March 27th, 2014

THE BABY (1973) ***

A social worker (Anjanette Comer) comes to investigate a bizarre man (David Manzy) who still acts like a baby. His crazy mother keeps him in a crib and his nutty (but sexy) sisters chronically abuse him. She plots to take the baby away from the psycho family, and they naturally fight back.

Directed by Ted Post (the same year as Magnum Force), The Baby is one of those only-in-the-‘70s kinds of horror movies. It’s genuinely disturbing (especially when the baby starts showing signs of a libido) and often crosses the boundaries of good taste (like the scene showing real mentally impaired kids). The home invasion ending kinda echoes Last House on the Left, although it’s nowhere near as good (there are still a few pretty creepy moments though).

Post does a solid job at maintaining a creepy atmosphere. And there’s a feeling that just about any kind of random craziness can and will happen. It’s only in the film’s final reel where it stumbles and stumbles badly as the final “twist” ending doesn’t quite work.

Ruth Roman is pretty good as the baby’s nutzo mother, but Marianne Hill and Suzanne Zenor are excellent as his wicked sisters. The scenes of them zapping a grown man in his diapers with a cattle prod will stay with me for a long time. And as a bonus, Video Vacuum fave Michael (Rocky 4) Pataki has a great bit as a sex-crazed partygoer too.

LEGENDS OF THE SILVER SCREEN: TOMMY LEE JONES

Tommy Lee Jones has always been one of my favorites. You could look in any gas station, residence, warehouse, farmhouse, henhouse, outhouse, and doghouse and not find a better actor. Today, we’ll take a look at three of Jones’ films.

First up is…

EYES OF LAURA MARS (1978) ** ½

Eyes of Laura Mars was written by John Carpenter, and you can tell because as in Halloween (which was released the same year), it’s filled with a lot of POV shots where an unseen murderer stalks his prey.

Faye Dunaway stars as Laura Mars, a controversial photographer. She starts having visions of women getting their eyes gouged out with an ice pick, which kinda gets in the way of her taking pictures. Since she knows all of the victims, she naturally becomes a suspect. Tommy Lee Jones is the detective on the case that eventually falls in love with her while simultaneously trying to find the killer.

The “seeing visions of murder” gimmick works up until a point. The early attack scenes and the lurid fashion shoots kinda give the film a look and feel comparable to an Italian giallo. And director Irvin Kershner keeps the flick crackling along at a steady clip for the first hour or so. But from then on, the flick pretty much runs out of steam (and ideas) and it begins to circle itself. Not only that, but the script gets increasingly muddled in the third act and it never even attempts to offer an explanation as to how Laura is even capable of seeing these visions.

Dunaway never looked hotter and gives a solid performance. Jones is quite good too. His star was still on the rise, so he hadn’t quite tweaked his familiar on screen persona yet, but it’s still fun seeing flashes of it popping out from time to time. There are also some fine supporting turns from Brad Dourif, Rene Auberjonois, and Raul Julia too.

Jones later starred in another Carpenter-scripted flick, Black Moon Rising eight years later.

Next up is…

MEN IN BLACK 3 (2012) ** ½

Will Smith needed Men in Black 3 more than we did. He certainly needed it more than Tommy Lee Jones did, since he’s only in twenty minutes of the movie. Thankfully, the inspired casting of Josh Brolin as the younger version of Jones almost singlehandedly saves the movie.

An alien named Boris (Jemaine Clement from Flight of the Conchords) escapes from a prison on the moon. Seeking vengeance, he goes back in time to the ‘60s to kill Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones). Agent J (Will Smith) also goes back to the '60s and gets help from the younger version of K (Josh Brolin) to stop Boris.

Smith looks like he’s getting too old for this shit. (He’s still making lame wisecracks like, “It looks like you came from the planet Damn!”) Jones is definitely too old for this shit, and that’s probably why he peaces out so early in the movie. And the casting of Clement was inspired, although his character is rather lame. But Brolin is great though. He does a dead-on Tommy Lee Jones impression and is quite a lot of fun to watch. Overall, the story is pretty thin. It almost seems like once the filmmakers found out Brolin could do a great impersonation of Jones, they decided to make a whole movie around it.

The flick gets off to a shaky start, but it gets better as it goes on. Once the film goes to the ‘60s, things pick up quite a bit. (Bill Hader has a great cameo as Andy Warhol.) Overall, it’s about on par with the other Men in Black flicks. In fact, I might even give this one a slight edge since I can’t remember anything about the previous films.

