Categories
Movie of the Day

Love at First Bite

Love at First Bite follows the adventures of Count Dracula after he is evicted from his castle by the communist Romanian government in order to turn it into an athletic training facility for Nadia Comaneci, and travels to a very ’70s New York, seeking his destiny in the form of Cindy Sondheim, a popular fashion model. Following in the footsteps of Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein (1974) in fashioning a send up or classic horror films, this was a surprise box office hit at the time. Today, the comedy often falls flat, and references to the “Roots” mini-series and other touchstones of ’70s pop culture tend to date the film. Still, there is enough here to make for a fun outing. For all of his suntanned handsomeness, George Hamilton nails the Transylvanian accent, little Arte Johnson, who perfected his creepiness during his long tenure on TV’s “Laugh In”, steals scenes as Renfield, and Richard Benjamin plays a bungling psychoanalyst and descendant of Dr. Van Helsing. While Susan Saint James does not add any comedy, she does act as a kind of time capsule, reminding us of what popular conceptions regarding female beauty were in 1979.

Categories
Movie of the Day

Five Minutes to Live

Who would have thought that Johnny Cash ever acted in a movie, that he played a psychotic criminal, and that he was actually good? Cash, who was a rising star in the popular music scene at the time, appears in this low budget crime pic as Johnny Cabot, a ruthless, guitar-strumming thief who calmly shoots his girlfriend in the opening scene because she may have been fooling around with someone else, and goes back to strumming his chords. Cabot then teams up with Fred Dorella (played by Vic Tayback, from TV’s “Alice”), who hatches a plan to rob a bank by having Cabot hold the wife of a bank executive hostage while her husband is at work, and her son (Ron Howard in one of his first performances) is at school. Cabot arrives at the house toting a guitar, claiming to be a door-to-door salesman, then forces himself in. It turns out that behind the facade of the ideal suburban couple, the husband has a mistress and doesn’t care much about saving his wife. Other complications set in while Cabot terrorizes the wife, played by Cay Forrester, who also wrote the script. Cash is genuinely frightening in his performance, which recalls Robert Mitchum in Cape Fear, but clunky dialogue, poor direction, and an apparently minuscule budget unfortunately keep this from being a good film.

Categories
Movie of the Day

Dishonored Lady

Dishonored Lady is an interesting film in that, long ahead of its time, it confronts head-on the problems professional women face, at the same time revealing how hypocritical morality was in the post-war era. Hedy Lamar plays Madeline, an art director at a high profile magazine. Her female subordinates gossip about her dates with numerous boyfriends, an activity also enjoyed by her male coworkers, who alternate between clucking their tongues at her, and trying to hustle a date with her.

Depressed over her latest failed romance, Madeline smashes her car into a tree belonging to a psychiatrist. He comes to her aid and eventually she becomes his patient. Without ever uttering the words “sex” or “nymphomaniac”, he diagnosis her as “a woman addicted to excitement.” When one excitement “wears off”, she goes for another, in “the way an alcoholic goes for another drink.” While her male colleagues openly criticize Madeline’s lifestyle, they also exploit the fact that she is an attractive woman to profit the company, introducing her to Felix Courtland, a rich playboy jeweler who was in important client for the magazine until she rejected a lucrative advertising spread on the basis of poor design. Fed up with it all, she decides she has had enough and that it is time to turn her life around.

Madeline quits her job and moves into a modest apartment, where she meets David, a scientist struggling to get his work published. In real life, Hedy Lammar was herself an accomplished scientist, and lobbied to get the science put into this film, although on screen she is only there to bask in the reflected glory of her male love interest. Her past comes back to haunt her when she happens to meet Courtland at a nightclub and he lures her back to his house, where he is murdered shortly after she leaves.

The double standards of the day are clearly spelled out in the ensuing courtroom scene. “You admit you love one man and yet you go to the apartment of another!” thunders the incredulous prosecuting attorney. Things end fairly well for Madeline, but it’s a bittersweet ending, as the moral standards of the day cast a shadow of guilt over her for being a woman, but acting, more or less, like the men around her.

Categories
Movie of the Day

Dial “M” for Murder

So much has been written about this film, and indeed every Hitchcock film, it is hard to think of anything worth saying here. I guess the interesting question with most of his films is how much of the finished product is thanks to the source material, and how much is attributable to “the Hitchcock Touch.” The director was known for his nonchalant attitude to the plays and novels that served as the basis for his films. He often made the original stories disappear almost completely, keeping just a few of the central characters and often disposing of even the title, something which raised the ire of more than one writer. In the the case of Dial “M” for Murder, the director hardly touched Frederick Knott’s original play. And so the dialogue, which is excellent, can be credited to Knott. The staging and framing of each shot, though, is pure Hitchcock, and the cinematography complements each utterance of dialogue while also existing on its own, almost as a separate work of art. Peter Bogdanovich relates that Hitchcock said that he had “simply filmed the play,” but in Bogdanovich’s words, that meant the camera always being in the right place at the right time.

