Monday, July 19, 2010

A Film Fanatic's Dream, A Penny Pincher's Nightmare

With all due respects to a certain reader or two of this blog, I am grateful to have plenty of options for finding books and DVDs, both new and used, from independent resources and flea markets in Los Angeles that limit the amount of times I step into a Barnes and Noble to those few instances when I have a gift card to spend or to idly reading magazines whilst waiting for movies to start or friends to arrive. But the big book conglomerate's online store does annually offer one exciting promotion, and not coincidentally it's going on right as we speak: The 50% off all Criterion Collection DVD and Blu-Rays.

Personally, I have used this sale to upgrade my Days of Heaven and Chungking Express DVDs to Blu-Ray, as well as picking up the Blus of Paris, Texas, Stagecoach and Repulsion. And as far as DVDs, I purchased the Eclipse Box Set: Nikkatsu Noir, and while it's come up, I would heartily recommend fans of Japanese films, Film noir fanatics and/or crime fiction aficionados to if not out right purchase this box set, at least sample the titles via Netflix. So far I've rented three of the five titles (I Am Waiting, Take Aim at the Police Van and A Colt is My Passport) and have been impressed with the expressive style and content of all three (the other two titles which I have not yet seen are the vividly titled Rusty Knife and Cruel Gun Story). My favorite thus far is Takashi Nomura's A Colt is My Passport (1967), which is a film noir appropriation of the Akira Kurosawa samurai films and the Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns. Stoned face Jo Shishido's performance may owe a debt to Toshiro Mifune and Clint Eastwood, but he holds his own and belongs as their equal as a whip smart gangster who is pitted in between two rival gangs, the one who's leader he assassinated and the one who hired him and want to cover their involvement after a peace treaty is reached. Harumi Ibe's score borrows from some of Ennio Morricone's cues, but adds a distinctive Japanese bent.

And in further Criterion news, it's been announced that the future holds some notable releases including Crumb, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, The Thin Red Line, The Magician, Paths of Glory, The Darjeeling Limited, Something Wild, and the reportedly insanely awesome, House. Those titles are not yet available for purchase via Barnes and Noble's sale, so start saving your money for next year.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The 80's Project: Random Triple Bill

Part of the 80's Project

With t-minus five months until my self regulated end-of-year deadline for running through the films of 1980 and providing a Top Ten list, I am going to cut down on the few and far between longer reviews and instead focus on smaller capsule reviews with multiple titles discussed. I will try and make these capsules somewhat thematic...starting, next time. So here I present quick reviews of three films that have two shared commonalties: 1.) They were released in 1980 and 2.) I watched them recently.

Recently passed away filmmaker Ronald Neame (Gambit, The Poseidon Adventure) directs this espionage comedy with a light touch and fast, breezy pace. Walter Mathau plays Miles Kendig, a veteran CIA agent who is reassigned to a desk position by his Richard Nixon loving boss Myerson (Ned Beatty), rather than gracefully ease toward retirement, Kendig decides to publish his memoirs instead, tantalizing both the CIA and their enemies with proofs of the chapter as he finishes them. Myerson and Kendig's replacement, Cutter (Sam Waterson), try to find and stop Kendig before he reveals all of the company's secrets, but they are outwitted at each step by their most decorated, and crafty, agent.

The Coen brothers must be fans of Neame, as for a long while they were attached to direct a remake of his twisty caper film Gambit and they used the ex-CIA agent writing his memoirs plot in John Malkovich's storyline in Burn After Reading. Neame and writer Brian Garfield (who wrote the novel the Death Wish series were based on) could have used the Coen's more wicked pen since it would have been more dramatically interesting and ripe for comedy if there was some doubt as to Matthau's sanity, or even, patriotism. Matthau's role calls to mind his titular character Charley Varrick, though less brutal, and Beatty's incompetent but blindly loyal company stooge calls to mind a devotee to the network president he cameod in Network.

