Tuesday, December 24, 2013

My 100 Favorite Films of All Time #83: The End

1978’s The End is a childhood favorite of mine.  I saw it when I was around nine years old, and while I don’t think I appreciated all its commentary on the human condition at that time, I did recognize it was something special. 

In the film, Burt Reynolds plays Wendell, and he has just discovered he has about a year to live.  If this were a normal movie, Wendell would do all those things on his bucket list before the sun goes down on his life (skydive, eat at a fancy restaurant, kick a field goal at a famous football field, and so on).  Instead, he figures he shouldn’t wait around for the end to come to him.  No, he thinks he should kill himself, thus ending his life on his own terms.  He does try to tie up some loose ends, and when this fails he swallows a bunch of pills to usher in the great beyond.  Unfortunately, he also fails in his suicide attempt and ends up in a mental hospital where he meets a fellow patient (the excellent Dom DeLuise) who agrees to help him end his life.  At the film’s conclusion Wendell decides he wants to live (in a funny screw-with-viewers scene), but his partner-in-suicide decides to continue their little plan.
In case I haven’t been clear, this is a comedy.

Reynolds directed this movie, and what he did was walk a fine line between tasteless and sublime.  Suicide is not a subject most people would find funny, but it is hilarious here, making this a very brave film.  Reynolds, in tackling this issue, could have tanked his career with this one.  Instead, he showed that not only is he is a mature actor, but also a competent director.    

My memories of this are probably tainted by time (I doubt I would think highly of the slapstick elements now), but as a young boy it taught me that there is comedy to be mined from seemingly taboo subjects and in how people react when confronted with them.  Sadly, this film is virtually forgotten even amongst Burt Reynolds fans (there are some still out there), and it deserves more than being relegated to the dustbin of cinematic history.

Mandatory FTC Disclaimer: I did not receive this film for review, and if you click on a link, I may earn a commission.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

My 100 Favorite Films of All Time #84: Freaks

Theatre audiences in 1932 had no idea they of what was in store for them with this film.  In fact, when test screenings were done, a woman in attendance later threatened to sue the film studio, MGM, because she thought the film caused her a miscarriage.  Folks across the pond could not even see the film for 30 years after its release due to a ban on it.  This was Tod Browning’s Freaks.

Browning, who did Dracula, made Freaks his baby.  It is, at its heart, a love story steeped in revenge.  Its plot?  Fairly standard.  A female trapeze artist named Cleopatra loves a sideshow midget (“little person” now).  Well, what really she loves his inheritance.  The other circus “freaks,” not knowing how shallow this woman really is, accept her as one of their own at a dinner underneath the big top.  (“One of us,” they chant.)  Wine flows, and so do Cleopatra’s secrets.  She’s been having an affair, and the freaks are none too happy … especially when Cleopatra, in a drunken state, belittles them.  And so hatred is born.  During a stormy night, Cleopatra and her lover are attacked by the freaks, and Cleopatra is left hideously mutilated … forever becoming “one of them.”  (The original film, which was extensively cut, also had the freaks castrating her lover.)

So what sent audiences over the edge?  The freaks were not the products of special effects or makeup.  They were real sideshow performers.  The Living Skeleton.  Siamese Twins.  Pinheads.  The Half Boy.  For audiences not yet exposed to the horrors of Nazi concentration camps, seeing an armless and legless man crawl through the mud toward them with a knife in his mouth was more than enough to cause panic attacks.  Perhaps they were also disturbed by the film’s message: A “normal” human could be even worse than one of these “exhibit pieces.”

Browning’s film cost him his career, and that is a shame.  If you watch it today, even in cut form (which, to my knowledge, is the only version of the film that now exists), it still packs a punch.  It is simply a really good story.  It’s complex.  It’s disturbing.  It’s chilling.  It is mob mentality at its worst, and protective spirit at its finest.  If you haven’t seen it, do so.  It is now considered a classic, but back in 1932 it was one of the first films to truly shock an audience … and continues to do so today.

