Thursday, June 30, 2011

Random Movie Report #93: Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror

Burial Ground DVD cover and Amazon link
The pleasures of a good bad movie are rare enough that you can sometimes think you’ve outgrown them. For a while there I thought I was becoming too discriminating in my tastes, only able to appreciate finely crafted productions of the highest value, or failing that, low-budget films that were legitimately good. Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror , an uninspired Italian zombie romp whose only distinguishing marks are brutal violence and a random incest subplot, showed me the way. It’s in many ways as generic as a zombie film can get, but it’s got a vibe that I enjoy and is at times just bafflingly clumsy enough to work.

So, the story. An Alan-Moore-ish scientist (Renato Barbieri) researching Etruscan rites in a crypt accidentally wakes up a whole mess of rotting corpses and gets himself eaten, which will happen. Shortly after, a bunch of people arrive at a nearby mansion to spend a weekend or something. There are two young couples who plan to spend most of the time dry humping, and there’s a husband and wife who have an odd-looking son (Peter Bark, who was actually in his twenties) whose relationship with his mother is less than healthy. The zombies slowly navigate their way out of the crypt (and in some cases dig up straight through the ground) just in time to menace the party, chasing them into the mansion. The undead this time around are smart enough to use tools and set up traps, but for the most part you know what’s going down.

I will give European horror filmmakers one thing- their zombies tend to be stylin’. Here in the States we’ve had our fill of facepainted groaners dressed in work-a-day outfits, and while they make a nice metaphor for social decay or the vanishing middle class or something like that, sometimes you want out-and-out monsters, and that’s what Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror delivers. These guys have obviously been in the ground a while, and the makeup is reasonably impressive; they have a look that suggests truly misshapen ghouls, with often-hollow eye sockets, deformed remnants of teeth, and the occasional maggot. While the bright-as-day cinematography is uninspired, the surreal music emphasizes the zombies as something unearthly.

You do have to give a film like this credit for a very quick start, with the zombie rampage beginning in earnest about fifteen minutes in. Of course this gives us next to no time to learn about or connect with any of the characters, meaning they spend most of the film as an undifferentiated mass of victims milling around various locations for no good reason. (The upside of this is it does make it harder to tell who has script immunity, since nobody is particularly more developed than anyone else.)

Even with the plot as rudimentary as it is, there are a few questionable turns. The characters work out early on that you can actually kill the zombies by destroying their heads, and at one point inside the mansion manage to fend off quite a few with swords, clubs, and other weapons. Which they promptly discard and never use again. The mother and son manage to set a few of the creatures on fire using paint cans and matches, so naturally this is never tried again. The people come up with one of the worst escape plans in recent memory only to have it work, only to run along to two other random locations that don’t seem much more defensible. And it’s never really explained just what the Hell caused the dead to start getting up, and a scene late in the movie confuses things no end.

But I had fun. The movie rushes along through nonsensical but nicely weird setpieces, generates something that’s not quite fear or tension but maybe passes as unease, and when it runs out of interesting things to do, just stops. Perhaps going in with no expectations helped, or maybe it just evoked nostalgia from my teenage years renting any lurid crap the horror section at the video store had to offer. It doesn’t feel as cold, crass, or cynical as some other entries in the Euro-zombie subsubgenre, and in its plodding way has a kind of charm. Some people will like it.

Written by Piero Regnoli
Directed by Andrea Bianchi
Grade: C

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Frasierquest 4.1: The Two Mrs. Cranes

The happy couple
Frasier: Speaking of old chums, Daphne, a Clive called for you earlier.

Daphne: Clive? Did he sound British?

Frasier: No, he was one of those fiery Mexican Clives.

