Thursday, September 12, 2013
Brad's Week in Dork! (9/1/13-9/7/13)
After a rather abysmal Summer I found myself aching for Great Cinema. I'm sick of disappointment. How to cure these Blockbuster blues? Well, after the last Barnes & Noble sale, I found myself with a massive pile of Criterions stacked next to my television set. What better way to enter the Oscar Bait season than with a month long Criterion-A-Thon. Yes, I'm one of those hipster assholes that drinks the Kool-Aid that is The Criterion Collection. I'm not going to say that every one of their releases is a classic, but I've never encountered a film from them that I didn't find redeeming in some fashion. You'll notice a theme of Anger running through most of the films listed below. Does that reflect on the builders of the Collection or my own current mood? Serious Cinema tackling the big issues. That being said, this week is mostly filled with genre content, and that is certainly a reflection on my own tastes. Next week I'll have to branch out with some foreign film, but for now I was just giddy to jump from Seconds to Lord of the Flies to Robocop to Black Narcissus.
The week concluded with the Baltimore Comic Con. Maybe not as popular on the Internet as say San Diego or New York, but Baltimore is the real deal for fans of comic books. At the very least it's an assault on my wallet. Of course, despite the con, I actually didn't get any reading done this week. Gotta work on that. I've certainly have a lot of options right now, and SPX is just right around the corner. No trips to the theater, and I only watched one film not a member of the Criterion family; Matt finally planted me down for The African Queen. But I gotta say, this was one of the most pleasurable Weeks in Dorks that I've had in months. Watched a lot of my favorite films, discovered some new ones, and had a blast spending money on the four colors. I think I made a good call with this particularly broad movie marathon.
Seconds (Criterion Spine # 667): "I thought you had a better chance." Like the best Twilight Zone or Star Trek episode, John Frankenheimer's Seconds is an angry, trippy exploration of morality safely filtered through the science-fiction genre. After receiving a mysterious phone call from a friend thought once dead, bored old husband John Randolph travels to the city's meatpacking district where he encounters an organization promising an escape from his failed existence and a chance at a new life. One teeth cracking surgery later, and John Randolph is now Rock Hudson. He has a new passion for painting, a beautiful woman randomly discovered on the beach, and a cadre of friends willing to STOMP THOSE GRAPES! But how long can this new life hold his interest? Can this new man just accept his past failings? Of course, Frankenheimer directed The Manchurian Candidate, so there are no happy endings. Hudson certainly delivers his finest performance, and Murray Hamilton is extraordinaire in his one scene, but the real stars of this flick are Lewis John Carlino's screenplay and James Wong Howe's cinematography. It's a biting brutal story shot & cut in the fever of a nightmare. An absolute highlight of the Criterion Collection, and certainly this year's strongest blu ray release.
Homicide (Criterion Spine # 486): Not to be confused with the equally excellent Baltimore based crime show, David Mamet's Homicide is a mystery when unravelled that cares less about the answer and more about the horror exposed along the way. Joe Mantegna is a rage-fueled detective pulled off a flashy cop killer hunt to investigate the murder of a Jewish shopkeeper. What begins as a distraction from glory slowly grinds into an obsession of newly found faith. A lot of typical dark territory is explored in Homicide, and it's all layered in that too-smart Mamet dialog, but the racial anger stirred by the events is infectious. This film will leave you mad. Mad at people. Mad at the system. Mad at yourself. So basically, it's everything you expect and want from Mamet's rabble rouser.
Lord of the Flies (Criterion Spine # 43): "After all we're not savages, we're English! And the English are best at everything!" Everyone knows the story. A group of prep school kids shipwrecked on an island. Fending for themselves against the elements, and an unseen monster, the boys quickly form a society of rules and regulations....superstition and greed brings it all crashing down. Too often regulated as High School Summer reading, William Golding's novel is a violent declaration against hypocrisy, and Peter Brooks' film manages to perfectly capture the author's contempt. But where other adaptations have failed in kiddie performances, Brooks' films succeeds solely because he gathered an exceptional cast of children. There is no difficulty in supplanting your emotions into James Aubrey's Ralph; the young actor balances youth and wisdom perfectly, and you never cringe at the "acting" on display. And then there's Tom Chapin's Jack. What a monster. So easy to hate. He never went on to do anything else, but he takes on your disgust as easily as Aubrey takes your heart. Kids as strong as these are certainly a real rarity in movieland.
