Friday, November 20, 2015

Criterion Blogathon: Criterion And Animation


The key to the Criterion Collection’s success has always been the remarkable diversity of films welcomed into their lineup. It would have been easy, and perhaps expected, for them to focus solely on foreign films or acknowledged classics. But as “a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films”, Criterion has released titles from every genre, every era and from seemingly every film-producing nation on Earth. This diversity was even more apparent back in the laserdisc era, when the major studios’ almost total lack of interest in the format allowed such blockbusters as Ghostbusters and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind to rub spine numbers with the likes of Floating Weeds and The Devil And Daniel Webster.

But despite this commitment to diversity, there is one area where Criterion stubbornly continues to have a massive blind spot: animation. Animation is one of the cornerstones of the film industry dating back as far as 1900. Any history of film that failed to take animated movies into its consideration would be considered laughably incomplete. Despite this, Criterion has released a whopping three animated films on either laserdisc or DVD/Blu-ray. That’s only one more than there are Michael Bay movies in the collection.

Criterion’s first (and only) animated laserdisc was Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, released in 1992. It was a natural fit for the company, given their affinity for Japanese culture and cinema. Acclaimed as one of the greatest animated films of all time, no one could dispute the fact that Akira deserved its place in the collection. If nothing else, Akira burst open the floodgates, exposing Western audiences to countless anime they may otherwise never would have encountered. 


Unfortunately, Akira’s time in the Criterion Collection was short-lived. It’s one of many titles that Criterion has been unable to relicense for DVD or Blu-ray. The long out-of-print laserdisc is now highly prized by collectors. No doubt if Criterion is someday able to re-release the film on Blu-ray, fans will snap it up in a heartbeat.

It would be over twenty years before Criterion released another animated film, this time Wes Anderson’s stop-motion Fantastic Mr. Fox. Once again, this was a no-brainer for Criterion. Having released every other Wes Anderson movie to date, why would this be any exception?

As delightful as Fantastic Mr. Fox is, it would be a mistake to view its Criterion induction as a new-found interest in the art of animation. This was nothing more than a case of filmmaker loyalty. At this point, Wes Anderson could make a Smurfs movie and Criterion would have no choice but to release it at some point. (Note to Wes Anderson: please do not make a Smurfs movie.)

Criterion’s next foray into animation was a bit more of a surprise. Martin Rosen’s 1978 adaptation of Richard Adams’ Watership Down is a beautifully animated and mature piece of filmmaking. Thematically, it makes perfect sense as a Criterion release. But it’s hardly the highest-profile animated film of the last forty years.

Theories abound as to why Criterion has paid so little attention to animation. Certainly, many of the most
important examples of the form are tied up in rights issues that make even inquiring about them a waste of time. That said, nobody really expects Criterion to go after any of the Disney classics. Frankly, Disney’s done an excellent job releasing most of those on their own. These movies don’t need anybody’s help.

Disney also controls most of the work of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli in the US. These would actually be a better fit for Criterion. Disney’s done all right by them, barring a few instances of bad subtitling, but Disney is more focused on commerce than art. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that but it does mean that the studio treats all of these movies exactly the same way. They can’t really be bothered to delve into the unique qualities that separate Porco Rosso from Spirited Away.

In addition to licensing hurdles, Criterion has always been known as a director-oriented imprint. It’s fair to say that nobody subscribes to the auteur theory more fervently than the folks at Criterion. The job of “director” in animation is a bit more mysterious. Most of the names that pop immediately to mind, Ralph Bakshi, Chuck Jones, Tex Avery, are more frequently described as “animators”, which isn’t exactly the same thing.

All good movies have a degree of magic in them but perhaps none have as much as animation. The ability to instill life and emotion into a series of hand-drawn images or puppets or pixels requires a remarkable depth of artistry from a legion of collaborators working in perfect harmony. It’s an art form every bit as worthy of celebration and examination as any in the Criterion Collection.

Criterion needs to get busy if they hope to plug this gaping hole any time soon and naturally I have a few suggestions to get them started. Some of these may be obvious, others may be the longest of longshots, but all of them would fit right in with the Criterion mandate.

The Compleat Tex Avery
 It could be argued that animation’s purest form is the short film and few mastered it as well as Tex Avery. Back in 1993, MGM released the definitive collection of Avery shorts on laserdisc. Odds are slim to none that this will ever make the transition to Blu-ray, much less DVD. This would probably be a licensing nightmare for Criterion but it’d be oh so worth it.

Song Of The South 
 Again, probably not gonna happen. I doubt very much that Criterion would want to willingly stick their hand in this particular hornet’s nest. But this is a genuinely important film with some of the most seamless and artful blend of live action and animation ever created. Besides, Disney sure as hell isn’t going to release it. Bring in Leonard Maltin to provide the context he did so well on the Walt Disney Treasures collection, market this to collectors instead of kids, and allow viewers to make up their own minds.

Fantastic Planet
René Laloux’s trippy science fiction masterpiece seems like an obvious choice for Criterion. It’s a still-relevant allegory with a unique visual style like none other. Eureka has it on Blu-ray in the UK as part of their Masters of Cinema line. If it’s good enough for them, surely it’s good enough for Criterion.

Fritz The Cat 
Ralph Bakshi has made any number of films that would be right at home on Criterion, including Wizards, Coonskin and American Pop. Fritz is probably Bakshi’s best-known work (with the possible exception of The Lord Of The Rings) and it’d make a nice introduction to his work. Plus, it’d be an excellent companion piece to Criterion’s release of the documentary Crumb.

The Complete Short Films Of Jan Svankmajer
Zeitgeist has a nice looking collection of the work of the Brothers Quay due later in November, but Czech animator Jan Svankmajer is overdue for similar treatment. I have an excellent DVD from the BFI collecting Svankmajer’s surreal shorts but I would absolutely shell out for a Blu-ray upgrade from Criterion.

Anomalisa
Charlie Kaufman’s first foray into stop-motion animation is collecting critical hosannas on the festival circuit and seems a shoo-in for a Best Animated Feature Oscar nomination. It might be a little premature to dub this one Criterion-worthy. But the company has a history with Kaufman, having released Being John Malkovich in 2012.

