Monday, December 21, 2009

Black Dynamite is outta sight! (and later out of steam)

Black Dynamite is the spiritual sibling (one might even say "soul brotha") of 2007's double-feature experiment Grindhouse, in that it takes a classic exploitation trope of yesteryear and tweaks it just enough to make it relatable to modern audiences. In Planet Terror, Robert Rodriguez took the subgenre of Italian zombie films that popped up in the wake of George Romero's Dawn of the Dead, reimported them into the American cinematic syntax, and added modern digital effects to achieve some gonzo concepts that kept with the mentality of his inspirations, although not their actual execution. Quentin Tarantino's approach in his hybrid action-horror segment Death Proof was to replace the mind-bogglingly dull dialogue of lesser grindhouse films with his own brand of post-ironic banter -- which, within the provided context, wasn't any less dull, but it was certainly more inane.

Black Dynamite director Scott Sanders and stars/co-writers Michael Jai White and Byron Minns start with a loving, if slightly cheeky, homage to 1970s blaxploitation pics like Cotton Comes to Harlem, Gordon's War, Shaft, and Black Belt Jones, and slowly begin to add layers of influence from a different source -- the spoofs of Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker (The Kentucky Fried Movie, Airplane, The Naked Gun). Instead of modernizing their concept, Sanders, White, and Minns create an unexpected but very welcome connection between two very different genres, making it a more successful homage than either of the two Grindhouse films, at least for the first two-thirds. Despite losing control of the escalating comedy elements in the final third, the filmmakers still have a lot to be proud of here.

What I love most about Black Dynamite (and what ultimately makes the last act so frustrating), is the restraint it shows at the beginning. Sanders and company understand that comedy, like suspense, is something you build -- something you earn. With that in mind, they keep their intentions close to the chest. The introduction of Black Dynamite (White), our composite blaxploitation hero (he's a former CIA agent, an expert in kung fu, and he plays by nobody's rules but his own), is played only slightly tongue-in-cheek -- the situations are knowingly cliche and the dialogue just a bit too arch to be serious. Most of the early gags involve the particulars of low-budget exploitation films in general -- frames are randomly dropped, a boom mike eases into frame, and one character smokes an unlit cigarette.

As the actual plot is brought in, direct nudges at blaxploitation cinema come in. Not only must Black Dynamite avenge the murder of his brother Jimmy by gangsters, but he also has to investigate the introduction of drugs into the community by those same gangsters. The funk soundtrack becomes key to the comedy at some junctures, as Adrian Younge's mood-setting lyrics often provide an accurate description of the scene we're watching! We're introduced to characters with names like Cream Corn (Tommy Davidson), Bullhorn (Minns), and Chicago Wind (Mykelti Williamson), who alternately hinder and help Black Dynamite on his quest for justice.

Before we've even realized the subtle evolution of the film's tone, it's already working on adding another layer to the comedy -- making fun of its eponymous hero. This is probably Black Dynamite's most sublime comic work. Poking fun at an already comedic construct should feel like more of the same; it shouldn't be unexpectedly side-splitting. The key here is really in Michael Jai White's performance. From the first frame he's in, he establishes Black Dynamite as a righteous, nigh-unflappable mofo who can get the job done, someone's who's just too damned competent at everything. Right as that characterization starts to get stale, however, White introduces a fallibility we didn't even know we'd been begging for. When Black Dynamite loses his legendary cool at a prostitute who's only crime is interrupting his jive monologue, the timing couldn't be more perfect -- the moment is where we want it to be in the scene and the scene is exactly where we need it to be in the film.

There are occasional sequences that drag on too long and one in particular (Black Dynamite and his crew cleaning up the streets) that is over before you can register it started. These are minor hiccups, though, and there are great moments within these scenes that make their unfortunate pacing forgivable.

However, the last act of Black Dynamite goes completely off the rails. During what seems like a climactic raid on a warehouse, Black Dynamite discovers that a new villain, hiding at a remote location, is responsible for the evil goings-on. I assumed that the movie would cut to a faux trailer for Black Dynamite 2 or something, because it would be ridiculous (and not in a way consistent with the film's humor up to this point) for them to go face this new, completely unforeshadowed threat now. Well, the movie does keep going, shifting into a weak, cut-down imitation of A Fistful of Yen (from The Kentucky Fried Movie). Then the movie gets even dumber still in a sequence I can't describe without making it sound ten times more awesome than it actually is. I think Sanders wants his audience yelling, "No f**king WAY!" but instead the response is, "You've gotta be f**king kidding me."

It hurts when a movie like Black Dynamite squanders its good will. There's so much that I love about the film's understanding of comedy, timing, and how to turn expectation into laughter. Alas, none of that understanding is apparent when the film enters its final act. A shame, too. Black Dynamite starts out as one bad mothaf**ka, but by the time the credits roll, it's transformed into a jive turkey.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

52 Perfect Movies: Trouble in Paradise (1932)

This is probably going to be one of the lesser-known films of this series, but it belongs nevertheless. From the first time I saw it at a special screening in New York's Greenwich Village, I have been in love with Ernst Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise--a shining example of an era in time and in cinema that is forever gone.

Trouble in Paradise is of a certain genre of movie that simply doesn't exist anymore, and for which there is no equivalent. A sly, sophisticated and slick romantic comedy, it is about as far as you can possibly get from the so-called "chick flicks" of today, offering viewers a sublime experience if they but open themselves up to it.

Director Ernst Lubitsch, a German expatriate who had come over to Hollywood during the silent era, became known for a very specific trademark style. In a time when studios controlled content and most directors didn't have anything like the kind of leeway they later would, Lubitsch managed to carve out a unique feel for his work, which became known as "The Lubitsch Touch". This can be seen in such films as The Merry Widow, Ninotchka, The Shop Around the Corner, To Be or Not to Be, and Heaven Can Wait.

