A Cat in Paris (2010). Along with the Mambo-era romance Chico & Rita, this charming French production was the other surprise nominee for Best Animated Feature for this year’s Academy Awards. Like Chico, the story is a little too slight to be considered a truly great film, but it does have some impressive, beautifully colored imagery to recommend it (and hopefully alert Hollywood to the fact that not all successful animated films have to adhere to that Pixar/DreamWorks template). A Cat in Paris follows a Parisian cat (but of course), who comes to the aid of Zoe, the lonely, traumatized little girl who takes care of him. The independent kitty also belongs to an athletic, kindly petty thief in the city, and together they help nab the criminal who’s planning the heist of an ancient artifact – the same man pursued by Zoe’s mom, a police detective (he also murdered Zoe’s dad). Like I said, not much of a story to hang on to, and yet the visuals – computer aided and yet more warm and vivid, like a living story book – are dazzling enough to make it a winner. I enjoyed this one more than Chico & Rita, yet Christopher preferred the latter.
Harakiri (1919) and The Wandering Shadow (1920). Two films from Kino’s forthcoming Fritz Lang: The Early Works DVD collection. Though not without their archival value, these torrid dramas are very typical of that early silent period (stodgy, inert). Neither of them give any indications of the studied, visually resplendent directing style that Lang would later be known for, but they have a few positive points. Harakiri is a Japan-set update on Madame Butterfly with exotic (over the top, actually) production design; The Wandering Shadow counters a confusing story with lovely photography of the German Alps. At DVD Talk, I will shortly be posting a full review of these (plus the third film in the set, 1921′s Four Around the Woman). Pulse (2006). This was our annual “scary” movie pick for us to watch in the back room while the trick-or-treaters ignored our house. I dunno why, but we always strike out this time of the year – and this soggy techno-thriller was no exception. This was a remake of a Japanese scary flick (bad sign #1) about a group of college students who are shocked to find chat messages and visions of their friend (who had recently committed suicide) on their computers and cell phones. Soon they are drawn into a terrifying cyber-world in which ghostly figures corrupt their souls and eventually transform them into chalky black dust, sucking their souls into the ether and creating a nationwide epidemic. Too dull to be frightening. Much of the film’s visuals were blatantly ripped off from the opening credits of Se7en, and the scares came out too contrived and too often to be truly effective. The cast (headed by Kristen Bell and Ian Somerhalder) contributes decent-enough performances. The single most annoying thing about Pulse: every shot has that dingy-blue post-production effect that seems to have gripped most recent scary-flicks.
Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade (2007). During some down time this week, I caught this documentary on Netflix streaming. It’s a sleeper, similar to the acclaimed The King of Kong (many of the same figures appear in both). Chasing Ghosts tracks down the World Videogame Champions of 1982, a diverse group of geeky boys who gathered in a tiny Iowa town to be photographed for Life magazine (the year-end issue, a mag that I personally remember well). The film catches up with the men, now mostly in their 40s and 50s, and their laid-back, hippie-ish mentor, Walter Day, the first person to coordinate and track high scores on the early coin-op arcade games on a nationwide scale. The director, Lincoln Ruchti, seems to enjoy highlighting the eccentricities of the guys – and yet they always appear natural and grounded. Surprisingly, most of them drifted away from videogaming after their early ’80s day in the sun. Personally, I wasn’t much into coin-op back then (being an Atari kid and all), yet this one inspired a lot of nostalgia. The film is a bit schizophrenic at times (it’s sort of admiring and patronizing at the same time), but I enjoyed it all the same. A Fine Madness (1966). Ever wonder what Sean Connery was doing in between James Bond flicks? One of his outside efforts was this “kooky” comedy with Sean as an unhinged Scottish poet living in New York City. Connery’s boorish mannerisms alienate everyone except his coarse wife (Joanne Woodward), who has him hook up with a celebrity psychologist (Patrick O’Neal) to cure his writer’s block. Connery’s eccentricity and swarthy appeal grabs the attention of O’Neal’s colleagues, but it gets a little dicey when he goes after the doctor’s icy but beautiful wife (Jean Seberg). This was listed in Entertainment Weekly‘s 1991 issue spotlighting great films that “you’ve never heard of.” I’d apply a lot of words to this one; “great” ain’t one of them. How about shrill (especially Woodward’s shrieking performance), stupid, unfunny, pointless and