These are just a few examples of Criterion-ready animation. There are plenty of others, including Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue, the 1954 adaptation of Animal Farm (already released on DVD by Home Vision), Martin Rosen’s Watership Down follow-up The Plague Dogs, Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures Of Prince Achmed…the list goes on. Criterion has barely dipped a toe into the shallow end of the animation pool. It’s long past time for them to dive into the deep end.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Dr. Jahnke's History Of Film - The Complete Goofy




Considering the lavish treatment Disney gives to its animated features, it’s a little shocking how little respect they often pay their short films. After all, these are the primary showcases for Mickey, Donald, Goofy and the gang, iconic characters that these days turn up mainly in consumer products if they turn up at all. Warner Bros. doesn’t often know what to do with their stable of Looney Tunes characters in modern times, either. But at least they’ve done a good job keeping the original shorts in the public eye, first on DVD and now on Blu-ray.

For years, Disney’s biggest use for their animated shorts was as Disney Channel filler, hacked up and re-edited to suit whatever fad was popular at the time (anybody remember DTV?). There were, of course, mountains of VHS and Betamax releases but they were a bit haphazard. They did a better job with their Archive Collection series of laserdiscs (in general, Disney produced some utterly gorgeous laserdisc sets) but they only scratched the surface of what they could have done with their shorts.

It wasn’t until DVD came along that Disney finally took a real interest in showcasing these classics. In 2001, they launched the Walt Disney Treasures line, limited edition two-disc sets packaged in handsome tins that promised a truly special release. Hosted by Leonard Maltin, the sets were beautifully presented and full of outstanding bonus material. In many ways, they were superior to the Looney Tunes Golden Collections (and later Platinum Collections on Blu-ray) by virtue of being more focused and better organized. There were specific collections devoted to Mickey, Donald, Pluto, Goofy, Silly Symphonies, early rarities and more. Naturally, the series was too good to last. It sputtered to a close in 2009 with the release of the Zorro TV series. So far, there seems to be no great hurry to convert the Treasures titles to Blu. If you can find a copy of the DVDs on the second-hand market, expect to pay north of a hundred bones for it.

I have some but not all of the Treasures sets, enough that it annoys me that I don’t have the rest. While I wouldn’t really want to part with any of them, The Complete Goofy in particular is one you’ll have to pry from my cold, dead hands. Goofy might not be my favorite Disney character. Donald Duck is pretty hard to beat. But the Goofy cartoons, especially the series of “How-To” shorts, are among Disney’s most inspired and funniest.

The character that would evolve into Goofy debuted in the 1932 short Mickey’s Revue, although Dippy Dawg had a ways to go before he’d be the Goof we know today. He began to come into his own once he was teamed with Mickey and Donald in such classics as Clock Cleaners and Lonesome Ghosts. (As an aside, I had Lonesome Ghosts on one of those Fisher Price Movie Viewer cartridges and was fairly obsessed with it as a kid, examining it frontwards, backwards and frame by frame.)

Goofy was deemed ready for solo stardom in 1939 with the release of Goofy And Wilbur, a pleasant but fairly standard cartoon with Goofy, ever the sportsman, using his pal, the super-smart grasshopper Wilbur, as bait on a fishing trip. The name in the title suggests that Disney may have had visions of stardom for little Wilbur too but, alas, it was not to be. (Although according to The Disney Wiki, this cartoon was later edited into a vacation-themed episode of Disneyland and Wilbur was retroactively made Jiminy Cricket’s nephew.)

Ironically, Goofy didn’t really come into his own as a solo star until he lost his distinctive voice. After Pinto Colvig left the studio, a now silent Goofy was placed into a series of “How-To” shorts beginning with The Art Of Skiing in 1941. With John McLeish providing stentorian and often pretentious narration and freed of the conventions of trying to tell an 8-minute narrative, these cartoons were more innovative and entertaining than most of Disney’s shorts during the period. Colvig eventually returned to the character but the change in Goofy’s personality remained.

As time went on, Goofy continued to change, even more than the other characters in the Disney stable. Goofy actually evolved into his own species, with Goofs of different sizes, genders and personalities populating entire opposing teams, their fans, and whole cities. A loyal American, Goofy contributed to the war effort during WWII and the post-war effort in the 1950s. Unlike most cartoon characters who had nephews or, infrequently, nieces, Goofy actually had a wife and son (Goofy Jr., later Max). Goofy may have seemed naïve and childlike at times but in many ways, he was the most adult character Disney had.

Disney essentially got out of the business of making short subjects in the 1960s. The final official Goofy cartoon, Aquamania, was released in 1961. But the character made a most welcome comeback in 2007 with a new short, How To Hook Up Your Home Theater. This title is available on the recently released Walt Disney Animation Studios Short Films Collection Blu-ray. The studio has also released two outstanding collections of shorts from Pixar. But none of the studio’s classic shorts have yet made the jump to high-def. I hope they will although Disney’s inconsistent commitment to the format doesn’t fill one with hope. These films and characters are really the foundation that Walt Disney Studios was built upon. It’d be a shame if they were left behind where only deep-pocketed collectors can get ahold of them.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Dr. Jahnke's History Of Film - Another Thin Man




The Thin Man series is one of the minor miracles of Hollywood filmmaking. These six movies, produced between 1934 and 1947, are among the most effortlessly entertaining, smart and sophisticated films to come from Hollywood’s Golden Age. William Powell and Myrna Loy starred as frequently inebriated investigator Nick Charles and his wife/partner-in-crime Nora. Powell and Loy made plenty of other movies together, many of them quite good, including 1936’s Libeled Lady. But Nick and Nora would prove to be their most enduring collaboration, coming to represent witty repartee and undeniable romantic chemistry at its best.

We tend to think of sequels (or, to use the abominable current phraseology, franchises) as a relatively modern phenomenon. But today’s studios are positively restrained compared with their 30s and 40s forebears. It’s impressive that the Fast & Furious movies are still packing ‘em in at seven-going-on-eight entries. But Vin and crew have a ways to go before they catch up with Blondie (28 movies between 1938 and 1950) or The Bowery Boys (48 between 1946 and 1958 and that’s not even counting earlier iterations like The East Side Kids).

Of course, one big difference between today’s franchises and yesteryear’s long-running series was the budget. Back then, movies series were typically the domain of Poverty Row studios like Monogram. Even if they started life as A-pictures, like the Charlie Chan series, they’d eventually be discontinued by the majors and picked up elsewhere.

The Thin Man movies were unique in this respect as well. The six movies were spaced out over a number of years (most series back then would cram as many as three or four entries into a single year) and retained their prestige and relatively high budgets. And if none of the sequels can quite match the sheer perfection of the original, they are all at the very least entertaining.

The third entry, 1939’s Another Thin Man, introduces what should have been a surefire series killer. After two movies of unencumbered marital bliss, drinking their way from port to port, the Charles family finally produces an offspring: Nicky, Jr. Surprisingly, this has almost no effect on Nick and Nora’s demeanor or behavior. Nora stays a bit more sober in this installment but that’s about it. Child-rearing duties are pretty much handed over to a nanny (Ruth Hussey) who’s hired on the spot without so much as an interview, much less a background check. At this point, Nicky Jr. has less impact on the story than Asta, the Charles’ faithful dog.

