"The Eye" (Palm Pictures, 2002)
A Hong Kong flick with an actual plot...! What will they think of next?? There are some creepy thrills in this fine, low-budget horror flick about a young Chinese woman who gets a cornea transplant to cure her lifelong blindness... and then goes all Haley Joel Osment and discovers she can see dead people! Fortunately her cute psychologist boyfriend believes her crazy tale, and eventually they get to the bottom of the whole haunted eyeball thing. The film is genuinely unnerving, with several good ghosty sequences, and a reasonably coherent plot... Notably, it's the sound design that gives this film most of its dramatic punch... Definitely worth checking out!
"Road House" (Paramount, 1989)
Originally the idea was to have an Elvis night (see below) over at Eli and Claudia's house, but somehow, as the hour got late, Patrick Swayze's sterling performance in Road House came up, and, well... out came the DVD, and down went two hours of our lives. But, oh, what a deliciously trashy two hours! This is a super-dopey, unbrainy, anti-thoughtful, just plain dumb, deleriously campy -- and rather enjoyable! -- fight flick with an implausible plot that revolves around "Dalton," the best darn bouncer in the business, who is hired by a desperate club owner to fix up and tame his wild roadhouse honkytonk, and make it safe for neon-loving, polyester draped yuppies who just want to drink and dance the night away without fear of bodily harm. Unfortunately, the bar's backwater town is owned lock, stock and barrel by the wicked tycoon, Brad Wesley, who seems okay at first, but turns out to be malevolent beyond all belief. The frontier-town-in-need-of-taming conventions of old-fashioned westerns are taken to cartoonish extremes, and updated with lots of hard bodies, big hair, monster trucks and silly clothes. Hard to believe this was made as late as '89 (seems more like an '84 or '85 vintage...) but trying to pin it down in time is pointless: this is a timeless masterpiece of silly-bad violent kitsch. Either you're willing to subsume yourself to its dopiness, or you're not... But if you start watching, you're not likely to be able to finish until the bitter, silly end.
"Girl Happy" (Warner Brothers, 1965)
Elvis! Patron saint of spring break! All primary colors and silly outfits and beach-parties-o-rama! And kinda steamy in those scenes with Shelly Fabares and all those other "chicks" down in Ft. Lauderdale. Silly, classic kitschy B-movie Americana fun. Some catchy tunes, too.
"The Italian Job" (Paramount, 2003)
An okay crime caper film and, I gather, an improvement on the '60s original. Still... enough with the heist films already! It's gettin' kinda played out.
"You Can't Take It With You" (Columbia, 1938)
A fine Frank Capra comedy featuring Jimmy Stewart at his most boyish and gangly, and Jean Arthur as the girl of his dreams. It's a comedy of mismatched lovers: Stewart plays the son of a cold-hearted business tycoon (Edward Arnold) who looks forward to the coming world war as a way to make a killing on the stock market. In the path of Dad's capitalistic machinations lies a family of carefree bohemian kooks, whose open, life-affirming attitude holds together the neighborhood where Arnold hopes to build his next munitions factory. And guess what? Surprise...!! Jean Arthur's character also just happens to be the object of his son's affections. Into this "Dharma & Greg"-like scenario, add Lionel Barrymore as her saintly, eccentric father, who was once a businessman but then dropped out and now spends his days smiling at life, following his passions, and encouraging others to do the same. In all honesty, although the film is charming, it isn't Capra's best work -- adapted from a stage play by George Kauffman and Moss Hart, it shouts out its kookiness, and has the feel of an off-Broadway production gone awry. The scenes that are meant to show how wacky her family is often play out too broadly, with shouting and wild gesticulation, and a flurry of chaotic action -- dancing, xylophone playing, cooking, painting, newspaper rustling, fireworks going off -- and all of it happening at once. It's too obvious and dramatically weak... Plus, Stewart really hasn't found his feet yet as a star actor. On the other hand, both Barrymore and Arnold give delightfully strong performances, and Jean arthur is always easy on the eyes. Even when slightly muddled, Capra is still better than practically anything coming out comedywise from Hollywood today. A charming 'Thirties comedy.
"To Be Or Not To Be" (Warner Brothers, 1942)
Screwball comedy master Ernst Lubitsch tackles a different brand of absurdity in this anti-Nazi farce, which features Jack Benny as "Josef Tura," a Polish stage actor who almost unwittingly becomes a champion of the anti-German underground. He and his wife (played by Carole Lombard) run about employing their theatrical skills to make monkeys of the Germans who have come to occupy Warsaw... Despite the "Hogan's Heroes"-ish premise, in which slapstick antics threaten to make light of the horrors of World War Two, this is both a brisk, funny film, and an effective bit of political propaganda. The dialogue is great, and the acting talent can't be beat... If, by chance, you often find Jack Benny to be tedious onscreen, then this is a role to check out -- he's actually quite good, and quite restrained. Lombard, of course, is splendid... and check out young Robert Stack as the dashing Polish Air Force officer who shem flirts with (!) (By the way, this was remade in 1983, with director Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft taking the lead roles... haven't seen that version, but i bet it's also pretty good.)