Eating Raoul (Criterion Spine # 625): "He was a man. Now he's just a bag of garbage." Another graduate of the Roger Corman school of filmmaking, Paul Bartel leaves behind the exploitation brilliance of Death Race 2000 for this equally broad & whacky ribbing of American consumerism. Bartel and Mary Warnov are a financially strapped married couple who resort to killing swingers as a means of funding their country restaurant. This demented endeavor finds real success after partnering with Robert Beltran's cat burglar, but can their marriage survive someone so handsome? The answer may surprise you. Bartel's comedy is certainly not for everyone, and I found his special brand of odd more successful in Death Race, but Eating Raoul certainly nibbles a funny bone or two.
The Last Temptation of Christ (Criterion Spine # 70): "Fear. Look inside me and that's all you'll find." Martin Scorsese has made a career of exploring man's relationship with the divine, but never has he been more blunt with this struggle than here. The Last Temptation of Christ portrays Jesus as both man and god, as such he is victim to both doubt and desire while fulfilling his role as messiah. This is not the masterpiece the director or his followers might have wanted, but it is a fascinating insight into the creator's religious struggle. The film certainly suffers from budgetary constraints, and Scorsese's bullpen of performers don't quite jive with the average vision of these characters.....however, there is something incredibly refreshing about Harvey Keitel as Judas or Harry Dean Stanton as Paul. Scorsese is reaching for the humanity in these characters, to shake the dust off, and treat them as real-deal human beings. As such, I think he succeeds. The Holy aspects of the film work less for me, the miracles come fast and loose and feel like the highlight reel from a Super Hero film - capes & spandex stuff. The final temptation on the cross certainly stirs the pot, but only the most stringent of terrified censors will take umbrage with this postulation. And Jesus's confrontation with Paul over his manipulation of the crucifixion is probably the most brilliant sequence of the whole movie, and absolutely makes Scorsese's cinematic quest.
Monty Python's Life of Brian (Criterion Spine # 61): "If we didn't have crucifixion, this country would be in a right bloody mess!" While Scorsese attempts to deconstruct belief, the mad buggers that assemble Monty Python sharpen their swords for war. Brian Cohen is born on the same night and just a few doors down from Jesus Christ, which confuses The Three Wise Men and sets the idealistic young Brian down an absurd parallel path. Religion is such an easy target for Python, and no other comedy troupe can match smart & silly with as fierce precision as these nutjobs. I dare you not to laugh within the first five seconds of the movie, and once you start you will not stop. After all, what good have the Romans ever done for us?!?!
The African Queen: Another Cinematic Resolution has been met. Why did it take me 34 years to see this John Huston classic? I love Bogie. He's the king of cool. The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, The Big Sleep. The man can't be shut down. Katherine Hepburn...never been a fan...never tried to be. What little snippets I had previously seen of this movie highlight Bogart's five o'clock shadow, and Hepburn's virginal old maid. Just never screamed "WATCH ME!" And, yeah, it's a weird one. Bogart is utterly gross and pathetic in this film. Never seen anything quite like it from the actor. Sure, he's done pathetic (gin diving in Casablanca & gold scumming in The Treasure of Sierra Madre), but his stomach growling steamboat captain is just an absolute mess of a human being. And Katherine Hepburn is simply angry and shrill. I found it hard to wrap my brain around this Beast & Beast romance, but in war torn Africa all they have is each other...and mosquitos. I only wish the film followed the inevitability of their romance instead of ditching doom for Hollywood happy.