obnoxious? It does have some nice shots of mid-’60s New York, and Connery is quite handsome, that’s about it. The Gang’s All Here (1941). Another cruddy yet somehow fascinating old b-movie from my Comedy Kings public-domain-o-rama DVD set. With a title like that, you might expect a barrel ‘o laughs, but in actuality this is a rather straightforward, leaden-paced truck driving melodrama bolstered (slightly) by youthful stars like Frankie Darro, Marcia Mae Jones and Jackie Moran. Darro and pop-eyed Maintain Moreland are job seekers who land a produce-hauling job with a firm that has had tussles with a rival trucking firm. This was pure product from poverty row studio Monogram, sticking together pairs of proven actors (Jones and Moran had played apple-cheeked lovers before, and Darro and Moreland also headlined a few buddy comedies) and hoping things would somehow click. They often didn’t work out (like in this one), but the films were so cheaply and quickly done that it really didn’t matter. That slapdash quality was part of what made them interesting.
Chico & Rita (2010). Like most everyone else, we first caught wind of this musically inclined Spanish production when it became a surprise nominee for the Best Animated Feature Oscar award earlier this year. In telling a sweet and energetic story that spans Cuba and the U.S. across several decades, the filmmakers contributed a lot of beautifully staged shots accented with terrific salsa/mambo music (which was by and large newly recorded). The story follows an aged musician, Chico, as he recalls his years with Rita, a beautiful singer whom he falls for in 1940s Havana. She joins his jazz combo and shares his bed, but before you can say A Star Is Born, she is swept away to New York City and groomed to be a recording star and big-time actress. As Chico and his band-mates follow her to the U.S., she lets it be known that she no longer carries a torch for him – but their loyalty towards each other often says otherwise. This was such an interesting feature with several awe-inspiring scenes (usually involving characters moving from place to place in a detailed landscape) – definitely deserving of the nomination, although its simplistic (OK, trite) story puts it a notch below stuff like The Secret of Kells or Persopolis. It does have a striking, graphical look with fluid animation that was accomplished via a digital version of rotoscoping. The characters have a unique, thick-lined and colorful design (although we wondered why Rita had full frontal nudity while Chico was modestly clad in long pants), perhaps not quite as facially expressive as they should have been, but tenderly drawn. And the soundtrack was wonderful. Death Race 2000 (1975). Cheesy fun. In the year 2000, five teams of hotshot racers aim to complete a heavily hyped televised cross-country race, scoring points for running over people and eliminating the competition along the way. But wait, a renegade band of subversives is trying to stop them! Not too sci-fi in tone, very drive-in downmarket, and there are some annoying characters – yet Roger Corman did right by emphasizing the comic aspects of the story. I enjoyed Sylvester Stallone and Mary Woronov as particularly obnoxious participants in this groovy ride. Lonesome (1928) and The Last Performance (1929). Criterion’s recent blu ray of the visually daring part talkie Lonesome (1928) came along as a special birthday gift to myself. One of the main reasons why I grabbed it for my collection – besides the allure of that transitional period in Hollywood, of course – is that the disc actually contains three films by its director, Paul Fejos. Probably the only anthropologist in history to have dabbled in film directing, Fejos certainly is an intriguing figure worthy of Criterion’s examination. This deluxe edition of Lonesome serves as a nifty little portrait of silent-to-sound transitional film, as well! The film Lonesome is quite charming, detailing a pair of young people as they meet-cute at Coney Island, share a memorable evening together, then get separated within the garish mass of humanity surrounding them. It seems like a slighter version of The Crowd or Sunrise, but the main performers (Glenn Tryon and Barbara Kent) were appealing and Fejos’s technique brims with playfulness and invention (the color-tinted sequences are a wow). Not quite the revelation that film fans have been trumpeting, perhaps, but sweet and definitely worth seeking out. Fejos’ previous effort, The Last Performance, is a more conventional melodrama with a notably intense Conrad Veidt as a magician who is crestfallen to find that his assistant (Mary Philbin) has fallen for the petty thief (Fred MacKaye) that Veidt hired to help out with the act. The main attraction for this one is Veidt’s creepy performance, but there is some interest as well with the Fejos touch of double exposures and other disorienting effects. This disc contains a third feature, 1929′s lavishly mounted talkie musical Broadway, which will appear in next week’s F.C.