But before any of those was this one, a delicious comedy starring Miriam Hopkins and Herbert Marshall as a couple of con artists who attempt to fleece a millionairess of her fortune. Along the way, Marshall begins to fall for his prey (played by Kay Francis), drawing the jealousy of his typically cool-as-a-cucumber accomplice/lover Hopkins.

Hopkins and Marshall are amazing, tearing into a delightful script provided by Hungarian playwright Aladar Laszlo--on whose play the movie was based--and Hollywood workhorse Grover Jones, who pulled off the screen adaptation. This was before the enforcement of the censoring Hayes code, and it's absolutely delightful how much innuendo and biting satire the writers were able to effortlessly weave into almost every line of this terrific screenplay.

This is movie screenwriting as it has never been done since those heady days of the early 1930s--intellectual without being pretentious, brimming with outrageous wordplay without being vulgar or obvious, and pulsating with grace and class from beginning to end. Along with Marshall and Hopkins, benefiting from this treasure of a script is a cast boasting such character actors as C. Aubrey Smith, and the one and only Edward Everett Horton.

Horton was a comic genius on screen, who nearly stole every Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers vehicle he was in, and nearly does the same here, playing his patented bumbling middle-aged dandy to the hilt. He is one of my very favorite character actors of all time, and its always a pleasure to watch him work.

Those who equate movies of this time with the more chaste material of the late 1930s and 1940s are in for a bit of a surprise at the level of frank bedroom humor that goes on. In fact, although it would never draw such a rating today, the picture was given the equivalent of an "R" in some foreign countries, and was even banned in Finland. But it's all in good, harmless fun, and one can't help but chuckle at nearly every line of what is, for my money, a completely perfect script.

When the movie code went into effect in 1934, the movie was effectively prevented from being reissued to theaters, and so became something of an obscure little oddity for decades. In fact, it was never issued on VHS, and not on DVD for many years, leading lovers of the Lubitsch gem to seek it out at film festivals and from celluloid dealers. Thankfully, it was recently released on DVD, and I strongly urge lovers of 1930s cinema to immediately give it the Netflix treatment if they haven't seen it.

Lubitsch had a way of creating an atmosphere that was all his own, and this movie might very well be the earliest example of the "The Lubitsch Touch" fully formed. Although the script is largely what makes this such an unforgettable movie, it wouldn't have have been able to be so fully realized without the effortless richness and panache that Lubitsch brought to every production with which he was associated. He had a way of evoking elegance and suggestiveness at the same time, leaving much to the viewer's imagination, yet also making sure they got the point.

As I've said in previous entries, the early 1930s was a time of such exuberant experimentation in American film, and Trouble in Paradise is a beautiful example of that exuberance at its best. You know how they always say, "They don't make 'em like this anymore"? Well folks, in our far courser modern culture, they very literally do not make 'em like this anymore. But we'll always have Trouble in Paradise to remind us of when grace and class were at a premium in Hollywood moviemaking.

NEXT UP: Top Hat (1935)

Friday, December 11, 2009

52 Perfect Movies: The Public Enemy (1931)

William Wellman's masterpiece The Public Enemy is not simply an excellent gangster movie. It is the gangster movie; that is to say, it is the prototype, the epitome of the classic gangster film. This should not be confused with something like The Godfather, which took the genre to a different, more specifically mafia-oriented place. I'm talking about the old-school, all-American gangster movie here.

And make no mistake, these movies are all about America. The American dream, or rather the very dark side of it. They're about what desperate men were willing to do to grab their piece of the pie and hold on to it, in a world that didn't give a damn about them. And The Public Enemy illustrates that concept to perfection.

Of course, none of that could have happened without the man whose presence is really what this movie is all about: The one and only James Cagney. In a time when film acting, especially in the new sound era, was still developing from the broad histrionics of the stage, Cagney brought the art into the modern age. He was subtle; he was nuanced; he was real. He has a charisma so powerful that you can't take your eyes off him for a split-second. He owns the screen, and this is the part that forever etched him into the mainstream consciousness.

As Tom Powers, Cagney is pure joy to watch. His every movement, and every line of dialogue is a gem. In this time before the Hays Code, movies were able to get away with a bit more, and so Cagney is able to portray a gangster we identify with and root on despite ourselves. He may "lose in the end" to prove that "crime doesn't pay", but we know that's just a pretense. Make no mistake, despite his ruthlessness, he is the hero of this movie.

He just may be my favorite actor of all time, and this movie will show you why. The naturalism--he comes across not as an actor, but as a genuine wiseguy off the street. Pacino and DeNiro would be nothing without this guy blazing the trail, my friends.

And that's not to say he isn't surrounded by a supporting cast worth a fortune. We have the sexy Joan Blondell; veteran actress Beryl Mercer as Powers' large-looming mother; hard-boiled Brit Murray Kinnell as mentor Putty Nose; Leslie Fenton as the slimy Nails Nathan; and best of all, the great Robert O'Connor as the cool-as-a-cucumber mob boss Paddy Ryan. O'Connor is cast just right, using what time he's given to create a truly memorable character--the potato chip-eating scene alone is worth the price of the DVD.

And then there's Jean Harlow. Some have harped on her seeming out-of-place in this picture, with a finishing-school accent that comes out of left field. I'm not one of those people. To watch the ultimate blond bombshell interact onscreen with Cagney is pure magic. The scene in which they glide into a nightclub together and start dancing, almost defies words. You just know you're watching two larger-than-life legends of the silver screen impose their aura on everything around them. I love it.

This is a movie that takes an unflinching look at the world of organized crime in the time of Prohibition, a virtual free-for-all of bootlegging and violence. And it's not all about glorifying, to be sure--the film shows us the seedy underbelly of this world as well, in a way that we wouldn't see again to such a degree until the new generation gangster flicks of the 1970s like Mean Streets.

It's a daring film from a daring era. Powers' seduction by Paddy Ryan's wife is dealt with in surprisingly frank fashion for the time, as is his out-of-wedlock shack-up with Blondell. Then there's the unforgettable climactic scene in the rain, beautifully shot and prefiguring 1940s noir, and that infamous closing image of Powers' "homecoming".

