Saturday, May 24, 2014

Featuring, Literally, a Cast of Thousands: "Ants" (1977)

After the success of "Jaws" in the mid-1970's, films involving nature rising up against man were a dime a dozen. The budget for this made-for-television film probably wasn't much more than that.

The story centers around an old hotel run by Ethel (Myrna Loy) and her daughter Valerie (Lynda Day George). Next door, construction foreman and Valerie's main squeeze Mike (Robert Foxworth) is building or digging something when his men happen upon an ant colony. One man dies, another is in the hospital, and the grizzled doctor is flummoxed. Why is an ambulance having to show up at the hotel three or four times a day, what is causing these mysterious poisonings? We certainly hope thousands of killer ants don't ruin Tony (Gerald Gordon) and Gloria's (Suzanne Somers) plans to buy the old hotel, or handyman Richard's (Barry Van Dyke) romancing of hot homeless hippie Linda (Karen Lamm, completing the sexy blonde trifecta featuring George and Somers). Government officials poo-poo Mike's killer ant theory (I blame Jimmy Carter), and shut the hotel down because of a mysterious "virus." Mike goes a little nuts trying to prove his theory, and inadvertently pisses the ants off as well. The insects trap most of the cast in the hotel, and they must be rescued since no one seems to own any of those flowery looking ant traps.

While typical of a network television movie, you have to admit that is one heck of a cast. Bernie Casey, Brian Dennehy, and Rene Enriquez all show up in supporting and small roles. Myrna Loy, taking a cue from Olivia de Havilland, Gloria Swanson, and Helen Hayes, who all appeared in disaster flicks long after their prime, does okay with her annoying role. Barry Van Dyke is so tan, he should be checked for melanoma. The small setting guarantees the majority of the budget could be spent on some splendidly average special effects. There are lots of shots of ants (how some characters don't notice hundreds of ants at their feet is beyond me), and I did find myself brushing away imaginary bugs as the film went on. The optical effects are pretty atrocious.

The film is full of crazy subtexts. At one point, Casey, an African-American actor, turns a fire hose on a crowd of white people and accompanying police. The climax involves fooling the ants through meditation and relaxation, before a hilarious shot that looks like something out of a Cheech and Chong movie. Fremantle Media's DVD release lacks extras of any kind, but makes up for it with a crystal clear transfer that makes the film look a lot newer than almost forty years old.

No, this isn't especially terrifying, or even exciting. But it is a reminder of life before cable television, when a network movie was actually something to look forward to. "Ants" is average, but a good average. Wow, one whole review and not a picnic pun in sight! (* * *) out of five stars.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

A Little Waterlogged: "The Abyss" (1989)

Does James Cameron's groundbreaking film about underwater aliens still stand up twenty-five years after its theatrical release? I can answer yes, and no, after viewing the almost three hour special extended edition released on DVD a while back.

Bud (Ed Harris) is the leader of a motley crew of working stiffs on an underwater oil drilling platform. It seems those idiots in the military (Cameron makes his feelings for soldiers in uniform abundantly clear throughout this film) went and crashed a nuclear sub in a deep trench nearby, and the quickest way to rescue them is to use the platform. The platform designer, and Bud's estranged wife Lindsey (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), is sent down to the platform along with a Navy SEAL team headed by the immediately unbalanced Coffey (Michael Biehn, turning in a nice performance). Above on the surface, a hurricane is blowing through, and international tensions with the Soviets are high. Coffey and Bud clash as to who is running the operation, which quickly turns from a rescue mission to a mission to survive mechanical failures, weather-related disasters, secret military agendas, oh, and some pretty, glowing space aliens.

