Friday, December 8, 2017

#2,475. Days of Heaven (1978)

Directed By: Terrence Malick

Starring: Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shepard

Tag line: "Your Eyes...Your Ears...Your Senses...Will Be Overwhelmed"

Trivia: Shortly after filming began, director Terrence Malick tossed out the script, relying instead on the improvisation of the actors

As I mentioned in my write-up of Medium Cool, I had taken several mass media courses in college, all geared towards video production (which, at that point in the early ‘90s, was where the jobs were). Yet, despite its focus, the instructor dedicated three consecutive classes to the art of film. The first week we watched and discussed Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, and in the second we got a chance to analyze Hitchcock’s Psycho

Being a movie fan, I had seen both of these before, but the third week’s film, Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven, was new to me. 

A period piece that whisks us back to the early days of the 20th century, Days of Heaven is one of the most striking motion pictures I’ve ever seen, and it continues to rank among my favorites of all-time, a position its held since that first viewing all those years ago. 

The year is 1916. Following a violent confrontation with his boss, Chicago steel mill worker Bill (Richard Gere) hops the next train out of town, taking with him his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and his adolescent sister Linda (Linda Manz). The train carries the trio all the way to the Texas panhandle, where Bill and Abby get jobs (alongside hundreds of immigrants) harvesting the fields of a rich farmer (played by Sam Shepard). 

To avoid any controversy, Bill and Abby pretend to be brother and sister, a lie that works to their advantage when the Farmer, who Bill learns is dying of an unknown illness, falls in love with Abby. Hoping to get his hands on the farmer’s wealth when he passes away, Bill convinces Abby to marry the farmer, thus setting herself up to be his sole heir. 

But as the months drag on, the farmer’s health seems to improve, and Bill finds himself on the outside looking in when Abby begins to develop feelings for her new husband. 

Most movies, especially those as visually stunning as Days of Heaven, have no need of a narrator; the images speak for themselves. Yet the narration provided by young star Linda Manz is one of thIS film’s best features. Along with sharing a few of her thoughts on its various characters, Manz’s Linda is often as observant as Malick’s camera, commenting on things that don’t necessarily forward the plot, but add to the film’s reflective tone (“Nobody’s perfect”, Linda says at one point in her thick New York accent. “There was never a perfect person around. You just have half-angel and half-devil in you”). 

Yet what truly makes Days of Heaven such a noteworthy motion picture is its gorgeous cinematography (handled by both Nestor Almendros and an uncredited Haskell Wexler) as well as Malick’s keen sense of what makes a particular image so interesting (in one of the documentaries presented on the Blu-Ray, we’re told that Malick didn’t really follow a shot plan, choosing instead to film whatever caught his eye). 

Days of Heaven does offer a few memorable moments, such as the locust infestation that threatens to ruin the farmer’s crop; and the fire that spreads out of control when he and the workers try to drive these pesky insects away. But the movie is at its best when, as with the narration, the visuals don’t serve the story (some of the long shots of the workers toiling in the fields are positively breathtaking). 

With its emphasis on imagery over dialogue and story, Days of Heaven may seem overly pretentious to some viewers. For me, though, its visuals were more than enough to hold my attention; you could lift just about any frame from this film and hang it on your wall. Days of Heaven is arthouse cinema at its most engaging.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

#2,474. The Devil's Candy (2015)

Directed By: Sean Byrne

Starring: Ethan Embry, Shiri Appleby, Pruitt Taylor Vince

Tag line: "He Will Slither into your Soul"

Trivia: Came in 3rd place for Best Feature at the 2016 Sheffield Horror Film Festival

I first saw director Sean Byrne’s The Devil’s Candy earlier this year, and was beyond impressed. It was a deeply troubling horror film that delved into some dark areas, all the while centering on a very likable young family. I knew then that the movie was special, and when I finally picked up the Blu-Ray a few months later I couldn’t wait to sit down and watch it again. 

But something quite unexpected happened during that subsequent viewing. Even though I knew exactly what was coming, The Devil’s Candy still managed to disturb me more the second time than it did initially. In fact, there was a moment when I had to stop the movie and collect my thoughts, which I didn’t even consider doing the first time I watched it. 

