Evil Dead

Dir: Sam Raimi
1981
Wow, was it really 16 years ago that I watched this for the first time, and is this really the second time I’ve seen it?
I’ve always said I preferred this Evil Dead to the sequel, as this one have much more bad vibes to it, and less slapstick. I still think the “forest-rape” scene is rather silly, but the demonic possession is still chilling and the scares still made me jump, and all done in the simplest way (sleight of hand, making us look at one part of the screen and popping something up elsewhere.) And I had plum forgotten about all the wonderful stop-motion animation at the end.
This special release from Anchor Bay comes in a “Book of the Dead” rubber mask-covered case and contains bonus outtakes, an interview with the British distributors that made Evil Dead a roaring success and a fine, short documentary by Bruce Campbell on fans and fanatics, which contained enough shots of overweight Jedi Knights and furries to keep me away from conventions for life.

The Hustler

Dir: Robert Rosssen
1961
Most excellent and gritty drama that made a well-deserved star out of Paul Newman,
but also has fine performances by George C. Scott and Piper Laurie, as well as a “guest star” appearance by Jackie Gleason, saying few words and dominating the screen. Who could do that now?
The film has a surprising structure, with an opening 10 minute “tease” that sets up Fast Eddie (Newman) and his manager Charlie (Myron McCormick) as pool hustlers. Then for the next 30 or so minutes Fast Eddie goes up against reigning champion Minnesota Fats (Gleason), winning, then losing all his earnings in a show of hubris (and booze). It’s such a long scene it surprising they thought they could lead off with it, but it’s engrossing nonetheless. Fast Eddie rehabilitates with the help of Piper Laurie’s Sarah, an alcoholic trust-fund baby with a habit for picking up men to share a bottle with. Bert (George C. Scott) becomes his new manager and the second half of the film follows the three as Bert uses Fast Eddie and destroys Sarah in the process. Nobody in this film is a dunce, but they all have their weaknesses. And its in recognizing the weaknesses that make the characters strong–ignore weakness at your own cost…
This a film about father figures and father issues, a psychological drama as only they could make ’em back then. (Psychological dramas now have somebody say “I love you, Dad” in the third act.) Fast Eddie spends the film looking to topple the father (Minnesota Fats), leaves his manager, finds another one even worse (“When did you adopt me?” Fast Eddie asks Bert after one spectacularly written scene in a bar), and in doing so, kills off the feminine. His maturity is revealed at the end when both Fats and Fast (anagrams of each other, notice) size each other up as equals, not a high/low equation. Great performances all ’round–no wonder Newman became such a star.

Japanese Story

Dir: Sue Brooks
2003
I’m glad I stuck with this film,
because for the first half the story really sticks close to the typical road-film crossed with romantic-drama of two people who are complete opposites finding love. Sandy (Toni Collette) is a geologist software expert who winds up accompanying an interested Japanese salaryman Hiromitsu (Gotaro Tsunashima) around the outback. She’s rude and outspoken, he’s quiet and demure. She can’t believe she’s being treated as just a tour guide, he is headstrong over where he wants to go and doesn’t care how long it takes to get there. The characters are almost stereotypical, but then the two get stuck in the outback and things begin to flesh out. The third act then throws a complete curve ball and suddenly the film takes on much emotional resonance, not just from our relationship to the characters, but our relationship to the expectations of genre.
I dont’ want to mention the third act surprise, but the film becomes a true study of grief, and not even the early scenes that would suggest a framing structure (to give us that good ol’ sense of “closure”) are found wanting in the face of events. What starts off as a story of the difficulties of bridging cultures through communication in a lighthearted way turns around and looks at the difficulties of communicating emotion, and the inability of the unaffected parties to understand just what has been lost. It’s good stuff, and it reminds me a little bit of the emotional punch of another recent Australian film, “Lantana.”
Toni Collette looked familiar and no wonder: she was the girlfriend in “About a Boy,” and, reaching back, the title character of “Muriel’s Wedding.” Blimey.

