Monday, September 18, 2017

Fool's Views (7/1 – 8/31)

Yep, it’s another 2-months-for-1, which not coincidentally at all cover the rehearsal and performance dates of Oak Park Festival Theatre’s boisterous and crowd-pleasing production of Thomas Heywood’s The Fair Maid of the West. (See trailer HERE.) Between early mornings at the health club and late nights slinging steel (and trying to catch up on sleep whenever possible), there remained precious little time to sit in front of the flickering image. Well, and stay conscious, that is. Many was the time that I passed out 10 minutes in and had to rewind/resume later.

That said, I was relatively pleased with the ground covered by the 19 films below, though it quickly becomes obvious to anyone with half an eye that my attention was placed clearly in the civilian quarter. No apologies, especially since October is only a few weeks away, although I heartily regret choosing Tank 432 out of the dozens of screeners I had on the docket. Ben Wheatley may be a dandy director, but he’s already blown his rep as far as executive producing goes.

Anyway, I will be keeping these trim and lean, since we’ve already got rehearsals for another show on the horizon (The Man-Beast at First Folio Theatre) and the clock is ticking for the annual Scare-A-Thon and October Horror Movie Challenge. Seems like only a year ago....

As always, feel free to leave your two cents worth – we’ll make sure you get some change back.



Brain Damage (1988) d. Henenlotter, Frank (USA) (2nd viewing)

Blessed with a (slightly) higher budget and a few more miles under his wheels following his midnight movie cult classic Basket Case, writer/director Henenlotter unleashed this equally zany and gory bonkersfest about a brain-devouring parasite named Elmer (“Not Elmer! Aylmer! The Aylmer!”) that escapes from its guardians and ends up literally and figuratively in bed with next-door neighbor Brian (Rick Hearst/Herbst). In exchange for spinal injections of Elmer’s euphoria-inducing blue juice, the hapless youth takes his supernatural drug dealer out for midnight strolls that conclude with someone else’s gray matter and blood on the floor.

As dark and sinister as the subject matter (a transparent metaphor for addiction) might be, it’s handled in a charmingly cartoonish way and Elmer (voiced by veteran horror host John Zacherle and shaped like a blue/gray phallus and/or turd) is an instant outsider horror icon. The recent Blu-ray release from Arrow Video is loaded with choice special features, including an hour-long documentary, Listen to the Light: The Making of Brain Damage (below), interviews with SPFX geniuses Gabe Bartalos and Al Magliochetti, script supervisor Karen Ogle, a tour of the original NYC shooting locations led by former Fangoria managing director Michael Gingold, and more.

Split (2016) d. Shyamalan, M. Night (USA) (1st viewing)

I thought long and hard about whether to even include this under the horror heading, but since we’re a little light this time around, I’ll let it slide. It’s not that there isn’t the potential for Shamalamadingdong to conjure some decent scares: we’ve got a violent schizophrenic (James McAvoy) kidnapping young women and holding them captive, we’ve got some mutant shapeshifting, we’ve got Betty Buckley…. But it never really seems to get off the ground, acting more as an acting showcase for McAvoy to pull faces and voices than a genuinely scary (or engaging) yarn. The closing credits hint to a tie-in to an earlier, better Shyamalan film sparks a little interest, but I would have rather seen him just have made that movie in the first place rather than making us sit through this ponderous opening chapter. The VVitch’s Anya Taylor-Joy deserved a better follow-up vehicle (actually, looking at her upcoming credits, she needs to straight-up fire her agent).

Tank 432 (2015) d. Gillespie, Nick (UK) (1st viewing)

Ugh. What a drag. A group of ex-military mercenaries attempt to transport their “cargo,” several hooded prisoners, from point A to point B and end up hiding out in the titular abandoned armored vehicle… only to find themselves locked in with no way out. Kill List’s Ben Wheatley may have exec-produced and there is no denying the polish and professionalism of all involved, but writer/director Gillespie has absolutely nothing to bring to the party except a generic concept filled with generic characters spouting generic dialogue and profanity. Thoroughly exhausting and pointless, and all the more disheartening knowing that this is what is getting distribution by IFC Midnight (and Shout! Factory) while other, worthier offerings remain neglected. Sigh.


Before Sunset (2004) d. Linklater, Richard (USA) (1st viewing)

The sequel to Before Sunrise is not quite the lightning strike of its 1995 predecessor, but it’s an interesting enough experiment and successful enough to recommend it. As before, Ethan Hawke is far more mannered in his characterization than co-star Julie Delpy, but not distracting enough to sink the enterprise. Not sure if I buy the ending, but so be it.