It was a unique experience for me; I’ve been frightened by films before, but I can’t remember another one that scared me more the second time around, and the fact that The Devil’s Candy did so is a tribute to both its director and his excellent cast. 

Despite their money troubles, the Hellman family: struggling artist Jesse (Ethan Embry); his wife Astrid (Shari Appleby); and their teenage daughter Zooey (Kiara Glasco), just moved into their dream house, a beautiful Texas residence that’s well off the beaten path. There’s even an old barn out back, which Jesse transforms into an art studio. And while Zooey is somewhat apprehensive about attending a brand new school, the Hellmans are confident they’ll be happy in their home for many years to come. 

But the house has a dark history; Ray Smilie (Pruitt Taylor Vince), a mentally backward man whose family once owned the dwelling, used to say he heard voices coming from behind his bedroom wall, and one night those voices told him to murder his parents. Because their deaths were ruled an accident, Ray Smilie is still a free man, and catches the Hellmans off-guard when he shows up on their front porch one evening, asking is he can move back into his old room. Though he feels sorry for Ray, Jesse refuses to let him inside. 

And it’s a good thing, too, because the voices continue to haunt Ray Smilie, telling him to do terrible things to children, and convincing him that he should now set his sights on young Zooey! 

As for Jesse, he, too, has started hearing the voices, which speak to him through his artwork. In a trance one afternoon, Jesse even paints a picture that suggests Zooey is in great danger. 

Can Jesse protect his daughter from Ray Smilie, or has Zooey’s fate already been determined by a force greater than all of them? 

So why did The Devil’s Candy upset me more the second time than the first? The answer is simple: I cared about the Hellman clan, so much so that I didn’t want to see them go through what I knew was coming. From the beginning, it’s obvious the Hellmans are a tight-knit family, and that Jesse and Zooey in particular share a special bond with one another. Ethan Embry was the perfect choice to play Jesse, the well-meaning father who passed his passion for heavy metal music on to his daughter, and Kiara Glasco is equally good as Zooey, who, thanks to her upbringing, is a thoughtful, intelligent young woman. Shari Appleby is also convincing as Astrid, who, though she doesn’t share the same interests as Jesse and Zooey, is a loving mother, but it’s the relationship between father and daughter that pulls us in and makes us fear the evil we know is coming for them. 

Yet despite the horrific things he does throughout the movie (including one very traumatic sequence involving the abduction of a young boy), we realize early on that Pruitt Taylor Vince’s Ray Smilie is as much a victim as any other character in this film. We meet Ray in the first scene, a flashback to the night he murdered his parents. To drown out the voices that are filling his head with terrible thoughts, Ray stands in his darkened bedroom, playing his Flying V electric guitar as loudly as he can. Ray wants the voices to go away, and has no desire to carry out their orders (he even says as much to his potential victims), but his simplistic nature has made it impossible for him to fight the demon controlling his mind. Vince has always been an underrated actor, and in The Devil’s Candy he manages to make us feel sorry for a character that more than once transforms into a monster before our very eyes. 

With The Devil’s Candy, writer / director Sean Byrne has crafter a singular motion picture, and thanks to his steady hand and the excellent performances turned in by his cast the movie loses none of its effectiveness from one viewing to the next. There are instances when familiarity does, indeed, breed contempt, but in the case of The Devil’s Candy it only manages to stir up dread.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

#2,473. House of Flying Daggers (2004)

Directed By: Yimou Zhang

Starring: Ziyi Zhang, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Andy Lau

Line from the film: "We belong to two opposing sides. If we meet again... one of us will have to die"

Trivia:  Yimou Zhang chose world famous opera diva Kathleen Battle to sing the theme song for this film

As a follow-up to his 2002 film Hero, director Zhang Yimou once again delved into the martial arts genre with House of Flying Daggers, a motion picture every bit as exciting – and just as beautiful – as its predecessor. 