Robocop (Criterion Spine # 23): "Excuse me, I have to go. Somewhere there is a crime happening." In a lot of ways, I think of Paul Verhoeven's Robocop as the ultimate geek film. You've got the endless outbursts of squibby violence to appeal to the savage teenager inside us all, and then you have the blunt force trauma of the consumer satire to appease our wannabe intellectual side. This is the Wall Street for the genre crowd, but Verhoeven has no use for Oliver Stone's subtlety -- HA! And has there ever been a gang of villains as despicable or as terrifying as Kurtwood Smith's posse of cop killers? The murder of Alex Murphy immediately establishes these villains as demons of capitalism, joyously toying with the hot shot cop before delivering the coup de gras. It's gut wrenching; so much so that you'll cheer when Robocop rediscovers his humanity by delivering some arterial revenge.
Black Narcissus (Criterion Spine # 93): "We're all human, aren't we?" A group of nuns are charged with the establishment of a convent in the himalayas, but their contract with god is challenged when they find themselves seduced by their surroundings. Attempting to forget the failed romance of her youth, Deborah Kerr's Sister Superior finds her heart reawakened by David Farrar's brusk British official, but the man's good looks also draw the attention of Flora Robson's twisted Sister Ruth. Directed by the dynamic duo of Michael Powell & Emric Pressburger, Black Narcissus is a sensual British melodrama that practically descends into the realm of horror when the bent eventually snap. And as strong as the performances are, Jack Cardiff's transformative cinematography deserves equal billing; who wants On Location filming when British backlots can look this damn good? Of all the films I watched this week, Black Narcissus takes top prize.
The Game (Criterion Spine # 627): Not my favorite David Fincher film (that's Zodiac). Not my least favorite either (that's The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo). But what earns The Game entry into The Criterion Collection? Popular filmmaker + attainable rights = Criterion. Simple as that. Still, I have to admit that I was a bit perplexed when I first got the news. There is a lot to like about this film. Michael Douglas is an assholey mess of a human being, and the wringer that Consumer Recreation Services puts him through is thoroughly entertaining even if the payoff is not exactly what this genre fanboy desired. I have just never bought into that anticlimax. And starting this week with Seconds really established The Game as a pretender to the paranoia throne.
The Baltimore Comic Con 2013: As much as I drone on & on about the real Comic Con (San Diego), there is nothing that can top the comic book goodness of Baltimore. You want movies and celebrities than grab your ticket for the west coast. You want to score an obscene amount of funny books? Baltimore is the place to be. Sure, you've got your comic book creators (snagged an autograph from Joe Hill), but the main attraction are the half-off trades. This year I came away with a complete run of Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol, the latest Animal Man, Scott Snyder's Gates of Gotham, and Alan Moore's Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow. Plus a few toys (Magnum PI Hot Wheels, a Frank Frazetta beer stein). Baltimore can fill up with panels and autograph sessions, but I pretty much treated this year as a bazaar. And with Matt working the Warrior27 table with Dan & Chris, and The Wife busy with her day job, I was free to spend the hours roaming the dealers room with my buddy Robert. Spending far too much money.
Baltimore, like every convention nowadays, is also a great excuse for Halloween Part II. Cosplay. When I was younger, I never quite understood the appeal of dress-up, but the more conventions I attend and the crazier a display of costume I witness, I swell with fanboy pride at the passion on parade. Twenty years ago, Comic Conventions were a collection of 30 year old white guys and the occasional wandering child. Now we have boys & girls of every race SHAZAMing it up as Iron Man, Deadpool, Poison Ivy, Captain Marvel, Jack of Hearts, and...holy cow - Hulkbuster Iron Man. I got a taste for the giddiness of cosplay when The Wife & I participated in the Alamo Drafthouse Shaun-Off a few weeks back, and it was fairly thrilling. Can I see myself one day dawning a cape and browsing the convention floor as Darkhawk? Maybe. But don't hold your breath, I'm shy.
Count Zaroff. The film also stars Fay Wray & Robert Armstrong, but the hero of the piece is an incredibly young Joel McCrea zigzagging the island in an effort to turn the tables on the big game madman. The Most Dangerous Game might not be as famous as its primate brother, but I would argue that it's nearly as thrilling. At just over an hour in running time, the film races to its finish and has no time for narrative fat. It's all action. Character moments last no longer than a wink & a smile. Oh McCrea, you dog.