Mandatory FTC Disclaimer: I did not receive this film to review, and clicking on a link may earn me a commission.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

My 100 Favorite Films of All Time #85: Sid and Nancy

Young hearts beat free tonight.  If ever there were to be a doomed love story to come out of the early punk rock era, it is the story of Sid and Nancy.  Sid Vicious (Gary Oldman), the Sex Pistols bassist, loved Nancy Spungen (Chloe Webb), and they both loved heroin.  That’s what ultimately did them in.  Well, to be honest, Nancy died of a stab wound after arguing with Sid, while he overdosed later.  Alex Cox’s 1986 film is his take on their relationship, and what a take it is.

Oldman just about dominates any role he takes on, and this is no exception.  He is Sid in Sid and Nancy.  After watching it, you can’t imagine anyone else in the role.  Webb, who is sometimes mistaken for Courtney Love in this movie (Love has a different role in it, but it’s easy to see why someone would think that), plays Nancy as a loud force of nature who essentially keeps Sid co-dependent, though her love for him is not in dispute.  Again, this is Cox’s take on their relationship, Sid’s relationship with the other Pistols, and the punk rock scene at that time.  It’s not always historically accurate, but it is an emotional piece of art that captures the spirit of a time the music world will never see again.
Cox made a movie that is the equivalent of lying face down in the gutters of New York City.  It is full of depressing, degrading moments of desperation, and it focuses on two characters most of its viewing audience can’t really relate to in any reasonable way.  Despite that, it works.  It is a love story and a cautionary tale.  It is hopes and dreams and heroin, and it doesn’t shy away from the worst aspects of any of those things.

This film may not fit everyone’s idea of a romance, but for those who tend to look at life a bit more honestly, it works.  It’s a film as unique as Sid and Nancy, too, and while it’s hard to picture anyone but Oldman playing Sid, it’s also hard to imagine anyone other than Cox directing.  Of course, it’s a bit morbid to think that if Nancy had not of died we wouldn’t have a film, but so be it.  In the end, this stands as an amazing tribute to love and addiction while at the same time romanticizing and deconstructing both.

Mandatory FTC Disclaimer:  I did not receive this film to review, but in fact stole it in true punk rock fashion.  Clicking on a link may earn me some filthy lucre.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

My 100 Favorite Films of All Time #86: The Manson Family

Jim Van Bebber started making The Manson Family in 1988.  In 2004 it finally came out in America.  It is, by and far, a labor of love, and that shows in every minute of this dark, dark film.  You see the title and you think you know what you are about to see.  What you get, however, defies the senses.

Shot as if it were a film and a documentary, it follows the Manson Family up through the infamous murders, and it looks at a group of contemporary Mansonites who are trying to stir the pot anew.  It is a surreal and often disturbing film, and its narrative structure makes it play like an arthouse terror ride into the depths of Hell.  It is also a fictional movie based around real events but shot to look as if it is using actual footage from the real-life participants.  In short, it’s a movie that seriously fucks with you and your expectations.

Bebber had a lot of issues completing this movie, as is evident by the film’s timeline.  Money was a constant source of problems, and at least one actor was fairly nervous while shooting because he was unsure of just what he had gotten himself into.  And what had he stumbled into?  A movie where the depiction of sex and drugs weren’t always just motion picture simulations.  A movie where the blood flowed freely and nudity was commonplace.  It is not for the weak of heart or easily offended, either, as we all know what happened in that murder spree that took Sharon Tate and her unborn child (and a host of others).  For some, a movie that revolves around that particular crime can be nothing but disrespectful and there is no amount of reassuring that can sway that feeling.  That said, those people are wrong.

Bebber, despite all the problems, created a something very close to a masterpiece that is more a nightmare than a film at times.  Upon finishing it you will feel like you just did a ton of acid and got trapped in an abandoned amusement park.  It’s not pleasant, and it’s not meant to be.  It is, however, meant to make people talk, and in that it succeeded quite well. 

