Monthly Archives: August 2014

#303 Fast Times At Ridgemont High

(1982, Amy Heckerling)

“I woke up in a great mood, I don’t know what the hell happened”

It’s the eighties! Time to do a lot of coke and vote for Ronald Reagan! Yeah! Yes, today we are looking at one of the classic teen comedies of the 80s, Fast Times At Ridgemont High, a movie about sex, growing up and dancing to The Go-Go’s. But is it any good?

Fast Times At Ridgemont High focuses on a group of various teenagers who attend Ridgemont High. At the centre are sophomores Stacy Hamilton (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Mark Ratner (Brian Backer), who receive advice from their older friends Linda (Phoebe Cates) and Mike (Robert Romanus), who believe themselves to be wiser in romance. There are also subplots involving Stacy’s brother Brad (Judge Reinhold) who works his way through a variety of terrible jobs, and unrelated stoner kid Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn) who has a run-in with strict teacher Mr Hand (Ray Walston).

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#302 Naked Lunch

(1991, David Cronenberg)
“Exterminate all rational thought”

David Cronenberg has built a career out of gross, weird films filled with things that shouldn’t be. But the quality can go either way. Way, way back, I reviewed The Fly and thought it was an excellent piece of tense sci-fi horror with a believable romance that left a huge impression on me. Shortly after, I reviewed Videodrome, which was a nonsensical piece of crap that existed solely to test effects artists’ skills and the viewer’s patience. But which side of the fence does Naked Lunch fall?

Based on the “unpublishable” book by Beat Generation writer William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch is a mixture of passages from the non-linear narrative text mixed with elements of the author’s own life. It focuses on William Lee (Peter Weller), an exterminator who is approached by a talking bug and tasked with killing his wife, which will lead him to a job writing reports for Interzone Incorporated, a company that does…something. There’s also stuff about drugs and homosexuality in there too.

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#301 The Wolf Man

(1941, George Waggner)

“Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright”

I was sitting in my big leather armchair wondering what it would be like to be a werewolf. Then I realised it probably wasn’t that good an idea and I decided to watch a movie about a werewolf instead. And why not start with the werewolf movie that started them all, The Wolf Man, one of the classic Universal monster movies?

It’s 1934, and Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) has heard about the death of his brother and returns to his ancestral home in Wales to reconcile with his estranged father, John (Claude Rains). While there, he takes an interest in antiques dealer Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers), and purchases a walking stick with a silver wolf head, supposedly representing a werewolf, a local legend. When Larry is attacked in the woods by a wolf, he manages to kill it using the cane, but ends up bitten in the process. I’ll let you figure out the rest.

The Wolf Man may be a classic, but it’s definitely on the b-movie end of things. The first indication of this comes fairly early on when it becomes apparent that the movie is intent on drumming the werewolf legend into your head at every point. It does this by insistently repeating a poem about wolfbane that’s supposedly a local legend, pretty much to the point of tedium. Every character offhandedly tells Larry the poem, who seems amazed by it every single time, while I began to groan every time someone started saying it.

Of course, not much of the film’s other dialogue is much better. From comments about a pentagram-shaped scar being nothing because “that scar could have been made by any animal” (are you sure?) to some incredibly awkward flirting, this movie isn’t going to win any awards for writing. The flirting especially annoys me because it results in a forced love story that doesn’t make any sense and starts by Larry spying on Gwen with his dad’s telescope and then casually dropping personal information about her into their first conversation based on this. This is more terrifying than the movie’s actual horror!

The acting isn’t much better. For the most part, everyone is either phoning it in or seems to not care. The only actor who seems to be putting some degree of effort in is Claude Rains, which makes John Talbot the best character in the whole movie because he’s the only person who feels believable. Of course, this doesn’t make his relationship to Larry believable, because there is no way to think these two actors share any genes because they’re so vastly different in terms of body type and demeanour.

But of course, no one comes into a werewolf movie expecting a deep story and believable characters, we come to watch horrific transformations and see people get attacked by hairy men. How does it do on that front?

Well, it does…okay. It’s kind of a fun watch once the transformations start happening, but marred by some dated effects and makeup that make the “wolf” man look more like a man with an unfortunate medical condition. The first transformation we see is also a major letdown, as Larry’s feet calmly fade to a pair of fuzzy slippers which then walk out of a door.