We kick off the new season with an episode I’m pretty sure was not meant to be here. “The Two Mrs. Cranes”, despite being the season premiere, manages not to be much about Frasier at all, instead being an ensemble farce centered around our lovely Miss Daphne Moon. With Joe Keenan writing again and David Lee directing, it’s easily up to the standards of previous farces, upping the stakes by dragging the entire cast into an elaborate masquerade which soon becomes self-perpetuating until it finally collapses in on itself. There’s a slightly different feel to the season which is hard to articulate, and I’m not sure whether it’s the show’s continued maturation or just it getting closer to how I remember it at its peak.

Daphne gets a call from an old flame; she was once engaged to a man named Clive (Scott Atkinson), and tried to break it off by telling him they could try again in five years, and he’s shown up right on schedule. He comes over to the apartment for a drink, and Daphne has a hard time letting him down again, but Niles, having heard of Clive’s impending visit, just happens to be there, and Daphne decides to pass him off as her husband. This suits Niles just fine, and he tries to get Clive to stay so he can play out his dream a little longer, and Frasier gets roped into it, pretending to be staying over because of a fight with his wife Maris. When Roz shows up, she takes over the role of the other Mrs. Crane, and when Martin appears he decides to play along and be an astronaut. Eddie remains Eddie.

You may be wondering, where’s Joe in all this? Daphne’s real boyfriend would have been as good a shield as any in all this; more importantly, when Daphne starts to reconsider letting Clive go in the third act, nobody brings up the fact that she isn’t single. I can’t avoid spoilers on this (I think 15 years is an okay statute of limitations anyway), suffice it to say there is a breakup in Daphne’s near future, and I’m pretty sure what happened was this episode was supposed to come some time after that one. Even a popular and critically acclaimed show isn’t immune to random reshuffling by the network, even today as serialization has become more prominent in American TV; I’m sure it happened several times in Frasier’s run, and this is just one of the more obvious cases.

That plot hole aside, this is one of the more elaborate stories the gang have gotten themselves tangled up in. Everyone has their own motivation to play along; Niles because it’s fun, Frasier because Daphne’s promised to take Dad on one of his Army reunions if he does, Roz because there’s a hot guy, and Martin- for his own amusement, really. The more insane the lie gets, the more they make it work. Particularly fun is how, as Daphne attempts to make herself available again to a more-responsible-than-he-looks Clive, the masquerade becomes increasingly dark and twisted, with she and Roz trading allegations of blackouts and pregnancy. Martin’s increasingly ridiculous astronaut stories (oh, the days before Wikipedia) seem almost designed to throw the whole thing off the rails. Clive is a trusting, credulous sort, and it doesn’t take a lot of work to convince him of what he’s seeing- the problem isn’t that he’s going to catch on so much as the lie itself driving its perpetrators insane.

So this is crazy business, and the increased complexity of it is a sign of a shift in the show. When Frasier started out, stories tended to be simple, almost Spartan, uncomplicated by subplots and tangents. We didn’t even get into farce until Season Two. Now the show can hit the ground running, expecting the audience to know the characters enough that we laugh at the incongruity of their situation. The episode does take pains to re-establish some things- Roz’s use of Frasier’s opera glasses to spy on a bodybuilder across the street reminds us of how man-crazy she can get, and we establish that Niles is married to Maris and estranged to her in an early scene so that Frasier being made her husband makes sense as a joke even to the outside observer. But the density of information needed to make the farce work is delivered at a good clip, and the pace builds from there.

Atkinson’s performance as Clive Roddy is an interesting one. His accent is pure Dick Van Dyke, to the point where even American viewers will pick up on the fakery pretty easily; sure, Jane Leeves doesn’t exactly sound Mancunian either, but you have to know the specific regions to pick that up. That said, some critics and viewers, especially those in the UK, tend to make a much bigger deal of this than I think it actually is. A character’s voice need not be authentic to get the job done, and Atkinson gets the important part right, playing Clive as trusting, good-hearted, and only the tiniest bit slow.