And our last Jones movie is…

LINCOLN (2012) ** ½

Director Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln focuses mainly on the months during the Civil War where President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) was trying to pass The Emancipation Proclamation. The bill divides Washington almost down the middle, and alienates members of his Cabinet. Lincoln eventually sends three negotiators (James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson, and John Hawkes) to wheel and deal with politicians to influence their vote.

The cool thing about Lincoln was that Honest Abe was using The Emancipation Proclamation as a method to bleed the South of their resources, and not exactly a move to encourage civil rights. And a lot of the political maneuvering Lincoln had to do to pass the law is quite fun to watch. During the scenes where Lincoln faces the political ramifications of the bill, the film is absorbing.

However, Spielberg allows things to get a bit too heavy-handed at times. That, along with the film’s bloated running time and rambling pace, prevents it from ever gathering any real momentum. And some of the more melodramatic passages (like the scenes involving Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Lincoln’s son) fall flat too.

But whenever Daniel Day-Lewis is front and center giving speeches and/or spouting wisdom, it’s pretty captivating. His performance is really something to watch and he won a richly deserved Oscar. He nicely underplays Lincoln. He speaks softly, but when he speaks, people listen.

The supporting cast is pretty great. I thought James Spader did a good job as Lincoln’s chief negotiator, and Sally Field was quite strong as Mary Todd Lincoln. And Tommy Lee Jones is pretty awesome as the cranky, craggily abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens. He has a great moment where someone knocks on his office door and he yells, “It opens!” David Stathairn, Hal Holbrook, and Jackie Earle Haley also pop up in solid supporting performances.

Next week’s Legend: Kurt Russell!

DIRECTOR SPOTLIGHT: ALFRED HITCHCOCK

VERTIGO (1958) ****

I know I have already spotlighted Alfred Hitchcock this month, but when our local theater, The Clayton, played Vertigo as part of their Classic Movie Mondays, I couldn’t resist. It’s one of my favorite Hitchcock movies, and it’s been a long time since I’ve seen it (long before I started writing reviews), so I just had to check it out. And what better way to see Vertigo than on the big screen?

Jimmy Stewart stars as Scotty, a detective who quits the force when his fear of heights causes a police officer to get killed. He then gets hired by an old acquaintance to tail his sexy wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak). She believes she’s possessed by the spirit of her grandmother and is prone to bouts of suicidal behavior. When Scotty saves Madeleine from drowning herself, they fall in love. But later on, he is unable to keep her from throwing herself off a bell tower and he sinks into a deep depression. Sometime later, he sees a woman on the street that looks exactly like Madeleine (also Novak). Scotty instantly falls for her, and she falls for him too, but she kinda gets weirded out when he starts making her over in Madeleine’s image.

In 2012, Sight & Sound named Vertigo the best film ever made. I don’t agree with that at all. Even in terms of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, I like Psycho, North by Northwest, and The Birds better. But when you consider Hitch made those four films in a span of five years, you have to admit that’s an amazing run.

The early scenes of the movie sorta drag. There’s probably one too many scenes of Stewart playing house with Barbara Bel Geddes. But once Stewart snaps and starts obsessing over the second Novak, the film is nothing short of spellbinding. The scenes of him forcing her to wear the exact clothes the previous version of her character wore are great. And we marvel at the lengths she goes through to please Stewart. Wracked with guilt, she’d do almost anything to help him. But of course her secret will ultimately be both of their undoing.

Despite some pacing issues early on, the film is so awesome in the final act that you almost completely forget about them by the time the curtain comes down. I wouldn’t want to spoil the ending for you. I mean, it’s already one of the most famous endings in film history, so you probably already know it.

Again, it’s not the greatest film of all time, but it’s certainly one of Hitchcock’s best.

Next week at The Clayton: Double Indemnity!

DIRECTOR SPOTLIGHT: FEDERICO FELLINI DOUBLE FEATURE

LA STRADA (1954) ** ½

A young girl (Giulietta Masina) is sold by her mother to a circus strongman named Zampano (Anthony Quinn). He puts her in his act and they roam from town to town performing shows. Despite his abusive and womanizing ways, she still cares for him. Eventually, she falls in love with a clown played by Richard Basehart. Naturally, Zampano becomes jealous of their relationship and his hot tempered ways soon leads to tragedy.

Giulietta Masina has a sweet naivety about her that is really charming. There are moments where she just does absolutely nothing and it’s still a lot of fun to watch. The way she pantomimes her emotions is a real treat. (In some ways, she is reminiscent of a female Charlie Chaplin.)

