Saturday, October 4, 2014
Monday, August 11, 2014
I'm hooked on a feeling!
At this point, does the world need another Guardians of the Galaxy review? of course not. The crowd has spoken, as it were, and GOTG is yet another massive, unbelievable success for the Marvel brand, which seems as invulnerable as Captain America's shield right now.
But I did want to say a few words about the movie, but in a slightly different manner then I normally do when talking about a movie for Movie Monday.
I admit, I went into Guardians skeptical--could Marvel make this work, a film about characters who were "C list" at best? Characters that had none of the emotional, cultural resonance of Captain America or the Hulk?
That feeling of surprise and joy pretty much continued throughout the film. Chris Pratt filled the space admirably as our hero, the action was well-staged and easy to follow, and there were lots and lots of laughs. Sure, the villain--Ronan the Accuser--was another in a long line of kinda boring, generic bad guys who yell a lot, but I felt that was partly made up for by the appearance of Karen Gillan as Nebula, whose icy stare hinted that there was a lot more than what we were seeing. I think this is what they were trying to go for with Darth Maul in Phantom Menace, but here it worked.
About halfway through the movie, I realized that not only was I really, really enjoying it, but that it was already my favorite Marvel movie, by a lot. By the time it ended (with a post-credits cameo that was wonderful in its absurdity and ballsiness), I was of the mind that Guardians of the Galaxy might be my favorite superhero comic book movie ever, save for the original Superman: The Movie. But would that opinion hold up?
Well, I'm about to find out, because I decided to see the film again, something I have only done with one or two other movies in the last decade. So I will resume this review after I have seen GOTG a second time. Be right back...
Okay, so, it's the next day, and now I've seen GOTG twice. And I can honestly say, I pretty much enjoyed it just as much as I did the first time. The shock of the new as gone, of course, but this time I concentrate more on the individual scenes, and how it all hangs together as a whole.
As the movie unfolded the first time, something I found I really enjoyed was how it managed to answer every question I had, and seemed to anticipate those questions: there's a scene involving a sort of intergalactic cock fight which I found upsetting, because it's sort of played for laughs: that is, until we see one of the characters react in horror to what they're seeing, which told me that the movie itself felt like that, too.
During the final battle scenes, when movies like tend to get numbing with all the noise and CGI spectacle, GOTG has enough faith in its story to slow down, and have a couple of very beautiful moments where we just are spending time with the heroes. Not only are these scenes simply pretty to look at, amid all the destruction and bombast, they feel like a cool drink of water on a hot day.
One of the criticisms lobbed at this movie, and it's a fair one, is that the plot and villain are so cookie cutter, and how GOTG is so similar to the other Marvel movies. Isn't this film supposed to the beginning of Marvel's "Phase 2", which means it might be time to break from formula and try something truly different?
Having now seen it twice, I feel as though director James Gunn has taken the Marvel movie structure and twisted it for his own ends--adding all the humor, the soundtrack, the overall lightness of tone. So instead of GOTG being the start of Phase 2, it's more that this is the final film of Phase 1: after this, Marvel has to start really playing with the formula, or audiences will get bored and stop showing up to Iron Man 7 or whatever. James Gunn is pointing the way, showing future Marvel directors that you can break the mold and be successful.
I'm going to take a break from Movie Mondays for a little while. For those of you who have been reading every week, I very much appreciate it, and rest assured Movie Mondays, like the Guardians, will be back!
Monday, August 4, 2014
Beware the curse of Baron Blood!
I was in the mood for trashy, bloody, gory fun, so a Mario Bava movie that I had never seen before seemed like the perfect fit.
