Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Great Race

Wows-a-routie. Talk about your comedy marathons. The Great Race (1965) is about as big as your average military campaign.

Blake Edwards aims for the moon with this comedy epic The Great Race and spares no expense. It's big, boldly produced, filled with huge set pieces, elaborate costumes, A-list actors, death-defying stunts, a few musical numbers, and a globe-trotting adventure. In terms of scope and scale, it makes Raising Arizona look like Clerks.

Tony Curtis plays the Great Leslie, a dashing daredevil at the turn of the 20th century who is always looking for his next great challenge. So, with a specially designed automobile, he organizes a race from New York to Paris. Challenging him is his longtime nemesis, Professor Fate (Jack Lemmon), and along for the ride is emancipated woman reporter Maggie DuBois (Natalie Wood). Of course, the racers go all over the world, have some interesting pit stops, and meet some colorful characters along the way.

The Great Race is fairly episodic. Every stop along the way turns into its own little scheme and theme (Alaskan iceberg, cowboy saloon, Russian village, etc.), and the very nature of Leslie and Fate's rivalry resembles the type of animosity that could re-occur frequently over the course of a series. Fate is foiled time and time again, but he manages to get away to scheme and scheme again as he twirls his Snidely Whiplash mustache and always at his side is his sidekick, the moronic Max (Peter Faulk).

Then, there's the budding, would-be romance between Leslie and Maggie. Will they or won't they? Not if Max's mechanic Hezekiah (Keenan Wynn) has anything to say about it, who understands a woman on the road might make for some distractions.

The movie also resembles the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote cartoons. Leslie tries to do something, Fate tries to sabotage him, and the dastardly fiend fails and ends up making himself look like a fool, especially with all those stunts involving hot air balloons, leaps out of tall buildings, exploding cannons, parachutes, and polar bears in the back seat.

A lot of care and effort went into The Great Race, the cast seems to be having a ball (that sort of attitude is infectious) in what is essentially a lark, and yet, I didn't laugh a whole lot. I smiled quite a bit at the silliness on display, and the movie is reasonably enjoyable, but it never quite brings down the house the way I was hoping it would.

Maybe it's the long running length: 2 hours and 40 minutes. Comedies don't usually go past the 80-90 minute mark because even the best can get tiring after a while. Edwards seems to understand that, which would explain the extended episode in a foreign country where Lemmon plays a second role as the perpetually drunk and camp heir to the throne, and all the characters get involved in an attempted coup d'etat. For long stretches, the race seems to be forgotten about.

Of course, the movie is more than 50 years old. I'm not calling it dated, but this style of slapstick and screwball has been done to death over the years. I think I would have liked this tremendously when it first came out, had I been alive then.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Little Big Man

Tragedy and comedy are so intertwined, sometimes humor is the best weapon against bad times. Little Big Man (1970), in depicting the treatment of American Indians at the hands of the U.S. military in the 19th century, does not shy away from the atrocities committed or the loss of an entire way of life, but at the same time, in presenting an unsentimental view of the Old West, the movie is also very funny.

Little Big Man tells the story of Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman). As a boy, he was a part of a wagon train heading west that was wiped out by a pack of Indians. He and his sister survived, and Jack was adopted by the Cheyenne tribe, where he came to view their leader Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George) as his grandfather. The Cheyennes refer to themselves as "Human Beings."

The movie proceeds in picaresque fashion as Jack jumps back and forth between the Indian and white civilizations and encountering all sorts of weird and colorful characters, including a lustful preacher's wife (Faye Dunaway), a snake oil salesman (Martin Balsalm), Wild Bill Hickcock (Jeff Corey), and General George Armstrong Custer (Richard Mulligan). In fact, relating his life story as a 121-year-old to a historian, Jack claims he was the sole white survivor of Little Big Horn.

Adapted from a novel by Thomas Berger and directed by Arthur Penn, Little Big Man is both very, very funny and very, very sad. Jack loses friends and family, sees his homes destroyed, is ostracized from both whites and Indians, and doesn't really succeed at much except survival. He'll do whatever he can to survive, and he gets very good at saving his neck. The downside, of course, is he bears witness to a steady decline of an old way of life and is ultimately left alone in his memories.

Along the way, some funny stuff also happens. Little Big Man is filled with irony, wry observations, and downright kooky characters. Jack, to a large extent, is the straight man of this drama, and everywhere he looks, he sees someone or something strange, and by turns, Jack is horrified, appalled, disillusioned, flabbergasted, and befuddled.