The simpler scenes of Masina and Quinn just getting by and performing shows are fun. But once Basehart’s character is introduced, things go downhill fairly fast. The love triangle aspect of the film falls a bit flat, and the melodramatics in the end were ultimately just too much for me.

This was my first experience with a Fellini movie. I have to say that I enjoyed the early carnival scenes quite a bit. It’s just that Fellini has a tendency to let the later scenes run on too long. And Quinn’s abrasive character is a bit hard to take at times. However, the flick is almost worth watching solely on the basis of Masina’s performance.

LA DOLCE VITA (1960) ** ½

Marcello Mastroianni stars as a tabloid photographer who schmoozes with a sexy high society dame, played by Anouk Aimee. He then does press with a busty American movie star (Anita Ekberg) and they run around Rome together. Lots of other shenanigans happen (he meets up with his estranged father, hangs out with Nico from the Velvet Underground, his friend commits suicide, etc.) while Marcello’s girlfriend pines away for him.

La Dolce Vita is considered by many to be Federico Fellini’s masterpiece. At almost three hours, it’s way too long and is a bit of a slog in places. Due to the film’s episodic nature, La Dolce Vita is an uneven experience. Some of Fellini’s tangents are more interesting than others (the bit about the sighting of the Madonna goes on forever) and the bloated running time doesn’t help matter. But the film certainly has its moments.

For me, the scenes with the slinky Anita Ekberg worked the best. Then again, that was probably just because she’s so damn hot. I mean the scene where she’s dancing with her boobs bobbling all over the place was just plain awesome. And the scene where she hops into a big-ass fountain is great. Look, not many women can walk around with a cat on her head and make it look sexy, but Anita is definitely one of them.

Admittedly, whenever hot babes are parading around and dancing, La Dolce Vita is rather fun. Along with Anita’s segment, the final “orgy” scene involving an elaborate striptease is pretty cool. But whenever the flick is mired in boring subplots, it is decidedly less fun.

THE ABCS OF DEATH (2012) ** ½

The ABCs of Death is an ambitious, yet flawed anthology horror film that is undone by its own unwieldy premise. 27 different directors were hired to helm 26 short (about five minutes long) horror vignettes, each starting with a different letter. To say that the results are “uneven” is a gross understatement. But to call the movie “gross” is a gross understatement as it features some nauseating moments of gore and general unpleasantness. The film contains several low points (the hit-to-miss ratio is about 1 to 2), but the high points are quite memorable. So if you’re willing to sit through a LOT of crappy moments to get to some truly gonzo horror filmmaking, then it’ll be worth it.

A is for Apocalypse (**), directed by Nacho Vigalondo, features a woman trying desperately to kill her husband before the upcoming apocalypse. Despite the good gore effects, this segment’s long set-up doesn’t justify the weak punchline. In fact, a lot of the bad segments in the film feel like poorly told jokes, but with blood and guts substituted for humor.

B is for Bigfoot (**) is very similar. It’s a (decent) set-up marred by a weak punchline. Oh, and don’t expect to see Bigfoot, or you’ll be even more disappointed.

C is for Cycle (*) plays like a bad student film. A guy is having a dream where he follows himself into a worm hole in his back yard. This segment doesn’t go anywhere and suffers from a crummy payoff.

D is for Dogfight (* ½) feels like an overlong commercial for an energy drink. It contains lots of slow motion and flashy camerawork, but the premise (guy is boxing a dog in an underground fighting tournament) is a real head-scratcher. Plus, the twist ending is more of a “Huh?” than anything.

E is for Exterminate (**) was directed by actress Angela (May) Bettis and it has the benefit of a solid plot. A guy kills a pesky spider, unaware that it has laid its eggs under his skin. The final reveal is OK, but the overall execution of this sequence feels like a bad Night Flight short.

F is for Fart (****) is the reason to see the movie. I had to rewind it and watch it twice. It’s some of the most insane piece of filmmaking I’ve seen in some time. It was directed by Noboru Iguchi, the man who made Robo Geisha. And just let me say, if you’ve seen Robo Geisha, this segment is about ten times nuttier than that flick.

G is for Gravity (NO STARS). The less said about this one, the better.

H is for Hydro-Electric Diffusion (****) gets things back on track. Imagine if Jess Franco directed a live-action Tex Avery cartoon and that should give you an ideal of the level of insanity this segment has to offer. I don’t want to spoil anything for you, but this scene contains the sexiest Nazi fox (and I mean that quite literally) I’ve ever seen.

I is for Ingrown (**) is too short for its own good. It’s all about a husband killing his wife in the bathtub. There’s not much more to it than that.