This is why the early 1930s is one of my favorite eras of movie-making, and The Public Enemy exemplifies the spirit of experimentation and exuberance that characterized it.

I've seen The Public Enemy many times, and I can honestly say I'm never not in the mood to see it. For me, this is comfort cinema at its best, and it's always my pleasure to worship at the altar of Cagney. I suggest you give it a try--you'll never look back.

NEXT UP: Trouble in Paradise (1932)

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

52 Perfect Movies: City Lights (1931)

To give you an idea of how truly amazing Charles Chaplin's City Lights is, Orson Welles--the man who made Citizen Kane--considered it his favorite movie.

The great cinematic legend, Chaplin is someone I would personally put on my very short list of true comic geniuses of the 20th century, along with Groucho Marx, Peter Sellers and Woody Allen. This film is the perfect example of why I put him at that level. For me, a true comic genius, one who steps out from the pack of those who are merely very funny, is someone who transcends pure comedy, someone who does something more with his work, who adds a level of almost intangible profundity to what he does, so that he has the power to do more than merely make you laugh.

There's no question Charlie Chaplin did this throughout his incredible career, and for my money, there is no film of his, feature or short, which illustrates that as well as City Lights. The movie represents a powerful evolution in his famous "Little Tramp" character, and an extremely daring balance of comedy and pathos/drama, even moreso than previous efforts like The Kid, another great one.

This is a movie that took so many chances, and they all paid off in ways that few chances in the history of cinema ever have. For one thing, Chaplin made it at the beginning of the 1930s, when the motion picture industry had already converted completely to sound. And yet he insisted on making it a silent film. In his eyes, it was integral to way the film would work.

And it's a good thing Chaplin stuck to his guns. Although the film does have a recorded musical soundtrack, it is indeed silent, thus the movie's original subtitle, "A Comedy Romance in Pantomime". There's something innately powerful about the wordless emotions put forth on the screen under the masterful hand of Chaplin: director, writer and star. He'd been doing it for years by this point, but City Lights is the ultimate distillation of his art.

Chaplin, as the Tramp, falls in love with a blind flower girl, who, because she cannot see, believes he is a wealthy businessman with the ability to help her pay for crucial eye surgery to restore her vision; determined to keep her love, the Tramp does whatever it takes to raise the money needed. On paper, it is melodramatic mush, but in the hands of Chaplin it becomes a genuinely remarkable filmgoing experience.

And while there is much earnest sentiment flying around, Chaplin manages to perfectly blend the comedy which initially put him on the map in the first place. Via his friendship with a drunken millionaire, and his many intrepid attempts at making money, Chaplin is able to interject hilariously funny material, yet never loses sight of the genuine feeling at the heart of the story. Among these comedy vignettes, by the way, is the classic prize fight routine, with the Tramp trying his hand at boxing.

There are few filmmakers who were ever able to seamlessly blend comedy and drama like Chaplin, and he never did it better than here. Talk about a filmmaker at the height of his powers. And the sentiment, the heart of the piece, is so pure, so true, and so moving, that it actually manages to infuse the comedy with an almost indescribable flavor of emotion, resulting in that very rare viewer response of combined melancholy and amusement that so few films ever succeed in eliciting.

Perhaps the finest moment in the history of Chaplin's Tramp character may be the closing moment of this film. Some have called it the most memorable film ending ever, and it's hard to dispute that point. It certainly is one of the most serene moments in cinematic history--the flower girl, post-surgery, her sight restored, seeks to meet her benefactor face-to-face for the first time, to thank him. And of course, upon seeing him as the Tramp instead of the wealthy businessman she thought he was, she nevertheless accepts him wholly and completely.

Again, what on paper would seem maudlin and trite is pulled off so perfectly by Chaplin as to be a thing of wonder. Supposedly Chaplin filmed his scenes with Virginia Cherrill, the actress who played the blind girl, literally hundreds of times trying to land the perfect take. And that insistence on perfection shows through in the finished product. Watching that look of unequalled relief, adoration and pride on the Tramp's face, a flower clasped nervously in hand, how else can one think any different?

NEXT UP: The Public Enemy (1931)

Thursday, November 19, 2009

"52 Perfect Movies" Is Coming!

B-Sol of The Vault of Horror here. Firstly, let me just thank Nate so very much for giving me this outlet to express my love for cinema beyond the realm of the frightening. As he announced some days ago, I've been invited to contribute here at Cinema Geek, and I couldn't be happier about it.

The series of posts to which he referred is something I like to call, "52 Perfect Movies". I've been planning it for some time now--the trials and tribulations of daily life in the real world have kept me a bit too occupied as of late, but I just wanted to let everyone know that it is coming.

Once a week (in a perfect world), I will be spotlighting a different film. Each of them is a film that, in my humble opinion, can be said with relative certainty to be completely flawless. They are examples of the absolute pinnacle of movie-making, as I see it. I freely admit this is an entirely subjective endeavor, but I sincerely hope you will enjoy it nevertheless.

As for the movies themselves, I'm in a generous mood, so I've included a few pictures to give you an idea of what some of them will be. I'll be doing it in chronological order, and hope to start things up very soon. So stay tuned, and here's to a year's worth of perfect movies...

Thursday, November 5, 2009

A Brief Guide to Aspect Ratios

This piece was originally written to help sort out some confusion friends were having about anamorphic DVDs and aspect ratios. I thought it'd be cool to throw it here as well.

The world of aspect ratios in movies can be really confusing. Why are some movies wider than others? Is widescreen always a good thing? What's it mean when a DVD is "16x9 enhanced"? Why is it that when I play my older DVDs on my new widescreen television, they have black bars on the sides as well as the top and bottom?

1. What IS an Aspect Ratio?

In simple terms, an aspect ratio is an expression of the relation between an image's width and its height. There are two ways of expressing them -- with whole numbers and with decimals.

Media (movies, television shows) ratios are usually expressed with decimals -- a movie with an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 will be 1.78 times wider than it is tall. The higher the first number, the wider the picture.