I think we can all agree that Cameron's strength comes from his technical savvy, and not his screenwriting skills. Dialogue here clunks badly after lingering uncomfortably in the air when uttered. It's awful, I compare it to how a junior high schooler thinks grown-ups at work talk. Bud and Lindsey's bantering threatens to degenerate into "nanny nanny boo boo" insults and accompanying wedgies (the number of times she is referred to as a bitch is kind of shocking). The special extended edition of the film adds half an hour to the theatrical release, which means half an hour more visual marvel, and Cameron's annoying preachiness, breaking down the Cold War into its most simplistic ingredients. Cameron borrows from "2001: A Space Odyssey," "2010" (a huge debt to that film), the random "Twilight Zone" episode, and even the glassy-eyed look of wonder and amazement from "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."

The cast struggles with Cameron's dialogue, and seem to do best when left to their own devices (Lindsey's drowning scene, and Bud's descent into the underwater abyss). The shoot was a troubled one, according to some online research, and that is sometimes evident on the performers' faces. Some of Harris' expressions at his lines indicate disbelief. Biehn's Coffey is the most interesting character.

So why am I recommending this? Technically, the film is awesome. The widescreen is used wisely, and the film is epic in scale. Some of the special effects are a little iffy, this was CGI in its infancy, but the crystal clear cinematography and sound is perfect. Alan Silvestri's musical score is terrible (really? drums when the military killing machines are onscreen? are those bongos during the fight scene between Bud and Coffey?). The plot is a good one, I wish Cameron had taken a story credit and handed it over to someone who could flesh the caricatures out and made us care about the people going through all of these great action sequences (a mini-sub chase) and suspenseful set-pieces (the crane collapse).

In the grand scheme of Cameron films, "The Abyss" falls behind "Titanic," "True Lies," "Aliens," and his Terminator films. I will say this- it's light years ahead of "Avatar." Glub-glub. (* * * *) out of five stars.

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Finest Work by All Involved: "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" (2007)

The outlaw and mass murderer, Jesse James, has been the subject of dozens of documentaries and fictionalized films and television shows over the years. From silent films to a "The Brady Bunch" episode, we seem to be fascinated with him. I haven't seen all of these incarnations, but I have seen enough to declare this film not only the definitive piece about James, but also the greatest Western of the last forty years.

Jesse (Brad Pitt) and brother Frank (Sam Shepard) James are continuing their robbing ways in the American Midwest. Their choice of gang members has fallen off, as they must resort to petty thieves and ignorant backwoods men- including a set of brothers, Charley (Sam Rockwell) and Bob (Casey Affleck) Ford. Jesse is a paranoid manic-depressive now, after years on the run. His wife (Mary-Louise Parker) is more than understanding, taking care of their young children at home while he is away "on business" or whatever cover story he finds himself using. After yet another train robbery that doesn't net nearly as much as expected, the gang scatters and awaits their cut. Rumors of double crosses abound, and the gang, which includes dumb-as-rocks Ed (Garret Dillahunt), James' cousin Wood (Jeremy Renner) and the womanizing Dick Liddil (Paul Schneider), begin fighting amongst themselves.

Writer/director Andrew Dominik does an interesting thing, as we watch the scattered gang, in tangents from the main titular story. Luckily, they are as fascinating as the James saga. An unbalanced Jesse begins hunting down his gang, sure they are going to turn him in, either killing them or luckily having them turn on each other. He keeps the Ford brothers close, however, and Dominik tells us that the Fords' deal with the law may be the only way Jesse James will find peace.

Based on a novel by Ron Hansen, audiences didn't seem to take to this meditative film. It moved too slow, and was full of Terence Malick-inspired imagery. Nominated for two Oscars, Affleck was a victim to Javier Bardem's menacing villain in "No Country for Old Men," and Roger Deakins' perfect cinematography lost to "There Will Be Blood." In my opinion, most of the cast should have been nominated, as well as the crew. While movies have the ability to transport the viewer to another time, or another life, this film does it so well, it's two and a half hour running time flies by.

Brad Pitt is mesmerizing as Jesse James. His performance is his best onscreen. He doesn't make James out to be a hero, and watching this mythic Robin Hood suffer psychologically from what he has done is interesting. The supporting cast all score (except James Carville in a small role...can we stop stunt-casting politicians and wonks in film and television, please?). Mary-Louise Parker fans were disappointed with her lack of dialogue in her role as Jesse's wife, but she is still able to find an immense presence with her role.

