Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Snuff's Enough: "The House With 100 Eyes" (2013)

Once again, a serious opening credits crawl tells us that this film was assembled from "found footage"...damn it...

Ed (Jim Roof) and Susan (an actually pretty good Shannon Malone) run a fringe DVD production house called Studio Red. They concentrate on videotaping snuff films out of their specially built home. This time around, Ed is determined to get his masterpiece- three kills in one night. The "100 eyes" of the film's title refers to all the cameras they have installed around the house to capture the action. The couple goes trolling for two females and one male in Hollywood, then Skid Row, eventually coming home with Crystal (Liz Burghdorf), Clutch (Andrew Hopper), and Jamie (Larissa Lynch). The three teenagers were promised $500 to shoot a porno movie, but Ed and Susan's perfect night begins to unravel when Crystal gets cold feet and wants to leave. Eventually, the blood and mayhem begins, but Ed and Susan may finally be in over their heads with such an ambitious task, all of which is captured for our viewing pleasure.

Roof also wrote and co-directed the film. His performance as Ed is alright, he is most of the reason this is labelled as "darkest comedy." Ed narrates mundane events as he and Susan prepare for the murders, and throws a tantrum the minute things don't go his way. I don't know if it was scripted or not, but I liked how Susan was necessary to Ed's life, finishing his sentences and making sure her husband is happy. Ed doesn't seem to be as into this sick marriage as Susan is (as we will find out), and I think the strongest scenes were between Roof and Malone interacting as a marital unit- whether it be eating dinner, or hunting people in the house.

A huge problem with the "found footage" idea is that out of the fifty-plus videotapes and DVDs "found," the "unsuspecting" film makers edited this massive amount into a story that runs an hour and sixteen minutes. Much like the terrible "Amber Alert," why is anyone who is "finding" this footage editing it to begin with? If this had been passed off as a Studio Red production, that might have made more sense. The gore effects are very good, the violence is brutal, but even at seventy-six minutes, I was checking the running time and wondering when the extreme violence and dark humor was going to begin. Co-director Jay Lee does a good job of editing what must have been a large amount of footage thanks to so many cameras.

I have seen much worse found footage/point of view horror, and I really wish this trend would go ahead and die out. So many of these stories, including this one, would be much scarier if it was shot as a straight linear horror film. "The House with 100 Eyes" delivers some good gore and performances, but little else. (* *) out of five stars.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Not Perfect, But Still a Good Time: "Pitch Perfect 2" (2015)

The Barden Bellas are back, and the comedy is cranked up in this sequel that is just as good as the first film.

After their triumph in the first film, the a capella group led by Beca (Anna Kendrick) are performing for the President and First Lady when a set malfunction results in Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) flashing her genitalia to the world. The group is suspended from competing in domestic singing contests and auditioning for new singers, which is kind of okay with Beca as she has just started an internship at a recording studio run by a hotshot producer (a very funny Keegan-Michael Key). The Bellas' tour is taken over by a group from Germany, and the Bellas return home to recover. They accept legacy pledge Emily (Hailee Steinfeld), who composes her own songs, and then prepare to compete at the world championship a capella competition in Copenhagen. No American group has ever won it (the rest of the world hates us), and if the Bellas pull it off, they will be reinstated. The Bellas are not ready, and continue their downward spiral until they are whipped into shape by a former leader and deal with their own internal struggles and issues.

While I was surprised I enjoyed the first film as much as I did, I laughed out loud much more here. There is plenty of subplot to go around, and even the addition of the new characters like Emily and Guatemalan Flo (Chrissie Fit) feels right. It's hilarious that Chloe (Brittany Snow) continues to flunk a Russian literature class to stay in school, and the Bellas, since the group is now her entire life. Bumper (Adam DeVine) returns, as well as sympathetic Benji (Ben Platt) and Beca's still-boyfriend Jesse (Skylar Astin, who is not given nearly as much to do this time around). Screenwriter Kay Cannon could have taken the easy way out and simply moved the Bellas up to a bigger competition, but instead the conflict and the group's comfortable conceit with themselves is a good direction. Elizabeth Banks doesn't overdo her supporting role with John Michael Higgins, but they score more laughs as the a capella overseers and commentators.