House of Boys (2009). This ’80s-period gay drama was one of the discs from the screener pool that I recently reviewed for DVD Talk (the writeup was just posted today, in fact). While the film had its moments, mostly it was long and inconsistent. See for yourself at the site (linked below). The Painted Hills (1951). By the time you read this, it’ll be my 44th birthday (mercy me!). The celebration actually began a week ago when I shared a delicious Asian buffet with my family. We had a lot of nice talk and great sushi, but the main thing I wanted to bring up here is that (thanks to my brother and sister-in-law) I was gifted with the Nifty Fifties DVD box from my Amazon wish list. This is yet another Mill Creek packaging of a ton of public domain films. Now, I know these sets are notorious for their iffy quality, but I enjoy them for the opportunity to see a lot of lesser-known older films – b-mysteries, b-musicals, b-melodramas, they’re all here. At the very least, they’re interesting. Plus, even if you figure in their dodgy quality, they’re still a great deal. MGM’s Tecnicolor Lassie adventure The Painted Hills was the first film I caught off this one. This pretty but dull family adventure has our gender-confused collie hero transplanted to the mountainous regions of Gold Rush-era California (the dog, Pal, who played Lassie in the ’50s, actually plays a dog named Shep here – got that straight?). It’s got a nice turn by Paul Kelly and his immobile grey wig as a miner who owns Shep. When he dies at the hands of a chiseling fellow miner (Bruce Cowling), it’s up to Shep and an intrepid little boy (Gary Gray) to prove that his death was no accident. Rather forgettable overall, but the photography and scenery were both pleasant. The DVD itself suffered from compression issues, however. Unlike earlier Mill Creek sets I own (like Comedy Kings and Mystery Classics), the twelve discs in this set are not double-sided. That means that many of the discs have several hours of video pressed on one side of a DVD, which makes the picture even more pixelated. Honestly, I don’t know what possessed Mill Creek to do that (did their customers demand it?), but it will make me think twice about getting their stuff in the future. In the meantime, whenever I come across a Nifty Fifties film duplicated on another set, I will make sure to watch the slightly nicer editions pressed on the double-sided discs.
Hackers (1995). About a year ago, I started putting all these ’90s cyber-thrillers on my Netflix queue just to finally see what they were like with the benefit of more hindsight. Do they hold up at all, or are they all dated cheese fests? Hackers was the last one I checked out, after The Net, Sneakers and Strange Days. It is definitely the most dated of the bunch (although the hateful, unpleasant Strange Days comes awfully close), and probably the least informed about real internet/cyber culture. Hackers stars Johnny Lee Miller as a computer genius and former felon who, along with his “alternative” hacker friends, uncovers a diabolical plot to perform terrorist acts on oil tankers. He and his buddies (including pre-stardom Angelina Jolie, looking vaguely alien in close-cropped ‘do and Crayola makeup) attempt to foil the virus planted by crazy corporate dude Fisher Stevens before the U.S. Secret Service close in on them. While certainly watchable in an odd way, the movie’s totally obnoxious characters, garish graphics, and heavy-handed, rave-ish fashions give it the noxious feel of something decided upon by focus groups assembled by smug studio execs trying to decide what’s “hip” in 1995. Back then, of course, the internet mostly meant waiting several minutes for the dial-up modem to reach AOL. Not exactly the most scintillating premise for a movie, eh? Instead, we got this:
Funkytown (2011). It’s fitting that we saw this period disco drama around the same time we caught the season-concluding episodes of the CW’s terrific The L.A. Complex. Both are guilty-pleasure Canadian productions about the disillusioning aspects of showbiz, told in an episodic, implausibly performed but highly addictive fashion. Funkytown doesn’t quite hit the dramatic highs of L.A., but I found it surprisingly enjoyable. This one is set in the orbit of Montreal’s hottest disco, The Starlight, during the headiest days of boogiedom of 1976-1980. Performed in English and French (sometimes within the same sentence), the film follows the ups and downs (mostly downs) of a diverse group of people in a way that approximates a milder Boogie Nights. I was expecting cheese, and there is some to be had, but mostly it’s a straightforward, nicely performed Altman-esque patchwork. This was a DVD Talk screener; I will have a more detailed review posted there in the next week.