In 9th century China, towards the end of the Teng Dynasty, a rebel organization known as the Flying Daggers is attempting to overthrow the corrupt provincial government. Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro, Chungking Express), a member of the local police force, is ordered by his Captain (Andy Lau, Infernal Affairs) to go undercover and win the trust of Mei (Zhang Ziyi, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), a blind dancing girl recently taken into custody. Both Jin and the Captain are convinced Mei is, in fact, the daughter of the recently-deceased leader of the Flying Daggers, and it’s their hope that she will lead them straight to the group’s secret headquarters. 

After “helping” Mei escape, Jin (who tells her his name is “The Wind”) follows her deep into the wilderness, doing his best to steer clear of the government troops that are trailing close behind. But during their adventure, Jin and Mei develop feelings for one another, causing Jin to question his loyalties; should he continue with his mission, or protect the woman he now loves? 

In my write-up of Hero, I called it “an all-out attack on the senses” and “an amazing barrage of sights and sounds that never seems to end”. The same can be said for House of Flying Daggers. This movie is incredible; a visual smorgasbord that features one stunning scene after another. Early on, we’re treated to the “Echo Game”, a colorful, wonderfully choreographed sequence in which the Police Captain challenges Mei to a very unusual contest. Equally as good is a later scene set in a bamboo forest, where Jin and Mei battle the government troops attacking them from high atop the trees. 

These are but two of the many extraordinary sequences to be found in House of Flying Daggers, and thanks to the combined efforts of director Zhang Yimou, cinematographer Xiaoding Zhao, and the movie’s excellent special effects crew, the action-oriented scenes are both thrilling and visually awe-inspiring. 

While the story itself (which centers on the love affair that develops between its two leads) may not be as grand in scope as the one told in Hero, director Yimou and his writers throw a few unexpected plot twists into the mix to keep things interesting. This, along with its mind-blowing imagery and exceptional fight scenes, makes House of Flying Daggers, like Hero before it, an astounding cinematic achievement that is not to be missed.

Friday, December 1, 2017

#2,472. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

Directed By: Wes Anderson

Starring: George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Bill Murray

Tag line: "His life is fantastic... his wife is fantastic... his neighbors, not so fantastic"

Trivia: Altogether, 535 puppets were made for the film (Mr. Fox had 17 different styles alone)

Fantastic Mr. Fox is a delightful rarity; a kid-friendly animated adventure that is unlike any movie director Wes Anderson ever made before, yet still bears the unmistakable markings of a Wes Anderson film. 

After learning that his beloved wife (voiced by Meryl Streep) is pregnant, Mr. Fox (George Clooney), a notorious chicken thief, vows to find a new line of work. 

Several years pass. Mr. Fox is now a well-respected (if somewhat obscure) newspaper columnist, and his young son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) is proving to be a handful (Ash is not only a bit odd, but he seldom does what he’s told). When informed that his nephew Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson) will be coming to stay with them for a while, Mr. Fox decides to move his family into a bigger, above-ground home, one that overlooks three prestigious poultry farms owned and operated by Boggis (Robin Hurlstone), Bunce (Hugo Guinness), and Bean (Michael Gambon). 

Itching to return to his life of crime, Mr. Fox teams up with his new handyman Kylie the Possum (Wallace Wolodarsky) and raids the trio of farms adjacent to his property. But Boggis, Bunce, and especially Bean are not to be trifled with, and the three join forces in an attempt to rid themselves of a very pesky Fox. 

Will Mr. Fox win out in the end, or are his thieving days behind him for good? 

Based on a children’s book by Roald Dahl, Fantastic Mr. Fox is a movie that the entire family can enjoy, with a colorful lead character (handled wonderfully by the always-reliable George Clooney) whose various adventures will have you laughing from the edge of your seat. Along with being both funny and exciting, Fantastic Mr. Fox is also touching in its own way (the relationship between Mr. Fox and his son Ash offers a few heartwarming moments). In addition to its thematic elements, the stop-motion animation is superb, and there are scenes within the film that are truly unforgettable (the best of which features an underground feast that’s interrupted by a river of apple cider). 