Brain Donors (1992) d. Dugan, Dennis (USA) (1st viewing)

A worthy attempt at recreating the anarchic mayhem of a Marx Brothers movie, with John Turturro in for Groucho, Bob Nelson in for a kinda sorta Harpo, and British comedian Mel Smith as a much, much, much less funny Chico. The basic plot has Turturro’s flim-flam artist attempting to woo his way into the pocketbook of wealthy widow Nancy Marchand by helping assemble a top-notch ballet concert, with mistaken identities and romantic rivalries fueling the comic bits. Unlike the Marxs, however, the comic bits have not been refined through months of touring the vaudeville circuit and ruthlessly trimming the ones that didn’t work. Sadly, the end result is scattershot at best, making one wish they were watching the real McCoy instead.

Deepwater Horizon (2016) d. Berg, Peter (USA) (1st viewing)

I was pleasantly surprised by how effective this big-budget telling of the oil drilling disaster was at generating and maintaining tension. Berg uses his team’s special effects to great effect, evoking a palpable sense of “holy mackerel that's probably exactly what it would be like if an oil rig went crazy.” The feeling of dealing with forces soooo much greater than ourselves and once the monster is loose, it cannot be tamed. This should not be seen as a documentary - it's definitely given the simplistic Hollywood treatment by celebrating the heroes amidst the tragedy (and they don't even touch upon the environmental impact), but it doesn't shy away from pointing the finger at the shameful decisions that BP execs made in the interest of the almighty dollar. Mark Wahlberg is sturdy as usual, but it's Kurt Russell's show as the no-nonsense head of operations. I’m more than a little inclined to check out Berg’s other work based on what I’m seeing here.

DOA - Dead or Alive (2006) d. Yuen, Corey (USA) (2nd viewing)

“Inspired” by the videogame, this light-hearted concoction about an international fighting tournament that invites “the best in the world in their respective practices” to fight to the finish Enter the Dragon-style shouldn’t be nearly as much fun popcorn entertainment as it ends up being. Credit Hong Kong legend Yuen and his game cast (led by Jaime Pressley, Holly Valance, Devon Aoki, and Eric Roberts) for taking the project seriously in terms of physical training/execution and not taking themselves seriously at all.

The Night They Raided Minsky's (1968) d. Friedkin, William (USA) (1st viewing)

Little-seen-or-discussed early effort from the man who would blow Hollywood’s doors off with The French Connection three years later that focuses on a burlesque hall targeted by the moral minority seeking to shut down the smut. Solution: promote that “Tonight’s performance will be the most scandalous ever seen!” pack the house, then offer up the most demure presentation imaginable, in this case, wide-eyed Amish girl Britt Ekland doing interpretative dances to Bible stories. Friedkin apparently hated the whole project and abandoned it immediately after shooting, leaving it to editor Ralph Rosenblum to salvage it and his attempts at so doing (cutting from color to black-and-white) are the most interesting elements. Great cast (Jason Robards, Elliott Gould, Forrest Tucker, Denham Elliott, Bert Lahr, and Brit comedy legend Norman Wisdom) does what it can, and no one really embarrasses him-or-herself, but that’s about the best that can be said. (Robards in particular seems an odd choice as a vaudeville comic.)

Our Brand is Crisis (2015) d. Green, David Gordon (USA) (1st viewing)

Political dramedy based on Rachel Boynton’s 2005 documentary of the same name, with Sandra Bullock and Billy Bob Thornton as dueling political strategists advising their respective candidates in the Bolivian presidential race. Wants to be rollicking and bawdy and cutting and satirical and righteous, but only ends up feeling strained.


Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) d. Watts, Jon (USA) (1st viewing)

It was a toss-up between kicking off my day with this or War for the Planet of the Apes. I opted to give Marvel more money it doesn’t need because Spidey was the one people were touting as the “most fun.” I… guess? I mean, sure, there’s some enjoyable web-slinging action set-pieces and Robert Downey, Jr. is on hand to cash his paycheck for saying things in that quippy snarky way of his, but I didn’t cotton much to how whiny and hyper Tom Holland is as Peter Parker. It was okay in small doses for Captain America: Civil War. Not so much for the lead character in a standalone feature. And absolutely don’t get everyone goolygogging over Michael Keaton as The Vulture. Anyone, and I do mean anyone could have done what he did, which was very little.

Atomic Blonde (2017) d. Leitch, David (Germany/USA) (1st viewing)

Some fantastic extended single-take fights (executed for the most part by star Charlize Theron herself without the aid of a stunt double) in the service of a so-so spy story. Not bad, not great. The fights are really the reason to see it and they’ll be on YouTube in 5 minutes if they aren’t already.