The Ladykillers

Dirs: Ethan and Joel Coen
2004
“That’s a bomb,” my dad said, when I was over visiting
and the ad for “The Ladykillers” came on the TV. He didn’t know I had just come from the cinema having seen it. “That’s what the critics say,” he say. “They say it’s terrible.” “Well, I thought it was allright,” I tossed in, but the damage was done. I’m told that this is a bad film.
Now, I suppose that, compared to the original Ealing comedy, this is pretty shallow stuff. The film just goes for the jokes and doesn’t bother with characters, and is fair ammunition for those who think the Coen Brothers are exquisite stylists with hearts of cold. Look at the film that way, and it’s a bomb, I suppose.
But the Coens have given us rounded characters before, so I believe they know what they’re doing. This is Ealing rethought as a screwball comedy, pure satire. I laughed through most of it. It was refreshing to see Tom Hanks playing a comic role for once–I thought he was going to sink into stodgy characters like the FBI agent in “Catch Me If You Can” (to which I remarked to my wife next to me, “What, didn’t Dan Ackroyd have time to play this?”). Stuck with goofy teeth and coming on like a over-educated Colonel Sanders, his character makes no realistic sense. And neither do his ragtag group of criminals who are helping dig a tunnel from the basement of his lodging house into the casino’s vault. I found “The General” (Tzi Ma) a funny character throughout, a militaristic Vietnamese gentleman with a Hitler moustache and a perpetual half-smoked cigarette in his mouth. Likewise the accident-prone explosives expert (J.K. Simmons) with a case of irritable bowel syndrome. Marlon Wayans does the typical loudmouthed homey, but I laughed at that too. What can I say? However, you do get the itchy sensation that the Coens consider everybody in this film to be a fool, except perhaps the cat.
My main complaint is that the movie is too long in its set-up, execution, and resolution. But will I be renting it for a family get-together, so I can hear my mom pee her pants laughing? You bet your sweet bippy.

The Sure Thing

Dir: Rob Reiner
1984
Our local library has something like 200 DVDs,
but they are so popular only 5 are on the shelf at any given time (where else but Netflix can you get a deal like free rental, 7-day-loan?). It’s become a bit of filmgoer zen when approaching the shelf. I’ll usually find one film a week to watch from here, but I’ll have no idea what. Metropolis was last week’s “choice”. This week it was Rob Reiner’s romantic comedy “The Sure Thing,” which I had never seen.
A pleasant, none-too-cynical mix of “opposites attract” with a road movie, the film takes you exactly where you want to go–the eventual coupling of wild-boy John Cusack and conservative Alison (Daphne Zuniga)–but throws in every obstacle it can. A few surprising things, based on what the teen romantic comedy has become. Zuniga’s character is not the ugly duckling, the nerdy girl who suddenly looks like a million bucks when she takes off her glasses. She stays pretty much the same fashionwise throughout–it’s her character, revealed through her face, that changes. Nobody’s character traits are revealed to arise from parental issues. Refreshingly, we don’t hear much about either of their parents, except that Alison’s dad has left her with a credit card (to be discovered in one fortuitous scene). Plus the romantic tension never resolves itself until after the two return to the East Coast. How many road films feature the characters returning home?
John Cusack, in the film that made him a star, shows ever here the great charisma and ease in performing that marks all his early films. Daphne Zuniga, who went on to star in Spaceballs and four seasons of Melrose Place) gets short shrift in the DVD extras. She gets interviewed, but nobody else seems to talk about her when reminiscing about the film. The blonde who plays “The Sure Thing” (Nicolette Sheridan) gets name checked more.
Teen films are so formulaic now (although the great resurgence in them–the Freddie Prinze Jr. years–seems to have passed) that The Sure Thing, despite having a bikini-wearing fantasy woman, feels old-fashioned and “classic.”
But I also think that people who love this film really are in love with who they were when they saw it. Unlike “Say Anything”, I didn’t find the script to be that quotable. There’s no scene comparable to SA’s “Gas ‘n’ Sip”, or a monolog as bizarre as Lloyd Dobler’s career statement.
Local note–at one point they drive over a bridge that I recognized as the one on the north side of the 154–descending from Camino Cielo down to the Cachuma Lake region. The little winding path underneath it (visible on the DVD) goes to Cold Springs Tavern (we were just there last week). It’s a great bridge, especially seen from that road below. I believe at this point the characters were supposed to be in the Midwest.

Metropolis

Dir: Rintaro
2001
A strange amalgam of Fritz Lang and anime,
this adaptation of Osamu Tezuka’s manga comes on like a giant amusement park as seen by a four year old child jonesing for some ritalin. The metropolis of the title is a similar-to-Lang mega-city, with a street level surrounded by skyscrapers and elevated trams, while underneath the city, runs a poorer level populated by proto-revolutionaries and service robots. Everything on both levels looks great–I can’t think of a more self-consciously colorful anime. If anyone bothered anymore, this is a great film to toke up to.
The film has taken on Tezuka’s manga (written in 1948, I believe) and, instead of just focusing on Tima, the girl humanoid robot who searches for her identity, throws in a lot of characters. I’m not too sure whose story we’re really watching. Boy-hero Ken-ichi never fully develops as a character–while he does rescue Tima at the beginning, he is easily taken out by the bad guys who want her back. Tima is too helpless, the detective uncle is too cagey.
A lot of “Metropolis” is given over to either chase scenes or rescue scenes and the end if very much like Castle in the Sky. Released in pre-9/11 2001, its sequence of crumbling and toppling skyscrapers with a Ray Charles tune playing over the top might have worked once.
Still, it’s lovely to look at, and I particularly liked Kiki, the three-legged trashcan robot who briefly became Ken-ichi and Tima’s friend. Making sounds like an affectionate puppy, I was sad to see him/her fall sacrificial to the bad guys’ bullets.
The DVD’s 5.1 mix really worked my speakers, with echoes receding far in the back and gunshots zipping past. This is a great disc to show off a home theater, and the bigger your screen the better.

