February 24th, 2014

KOLOBUS (1999) ***

A group of strangers are invited to a remote house where their every move is filmed for the camera. Pretty soon, the booby-trapped house kills off one of the actors and locks everyone else inside the dwelling. The survivors try to band together and stay alive, which is increasingly harder to do once a faceless killer enters the fracas.

If you can’t already tell, I’ve been watching a lot of these People-Trapped-in-a-House-Under-Constant-Camera-Surveillance movies here lately, and most of them have been pretty bad. Unlike most of its ilk, Kolobus is actually a solid horror flick and is probably the Citizen Kane of the subgenre. The reason for this is because it features good performances, likeable characters, and a few genuine surprises. The flick is actually really freaking good for about 70 minutes or so. It’s when the twist ending comes into play when every sorta goes downhill. But other than that, it’s quite a solid horror movie.

The film also contains some pretty good gory set pieces. One chick gets killed by the kitchen (and I don’t mean IN the kitchen I mean BY the kitchen), some guy takes a literal acid bath, and another dude gets a pool cue shoved through his mouth. My favorite kill though was the death that echoes the famous antler kill from Silent Night, Deadly Night.

Speaking of which, Kolobus also features a brief appearance by the always Linnea Quigley. Unfortunately, she’s only in it for about a minute or two as it’s one of those “Special Appearance by” deals. Of course, if you ask me, any appearance by Linnea Quigley is a special one, but oh well.

AKA: Haunted House.

THE DAY THE EARTH FROZE (1964) **

Lemminkainen is this log-riding dude who falls in love with the beautiful Annikki. When she gets kidnapped by an evil witch, Lemminkainen and her brother set out to rescue her. The witch agrees to give Annikki back as long as they perform some weird tasks first (like forging a red horse out of a fire). She also forces them to make her a “Sampo”, a machine that spits out gold. But on the day of Lemminkainen and Anniki’s wedding, the witch steals the sun; turning the world into a frozen wasteland. It’s then up to Lemminkainen to slay the witch and retrieve the sun.

The Day the Earth Froze comes from director Aleksandr Ptushko, who also directed similar epics like The Magic Voyage of Sinbad and The Sword and the Dragon. (All of which appeared on Mystery Science Theater 3000 at some point.) Like those films, The Day the Earth Froze has this weird color scheme that is hard on the eyes. (It looks like a Day-Glo Hercules movie.) Because of that, it’s often a chore to watch.

The film is based on Finnish folk tales, so it does have this weird “anything goes” vibe to it that is charming. (Like when “the road” becomes human and begins philosophizing.) I’m not up on my Finnish folklore, but there is some really odd moments that don’t make a lick of sense. (I know why the Sampo would make gold, but salt?) But ultimately, these quirky scenes are few and far between and the final confrontation between Lemminkainen and the witch is really anticlimactic.

AKA: Sampo.

LEGENDS OF THE SILVER SCREEN: STEVE MARTIN

With his appearances on Saturday Night Live and his roles in such classics as The Jerk, Three Amigos, and My Blue Heaven, Steve Martin has shown he’s one of the funniest men on the planet. But over time, he’s taken dramatic roles in films like Grand Canyon, The Spanish Prisoner, and Novocaine that shows his broad range of talent. He’s also proven himself to be quite musician and has recorded several bluegrass albums. Today, we take a look at three films that show off the many sides of Steve Martin.

First up is…

PENNIES FROM HEAVEN (1981) **

Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters reteamed two years after The Jerk for this muddled musical. Martin stars as a down on his luck music publisher trying to make ends meet during The Great Depression. One day he falls in love with a pretty schoolteacher (Peters) and begins to pester her for affection. Eventually, he has an affair with her and gets her pregnant, which causes her to lose her job. She then runs off, has an abortion, and becomes a prostitute. Martin leaves his wife to be with her, but winds up being implicated in a murder of a blind girl in the process.

Directed by Herbert (Footloose) Ross, Pennies from Heaven is a bit of a slog. Ross tries to juxtapose the desperation of the characters with the carefree musical numbers, but it never quite works. He does get a lot of mileage from the excellent production design though.

Pennies from Heaven features some extravagant dance numbers (some inspired by Busby Berkeley) where Martin and the cast lip synch to the big hits of the day. That’s kind of the problem. They’re doing these elaborate dance numbers while pantomiming the songs, but something’s missing. There’s a noticeable disconnect between the performer and the song. If they were actually belting out songs that came from the heart, you might have more feeling for the characters. But since they are just mouthing the lyrics, the effect is lackluster. Consider the final scene where Martin actually sings the title tune. It’s semi-moving because he’s singing the song and putting emotion into it.

The cast do what they can. Steve Martin is quite good in his tap dancing numbers. And he isn’t bad in his dramatic scenes, especially while expressing his character’s sexual frustration. Only occasionally does he veer into his Wild and Crazy Guy persona, like when he chases his wife around the house in his underwear begging her for sex. But the character itself isn’t very likeable, and despite Martin’s efforts, we’re never rooting for him.