Little Big Man has the look and feel of an epic Western, but Penn deliberately undercuts any nostalgia. In his introduction, Custer, seen from below with the sun behind him, looks like a dashing, heroic figure, but he's revealed to be a self-serving, delusional buffoon who is so full of himself he gets his whole command wiped out. Before Little Big Horn, the battles between the Cavalry and the Indians are one-side massacres in which women and children are butchered. We even get a blink-and-you-miss-him shot of Buffalo Bill, in the rain and mud, overseeing the unloading of buffalo hides, and it doesn't look very fun.

Penn also includes surreal, absurdist moments. During Little Big Horn, one particularly brutish trooper tries hiding under a blanket; it doesn't work. Mr. Merriweather, the snake-oil salesman, is missing a different body part every time we see him, but he doesn't let that discourage him. Even after they're caught by angry cowboys, he's plotting his next scheme.

"Mr. Merriweather, you don't know when you're licked," Jack protests.
'I'm not licked," he cackles in reply. "I'm tarred and feathered."

Jack also has interesting dealings with women. Mrs. Pendrake, the preacher's wife, tries to seduce Jack, her adopted son, and it plays like a 19th century take on The Graduate. Later, after he takes a Cheyenne wife, Jack must also perform husband duties for her sisters because of the shortage of men in the village, leading to a rather tiring night in the teepee and my favorite one-upsmanship exchange in a movie.

"I'm an important man," says Younger Bear, a rival who owes Jack a life. "I have a wife and four horses."
Jack nods. "I have a horse and four wives."

At the center of the story is Old Lodge Skins. He dispenses wise words but is also very funny (when he finds out Jack has a white wife, he asks if she enjoys it when he "mounts her."). No matter what he goes through, he harbors no hatred for the white men and is always glad to see Jack, whose presence "makes my heart soar like a hawk." Old Lodge Skins explains the difference between whites and human beings, and it's the only time he raises his voice in a way that sounds angry.

"Because the human beings, my son, they believe everything is alive. Not only man and animals. But also water, earth, stone. And also the things from them ... But the white man, they believe EVERYTHING is dead. Stone, earth, animals. And people! Even their own people! If things keep trying to live, white man will rub them out. That is the difference."

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Moka

I don't want to make a big, sweeping generalization about the sexes, but a revenge movie like Moka (2017) probably would not have been made if the lead had been a man. Audiences would expect someone like Liam Neeson to hunt down and take out those who had killed his child, and the finished film would have probably played as an exciting action thriller.

With a woman in the lead, Moka is able to illustrate a point many revenge movies overlook: revenge is a sad business. Audiences might cheer when the bad guy gets blown away at the end, but what catharsis is that to a grieving parent? Their child is dead and remains dead. As Diane Roy (Emmanuelle Devos) hears a couple of times in Moka, her son won't come back no matter what she does to who she thinks is responsible.

Moka is less a thriller and more of a character-based drama, exploring Diane's grief as she pursues what she thinks is justice. When the police are unable to locate the driver who killed her son in a hit-and-run accident, she hires a private detective (Jean-Philipe Ecoffey), who generates a couple of leads based on the coffee-colored car seen in the incident (which is where the title of this French-Swiss movie comes from).

Diane soon thinks she's found those responsible - Marlene (Nathalie Baye), a beauty salon owner, and her partner Michel (David Clavel), a wellness trainer. Marlene has a daughter from a previous marriage, Elodie (Diane Rouxel). With only circumstantial evidence, Diane inserts herself into their lives to learn the truth. She also buys a gun from Vincent (Olivier Chantreau) and upsets her estranged husband Simon (Samuel Labarthe).

Low-key and slow-burn are the best descriptions for Moka. Directed by Frederic Mermoud, the movie does not go the suspense route. It doesn't turn the screws so much as it gives us insight into the characters and how they behave.

Early on, it's easy to picture Marlene as the bitch from Hell. Since we're following Diane and we share her suspicions, we see her as a cold, domineering woman who apparently doesn't give a moment's thought to the idea she killed a child. We see Diane absolutely battered by grief, but for the woman seemingly responsible, it's of no consequence. She has her business to run and customers to condescend to.