This would be the last film in the series based on a Dashiell Hammett story, albeit one that did not originally feature Nick and Nora. This time, Team Charles is summoned to the Long Island estate of Colonel MacFay (C. Aubrey Smith), an old friend of Nora’s father and the manager of her vast inheritance. Strange and troubling accidents had been occurring around MacFay recently, accidents he believes are the work of a man named Church (Sheldon Leonard). MacFay let Church take the fall for some illegal business dealings, so naturally Church is out for revenge. But when MacFay is actually killed, the case becomes a lot more complex than it first seems.

The great pleasures of these movies are obviously the sparkling dialogue and easy banter between Powell and Loy. But in the three movies based on Hammett stories, the mystery is every bit as clever and nuanced as the characters. I’ve never been one to actively try to solve mystery plots while watching or reading them. If my mind is engaged on that level, it means something else in the story isn’t working and I’m not engaged elsewhere. If a mystery plot doesn’t work, then I’ll notice and have a problem. Another Thin Man is fun because while it may not be the most plausible story ever told, it makes just enough sense to be believable.

It’s also a pleasant surprise that motherhood hasn’t dulled Nora’s instincts. At one point, Nick ditches Nora, worried that it’d be too dangerous for her to come along. A lesser movie would have her throw a tantrum and stay behind with baby. Not Nora. Within 60 seconds, she fields a phone call and heads out on her own adventure, potentially even sketchier than the one she was being protected from. It’s hard to pinpoint who deserves credit for moments like this, although I suspect husband-and-wife screenwriters Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett had a lot to do with it. Not to mention the fact that it’s virtually impossible to imagine an actress as vibrant and exciting as Myrna Loy being sidelined for long.

For years, a Thin Man remake was in development that would have starred Johnny Depp. While I feel like Depp’s gotten a bit of an undeserved bad rap lately, his recent turn in Mortdecai didn’t exactly fill me with confidence that he’d make an ideal Nick Charles. Since the film series ended, the characters have returned on TV, radio and on stage. I’m certain they’ll be back yet again, either on film or elsewhere. But William Powell and Myrna Loy will always cast a huge shadow over these roles. It isn’t that you can’t imagine anyone else playing them. You absolutely can. But why would you want to?

Another Thin Man is available on DVD from Warner Home Video.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Back To The Future



If you’ve read any of my posts here since relaunching Jahnke’s Electric Theatre in blog form, first of all, thank you. There is a LOT of content online bucking for your eyeholes, a lot of which is presented in pictographic listicle form that doesn’t require you to read nearly as much as my run-on sentences do. I appreciate each and every one of you who takes the time to click on over to the Theatre.

However, you may have had a couple of puzzled thoughts I’d like to address. The first one (and I’m paraphrasing here) is, “Jeez, Jahnke. You’re posting even less here than you did when you were writing for The Digital Bits. What gives, you lazy choad?” Well, you nailed it on that score. Left to my own devices, I tend to get easily distracted and allow myself to waste ridiculous amounts of time on pointless things. I apologize and I’m trying to fix that.

Your second thought may have been, “Is there, you know, like a point to all this? A lot of what you’re doing here doesn’t seem all that different from what you were doing on the Bits. Why aren’t you just putting it there? And the rest of it’s kind of all over the map. Focus up, dude.”

OK, fair enough. First off, there were a number of reasons behind my decision to leave the Bits. But the driving force was that as much as I enjoy writing about film, I really didn’t want to write about DVD and Blu-ray anymore (and I sure as hell didn’t want to have to write about whatever 4K nonsense is coming next). Don’t get me wrong. I’m still a fervent champion of physical media. Witness the ongoing JET’s Most Wanted crusade over on Facebook. But writing about discs has turned a corner in the last couple of years and is headed down a road I didn’t want to live on.

When you’re writing a review of a DVD or Blu-ray, you are writing about the film as a consumer product, not as a work of art. This is actually an obligation the disc reviewer has to his/her audience. Nine times out of ten, the person reading the review has already made up their mind about the movie itself. These days, they may have already purchased it on different formats two or three times. If you’re lucky, the reader will listen politely to your opinions on the film itself but that isn’t really why they’re there. This reader wants to know how this particular product stands up to every other product that’s come before it. And heaven help the reviewer who misses something because there will always be someone looking at the product with a far more critical eye than you.

To a certain extent, I understand and sympathize with this viewpoint. For years, every new home video format was, at best, a little better than the one it was designed to replace. Then Blu-ray came along, touted as the ultimate home entertainment experience. Of course, now we know it’s not but whatever. After years spent building a DVD library, consumers rightfully demanded to know why they should bother starting all over again.

But the rise of high-definition also helped prove the old adage a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Now that HD televisions were commonplace and people were adding more and more speakers to their systems, it seemed there were a lot more “experts” than ever before. Unfortunately, this all came at a time when quality control at the studio level was on the decline. There have absolutely been far more discs making it to market with serious flaws than should ever be acceptable. But now we have people seeing mistakes where there aren’t any or, at the very least, so negligible that they’re scarcely worth mentioning.

The miracle of being able to own a library of films and television programs, including many that were once virtually impossible to see, has been overshadowed by complaints about color timing, aspect ratios and audio mixes. It seems the only people reading DVD and Blu-ray reviews anymore are the people who intently study screengrabs trying to decide between a US or UK release. That’s only going to get worse in the Ultra HD era, so I decided it was time for me to bow out.

That said, I’ve been writing about the movies in some form or another since I was a teenager. I wanted to keep doing so, even though there isn’t a dime to be made in it. The recent shuttering of The Dissolve, home of the best film writing on the internet, was a bucket of ice cold water to anybody who still harbors dreams of making it as a full-time film critic. Right now, I make no money off this blog, although that’s chiefly because I have no idea how to monetize it. If anybody has some advice, I’m all ears, even if I only make the same amount per post that Lucy Van Pelt earns for a session of psychiatric help.

But writing about “The Movies” is a great big blank canvas that could lead anywhere. I don’t do well with absolute freedom, so I wanted to steer this in a particular direction. After giving it some thought, I realized the answer was literally staring me right in the face.

For years, I’ve had a “Now Playing” DVD display stand hanging in my living room. I’ve always enjoyed rotating wall art, so I decided to switch it out weekly. A couple of years ago now, I hit upon the idea of using this so-called Movie of the Week project as a way to watch my entire collection in chronological order, from the silent era on up. It’s been a fascinating experiment, so why not bring the Movie of the Week to the Electric Theatre?