Beca continues to work on her dream of becoming a music producer before her new boss puts her in her place (calling her demos a bunch of mash-ups), and forcing her to try more original material (luckily Emily is waiting in the wings with that one perfect song she's been working on). This kind of message kind of flies in the face of the first film, where music from the recent past was highlighted, and Beca's "derivative" mash-ups were actually more listenable than most of pop radio today. Another quibble is the riff-off scene featuring David Cross. Some funny stuff for sure, but the scene feels dropped in and the odd character and his competition never seem to jibe with the main thrust of the film. There are a lot of good scenes here, running jokes that continually work (Beca's inability to insult the German group's female lead singer thanks to a girl crush, John Smith's misogyny, Flo's comparison of her horrific upbringing to the Bellas' problems) and physical slapstick (the camp retreat, Fat Amy's canoeing song to Bumper) that works thanks to Banks' direction. The musical numbers aren't as long or prevalent in this sequel, the screenplay plays up the comedic aspect more, and I found just as many quotable lines here as I did in the first film.

"Pitch Perfect 2" does leave the door open for a third installment, but unless the majority of the cast returns, the series might start resembling straight-to-video sequels that are barely related to these likable first two films. In the meantime, if you liked the first one, you'll like this one. (* * * *) out of five stars.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Devil in a White Dress: "Der Samurai" (2014)

If David Lynch and Bruce La Bruce ever teamed up to make a film...well, for one thing, it would be completely insane. For another thing, it would be this film.

In a small German town, police officer Jakob (Michel Diercks) tries to keep the peace even though no one takes him seriously. He lives with his ailing grandmother, and the crime rate is so low he keeps his gun in his desk back at the police station. He passes the time obsessing about a wolf that is prowling around the local woods, leaving it bags of raw meat and hoping it doesn't strike in the town itself. Someone sends a package to Jakob, requesting he deliver it to its rightful owner. Jakob gets a call telling him where to take the giant parcel, and finds himself in an abandoned house face to face with a scary looking man in a white summer dress (Pit Bukowski, who is made up to look too eerily like Courtney Love in her 'Hole' days). The nameless man opens the package, pulls out a large Japanese sword, and then shit gets really weird.

The titular character runs amok through the small town, awkwardly (to begin with) trashing and vandalizing everything with his new sword. He doesn't wield it like Uma Thurman in the "Kill Bill" films, he wants to do more damage than anything. Jakob follows along, unarmed, trying to stop the mayhem while also dealing with a lot of internal issues like his self-loathing sexuality. Lone wolf (or lonely wolf) subtext is everywhere, and soon the body count rises as Jakob tries to reason with the insane mass murderer, who seems to know Jakob better than Jakob knows himself.

Kleinert has written and directed a surreal vision I would compare favorably with Lynch, as well as "Coyote"'s Trevor Juenger. There is that required sense of unease the minute the film starts, you know things aren't going to go well, and Kleinert cranks the tension up early on. His film frame composition is nothing short of lovely, and his editing is perfect (as evident by the behind the scenes featurette on the DVD). Bukowski is creepy, Robert Blake in "Lost Highway"-creepy, carving out quite the silhouette in his short white dress and stringy blonde hair. Diercks doesn't overplay the small town cop, and he turns in a sympathetic performance. The film is short, so getting to know too much about other supporting characters is difficult but not really necessary. Even Conrad Oleak's music is spot on, with one techno riff that sounds just like John Carpenter. There is a lot of gore here, and one shot of the nude samurai that guarantees an NC-17 rating if this had been presented to the MPAA, but Kleinert doesn't hold anything back, and watching this film is a tense experience.

"Der Samurai" is unexplainable, but it meets the criteria I have accidentally developed for a great film over the years- give me something I haven't seen before. If I have seen it before, do something different, show me some originality even in familiarity. Till Kleinert and his cast do just that. (* * * * *) out of five stars.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Almost a Million Things to Love About This Film!: "How to Steal a Million" (1966)

Audrey Hepburn's 1960's streak continued with this very clever heist farce starring a dreamy Peter O'Toole.

Nicole Bonnet (Audrey Hepburn) lives with her father Charles (Hugh Griffith), an art forger who cannot seem to stop forging art from his large home in Paris. His specialty is copying the paintings of great artists, and he is considered a great collector as well. Forgery is a family tradition, as Nicole's grandfather also carved a fake work of Benvenuto Cellini, using his wife as a model. Because Nicole's father specializes in paintings, this "Venus" statue is loaned to a local museum and is put on display for all to see (no way anyone could conclude it is a forgery). The family refuses all offers for the small statue.