The interesting story decision is how Diane approaches Diane and Michel separately, as a salon customer and a potential buyer of the car in question. In the process, she learns quite a bit about this family from varying perspectives and discovers they aren't as well together or happy as she assumed. There's a lot Diane doesn't know about them and a lot they don't know about each other.

This angle on the revenge drama is fascinating, and the performances are quite good, but Moka is not as gripping as it could have been. Diane becomes convinced relatively early on she's found the culprits and gets a gun, but I kept wondering what she was waiting for.

The movie drags in places and doesn't build much tension until near the end. Granted, in a story about parental grief, a low energy level is not a complete detriment and is probably fitting, but some of the bigger story moments could have used more pop. Still, for its performances, for its portrayal of grief and how it explores these characters, I still recommend Moka. It's a different look at this kind of subject matter.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Samurai Cop 2: Deadly Vengeance

If you see a man slip on a banana peel, you laugh, but if he stops to make sure you see him slip, then it's not really that funny.

I heard that analogy from Jim Cornette. He used it to describe comedy in professional wrestling, but I think it applies to Samurai Cop 2: Deadly Vengeance (2015).

The original Samurai Cop is a cherished bad movie. Not good in any objective sense, it nevertheless is an enjoyable film, hokey and poorly made as it is. The makers tried to make a serious action thriller but failed miserably, but their efforts left us with some worthwhile if unintended comedy.

Twenty-five years later, we get the sequel. A good number of the original cast is back, including Mathew Karedas and Mark Frazer as the buddy cop leads and Cranston Kumoro as the villain (even though he was killed in the original, he's apparently playing the same character) plus a couple of the bit players. Robert Z'Dar was supposed to return but sadly passed away before filming, although his Maniac Cop co-star Laurene Landon is on hand to fill that quota.

There are a few other famous recognizable names. Joe Estevez, shorter and squatter but otherwise a dead ringer for his brother Martin Sheen, plays the police chief. Several of the villainous hench-women are played by porn stars. Bai Ling, memorable in the likes of The Crow and Three... Extremes, is here also. Last but definitely not least is Tommy Wiseau, the patron-saint of bad cinema for his magnum opus The Room. I have no idea what he's doing here except to rant incoherently, wear strange head gear, and swing a katana.

Apparently George Lazenby was supposed to be in this, but he fell ill at the last minute. The background on the film is fascinating. The cult surrounding the original had grown so much that fans launched a Kickstarter and GoFundMe Page to finance this sequel and succeeded. The story was re-tooled after the makers discovered Karedas was still alive and worked him back into the movie.

Boy, your career really failed to take off if people think you're dead.

The plot, who cares? No making the movie did. I couldn't follow what was happening. Scenes seem to occur haphazardly, and I don't know how they fit with each other. Samurai Cop 2 arrives after the rise of the SyFy Channel Original Movie and the Sharknado movies. Coherence is not a priority. It's a just a gonzo mashup of everything the makers threw against the wall. This also explains the computer-generated blood, the obvious blue screen effects, and the Z-list celebrities (I exempt Bai Ling. I wouldn't call her a star, but she's been in movies one could be proud of... and Sharknado 5).

I go back to the banana peel analogy. The makers of Samura Cop 2 are trying to make a bad movie. That's trying to capture lightning in a bottle. Deliberate ineptitude is nowhere near as much fun as accidental incompetence. This is about as entertaining and convincing as a YouTube parody video except much longer and it wears out its welcome much sooner. The "action" scenes are a blur of bad editing, terrible choreography, and actors clearly not hitting each other.

In fact, Karedas looks like an older, scragglier Weird Al Yankovic, and some of his expressions and mannerisms wouldn't be out of place in one of his parody videos. Karedas seems to be acting just outside the material, almost as if he is bemused by the whole thing, and this time, he actually gets to talk about the Samurai code.

At least his hair looks real this time.

Three Days of the Condor

In real life, Watergate left a legacy that destroyed a presidency and the public's trust in the government. In the world of cinema, it created a legacy of paranoid, political thrillers built on political conspiracies and cover-ups, including Three Days of the Condor (1975).

Directed by Sydney Pollack, Three Days of the Condor follows CIA researcher Joseph Turner (Robert Redford), codenamed Condor, who works out of an office in New York City. When he returns from lunch one day, he finds all his co-workers dead, massacred by a professional hit squad led by a mysterious agent (Max Von Sydow). Unsure of who to trust, Turner goes on the run until he can figure out what's what, kidnapping a woman (Faye Dunaway) to help with his flight.

We used to have to be convinced the government might not have our best interests in minds. Since then, images of anonymous agents in suits following us or wiretapping our phone calls or watching us through hidden cameras have a frightening plausibility and have become commonplace in these kinds of stories.

Three Days of the Condor fits right in with all those post-Watergate movies, but it also works as a Hitchcockian thriller. Turner effectively functions as a man wrongfully accused, running and hiding from the CIA, who thinks he's a traitor, and rogue elements within the agency that deemed him a threat because he knew too much. Even Turner dragging along an innocent woman and them falling in love comes from the likes of The 39 Steps and Saboteur.

Pollack doesn't create a heightened sense of a reality. He doesn't overplay the thriller elements or make them too obvious. Nor does he treat the material as an exciting, globe-trotting adventure to an exotic location. The movie is set in a normal, recognizable, rather drab and grey New York City, and Turner is not a super spy but a regular, bookish man in over his head, so when the thriller parts hit, they feel more plausible and paranoid.

Paranoia is the name of the game. The ordinary becomes threatening because you don't if it's hiding something. Immediately after discovering the bodies of his co-workers and leaving the building, Turner realizes how vulnerable he is. The killers could still be around, waiting and watching. That person pushing a baby carriage: are they reaching inside the carriage to grab a weapon and finish him off? Later, while hiding out, Joseph has to sign for a package from a mailman, but the mailman reveals himself to be a hitman when he whips out a gun.

The movie moves at a nice clip (save for the lovey-dovey stuff mid-way through), and the performances are all good. Von Sydow as the hitman plays the most interesting character. Here is a ruthless killer for hire, apparently uninterested in any greater ideology other than who's paying him, and yet he is not a mad dog; he is, all things considered, a polite, courteous professional.

Three Days of the Condor has only grown more relevant since its release. Near the end, a CIA honcho played by Cliff Robertson attempts to justify all the agency's actions, and when told the whole affair will be published by the New York Times, he replies, "How do you know they'll print it?"

He's asking why would a newspaper publish such a seemingly outlandish story, but today, when no one trusts the media either, it sounds like he's suggesting the CIA controls the paper, too. If this were remade today, he wouldn't even need to give an explanation for audiences to believe the CIA would have its hands dirty. We take it for granted the government is lying to us and plotting something nefarious.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Top Secret!

With Top Secret! (1984), the creative team of Zucker Abrahams and Zucker do to World War 2 spy films and Elvis movies what they did to disaster movies in Airplane! and what they would end up doing to cop movies with The Naked Gun: they lampoon the Hell out of the cliches, pack in as many corny gags as humanly possible, and throw at the audience a million gags a minute.

Val Kilmer plays Nick Rivers, a rock-n-roll star who crosses the Iron Curtain for a show in East Germany. Once there, he stumbles on a plot involving the German secret police, a missing scientist (Michael Gough), and a beautiful resistance member (Lucy Gutteridge), and before he knows it, Nick's on the run, at least when he doesn't stop for a song and dance number.

Who cares about the plot? It's as silly as you can imagine, and really, it's almost pointless to review a movie like this. You either laugh or you don't. I laughed quite a bit. Maybe not as much as I did during Airplane! or The Naked Gun, but in a post-Austin Powers world, in which the spy movie has been spoofed to death and this type of parody film is not new anymore, maybe Top Secret! isn't as fresh as it was 1980s, but it's still pretty funny.

If the movie lacks anything, it's probably Leslie Nielsen or maybe Robert Stack, actors capable of going overly serious and stone-faced as all the wacky hijinks go on around them. That's not to say Kilmer et al. aren't fun, but I do get the sense they're in on the joke, winking at the audience as if they know just how ridiculous everyone and everything is. These spoof movies work better when the actors don't seem to realize they're being funny.

At one point, Nick says to his beloved, "Listen to me, Hillary. I'm not the first guy who fell in love with a woman that he met at a restaurant who turned out to be the daughter of a kidnapped scientist, only to lose her to her childhood lover who she last saw on a deserted island, who then turned out fifteen years later to be the leader of the French underground."

"I know," she replies. "It all sounds like some bad movie."

Awkward silence. Both of them look at the camera before continuing the scene, and to be fair, that exchange generates a laugh.