In fact, I already started this with my last post looking at the Jimmy Stewart/Ginger Rogers comedy Vivacious Lady. I’m now about to embark on 1939, widely considered Hollywood’s greatest year, so I figured that would be the ideal time to jump on board. Bear in mind, this project is only roughly chronological. I’m not such a stickler for detail that I’m looking up exact release dates. Also, if I add something to my library later (say, for example, I pick up a copy of The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari in a few months time), I’ll pause and include that earlier title. This project will also incorporate my ongoing themes such as Captures and An Honor To Be Nominated, so watch for those to return.

Dr. Jahnke’s History of Film will be the primary focus here from now on, although I reserve the right to toss in other stuff and non-movie-related content from time to time. What’s the fun of writing a blog if you don’t allow yourself to write about whatever crosses your mind from time to time? Anyway, this should be fun and, if nothing else, my collection is eclectic enough that you probably won’t get bored. Join me next week as we go back to 1939. I hope you’ll enjoy it.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Captures - Vivacious Lady


{Captures is a deep dive into the seemingly bottomless well of movies previously unavailableon DVD.}


While George Stevens is far from becoming a forgotten filmmaker, it’s undeniably true that his name and work are mentioned far less often than those of his contemporaries such as John Ford and Howard Hawks. Part of the reason for his relatively low profile may be that he was never quite as prolific as other directors of the era. He began his career as a cameraman before becoming a dependable director of comedy shorts for Hal Roach and later RKO. Moving into features, Stevens helmed several acknowledged classics in the late 30s and early 40s before the outbreak of World War II.

Stevens was one of several filmmakers who played a key part in the war effort, capturing legendary black-and-white and color footage of Nazi concentration camps and D-Day. But after the war, Stevens’ output slowed down considerably. He made only 8 films between 1948 and 1970. Granted, these included some of the best work of his career, including Shane and Giant. Nevertheless, it’s far less than Ford and Hawks turned out over the same period.

Vivacious Lady, a breezy romantic comedy directed by Stevens in 1938, is no classic but it’s deserved a better fate than languishing in obscurity for so long. James Stewart, just starting on his transition from “what-the-hell-do-we-do-with-this-guy” to leading man, stars as botany professor Peter Morgan. Tasked with fetching his philandering cousin Keith (James Ellison) home from New York, he instead falls head over heels in love with the object of Keith’s affection, nightclub singer Francey (Ginger Rogers). After a whirlwind courtship of less than 24 hours, Peter and Francey impulsively decide to get married.

Peter brings his new bride home to the staid college town of Old Sharon where his father (Charles Coburn) is president of the university. But after seeing Francey get off the train with Keith, Mr. Morgan makes a snap judgment against the blonde hussy and will hear no more about it, leaving Peter far too flummoxed to tell his parents or social-climbing fiancée (Frances Mercer) about his new marital status.

Even by screwball comedy standards, the plot of Vivacious Lady is outlandishly contrived. The entire film hinges on Peter’s total inability to convey a single bit of information to his family (not to mention Francey’s willingness to put up with this and not just drop the bombshell herself). And while Jimmy Stewart was certainly a world-champion hemmer and hawer, this strains even his abilities. But Stewart and Rogers have terrific chemistry together and if that were all the movie had going for it, it’d probably be enough to carry it a long way.

In fact, it’s the interplay between the supporting characters, particularly the women, that makes Vivacious Lady worth revisiting. Beulah Bondi appears as, surprise surprise, Stewart’s mother and she shares several affecting scenes with Rogers, sneaking cigarettes behind her husband’s back and sharing marital secrets. It’s a very pleasant surprise to see such genuine moments of female bonding in a movie of any vintage, much less one from 1938. While on the opposite end of the spectrum, Rogers and Mercer get into it with a truly hilarious fight scene. Even if you like nothing else about the movie, you’ll probably like this scene.

If the men don’t fare quite as well, there is at least a case to be made for James Ellison’s performance as Keith. When Peter and Francey return as husband and wife, a more predictable movie would have found Keith in a rage at Peter for stealing his girl. Instead, he reacts with minor irritation, followed quickly by resignation and bemusement at Peter’s predicament. It’s as if Keith knew he never really planned on asking Francey to marry him. He’s just out for a good time. If anything, he seems happier to have Francey as a pal and in-law than as a wife. The characters seem more believable thanks to this platonic but still flirtatious relationship.

It’s too bad Stewart and Rogers never made another movie together after Vivacious Lady. Jimmy could have been to Ginger’s comedy career what Fred Astaire was to her musical career. As for George Stevens, he would eventually begin to focus on more serious-minded pictures but first, he’d go on to make a few more crackling romantic comedies, including the classic Tracy-Hepburn team-up Woman Of The Year. And while all involved would go on to make better pictures, Vivacious Lady remains an entertaining step in the evolution of their careers.

Vivacious Lady is now available on MOD DVD from the Warner Archive Collection.

Monday, July 13, 2015

The Blu Report: Howling II & Ladyhawke



Time to get caught up on a couple of the more interesting Blu-ray discs to cross my desk in recent weeks. I plan on doing one of these grab-bag posts every so often, so if nothing tickles your fancy this time, maybe we’ll find your fancy-tickler in an upcoming installment. And if the promise of having your fancy tickled isn’t enough to keep you coming back for more, I give up.

Howling II: Your Sister Is A Werewolf (Scream Factory)


When the legendary Christopher Lee passed away recently, tributes flooded the internet from fans of every generation. Odds are you may have watched one or two Christopher Lee movies yourself in honor of his memory. With well over two hundred titles to his credit, there were certainly plenty of options, from his iconic Hammer Films to cult favorites like The Wicker Man and Gremlins 2 to more recent turns for filmmakers like Tim Burton and Peter Jackson. And yet, I can almost guarantee that nobody’s first choice for a Christopher Lee Tribute Night was Howling II: Your Sister Is A Werewolf.

Blessed/cursed with one of the most ridiculous titles of all time (even better/worse in its original form, Howling II: Stirba - Werewolf Bitch), this is the only movie in the surprisingly resilient Howling franchise to at least nod back to Joe Dante’s original. Although it may be overstating things to call the connection a nod. It’s more like a dismissive wave goodbye while shooting it the finger.

Reb Brown (Yor, the hunter from the future, himself!) plays the brother of Dee Wallace’s character from the first film. Lee turns up to let Brown know his sister was a werewolf and talk him into trekking to Transylvania to take on Stirba, the werewolf queen (Sybil Danning).