Simon (Peter O'Toole) is also interested in art- stealing it. After being caught with one of Charles' fake Van Goghs and being wounded by Nicole (in one of the film's funniest scenes), Simon starts falling for Nicole. His competition is Davis (a surprising Eli Wallach), an American businessman and also an art collector, who is after some of Charles' works. Things are going fine for the Bonnets until the small matter of insuring their "Venus" statue comes up. The papers are signed, the statue is behind an elaborate security system and a score of guards at the museum, but a visiting professor must examine the statue as a formality to make sure it is authentic. Nicole fears her father will be arrested for forgery, goes to Simon, and the heist is on.

Director William Wyler holds the most nominations record for the Best Director Academy Award at twelve, winning three times. To put that number in perspective, Spielberg and Scorsese have been nominated eight times each. Wyler seemed to do it all- from costume melodramas ("Jezebel") to big budget epics ("Ben-Hur"), along with homefront war films ("Mrs. Miniver," "The Best Years of Our Lives") and even musicals and comedies ("Funny Girl," "Roman Holiday"). "How to Steal a Million" is an unabashed romantic comedy, and Wyler expertly helms it. There is not a bombastic score (by a young John Williams) to tell you when something is funny, and Wyler gets likable performances out of his cast. He allows the story and screenplay to run their course, both of which held my interest and generated actual suspense.

Hepburn is magical onscreen, and once again she has undeniable chemistry with a male costar. O'Toole is light and wonderful as Simon, knowing more than he lets on. The actual museum heist is excellent and funny (between this film and Blake Edwards' "The Pink Panther" series, Paris law enforcement didn't come off looking too good in this decade). Wallach (in a role meant for George C. Scott) is also funny. Griffith should have received an Oscar nomination as Charles. His character sees nothing wrong with what he is doing, and he and Hepburn have fun in their roles. The chic mod Paris locale is beautiful (back when swilling Scotch and smoking cigarettes seemed to have no detrimental effect on one's health).

I loved "How To Steal A Million" from start to finish. Harry Kurnitz' screenplay is marvelous, the technical aspects are crisp and clear, and even small roles like the insurance agent and the chief guard have characteristics that put them above "bit player" status. It is the work of cinematic experience and intelligence, both in front of and behind the camera, plus it's loads of fun. (* * * * *) out of five stars.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Sub(par)let: "Apartment 143" (2012)

If it came out in the last five years, falls into the horror genre, and is currently streaming on Netflix, then it must be yet another "found footage/point-of-view" horror film.

Widower Alan (Kai Lennox) and his children Benny (Damian Roman) and Caitlin (Gia Mantegna) are experiencing odd phenomena in their new Los Angeles apartment (this was filmed in Barcelona, which makes for a lousy substitute for southern California). Things go bump in the night, lights flicker...all the usual stuff. Stoic Dr. Helzer (Michael O'Keefe) and his assistants Ellen (Fiona Glascott) and Paul (Rick Gonzalez) move into the apartment and set up their equipment to capture the strange happenings. Right away, doors open on their own, pictures on the wall change position, and objects are strewn about, all of which is captured by Helzer's cameras and scientific readings. Caitlin hates Alan, presumably because of her mother's death, but Helzer digs deeper as the titular apartment turns into a vortex of paranormal activity.

If you have seen any episodes of any of the ghost hunting shows on basic cable television, then you are familiar with terms like 'poltergeist' and 'EVP', and occurrences like temperature drops and motion sensor alarms. The film makers still go about explaining it to the audience by having the researchers explain to Benny what all the neat lights and buttons do. This drags the film down, and introduces a routine- the ghost hunters set up some equipment and explain it, something shocking happens, and then we cut to the cast doing something innocuous as if everything was okay. I laughed out loud after one particularly violent episode, which led into a nice quiet little breakfast scene.

The good news is the film seems to have been scripted, as opposed to letting the cast improvise their story into a corner (which happens in tons of these types of films). Torrens can frame a jump scare well, but you don't jump to that scare when you expect the scare. O'Keefe's character is an anomaly, I'm not sure the actor himself knew if Dr. Helzer was a believer or a debunker. Lennox comes off best with his best scene being a very long monologue about his relationship with his now-deceased wife (and supposed spirit) which held my interest for longer than it should have thanks to his performance.