Even if it’s slightly out of place, “The Two Mrs. Cranes” makes for a good premiere simply because it’s an excellent signpost for the series. This is Frasier at cruising speed, densely plotted, mindful of its characterization, and heavy on quips. But even as it draws on our familiarity with the characters, “The Two Mrs. Cranes” stands apart as an all-time classic comedy episode, perfectly accessible to anyone who doesn’t already know the series just because it’s that good. And the best part? I’m not even sure it’s the best episode of this season.

No Guest Caller

Written by Joe Keenan
Directed by David Lee
Aired September 17, 1996

Clive: There comes a time in a man's life when he's gotta look a woman straight in the eye and say...

Niles: Cheese nips?

Friday, June 24, 2011

Tonight Only! An Evening of Audio Theater!

This past week I've been at the National Audio Theater Festivals' 2011 Workshop, and tonight is performance night! Coming to you live from West Plains, Missouri, we bring you around 2 hours of original audio drama and comedy, featuring:

  • "Knocking on Heaven's Door", a stirring drama by comics legend J. M. DeMatteis, based on a script for a revived Twilight Zone which went unproduced when it went away again;
  • "The Son of West Branch, America's Great Humanitarian" by Dr. William Wayne Anderson, a historic recreation of vintage election propaganda for Herbert Hoover;
  • "Junk in the Trunk", a raucous comedy from this year's Freshman Class;
  • "TransMars Tango", an original science fiction adventure by comic writer Elaine Lee (of Stardust fame);
  • Music led by Dwight Frizzell, of the Kansas City Art Institute and KKFI's From Ark to Microchip;
  • Performances by The Firesign Theater's Philip Proctor, Audiobook star Robin Miles, Richard Fish, and yes, even yours truly.
The program begins at 7:30 Central Standard Time (that's 8:30 Eastern, 5:30 Pacific). If you're in West Plains you can either come in and watch us live, or follow on KKDY 102.5. Everyone else can listen along at the same time through a stream on KKDY's website or at (a stream link should appear at 7:15.)

Listen and enjoy!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

In Theaters: Green Lantern

Poster and IMPAwards link
Green Lantern plays like a mid-air collision between two superhero movies. Half of it is an epic space opera detailing a threat to the entire universe, and the other half is a smaller, more traditional masked hero picture where a man gains extraordinary powers and is caught up in a personal threat. Either one of these would have been a fine approach to bringing the emerald avenger to the silver screen, but sadly together they crowd in on each other, and the results are less than satisfying. It’s not a badly made movie, and it has a lot of good elements, but it fails to develop anything fully and ends up less than the sum of its parts.

Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds) is a test pilot for an aeronautics company. Owing in part to some obligatory past drama, Jordan is cocky but insecure, prone to freezing up, and a few fancy maneuvers in a demonstration dogfight end up costing him his job. Soon after, however, a green sphere of energy carries him to the wreck of an alien spaceship, where a being named Abin Sur hands him a ring and a lantern. The ring makes Hal into one of the Green Lanters, an association of cosmic policemen bringing peace, order, and justice to the universe, and he is spirited away to the planet Oa to learn the ring’s powers. With the ring Hal can fly, understand alien languages, and conjure glowing green constructs out of sheer willpower. The Green Lantern Corps on Oa are fighting a powerful fear entity called Parallax, which killed Abin Sur and manages to infect Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard), a nerdy xenobiologist who begins to develop telekinetic powers, an enlarged cranium, and a growing resentment of all the successful people around him. Parallax itself is on its way to Earth, and Hal must master his fear before he can confront the beast.

The good news about this film is that a lot of the hard parts of the Green Lantern mythos have actually been handled well. Though the opening is a little exposition heavy, it sets up the concept of the Corps and their role as intergalactic policemen very well, and the scenes on Oa are pretty enjoyable. A lot of fun is had with Hal’s ability to make constructs- though trailers show off his attempt at a minigun, he gets more creative later. The basic thematic clash between will and fear is straightforward and well-rendered, but Hal also has to be clever and resourceful when it comes to the final confrontation.