Marketing text on displays (computer monitors and televisions) will use whole numbers, which are easier for the consumer to digest, but actually make the math a bit more ridiculous. A television with a 16x9 display (the norm for widescreen sets) is 16 times wider than nine times its height. Really, 16x9 is just 1.78:1, but in terms that look good on a weekly electronics flyer.

For the rest of this piece, I'll express the ratio in terms of [decimal]:1 (1.33:1, etc.).

2. A little bit of history

Image 2A

Frame from 1.19:1 movie
Fritz Lang's M (1931)

Image 2B
Frame from 1.37:1 movie
Cropped to 1.33:1 on DVD
Edgar G. Ulmer's The Black Cat (1934)
In the silent era, films were presented in 1.33:1 or 4:3 ratio -- roughly the shape of a non-widescreen television. When sound films came in, additional space was needed on the film strip for the optical soundtrack. Initially, this caused movies to be reduced to 1.19:1 (see Image 2A), which many people found disorienting.

Eventually, a standard was established which reduced the height of the image to compensate for the loss of width. Known at the Academy Ratio, 1.37:1 is how most older films are meant to be viewed. Not that you will -- when films are released to television and DVD, the studios (every last one of them) figure that the difference between the Academy Ratio and the 1.33:1 ratio of standard televisions is so slight that they crop out a small part of the picture. The screencap provided in Image 2B, therefore, is not a completely accurate representation of Edgar Ulmer's The Black Cat and it's certainly not a good representation of the Academy Ratio.

But I digress.

As television threatened to steal customers from movie theaters, the studios fought back by moving to more color productions and by adding another element -- widescreen. There were multiple widescreen standards. One of the earliest (and widest) was Cinerama, which involved shooting a movie with three cameras simultaneously, then projecting it from three carefully placed projectors onto a curved screen. The aspect ratio was, roughly, 2.65:1.

A more common practice was to film at Academy ratio and then matte (or block) out part of the picture when the film is projected. Directors and cinematographers using this method would usually have guides on the lens to let them know what was and wasn't part of the composition. Ratios for this method include 1.66:1 and 1.85:1, with many 1.85:1 films being reformatted to 1.78:1 for DVD (see Images 2C-2E).

Images 2C-2E: Various matted aspect ratios. From left to right, Mario Bava's Black Sunday (1960, 1.66:1), Black Sabbath (1963, originally 1.85:1, reformatted to 1.78:1), and Shock (1977, 1.85:1)

However, making the image any wider reduced the amount of space you used in the 35mm frame drastically, resulting in a loss in quality. The solution for this was an anamorphic lens, which filled the whole 35mm frame with the rectangular widescreen image by horizontally compressing the image. When exhibited, the film would then be uncompressed by another anamorphic lens on the projector (see Images 2F-2G).

Images 2F-2G: The anamorphic process. Top image: a still from Mario Bava's Knives of the Avenger (1966, 2.35:1). Bottom image: The same still altered to approximate its appearance as a 35mm frame.

There are other methods and techniques, including using 70mm and Super35mm film, but I've covered the biggies.

3. How this all works on DVD

Like a 35mm film frame, a standard DVD has limited resolution. In this case, it's 720x480 pixels (don't do the math there -- the pixels are non-square. The square pixel resolution actually works out to about 640x480 or 1.33:1).

Early DVDs simply handled widescreen images by slapping black bars on the actual image (Image 3A).

Image 3A. Matted widescreen. From Mario Bava's Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970, 1.66:1).

Note even here, in the least wide of the widescreen formats, there is a loss of a good 19% of the possible image resolution to black bars. Worse, because the image itself is 1.33:1, it will appear on a widescreen (16:9) television as either matted on the sides as well as the top and bottom or it will be stretched to fill the screen, distorting the picture horizontally.

Later, anamorphic enhancement was developed. It follows the same basic principle of anamorphic film -- the image is squeezed horizontally and then pulled back out. The difference in DVD terms is that it can be used for any aspect ratio that is as wide as or wider than 1.78:1. On 4:3 TV, the film will display with black bars (rendered by the player), while on a widescreen television, a 1.78:1 film will fill every available pixel (higher ratios will have bars on the top and bottom, but to a much lesser degree).

In cases where the image is 1.66:1, studios like Warner Bros. will (much to my consternation) crop the image vertically until it is 1.78:1 (or even 1.85:1), so it will fit on widescreen televisions without needing to present the film in a "windowbox" (with bars along the left and right sides). Curse of Frankenstein, I'm looking at you. Other companies like Criterion Collection will preserve the original aspect ratio. Go Criterion.

I'm ignoring the whole full-frame/pan'n'scan/standard thing right now. Anybody who prefers that over widescreen loses 33% of the image and I'm not going to waste more time (than I already have) nagging them about it.

However, there's a weird flipside to it, which is companies turning films that were originally exhibited in Academy Ratio into widescreen movies. The most egregious example of this (mostly because it was done with the filmmaker's blessing but without any real artistic rationale to back it) is Anchor Bay's special "Book of the Dead" edition of Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead. The original was filmed on 16mm in 1982 and, up until the BotD, had always been exhibited at 1.37:1. Anchor Bay worked with star/producer Bruce Campbell to put it into widescreen format (I think because "widescreen" had become a buzzword at that point). The result is that whole sections of valuable visual information are completely sliced out of the top and bottom of the frame. Thankfully, when Anchor Bay came out with their Ultimate Edition of The Evil Dead, they provided both widescreen and 1.33:1 options.

4. Conclusion

I know what you're asking now. Why are most of Nate's examples from Mario Bava movies?

You're missing the more pertinent question -- just how awesome is Bava? I mean really?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Strange Things Afoot at Ye Olde Cinema-Geek

Three quick updates on the status of this blog that I think are fairly exciting.