Peter meets the comely Eva (Elke Sommer), the assistant to a real estate developer who is working on turning the historic castle into a hotel. He mentions an ancient document he found back in the States, which is an incantation that would bring the Baron back to life if spoken aloud at the right time. Neither one of them take it very seriously, so they decide to try it, just for kicks:
The Baron stalks the town, first stopping at a doctor's office. The doctor treats this stranger with kindness, despite his frightening visage:
Like I said above, I was looking for a big, fun, pulpy horror film, and usually Mario Bava delivers exactly that in his films (Black Sabbath, Planet of the Vampires), but unfortunately I found Baron Blood to be mostly very, very dull. Peter and Eva are your classic Stupid Protagonists, and a lot of horror movies wouldn't exist at all if the main characters didn't do very stupid things, but these two are so painfully careless that it makes the whole "incantation" scene laughable, as opposed to frightening. Once you've learned that the magic paper works, you wouldn't, oh, I don't know, tear the thing up into a thousand pieces?
The best part of the movie is, by far, the character design of the titular Baron. With his Solomon Kane-esque cloak and Hammer Films-like face, he cuts quite a dashing, scary figure, especially when draped in shadow, which is most of the time. There's a fun scene of a victim getting trapped in an Iron Maiden, which seemed like something Bava just really enjoyed.
But that stuff is few and far between, mostly it's Peter and Eva running about, which I found to be tedious in the extreme. It's always nice to see Cotten, although I always found him so charming that having him play a bad guy seems like a waste sometimes. Maybe I should have just watched Planet of the Vampires again.
Monday, July 28, 2014
From the man that brought you a little film called Citizen Kane...
Usually for Movie Monday, I talk about a film I have not seen before. I like "discovering" it almost as I'm writing these reviews, to gauge what my first, gut reactions are to a particular movie.
I decided to break that rule this week, since not only have I seen this film before, I've seen it many times: as a huge fan of the work of Orson Welles, there's simply no way to ignore this compromised masterpiece.
A man named Eugene Morgan (Welles' pal and co-conspirator Joseph Cotten) tries to woo Isabel Amberson (Dolores Costello), but she rejects him and marries Wilbur Minafer, who is from a prominent family, but does not love.
Complicating things even further is Aunt Fanny (Agnes Moorehead), who also had feelings for Eugene, and is descending into psychosis. Events conspire to bring the Ambersons low financially, and George is forced to take up a dangerous line of work to keep their lifestyle going, while Eugene just gets more and more successful.
The film ends on a curious note, with Eugene and Aunt Fanny visiting George after an accident, with the former declaring that he and the young man have made peace at last.
What makes The Magnificent Ambersons so compelling is the style director Orson Welles brings to it. This was his first film after Kane, and he was eager to show the world that he could make something more mature, less flashy, but just as powerful. And he completely pulls it off, instead focusing on the characters, and allowing his camera to float smoothly around the sumptuous sets, as if it just another member of the family.
It's not that there aren't great shots/sequences in this film, there are: a long scene during a party was done entirely in one shot, with people moving in and out of the frame, and then back in. The shadows cast in the Ambersons' home loom long and deep, and there's a constant sense of foreboding, as history closes in on this once-prominent family.
One of the other things that makes this film so remarkable is that it is, as I mentioned above, compromised. The original cut of The Magnificent Ambersons ran almost two hours, and just as editing began Welles was asked to fly to Latin America to make another film as part of the war effort. He had planned to edit Ambersons from there, but wartime flying restrictions kept his editor (the soon-to-be-legendary Robert Wise) from joining him. A disastrous preview caused RKO to panic, and they took the job of editing the film on themselves. They lopped an entire half hour out, and reshot a "happier" ending, removing Welles' original (this being right after Pearl Harbor, the preview audience simply wasn't interested in anything challenging or even a little bit downbeat), as well as cutting other shots and the music, a move that so infuriated composer Bernard Herrmann he had his name removed from the final film.
Normally, a movie having its ending removed and replaced with a Smile Button would be fatal, tilting the film's axis to the point where it effectively makes it a bad movie. But the stuff that Welles did up until that last five minutes is so good, the acting so top-notch, the visuals so arresting, that it's strangely easy to just shrug off the tacked-on ending, and luxuriate in the rest.