Mon Oncle d'Amerique
Director Alain Resnais (Hiroshima, Mon Amour, Last Year at Marienbad) is thematically interested in no less than the entirety of the human condition in his film based on the writings of philosopher Henri Laborit (who narrates and often appears in Mon Oncle…). The film opens with a thirty minute formal frenzy introducing us to the three main characters (played by Roger Pierre, Nicole Garcia, and Gerard Depardieu--one of many films he appeared in during the year, here's my review of Loulou and The Last Metro) from birth through childhood and teenage years ultimately concluding at the age where they are comfortably settled into their career and family life. It's a dizzyingly spectacle that uses the characters as literal rats in the cage (visually depicted as such from time to time) that adhere to Laborit's philosophical beliefs. It's an ambitious, heady and unique film, and honestly, once settled into a continuing storyline in Act Two, a little tedious and clinical. Still, I can see what drew Resnais to Laborit's philosophy since it serves as a metaphor for the act of filmmaking, as characters subscribe to notions and actions previously dictated by their creators based on pre-ordained factors.

The Idolmaker
Alain Resnais is a definite auteur, creating films unique and representative of his interests and obsessions; Ronald Neame, meanwhile, is a craftsman, his films don’t always use the same language or explore the same issues, but he imbues all his films with an easy touch and a sense of humor. Taylor Hackford though is neither. He’s a director for hire without a strong authorial voice. He’s capable of good work, but usually only when the script and talent he surrounds himself with is at a premium quality. He’s had some commercial successes (An Officer and a Gentleman, Against All Odds) and a critical success here or there (Ray). I held out hope for The Idolmaker because it contains the one aspect that appears to be a constant attraction to the director throughout his career, early rock n’roll. In addition to the Ray Charles biopic, he also directed the Chuck Berry documentary Hail Hail Rock N’ Roll, and produced La Bamba, the Richie Valens biopic. So The Idolmaker, a fictitious account of an independent songwriter (Ray Sharkey) in the early 60’s who creates a sensation with two attractive singers who through perseverance and training, become superstars on the teeny bopper bubble gum crooner circuit.

But unfortunately, instead of crafting a unique depiction of the mysterious svengali behind the superstar, Hackford, similar to his work in Ray, relies almost exclusively on clich├ęs. 60’s Italian goombas stereotypes in Brooklyn? Check. Father issues? Check. Do the singers become so popular that they think they’re bigger than the modest songwriter/producer whilst becoming embroiled in a life of sex, drugs and et ceteras? Well, I don’t want to give anything away, but of fucking course. Even the music sounds more like the overproduced early rock n’roll retro stylings of Billy Joel and the like that was popular in the late 70’s than the actual Fabian era music it’s trying to assimilate. I did like the final arc of the main character, which concerns him performing his own music, but with the exception of one earlier mention, it felt undeveloped. Sharkey and Joe Pantoliano in one of his early performances do good work, but ultimately, there’s a reason that thirty years later time has forgotten this film.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

It's Starting Again

Being but a wee lad of seven years in 1983, I am unaware of the pre-release reputation of Psycho II. Was it anticipated with the same fervor and hand wringing that Gus Van Sant’s 1998 “shot for shot” remake netted? Or was that remake’s antagonistic greeting actually exaggerated due to the internet and the voices that tend to yell the loudest? Whether viewers had trepidation or not for the first (and to this point only, not counting other Psycho films) theatrically released direct sequel to an Alfred Hitchcock film, skeptics’ mind should have been put to rest when Richard Franklin was named director. Franklin, a USC graduate, career took off in the Australian exploitation market where he crafted such thrillers as Patrick and Road Games. He was a devoted follower of Hitchcock, and also a friend to him. Anyone who was afraid that the Psycho franchise was resurrected only to cash in on the then current (early 80’s) slasher craze, which of course Psycho was a progenitor of, would have their fears assuaged with the final product. Along with Franklin, screenwriter Tom Holland (Fright Night, Child’s Play) crafted a respectful continuation of the Norman Bates chronicles that both pays homage to the original film while working on its own terms.

Opening with the Hitchcock film’s most famous scene: Marion Crane’s shower and murder, serves several functions for Psycho II: it gives a pre-video proliferate age viewer another glimpse at the scene; an admittance on Franklin’s part of what he’s trying to live up to; and most importantly, a plot device, namely the impetus for the sanity hearing of Norman Bates that opens the film proper, with Marion’s sister, Lila Loomis (Vera Miles returning), yes she went and married her sister’s old boyfriend, in attendance. As the shower scene ends on the exterior of the Bates Motel, the black and white morphs into color, a subtle way of implying that this film will not necessarily be a paint by numbers replication of the original.