Yet as good a piece of family entertainment as this movie is, what struck me while I was watching Fantastic Mr. Fox was how Wes Anderson’s signature style shined through in just about every scene. We see it in an early flashback, when the Foxes break into a Squab farm moments before Mrs. Fox announces that she’s pregnant. Following the two as they sneak around the farm, the scene has a familiar energy to it, fueled in part by Anderson’s choice of music ("Heroes & Villains" by the Beach Boys, which plays during the entire sequence). We’ve seen stylized moments like this before in Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and The Royal Tenenbaums, and because of this we recognize the “Anderson touch” almost immediately. 

In addition, many of the director’s regulars lend their voices to the movie, including Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray (as Badger, Mr. Fox’s accountant), Willem Dafoe (as a rat hired to guard Bean’s valuable supply of apple cider), and Michael Gambon. We’re even treated to one of Anderson’s patented montage sequences (narrated by Bill Murray) in which we’re introduced to the film’s three evil farmers. 

Fantastic Mr. Fox is a unique entry in Anderson’s filmography, but there’s no mistaking that it is, indeed, a Wes Anderson picture.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

#2,471. Salon Kitty (1976)

Directed By: Tinto Brass

Starring: Helmut Berger, Ingrid Thulin, Teresa Ann Savoy

Tag line: "Nazi Germany, 1939. Depraved. Decadent. Damned"

Trivia: Richard Crenna was originally cast as Cliff but left during the filming and was replaced by John Ireland

Directed by Tinto Brass (who a few years later would helm the extremely controversial Caligula), Salon Kitty is a cross between an erotic exploitation flick and an historical drama, relating the tale of an actual WWII-era brothel and filling it with enough nudity and sex to keep the grindhouse crowd entertained. 

Though she runs the most prestigious whorehouse in all of Germany, Madame Kitty (Ingrid Thulin) is informed by Nazi S.S. officer Helmut Wallenberg (Helmut Berger) that her entire operation is being moved to a new location. What’s more, she’s been ordered to dismiss her current prostitutes and replace them with women loyal to the Socialist Party. Wallenberg tells Kitty that her new and improved “Salon” will cater to the most important men in Germany, but in reality the S.S. is using the brothel to gather information on so-called “loyal” Nazis; the girls have all been trained in espionage, and there are microphones and recording devices planted throughout the building. 

Kitty, who has no idea what Wallenberg and his associates are up to, does her best to turn this new brothel into a lucrative business, only to discover the truth when Margherita (Teresa Ann Savoy), one of Wallenberg’s hand-selected prostitutes, falls in love with German pilot Hans Reiter (Bekim Fehmiu). Reiter, who also has feelings for Margherita, tells her that he’s fed up with the war and the Nazis, and he intends to defect to the other side as soon as possible. When Margherita learns a short while later that the S.S. had her beloved Hans executed as a traitor, she and Madame Kitty concoct a scheme that, if successful, will take down Wallenberg and his entire covert operation. 

When initially released in the U.S., Salon Kitty was saddled with an ‘X’ by the MPAA, and it’s a rating the movie certainly deserves; though it shies away from depicting hardcore sex acts, the film Is jam-packed with graphic nudity (both male and female) and features moments involving group sex, forced lesbianism (Wallenberg, who also has his eye on Margherita, orders her at one point to cozy up to his wife Herta, played by Tina Aumont), masturbation, and other acts of perversion (in what is easily one of the film’s most bizarre scenes, a Nazi officer tells a prostitute to put a penis-shaped loaf of bread between her legs, and then he performs fellatio on it). In addition to all the debauchery, Salon Kitty also has a sequence set inside a real-life slaughterhouse that’s tough to watch (in it, a pig has its throat cut before it’s butchered on-screen). 

But thanks to the fine work turned in by its cast, not to mention some well-realized sets and costumes, Salon Kitty proves to be more than just another sex-fueled exploitation film. Helmut Berger is perfect as the shifty Wallenberg, an ambitious officer who intends to use the information gathered at Kitty’s to advance his own career; and Ingrid Thulin (who appeared in a number of Ingmar Bergman classics, including Wild Strawberries and Cries and Whispers) is equally strong as Kitty, the Madame who wants only to bring some joy to those who need it most. The performances, coupled with a well-realized romantic subplot (Savoy and Fehmiu are convincing as the naïve lovers), help Salon Kitty rise above the usual erotic fare. 