In the end, "Apartment 143" is an unsatisfying horror flick, helped immensely by some good acting and an unimprovised screenplay. You've seen it all before, and it's disheartening that as you read this, more ghost hunting and found footage stories are being filmed, zooming through the ether and directly into your living room via streaming services. (* * *) out of five stars.

Monday, May 11, 2015

My Second Favorite 'My Favorite Wife': "Move Over, Darling" (1963)

This remake of "My Favorite Wife" has a surefire story that should have worked.

Widowed lawyer Nicholas (James Garner) is marrying Bianca (Polly Bergen) the same day he is having his first wife declared legally dead. Ellen (Doris Day) has been missing after a plane crash for five years, and Nicholas is finally moving on after living with his mother (the always wonderful Thelma Ritter) and his and Ellen's two young daughters. The problem is, Ellen has just been rescued by the military and hurries home as quickly as she can.

Ellen tracks Nicholas and Bianca to their honeymoon hotel, and they are finally reunited before the complications begin. Nicholas has a huge problem telling Bianca, Ellen is a stranger to their children, and soon it's discovered that Ellen wasn't alone on a tropical island for five years. She was stranded with the very hunky Steve (Chuck Connors), and has a little more to answer for.

This remake started as a George Cukor-directed film starring Marilyn Monroe, Dean Martin, and Cyd Charisse in the roles of Ellen, Nicholas, and Bianca. Monroe was fired after a few scenes were filmed due to budget overruns, Martin threatened to walk, then Monroe was rehired but died before the project was completed. Thirty-seven minutes of "Something's Gotta Give" was eventually shown as part of a documentary on Monroe, but the entire film was revamped- save some of the sets, character names, and general plot.

While the main trio here is fine, some of the high comic scenes had me cringing. Often, the film resorts to slapstick that is difficult to watch (the Swedish nurse bit is simply unfunny), accented by an obnoxious musical score from Lionel Newman. The supporting cast is full of familiar faces including Max Showalter, Don Knotts, Alan Sues, and John Astin, and aside from Ritter, Edgar Buchanan as the judge is nothing short of hysterical. Gordon's direction is alright, the widescreen is nice, but beware of a lot of badly done special effects- especially in a car chase that runs too short. On the opposite side of the spectrum, the hotel scenes where Nicholas must juggle two women claiming to be his wife while the hotel manager (Fred Clark) skulks around runs way too long, bringing the film to a complete stop while I found myself yelling at Garner to just tell Bergen the truth already. Some of Day's double takes are funny, but out nowhere we have to make sure she gets to sing a song, too.

"Move Over, Darling" can't decide whether it is wacky or sophisticated. It's kind of sexist when you think about it- Nicholas moves on with his life after five years and everyone but Ellen is okay with that, yet it is automatically assumed Ellen and Steve were sleeping together after spending that time on the island. We can wonder all we want about what could have been with "Something's Gotta Give," but this film makes a mediocre substitute. (* * *) out of five stars.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn- One Time Only!: "Charade" (1963)

"Charade" has been called the best Alfred Hitchcock film not directed by Alfred Hitchcock. I would go one better- not only is it better than many of Hitchcock's films, it takes Hitchcock's effort of the same year, "The Birds," and knocks it out of the park. This is a classic mystery/comedy/romance that should be seen.

Regina Lampert (Audrey Hepburn) is in the process of divorcing a husband she barely knew, Charles, when he is discovered murdered. Before he died, Charles auctioned all of their possessions, leaving behind a travel bag full of everyday items, and stranded her in Paris where she works as a translator. Into her life walks Peter (Cary Grant), who befriends her, although the romantic attraction is immediate. There is a problem with Charles' sudden death- a large amount of money is missing, and three mysterious men hilariously show up at the funeral to make sure the man is dead. With help from American embassy employee Bartholomew (Walter Matthau), Reg finds out more about the man she was married to, including his real name and the fact that Charles and the three mysterious men all stole a quarter of a million dollars from the U.S. government during World War II (meant to fund French resistance fighters) and hid the money. Tex (James Coburn), Gideon (Ned Glass), and psychotic Scobie (stand out George Kennedy) are convinced Reg has the money, and as more bodies start turning up, she puts her trust in (and falls in love with) Peter- who may or may not have his own priorities.