But it has charm. At least it has that going for it. It’s pretty much exactly what you’d expect from a creaky old Universal horror movie from the 40s. It’s there for silly entertainment as you watch a man in questionable monster makeup stalk around.

So, The Wolf Man. Not great, but charming and entertaining enough.

Starring Lon Chaney Jr, Claude Rains, Evelyn Ankers, Warren William, Ralph Bellamy, Patrick Knowles & Bela Lugosi
Written by Curt Siodmak
Produced by George Waggner
Cinematography by Joseph Valentine
Edited by Ted J. Kent

Favourite Scene: The wolf attack in the woods is pretty exciting.
Scene That Bugged Me: That pentagram scar line. Not many animals would make a scar that shape. Just saying.

Watch it if: You like creaky old monster movies
Avoid it if: You like nuanced art pieces with complex plots

#300 Downfall

(2004, Oliver Hirschbiegel)
Der Untergang

“The war is lost… But if you think that I’ll leave Berlin for that, you are sadly mistaken. I’d prefer to put a bullet in my head.”

Hitler parodies were everywhere on YouTube at one point. These were usually videos where Hitler would be ranting away in German while some wacky person added subtitles that suggested he was ranting about something mundane or anachronistic, such as getting his Xbox Live account banned. Well, did you know where that clip came from? It came from Der Untergang, aka Downfall, a movie about, well, Hitler’s downfall at the end of World War II.

It’s April 1945, in Berlin. Hitler (Bruno Ganz) is celebrating his birthday when suddenly loud blasts begin to rock the city. Demanding answers, Hitler discovers that the Soviets have breached German lines and are just outside the city. Determined to face off against the Soviets rather than surrender, we witness Hitler descend into madness as he deludes himself into thinking he can survive the onslaught and still win the war.

Now, there are naturally some reservations about this movie. The idea of humanising Hitler and setting a movie based on his perspective of the decisive Battle Of Berlin is one that not a lot of people particularly like the idea of. There are plenty that say that presenting Hitler as human is an insult to all who lost their lives in the Holocaust, and all those who fought to take him down.

However, Hitler was a real person, not some fairy tale monster made up to scare Jewish children, and a portrayal of him as human is a better lesson for humanity than acting like nobody else is capable of what he did. So here it is, a human portrayal of Hitler, showing him as a flawed human being with twisted thoughts and a complete lack of compassion and empathy. It’s a portrayal of humanity at its darkest, and we need that.

And Bruno Ganz nailed it. His performance is excellent throughout. Hitler is presented as this twitchy, uncomfortable little man with not an ounce of empathy in him. He is quick to anger, makes irrational decisions and deludes himself of his own greatness. He’s not particularly nice, and even in moments where he begins to appear rational and sensible, he’ll start to spout off some nonsense about how proud he is to have eradicated so many Jews. Essentially, he’s portrayed as someone you don’t really want to spend much time with.

The problem is, Hitler’s portrayal is pretty much the only good thing about the movie. The rest of it is a plodding mess that makes me question exactly what it’s trying to achieve. It’s a movie that shows a flawed human version of Hitler in the midst of scenes of concerned looking Germans not saying anything to each other, or at the very least debating whether or not they should leave Berlin, over and over.

The problem is, the many generals and staff under Hitler’s command (and I mean MANY), are not even remotely fleshed out in the way Hitler himself is. As such, everyone tends to bleed together as a single autonomous unit called “the people who aren’t Hitler”. Sure, you can tell them apart physically – there’s the fat one, the creepy-looking one, the stern one, the doe-eyed secretary and the other secretary (I think she was a secretary), but good luck remembering any of their names. Oh, and there’s Eva Braun, but she’s just kind of there because she was Hitler’s wife, but she’s got just as much personality as the rest of them.

The problem is, so much screen time is dedicated to these personality-free extras that the movie feels utterly pointless much of the time. And for a movie about Hitler’s downfall, it’s odd that Hitler kills himself (not a spoiler!) 40 minutes before the movie ends, leaving us with over half an hour of faceless characters running around trying not to get shot…and often getting shot. Repeatedly.

Downfall would be a great movie if it stuck to its guns and retained some level of focus. As it is, its determination to get every tiny little detail, however insignificant, into it 150-minute running time is tiresome and dull. Stick with a story about Hitler and we’ll be in a better place. And to highlight my displeasure with the movie, I’m going to make a Hitler Rants video. Bye!