Jessica Harper (the same year as Shock Treatment) fares much better as Martin’s neglected wife. Because Martin’s character is such a lout, we wind up caring more for her than him. The scene where she puts lipstick on her nipples to make herself more attractive is pretty memorable and there’s a pretty cool scene where she clutches a pair of scissors that echoes the scene in Suspiria.

Christopher Walken steals the show though late in the game as a slimy pimp. He does a show-stopping tap dance/striptease routine and has more energy that most everyone else in the cast. Too bad his appearance is all too brief, because the flick really could’ve used more of his pizzazz.

Next we have…

LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION (2003) ** ½

The concept of a Joe Dante-directed Looney Tunes movie sounds like a home run. It’s an ideal match-up because Dante’s sensibilities are perfectly in tune with Bugs and the gang. And if you don’t believe me, just check out Gremlins 2: The New Batch for further evidence. If only the script was funny enough to meet the expectations.

Looney Tunes: Back in Action begins perfectly with a script meeting where Daffy refuses to play second fiddle to Bugs on yet another (funny) variation of “Duck Season/Wabbit Season”. A studio exec, played by Jenna Elfman fires Daffy and it’s up to Bugs to get his job back. Meanwhile, Daffy teams up with Brendan Fraser to rescue his secret agent father (Timothy Dalton!) from the clutches of the evil head of the ACME Corporation (Steve Martin).

Looney Tunes: Back in Action gets off to a great start. The chase on the Warner Brothers backlot where Daffy Duck tries to steal the Batmobile is funny. And there are some good jabs at the political correctness of the characters too. However, as the film goes on, more and more jokes misfire and the whole thing sorta runs out of steam before the end. The “plot” involving all the spy stuff seems like an OK idea to hang some gags on, but the flimsy script doesn’t really payoff in a satisfying way. But despite its flaws, Looney Tunes: Back in Action remains truer to the characters than Space Jam.

Brendan Fraser’s likeable goofy persona is a good fit for this sort of thing. And thanks to his role in The Mummy, he’s used to acting to things that aren’t there. Steve Martin on the other hand goes a little overboard and isn’t very funny. He does however have some good scenes with his board of directors, played by an array of recognizable character actors.

Speaking of which, there are some cool cameos by Dick Miller, Roger Corman, and Matthew Lillard too. It’s also cool seeing several second and third tier Warner Brothers cartoon stars popping up as well. But the best scene of the flick has the Looney Tunes characters going to “Area 52” where they have a run-in with several famous sci-fi and horror monsters from the ‘50s and ‘60s. Ultimately, these little Easter eggs are the best thing the movie has to offer.

Most of the live action scenes are kinda ho-hum, but the scenes of Fraser and Daffy mixing it up are amusing. And the scenes of the animated characters by themselves are decent enough (like the chase through the Louvre). But overall, it never really gels. Still, if you ever wanted to see Bugs Bunny wield a lightsaber…

And our final Martin movie is…

THE BIG YEAR (2011) ****

Steve Martin, Owen Wilson, and Jack Black are three birders who are participating in “The Big Year”, a competition to see who can see the most species of birds. Wilson is the world champion birder trying to top his previous Big Year record. Martin is a retired CEO who finally has the time to enjoy birding. And Black is a thirty-something guy who still lives at home with his folks who are happy that he finally has decided to do something with his life, even if it is going across the country watching birds.

The Big Year is a low key, but extremely likeable serio-comedy. It could’ve easily veered into parody and stereotype; making fun of its characters. Instead it delves deep inside the obsessiveness of the characters and sees what makes them tick. We really get to know our characters, and all three of them are fully developed and three-dimensional. And what is most interesting about the film is seeing how the characters’ hobby interferes with their personal life (and vice versa). Overall, it feels like we’re just watching people living their lives instead of three characters in a “plot”. And director David Frankel does a great job of showing the appeal of birding to the characters. Heck, he even makes it look fun, which is a big compliment.

The three leads are great. Wilson is very good as the conceited champ, who squanders his personal life in order to be the best. Black dials his usual manic persona down and plays a believable and likeable character. Martin is particularly great. Throughout the latter part of his career, he’s tried roles that have blended comedy and drama with uneven results. But this is the kind of role he’s been striving towards and in return, it is one of his best performances of his career.

The supporting cast is great too. Everyone from Tim Blake Nelson to Joel McHale to Kevin Pollack to Anjelica Huston make their brief appearances count. But it is Brian Dennehy who steals the picture with his performance as Black’s crotchety dad. The scene where he finally learns to accept his son’s quirky hobby and joins him on a hike is especially moving.

Overall, The Big Year is one of the most overlooked and underappreciated films to come out in quite some time.

Next week’s Legend: Phillip Seymour Hoffman!