Roger Ebert, the man who made me want to be a film critic, gave it one of the most even-handed reviews I have ever read for it; he understood quite well what Bebber had accomplished.  Ebert, who called the film “an act of transgression so extreme and uncompromised, and yet so amateurish and sloppy, that it exists in a category of one film -- this film,” understood that the director had done something beyond the norm.  At the conclusion of his review he stated that the film was “remarkable,” successful and “uncompromising,” and then wrote, “That doesn’t mean I think you should see it.”  That sums up The Manson Family experience quite well.

Watch it if you think you can handle it.  Avoid it if you have any doubt.  If you do watch it, understand that you’ve never seen anything like it prior and nor will you ever see anything like it again.

Mandatory FTC Disclaimer:  I did not receive this film to review.  If you click on a link, I may earn a commission.  If you click on a link, leave something witchy.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

My 100 Favorite Films of All Time #87: Thriller -- A Cruel Picture

When director Bo Arne Vibenius set out to make the most commercial movie ever, little did he suspect what impact 1974’s Thriller: A Cruel Picture (one of its many titles) would have on future cinema.  If this movie hadn’t of been made, we would have never had Elle Driver in Kill Bill.  That role was directly inspired by Vibenius’ Frigga character, played by the amazing Christina Lindberg, whose first centerfold spread in a men’s magazine (Lektyr) happened while she was still in high school.  This movie that inspired Tarantino may not be the most commercial movie ever made, but it sure raised a few eyebrows.

Frigga is a young woman who was left mute by a sexual assault in her youth.  One day she accepts a ride from a stranger and quickly finds herself forcibly addicted to heroin and pushed into prostitution.  When she angers the man who did this to her, she gets her eye taken out to teach her a lesson.  Not one to just take her lot in life lying down, Frigga uses her money to buy weapons and take martial arts classes in order to extract her revenge on all who have wronged her.  (Kind of like a low rent The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.)  Prime exploitation stuff. 

As if the subject matter weren’t controversial enough, the eye removal scene was actually filmed with the cadaver of a young female who had recently committed suicide.  The film also had hardcore sex scenes added to it to help boost revenue. 

Those who have watched a lot of exploitation will tell you that this Swedish film isn’t actually all that rough and tumble, and they are correct.  It would shock the hell out of the average moviegoer used to Julia Roberts and superheroes, but all things considered, it really isn’t as nasty as it sounds.  In fact, at times it almost seems like a made-for-television movie.  So why do I have it on the list?

Thriller has a certain quality to it that you can’t quite put your finger on.  It’s definitely a product of the early ‘70s, and it feels like a foreign film trying to be American.  Vibenius, who directed and wrote the film under a pseudonym, tried something fairly gutsy and stylized, and had very little money with which to do it.  What he created wasn’t exactly what he was trying for, I’m sure, but it was something magical.  No one who has ever seen the film has ever forgotten it … no matter what title they saw it under.  (My favorite being Hooker’s Revenge.)  It’s that kind of courage that’s missing from a lot of cinema.  Sure, filmmakers have grand ideas, but how many have ever said they were going to make the most commercial movie ever created and then threw in a mutilated corpse, rape, drug addiction, copious amounts of nudity and blood, and hardcore sex scenes?  Bingo.  No director in his or her right mind would attempt such a thing … and then try to make it artistic!  The audacity of Vibenius is amazing.  I can only find that he has written and directed three films in his short career, but this one is actually more than enough.

Only in the ‘70s…

Mandatory FTC Disclaimer:  I did not receive this film for review.  Clicking on it may earn me a commission.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

My 100 Favorite Films of All Time #88: Hard Candy

How many good movies are out there that center around pedophiles … besides Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory?  Few.  It is difficult to make a good movie about a pedophile because the subject matter is so loaded.  What if you make a movie about a pedophile who sets up an encounter with a teen girl in order to have sex with her, but she isn’t what he expected?  What if she, Ellen Page in this case, turns out to be the predator … and she’s really good at it?  Can you make a good movie about a pedophile then?  Yes.