Carrie (1952). A good turn-of-the-century drama from director William Wyler with some outstanding performances by Jennifer Jones and Laurence Olivier. Jones’ character, Carrie Meeber, is a naive young woman who moves from the tiny midwestern town she grew up in to live with her sister in Chicago. When circumstances force her to find lodging elsewhere, she turns to a brash salesman (Eddie Albert) whom she met on the train arriving in town. He invites her to live at his apartment, and they (implicitly) become lovers. Dining at the fanciest restaurant in town, they become friendly with the manager (Olivier), who eventually becomes smitten with Carrie. The two fall in love, despite his never revealing that he’s married. After they escape to New York City, she winds up discarding him like a used tissue and moving on. Based on a scandalous Theodore Dreisel novel, the film was evidently watered down a lot to fit the Production Code, but it still has some surprisingly candid aspects. The fact that Jones has two lovers and faces no punishment for it is an eye-opener. Although I normally find Jones too mannered, she’s excellent here. So is Olivier, who is especially touching and vulnerable in the film’s achingly beautiful final scenes. The Company of Wolves (1984). Neil Jordan’s cult retelling of the Red Riding Hood folk tale supplied our Saturday night viewing. I always wanted to see this film. It was weird. Taking the form of a pre-teen girl’s dream, the film takes place in a rural English wood as a ripe young woman (Sarah Patterson) is advised by her superstitious grandmother (Angela Lansbury) not to trust any man with one eyebrow. She then tells the tale (a flashback within a dream?) of a young newlywed couple whose lives were altered when the man (Stephen Rea) got bitten by a cursed wolf on their wedding night. It certainly is unique, with interesting production design that uses a ton of vegetation and animals galore to create a world that shares a few similarities to Tom Cruise’s stomping grounds in Ridley Scott’s Legend (1985). Like that overproduced opus, Company is flawed yet interesting enough to watch simply because it takes a lot of stylistic risks. It had a lot of confusing scenes, however, which are (sort of) explained on the film’s IMDb faq. Kassim the Dream (2008). Sometimes compelling, often inconsistent documentary about champion boxer Kassim Ouma. This was reviewed for DVD Talk, where my impressions of the film are reported in more detail. World on a Wire (1973). Bizarre, long but worthwhile sci-fi: Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s multi-part German TV production depicts a near-future society in which computer programmers have been able to create a virtual reality so realistic that its inhabitants believe they and the world they inhabit are real. An ambitious project its authors call Simulacron, the leader on the project suddenly goes crazy and kills himself. His successor, a Dr. Stiller (Klaus Löwich, something of a German Ralph Meeker), eventually comes to figure out what was gnawing at him – perhaps this world is a constucted virtual reality, as well. This film, which mostly went unseen since its original broadcast until Criterion released the home video version this year, is not without its faults. It’s willfully offbeat, dialogue-heavy, plodding (especially in the second half), having weird, canned music and clunky performances (the latter of which was probably on purpose). Still, Fassbinder’s unique touches (women who look like drag queens! A chef played by a black bodybuilder!) and the retro-futuristic production design (lots of spacey Italian plastic and scenes filmed in gleaming shopping centers and offices) makes it worth a peek for fans. World on a Wire‘s source material also formed the basis for the 1999 feature The Thirteenth Floor, which I enjoyed a little more than this one – despite this production’s lead actor being sexier.