  1. B-Sol of The Vault of Horror (who, as you may recall, recently contributed a list of ten overlooked Woody Allen films) has been made a permanent fixture here. He'll be using Cinema-Geek in much the same way I do -- as an outlet to discuss cinema that falls outside of the scope of his horror blog. He's planning a pretty cool series of posts right now, but I'll let him fill you in when the time comes.
  2. As you probably know, my main passion is, the running of which has overwhelmed me so much that I've been unable to update here as much as I'd like. Well, Classic-Horror is on hiatus for the next six months. There's a number of things I'd like to do in that time, one of which is to take some more time to explore areas of cinema that I've ignored, like the work of Ingmar Bergman and early silent cinema. Cinema-Geek will definitely get the benefit of these explorations. I may even do another month of The Great Unwatched.
  3. ...but not just yet. Last month, in the midst of the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival, my girlfriend Erin became my fiancée Erin. Since we both work best under a deadline, we decided that an extended engagement wouldn't do. I'm in full event organization mode for a December 13th ceremony. Bonus of the date -- our four and ten-year wedding anniversaries will be on Fridays. We're getting married in a movie theater in a cinema-themed ceremony -- including a montage of movie clips in place of your traditional processional music. It's going to be legen--wait for it--dary. Legendary.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Beggars' Night

In Des Moines, Iowa, where I was born and spent the first nine years of my life, kids went trick 'r' treating on October 30th, called "Beggars' Night." We put on our costumes, went out, yelled "Trick'r'Treat!" and sometimes we really would have to "Trick" with a joke or a fun fact in order to get the treat.

Tonight my nostrils fill with the smell of wet leaves, my feet balk at the arduous journey through freezing wind. My hands grasp flimsy plastic handles on cheap jack o'lantern candy baskets, occasionally running fingers over the ragged plastic protruding from lazy joins. I can feel a cut lip that healed over twenty years ago and a stiff cowboy hat that made my scalp sweat despite the cold. I can see dozens of colorful wrappers surrounding a multitude of candies. Some kinds would go too fast and others would linger for months; I knew exactly which was which and so did my father.

Today I live in Arizona, and even though the October winds are blowing cold, they won't bite as bitterly. The air smells of dust and I won't be going out asking for candy. I didn't think to wear anything for the office costume contest. I celebrate Beggars' Night and Halloween by watching horror movies, the kind that the trick 'r' treater from long ago would have run from in terror. My traditions have changed. I am not the same.

Yet every October 30th, some part of me becomes that little boy again, with the sweaty cowboy hat and the plastic pumpkin filled with candy. And I am happy.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Ten Completely Underrated Woody Allen Movies

B-Sol of the insanely excellent blog The Vault of Horror takes the floor here at Cinema-Geek for a look at ten frequently overlooked films from one of his (and my) favorite directors.

Woody Allen has one extremely huge body of work. The guy basically makes a movie every year, and he’s been doing it for about 30 years. So you do the math.

Unfortunately, the downside of making movies that often is that not every one is going to be an unquestioned classic. Furthermore, every now and then, one will inevitably slip through the cracks.

Folks, I’m an unabashed Woody lover. I enjoy anything the guy does, from absolutely perfect films like Annie Hall and Manhattan, to relatively missable stuff like Alice, and Anything Else. I’d go so far as to call him the second finest working director, after Martin Scorsese.

So instead of listing the obvious Woody Allen treasures that everyone agrees are great—Hannah & Her Sisters, Sleeper, Crimes & Misdemeanors, etc.—I thought it would be more interesting to shed a little light on some unfairly underrated Woody Allen movies. If you love his stuff and haven’t seen these, give them a chance…

Bananas (1971)
Allen’s second film, this is a completely side-splitting comedy from his “early, funny” era. However, wedged between other gems like Take the Money and Run and Sleeper, it often gets lost in the shuffle. Woody as a Castro-esque Central American dictator is beyond priceless. And keep an eye out for the cameo from a young, unknown Sylvester Stallone.

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex (1972)
Another of the lesser-appreciated ‘70s Allen screwball comedies. A series of madcap vignettes dealing with human sexuality that literally leaves me breathless with laughter. John Carradine appears as a mad scientist who creates a monstrous female breast; a great oral sex joke is acted out; plus, the world’s worst transvestite. Comedy gold.

Love and Death (1975)
Only Woody Allen would be genius enough—and ballsy enough—to cross Dostoyevsky with the Marx Brothers. And have it actually work. This is the last film in Allen’s “silly phase”, right before Annie Hall. Plus, it teams up Allen and Diane Keaton, so you really can’t go wrong.

Stardust Memories (1980)
A bold film in which Allen basically plays himself, a movie director facing doubt about his own work, plus criticism for evolving as an artist. Very funny, as well as dramatic, plus one of the most memorable usages of a Louis Armstrong song in a movie, ever. Lovingly shot by longtime Allen collaborator and Godfather II cinematographer Gordon Willis.

A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982)
Woody actually steps away from his comfortable urban setting with this gentle romantic comedy set in the early 1900s, in the countryside. Woody plays an eccentric inventor--plus we’ve got ‘80s Allen muse Mia Farrow, the legendary Jose Ferrer, a young Mary Steenburgen, Airplane’s Julie Hagerty, and of course, Tony Roberts. Plus, Allen puts together a soundtrack made up entirely of beautiful 19th century Romantic compositions.

Broadway Danny Rose (1984)
Astonishingly panned when it came out, this one is now rightfully recognized as an underrated treat. Woody plays a cheeseball talent agent, and Mia Farrow steals the show as his ditzy love interest. Best of all, the whole thing is framed as the recollections of a bunch of old school comedians having lunch at Katz’ Delicatessen in Manhattan…

Shadows and Fog (1990)
A bizarre little film that once again demonstrates Allen’s brilliant knack for synthesizing multiple themes and devices. If you’ve ever wondered what would happen if Woody were set loose inside a Kafka novel, then this is the movie for you. Quite serious and even chilling at times, Allen still manages to bring the comedy in the right places, mainly due to how hilariously out of place he is.