Casey Affleck should have won the Oscar. Nothing against Bardem, he was great, but Affleck's performance is one of those great jobs that should be studied by acting students. Never has the character trait of "awkwardness" been shown so well onscreen. Affleck's cracking voice and toothy uncomfortable grin are never comical. He is nothing short of brilliant. Bob is the constant butt of jokes from the rest of the characters, and Affleck's reaction to finding his cohorts going through his treasured James memorabilia is sad, pathetic, and had me rewatching the scene just to see Affleck's skill. Pitt, Affleck, and Rockwell's work when James is shot is suspenseful, even though you know what will happen, and Dominik and editors Curtiss Clayton and Dylan Tichenor shine in this great segment. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis' musical score is so fitting and memorable, I can't unhear it when I find my mind drifting, and Hugh Ross' narration fills in any spaces a viewer needs in the story (the original cut of the film was four hours), and his voice turns Hansen and Dominik's words into poetry.

Every piece of celluloid Deakins shoots here is a work of art. Every single one. From the breathtaking train robbery, to the final frozen frame of Affleck's face, every shot is meticulous and stunning. Characters simply looking out wavy window panes take on a life and story of their own. Kudos to the makeup and costuming as well. Much was made of older actors being cast in much younger roles, but here it works. The fact is that rural folk in the 1880's probably aged a little faster than today, you know?

"The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" is one of those films I find myself appreciating the more often I see it. It would definitely fit well into my top ten favorite films of all-time, and it is certainly the best film of 2007. You can have your stupid "American Outlaws," I'll stick with this masterful vision. (* * * * *) out of five stars.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

1970-1974 Films Ranked By Year

Monte Walsh (9/10) William A. Fraker
Quiet Days in Clichy (8/10) Jens Jorgen Thorsen
Tropic of Cancer (7/10) Joseph Strick
Sunflower (6/10) Vittorio De Sica
Chisum (6/10) Andrew V. McLaglen
The Sexually Liberated Female (6/10) Matt Cimber
The Joys of Jezebel (5/10) Peter Perry, Jr.
Four Rode Out (3/10) John Peyser
Madron (3/10) Jerry Hopper
5 Dolls for an August Moon (3/10) Mario Bava
Multiple Maniacs (2/10) John Waters
Soft Self-Portrait of Salvador Dali (2/10) Jean-Christophe Averty
Which Way to the Front? (1/10) Jerry Lewis
The Amazing Transplant (1/10) Doris Wishman

The Beguiled (10/10) Don Siegel
Doc (9/10) Frank Perry
The French Connection (8/10) William Friedkin
The Omega Man (8/10) Boris Sagal
Crucible of Horror (8/10) Viktors Ritelis
Klute (7/10) Alan J. Pakula
Let's Scare Jessica to Death (7/10) John D. Hancock
Pink Narcissus (7/10) James Bidgood
WR: Mysteries of the Organism (7/10) Dusan Makavejev
The Telephone Book (6/10) Nelson Lyon
The Beast in the Cellar (4/10) James Kelley
Aphrodisiac!: The Sexual Secret of Marijuana (2/10) Dennis Van Zak
200 Motels (2/10) Frank Zappa, Tony Palmer
Simon, King of the Witches (2/10) Bruce Kessler
Maid in Sweden (2/10) Dan Wolman
Ginger (1/10) Don Schain
Blade of the Ripper (1/10) Sergio Martino
The Magical Ring (1/10) Gerard Damiano
The Finishing School (1/10) N/A
Psychedelic Sex Freak (1/10) William Rotsler