I’m somewhat fascinated by the Howling series. For all intents and purposes, this is the anthology franchise that Halloween III: Season Of The Witch tried and failed to become. The Howling movies have nothing in common apart from their titles and the fact that they all have something to do with werewolves. Oh, and one other common denominator: none of the sequels are particularly good. Director Philippe Mora would go on to make one more entry, 1987’s goofy Howling III: The Marsupials. Howling II is more trashy than goofy with some very 80s costume choices and more than a few what-were-they-thinking moments. You can’t really recommend this movie to anyone but the audience for this movie knows who they are, anyway.

This is a typically impressive Scream Factory release with plenty of extras that are a whole lot more interesting than the movie itself. You get two audio commentaries (both worth listening to), interviews with Reb Brown, Sybil Danning and makeup FX artists Steve Johnson and Scott Wheeler, alternate footage, stills, the trailer and more. If I can’t recommend the movie, I can certainly recommend the disc. It’s a worthwhile entry in the Scream Factory lineup.

Ladyhawke (Warner Archive)


If you were a fan of fantasy films back in the 1980s, you probably look back at ’85 and ’86 as two of your favorite years. Those years gave us Ladyhawke, Legend, Labyrinth and even a few movies that didn’t start with an “L”, such as The Black Cauldron and Highlander. Each of these movies has their ardent fans but unfortunately, none of them were colossal mega-hits. As a result, fantasy remained a pricey and dicey proposition at the box office for years. Hard to believe these days, after Peter Jackson has made six epic journeys to Middle-earth and Game Of Thrones has conquered TV.

Of these ‘80s fantasies, Ladyhawke was probably the most conventional, a straight-forward fantasy-romance about two lovers under a curse that transforms her into a hawk by day and him into a wolf by night. But Ladyhawke works as well as it does because it’s told with conviction and sincerity by an unusual group of collaborators.

This was one of two movies directed by Richard Donner released in 1985, debuting just two months before The Goonies. Donner was actually in need of a bit of a comeback at the time. The runaway success of The Omen and Superman had been followed by his removal from Superman II and the critically successful but little-seen Inside Moves. Since then, he’d released just one movie, the loathsome Richard Pryor/Jackie Gleason anti-comedy The Toy. Ladyhawke kicked off a winning streak for Donner that lasted for the rest of the decade.

Rutger Hauer and Michelle Pfeiffer are ideal as the cursed lovers. This would be one of the few attempts at transforming Hauer into a conventional Hollywood leading man, an effort that was probably doomed from the start. Hauer’s intensity makes him anything but conventional. Back in ’85, Hollywood still wasn’t sure what to do with Pfeiffer, either. It’d be a couple more years before she truly came into her own and audiences got a chance to see what she was capable of.

Then there’s Matthew Broderick, acting as though his agent got his clients mixed up and sent him to the wrong set. It’s too harsh to say that he’s the weak link because the movie still works but his performance absolutely clashes with the old-fashioned grandeur around him. Broderick gets top billing but the movie belongs to his costars.

Ladyhawke was not well-served on DVD, making Warner Archive’s Blu-ray a welcome upgrade. Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography looks absolutely spectacular on this disc. The only extra on board is the film’s trailer. A commentary by Richard Donner would have been nice but the movie’s modest fan base ruled that out. Even so, the disc is worth picking up for its technical improvements alone.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Captures - Viva Villa!


If you’re familiar with the Jahnke’s Electric Theatre page on Facebook, you’re all too aware of the ongoing JET’s Most Wanted project. If you’re not, I’m not sure how you got here but hey, welcome! Simply put, JET’s Most Wanted spotlights obscure but worthy titles that have never before been released on DVD (in the US…foreign mileage may vary).

Since I started JET’s Most Wanted waaaaay back in 2010, over 300 featured titles have been released on DVD, Blu-ray and/or MOD DVD. It’s an eclectic group, so odds are you’ve probably even purchased a few of them. But if you’re anything like me (and honestly, I pray to God you’re not), there are likely a few discs in your collection that remain unwatched, despite your best intentions. Personally, I feel a twinge of guilt when I finally get a Most Wanted pick on disc and allow it to sit, unopened, for months. I can almost hear the disc taunting me from the shelf. “You asked for it. You got it. Now what are you gonna do with it?”

Welcome to Captures, an occasional new feature here at the Electric Theatre. In this space, I’ll be taking a closer look at former Most Wanted picks to see how they hold up now that they’re readily available. When I first started JET’s Most Wanted, I focused on movies I’d already seen that weren’t on disc. It didn’t take too long before the scope widened to include movies I’d always wanted to see but couldn’t, which naturally led to discovering more unavailable movies that sounded interesting. Captures is meant to be a deep dive into the seemingly bottomless well of movies previously unavailable on DVD.


Viva Villa!, newly available on MOD DVD from Warner Archive, has tumbled into obscurity since its release in 1934. If you Google “Viva Villa” today, the first results you’ll get are for a chain of Taquerias in Southern California. But at the time, it was a sizable box office hit and up for multiple Oscars including Best Picture (hey, this can double as an Honor To Be Nominated column, too! Score!). It even won one for Best Assistant Director John Waters (not that one, obviously). Bet you didn’t even know Best Assistant Director used to be a category, did you? I know I didn’t.

If Mr. Waters assisted everybody who had a hand in directing Viva Villa!, I’d say he earned his Oscar. Like most studio system films, this was producer David O. Selznick’s vision more than the director’s. Jack Conway ended up with screen credit but William Wellman and Howard Hawks each did uncredited work as well. It comes as no surprise that the resulting film is extremely episodic and about as authentically Mexican as a Doritos® Cheesy Gordita Crunch from Taco Bell. But the movie is undeniably entertaining and that goes a long way.

Wallace Beery, sounding more like Chico Marx than a Mexican Revolutionary, stars as Pancho Villa. Beery was a huge star in the 30s thanks to movies like The Champ and The Big House but for years, I only knew him as a punchline in the Coens’ Barton Fink. (“Wallace Beery! Wrestling picture! What do you need, a road map?”) Beery is rarely mentioned in the same breath as the other legendary stars of the 30s these days but after watching some of his most enduring work, it’s easy to see why he was such a popular personality. He’s a boisterous, larger-than-life character, eager to please and oddly likable even when he’s boasting about his rape-and-murder filled exploits.