At this point in his career, Hitchcock had fought hard to win creative freedom, and he was in the mood to experiment. As with his following film, Rear Window, the action is almost completely confined to a single location. Hitchcock only leaves the London flat to show the gentleman’s club that is crucial to the alibi constructed Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) and to the courtroom scene in which Margot (Grace Kelly) is sentenced to death. The latter scene is handled in a very expressionistic manner, with Margot’s fading sense of hope being portrayed through changing the colors of the lighting. The courtroom, one of the few locations outside of the apartment, is reduced to an abstraction of tinted lighting and shadows. Likewise, Margot’s dresses become more somber as the plot progresses, beginning with a stunning red gown and ending with a drab gray dress under a brown wool cape.

Categories
Movie of the Day

Where The Green Ants Dream

Where The Green Ants Dream is an odd film, in that it is more mainstream and accessible than many of Werner Herzog’s other films, and at the same time it is ambiguous both in its ending and how accurately it portrays its main theme, the conflict between Australian aboriginals and corporate interests.

The story centers on a geologist (Bruce Spence) working for a mining firm blasting for uranium somewhere in the outback. He is preparing to celebrate an imminent find when problems set in. A widow claims her dog has disappeared in a mineshaft, which holds up blasting, and then a group of aboriginal leaders form a sit-in protest in front of earth moving equipment. Reprimanding a worker who simply wants to push the protesters out of the way, the geologist listens to their story, learning that the aborigines consider this “the place where the green ants dream,” and if the ants lose their place, the world will end. The mining company begins making offers of money and profit sharing to appease the aborigines. A crazed biologist, channeling Klaus Kinski, arrives to explain that the green ants are actually magnetic, and always align themselves facing east. When two Aboriginal leaders travel to Sydney to visit the headquarters of the mining company, they are intrigued by a military plane. The mining company arranges to borrow it from the military and have it parked at the site. The aborigines build a runway, and the plane arrives. Meanwhile, the dispute goes to Australian Supreme Court, with the ruling not surprisingly favoring the mining company. A boastful aborigine who is trying to impress a woman climbs into the plane alongside the leader and flies away into the sunset, never to be seen again.

Herzog’s agenda is pretty clear. Wanting to portray the conflict between spirituality and technology, between tradition and progress, he invents a court battle which is not based on a true story, but very well could be. The fact that Herzog made up both the biology and the legend surrounding the green ants, points to exploitation of a different kind, as the director borrows the plight of the Aborigines in order to illustrate his own assumptions. Possible cultural appropriation notwithstanding, this is a thought-provoking film with some beautifully filmed sequences.

Categories
Movie of the Day

A is for Acid

I would have had no idea that this film existed had it not been mentioned in the British comedy-thriller series “Psychoville,” which I have been watching. Made for TV by Yorkshire Television in 2002, this is the story of notorious serial killer John George Haigh, a dapper, charming English conman who killed between six and nine people during and after World War II. Haigh often posed as an inventor or engineer, seeking wealthy patrons to support his projects. When he found them, he would invite them to his workshop in a small town south of London, kill them, then dissolve their bodies in acid, mistakenly believing that with no corpses, he could never be convicted. He then would use his long-held skills as a forger to take possession of his victims’ cash and property. When a wealthy widow who lived in Haigh’s hotel disappeared, followed by her friend, suspicion fell on the resident tinkerer. Examining the grounds around his workshop, Scotland Yard detectives found several human gallstones which had not dissolved in the acid, and Haigh confessed, still believing he could not be convicted. It turns out he had not misunderstood the legal concept of corpus deliciti, and was tried, convicted, and executed in a sensational trial.

Haigh is played by Martin Clunes, who is mainly known for his comedy work in British sit-coms. Clunes being cast so against type as a serial killer was probably part of the reason this aired only once on British TV. I am not familiar with his comedy work, but found his portrayal of the conniving Haigh pitch-perfect. Although he is quite a bit taller and heavier than the real Haigh, he captures the detached mannerisms of the calm and calculating killer, whom contemporary reports describe as proud of his cunning. Despite the the made-for-TV budget, the costumes, sets and cars do well to establish the look of wartime Britain and the soundtrack of contemporary popular songs is priceless.