Brigsby Bear (2017) d. McCary, David (USA) (1st viewing)

A fantastic and rewarding surprise, one that I hadn’t heard anything about and only wandered into because I needed a movie to get me from 5pm to 7pm (when I was planning to see Baby Driver). As was the case when watching Swiss Army Man last summer, this was the question that kept coming up throughout: How the HELL did this movie get into multiplexes??? Quirky doesn’t begin to describe the atmosphere in the telling of a story of a young man secreted away from the “normal” world, where his only form of entertainment is that of a fantasy/sci-fi television serial featuring the Heroic and Friendly Ursa of the title. To say more would be doing the film a disservice. See it as spoiler-free as possible, but do see it.

Baby Driver (2017) d. Wright, Edgar (UK/USA) (1st viewing)

Ansel Elgort is the cool-as-frozen-yogurt getaway driver for criminal Kevin Spacey, with John Hamm, Jamie Foxx, and Eiza Gonzalez as the rest of the heist team. But it’s Wright, best known as the director of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, who is the real star here, doling out action set-pieces by the fistful with a throbbing soundtrack that utterly slays. Pure escapism, but of the finest vintage.


CitizenFour (2014) d. Poitras, Laura (USA) (1st viewing)

Having seen the Oliver Stone pic Snowden earlier this year, I finally got around to seeing the real deal and it’s far superior, focusing (as its subject hoped its creators would) on the crime being perpetrated by the U.S. government as opposed to the whistleblower. You will never look at your webcam or cell phone the same way again.

Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me (2013) d. Karasawa, Chiemi (USA) (1st viewing)

A year in the life and company of the brassy Broadway legend. She’s a handful, but the star quality keeps us coming back for more.

Future Shock! The Story of 2000AD (2014) d. Goodwin, Paul (UK) (1st viewing)

A fantastic primer for the uninitiated (i.e. me) into the world of British comic books and the company that introduced Judge Dredd and a score of talented artists to the world (and, some would argue, to DC comics, who pilfered a goodly number of their staff). Available now from Severin Films.

Listen to the Light: The Making of Brain Damage (2017) d. Drenner, Elijah (USA) (1st viewing)

“Why are the stars always winkin’ and blinkin’ above? What makes a fellow start thinkin’ of fallin’ in love? It’s not the season, the reason is plain as the moon. It’s just Elmer’s tune! What makes a lady, of eighty, go out on the loose? Why does a gander, meander, in search of a goose? What puts the kick in, a chicken, the magic in june? It’s just Elmer’s tune! Listen, listen, there’s a lot you’re liable to be missin’ Sing it, swing it, any old place, and any old time. The hurdy-gurdies, the birdies, the cop on the beat. The candy-maker, the baker, the man on the street. The city charmer, the farmer, the man in the moon, all sing Elmer’s tune!”

The Search for Weng Weng (2007) d. Leavold, Andrew (Australia) (1st viewing)

The story of Leavold’s pursuit of the truth regarding his subject, the 3-foot Filipino 1980s action star, is as astounding and improbable as the success of the films in which Weng Weng appeared. By turns hilarious, inspiring, and tragic, we cross paths with the diminutive actor’s former co-stars, directors, family members, and even Imelda Marcos, weaving a tale that reflects not just a single life but that of a country in transition. Available now from Wild Eye Releasing.


Rashomon (1950) d. Kurosawa, Akira (Japan) (2nd viewing)

This masterpiece of Japanese cinema sits at #108 on IMDb’s Top 250, below For a Few Dollars More (#102), Dunkirk (#79), Braveheart (#75), The Dark Knight Rises (#63), Django Unchained (#59), Gladiator (#46), Interstellar (#32), and Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (#8).

I don’t even know what to do with you people. Explain yourselves. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Dersu Uzala (1975) d. Kurosawa, Akira (USSR) (2nd viewing)

Frustrated creatively and financially, Kurosawa left his native Japan to create this Oscar-winner about the real-life Japanese tracker who is befriended by a Russian survey group in the Siberian forests. The team struggles to survive in harsh environmental landscapes, beset by homicidal humans alongside beasts of the wild, aided by their innately skilled foreign companion who shows remarkable resourcefulness in the face of adversity. Nature’s great power and savage beauty are marvelously showcased, and Kurosawa’s gift for quiet contemplative moments amidst chaos has never been better put to use.

2017 Totals to date: 138 films, 116 1st time views, 52 horror, 35 cinema