Hard Candy is such a fun film to watch.  It turns viewers’ expectations on their head as it presents a pedophile (or at very least an ephebophiliac, though an assertion is made that he may be a pedophile, so I will stick with that) as someone you may actually have some (but very little) sympathy for as he is seemingly tortured.  That’s a real fine balancing act to pull off effectively.  Too far in one direction and you have what lazy critics call “torture porn.”  Too far in the other direction and you have a creepy movie about a sympathetic pedophile.  Director David Slade and writer Brian Nelson walk that high wire the entire running length.  They understand the danger they have placed the plot in, and they give the audience credit for being intelligent enough to see what they are doing.  In that sense, Hard Candy becomes an act of trust between the filmmakers and audience, while the entire film itself is based around lies (a pedophile who lies to lure a teenage girl to his home, and a teenage girl who pretends to be a victim).  Once you start delving into the implications presented in the picture it is hard to dismiss it as a mere thriller.

I have heard it asked how such a young girl (she is 14 in the film) can outwit a grown man who has obviously partaken in such acts before.  There are, of course, a thousand different answers that can be given, but I think one that hasn’t been discussed much is that even as teenagers, girls are very aware of their sexuality, even moreso than boys, who are controlled by their own sexual urges and have little in the way of understanding them.  Girls realize the control their sexuality has over others.  Really intelligent girls know how to use this to their full advantage, and men often underestimate this skill despite the fact that they curse it so much instead of respecting it.  When it comes to sex, few men ever make it out of their teenage years, while teenage girls are forced to grow up faster.  They know what those leers mean and those “accidental” touches indicate.  That is how Page’s character pulled it off.  She knew what drove men … especially men turned on by teenage girls.  Watch any episode of To Catch a Predator, which is really nothing more than pedophilia you can feel good about, and you will see the same ideas in action.  Men will travel hours, ignoring every sign that says he is about to be entrapped, simply because of the promise of a sexual encounter with a girl.  Most men are controlled by sex plain and simple.

Hard Candy is not a disturbing film.  In fact, it is quite tame.  (And, let’s be honest, the writer and director could have made this even more of moral swamp to drown in, but decided to let the audience off easy.)  Almost all of the damage done to the pedophile, played well by Patrick Wilson, is psychological … until the end at least.  If it were remade today, one has no doubt that would be remedied … and the film would then fall off that high wire I mentioned earlier.  As it stands, it is a subtle and smart commentary on the notion of victims, predators and prey, and what it means to be any of those things.

Mandatory FTC Disclaimer: I did not receive this film to review.  Clicking on a link may earn me a commission. 

Thursday, January 24, 2013

My 100 Favorite Films of All Time #89: Akira

Akira is the most beautiful anime film I have ever seen.  The animation in it is so well-done that at times I forgot it wasn’t a live action feature.  That alone would be enough to get it on this list, as visually it is unlike any other animated film, but the story is also quite unique and ranks up there with the best in science fiction … even though it ultimately fails.

The movie is based on a manga by Katsuhiro Otomo, who also directed the film (at his insistence in order to keep creative control).  It concerns a teenage member of a biker gang with psychic powers who releases a terrible force (Akira) upon the world while his fellow bikers and the Japanese government attempt to stop him.  It is far more in-depth than that, but you really must see it to believe it.  Understand, however, that this is not an anime film for children, and it earns its R rating.  It is violent and intellectually stimulating, but it is also very flawed, as Otomo himself has stated.