If the film had just been Hal and the Lanterns battling Parallax, all of this might have worked. But the story of Hector Hammond feels like a sidetrack; he’s obsessed with Hal’s girlfriend and co-worker, the lovely Carol Ferris (Blake Lively), and lives a rather sad life as a high school science teacher, and the Parallax infection turns him into a sort of uber-vengeful nerd, which is almost a good idea. But he still seems more pathetic than threatening, and throwing objects around just doesn’t seem as impressive as creating objects and energy out of pure will, so it’s not really convincing when he threatens our hero. He frankly feels like a Spider-Man villain, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, it feels out of place next to the cosmic saga that’s supposed to be occupying our attention.

Really, the whole movie suffers from this problem. The film switches back and forth between the two scales of action instead of really blending them (as Thor did), and neither gets enough screen time to register. When Hal Jordan makes his heroic Earthly debut we’re already halfway through the movie, and he has a crisis of confidence in his new role that seems contrived. The Oa material, while fun, is sparse, without the other Lanterns being much more than just ciphers (though Geoffrey Rush is great as the fishy Tomar Re) and the small blue Guardians who created the order have the classic sci-fi problem of being so hidebound you wonder how they accomplished anything to start with. (The effects are a mixed bag- while I like the overall 50s aesthetic and the bright colors, they do rely on CGI to a fault, with even Hal’s costume being a digital creation.)

I will say that Ryan Reynolds does a pretty good job in the lead role, believably conducting Hal Jordan’s transition from overconfident hothead to a man who understands his place in the universe. The film has a lot of entertaining individual parts, but there’s a lot of downtime between them and the picture feels sluggish more than anything. It’s nowhere near as bad as some other reviews say, I don’t regret seeing it at all, and I’m sort of hoping it does well enough to merit a more focused take on the material. But I can’t recommend it or call it a good film. It has the makings of a good film, but they haven’t been mixed properly.

Based on characters created by Marty Nodell, Bill Finger, John Broome, and Gil Kane.
Screen Story by Greg Berlanti, Michael Green, and Marc Guggenheim
Screenplay by Greg Berlanti, Michael Green, Marc Guggenheim, and Michael Goldenberg
Directed by Martin Campbell

Grade: C+

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

In Theaters: Super 8

Super 8 poster and IMPAwards link
Super 8 is J. J. Abrams’ exploration of the territory first surveyed by Steven Spielberg, with the master’s blessing. It’s a story about growing up, being creative, and dealing with past traumas and tribulations, and also about alien invasions and government conspiracies. Despite it clearly belonging to the Spielbergiana subgenre, the film is more than just a pastiche, working as a surprisingly tight and effective thriller while not neglecting the human element either. It scratches an itch that a lot of movies haven’t in a while, but even if you’re not someone for whom E.T. was a defining part of your childhood, there’s a lot to admire.

The film takes place in the year 1979, in a small town called Lillian. Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) is a boy recovering from the sudden death of his mother, and as summer dawns he and his friends are working on making a zombie movie for the upcoming Cleveland Super 8 Film Festival. The project is directed by bossy wunderkind Charles (Riley Griffiths), who has decided to bring in a love interest for the hero, to be played by Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning.) While shooting scenes at a train station, the kids witness a catastrophic crash, which they happen to catch on film. They flee from a group of Air Force men who seem determined to cover up what’s just happened, but bizarre events start to plague the town afterwards. The power blinks on and off, dogs run away, and people start to vanish. It becomes clear that there was something in one of the train cars, something that’s gotten out and is roaming the streets, and Joe and his friends may be the only people who can begin to put together what’s going on.

Making a serious (or just serious enough for summer) movie about children is a dangerous prospect. Rounding up good child actors is always hard, and the failure of one in this film could easily have compromised things. But the protagonists come off as authentic both in what the script has them do and in how they do it. They’re at the age where full adolescent awkwardness has not quite set in, but they’re starting to notice the opposite sex and be insecure about their social status, and the script captures both their tunnel vision (once they’ve gotten away from the wreck, Charlie starts thinking about it as potential production value for his movie) and their timid interactions with the world around them. Elle Fanning is especially good, particularly since she’s playing a good actress; one of the big surprises is that in their dopey super-8 epic, Alice turns out to be a natural performer, and seeing Fanning work on both levels is impressive.

The film itself is a two-tiered affair, and one of the tiers is the sci-fi/thriller action which most viewers will be focusing on. And it is a tense, scary movie; heavy on the jump scares, to be sure, but Abrams mostly plays fair with them (if he cheated I didn’t catch it) and they are startlingly effective. A sense of danger starts to grow around everyone, everywhere, and at no point is it clear that anyone is safe. The mystery is tantalizing, though some may not be satisfied with the explanation/resolution at the end; there’s not a lot of exposition, and time doesn’t permit much of an infodump, so a couple of loose ends still dangle.

Abrams isn’t just out to make us solve a puzzle, though. The very first shot of the film is the steel mill where Joe’s mother has been killed (grimly resetting its days-since-an-accident count), and her death isn’t just a Disney plot device; it looms over the rest of the movie, over Joe and his father, the deputy sheriff (Kyle Chandler), and over Alice and her father (Ron Eldard), a poor alcoholic whose relationship with Alice borders on abusive. To reveal how this interacts with the main story would require giving away much of the mystery, suffice it to say an unusual and fascinating thematic parallel is achieved.

As near as I can tell, this picture doesn’t miss a beat. It’s a genuine original in spite of being a genre homage, and has an energy level and tension that builds to a fiery climax. Do we get all the answers? No, but a catharsis and closure is achieved nonetheless, and something truly remarkable takes place. It’s nice to see a sense of wonder in science fiction movies again, and Super 8 delivers that expertly.

Written and Directed by J. J. Abrams

Grade: A

Friday, June 10, 2011

In Theaters: X-Men: First Class

Poster and IMPAwards link

X-Men: First Class doesn’t feel like the obvious direction for the franchise to go in. It's not just a prequel, but one set in the 1960s, when the comic was first published, and working with the original “Children of the Atom” concept that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby pioneered. Of course, it’s not a lot like the original comics, or the more recent retro series of the same name for that matter, but rather its own odd take on the origins of the world’s strangest superheroes. It’s actually a fairly charming approach, and a pretty good movie too, managing to feel more like an actual story than the cash grab of the last two X-entries. There are a number of rough patches, and it’s not as good as it could have been, but it’s a step back in the right direction.

The film follows Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), a brilliant student and telepath who is interested in finding other mutants like him. As a child he befriends a young runaway named Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) who has the ability to change her shape, and she lives with him almost like a sister. When CIA operative Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) witnesses a group of mutants led by Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) coercing a Pentagon official into placing US missiles in Turkey, she enlists the help of Xavier to help hunt down Shaw and his cohorts (including the shapely telepath Emma Frost, played by January Jones.) In the process Xavier rescues Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), a mutant with magnetic powers who, as a child, saw his mother killed by Shaw when both were held in a concentration camp, and has been working as a superpowered Nazi hunter ever since. Erik and Charles both see the need for mutants to unite in a world that hates and fears them, and begin recruiting others with unusual powers to stop Shaw before he can manipulate the Cuban Missile Crisis into a full-blown nuclear exchange.

It takes a while for the various plot strands to come together, but fortunately the various mutants’ individual stories are pretty interesting in and of themselves. Xavier is both charming and a bit sleazy, the price of being able to manipulate people with your mind, and to some extent the story of the film is the story of him being forced into something resembling emotional maturity by an increasingly unpleasant situation. At the same time, Erik is being forced into maturity by having to confront something larger than his own vendetta (as valid as it is, and as satisfying as it is to see him kill ex-Nazis hiding in Argentina.) Raven (later to be known as Mystique) is also put on a fascinating and conflicted journey, one that calls into question her relationship with Xavier. And then there’s the villain’s story, more conventional to be sure, but not without its fun parts, notably Shaw’s groovy Hellfire Club.

With all these stories and characters flying around the movie can’t help but be a little sloppy. Some of the dialogue doesn’t work, Oliver Platt’s character is never given an actual name, and almost inevitably the team’s sole black member (Edi Gathegi as Darwin, who has a genuinely interesting “adaptive” power) dies in the second act. It’s kind of messy in the way it grabs various characters and names from the comic book mythos, and while I generally believe that filmmakers have no obligation to be especially faithful to their source material, Moira’s lack of Scottishness bugged me. Some of the characters get shorted in the shuffle, and this seems to bear traces of having been a few different X-projects smashed together when it appeared that no single one could carry a picture on its own.

So why does this work for me? For one thing, it doesn’t feel like a soulless moneymaking engine. Some of the story choices- such as the 1960s setting, the direct use of the Cuban missile crisis as a key plot point (even bringing in the US’ own nuclear expansion into Turkey), and the lack of “marquee value” heroes on the main team- give the impression that this was a weird little twist on the franchise that the various participants genuinely believed in. It has an offbeat sense of humor and a nice layering of the character’s social anxieties on top of the apocalyptic stuff. For the most part it feels like it wants to do right by its characters- not necessarily from a comics purist perspective, but from the perspective of telling their story.

A lot of this may fall on the actors as well. McAvoy, Fassbender, and Lawrence have the most heavy lifting to do, and they come off quite well- for people who have seen the previous X-Men adventures, there’s a sense that for the first time we’re really getting to learn about Professor X, Magneto, and Mystique. The kids playing the actual “first class” are enjoyable too, and Bacon as Sebastian Shaw is clearly having a little too much fun. Byrne continues to impress, the changes to Moira notwithstanding, and there are some amusing cameos both by established superhero types and by good actors in general.

This is a film that probably could have been better if given more time to cook. It takes on the burden of a franchise reinventing itself to stay relevant and is unsteady because of it. But even in a genre as played through as comic book superheroics, this feels fresh. It’s a good spectacle, it’s willing to be a little quirky, and no single problem it has is big enough to hobble the whole thing. It charges along in spite of everything, and does so with a considerable amount of charm. The Marvel movies this summer are 2 for 2 so far, and I can only hope they manage the hat trick.

Based on characters created by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Chris Claremont, etc. etc. etc.
Story by Sheldon Turner and Brian Singer
Screenplay by Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman, and Matthew Vaughn
Directed by Matthew Vaughn

Grade: B

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Random (Free!) Movie Report #92: Non-Stop New York

Movie poster and link to the film on the Internet Archive
The grand old days of cinema were filled with programmers: fast-moving little films that would maybe serve as the bottom half of a double feature or simply keep a theater stocked between bigger releases. They were made to be enjoyed and forgotten, in the absence of television or video to give them a second life. Many of them disappeared, and others have fallen into the public domain, and they can be hard to evaluate from a modern perspective precisely because they weren’t made for posterity or to withstand intense critical scrutiny. And yet, some of them hold up.

Non-Stop New York is a movie I heard about and rented almost at random; I saw the poster once, was vaguely intrigued, and here we are. It’s a suspense thriller with a good sense of humor, and a jaunty adventurous spirit exemplified by lead Anna Lee. Though a British film it’s not much different from what Hollywood studios were producing in the mid/late thirties, and seems to have been made with the international market in mind. It’s a smart, well-written movie that, while it follows the usual conventions, does so with just enough aplomb to stand out.

Our heroine is Jennie Carr (Lee), an English showgirl whose travelling company has just opened and closed in Philadelphia on New Year’s Eve. Waiting in New York for the next boat home, Jennie meets a nice young lawyer and goes up to his apartment for a meal (this being the Depression), before being shoved away by some threatening looking men. She later discovers that the lawyer has been murdered, and that a local vagrant named Abel (Arthur Goulett) has been fingered for the crime. But she saw Abel enter and leave the man’s apartment in search of food before she herself was pushed out. By the time she reads about what’s going on, though, she’s back in London, and Abel has already been tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. The only way to present the evidence that will exonerate Abel is for Jennie to go back to New York, and the only way to do that in time is to stow away on board an overnight plane. Said plane, an advanced and entirely fictional double-decker model with individual passenger cabins and an open balcony, also by circumstance comes to contain the lead gangster Hugo Brant (Francis L. Sullivan) posing as a Portuguese general, trying to make sure the wrong man dies for his crime, as well as a handsome Scotland Yard inspector (John Loder) lured into the case by a shady blackmailer.

So the plot is more or less the dictionary definition of “convoluted”, and I have to confess my summary isn’t doing it too much justice. The whole thing is loaded with contrivance, but that’s where the tone saves it- this is not an entirely serious thriller, more a light comic adventure, with plenty of humor and romantic patter to break up the tension. The plane is basically treated like a flying Orient Express, with a colorful cast of passengers and pleny of room for comings and goings. (In a way the film is almost science fiction, though I’m not sure the “flying boat” concept was ever so much technologically remote as it was economically unfeasible.)

Fortunately the writing is actually pretty clever; it’s not at the level of The Thin Man, but there’s a spark to it. Jennie is a nicely scrappy character, and the obligatory romance with the handsome inspector is nicely handled by the two going out on the small balcony and having all their potentially sappy dialogue drowned out by the noise. There’s a kid who plays the violin (but wants to play jazz saxophone) who is refreshingly non-annoying, and it’s honestly fun to watch the various plot devices interact. A phony coin here, a parachute there, it gets fairly interesting. It’s also striking to see the role the Great Depression plays, especially in early scenes- Jennie is driven by hunger, as is Abel in sneaking into the lawyer’s apartment, and the idea of a bunch of rich gangsters conspiring to end the life of a vagabond for their own convenience is a strong one.

Anna Lee gives a great performance, staying energetic and charming even when being wrongly thrown in prison or having her life threatened. Sullivan is a strong heavy, and John Loder manages to not be as boring as his character would look on paper. The whole film has a strong cast of character actors who manage to be distinctive without being shrill.

There’s nothing in Non-Stop New York that would push it into the realm of a true classic, but for a B picture it’s surprisingly slick. It hums along amiably, never creating an awful lot of suspense as to the eventual outcome, but still being an entertaining ride in itself. The film is in the public domain, meaning you can watch it at the Internet Archive, who have a better print than Alpha Video, which somehow managed to screw up the cropping on a 1.37:1 picture. For free, you can’t do a lot better.

Based on the novel “Sky Steward” by Ken Attiwill
Written by J.O.C Orton, Roland Pertwee, and Curt Siodmak, with additional dialogue by E.V.H. Emmett
Directed by Robert Stevenson

Grade: B+

Friday, June 03, 2011

Random Movie Report #91: One From The Heart

One From The Heart DVD cover and Amazon link
The film that killed Zoetrope Studios, Francis Ford Coppola’s One From The Heart is the sort of film I just had to see despite not having any expectations as to it being any good. It was a work of sheer audacity on par with a lot of famous auteur stumbles from the late 70s and early 80s; a small romantic comedy that blew up into a $27 million dollar epic not because the story grew any but because the director insisted on building Las Vegas inside a movie studio and treating the whole thing like an old Hollywood musical with touches of modern realism and a soundtrack written by Tom Waits. It doesn’t really work, but it’s fascinating still, a trove of interesting images and sounds and techniques that simply fail to converge on anything significant.