Hepburn and Grant only made this one film together, but their chemistry onscreen is crackling. You cannot take your eyes off of them. Grant is suave and debonair as usual, delivering an off-the-cuff quip better than anyone (in a perfectly timed world, he would have made the best James Bond if the franchise was twenty years older or he was twenty years younger). Peter actually rebuffs Reg's advances at first, which is kind of refreshing, although you can see he has feelings for her and tries to get her to trust him. Hepburn and Grant were decades apart in age, but their coupling is natural. Being the older member of a May-December relationship, I had extra incentive for cheering them on! It's easy to see why Audrey Hepburn was one of the biggest stars of the era. She is beautiful, and very funny as Regina. Her reactions to Peter's revelations about himself are hilarious. She plays well with Matthau, too, especially in their first scene together. Coburn and Glass are good, but George Kennedy as the bitter, one-armed Scobie is downright scary at times.

Despite one or two technical hiccups, director Stanley Donen expertly steers the film. There are tons of memorable shots, and Peter Stone's screenplay had me guessing right up to the revealing finale. Henry Mancini's score bounces along, it's surprising this only nabbed an Original Song Academy Award nomination, I thought at least the screenplay and Kennedy would have got something as well.

"Charade" is one of those films I knew of, but put off watching for too many years. It was well worth the wait. (* * * * *) out of five stars.

Monday, May 4, 2015

A Dog and His Boy...A Joke You'll Hear Once Too Often in This Flick: "Mr. Peabody & Sherman" (2014)

Unlike many of my film critic colleagues, I am NOT familiar with the Mr. Peabody and Sherman segments on the Rocky and Bullwinkle show. I was a Looney Tunes kid, born and bred (still am).

Mr. Peabody (voiced by Ty Burrell) is the world's smartest dog, and accomplishes everything most humans would like to accomplish- genius level IQ, successful business leading to a massive penthouse, and he even adopts Sherman (voiced by Max Charles), an abandoned baby who has grown up with the dog as a father and now must attend school for the first time. Sherman has a head start on the other students because his dogfather has taught him history using a time machine (the WABAC) to visit centuries past. After Sherman butts heads with Penny (voiced by Ariel Winter) at school, and is bullied by her, Mr. Peabody invites Penny and her parents (voiced by Stephen Colbert and Leslie Mann) over for dinner to smooth things over. Sherman has a crush on Penny, shows her the WABAC (against Mr. Peabody's orders), and accidentally gets her betrothed to King Tut (voiced by Zach Callison). From there, Peabody, Sherman, and Penny jump from one time era to another, trying to repair their meddling, and rubbing elbows with historical figures.

Like a lot of films recently, too much of the story was given away in the preview, but at least that minute and a half series of highlights was edited together well and provided most of the film's laughs (normally, any movie that uses Patrick Warburton as voice talent is okay in my book). Here, though, the story starts out choppy and gets choppier, with the writing credits featuring enigmatic phrases like "additional screenplay material" and "additional dialogue." As if to distract you from their lack of a linear plot, the film makers throw the viewer into the story right away, hoping all the technical bells and whistles and potty jokes will distract you. This worked in the later "Home," but not here, and I spent many a scene guessing which celebrity's voice I was listening to.

We also get the now-generic mean ogreish social worker (voiced by Allison Janney) who wants to separate Sherman and Mr. Peabody (a plot device right out of "Despicable Me," and numerous films where children are adopted by non-traditional parents), and a supporting cast of possible friends of Sherman's who might help him in his adventures before being dropped without follow-through. The bullying scene, along with Sherman's crush on rival Penny, was hilarious back when it played out on "Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius." The air of familiarity is heavy, and while some of the jokes and puns score, you could see many of the plot twists coming from a mile away. The film makers even thrown in a "Spartacus" joke for the grandparents and film buffs who might find themselves trapped watching this.

By the end of the film, I questioned why "Mr. Peabody & Sherman" was made in the first place. The generation who used to watch the cartoon back in the day are middle-aged now (yes, I admit I am getting older). Where was the demand to computer animate this duo? It must have been the same group of advocates who gave us "Starsky & Hutch" and "I Spy." I wish they'd kind of shut up now. (* *) out of five stars.