The Magnificent Ambersons is loaded with Kane veterans: Joseph Cotten, Ray Collins, Agnes Moorehead, Erskine Sanford. And even though the subject matter of both films couldn't be more different, this feels like the second installment of what could have been an amazing series of films by Welles' Mercury Theatre repertoire company (Welles even throws in a gag, when we see a newspaper has a review column by someone named Jed Leland, who was a character in Citizen Kane played by...Joseph Cotten). New to Welles' stock company was Tim Holt, an actor who spent most of his career in B or C westerns, seemingly dabbling in "A" pictures only if they were masterpieces: he did this, My Darling Clementine, and Treasure of the Sierra Madre in the 1940s, and then went right back to the westerns.
The missing half hour of Ambersons is apparently lost forever, the footage has never surfaced (supposedly RKO burned it to ensure Welles could not get his hands on it, a move so retroactively infuriating it defies belief) despite rumors at least one copy was sent to Welles overseas. The destruction of the original version hurt Welles so deeply that he couldn't bear to watch the film on TV, even decades later.
So while all of this backstage stuff is quite interesting, it shouldn't take away from what we do have: a marvelous film, a worthy follow-up to Citizen Kane (if such a thing is even possible), and an unmistakable statement that, as a director, Orson Welles' genius did not stop at the burning of that sled.
Monday, July 21, 2014
We're all Looking For Love!
I came across this trailer ay work last week, never having heard of the film before. Check out the poster, and you'll see the sole reason I was interested: it features an appearance by Johnny Carson, as himself, on The Tonight Show! What the what?
I'll be honest, I didn't care one whit about the main thrust of the film--it's just romantic piffle. I was interested solely for the presence of Johnny, who had just started The Tonight Show two years earlier. You can count on one hand the number of times Carson let him or Tonight be used in any way outside the show itself, so I can only imagine he figured it was a good way to promote Tonight in a big way during its early years. Later on, when talking about this movie, Carson would say "Looking For Love was so bad it was transferred to flammable nitrate stock."
Unfortunately, this is the only scene Johnny is in. The trailer made it seem like he was practically a co-star (a movie trailer, misrepresenting what the film is actually about? Stop the presses!), but he's gone from the movie after this.
Paul starts to change his mind about Libby, right at the time she starts to fall for another guy from the supermarket, played by Joby Baker (who?). The one surprising thing about the movie is that Libby and Paul don't end up together: rather, Paul then moves on to Libby's roommate (played by Susan Oliver, who in real life later went on to become a director and aviator--where's that movie?), and by the end we have two happy couples, plus great character actor Jesse White playing some bells. There are worse ways to end a movie.
Monday, July 14, 2014
It's The Amazing--well, just Spider-Man!
A few weeks ago, my friends Chris and Cindy Franklin reviewed this movie-length 1977 Spider-Man TV pilot/movie on their Super Mates Podcast, and for the most part raked it over the coals. I hadn't seen it in years, decades maybe, and I didn't remember it being all that bad. So I felt is was time for a refresher.
Anyway, this TV movie tells the story you're all familiar with, but with some major changes: Peter Parker (Nicholas Hammond) works as a photographer for The Daily Bugle, where he is on the receiving end of blustery abuse from Publisher J. Jonah Jameson (David White). He is also a grad student, and one way while working on some experiments involving radiation, he sees an unwanted visitor:
Peter gets bit, you know the rest. Except here, there is no Uncle Ben, so our hero's decision to become Spider-Man is mostly done on a whim. Not too long after being bit, he notices he can climb walls, crawling all over the outside of the townhouse he shares with his Aunt May (Jeff--yes, Jeff--Donnell). After stopping a mugging by scaring the bejeezus out of the mugger by scampering up an alleyway wall, he attracts the attention of random passersby and then the Daily Bugle! Jameson wants pictures of this "Spider-Man" of course, so Peter goes home and makes himself a snazzy suit:
As Spider-Man, Peter meets up with some of Bryon's goons, including three samurai types(!), and the effects are...well, okay, they're pretty dodgy. There's some really bad matte shots where Spider-Man isn't even touching anything (thanks to mismatched footage), and lots of the guy in the suit (often as not the stuntman, not Hammond) walking on what's clearly the floor with the camera turned, ala the Batman TV show. Once in a while though they pull off something cool, like when Spidey kicks a bad guy from his position on the wall--hardly anything anyone would even notice today, but in 1977 this was still pretty sophisticated for TV.