Everyone Says I Love You (1996)
I’ve always felt this movie was grossly misunderstood. Like myself, Allen is a huge admirer of the classic Fred Astaire-style musical comedies of the 1930s—and with this film, he answers the cinematic question, what if one of those films were set in the present day? Contains a number of delightful old-time pop standards, all performed legitimately by members of the cast not typically known for singing (including Tim Roth!).

Deconstructing Harry (1997)
For my money, this is Allen’s finest film of the 1990s, yet for the most part it went unrecognized. It was marketed around the gimmick of Woody going to Hell a la Dante, and although that’s the funniest part, there’s a whole lot more to it. But the sight of Woody Allen stumbling through the Inferno to the tune of Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing” is truly something else…

Small Time Crooks (2000)
Right before deciding to start casting younger actors in all the roles he used to take himself, Woody teams up with Tracy Ullman in this almost-forgotten comic delight. Best of all, Woody plays a smart-talking working class stiff, a real change of pace from his stereotypical neurotic New Yorker shtick.

Thanks again to B-Sol for this great list. Be sure to swing by The Vault of Horror for his musings on the horror genre.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Moving Movies

Not movies that move you, but movies to watch while you're in the middle of a move, or more specifically, when you're in the middle of packing. It's not as arbitrary or as simple as you'd think. DVDs are amongst the first things I pack, simply because they're easy to get into boxes and by packing them together, I reduce risk of damaging the cases. I also have more of them than pretty much anything, including clothes and books.

So, during my last move, it became a question of which films to leave on the shelf. I have pretty specific criteria when it comes to this situation. Since I would likely be packing as I watched, the films in question had to be familiar, so I didn't get distracted or miss key plot points because I was seeking out the elusive end of the tape roll. While not necessary, it helped if a movie didn't have a particularly complex plot or if it hung on an episodic structure, so that I would feel more comfortable popping in and out. Some of the movies had to be talky or heavy on music so that I could enjoy them while I wasn't able to see the television.

Below is the list of some of my selections. If they occasionally seem to contradict my criteria, well... that's that, I guess. Films I actually watched during the move are marked with an asterisk.

His Girl Friday / Bringing Up Baby
The brilliant thing about a good Howard Hawks comedy is that you can miss half the dialogue and still get double what other films typically have.

Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring*
This would be even more perfect if I didn't have to switch discs halfway through, but we cannot have everything. I also made a point to watch all the easter eggs on all of the trilogy discs.

Zombie Apocalypse*
"I could kill you now, but I'm determined to have your brain!" I probably like this movie more than it has any right to be liked, as it's a pretty threadbare merging of the zombie and cannibal subgenres, both of which were en vogue in Italy at the time this was made.

Dr. Horrible's Sing-along Blog* / Firefly: The Complete Series* / Serenity*
Technically, my girlfriend watched Firefly on my Mac and I hovered during packing breaks. And I didn't so much watch Dr. Horrible as I did listen to MP3s of Commentary! The Musical, a fairly ingenious creation of Whedon and Company where they perform an entire plotted musical as a commentary track (and which, incidentally, has more songs than Dr. Horrible itself).

Stop Making Sense*
I watched this four times while packing. Can you blame me? The way this concert moves, the way it progresses -- it fills me with joy. Somehow they take something intricately choreographed and planned (nay, plotted) and make it seem so spontaneous. One of my favorite moments happens during a song transition, although I forget which one. David Byrne, who's sweating profusely, starts a meandering jog around the microphone as he loosens his collar. Except he's not meandering. He's circling. It takes a little time for that fact to kick in, but this is not a random "shake off the tired" motion, but a planned move. Each revolution becomes tighter and clearer, picking up the beat of the next song as it goes. It's at that moment when it becomes clear that this isn't just a well-planned concert. It's a work of genius and we're all lucky that Jonathan Demme was on hand to capture it for posterity.

Singin' in the Rain / The Muppet Movie / The Court Jester*
Joy on a digital platter. Like a warm, musical, dorky blanket.

5 Dolls for an August Moon
Mario Bava's variation on Ten Little Indians was a project he didn't want to direct and didn't really care for. From my review: The resulting film is a whodunit that doesn’t care who did it, a thriller lacking in actual thrills. It is also a strangely affecting experience that improves upon repeated viewings. By de-emphasizing all that we would expect emphasized in a thriller, especially since the status quo for a good director with a bad script is for style to run amok over substance, Bava forces us to consider the film almost as free jazz, randomly weaving in and out of a set template and letting the audience find their own points of interest. If you just relax, go with the flow, disregard silly things like plot, and soak up the masterful cinematography by Bava and long-time DP Antonio Rinaldi, you’ll find a lot worth revisiting.

North by Northwest
I know the rhythms of this movie like I know the beats of my favorite songs. The pinnacle of Hitchcock's action-thrillers.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail*

Josie and the Pussycats*
I love this movie so much. Sure it's glossy and bubble-gum, but it's also kinda subversive. Massively underseen upon its release (probably because of an extremely misleading advertising campaign), this deserves to be rediscovered. It has rock'n'roll, broad satire, and more plot than you'd expect from a movie based on an Archie comic. Earlier this year, I made a fanvid for this movie, which I've embedded below:

Ocean's Eleven (2001)
I love listening to the actor's commentary on this, because Brad Pitt's sardonic wit runs rampant. He says early on that he's doing it as sort of a "Mystery Science Theater 3000" thing and while he's never tears the film apart, his general sense of humor is in the same vein. Matt Damon is on hand for more serious recollections of the production and Andy Garcia occasionally chimes in to remind us that he's there.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

A Pavlovian Response at Midnight

Tuesday night: I'm sitting on my laptop, working on my review for Al Adamson's Dracula vs. Frankenstein, when a familiar chirp emanated from my pants -- a new text message. LC, a friend who I hadn't seen in months, wanted to know whether I wanted to see the new Harry Potter film at a midnight screening. Well, actually, she didn't want to know whether I wanted to specifically -- it was a mass message, sent to many people.

