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:

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Fear (1996)

Directed by James Foley. In addition to this film, quite a few movies have been described as a "teen 'Fatal Attraction'" (2002's "Swimfan;" 1993's "The Crush;" and of course, 1998's "Devil in the Flesh"), though I tend to think of "Fatal Attraction" as "Fear" poorly lacking in Reese Witherspoon. And to be completely fair, "Fatal Attraction" also suffers from excessive amounts of Michael Douglas.

"Fear" is about the Walker family, who, like most American families during the '90s, live in Seattle. Also common to most American families during the '90s, the Walkers are trying to bond following years of dysfunction and estrangement. Nicole Walker, now 16 years old and beautiful, is sweet and pure but feels as confined and sexually curious as anybody her age (Witherspoon was 21). When she meets David (Mark Wahlberg), who is devilishly charming, she's putty in his hands.

This is why, Nicole's dad, Steve Walker (William Peterson ) is arguably the main character in "Fear." Wahlberg's nutty character is far more interested in Nicole's sexuality as a way to unravel her father's paternal masculinity. Director Foley ("Glengarry Glen Ross") makes sure Wahlberg's rage is driven by his character's own daddy issues, not Nicole's daddy -- and certainly not their budding romance, creating all kinds of mad, stalker weirdness.


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

All Cheerleaders Die (2013)

Directed by Lucky McKee. The first 15 minutes of this film promise what seems like a darkly funny post-"Heathers" satire of high school politics. But before long, it quickly reveals itself to be just another stupid zombie movie.

This brutality was directed by Lucky McKee, whose IMDB bio reads, "raised in the small riverbank town of Jenny Lind in Calaveras County, California, Edward Lucky McKee grew up mostly in poverty with little access to modern forms of entertainment." It would have been kind to at least bring Edward to a movie before letting him make one.

During the final half-hour of this film it is very, very important to all of the characters that they achieve something, or obtain something, or get rid of it -- I think -- in order to make everything normal again. This ordeal involves a lot of flashing lights, heads exploding, blood everywhere -- and people trying to move rocks to different places. They're very passionate about the rocks. It made me wish I could find some enthusiasm for it all too.

Run away!

Monday, August 18, 2014

Diary of a Bachelor (1964)

Directed by Sandy Howard. In this crisply restored drive-in movie, Skip (William Traylor) is a high-powered realtor in 1960s Manhattan with a baffling reputation as a dapper playboy, considering he looks a lot more like an entomologist.

Despite Skip's natural entomological good looks he is about to exchange his ne'er do well lifestyle and settle down with super hottie Joanne Burns (Dagne Crane). But not so fast! It seems Skip keeps a diary, and when Joanne discovers this (by going through his things) she goes batshit crazy -- and not because only teenage girls keep diaries, which makes Skip seem like a colossal tool. Turns out it's because of what Skip actually writes in his diary. He documents all of his sexual pursuits.

"Pursuits" is more the word than "conquests" because Skip couldn't get laid in a brothel. Well, that's not completely fair. Skip deserves that much benefit of doubt because at one point here he does make it with a hooker, even though she's the kind of hooker who...surprise...asks for the cash after the booty bump, which seems sort of unusual.

"Diary of a Bachelor" brilliantly demonstrates American International's shrewd (cheap) production. Tightly budgeted, yet taking place in upscale Manhattan cocktail lounges and Greenwich Village hipster joints, for the most part this still works. One exception are the comically narrow twin doors to Skip's penthouse apartment, which are obviously re-purposed closet doors. These doors are used so frequently as characters enter and exit scenes that eventually, watching the actors turn their bodies sideways to fit through begs for a drinking game. If you do this, please let me know.

Dom Deluise appears in his first film role. Recommended, though not because of that.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Kissin' Cousins (1964)

Directed by Gene Nelson. This Elvis Presley vehicle is without question the first movie I've seen in which the main character has a perfect double, a doppleganger (naturally also played by the film's star), yet this is in no way integral to the plot of the film. If you're aware of another, please let me know.

Josh Morgan, an Army officer (Presley) returns to the Smoky Mountains to convince his kin to allow the military to build an ICBM missile site on their homestead. When Morgan arrives, he realizes that it is impossible to resist that Yvonne Craig, who has an insane body even though her character may or may not be related to him. Yet definitely related is Cousin Jodie, whom we are able to distinguish from Josh because Jodie has blonde highlights and wears denim. Jodie is mountain's champion wrassler, and other hilarious things. Otherwise, he's irrelevant.

You're probably familiar with other films that involve characters with perfect doubles, such as "Vertigo" (1958), "Adaptation" (2002), "Black Swan" (2010) and several versions of "The Prisoner of Zenda." We could debate whether "The Parent Trap" counts because those characters were twins (I'd say no). Only in 2014, there have been four: "Enemy" (with Jake Gyllenhaal), "The Double" (with Jesse Eisenberg), "The Face of Love" (with Annette Bening) and the best of all of them, “Muppets Most Wanted” (with Kermit the Frog).

"Kissin' Cousins" is nothing like any of these because Jodie has nothing to do. It's also not like any contemporary film, which would involve an empathy-based story in which Elvis bonds with his family and decides to convince the military to relocate the missile site, possibly by way of a hilarious scheme that requires his perfect lookalike, Jodie. But no! Instead, this pure propaganda ends with everyone happy because Elvis' uncle was drunk enough on moonshine to sign on the dotted line and hand his land over to the U.S. of A. Really! Big dance number!