Part of this is due to the fact that most of the violence and mayhem takes place off-screen. The storyteller’s mantra may be “show, don’t tell” but Viva Villa! never uses imagery when dozens of words can be employed instead. Although the filmmakers do have a penchant for whips, first in the opening scene where young Pancho sees his father killed after 100 lashes. This comes back into play years later when an incensed Pancho tries to teach Spanish aristocrat Teresa (Fay Wray) a thing or two about real suffering. The scene is shot in silhouette (presumably by the great James Wong Howe, one of two credited cinematographers). The moody camerawork and Wray’s reactions give the whole thing a distinct S&M quality. Even during all this, Pancho Villa comes across as a big, friendly, loyal, kinda dumb dog, ironic considering his father dies protesting that he is a man, not a dog.

Structurally, Viva Villa! bears an unmistakable similarity to Elia Kazan’s Viva Zapata!, released almost 20 years later. Personally, I preferred Viva Villa! to Kazan’s humorless slog of a movie. Neither movie can lay much claim to historical accuracy and suffers from casting very American actors in very Hispanic roles (though, granted, Kazan’s movie does have Anthony Quinn’s Oscar-winning performance going for it). But Beery as Villa at least seems to be having fun. You can’t say the same about Marlon Brando as Zapata. Brando always seems on the verge of realizing he’s made a mistake and walking off set.

A dozen movies were nominated for Best Picture in 1934 and, believe it or not, three of them still remain unaccounted for on DVD: the opulent biopic House Of Rothschild, the musical One Night Of Love, and The White Parade, a tribute to young nurses. I can’t say how Viva Villa! stacks up next to these rarities. For that matter, I don’t think anyone would argue that it deserved to triumph over the year’s winner, Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night. If nothing else, Viva Villa! serves as a reminder of the studio system’s remarkable capacity for making effective entertainment out of the most chaotic and troubled productions. It’s no classic but the fact that it’s even coherent is something of an achievement.

Viva Villa! is now available on MOD DVD at www.wbshop.com.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Thanks For Watching. Good Night, Everybody.



It’s difficult for me to overstate the profound impact David Letterman has had on my life. That may sound ridiculous or, at the very least, pretty lofty for something that Dave himself has repeatedly dismissed as just a TV show. But for over 30 years, Dave has helped shape my sense of humor, my taste in music, even my image of New York City, a town I’ve only been to once in my life. Without David Letterman, television would have been a far more boring medium for the past few decades.

I first discovered Dave on his short-lived daytime talk show. I can only assume I was home from school sick that day (and I’m sure Dave would say, “Well, that explains a lot.”) (Note: Actually, a quick internet search reveals the show debuted in June, so I probably watched it all summer long. But that home sick joke seems appropriate, so I’m leaving it in.) I was hooked from the very beginning. I loved his total lack of talk show phoniness and the absurdist streak in his comedy. A favorite gag from the daytime show that I still remember all these years later: Dave’s Household Hints – Scrape the dried up globs of toothpaste from the bathroom sink and serve them as after-dinner mints.

When school began in the fall, I would occasionally skip class just to catch the show. Still, nobody was happier than I was when The David Letterman Show was canceled after just four months. In those pre-VCR days, skipping school was my only option but not really a viable long-term solution. But staying up to watch Dave guest host The Tonight Show or, as of 1982, even later once he snagged the post-Carson slot? That I could do.

Thus began a steady diet of Stupid Pet Tricks, Top Ten Lists, Viewer Mail, Small Town News, suits made out of Velcro and Rice Krispies, Larry “Bud” Melman and various Guys played by Chris Elliott. At its best, the comedy was sharp, surreal and utterly ridiculous. At its worst, Dave would give the camera a withering, knowing look and somehow make it work.

It also didn’t hurt that Dave brought out the best, and occasionally the worst, in his guests. Recurring favorites like Bill Murray, Steve Martin, Tom Hanks, Martin Short, and many more always brought their A-game to Dave’s shows. Hell, even Jay Leno was a frequent and hilarious presence during the Late Night years. But Dave could be, in the immortal words of Cher, an asshole but really only when the guest deserved it. Dave had zero tolerance for fools and idiots and while that edge may have softened a bit after he moved to CBS, it never entirely went away.

As much as Dave helped mold my sense of humor, Paul Shaffer was an equally big influence on my taste in music. Paul was the perfect choice for the show, having honed his comedy chops on Saturday Night Live in addition to his prodigious musical gifts. I was introduced to countless songs and artists thanks to Paul and The World’s Most Dangerous Band/The CBS Orchestra playing them during commercial breaks. Not for nothing is Paul the musical director for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. These folks can back up pretty much any artist, play any kind of music under the sun, and sound amazing.

As for the musical guests, it goes without saying that I discovered countless artists thanks to their exposure on Dave’s shows, first and foremost, the late, great Warren Zevon. But over the years, there have been so, so many others, including Janelle Monáe, Heartless Bastards, The Heavy…the list goes on. Dave clearly loved nothing more than when a mostly unknown band or artist made their network television debut on the show and proceeded to “blow the roof off the dump”. And what Christmas is going to be like this year without Darlene Love’s annual performance of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” is simply too awful to contemplate.

So far, Dave’s swan song has been refreshingly and predictably free of sap. Dave has never seemed like the sort of person who dwells too much on the past. But if (when) some sentimentality creeps into these final shows, it’ll be borne of genuine, heartfelt emotion tempered by a realistic view of what’s really ending here. It’s natural to get emotional when you’re saying goodbye to people you’ve worked alongside for years and closing a major chapter of your life. But at the end of the day, it’s just a little comedy show, one of way too many cluttering the airwaves these days. In a few months, Stephen Colbert will make the show his own. Life will go on.

Dave’s best on-air moments have always struck that balance, whether it was his return to TV after 9/11 or his heart surgery or speaking candidly about the birth of his son or his sex scandal. When it mattered most, Dave always spoke from the heart and helped put things in perspective. These bigger issues, community, family, health, wellbeing, these are what matter. Everything else is pretty small in comparison. But if crushing watermelons with a steamroller and having stagehands Pat and Kenny read Oprah transcripts helps us to momentarily forget about these bigger problems in some weird way, so be it.

It’s important to remember that for the most part, all these indelible memories are just that: memories. Sure, we have some YouTube clips these days and there were a tiny handful of best-of releases on VHS long ago but there are no DVD releases of Late Night or the Late Show. Part of me doubts there ever will be. It’s no easy thing to revisit these old episodes. Somewhere deep in storage I have a few videotapes full of episodes of Late Night. For years, I kept one right next to the VCR, ready to be popped in if there was a good guest. Eventually that practice fell by the wayside, but at least I got some gems including anniversary specials, the Holiday Film Festivals and the Dave-hosted Academy Awards.