"Better Luck Tomorrow" (Paramount/MTV, 2003)
A neo-nihilistic coming of age story, centering on a young Chinese-American overachiever named Ben, who turns to petty (and not so petty) crime as a way to relieve his boredom and ennui. The modern suburban California highschool setting feels about right, even if the choices the characters make may cause you to feel a bit queasy. Sort of Dazed And Confused meets Heavenly Creatures... Anyway, despite its palpable shock-value-and camera-move-happy student filmishness, this is an intriguing film. I thought the first third of the film was great -- when the filmmakers abandoned character development in favor of a shock-driven, Tarrantino-esque crime spree, it starts to take a slow, sideways plunge... By the end, I felt pretty alienated, mostly by the unimaginative, we've-seen-this-before, gun-waving violence. Still, the presentation of young teenage Asian-Americans, fully immersed in our lame, aimless popular culture, acting just as vacantly and shallowly as their white and latino counterparts, was refreshing, and the lead actor, Parry Shen, weighs in with a remarkable performance. I just wish the writers and director had been able to bring more depth to the film's ending.
"Ship Of Fools" (1965)
A socially conscious would-be epic, from back in the days When Art Mattered. The story takes place on a German ocean liner in the early 1930s, travelling from Mexico back to Der Fatherland, with an all-star cast of Spaniards, Americans, Jews, drunks, dwarves, exiles, tortured artists and Germans -- both good and bad -- all sailing towards their date with destiny. Honestly, I could only force myself to watch about two-thirds of the way through, and then I had to admit I was stone cold bored, and besides, the rental was already one day overdue and it was getting close to closing time. This isn't a bad movie, but its earnest, over-serious style of presentation felt very dated, and I could see where it was going a mile away. Some fine character actors, but kind of a lumpy script.
"I Saw A Dark Stranger" (Rank, 1946)
Deborah Kerr and Trevor Howard costar in this unusual, Hitchcockian spy story, wherein Kerr plays a young Irish lass, raised on her dad's romantic self-mythologizing "war stories" of the 1916 Irish rebellion, who goes to England to fight against the British oppressors. It being the middle of World War Two, she decides the enemy of her enemy is her friend, and she hooks up with a German spymaster, gathinging information from the jovial soldiers that frequent the local pub... She comes around, of course, once she realizes that passing on the information about the upcoming D-Day invasion may cost the lives of tens of thousands of soldiers, but in between she is a uniquely unsympathetic protagonist. It's amazing that this particular story would have been filmed so close after the close of the war, when the extent of German barbarity haad been so clearly exposed; the bigger point seems to have been to diffuse and sideline Irish political separatism... Still, as a silly spy film, this is reasonably enjoyable... it's just a little weird around the edges.
"The Far Country" (Universal, 1955)
The American frontier shifts north to Alaska in this tightly paced Anthony Mann western, starring Jimmy Stewart as a hard-bitten, cynical cowboy loner who finds himself caught up in the Klondike gold rush, and with it, the struggle between lawless injustics and the budding new civility. Walter Brennan gets a choice role as Stewart's stammering, old-timer sidekick; John McIntyre is delicious as the unrepentant villain, Judge Gannon of the border town called Skagway, who runs the place as his own personal company town. Stewart plays his antihero to the hilt, and the on-location cinematography is simply gorgeous... A nice, taut, enjoyable film.
"A Decade Under The Influence" (IFC, 2003)
This quick, glitzy documentary, which looks at the maverick filmmaking that reshaped Hollywood in the late 1960s and throughout the '70s, has its ups and downs. At first I thought the lack of a central narrative voice, "telling" us what we're supposed to know, was kind of cool: yeah, I thought, we're smart enough to understand what happened, and all these intelligent, thoughtful rebel filmmakers -- Coppola, Scorcese, Altman, Hopper, Dern, Eastwood, et al. -- can guide us through the history better than any dumb old narrator can... After all, they lived it, man...!! But, sadly, the was not true: by the end of the three segments, I felt a little lost, and even a little cheated... I wasn't really sure what these advocates of independent cinema were trying to tell me, and while the parade of film clips and archival artwork (wish I'd taken notes!) was entertaining, it wasn't particularly well contextualized. The story arc, as such, was that Hollywood, having lost its bearings (and ability to produce hit movies) by the mid-1960s, almost accidentally discovered the rich offerings of low-budget independent cinema. Suddenly, young, unproven writers and directors were given unfettered creative license, and throughout the 1970s they pushed the boundaries of artistic expression, breaking down taboos against exploring sexual, political and drug-related themes, as well as pushing the boundaries of language and onscreen violence. Then, as the '80s opened, the push towards producing blockbuster hits reestablished the dominance of the old studio system. But the material between these central points is a diffuse parade of spectacle and insider asides, not as well structured or as informative as it could have been. Also, on a technical note, why was the DVD version so hard to navigate? What was with having to start up each segment of this film separately? Watching it on VHS might actually have been more rewarding...
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