The manga this film is based on is amazing.  It is over 2,000 pages of pure, dystopian science fiction that fully realizes Otomo’s vision.  The film, however, due to time restraints and whatnot, loses well over half of what happens in the manga, and has an ending that leaves viewers scratching their heads.  At that point the film and the manga seem like two entirely different creatures, and it is what ultimately makes the film feel as if it failed on one level, even though the movie was actually finished before the manga was completed.  Regardless, everything prior to that ending is a well-realized vision that has inspired films like The Matrix for obvious reasons.

Anime has tackled serious subjects, a fact non-fans may have a hard time accepting.  To them I offer this film.  The issues it presents are mature and done in such a way as to open up many debates.  Chiefly: What does it mean to be God?  How far should a government go to protect its people?  How far should people go to protect themselves?

Heady stuff for a cartoon, but no one will mistake it for Disney.

Mandatory FTC Disclaimer: I did not receive this film to review.  Clicking on a link may earn me a commission.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

My 100 Favorite Films of All Time #90: Heckler

I bought Heckler (2007) on a whim because the documentary, which was an examination of hecklers and how comedians deal with them, sounded interesting … and it was three bucks and 99 cents.  I liked a lot of the comedians (Lewis Black, David Cross, Bill Hicks, Bill Maher to name a select few) in the film, too, and I appreciate some of star Jamie Kennedy’s comedy.  I figured I couldn’t go wrong.  What I got was so much more than I anticipated, however.

I’ve written about this film before.  What seems like a simple look at the role of hecklers in a comedian’s life actually becomes a much deeper exploration of the role of the critic versus the role of the artist or entertainer.  As I’ve worn both shoes, I found the film to be equally fascinating and depressing, and it caused me to examine some of what I had written in the past about certain performers.  The film was as surprising as it was vexing … and it was only vexing because it was right.

Heckler went straight to DVD, and critics and their criticisms were as to be expected.  I think some critics took the film a bit personally, however, while others did some awkward backhanded compliments, almost as if they could not give a decent review to anything starring Jamie Kennedy.  I also think many of those critics not only missed the point, but inadvertently ended up proving it. 

As a documentary on heckling, it may have seemed like it fell kind of flat because it appeared that its focus shifted.  If you believe that, though, you aren’t paying attention.  When Kennedy takes on the critics, he is pointing out that what they are doing is just another form of heckling … only they are safe behind a keyboard.  It also shows that Kennedy is perhaps deeper than anyone cared to credit him with, and those things are what make this film worth viewing.

Mandatory FTC Disclaimer: I did not receive this film to review.  Clicking on a link may earn me a commission.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

My 100 Favorite Films of All Time #91: Wicked City

Within the opening minutes of the 1987 anime Wicked City (Yôjû Toshi), a man and woman have sex and the woman turns into this spider-like thing with a fang-filled, gaping maw vagina.  Things get weirder from there.

I am not the world’s biggest anime fan.  I find it hard to connect with the films on many levels, but when it is done well it is unlike any kind of animated or live action film out there.  This one falls into that category, though it didn’t get the best reviews when first released.

The Black World and our world have an agreement to co-exist in peace, and when the time comes to renew this pact, a militant group wants to ensure that a new treaty will not be agreed upon.  Two Black Guards are enlisted to see to it that the agreement is seen through without a hitch, but nothing really goes as planned, and the man they have been tasked with protecting, the powerful Mayart, ends up saving them … and that’s when we learn all is not as it seems.  Of course not. 

The film, which features copious amounts of sex, rape and other violence, has been called misogynistic, sadistic and brutal.  That’s partially true.  It’s also imaginative and disturbing in a way few other animes have ever achieved.  It took chances that panned out and made for a captivating movie. 

Interestingly enough, this movie, which was also known as Supernatural Beast City, was also made into a live action feature which differed from the animated one on many levels, though it was still fun to watch.

I don’t have many animes on my 100 Favorites list, but this one has earned its place here.  It may be dark and a bit nasty, but it sure as heck beats the crap Disney keeps vomiting forth year after year.