Despite the fact that I had work the next day, that Harry Potter movies run about two and a half hours each, that I didn't have any actual interest in seeing the film, I immediately texted back, "Yes, if I can get a ride" (I don't own a car, for reasons that I explain are environmental but are mostly to do with not caring very much). Arrangements were made and within an hour, I was sitting shotgun in LC's car, on my way to extremely reduced sleep.

Why did I do this? Why do I do this every time someone asks the magic question, "Midnight screening?" Sure, there are perks. I get to see the movie before anybody. I get to join in with other movie fans who are also willing to sacrifice their beloved REM for the same bragging rights. I'm guaranteed a full house of fans, which adds very much to the overall cinema-going experience when the movie is very good indeed.

At the same time, you have to arrive at the theater hours in advance to ensure a decent seat (although with the advent of online ticketing, that's the only reason to show early). You have to sit in line with very little in the way of entertainment (an irony, of course, given that you're inside a multiplex, an institution dedicated to the art of entertainment). If you're like me and do a lot of work online in the evenings, your productivity takes a major hit, even if you do bring along your laptop.

And oh, heaven help you if the movie isn't R-rated. We were finally let into the theater an hour before the movie was due to begin and found ourselves beset at all sides by teenyboppers. Yelling, gabbing, jostling, immature teenyboppers. One rather annoying kid of no more than thirteen spent a good portion of the hour antagonizing/flirting with some older girls in my row -- and doing it rather badly. Eventually faux-banished from sitting next to them, he plopped down next to me and decided that he was fascinated with the game of Zuma I had running on my laptop. I resisted the urge to tell him to butt out, but only because I deduced from his other interactions that it would only encourage him.

Eventually the trailers began (the theater descended into a war of "Yays" and "Boos" when the New Moon preview played) and then the movie. I'm sorry to say that, while I enjoyed it, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was not worth the loss of sleep that I am still feeling two days later. I had a feeling that vast swaths of necessary plot were either compacted or ignored. For instance, the central mystery implied in the title is brought up twice in the course of the film and then dismissed at the end without any context as to why it was really that important in the first place. A little research into the book (which I haven't read) confirmed that there was a lot more to the "Half-Blood Prince" moniker than the film revealed. Additionally, a rather menacing dark wizard shows up with only a name, Fenrir Greyback, and an uncouth look about him. Again, the Internet told me that, apparently, he's a werewolf and a nasty one at that.

Director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves decided to follow the awkward teenage development of Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his friends for the most part, which I do not fault them for because their handling of it is rather brilliant. Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) gets an overbearing girlfriend who loves making out and Harry begins to see Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright) in a new, sexy light. Both boys experiment with drugs in a PG-rating-friendly way. Ron eats some cookies laced with a love potion (read: pot brownies) and Harry has to drag him to Professor Horace Slughorn (the always delightful Jim Broadbent) to bring him down. Later, Harry has his own altered experience thanks to a Luck Potion. I have to say, Radcliffe is brilliant in this sequence, with a real sense of comedic delivery. He's has always had the unenviable task of playing the David Copperfield of the Potter series -- the wide-eyed everyman who must be stoic and decent in the face of mounting adversity. It's not an easy part, because you're always going to come off as slightly more dull than the wacky characters around you, so it's a pleasure to see Radcliffe get a chance to be the funny one.

Still, this is the penultimate chapter in a seven-part epic (well, if you discount the fact that they're splitting Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows into two parts) and, from conversations with friends after the movie, Yates and Kloves have put themselves into a difficult position by not introducing certain key elements in this film that will pay off in Deathly Hallows. One wonders if they'll simply work around the omissions or if they'll do as Peter Jackson did with the Lord of the Rings trilogy and shift parts of the story around.

If there's a major problem with Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince as a film (and not, say, as an adaptation), it's the same one that plagued the last two movies as well. The writing clearly means for Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ron to end up together, but the chemistry on-screen between Watson and Radcliffe makes that very difficult to accept. The two simply spark. There's something warm, inviting -- something homey about their interactions, like Harry and Hermione just belong together, plotting how to save the world and each other. It's utterly distracting because it flies in the face of everything the script would have us believe. As a director, Yates should have recognized this problem and reduced the screentime that Watson and Radcliffe share in the editing booth, but I can understand why he wouldn't. Those moments between the two are some of the most touching and heartfelt in the movie and sometimes killing your darlings is too painful.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Surviving Pirates

While I work on just how I'm supposed to write 600+ words on how uninteresting Friday the 13th (2009) is, check out John Kenneth Muir's own review which accurately sums up everything I'm thinking about the movie.

Anyway. For her birthday, I bought my girlfriend the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy on Blu-ray. As she sees it, this was a huge sacrifice on my part, because I've expressed a negative opinion on the movies consistently and, between the two of us, I own the only Blu-ray player. So she's decided that today, she will work through all three, all the while trying to convince me that these are the great escapist adventure films of the 21st Century.

Now, I don't hate the Pirates flicks, despite my frequent protests. I'm just surrounded by Jack Sparrow fangirls all the time. My girlfriend is one. My last roommate is one. Most of my female friends are. You begin to get defensive when they want to watch the movies for the billionth time, because there are so many other films, better films that could be watched.

But properly, I find the original to be amusing but overlong by a half-hour, all of which is in the middle act. As for the other two, well... there's probably one good movie between the two of them and I may take it upon myself as an intellectual exercise to stitch together such a film at some point.

My full review of all three remains "Johnny Depp in eyeliner."