Cabaret (10/10) Bob Fosse
Brother Sun, Sister Moon (8/10) Franco Zeffirelli
The Concert for Bangladesh (8/10) Saul Swimmer
Hannie Caulder (5/10) Burt Kennedy
Baron Blood (5/10) Mario Bava
Duck, You Sucker (4/10) Sergio Leone
Deathdream (4/10) Bob Clark
The Abductors (2/10) Don Schain
Molly and Lawless John (1/10) Gary Nelson
Blacula (1/10) William Crain
The Castle of Fu Manchu (1/10) Jesus Franco
Prison Girls (1/10) Tom DeSimone
The Amateur Hookers (1/10) N/A
Bad, Bad, Gang! (1/10) John Donne
Stolen Girls (1/10) N/A
A Star is Born (1/10) Robert Beau III

The Deadly Trackers (10/10) Barry Shear
The Pyx (9/10) Harvey Hart
Soylent Green (8/10) Richard Fleischer
The Double Headed Eagle (8/10) Lutz Becker
The Friends of Eddie Coyle (8/10) Peter Yates
The Killing Kind (7/10) Curtis Harrington
Cahill U.S. Marshal (6/10) Andrew V. McLaglen
Dillinger (6/10) John Milius
Fists of Fury (6/10) Lo Wei
Live and Let Die (5/10) Guy Hamilton
A Name for Evil (5/10) Bernard Girard
Au Pair Girls (3/10) Val Guest
A Touch of Class (3/10) Melvin Frank
Blue Summer (3/10) Chuck Vincent
Hitler's Harlot (1/10) N/A
The Oval Portrait (1/10) Rogelio Gonzalez, Jr.

Zandy's Bride (9/10) Jan Troell
The Night Porter (8/10) Liliana Cavani
The Sugarland Express (7/10) Steven Spielberg
Black Belt Jones (6/10) Robert Clouse
Seizure (5/10) Oliver Stone
Female Trouble (5/10) John Waters
Dan Candy's Law (4/10) Claude Fournier
Hatchet for the Honeymoon (4/10) Mario Bava
Mission: Monte Carlo (4/10) Roy Ward Baker, Basil Dearden
Death Carries a Cane (3/10) Maurizio Pradeaux
The Sinful Nuns of St. Valentine (1/10) Sergio Grieco
Double Agent 73 (1/10) Doris Wishman

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Good Behavior: "Antisocial Behavior" (2014)

The tortured artist as a character in a story may be a predictable one, but this film effectively shows us the reasons behind the torture.

Joe (Jackson Kuehn) is a frustrated artist rooming with Scott (Chad Bishop). Scott and Joe grew up together in an orphanage, and Scott still looks out for his moody friend. While grudgingly attending a party, Joe meets Wendy (Mary Elizabeth Boylan). Wendy takes a liking to the morose man, and after she leaves, Joe is recruited into a 'Truth or Dare"-style drinking game. During the game, when asked what the baddest, most evil thing is that he has done, Joe flips out, hallucinating, and cutting his hand open. This begins a series of events, as Joe starts vomiting up giant balls of flesh, and having visions to repressed memories of his life before ending up at the orphanage.

Kuehn, as Joe, is perfectly cast. Joe is definitely odd, and Kuehn is able to make him both sympathetic and menacing, sometimes in the same scene, just by changing his facial expression. The script, by director Kenneth Guertin and Chris Perdue, put Joe in almost every scene and Kuehn is up to the task.

For a film with a small budget, Guertin does an outstanding job as both director and editor. The story travels along fast, punctuated with some genuinely frightening imagery. Guertin doesn't seem to hide behind his small production, he goes for the scare over the money. The climactic revelations make sense, and the final kicker is delightfully creepy.

Technically, the film is almost flawless. The cinematography is fresh, the sound recording is excellent, and the cast is great. My dithers mostly concern Wendy's unquestioned dedication to Joe after just meeting him, and how her behavior toward him could be construed as odd if he wasn't such an emotional wreck himself. I know of "love at first sight," but many scenes involving Joe and Wendy made me expect more to Wendy's backstory than what we are given, which ain't much.

"Antisocial Behavior"is a prime example of great psychological horror. Seeing that horror spill out of Joe's head (literally) and into our own minds is pretty terrifying. (* * * *) out of five stars.