Later, Peter visits Byron and gets slapped with one of his mind control bugs. In a great scene--the most tense of the show--Peter walks like a zombie to the top of the Empire State Building, preparing to kill himself by jumping. This scene is shot in an almost hand-held, POV-style, and it's quite effective. Peter here reminds me of some sort of mass murderer who looks totally calm, but is about to go off in some horrific way. Luckily for us, and himself, Peter accidentally crushes Byron's pin on the pointed guard railing, waking him up just in time:
The main flaw that Spider-Man suffers from--and it's the same flaw we saw in 1978's Dr. Strange, and even in 1997's Justice League of America--it's that there's not enough of the stuff you came for: namely, superheroics! The Spider-Man TV movie gives a lot of screen time to Peter, which makes sense since you're trying to establish the character. But then there's Michael Pataki as a police captain, and he's straight out of a thousand other cop shows airing at the time. All the stuff at The Daily Bugle is okay, but after only a minute or two of Spidey action, did there need to be what felt like a dozen scenes there? If I want newspaper drama, I'll watch Lou Grant!
TV networks were still very unsure people would watch a "serious" superhero show, so they tended to lard them up with familiar TV tropes--The Incredible Hulk was just The Fugitive after all, but the talent behind that show made that work for them. With Spider-Man, I half expected to see Starsky & Hutch's red Grand Torino vrooom by at some point.
Still, there is some fun stuff here. There's a point where an under-the-weather Spidey tries to get a lift via an off-duty cab, but can't, so he bums a ride inside a garbage truck. If that's not a scene from a Ditko Spider-Man comic, it sure feels like it. But those moments are few and very far between.
Maybe it's my childhood nostalgia talking--I distinctly remember watching Spider-Man as it aired, and being thrilled that I was just getting to see a live-action Spidey--and I'm just viewing this more warmly than it deserves. But, for all its flaws, I'd say this series definitely deserves a DVD release. I mean, they put out Spider-Man 3, after all...
Monday, July 7, 2014
From the bowels of the earth they came...to collect the living!
City of the Living Dead is the first of director and madman Lucio Fulci's unofficial "Gates of Hell" trilogy, which later went on to include The Beyond and The House By The Cemetery. It features dead priests, zombies, ancient curses, plus one guy getting a drill to the head.
All of this fooferaw is sensed by psychic Mary Woodhouse (Fulci favorite Catriona MacColl), who dies of fright during a seance. She is buried, only to come back live while being buried. In a bravura sequence, absent of gore but full of menace, a newspaper reporter investigating the case hears a weird sound and digs her up:
Great premise, right? For some reason, Fulci then deals with several sub-plots featuring other characters, and our main characters take a very relaxed approach to their mission: at one point they even talk about getting a bite to eat and taking in some of the local scenery! Um, excuse, me, aren't you guys on a deadline to, you know, prevent the end of the world?
That aside, some of the fun's most fun (read: gory) moments come from the side characters, like when another member of the undead puts a Lugosi-esque whammy on a young girl, causing her to regurgitate tons of organs right out of her mouth. Her boyfriend watches in horror, only to be rewarded by having his brain ripped out. There's also a sub-plot about a town pervert who gets murdered by an angry father of a young victimized girl. I mean, a really angry father:
Overall, COTLD is a fun, gory time, if that's your sort of thing. I'm not expert on the man's work, but there are other films of his that I've enjoyed more, and didn't have such long drawn out dull parts. The gore is right there on the screen and imaginatively conceived, as it usually is when Fulci's involved. The way other directors liked to scare audiences, or take them to other, far off worlds, Lucio Fulci liked reducing the human body to so much pulp.