Dave’s final episode of Late Night on NBC was just about perfect, capped by a surprise appearance from Bruce Springsteen, making his first appearance on the show after years of requests, performing (what else?) “Glory Days”. The show ended on a high and why wouldn’t it? It was a send-off, not a farewell. Dave was on to bigger and better things.

This time is different but I suspect the final show will still be a celebration, not the quiet, somewhat mournful goodbye of Johnny Carson’s final Tonight Show. The show and its host have always been too modest, self-deprecating, and irreverent for that kind of treatment. Over the years, it’s become easy to take Dave for granted but to a lot of us, he really mattered. A lot. And we’ll miss him when he’s gone.

Thanks Dave. Maybe I’ll run into you on the street in Montana someday. Enjoy your retirement and, of course, enjoy every sandwich.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Movies of 2014, Volume VI



All things considered, 2014 was a very good year for movies. Even the movies in yesterday’s entry that disappointed me weren’t complete wastes of time. If you didn’t see at least one movie you liked last year, you just weren’t trying very hard.

But there are always a few stragglers that simply didn’t work. At all. Try as one might to avoid lousy movies, sometimes they’re simply unavoidable, like food poisoning or Ebola. With that, I give you the movies I’d prefer to forget, the worst films I saw in 2014.


Proxy
This indie horror flick from director Zack Parker is actually an interesting case. It’s one of the few films where you can literally pinpoint the exact moment it goes off the rails. And it’s a real pity because up until that moment, this is a moody and intriguing thriller (although it opens with a particularly brutal act of violence that might have you switching it off long beforehand). Without giving too much away, the twist in this movie is spectacularly ill-conceived. The closest analogy I can think of would be if Marion Crane had overpowered Norman Bates in Psycho and the movie continued to be about her instead of the far more interesting Bates. This is a bizarrely self-sabotaging movie that fails to recognize the genuinely disturbing and compelling questions its first half raises.


Divergent
I feel a little bit bad about including this YA sci-fi franchise kickstarter. I didn’t hate it but it had really no impact on my brain whatsoever. I’d essentially forgotten it existed while the closing credits played. I probably wouldn’t have watched it at all if it weren’t for the presence of Kate Winslet. Her appearances can lead me to make some regrettable movie-going decisions.


The Monuments Men
George Clooney is an excellent filmmaker. If you don’t believe me, just watch Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind and Good Night, And Good Luck. Don’t watch this. I’m baffled by what happened here. It’s a very interesting story packed with a stellar cast, including Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray and John Goodman. This should have been a home run. Instead, it’s pleasant at best and downright dull as dishwater at worst. This feels like it needed a little more time at the drawing board before the cameras rolled.


Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit
I’ve never read a single Tom Clancy book but for whatever reason, I feel compelled to watch every Jack Ryan movie. This despite the fact that they’ve all struck me as pretty generic and forgettable. However, none of them have been quite as generic and forgettable as this attempt. Chris Pine fails to bring much spark to the role and Kenneth Branagh probably should have concentrated on one job instead of two. His Russian bad guy seems like he should be giving orders to Boris and Natasha.


Noah
I think Darren Aronofsky is a terrific filmmaker and I’ve genuinely enjoyed most of his work to date. But I’m really confused who the audience for this movie is supposed to be. It’s ambiguously religious (or, if you prefer, spiritual), so it’s not likely to please the church-and-temple crowd. But it’s a reasonably faithful retelling of one of the most famous stories in the Bible, so agnostics and atheists probably won’t have much use for it, either. It’s certainly an ambitious movie but ultimately it felt like those ambitions defeated Aronofsky and his cast.


3 Days To Kill
And then there’s this. Kevin Costner goes to France to team up with co-writer Luc Besson and director McG in a bid for a piece of that Liam Neeson aging action hero pie. Costner is diagnosed with terminal cancer, retires from the CIA and attempts to reconnect with his estranged wife and daughter. Until sultry and miscast Amber Heard shows up to lure him back into the spy game with the promise of an experimental miracle drug if he helps her take down some bad guys. This isn’t so much an action movie as it is a jigsaw puzzle that’s been tossed into the air and haphazardly assembled by an indifferent child in a hurry. As usual, I had some trouble figuring out the exact placement of some of the movies on these lists. But there was never any question what movie was going to be dead last. If there was a worse movie than 3 Days To Kill released in 2014, I pray to all the major and minor deities that I never see it.


That’ll finally do it for 2014. I’ll be back again soon to talk about…I dunno, other stuff. This blog is still a bit of a blank slate, so it’ll be fun figuring out what to use it for. I hope you’ll come along for the ride.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Movies of 2014, Volume V



I’d like to believe that every movie gets a fair shake with me and they all start out on a level playing field. Every time I sit down to watch a movie, I’m rooting for it to succeed. But in reality, we all go into every movie with different sets of expectations. We anticipate that Movie A will be awesome or that Movie B can’t possibly be awesome.

If we’re lazy, those expectations turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Sometimes, lowered expectations work to a movie’s advantage and high hopes can be left unfulfilled. Unfortunately, the latter is the case with most of today’s movies. About half of them were major disappointments. As for the rest, I didn’t really expect much and that’s exactly what I got. They’re this year’s fast food movies, consumed and forgotten quickly.


Interstellar
Usually if your hopes are too high for a movie, you’ve got no one to blame but yourself. But in this case, Christopher Nolan shoulders some of the responsibility. Keeping the movie cloaked in an unnecessary shroud of  secrecy and proudly touting the movie’s scientific accuracy primed audiences to expect the greatest science fiction film since 2001 (the movie). It isn’t even the greatest science fiction film since 2001 (the year). It’s OK but while Nolan was busy sweating out the technical details, he overlooked some fundamental storytelling flaws that sank the entire endeavor for me. This is a swing and a miss from the usually reliable filmmaker.


The Congress
Ari Folman’s partially animated sci-fi head trip stars Robin Wright as Robin Wright, an actress who signs control of her virtual self over to a movie studio. The movie has some great ideas and stunningly beautiful animation, especially in its second half. But those ideas end up having very little to do with its ponderous set-up which isn’t nearly as clever as it thinks it is. This is an interesting misfire but make no mistake, it is very much a misfire.


Non-Stop
The grizzling of Liam Neeson continues with this utterly ridiculous airplane thriller. A wildly overqualified supporting cast (including Julianne Moore and Lupita Nyong’o) help make this bucket of cheesy corn go down easy but you’ll never once lose sight of just how ludicrous this movie is. It’s a reasonably diverting but forgettable way to spend 106 minutes on a rainy Sunday.


