Friday, August 28, 2015

Hausu (House) (1977)

Directed by Nobuhiko Ôbayashi. You know what's weird? I mean other than "Hausu," director Nobuhiko Ôbayashi's surreal 1977 masterpiece about seven girls trapped in a haunted mansion, which yes, is super weird. However, what's also weird is that the film feels like a sophisticated response to Sam Raimi's seminal 1981 U.S. horror classic, "The Evil Dead." But "Hausu" pre-dates Raimi's flick by almost four years, making "The Evil Dead" more like a dumbed-down, Americanized version of "Hausu."

And maybe that's not so weird. First, it's not like "Hausu" is without antecedent. It's pretty clear Ôbayashi had seen a bunch of Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, Mario Bava, et al. Also, it's not better in all ways than "The Evil Dead." The tremendous strength of "Hausu" is that surge of energy you always feel from something expressed in film that's so different, you've never seen anything like it before. But like a sugar rush, there can be a limit when you just want to lie down and close your eyes. "OK, I get it, everything's all weird and fucked up."

The young girls in this movie seem to represent the so-called seven deadly sins. Themes in the film include sexual maturity and female gender identity, and it may or may not be a cautionary tale about reconciling one's past relationships as the way to a happier present. This is all communicated through a wildly messed up series of tropes from horror, thrillers, comedy and melodrama. Motifs include fruit, water and shit blowing around the room. Colors are unpredictable.

In contrast, the characters, settings, and the scares in "The Evil Dead" have become so familiar as the basic beats and techniques of horror that to see that movie now is almost comforting -- like eating a big ol' bowl of macaroni and cheese. But just like eating a bucket of comfort food, there is that moment when you think, "OK, I've been here, I know what this is like. Enough."

"Hausu," recommended. As well as "The Evil Dead."

Killers Three (1968)

Directed by Bruce Kessler. If it's ever perplexed you whether Dick Clark ever starred in a movie, the answer is only one, and this is it. This is from 1968 and his role is as Roger, the alcoholic safecracker, which might have made a more marketable title than "Killers Three," even if that's just as truthful.

It's not a spoiler to reveal that Clark is one of the three killers (because I'd say you know Dick), alongside Diane Varsi and Robert Walker. It would spoil some to explain the killing, but let's just say like the vast majority of films made between 1965 to 1975, this one involves a guy looking to make a better life for himself by quitting a life runnin' 'shine away from the rev'nue.

The whole plan works about as well as you would expect, though if you're watching this late at night and your attention wanders, don't worry. Every few scenes, Merle Haggard sings a few more verses of a ballad that recaps the action. Was it this that got him the same gig on "The Dukes of Hazzard?" I'm not sure this country-music-as-Greek-chorus idea ever works, because it's never used in movies with plots sophisticated enough to demand it. "East Bound and Down" is a catchy li'l number but theatergoers probably could have understood "Smokey and the Bandit" without it.

Two important points. First, Clark's performance is dead-on prescient of a boilerplate William H. Macy. Second, he's surprisingly OK at this. Unfortunately, he ruins any cred he could have generated here through this ridiculous choice he made as the film's producer: in every place that his name appears in the opening titles and end credits, a custom logo is used that is distinctly different from all other names. This is done even in the cast list, where he is third-billed. What a jerk.

Norman Alden (as Guthrie) is an all-time favorite character actor whose voice you will likely recognize if you're not aware of his face, and Maureen Arthur (as Elvira Sweeney) provides a whole Daisy Mae-type thing that if it's not in this kind of flick, you feel ripped off.

If you're an Amazon Prime person, you've already paid to see this, so do so. Recommended!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Suspicion (1941)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Too much has been made of the fact that Hitchcock changed the ending of this film because the studio didn’t want it’s star, Cary Grant, portrayed as a murderer. It’s true of course, but it’s strange then that RKO was comfortable with the rest of the movie, in which Grant plays a complete shit.

In “Suspicion,” Joan Fontaine (in the only Oscar winning role in a Hitchcock film) plays “Lina,” a shy spinster who falls for “Johnny,” a charming playboy (Grant) and gradually learns he is a penniless gambler, using her family fortune to fund his habit. She believes he is planning to murder her to collect a life insurance policy. Yes, Lina could be suspicious of Johnny because he keeps stealing her money, but really, shouldn’t she be suspicious simply because he is expressing interest in her -- and she is a complete wet blanket? Lina is the friend who, when you’re packing a cooler, uses up all the room with fruits and vegetables ("I just want to make sure we have some healthy choices.") Thirty minutes into this, I'd kill Lina for free, Oscar notwithstanding.

The reason RKO showed about as much savvy as Lina going on a picnic is because Cary Grant is exceptionally watchable in this because it is such a different role for him. Grant, whose long, distinguished career featured role after role playing Cary Grant, should have played more murderers. Or at least problem gamblers, or whatever. Nigel Bruce plays Beaky, the dopey but lovable best friend, who is allergic to brandy. What, does that seem too trivial to mention? You'd think, but hoo-boy, when that groundwork is laid it’s about as subtle as a Hitchcock cameo (which, by the way, happens at a mailbox).

The ending that Hitchcock wanted would have been better and made a hell of a lot more sense. Based on his famous 1967 interviews with François Truffaut, Hitchcock seems to have gone to his grave feeling like he caved in to the studio on the whole thing. However, as a melodrama, "Suspicion" works because the acting is directed well, not because of the plot. The regret was Hitchcock’s to carry, not ours. Fuck RKO, but still...recommended, even with the shitty ending.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

This Means War (2012)

Directed by McG. An alternate title for this movie is "This Means Bore." IMDB tells me that "People who liked this also liked...'The Bounty Hunter'."  This is evidently a service they provide to warn you about the kinds of people who might recommend this movie to you. Don't worry, we're cool.