Whereas as Psycho was viewed by Hitchcock in 1960 as an attempt to get away from extravagantly budgeted works such as North by Northwest and Vertigo by quickly and cheaply shooting with his Alfred Hitchcock Presents’ television crew, Franklin’s film is of a larger scale, and both in color and widescreen. Bernard Hermann’s wonderful bracing score, though occasionally referenced, is replaced by Jerry Goldsmith’s more ethereal and melancholic orchestral music. Dean Cundey, who shot Halloween, is the cinematographer, and while more than a few of the compositions are a direct callback to the original, he too, gives the sequel its own visual identity, the stark black and white contrast is replaced with a muted color palette. Here, we get our first look at the Bates’ house in full color and Franklin, Cundey and the production designers all do a great job of creating a lived in feel with just the right choices of clothing, linens, and other minor, yet well considered, details.

Completely ignoring the novel of the same name written by original novel author, Robert Bloch (which sounds awesome by the way), Psycho II is impeccably crafted by underrated writer Holland. After Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins, duh) is found fit to be released, he enters society again after 22 years, literally returning to the scene of the crime where his family's motel is now a low rent locale for prostitution, drug use and other maleficences and his house is now a respite for teenagers looking for a place to fuck. Bates gets a job at a local diner where he meets a waitress in a troubled relationship with the familiar sounding name of Mary Samuels (Marie Samuels was the alias that Marion Crane signed in the Bates motel's ledger) and forms his first human relationship in a long time. Shortly though, things start to turn strange, Bates is receiving phone calls and messages from his "mother" that threaten his already tenuous sanity, and people who come in contact with him begin dying, starting with Bates Motel's sleazy extracted manager (played by Dennis Franz in the type of role he perfected throughout the 1980's). Who's responsible: is it Lila trying to get Bates back behind bars? Mary Samuels who is actually Lila's daughter acting on her mother's behalf? Or is Norman Bates losing his mind again? Could mother possibly be returning?

Psycho II is constructed as a mystery, but it's also a really empathetic portrait of a man trying to come to grips with his past while struggling with the present. Anthony Perkins is not the subtlest of actors, but he's perfect as Norman Bates, constantly fidgeting and uncomfortable in his skin in the first film, he's shaky and unsure of himself here. The twenty-two years added wrinkles and lines to his face, but made him more distinguished and less like the teen heartthrob he was pre-1960. In Psycho we don't realize he's the killer because he's the nervous boy next door, here we don't believe he can kill because he looks like our uncle. Meg Tilly gives an impressive performance as Mary Samuels, who is first used as a decoy for her mother's attempt to get Bates back behind bars, but comes to generally care and sympathize with Norman, she too can understand being pushed around by a manipulative mother. In Psycho, Bates compensates for sexual desires by stabbing Marion to death, here he shies away from a possible loving relationship by allowing himself to be duped into believing his mother has returned.

The film does have a few nitpick worthy moments, including awkwardly getting a knife in Norman's hand early, but most are necessary evils of advancing the story or keeping the mystery, and are easily forgivable. I am also not crazy about the "twist" reveal that concludes the movie, it reminded me a lot of the Halloween II twist, which was also a Universal Picture. However, even that is worth it for a certain moment involving a shovel.

While impossible to live up to the masterpiece that the original film is (though Quentin Tarantino actually prefers the sequel), Psycho II is a respectful tribute to Hitchcock's movie which toys with audiences expectations to provide some surprises of its own while exploring themes of recovery from scars of the past and providing a very sympathetic portrait of Norman Bates. Psycho II opened on June 3rd, 1983, where it debut just below Return of the Jedi at the box office for the weekend. It was a solid commercial and critical success, prompting another trip to the Bates Motel three years later.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Now Playing: July 1980

Hope you had a nice July 4th weekend, here's all of the films released in American theatres 30 years ago, and what's more American than nostalgia? Among them are at least two that should make my Top Ten list for the year.

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