The only issue I had with Salon Kitty was its running time; the movie (in its original, uncut version) is about 133 minutes, and even with its plethora of exploitative elements it was, at times, a chore to sit through it. But with Tinto Brass and company going to great lengths to recreate the period in stunning detail, even the slower scenes are visually interesting; and if you feel you can tolerate an historical piece that’s chock full of adult content, then Salon Kitty may just be the film for you.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

#2,470. Any Which Way You Can (1980)

Directed By: Buddy Van Horn

Starring: Clint Eastwood, Sondra Locke, Geoffrey Lewis

Tag line: "Faster, funnier and wilder. It'll knock you out"

Trivia: The orangutan who played Clyde in this film was found dead of a cerebral hemorrhage two weeks after the film wrapped

This 1980 follow-up isn’t so much a movie as it is a continuation of the party that was Every Which Way but Loose, and with practically every member of the original cast on-hand once again, it’s damn entertaining to boot. 

New York mobster James Beekman (Barry Guardino) is trying to set up a fight for Hank Wilson (William Smith), the undisputed bare-knuckle champ of the East Coast. Unfortunately, Wilson’s reputation precedes him; his last match ended when he killed his opponent! Still, Beekman is determined to find a challenger worthy of taking on his champion, and eventually settles on California native Philo Beddoe (Clint Eastwood), who has yet to lose a fight. 

Offered $10,000 in advance, Beddoe agrees to square off against Wilson, only to change his mind when his nearest and dearest, including longtime manager Orville (Geoffrey Lewis), his landlady Ma (Ruth Gordon), and girlfriend Lynn Taylor-Halsey (Sondra Locke), beg him to call it off. Even Philo’s pet Orangutan Clyde wants him to cancel it. 

But as Philo will soon discover, the mob can be very persistent; to force his hand, they kidnap Lynn and promise Philo that, if he doesn’t fight, he’ll never see her alive again. To save the love of his life, and with a lot of people across the country betting on him to win, Philo feels he must go through with it, but worries that he and Wilson, who have since become good friends, may not put on the kind of show that Beekman and his associates are expecting. 

Any Which Way You Can has more of a story than its predecessor, but like the 1978 original this movie is at its best when focusing on its characters. Geoffrey Lewis returns as Orville, and Ruth Gordon’s Ma is just as cantankerous this time around (she even manages to land herself a boyfriend). Despite how they left things in Every Which Way but Loose, Sondra Locke’s Lynn Taylor-Halsey is also back, rekindling her romance with Philo. Then, of course, there’s Clyde the Orangutan, who has his share of funny scenes (the best being when he trashes a car driven by Beekman’s right-hand man). Though played by a different primate (Mabis, the orangutan in Every Which Way but Loose, had matured, making him dangerous to work with), Clyde is just as entertaining as ever. 

Along with the main cast, the Black Widow biker gang, led by the always-frustrated Chollo (John Quade), are still trying to even the score with Philo Beddoe (their run-in with a road tarring vehicle leads to some of the movie’s biggest laughs). Even the gambler, Beekman, has a memorable introduction (when first we meet him, he’s bet big bucks on his pet rattlesnake, which is locked in a life-or-death struggle with a mongoose). In one of the film’s most interesting twists, Philo and his soon-to-be opponent in the fight, Jack Wilson, become friends (each man saves the others’ life at different points in the movie); and we even spend some time with a few of the high-rollers betting on Philo, like Texas millionaire Zack Tupper (Barry Corbin) and mob boss Tony Paoli Sr. (Al Ruscio), whose $1 million bet makes Beekman more than a little nervous. 

Then there’s the music, with the opening tune “Beers to You” (a duet by Ray Charles and star Clint Eastwood) establishing the film’s party-like atmosphere right from the get-go. And like Every Which Way but Loose, Any Which Way You Can features cameos by a few legendary musicians, such as Fats Domino and Glen Campbell, both of whom also perform. Even Clyde gets his own song this time around (“The Orangutan Hall of Fame”, sung by Cliff Crofford). As with the first film, its country music soundtrack fits Any Which Way You Can to a T. 