The writing and directing team of Glenn Chandler and Harry Bradbeer covered another historical British serial killer, George Joseph Smith, in Brides in the Bath in 2003 and clearly know their stuff. Chandler and Bradbeer open the story with Scotland Yard officials combing over Haigh’s workshop property and finding the undissolved gallstones that would become key evidence, before going way back to the killer’s odd childhood, in which his religious fanatic parents taught him his family was part of “God’s Elect” and that they were different and better than their neighbors. As an adult, Haigh’s motive is shown to be not so much greed as his belief that he should never have to work for a living. When Haigh’s dog, which he has inherited from two of his victims, becomes ill and has to be put down, the killer of men is visually moved to learn the animal must die. It is not entirely clear whether the filmmakers want us to feel sympathy for Haigh or not. It is also not clear what to make of his claim that he was actually a vampire who killed his victims in order to drink their blood. This is probably how the British people felt about the real Haigh, and why his trial so captured the attention of the nation.

Categories
Movie of the Day

Play Misty for Me

Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut ages surprisingly well. Working on both sides of the camera for the first time, he was able to craft a Hitchcockian thriller with the sexual tension and intensity that Hitchcock always wanted to include in his films, but was not allowed to by censors until nearly the end of his career. Today the romantic montages in Play Misty for Me seem a bit dated and out of place, but women’s lib, gay lib, and the sexual revolution were all in recent memory at the time, and all of these social changes find their way into the script, with various levels of success. The gay art dealer seems offensive and one-dimensional today, and was probably included as a way to show that Clint’s character was down with his gay friend as well as his black maid, but at least there was a clearly gay character in a Hollywood film, something that would not have been possible even five years earlier.

The famous scene shot at the Monterey Jazz Festival was clearly a homage to Eastwood’s love of music, but is also a clever way to make a crucial plot point less obvious. In other words, the directorial decisions were artistic and well thought out, rather than amateurish.

Categories
Movie of the Day

Waitress

This is a delightful film that is told wholly from the perspective of Jenna (Keri Russell), a waitress in a pie dinner in a Southern town who despises her domineering husband and naturally isn’t exactly thrilled when she learns that she is pregnant. Her coworkers (Cheryl Hines and director/screenwriter Adrienne Shelly) are a source of both support and stress as they try to give her the best advice they can. When Jenna launches a passionate affair with her handsome obstetrician (Nathan Fillion), she copes with the emotional turmoil in her life by baking pies, of which she invents a new one every day. The whole film is well shot, but the baking scenes are especially effective for portraying Jenna’s state of mind. Jenna’s oddball relationship with the dinner’s curmudgeonly owner Old Joe (a surprisingly sharp Andy Griffith) recalls the early films of Hal Hartley, where director Shelly got her start. “Oh I love living vicariously through the pain and suffering of others,” Old Joe says in one scene. Yet Waitress comes across as much more alive than any of Hartley’s films.

The tragic death of Adrienne Shelly, who was senselessly murdered in her New York office during post-production, unfortunately casts a pall across her last work, but this well-crafted film shows her at the peak of her talents as a writer and director.

Categories
Movie of the Day

Yuki & Nina

Yuki & Nina is a beautiful film and my only regret after seeing it was knowing that it would probably never be seen by a wide audience. Yuki (Noë Sampy) is a 9-year-old girl living with her Japanese mother and French father (played co-writer and co-director Hippolyte Girardot, who is directing for the first time). When her mother tells her that she and her father are separating and she is taking the girl to Japan to live, Yuki launches a campaign to keep her parents together with the help of her best friend Nina (Arielle Moutel), who lives with her divorced mother. The anonymous letters they write to the parents don’t work, so they decide to run away to the empty country home of Nina’s father, hoping their absence will draw the worried parents together. When a curious neighbor comes around, the girls get scared and flee to the woods. At this point, this ultra-naturalistic film takes a turn toward magical realism, as Yuki is separated from her friend and, running through the French woods, inexplicably finds herself in the Japanese countryside. The unstrained performances by the child actors allow the directors to show everything from their perspective, but it is the ambiguous storytelling that makes this a wonderful film.

Co-director Nobuhiro Suwa, who previously directed a sequence in Paris, je t’aime,  happened to be in the audience when I saw this film and did a short Q&A after the screening. As might have been expected, someone asked him to explain the magical realist segments in absolute terms. “Was it real or was it a dream?” The director expertly skirted a clear answer. “Of course it was real,” he said. “We had to take the actors and the crew to that location in order to capture it on film. If we didn’t do that, it wouldn’t be in the film”

The Q&A session was rather short, and I didn’t get a chance to ask a question, but when my friends and I spotted Suwa schmoozing with fans in the lobby, I asked him what it was like to make a film with another director. “Of course it is much easier to make one alone,” he said. “Living alone, for example, is much easier. Living together with someone is difficult. But if you living together there are a lot of things you can do that you can’t do if you live alone.” Suwa sited the scene in which Yuki’s mother (Tsuyu) reads the anonymous letter Yuki as written and breaks down in tears in front of the child. The adult actor’s performance is realistic and deeply moving. The child seems uncomfortable, and looks nervously off to the side, and almost seems to crack a smile at one point. Suwa related that he and Girardot argued for hours over whether to use this take or not. Girardot felt that Sampy had broken character, while Suwa’s position was that a child actually placed in such a situation would likely act the same way. Suwa obviously won the argument, as the take remains in the film.