I saw this because Reese Witherspoon is in it, although another alternate title for this move is "Decreased Witherspoon," because there isn't enough of her in it. She's not even really my type, but I can't help it. There's something about her weird chin that makes her look a bit like a marionette, but the best looking marionette ever. Still, most of the time here is used up by two people named Chris Pine and Tom Hardy, whom it would seem were being positioned as movie stars when this was made.

The plot here seems to involve a lot of people trying to support Chelsea Handler as she improvises all her dialogue. Or it might be about something else, I’m not sure. It's challenging enough when an action comedy attempts to combine those two initial elements -- adding romance to that mix isn’t just ambitious -- it's foolhardy.

For suckers only.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Funhouse (1981)

Directed by Tobe Hooper. Once the big post-Friday the 13th horror boom really got rolling, clearly they often just started with titles and worked their way backward. One strategy is to begin with something whimsical and make it gruesome. Like a leprechaun or a candyman...or a funhouse!

The fundamental flaw with “The Funhouse” is laziness. There’s a huge difference between a funhouse and a haunted house and this movie doesn’t distinguish between the two. Features of a funhouse might include a maze of mirrors, a rolling barrel you walk through, staircases that move, a crooked room -- this sort of foolishness. Features seen in the funhouse in “The Funhouse” include: gruesome monsters hacking at people with knives, your friends hung from a noose.

But I don’t just mean these are the fates that befall the characters in the movie. You see this sort of stuff when the funhouse is supposed to just be “fun.” Kids go to this carnival, they “step right up,” and then ride around in a dumpy little cart through a roll-away trailer full of this haunted house garbage. But when four friends decide to spend the night in the funhouse, Amy (Elizabeth Berridge, "Amadeus"), Buzz (Cooper Huckabee, "Django Unchained"), Richie (Miles Chapin, "The People vs. Larry Flynt") and Liz (Largo Woodruff, "The Funhouse") get much more than they bargained for! Horror! If you follow!

The kids accidentally discover that one of the carnies has a son who is a mutant sex maniac that killed the hooker who made fun of his penis (I know, I said enough at "one of the carnies has a son," right?). So now the crazy carnie wants to grind up the teenagers in the gears that run the funhouse -- so it’s pretty much like every "Scooby Doo" you've ever seen.

Recommended, if you, like me, first saw this in 1982 at the Bedford Grove Drive-In, in Bedford, New Hampshire as the second feature with “Cat People” and are curious to see how much of it you remember. Otherwise, I’m not sure I’d bother. Instead you could go back to director Tobe Hooper’s 1974 classic, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” which truly is a masterpiece of sick, awful horror. I mean, unless that’s not your thing. Then, for heaven’s sake, why would you do that to yourself?

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Lifeboat (1944)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Well known because the whole thing takes place following a shipwreck on a lifeboat, this Hitchcock movie was actually followed by three more best described as plays on film: "Rope" (1948), "Dial 'M' for Murder" (1954), and "Rear Window" (1954). While simpler in setting, these weren't necessarily easier to make. DVD extras for these movies explain the elaborate set for "Rear Window" and the sophisticated camera work that was necessary to make "Rope" work.

Of these films, "Lifeboat" might have been the simplest in scope visually, but the screenplay by Jo Swerling ("It's a Wonderful Life") -- based on a story by John Steinbeck (who hated the movie) -- is exceptional. During World War II, a merchant marine ship and German U-boat sink each other in the Atlantic. Allied servicemen and civilians in a lifeboat pull a survivor from the drink and realize he is a German. They argue whether to throw him back and now we've got a movie.

The non-Germans on the boat provide all the various voices of reason and emotion relevant to war and ethnicity and so on. Tallulah Bankhead plays a cross between Rosalind Russell's character in "His Girl Friday" (1940) and Tallulah Bankhead. William Bendix plays Gus, a guy who eventually could form a support group with James Franco's character in "127 Hours." If you get my drift.

Surprisingly, "Lifeboat" was poorly received because the German in the story, Willi (Walter Slezak), was said to have been portrayed too positively. This criticism is just plain wrong because otherwise the film would have no third act. Once Willi's motives are less ambiguous to everybody on the boat, their conundrum is less about about trust, and far more about whether to have compassion toward another human being in the face of self-preservation. In fact, the final moment of the film is a statement that implies the moral inferiority of Germans -- or at the very least, "people like that." Recommended!

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Tim's Vermeer (2013)

Directed by Teller. We tell children that they can grow up and do anything they want to do, but it's not really true. Some things are just out of reach for some people. Some people are just better than others. This Tim Jenison is better than just about everybody. In fact, Tim Jenison is better than a whole bunch of people I can think of put together (I'm including myself in that, so it's OK).

Damn, that sonofabitch can paint. This film is about revealing the trick used by Johannes Vermeer to paint photo-realistic images. But by demystifying Vermeer's process, the film doesn't devalue his work, it makes it more fascinating. It contributes to its respectability. You like it more. When you see how it was done, you certainly don't think anybody cheated.

Teller, the film's director, is the magician who achieved fame standing on stage next to Penn Jillette, revealing the secrets behind classic magic tricks. Yet Penn and Teller's act endures because they consistently demonstrate that the power of great magic has little to do with how the trick is done. Even if you know the secret, a good magic trick will blow your mind.

Below is the magic trick version of "Tim's Vermeer." Be sure to watch through to the end: