Friday, August 26, 2016

BLIND RAGE

Opening this weekend:


Don’t BreatheIt’s sort of like Wait Until Dark in reverse: Three crooks are in a blind person’s home, but this time they’re the victims and the blind person is the menace.

Like the 2014 chiller It Follows, this shocker is set in the deserted economic wasteland of Detroit. It follows a trio of attractive young burglars (Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette and Daniel Zovatto) who learn of a blind guy living in the last occupied home in his ghost-town neighborhood, and reportedly sitting on a fortune.

They get into the once-beautiful, now fortified house, and discover that the man in question (Stephen Lang), a Iraq war veteran with, apparently, some specialized training, may be sightless, but he isn’t helpless, and has reasons beyond protecting his money to want them not to escape. They’re soon fighting for their lives.

Directed by the Uruguayan Fede Alvarez from a script he wrote with Rodo Sayagues, Don’t Breathe has some obligatory scenes early on meant to make us sympathize with the robbers. From there, though, it gets off to a sensational start—tense, atmospheric, simultaneously poignant and grimly funny.

After a while, the strain of maintaining its rather narrow central premise starts to show, but just as the complications are starting to seem contrived, Alvarez and Sayagues throw us an unsavory, messed-up plot twist that I didn’t see coming. And then, just as that’s sunk in, they throw us an even more unsavory, more messed-up plot twist that I really didn’t see coming. How plausible it all is, I can’t say, but it’s nasty and wild and I, at least, hadn’t seen it before.

Jane Levy are Dylan Minnette are likable (Zovatto is odious, on purpose), but what elevates the film from mere skillful lurid thrills is Stephen Lang. With only a few lines, spoken in a disused croak, and his craggy face adorned in a regal halo of silver-gray hair, he brings a Shakespearean bearing to this boogeyman part. The veteran Lang is a great actor who’s never quite had a great movie role, but through sheer force of his presence he makes this one come pretty close.

Opening in the Valley at Harkins Shea, and also available on DirecTV:


 Morris From America Markees Christmas plays the title role in this coming-of-age tale. He’s a 13-year-old black kid from New York living with his widowed dad (Craig Robinson) in Heidelberg, Germany.

An aspiring rapper whose chubby cheeks undercut his attempt at a badass scowl, Morris is a miserable stranger in a strange land but, encouraged by his Dad, he gamely tries to make some German friends, and catches the interest of a flirtatious blond (Lina Keller). She probably honestly likes him well enough, but she really likes his potential to upset her mother. She gets Morris into mischief, with his eager consent.

Simply and tightly written and directed by Chad Hartigan, Morris From America is one of the funnier and sweeter films I’ve seen this year. Christmas makes an impressive movie debut as Morris, and he shows a nice rapport with Carla Juri as his German tutor. But the standout performance is by Craig Robinson as his Dad, trying to communicate with his kid, wanting him to experience life while knowing full well that he’s having the sort of adventures that terrify parents—trying, simply, to stay calm.

In the opening scene, the Dad, an old-school rap nut himself, tells Morris that he’s grounded, on the charge of “liking terrible music.” I wasn’t aware that this was a parental prerogative. Good to know.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

COFFIN FIT

There was an omission, unless I missed it, in the local-color coverage of things Brazilian in connection with the Rio Olympics. I was disappointed, if not surprised, not to see a profile of Brazil's greatest horror star: Jose Mojica Marins, best known as his maniacal alter-ego, the mad and murderous undertaker Ze do Caixao, or, to his small but loyal corps of English-language fans as…

Monster-of-the-Week: …Coffin Joe.


Though a human being in his first appearances, Joe qualifies as a monster in at least some of his later movies, in which he’s a malevolent specter conjured up by the imagination of his creator Marins.

True, Joe’s a Sao Paolo guy, not a Rio guy, but Sao Paolo had a soccer match in week two of the Games, and besides, the whole country should have been showcased, right?

If you're a classic-horror connoisseur and you've never sampled Coffin Joe, I highly recommend that you do. Introduced in the low-budget 1963 opus At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul (A Meia Noite Levarei Sua Alma), which Marins wrote, produced, directed and starred in (and which is regarded as Brazil's first true horror movie), Joe looks, at a glance, like just another cliché creepshow guy—top hat, long fingernails, black suit, blazing eyes, evil, leering face. But make no mistake. He's a true original.

Joe, you see, is Nietzschean sort of boogeyman, contemptuous of and haughtily superior to the common rabble that he terrorizes, an atheist—who nonetheless regularly spews venomous defiance at God—and mocker of all religious devotion, spiritual observation or social nicety. He lustily snarfs a leg of lamb on Good Friday, and at one point he even uses the Crown of Thorns from an icon of Christ as a weapon.

His only obsession is to perpetuate his bloodline—the only form of immortality he recognizes—and the plot of the first film chronicles the campaign of murder and assault by which he hopes to find a mate suitably strong and superior for this reproductive purpose, until the ghosts of his victims rise up, en masse, and bring matters to a Richard III-style climax.

Despite this poetic justice, Joe was back at his old tricks in the sequel, This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse (Esta Noite Encarnarei no Teu Cadaver, 1967). This time, eharmony.com still being years in the future, Joe decides to find a mate by imprisoning several prospective Baby-Mommas, and to determine their suitability by tormenting them with tarantulas, snakes and other creepy-crawlies. Even getting himself dragged off to an unforgettable (full-color) vision of Hell (in which the role of The Devil is also played by the ever-modest Marins) doesn't much deter Joe, who keeps up the nastiness until the movie's ambiguous final seconds.

The sadism in both films, though graphically tame by contemporary horror-movie standards, still packs an unsavory punch, and would be simply revolting if not for an odd (and not especially defensible) factor: Joe is perversely lovable. When you look at the unprepossessing Marins, with his slight frame and his delicate, almost boyish features behind a fuzzy, Muppet-like beard it's impossible to take his atrocities too literally, and especially when he's menacing beautiful, soulful Brazilian actresses who look like they could knock him on his little ass, it gives a comic tinge to his assertions of superiority. You just accept that you're seeing his Sadean fantasy life (Marins claims that the first film came to him in a dream).

This sense is increased in the Ze do Caixao flicks from the '70s. These aren't true sequels to the first two films; rather, Marins went through a curiously self-conscious meta-movie stage with Awakening of the Beast (O Despertar da Besta, 1970), The Bloody Exorcism of Coffin Joe (Exorcismo Negro, 1974) and Hallucinations of a Deranged Mind (Delirios de Um Anormal, 1978). In each of these films, Marins appears as himself—the harried filmmaker Marins—but in the course of the stories he also eventually appears as Coffin Joe, conjured up by the morbid power of the imagination or of hallucinogens.


Playing himself in these films, Marins comes across as a nebbishy, sweetly pretentious wannabe-intellectual, which magnifies both his charm and his commanding creepiness. In 2008, well into his seventies (he’s now 80), Marins completed the official “Coffin Joe Trilogy” with Embodiment of Evil (Encarnacao do Demonio).

What I like best about the Coffin Joe flicks, especially the first two, is that their visual (and aural) vocabulary is archetypically old-school spookhouse. Marins uses shadows and mist and gypsy fortune-tellers and owls and skulls and caskets and graveyards and rats and spiders and snakes and screams and cackling and howling wind and thunder and lightning, but he deploys these Jungian, quaintly familiar motifs with an imagination and an intensity that gives them new life.

But back to the Olympics. Despite a disgraceful lack of attention to Coffin Joe, there have been plenty of horror stories about the Rio Games. Aside from the overtly fictional one told by members of the U.S. swim team, many of them involved the supposedly miserable food and accommodations. Well, I say the visiting athletes, media folks and fans should at least be grateful they didn’t have to stay at the title lodging of the 1976 Coffin Joe picture The Strange Hostel of Naked Pleasures (A Estranha Hospedaria dos Prazeres).



In this one, Joe—complete with fuzzy beard and long fingernails and knowing grin, but this time sporting a dapper little bowler instead of the usual top hat—runs a remote hostel with a creepy staff of stony-faced maids and valets. On a stormy night, various guests gather at this charming spot to fornicate, or desperately gamble away their last money in crooked card games, or engage in shady business deals, or any of various other worldly activities.

A group of jewel thieves gets a room to divide up their loot. An enormous group of bikers and their girlfriends show up, cram themselves into a room, and hold a wild orgy in which everybody strips while chanting a phrase rendered in the subtitles as "Everybody naked, great! Everybody naked, great!" over and over and OVER. The action is tamely soft-core, however—all the biker-orgiasts ever seem to do is neck, with their pants still on, or dance around topless chanting "Everybody naked, great! Everybody naked, great!"

If you can't guess the truth about these people and the hostel, you haven't seen enough movies—or, for that matter, listened closely enough to “Hotel California.” Toward the end, one of the guests wanders out the door, following "the light," and Joe, at the front desk, grudgingly allows her to leave. The other guests gather in the lobby and confront Joe, asking him "Why? Why?" to which Joe calmly replies "It is wrong to look for happiness when you don't know what happiness is."


Not exactly the most helpful concierge service. I wonder what kind of TripAdvisor rating the hostel gets?

Friday, August 19, 2016

BEN-HURRIED

Opening this weekend: 


 Ben-HurIt’s been a while, if ever, since I can recall thinking that a big-studio feature film was too short. But that, among other things, is what makes this newest version of Lew Wallace’s toga tale a dud.

As before, Jewish rich kid Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) comes to grief, separation from his family and enslavement as a galley oarsman via his Roman pal Messala (Toby Kebbell). Judah struggles his way back to freedom and solvency, eventually becoming a chariot-driver for a rich nomad (Morgan Freeman), all the while dreaming of revenge. All this takes place concurrently with the life of Jesus Christ (Rodrigo Santoro), with whom Judah significantly crosses paths now and then.

Most of us are probably most familiar with this yarn through William Wyler’s long and lavish 1959 movie version. As risibly corny as Charlton Heston’s grimacing performance in the title role can now seem, that film’s epic length, though admittedly exhausting, does result in dramatic payoffs. The same goes for Wallace’s pedantic, didactic, description-heavy yet somehow highly agreeable 1880 novel.

The new film rushes through the story in around two hours. Directed by Timur Bekmambetov, the talented Kazakh behind the bizarre, intriguing Night Shift and Day Shift, this Ben-Hur is adequately-acted, and it climaxes with a chariot race that’s brutal and pretty exciting (though tough on horse lovers). But it’s perfunctory—it hustles through episodes like Judah’s visit to his loved ones in a leper colony so fast that it’s almost funny.

Similarly, the scenes toward the end depicting Gethsemane, the Via Dolorosa and The Crucifixion are like a Passion Play on speed. Truly and without irony, nothing in this Ben-Hur was as spiritually moving to me as George Clooney’s speech earlier this year about universal brotherhood at the foot of The Cross in the movie-within-the-movie in the Coen Brothers spoof Hail, Caesar!

The emotional impact of the new Ben-Hur, by contrast, is nearly nil. The movie can watched painlessly enough, but that’s the problem—Ben-Hur without pain is like Singin’ in the Rain without dancing.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

ANGRY BIRD

In honor of the entertaining Olympics, winding down this week, a Brazilian monster would seem in order, so…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s award this magnificent painting by the great Reynold Brown of Curucu…


…supposedly a legendary bird-beast of the Amazon that menaces the ever-fabulous Beverly Garland in Universal’s 1956 Curucu, Beast of the Amazon


Unfathomably, this art went unused in the poster in favor of this…


I can only imagine that this was because Brown’s full-view realization of the monster was so infinitely superior to what was revealed in the course of the film, Universal may have feared rioting in the theaters.

Friday, August 12, 2016

GO WITH THE FLO

Opening this weekend: Two stories from the 1940s, very different, both worth seeing:


 
Florence Foster JenkinsThe title character was a much-loved patron of the New York classical music scene who loved to sing. She was a nice lady, and a rich lady, and thus nobody had the heart, or the nerve, to tell her that she sounded like an angry monkey defending its tree branch.

Besides, the carefully cherry-picked audiences for her recitals found her performances funny. In the early ‘40s she cut some records which actually received some radio airplay, and in 1944 finally gave a performance at Carnegie Hall—which, alas, legitimate music critics were able to attend.

This interesting little story from Manhattan’s high-culture scene certainly seems irresistible as movie material (there have already been several stage versions of it). But it also had the potential to make a really ugly movie. Many of us who love music and have no talent still indulge the fantasy of performing, and it could have been agonizingly embarrassing to see the consequences of someone living that fantasy out, especially in front of a smirking audience of musical heavy-hitters.

Happily, Florence Foster Jenkins was helmed by the masterly, old-school Stephen Frears, working from a script by Nicholas Martin. Three years ago Frears brought a gentle, lightly comic energy to Philomena, which could have been a drag for very different, more serious reasons, but instead was a delight. With Florence Foster Jenkins his touch is more broad, even farcical, but the movie has the same generous-hearted tone and emotional maturity, not to mention a lush period atmosphere.

Of course, Frears would have been helpless without Meryl Streep, bringing Florence something of the same dotty lovability that she gave to Julia Child in Julie & Julia. Simon Helberg, as Florence’s accompanist Cosme McMoon, turns his lines into a master class in effete dithering. And as St. Clair Bayfield, the failed Shakespearean and Broadway veteran who became Florence’s manager and common-law husband, Hugh Grant has rarely been better—suavely sheepish and witty in his tireless efforts to keep her reality pleasant, and deluded in his belief that he’s always successful. 



AnthropoidThis historical thriller, which dramatizes the plot to assassinate Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich in Prague in 1942, keeps us tense with murmured conversations in back rooms and furtive romance between bursts of violence. We badly want Czech partisans Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan to succeed in killing “The Butcher of Prague”—an SS bigwig and Chairman of the Wannsee Conference—even though we know that if they do, the reprisals will be horrible, and director Sean Ellis, who co-scripted with Anthony Frewin, uses this ambiguity to give Anthropoid a brooding mix of tragedy and exhilaration.

Squeamish viewers should be forewarned: Anthropoid is gripping, but it’s also Jacobean. There scenes of torture that are hard to watch, and the movie’s sacrificial lambs can be spotted a mile away.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

FRANKENNOIR

Check out…

Monster of the Week: …the cover of this ‘50s-era pulp edition, from Lion, of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, sent to me by a pal…


Presumably that’s the Monster staring remorsefully at his hands, though he looks like any noir brute. Let him serve as this week’s honoree.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

KING DAVID

RIP to the wonderful David Huddleston, passed on at 85


One of my all-time favorite character actors, the portly, imposing Huddleston had a tinge of shadiness when he played good guys, and was oddly lovable when he played bad guys. His acerbic line readings as cranky town father Olsen Johnson in Blazing Saddles are standards in the Moorhead family, especially his conciliatory “Aw, prairie shit” at the moment he at last overcomes his racism.


He’ll be remembered, rightly, for that role, and as the title character in The Big Lebowski, and as Kevin’s grandfather on The Wonder Years, and as a gruffly honorable Republican senator on The West Wing, and also, alas, for seeming somehow miscast in the title role of 1985’s Santa Claus—The Movie. He ought to be more remembered for his supporting turn in Ted Kotcheff’s fascinating, neglected 1974 western Billy Two Hats, as the marksman whose gabbiness wears on the patience of sheriff Jack Warden as the two of them stalk outlaws Gregory Peck and Desi Arnaz, Jr.