Categories
Movie of the Day

Groundhog Day

Back when I was in college, I started to get really into Hitchcock and classic Hollywood, and as a result had almost zero interest in contemporary Hollywood products. I saw Pulp Fiction (1994) only at the insistence of friends, and reluctantly went to Shawshank Redemption (1994), which I found to be a waste of time at that point in my life and probably would today. When someone recommended Groundhog Day, which was already a couple years old at the time, I thought there would be no way I could enjoy it. A few years ago, a roommate practically forced me to watch it, and, like Harold and Maude (1971), it was a film that not only changed the way I think about movies, but changed the way I think about life. Of course I am far from the first to be effected this way by Groundhog Day.

The plot is well known, but to summarize: Bill Murray plays Phil Connors, an egotistical weatherman from Pittsburgh goes to Puxatony to cover Groundhog’s Day, an annual assignment he despises almost as much as he looks down upon the town locals. His bad day becomes worse when he and his crew are snowed in and forced to spend another night in the small town. Although the reason is never explained and really doesn’t need to be, Phil beginnings reliving the same day over and over again, which he remembers but no one else does. After trying suicide, throwing caution to the wind with all imaginable forms of excess, and using his situation to take advantage of other people, Phil finally decides to use his unique predicament to improve himself and help others.

The film is doubtlessly the most spiritual film ever to come out of a Hollywood studio. The story touches on themes of self-improvement by turning outward to help others, spiritual transcendence, Buddhist concepts of selflessness and rebirth. The central theme echoes and idea presented in Paulo Coelho’s novel The Alchemist: “When each day is the same as the next, it’s because people fail to recognize the good things that happen in their lives every day that the sun rises.”

Of course Groundhog Day is also a Bill Murray film, meaning it is very funny with the potential to be deeply touching, such as the scene in which he tries desperately to save the life of a homeless man, and fails, having to accept the inevitable cycle of life and the limitations of his powers.

Categories
Movie of the Day

The Price of Milk

The Price of Milk is simply a lovely film that is very much a part of New Zealand cinema in its quirkiness, at the same time seeming to belong to the South American brand of magic realism, as well as Russian traditional folk tales. The story starts with Lucinda (Danielle Cormack) and her fiancee Rob (Karl Urban) living a quiet, idyllic life on their dairy farm in rural New Zealand. When Lucinda fears the spark is going out of their relationship, her best friend Drosophila (Willa O’Neill) advises her to start an argument with Rob in order to add a little tension. Lucida begins to pull pranks, including ruining a $1,500 vat of milk by taking a swim in it, all of which fails to anger Rob, as he is so crazy about her.

Meanwhile, Lucinda’s prized quilt disappears during the night, and when she discovers a Maori woman and her team of golf playing nephews is using her quilt, she swaps Rob’s cows for it. Rob is quite literally left speechless, and leaves her. It is at this point that the story turns to magic realism, with several beautifully filmed shots symbolizing Lucinda being dragged down by her problems. The quilt takes on a special significance as it moves back and forth between Lucinda and the Maori woman. The parallel to Russian folk tales, with an old woman met by chance in the woods attempting to teach a moral the hard way is underscored by the soundtrack, selections from Anatol Liadov, Nikolai Tcherepnin and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

Categories
Movie of the Day

Father Goose

Nearing the end of a very long career playing debonair, impeccably-dress gentleman, Cary Grant must have relished his role in Father Goose, in which he plays as a drunk, slightly crude, slob who doesn’t own a necktie and doesn’t have a care in the world. Indeed, the actor said in interviews that this was the closest to his personality of all the roles of his long career.

Grant plays Walter Eckland, an American who has been drifting aimlessly around the South Pacific, when an old friend (Trevor Howard), who is now a commander in the Royal British Navy, convinces him to work as a coast spotter, living on an isolated island while keeping a look out for Japanese fighter planes. When Eckland is sent to a neighboring island to pick up another spotter, he finds that the man has died in an attack on the island, and in his place he finds a number of young European girls and their very prim and proper French teacher (Leslie Caron). Plot-wise, the rest of the film is pretty predictable and echoes The African Queen (1951), but Grant and Caron have good on-screen chemistry, which makes this entertaining enough.