In the Mouth of Madness

Dir: John Carpenter
1995
The second of my Lovecraftian viewings was John Carpenter’s “In the Mouth of Madness”.
Though HPL is not mentioned, it’s clear that Sutter Cane is supposed to be some sexier, rock’n’roll version of Lovecraft, updated to modern times. (Reviewers who see Sutter Cane as Stephen King probably haven’t read much). The film has a lot of promise, but it doesn’t exactly pull through, and I’m not sure why. Perhaps Sam Neill is not likable enough as the main character, John Trent, an insurance fraud investigator sent out to determine why famous horror writer Cane has disappeared and why his novels are inspiring acts of violence. This leads to Neil and Cane’s editor to go searching for and find the fictional town that Cane has always written about.
Perhaps its Carpenter and his scriptwriter Michael De Luca’s inability to decide whether this is a high-concept Borges-like piece (where its best stuff lies) or a monster movie (where its rubberiest stuff flops). The creature effects here are done by Industrial Light and Magic, but they look really poor. The innkeeper who becomes a demon is particularly poor, and often there are shots of fleshy, drippy creatures just for the sake of it. One is seen growing out of Cane’s back, but it never turns up again.
Julie Carmen, who plays Trent’s assistant Linda, isn’t much of a presence, and seems to have different motivation in each scene. Is she part of Cane’s plot, or a victim–is she surprised or horrified by any of it? She also looks like she has on an inch of foundation, a grey-brown pallor in some shots.
My favorite parts are the subtle ones. The hotel painting that changes, the bulging door in Cane’s lair (very Lovecraft), the apocalyptic scenario. The idea that the book causes insanity and allows the Chthulu-like beings to enter this dimension is a good one–with similarities to “The Thing.”
I feel that if the story had been worked with a bit more, and the monster business had been taken out, then it might have been one of Carpenter’s best. But instead, this is middle-period Carpenter, all over the place, loose, disappointing.

Re-Animator

Dir: Stuart Gordon
1985
Can you believe I’d never seen Re-Animator until now?
I lived outside of the States for the middle part of the ’80s, and where I lived was far from the cinema, and we couldn’t afford those newfangled VCR thingies. So a lot of “classic” ’80s films have passed me by.
It was my friend Chris S_____ who recommended I see the film in a “you mean you’ve never?” situation. That on top of my Lovecraft reading this week made the screening a must. All spruced up for a 2-DVD set, the film now looks great instead of a “video nasty,” which was always its reputation in the U.K.
So, the film was a jolly lot of fun. I like my horror less hilarious, but I did admire its silliness. But I don’t feel there’s much to say about the film a few days after watching it. Some points:
• Fake cats always amuse–fake, psychotic, undead cats are even better.
• Complete nudity from the lead actress dates this film to that most liberal of eras…the Reagan Administration.
• Dr. Hill (David Gale) looks strangely like John Kerry.
• It’s perfectly fitting that the magic potion in an ’80s film is neon green.
• A great, Hermann-inspired soundtrack by Richard Band–the soundtrack lends a touch of seriousness to the film which a rock band wouldn’t.

The Fog of War

Dir: Errol Morris
2003
Robert McNamara loves to tell a story and hinge it on one big “But!”
He does this several times in Morris’ fabulous, unnerving documentary on the man people consider the architect of the Vietnam War. “But!” he interjects, looking right into the camera and holding his index finger aloft.
This habit suggests a lot about McNamara–the “but” marks the flipside of the coin, the opposite viewpoint, the enemy’s POV. It’s business sense, it war strategist’s sense, it’s science.
Morris handles the conflicting strands in McNamara’s story well–a man who helped create the war, but who claims it was so large it was beyond his control. A man who admits the failure of the war, but will not accept any blame or issue an apology (or perhaps he knows an apology will sound facile and too late if he offers one). How mathematics and statistics helped the Americans win WWII. How those abstractions cover atrocities like the fire bombing of Tokyo and the atomic bomb drops. (Morris’ shot of numbers and symbols dropping from the bombbay doors onto a Japanese landscape is a succinct visualisation.)
Charles Taylor’s review in Salon chided Morris for letting technique get in the way of his subject, but I never felt this was the case. Morris enlivens his subjects with his (sparsely used here) use of graphics, but does leave most of the film devoted to McNamara’s onscreen narration. I came away with the feeling that McNamara knows full well what he’s done, but who is still wrestling with how abstract his crimes and his guilt should be.