Sunday, November 17, 2019

Chinatown (1974)

Private Investigator Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is hired by a woman to find out if her husband is having an affair. Husband is Mulwray, a big-wig at the drought stricken Los Angeles water department and is seeing a young blonde. The scandal goes public, lawsuits are filed, and shenanigans come to light about the water department and things become complex.

If you don’t like films where you don’t know what’s going on, Chinatown is not for you. Everyone has secrets and nothing is as it seems. Diane Ladd had a small role. You know, Laura Dern’s mom. There are a few pieces of trivia I’d like to include here but it would reveal details best revealed by watching. I won’t do it to this caliber of film, leaving me with less to say.

Chinatown is neo-noir, a modern interpretation of the 40’s and 50’s film style. It is set in the late 1930’s and follows many of the same conventions but with a more modern sensibility. Code-banned topics are dealt with using code-banned language. Nicholson’s Jake is present in every scene.

Many lesser films use the obfuscation game to make their films seem complex or deep. But Chinatown is a masterpiece. All the pieces fit together in the end, the performances are exceptional, and the cinematography is spectacular. It demands a second viewing and I look forward to that. Too bad the director is a child molester. AMRU 4.5.
“But, Mrs. Mulwray, I goddamn near lost my nose. And I like it. I like breathing through it. And I still think you're hiding something.”

Monday, November 11, 2019

Up In Smoke (1978)

Pedro (Cheech Marin) and Stoner Man (Tommy Chong) go on adventures trying to score some pot that culminates with them unknowingly driving a van made of weed from Tijuana to Los Angeles. Stoner antics ensue.

Cheech and Chong had been working together for ten years before somehow convincing a studio to let them make a film. Once finished, the studio had no idea how to market it, so the boys made comic strips and left them around making it feel like an underground film.

The Altmanesque direction style was no accident. Director Lou Adler was a fan of Robert Altman’s style and much of the dialog is ‘layered’ almost to the point of obfuscation. Lots of stars had small roles like Strother Martin, Edie Adams, Tom Skerritt, and blink-and-you’ll-miss-them Ellen Barkin and Harry Dean Stanton. Stacy Keach played the comedically authoritarian narc.

The granddaddy of the Stoner Comedy genre, Up In Smoke can be amusing at times but sadly it does not hold up. The gags lack any real creativity and the layered dialog makes it hard to understand. I was a fan of their comedy albums back in the day so I was happy to watch, but it doesn’t earn anything past AMRU 2.5. They boys made seven films together in as many years and IMDb and Metacritic both agree, this was the best of them.

Friday, November 8, 2019

The Most Dangerous Game (1932)

A famous hunter (Joel McCray) is on yet another adventure when his ship crashes into a reef and sinks. He is the only survivor. He finds a creepy mansion owned by a strange man who is also hosting guests who were shipwrecked earlier that week. Something of an epidemic.

Turns out our host is an avid hunting fan but he’s grown bored with regular hunting. He wants to hunt The Most Dangerous Game, and would love to go on a hunt for our hero Bob. With Bob. He wants to hunt with Bob. Yea, that’s what I meant.

The most famous adaptation of the popular short story, we see Hollywood shoe horn a love interest into an adventure story, because why not. Fay Wray and screen brother Robert Armstrong were already on location filming King Kong, so let’s go make another film during the downtime. Some of the same set pieces are recognizable like the log Kong shakes Fay’s rescuers off to their deaths.

Our villain is played by character actor Leslie Banks. He suffered a facial injury during the Great War and used it to his advantage, playing menacing characters to the end. With McCray acting like the handsome piece of wood that was the custom of the day and Wray doing little more than screaming, Banks’ Zaroff was by far the most interesting character. Armstrong played a drunken buffoon. I don’t think it was until James Bond that the stock Hero character was allowed to be at all clever.

Not a super memorable film. It was short and served its purpose. I appreciate that they kept some of the anti-hunting theme from the source material. Zarloff was interesting but we pretty much know how it would all pan out. AMRU 3.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)

A handsome young fop has his portrait done then wishes on a creepy cat statue that the portrait would age while he stays young. This actually happens so he tries to keep it a secret. Also, he starts behaving like a dick.

Everyone’s favorite cad George Sanders’ selfish and cynical outlook influences the young Gray to do as he pleases, consequences be damned. As such he has the best lines. Angela Lansbury is adorable as Dorian’s first love. She was nominated for an Oscar. It’s unsettling for me to think of Jessica Fletcher as hot. Donna Reed plays his new love and the only character who visibly ages. Rat Packer Peter Lawford had a small role.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is an interesting thriller. There is violence and an element of the supernatural, but it doesn’t quite read horror to me. It is in actuality a period melodrama with elevated language, well appointed sets, and little action. It’s not until the second act that the portrait starts to do its work that things get dark, though it never becomes a truly dark film.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is a well made and interesting character study, and a fairly faithful adaptation of the novel. All of Oscar Wilde’s wit is present in Sanders’ Lord Wotton, who is a delight to listen to. This is also the only adaptation of merit, at least so far. AMRU 3.5.
“If I could get back my youth, I'd do anything in the world except get up early, take exercise or be respectable.”