Mandatory FTC Disclaimer: I did not receive this film to review. Clicking on a link may earn me a commission.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

My 100 Favorite Films of All Time #92: The Gates of Hell

The first Lucio Fulci film I saw was 1980's The Gates of Hell (a.k.a City of the Living Dead).  I had read about it in Fangoria, so I thought I knew what to expect.  I was, as I sometimes am, wrong.

As with any Fulci film, The Gates of Hell’s plot is a bit … abstract.  What you need to know is that a priest in Dunwich (Lovecraft, anyone?) hangs himself and opens up the Gates of Hell with his suicide.  Zombies with some pretty strange powers are then let loose upon the town.  Later, a reporter who is investigating what is happening in Dunwich, finds out that this is all part of a prophecy, and he and a psychic then try to put an end to the horror.

The film was banned in Germany and was cut in England due to scenes such as a head getting drilled and a woman throwing up her intestines.  The intestines, it should be noted, weren’t fake.  They were really sheep intestines that she had in her mouth and had to actually vomit forth, though a fake head was used for close-ups.  And they say DeNiro gets in character.  I don’t think he ever puked up animal guts.  Live maggots were used for a rain scene, as well, but that hardly matters after putting sheep parts in one’s mouth.

The movie is not what I’d call a “great” film, but it is a fun one full of Fulci moments of head scratching madness.   It nearly left me in a state of awe, as it was so obvious this was not the product of an American mind.  It was horror that could only come from some sort of deranged foreign maestro.  Would George Romero think of using teleporting zombies?  No, and that is what makes this film so crazy.  The unthinkable is thought and done. 

The Gates of Hell, as it was released in America and how I fondly remember it as, is a work of flawed genius, but I guarantee you haven’t seen anything quite like it.

Mandatory FTC Disclaimer: I did not receive this film to review, and clicking on a link may earn me some dough.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

My 100 Favorite Films of All Time #93: Voodoo Rhythm -- The Gospel of Primitive Rock 'n' Roll

As far as music documentaries go, Voodoo Rhythm: The Gospel of Primitive Rock ‘n’ Roll is one of those that must be watched before you die if you like music that is outside the norm.  It did something that music documentaries often fail at: it gave me new insight into its subject matter.  More on that further in.

I reviewed this film for Film Threat some time ago, and interviewed the director, M.A. Littler, about it on the same site for my Excess Hollywood column.  That’s how much I enjoyed the film.  I did not say it was without its faults (namely that it could isolate those who don’t like the types of music the Voodoo Rhythm record label provides), and I stand by that assertion.  To let something like that keep you away from it is a crime, however, especially if you consider yourself open-minded when it comes to music.
For some history, Voodoo Rhythm is out of Switzerland and puts out the most eclectic sounds you could imagine.  One man bands.  Swamp rock.  Pure rock ‘n’ roll.  Funeral music.  Blues.  Zydeco.  Country.  Many of the genres are primarily considered American, but most of the bands on the label aren’t from America.  Because of that, you get an almost magical take on the music … something that has been lost by a lot of our bands over here, and this film documents just what makes these bands and Voodoo Rhythm special.     

Littler took a small label with not enough followers, and captured its spirit on film.  When I saw this feature, I was already a fan of these acts and the label, but I knew little about either or the man behind the label, Reverend Beat Man.  Voodoo Rhythm helped change that.   If anything, Littler helped make me an even bigger fan.  I don’t know if I can say that about any other music documentary, as those are rarely filled with new information for fans.  Perhaps you’ll find out that your favorite singer has a love of toast or something, but for the most part you know all the key points because you’ve learned about them elsewhere.  Voodoo Rhythm, on the other hand, had very little written about it in America other than some reviews.  Until this documentary, all my info came from Beat Man in e-mails or his bombastic press releases.  This film opened up the story, and that’s why it is one of my favorite films of all time. 

Mandatory FTC Disclaimer: I did receive this film for review many moons ago.  If you click on a link, I may earn some cash.