It subsequently fell into movie oblivion within a couple of weeks (I’m happy to say I was one of the few who saw it during its release), although it eventually gained a small but devoted following through cable and other home video avenues. The biggest tragedy was that it didn’t lead to more starring roles for Siemaszko, who along with Tyson, anchors this film. It’s an anomaly from an era characterized by safer (at least from Hollywood’s perspective), broad-appeal comedies from John Hughes and other filmmakers. Joanou achieved his objective to create something outside the lines, while working with the same box of crayons. Three O’Clock is full of surprises, happily subverting our expectations at every turn.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Film Twitter Survival Guide

“Life is very short, and there’s no time for fussing or fighting, my friend.” – from “We Can Work It Out” – Lennon/McCartney (used slightly out of context)

I typically go on a rant once a year (give or take a few months), so I figured I was overdue for another one. If you’re expecting another review, fear not. Another should be along shortly, so I hope you’ll bear with me.

I’m still hazy on the whole “Film Twitter” thing. I’ve always felt a bit like Schrödinger's cat, not sure if I’m in or out. Is there a formal application process with review by a panel of film school graduates? Do I need to own a minimum number of Criterion titles or possess the ability to recall the exact number of titles I’ve watched in a lifetime? Since I’m unsure where I sit on the fencepost, maybe I’m not the right person to comment about what’s right or wrong about Film Twitter.

Although I’ve often heard it referred to as a dumpster fire or cesspool (take your pick), my experience has been overwhelmingly positive. This post isn’t meant to be the last word on Film Twitter. It’s only a beginning. It’s part of a learning curve that never ends, and I’m sure I’ve made more than a few faux pas during my stint (cue the Spider-Man finger-pointing meme). This should be an open, ongoing dialogue, so if you think something should be added, please comment.

Here are some observations I’ve distilled:

1.     Always be kind. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with everyone all the time, but take a moment or two to consider your response before you comment on a tweet. It doesn’t cost anything to be a decent person. Don’t rain on other people’s parades. Do your part to make Twitter a more positive place to be. Sure, it’s not all puppies, daffodils and rainbows, but shaming people about their movie picks doesn’t add anything to the dialogue.
2.     Don’t follow people, only to unfollow. Some accounts that will remain nameless play this little game to inflate their follower-to-followed ratio. It’s not cool, so don’t do it.
3.     Follow wisely. Make your timeline something you want to visit, so follow accounts that will make you happy. If their tweets make you feel miserable, they’re probably not worth your time and energy.
4.     Twitter is a fickle beast. If there’s a magic formula to getting likes and retweets, I don’t know what it is. Why one tweet gets a bunch of attention while other tweets flounder remains a mystery. Maybe it’s the timing, or the general atmosphere when you tweeted, but don’t despair. Keep moving forward, and don’t look back.
5.     We don’t all like the same things, and that’s okay. I know I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s all right to hold an unpopular opinion about a movie, without denigrating other people’s love for said film. Does that make me right and them wrong? No, it’s a matter of personal taste. When I see a tweet I don’t agree with, I can always ignore it and move on. The great thing about Film Twitter, is there’s always someone who matches your particular taste.
6.     DM responsibly. I use this feature occasionally, with people I know fairly well. Some folks, however, (probably for very good reason) don’t like to receive DMs. Be sure to respect their wishes. If you’ve just followed me and our first interaction is hawking your product or asking me to visit your GoFundMe (or similar) account, it’s not going to end well.
7.     Our unique Twitter identities. I’m tickled that so many people associate me with Peter Lorre, despite the fact that in real life, I don’t remotely resemble him in appearance or stature. There are many others who are associated with one movie, a filmmaker or actor, and that’s what makes this such a cool place to inhabit.
8.     It’s our home away from home. For many of us, this might be one of the few forums where we can openly express ourselves and our love of movies. It’s all well and good if people in our personal lives or work enjoy and appreciate our love of movies, but for many of us, especially those that contend with social anxiety (as I do) or lack adequate support networks in real life, this is the only way we’re likely to interact with our fellow film lovers.
9.     It’s not always about you. Yes, I understand that Twitter has been designed for narcissists. It’s an ideal forum for selfies, grandstanding, political diatribes and general appeals for attention, but consider for a moment that it can be used to help promote someone else. When I start feeling sorry for myself because I perceive no one’s paying attention, it’s the perfect time to look outward and retweet or give thanks to my supporters.
10.  Tag responsibly. Tagged conversations can be fun, but sometimes the discussion goes into overdrive, going on strange tangents or outstaying its welcome. That’s when it might be handy to mute the conversation. Also, I’m not naming any names, but some bloggers persist in tagging a bunch of people with their reviews on a daily (or twice daily) basis. If you’re going to frequently tag someone with your reviews/promotions, make sure they don’t mind it. It should be a reciprocal relationship, so be prepared to promote them as well.
11.  A word on polls: There’s something about Twitter polls that eggs on the contrarians. Every time I start a poll and hear someone comment, “you left out…” or “None of them” I want to get out my imaginary spray bottle and give them a spritz or two. Twitter polls only have a maximum of four choices. If you don’t like the choices that are offered, there’s nothing stopping you from running your own poll.
12.  Shout outs: Anyone’s who’s followed me for a while knows I’m a big fan of tagging folks on Follow Friday (#FF). I know that not everyone is a fan of these types of shout outs, but it’s a way of giving thanks to those I interact with the most, and a token of mutual support. I think the “follow” aspect of Follow Friday is secondary to the display of appreciation. Although many of the same names surface from week to week, I don’t have a set distribution list. If I miss anyone, it’s unintentional, but feel free to give me a holler. On the flipside, if you don’t want to be a part of these, let me know as well.
13.  Gatekeeping: Nothing seems to create a toxic atmosphere more than those who take it upon themselves to decide who is or isn’t a “real” fan. It shouldn’t be a pissing contest to see who’s the biggest fan, who knows the most trivia, or who does or doesn’t like a sequel.
14.  We’re all learning here. We can all learn much more from others than we could possibly impart as an individual. The sharing of passions is what keeps Film Twitter alive. We can benefit from one another, but there’s a right way to go about discussing the things we feel strongly about. Turning your views into a pedantic lecture probably won’t win a lot of admiration or followers.
15.  Blocking: I don’t like to mention the “B” word, because I view it as a last resort. It goes without saying that racist, misogynistic, anti-LGBTQ+, or otherwise verbally abusive rhetoric has no place in my timeline. But there’s another category: a vocal minority that thrives on being verbally abusive, overly argumentative, or condescending, feeling it’s their duty to “educate” you. Are they worth the trouble? Only you can decide, but do you really want to have that negativity in your life? 
16.  Have fun. Whether it’s the latest Halloween movie, a silent classic, or something shot on VHS for $150, Film Twitter remains a wonderful forum to discuss your passion. If something isn’t your cup of tea, move on. There’s enough room for everyone. Now go forth and create some quality content!