Friday, November 1, 2019

The Omen (1976)

Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) is a rich diplomat whose wife lost a child at birth. Not wanting to disappoint her he is pressured into getting a replacement baby by some rando priest, and doesn’t tell her. Born at exactly the same time, too: June 6 at 6 AM. Wonder what that means. Things are fine until the boy turns five and bad stuff starts to happen.

Much like the other two great Demon horror films of the era, The Omen is a well acted, well written, slow burn that avoids the cheesy pitfalls common with the genre. A big difference with The Exorcist is the lack of horror effects. Little gore and no devil iconography. One could question if this was happening all in his mind. I have yet to see Rosemary’s Baby.

Gregory Peck’s son had killed himself prior to casting and the role of the grieving, conflicted parent appealed to him. Plus being married to Lee Remick is pretty sweet.

Smart, well acted horror films are a rarity with even some of the more popular ones being cliche laden exploitation films. The Omen is a great movie that also happens to be a horror film. It didn’t change cinema quite like how The Exorcist did, a slightly better film, but perhaps it would have had the former not existed. AMRU 4. I have to say I had a similar reaction to going to church as a boy.
“Look at me, Damien! It's all for you!”

Monday, October 28, 2019

The Terror (1963)

Andre (Jack Nicholson) is a Napoleonic soldier separated from his battalion. Exhausted and thirsty, he happens upon a hot young woman (Sandra Knight) who calls herself Helene. She leads him to water then tries to drown him. He wakes up in the cabin of an old woman who says he just imagined the young woman. Her mute servant tells him (just go with it) to seek the girl at the castle of the Baron Victor von Leppe (Boris Karloff), who says he just imagined the young woman. But Andre is obsessed.

There is so much wrong with this film. Jack and Barron henchman Dick Miller’s stilted and unnatural delivery appear to channel Keanu Reeves. There are extended shots of Karloff pointlessly walking, ape-like, around his underfurnshed mansion slowly coming to the realization that he will never again be in a good movie. The secrets of the movie are revealed in a haphazard way and the great twist at the end would make even soap opera fans groan.

What really happened here is that director Roger Corman finished early on The Raven (1963), sent everyone but Karloff and Nicholson home, then filmed random scenes of Karloff on existing sets. He then continued with Jack and a couple other actors trying to improvise a new movie. When the editors came back and said it was a mess, they had Nicholson and Miller do some exposition in a studio to try and fit it all together.

The core of the story isn’t bad. A witch mesmerizes a young woman who resembles the Barron’s dead wife to torment him for killing her son. Not great, but by B movie standards, not bad at all. But it doesn’t work because of the previously mentioned terrible acting, the ‘saved it in the editing’ filming schedule, and the mind numbingly stupid twists at the end (yea, that’s right, two stupid twists). Dick and Jack are fighting, then cooperate, then fight again. No reason. Fix those problems and you will have a serviceable if forgettable film. With those problems you have a film Jack Nicholson wants everyone to forget.

I remember a scene at the very end of a film I saw as a boy that stuck with me. I didn’t remember the content of the story nor the context of the scene. That film was this and that scene was dumb plot twist number two. I remember the actor reacting not with horror but with an ‘Ew, that’s gross!’ look on his face. That part was remembered correctly.

I’m sure Roger Corman turned a profit on The Terror. He was notorious for his tight shoots and tighter budgets. He wouldn’t spend a nickel to make a movie better unless it returned him a dime. He didn’t have the luxury of time here but I can’t help think that with a little better planning and some creative writing even the twists could have been successful. As it exists, however, AMRU 2.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

The Omega Man (1971)

Dr. Neville (Charlton Heston) is the last survivor of a biological world war. He travels around during the day collecting supplies and killing people… oh, yea. There are these other people roaming around in the darkness. Bizarre cultists he needs to gun down. Has to, otherwise they would kill him. They wear black robes, cannot stand the daylight, and hate all forms of modern technology because it destroyed the world. Can’t really argue with that point given the circumstances.

Anyhow, Neville wanders all day doing his “shopping” and looking for their ‘nest’ so he can wipe them all out once and for all. And trying to find a cure. That too. He is a doctor after all. Oh, look! A chick!

Dr. Neville is a very lonely man. He plays chess with a bust of Julius Caesar, hears phantom telephones ringing, and goes to the movies just to hear human voices. Strangely he watches the Woodstock film, not a very Charlton Heston-like choice. He watches with the same creepy, lecherous stare he eyes his new love interest with (Rosalind Cash).

Pretty light on the horror elements, this is the second of three major adaptations of Richard Matheson’s 'I Am Legend', the least faithful to the book and arguably the worst. The heart and humanity of the original story was replaced with an action hero gunning down evil zealots. Some will find The Omega Man fun. It has a free spirit attitude and lots of explosions, but Neville and the other characters behave illogically and the world makes no sense. Plus the score was terrible and the Heston stunt double looked nothing like him.

Omega Man is a shoot-em-up action film based on an intelligent novel. Is Neville a no-nonsense killing machine or a researcher trying to save humanity? Are the cultists evil monsters or the poor afflicted? At times the movie seems to want to have it both ways but in the end errs on the side of inane. Does the light of technology triumph over the darkness of superstition? The same superstitious darkness caused by our enlightened technology? This is a dumb movie based on a smart book that doesn’t quite work on it’s own terms. Wait a minute, is the Christlike Neville actually the villain? Naw! AMRU 2.5.