Thanks to cable television, I actually saw Any Which Way You Can before Every Which Way but Loose, and while there were a couple of minor plot points that I wasn’t up to speed on (I didn’t know why there was so much tension between Philo and Lynn in the early scenes), I had no problem at all keeping up with this 1980 sequel, which has plenty of action (the fight that closes out the film is epic), lots of laughs, and even a little romance (just about every main character, including Clyde, lands a significant other). 

Any Which Way You Can definitely stuck close to the formula established in the first movie, but at least it was a formula that worked.

Friday, November 24, 2017

#2,469. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne (1981)

Directed By: Walerian Borowczyk

Starring: Udo Kier, Marina Pierro, Patrick Magee

Tag line: "Recourse to evil runs rampant against the laws of human restraint"

Trivia: Fanny Osbourne was the name of Robert Louis Stevenson's real life fiancée

Having already impressed me with his penchant for arthouse debauchery in The Beast and Behind Convent Walls, I was eager to see director Walerian Borowczyk‘s 1981 film The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne. And as it was with the other two movies, I was not disappointed. 

Noted scientist Dr. Henry Jekyll (Udo Kier) is engaged to be married to the lovely Ms. Fanny Osbourne (Marina Pierro), and some of the most important people in London have been invited to a dinner party celebrating their impending nuptials. Among those in attendance are General William Danvers Carew (Patrick Magee) and his beautiful daughter Charlotte (Agnès Daems); The Rev. Donald Regan Guest (Clément Harari); Mr and Mrs. Enfield (Eugene Braun Monk, Catherine Cost) and their teenage daughter Victoria (Magali Noaro); and Dr. Lanyon (Howard Vernon), Dr. Jekyll’s mentor and a first-class surgeon. 

What none of them realizes is that another guest will also be joining them: Mr. Edward Hyde (played by Gérard Zalcberg), Dr. Jekyll’s volatile, over-stimulated alter-ego. The result of one of Dr. Jekyll’s experiments, Mr. Hyde occasionally takes over Jekyll’s body, raping and killing every young woman he comes across (soon after Mr. Hyde makes his first “appearance”, the dinner guests begin to die in grisly fashion). 

Hoping to ensure that her fiance is safe, Fanny sneaks into Henry Jekyll’s lab and, while there, learns the truth about his connection to Mr. Hyde. Can Fanny marry a man who is unable to control the darkness in his soul, or does she have a few demons of her own that will make her the ideal wife for both Jekyll and Hyde? 

Using Robert Louis Stevenson’s gothic tale as a starting point, Borowczyk adds his own unique spin to the story (Fanny Osbourne was not in the novel; in reality, this was the name of Stevenson’s real-life wife, an adventurous woman whose tenacity impressed Borowczyk). And in so doing, the director creates a motion picture that is both perfectly refined (the various discussions that occur during the party, including a rather tense debate between Jekyll and Dr. Lanyon on the merits of metaphysical science, are well-scripted) and undeniably grotesque (the movie opens with the attempted rape and murder of an adolescent girl on the streets of London; and a scene in which Dr. Lanyon inspects the remains of a female guest, whose genitals were butchered beyond recognition by Hyde, proves difficult to watch). 

Still, even with its more extreme elements (which includes Hyde raping one of the male dinner guests), The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne is more subtle – more restrained - than either The Beast or Behind Convent Walls. That is in no way a slight on this 1981 movie; as I already pointed out, it has its lewder moments. But the fact that Borowczyk also manages to engage his audience with dialogue and an appreciation of the arts (along with a dance routine performed by Victoria, there’s a painting that sparks a spirited conversation among the guests) is a testament to his skills as a filmmaker. 

Make no mistake: The Strange Case of Dr, Jekyll and Miss Osbourne will shock, and occasionally appall, you. But it will also stimulate your mind, and do so quite brilliantly.