The movie's too good-natured and irreverent to dislike. It's filled to the brim with sight gags, one-liners, and pot shots at other movies. This is the kind of movie that finds time to parody The Wizard of Oz and The Blue Lagoon. The French Resistance members have names such as Deja Vu ("Have we met before?"), Chocolate Mousse (the black member), and Latrine (who is always stumbling in wounded with the latest news).

There's plenty of lowbrow humor. A couple of resistance members sneak into a German base disguised as a cow, and it gets awkward when a bull turns up. When Hillary is reunited with her childhood lover, she measures both his bulging biceps and ... um... something else below the waist and off camera.

Top Secret! also has a couple of song and dance numbers. Early on, Nick gets the old, classical German musicians to start a-rockin' and a-rollin', and during another song at an out-of-the-way diner, some of the men dancing on tables are spinning their dates in the air. The dates are clearly rag-doll dummies, but that kind of hokiness is part of the charm.

It's hard to add more without giving away the best lines and gags. It's a dumb movie, but Top Secret! passes the important test: it's funny, and it doesn't overstay its welcome. Plenty of times, you'll have a perfect idea where a joke is heading, but you'll still laugh.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Eraserhead

?

...

?

...

Those question marks and ellipses are the typed equivalent of me opening my mouth, whilst raising my index finger decisively, to say something before realizing I have nothing to say and closing my mouth.

I have no idea where to begin with Eraserhead (1977), the debut of director David Lynch. It's managed to attract some big name fans; Mel Brooks hired Lynch to direct The Elephant Man after seeing it, and George Lucas offered him Return of the Jedi. Plus, the black-and-white image of star Jack Nance, with his poofed-up hair and blank expression, has entered the pop culture lexicon and is a fairly recognized image, even among those who have never seen the movie.

Eraserhead doesn't feel like a "real" movie but an abstract collage of scenes and imagery that leave me baffled. I can't say I like it, but I can't dismiss it. It plays like a strange dream where the bizarre is accepted as normal, perspectives and characters are skewed, and there are no boundaries between reality and fantasy.

The movie is ... about (kind of, sort of, not really, I don't know) Henry Spencer (Nance), a printer on vacation who is told his girlfriend Mary X. (Charlotte Stewart) has given birth to a baby. The baby might not be human, and its endless crying drives Mary away, leaving Henry alone to take care of it.

That's the simplest summary I can come up with. That doesn't begin to cover it.

Henry lives in this strange, industrial nightmare of a setting. Is this a contemporary place? A post-apocalyptic future? Lynch shows us very little of it. It might very well be its one self-contained, little world. It's stark and bleak, and against this background, Henry looks small and weak.

Meanwhile, the baby looks freaky, bird-like and reptilian. It doesn't do much except lay their and cry, a rather pathetic creature all things considered, but why is it like that? Mary's mother says it was premature, but that wouldn't explain anything. Is it a mutant? Is it human? Is it real? Is any of the movie real or is just Henry's dream? Someone else's dream?

Uncomfortable. That's the second best adjective for Eraserhead. Between the long, unbroken takes, the endless bleating of the baby (and its deformity), the jarring transitions, the use of noise on the soundtrack, the weirdly sexual imagery, the bizarre behavior of the characters, and the black and white photography, Lynch denies us anything warm or comfortable.

Then, there are the sequences that don't seem to fit in the narrative at all except on an abstract, symbolic level: the man at the machine levers, the woman (whose face is ravaged by tumors) in the radiator singing on stage, Henry's head floating in the cosmos with sperm-like shapes superimposed over him, to speak nothing of the ending. I don't know if anything is resolved, nothing is resolved, or if there was anything to resolve in the first place. Are these dreams, hallucinations, or something else entirely? I don't know if anything in the movie can be taken literally.

The images are hard to forget. They repulsive and nightmarish, but in their own way, kind of beautiful in their starkness and bleakness. At times, the movie provokes a laugh. The level of discomfort generated gets raised so far that it crosses the line into humorous.

More than anything else, Eraserhead is a demonstration, a demonstration of who Lynch is and what his talents are. He shows he can craft eerie imagery and manipulate the emotions of an audience with a variety of film techniques. At times, I think he finds reactions to his debut to be funny, so maybe he's just pulling our leg by being as obtuse and confusing as possible. The movie moves incredibly slow; not much happens from a narrative perspective, and it's easy to lose patience.

Eraserhead is like the most accomplished and disturbing student film of all time.