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Notes from the Abyss

Yeeeeah, I've been lousy about this blog concept. I do have bullet points, though!
  • I finally have a solid book concept and a title to go with it. I don't want to get into more details until I have an outline and a few chapters hammered out, but I'm extremely excited about where this is going. Right now I'm looking at how I can reorganize the editorial structure at so that I can take a six-month sorta-sabbatical to write the damned thing.
  • I've seen Star Trek three times now and I'm going for a fourth tonight. In part, it's because my brain is just geeking out about all the little intricacies of J.J. Abrams' brave new Trek universe, but mostly it's because I have a couple of friends who geek out even harder -- physically flailing with joy -- while they watch. It's one of those things that makes being a film fan so rewarding.
  • My girlfriend and I have been working through the entire run of Supernatural -- we're two-thirds of the way through Season 4 right now -- and it's amusing as hell. She absolutely adores the brotherly interactions of the Winchester boys and the overall story arc, but she's very easily grossed out by gore and horrible death -- two things that SPN has in surprising abundance for a network television series. Sometimes she'll make me rewatch an episode in the same night just so she can relive some of the banter between Sam and Dean. Other times I'll have to shield her from monsters opening a maw of disgusting fangs or a particularly expressive arterial spray.
  • The new Friday the 13th is a rather listless exercise in brutality, one that actually makes me pine for the days when Jason Voorhees was more into the quick, creative, over-the-top kill. I never wanted to use the verb "pine" and the name "Jason Voorhees" in the same sentence, but here we are. I was actually describing Jason Lives in faintly glowing terms to my mother because the new version put me off so much. Look for a review over at Classic-Horror in the next week.
  • I cannot stop watching the last four minutes of the Glee pilot. It's like crack on iTunes.
  • I'm working on a new horror-themed fanvid, this time related to the Hammer era. I'll probably post it online sometime in late August.
  • I still haven't seen Drag Me to Hell and it's killing me a little inside.
Finally,'s Tenth Birthday celebration begins on Monday, June 15th with a brand-new design, some new site features, and more!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

VHS Tapes Have I Known: The Last Remake of Beau Geste (1977)

Although my movie collection is overwhelmingly DVD, I keep a few VHS tapes around. I'll be devoting some space to them sporadically.

The Last Remake of Beau Geste (1977)
Director: Marty Feldman
Starring: Michael York, Marty Feldman, Ann-Margret

I could spend hours discussing this highly underrated comedy, which begins with Marty Feldman destroying a 1940s-era Universal logo and maintains the same level of zaniness from there. This is the first of Feldman's two outings as a director (the second being In God We Tru$t) and if he doesn't have the surest hand in controlling his material, there's a certain delight in the fact that the whole affair is so uncontrolled. Feldman's approach is clearly inspired by Mel Brooks, particularly Young Frankenstein. Like that film, it's a loving parody of a particular kind of classic movie, in this case the old Foreign Legion chestnut Beau Geste (in one scene, Marty Feldman has an argument with footage of Gary Cooper from the 1939 version).

To protect the family's prized Blue Water Sapphire from his scheming (and unreasonably attractive) stepmother (Ann-Margret), Beau Geste (Michael York) absconds with the jewel and joins the Foreign Legion in Africa. Digby Geste (Feldman) soon follows, and together they attempt to survive an insane commander (Peter Ustinov) and attacks by the Arabs (lead by the genial and cheese-tastic James Earl Jones).

Much of the humor derives from the relationship between Digby and Beau, who we are told are identical twins (although Digby notes, "Somehow Beau was much more identical than me. "). Beau is apparently too handsome, courageous, and wonderful to feel pain, so Digby feels it for him (which leads to all the expected jokes). Digby is unreasonably devoted to Beau and Beau is... well, reasonably devoted to Digby. Beau's more interested in honor, adventure, and being buried at sea (even in the middle of the stinking desert).

Feldman's approach to humor is very much of the "throw it at the wall and see what sticks" variety and, admittedly, many of the jokes seem to be coated in teflon. Feldman's desperate willingness to please, however, maintains a continuity between the groaners and the belly laughs. Once you've become as accustomed to the film as I have, even the dumbest jokes (like the grinning Jack T. Ripper with the severed arm in his medical kit) take on a certain charm. Comic turns from folks like Henry Gibson, Trevor Howard, Terry-Thomas, Roy Kinnear, Ted Cassidy, Burt Kwouk, and Spike Milligan (as the ever-devoted and terribly senile butler, Crumble) keep the movie lively and entertaining throughout.

What's more, you can actually watch the film right now without the benefit of VHS (and in widescreen) thanks to the fine folks at Hulu. Check it out.

Incidentally, there was another version of Beau Geste made after this, in the form of a 1982 miniseries, but Feldman's film is the last cinematic outing of the Geste brothers, so the title still holds.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Movie Cities I Love: Vienna in The Third Man (1949)

After a showing of Wolverine on Saturday (no great shakes -- Hugh Jackman is charismatic as always, but the plot made very little sense), my girlfriend had to run an errand, so she left me at Barnes and Noble to wait. It probably wouldn't have been her first choice, since I have a tendency to tarry excessively in any shop with a DVD section, but there's not much she could do about it. By the time she came to pick me up, I had worked myself into a properly self-righteous froth about the store's ghettoization of the horror genre -- stuck in an out-of-the-way corner next to the bargain discs. Such tyranny would not stand!

Well, okay, it would stand, but I would shove it lightly in hopes that it had a severe inner ear condition.

Anyway, as we walked out, my chagrin turned to joy when I spied the Criterion Collection Blu-ray of The Third Man. Now, ask me what my favorite film of all time is and the answer will vary from day to day, but lately it's been a pretty solid 50/50 split between Carol Reed's mystery-thriller and His Girl Friday (1940).

Of course, I've been on a "DVD diet" lately, curtailing my propensity to add to my gargantuan movie collection. Plus, I already owned the older Criterion disc. There had to be a way around this, of course. "It's okay to buy the Blu-ray of a movie I already own if it's my favorite movie of all time right?" I asked my girlfriend. My girlfriend, in her infinite wisdom, shrugged, knowing full well that if I was set on talking myself into this, I would do it no matter what she said.

Which brings us to the body of this post. I did, in fact, buy the Blu-ray and while it's not as impressive an upgrade as I'd hoped, I still fell in love with post-war Vienna, the real "third man", all over again. The beautiful architecture, the cobblestone streets, the very climbable piles of rubble, the narrow passages just perfect for the manipulation of shadows and light -- all of these make the Vienna of The Third Man one of my favorite movie cities.