J is for Jidai-Genki (Samurai Movie) (**) is more odd than effective. It’s about a samurai who is supposed to behead this guy, but he keeps making all these weird faces, which distracts him. Some of the make-up effects are kinda cool, but like a lot of these sequences, it’s a long way to go for a skimpy payoff.

K is for Klutz (**) is an animated tale about a woman trying to flush a turd, and its vengeful quest to return to her anus. Despite its absurd premise, this segment never quite works. Still, it’s a lot more tolerable than most of the sequences revolving around something going into (or out of) someone’s butt.

L is for Libido (** ½) is probably the most skin-crawling episode. It’s about a high stakes game where men have to jack off to various disgusting things. If they don’t cum, they’ll be shot in the head. This segment is shocking and disturbing, but it crosses the line (especially the part with the kid) about halfway through and never recovers.

M is for Miscarriage (* ½) isn’t the worst segment, but it’s definitely the most disappointing, since it comes from Ti (House of the Devil) West. It concerns a woman trying to flush something down a toilet. Then we find out it’s a… well… read the title. This is probably also the shortest story in the entire film, something I guess we should all be grateful for.

N is for Nuptials (***) is the clearest example that these segments are basically just jokes with a set-up and punchline. It involves a guy teaching his parrot to propose to his girlfriend. Of course, the parrot gives her a bit too much information. This is a lightweight and funny episode, and I wish more of the filmmakers went for this sort of tone.

O is for Orgasm (**) is a bunch of artsy-fartsy nonsense.

P is for Pressure (***) is told is a unique and fresh way. It follows a woman’s desperate journey to do anything she can to buy her daughter a bike for her birthday. The story is told in brief, five or ten second shots and the tale advances at a rapid-fire pace. The end is pretty sick, but I can’t help but dig the panache in which the story was told.

Q is for Quack (*** ½) comes from director Adam (You’re Next) Wingard. It involves Wingard and producer Simon Barrett sitting around and trying to think up an idea for their segment. Eventually, they decide to shoot a duck on camera, which leads to expectedly hilarious results. This story is just the right length and doesn’t wear out its welcome.

R is for Removed (**) is just a bunch of weirdness for weirdness’ sake. A guy is in some hospital where the doctors remove his skin and turn it into camera negatives. Then he escapes and kills a bunch of people. There are some good gory moments here, but overall, this is more of a “Huh?” kind of episode.

S is for Speed (***) was directed by Jake (Razor Blade Smile) West, and it’s one of the most fun segments. It has kind of like a Mad Max feel to it as two sexy babes try to outrun death through a desert wasteland. The twist at the end doesn’t work, but otherwise, this is a pretty cool sequence.

T is for Toilet (**) is another animated episode revolving around a toilet. Sigh.

U is for Unearthed (** ½) is told exclusively using first person camerawork. It’s about a bunch of vampire hunters trying to stake a bloodsucker. There’s nothing really exceptional here, but it’s a helluva lot better than most of the other segments.

V is for Vagitus (****) has an awesome Judge Dredd feel to it. It’s about a female cop (paired with a big ass robot) cracking down on a couple who have made a baby (which is illegal in “New Vancouver” in the year 2039). If any segment deserved its own full-length spin-off, it’s this one. If not, can we at least get Kaare Andrews to direct the next Judge Dredd and/or Robocop movie… please?

W is for WTF (**) is another “making of a segment” segment. It features some pretty cool animation, but it goes off the rails quickly and never recovers. At least it lives up to its title.

X is for XXL (***) is directed by Xavier (Hitman) Gens. It’s about a fat woman who carves off all her skin to lose weight. This segment is obvious, but the gore is excellent and the final reveal is pretty awesome.

Y is for Youngbuck (* ½) is the second biggest disappointment in the bunch. Again, that’s because it features a great filmmaker like Jason (Hobo with a Shotgun) Eisner dropping the ball. It’s all about a child-molesting janitor getting his comeuppance. It’s generally unpleasant and the final scene doesn’t work at all.

Z is for Zetsumetsu (Extinction) (** ½) ends things on a bizarre note. The inspiration was obviously Dr. Strangelove, but none of it quite clicks. It’s certainly much better than most of the other segments though.

Sure, there are some fairly awful sequences here, but there are a few moments that almost make the whole thing worthwhile. I can’t quite recommend the flick as a whole, because it’s just way too uneven. But because the “F”, “H”, and “V” stories are so good, I can at least give The ABCs of Death a marginal recommendation.