Starring Bruno Ganz, Alexandra Maria Lara, Ulrich Matthes, Corinna Harfouch, Juliane Köhler & Thomas Kretschmann
Written by Joachim Fest & Bernd Eichinger
Produced by Bernd Eichinger
Music by Stephan Zacharias
Cinematography by Rainer Klausmann
Edited by Hans Funck

Favourite Scene: The famous Hitler rant is probably the best part of the movie for many reasons. Even if you don’t find it a good scene on its own merits, at least it’s easy to turn off subtitles and imagine a comedy reason for Hitler’s rants.
Scene That Bugged Me: Why does the movie just keep going after Hitler’s death? Why won’t it end?!

Watch it if: You really need to complete your collection of movies giving an account of World War II
Avoid it if: You came here for Hitler’s suicide and expect it to be over by then

#299 La Jetée

(1961, Chris Marker)
“This is the story of a man…and of a woman’s face”

I know of La Jetée for three reasons. First of all, I’ve reviewed director Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (and wasn’t impressed). Secondly, I’m a fan of the band Pure Reason Revolution, and their track “Blitzkrieg” samples dialogue from this movie (the page quote, which is actually two sections of dialogue fused together). And finally, the much more well-known Terry Gilliam movie 12 Monkeys draws heavily from La Jetée. So there’s a lot to be interested in there, so let’s take a look.

Set following World War III, a nuclear war that destroyed much of the planet and its population, La Jetée examines the attempts of scientists in the future to send people back in time to correct the mistakes and stop the war from happening. The main character, The Man (Davos Hanich), is chosen for this purpose because of a stark image of a woman (Helene Chatelain) he remembers seeing in his childhood, prior to the war, which provides him a direct link to the past.

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#298 Trouble In Paradise

(1932, Ernst Lubitsch)
“If you behave like a gentleman, I’ll break your neck”

Film noir is a genre I have an interest in, but it’s not always fantastic. While normally I enjoy a good crime caper or gritty detective thriller, there are plenty of duds out there. How well does Trouble In Paradise fair?

Centred on two master thieves, Trouble In Paradise is a crime caper about the perils of working with your partner. In Venice, a master thief known as Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall) is pretending to be nobility to get easy access to wealthy targets. When he invites a woman named Lily (Miriam Hopkins) to his room, it turns out that she’s a thief pulling the same stunt, resulting in the two forming a partnership, both romantically and professionally. A short while later, they head to Paris where they target a successful perfume manufacturer, Madame Colet (Kay Francis) and begin to work for her to get easy access to her money. However, things take a turn for the worse when Colet begins flirting with Monescu, producing a love triangle that threatens to derail the whole plan.

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#297 Breaking The Waves

(1996, Lars von Trier)
“Not one of you has the right to consign Bess to Hell”

Last time we saw Lars Von Trier on this blog, it was the harrowing and unexpectedly excellent Dancer In The Dark, where Bjork sang some songs and endured as life just got worse and worse for her over a period of time. Today’s film, Breaking The Waves, is apparently part of the same trilogy, which means another innocent woman is put through hell due to a cruel, heartless world. So, nice and happy movie then.

Breaking The Waves focuses on Bess McNeil (Emily Watson), a young Scottish woman who lives in a very conservative village society. The movie hints at a history of psychological problems, which include her frequent discussions with God, who she believes responds to her in her own voice. She marries a Norwegian oil worker, Jan (Stellan Skarsgård), although following a passionate honeymoon, Jan must leave to go and work on the rig. Later events leave Jan paralysed, causing him to demand that Bess go and take other lovers in his absence. It all goes wrong from there.

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#296 Touch Of Evil

(1958, Orson Welles)
“In any free country a policeman is supposed to enforce the law”

Hey look, it’s another film noir! I’m getting pretty happy with how often these seem to be turning up these days, so today I’m particularly happy. This one is an Orson Welles film too, so hopefully it’ll come with a Citizen Kane level of sheen. Let’s take a look shall we?

Touch Of Evil is set around the US-Mexico border, with the star of the show being Miguel “Mike” Vargas (Charlton Heston), a Mexican drug enforcement officer newly married to Susie (Janet Leigh), an American. When a car explodes after passing onto US soil, an investigation is launched, headed up by Captain Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles), a disgusting, overweight slob of a man. As Vargas assists with the investigation, he begins to question Quinlan’s judgement and suspects him of falsifying evidence for his own gains, causing him to launch his own investigation. However, this potentially puts his wife in danger.

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