As you might imagine, it’s a love story. Hank (Frederic Forrest) and Frannie (Terri Garr) are our two young lovers, who have more or less lived together happily in Vegas for five years without actually tying the knot. But things have grown sour and a little boring, and an anniversary dinner slowly builds to an ugly fight which makes both of them decide to split up for good. Going into town, they both find opportunities for new love, Frannie with a charming singer/waiter named Ray (Raul Julia) who promises to take her to Bora Bora like she always wanted, and Hank with a mysterious circus girl named Leila (Nastassja Kinski) who seems to represent all of Vegas’ enchantment. But after one wild, music-filled Fourth of July, their thoughts drift to each other, and Hank becomes determined to win Frannie back at any cost.

Among other things, One From The Heart was Coppola’s first experiment in “electronic cinema”, a process intended to capture the feel of live early television- he directed remotely from inside a giant trailer, while cameras large and small followed the actors through sets on long takes. The picture was entirely studio-bound, Coppola wishing to create an idealized fantasy of Las Vegas as opposed to the reality. And to be sure, the film’s visuals are incredible. The city is bright and candy colored, with little division between day and night, sharp colored lights throwing characters into relief. Even the more subdued moments of the film are beautifully lit and composed, and the long takes, rather than feeling obtrusive, create a certain intimacy.

And here comes the “but...”. Romances, more than any other genre, rely on our connecting with the central characters and understanding their emotional links with each other. One From The Heart gets it half right- most of the characters are charming, and the acting is pretty strong, but the fundamental relationship at the core of it all doesn’t quite register. We know from the Old Hollywood look and feel of the picture that the instant our young lovers break up, they’re destined to get back together; unfortunately, the film never really makes us think that they should. They’re not completely miserable with each other, but they’re getting there, and as far as we can tell Ray and Leila are both good people who can offer them the chance at something better. Hank’s third-act mania to win Frannie over again comes off as more neurotic than romantic, and even taking into account the changing morĂ©s of the romantic comedy it gets a bit creepy. Frederic Forrest was an interesting and brave choice to cast in the lead, as he’s not the traditional heartthrob, but perhaps he’s been cast too well- Hank gets a little scary and you wonder if his behavior might not seem a little more palatable coming from a Cary Grant type. The pacing of much of the dialogue and particularly the romantic exchanges just feels off, like we’re missing beats that the music and visuals are trying to fill in.

So the film is basically fatally flawed. And yet, it offers a number of delightful distractions. The visuals, including a wistful but eerie title sequence, are constantly surprising. The song score, intended to act as the emotional window into the protagonists’ lives, is terrific, with the growling Waits counterbalanced by a soulful Crystal Gayle. Waits’ growling during the third act almost saves it, as he captures some of the breakdown Hank is going through. Leila is given a great surrealist song number in the most old-timey sequence of all, and Frannie and Ray dance a magnificent tango that spills into the streets and catches up an entire band of 4th of July revelers. You’ve got supporting appearances by Lainie Kazan and Harry Dean Stanton, and going back to visual beauty, this may be Terri Garr at her most utterly gorgeous.

This is not the sort of film you can recommend to most people. It doesn’t quite work as a romance and all the glamour put up around it isn’t enough to compensate. But I think if you’re a movie buff or scholar, you owe it to yourself to watch it at least once. There’s a lot here that works even if the whole thing doesn’t, and you can sense Coppola and company really earnestly trying to realize something important. Critics called the film heartless and mechanical, but I don’t think that’s true. I think it’s made with love, and passion, and that perhaps the filmmakers’ enthusiasm for the story got in the way of their telling it properly. I don’t love it, but I’m very fond of parts of it, and I think I would like to see them again.

Story by Armyan Bernstein
Screenplay by Armyan Bernstein and Francis Coppola (and Luana Anders, uncredited)
Directed by Francis Coppola

Grade: C+