Only Lovers Left Alive
I’m a big Jim Jarmusch fan, so I was surprised that his moody vampire flick didn’t really do anything for me. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston are fine, if a little one-note, as the immortal lovers. Their been-there, done-that attitude extends to the movie itself, resulting in a movie that feels a lot longer than it really is. It briefly comes to life when Mia Wasikowska and Jeffrey Wright are on screen but not enough to overcome the dead weight at its center. This is one of Jarmusch’s art-snobbiest efforts, a movie seemingly designed to show off how much smarter it is than you are.


300: Rise Of An Empire
Audiences were blessed with not one but two sequels nobody asked for to Frank Miller properties this year. I haven’t seen the Sin City follow-up yet but if it’s anything like this, it provides more of the same with slightly diminished returns. There are some OK moments in here and Eva Green is a lot of fun, although it’d be really nice if somebody could cast her in a legitimately good movie for a change.


How To Train Your Dragon 2
Speaking of more of the same. The first Dragon movie was a pleasant surprise and a big hit, so I can’t say I’m surprised that the sequel does nothing to shake up the formula. But it’s not like that first movie was some sort of modern classic, either. I don’t really understand why these movies are so acclaimed. To me, they’re textbook examples of movies that seem like they could have been much, much worse.


We’ll stop here today. I don’t have a lot of good things to say about the rest of 2014’s movies. Come on back tomorrow for my least favorite movies of the year! Hopefully they’ll be more fun to write about than they were to watch.


Monday, January 19, 2015

The Movies of 2014, Volume IV



Last week, we focused entirely on movies that I either flat-out loved or liked very, very much. Hey, 30 very-good-to-great movies in one year is nothing to sneeze at, especially when you consider how many are still out there that I’m looking forward to catching up with (especially Whiplash, Birdman, Big Eyes and Selma, so if you’re wondering when they’re going to show up, they’re not going to).

This week is going to be a little different. Don’t get me wrong, I liked all ten of today’s movies to varying degrees. But in some cases, I didn’t love them the way a lot of other folks seemed to. So if I spend more time talking about what I didn’t like about them, forgive me. These are all fine movies and don’t let me discourage you from checking them out. But don’t be mad if your favorite movie of 2014 wasn’t my favorite movie.


Dom Hemingway
This was fun. Jude Law is excellent and is clearly having a good time as a washed-up, egomaniacal safecracker trying to get back on his feet. And it’s been way too long since we’ve seen the indispensible Richard E. Grant in a role this good. It may be a little too indebted to Guy Ritchie’s early movies but it’s still entertaining.


The Lego Movie
Although I ended up enjoying this movie, I never entirely got over my initial negative reaction to the mercenary nature of this project. This is absolutely the best-case scenario for a movie that is, let’s be honest here, a feature-length commercial for Legos. It really is. At the end of the day, it should be placed at the opposite end of the spectrum of Mac And Me (representing the worst-case scenario of a feature-length commercial). Exceeding expectations doesn’t impress me much when those expectations were less than zero.


Jodorowsky’s Dune
It may surprise some people that this documentary didn’t rank higher on my list. It’s extremely well done and the story of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s unmade version of Dune deserved to be told. In this case, it’s not the movie, it’s me. I already knew a lot about this project and the movie didn’t really reveal anything I hadn’t heard before. And it’s great to see the artwork and hear from the people involved but I could have done with a bit less talk from people who weren’t directly associated with it discussing its influence.


Gloria
When American actresses complain that there aren’t enough good roles for actresses over 40 or 50, this is the kind of movie they’re saying they’d like to see more of. Naturally, it comes from Chile, not the US. Paulina Garcia is excellent as the title character, an over-50 divorcee who spends her evenings at singles mixers. The movie is occasionally a bit slow-going but the final scene is transcendent.


Stranger By The Lake
A secluded gay cruising spot is the ideal setting for a Hitchcockian thriller. Everyone in this movie could be the title character. Anonymity is the whole point. Franck falls for a handsome guy named Michel but Michel’s current boyfriend is extremely jealous. After Franck witnesses the boyfriend’s maybe-maybe-not-accidental death, he hooks up with Michel anyway, despite (or because of) the danger. Writer/director Alain Guiraudie takes his time but succeeds in creating a sultry and dangerously atmospheric film.


Obvious Child 
Indie dramedies about struggling twenty-somethings trying to find their place in the world can often remind me of the worst parts of going to college. And Gillian Robespierre’s movie about an aspiring stand-up (Jenny Slate) coming to terms with an unplanned pregnancy occasionally comes close to disappearing up its own navel. But by the end, the movie reveals itself to be a sharply observed and level-headed portrait of a talented and funny young woman and I had been won over.


Gone Girl
I think David Fincher is a fairly overrated filmmaker in general, so it shouldn’t come as a great surprise that this one didn’t exactly wow me. And I thought Gillian Flynn’s novel was an OK page-turner (up until the ending, which I really disliked). To me, this was just an OK adaptation of an OK book, really no more remarkable than 80s and 90s thrillers like Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct. Although I do have to give it up for Kim Dickens, who I thought was great as Detective Boney, and this is by far the best Tyler Perry movie I’ve ever seen.


Locke
Tom Hardy is one of the most magnetic actors to hit movies in a long time. I doubt many other people could have carried off Steven Knight’s daring drama, which is just Hardy driving a car for 85 minutes, on the phone trying to put out a wide range of fires on what may be the most trying evening of his life. Knight and Hardy can’t quite sustain the premise entirely but the fact that the movie is compelling at all is pretty impressive.


Under The Skin
I was hoping to like this a lot more than I did. Scarlett Johansson gives an impressive performance and director Jonathan Glazer creates an impressively eerie, otherworldly mood. Some have likened it to Kubrick but it struck me as more of a Man Who Fell To Earth vibe. But the movie’s glacial pace worked against it, at least for me. I feel like I got the point about halfway through and while I kept expecting there to be more to it, at the end, there was just no there there. Not bad but pretty disappointing.


The Interview
After all of the sturm und drang surrounding the release of this movie, it would be nice to report that Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg and James Franco had really upped their game and crafted a biting satire for the ages. Of course they did not. I like Seth Rogen and I feel bad that his goofball little movie caused such a fuss that it could never possibly live up to. I got some laughs from this but not as many as I’d hoped. I’ll give Rogen and Goldberg one thing, however. I admire them for continuing to develop their own unique visual style. A lot of comedy filmmakers go their entire careers without even thinking about it. I appreciate that Rogen and Goldberg are making comedies that don’t look like comedies.


We’re down to the last two entries! Tomorrow, I’ll take a look at the disappointments and meh’s of 2014. Then come back Wednesday for the movies I simply did not like. That’s always a fun one.