Friday, July 08, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: July 1-7

High Risk (1981) ***
Director/Writer: Stawart Raffill
Starring: James Brolin, Bruce Davidson, Cleavon Little, Chick Vennera, Anthony Quinn, Lindsay Wagner, James Coburn, Ernest Borgnine

Way back when cable first came to Maine, my best friend had it and I didn’t. I lived outside the area where it was provided, while he lived in town. Going over to spend the night at his house was always a treat. We watched one of MTV’s earliest broadcasts and often were able to stay up and watch movies we probably shouldn’t have considering our age.

One of those movies was the B-grade adventure “High Risk” about a group of four friends who decide to go down to South America and rob a big time drug lord. These are just four ordinary guys, fed up with the poor economy in America, doing something that even a group of professional thieves would think twice about. That makes it absurd and yet opens it up for lines of entertainment you don’t normally find in a heist movie, like the little white dog with the bows on its ears.

Before noticing it was streaming on Netflix, thanks to that same friend who screened it and posted it to his Facebook wall, I really didn’t remember much of the movie, but I never forgot watching it with my friend that evening. What made it so memorable is that while we were watching the movie we held an ongoing conversation where we recast the movie with him and I and our best friends in the roles. We would shuffle everybody around as it seemed appropriate to the types of characters that were in the movie. My friend was almost consistently the James Brolin role, although I think in the end we ended up casting another friend in that role while he took the Cleavon Little role. I think I pretty much retained the Bruce Davidson role throughout our casting process, although I secretly wished for one of the more macho leads. I think I even landed the Little role for a while, but Davidson was probably accurate for me.

Anyway, in revisiting the movie some thirty years later, I expected a really bad flick that would’ve embarrassed me for even watching it. Surprisingly, it was all right. Not a great movie, but a fun low budget flick with some scene chewing cameos by such Hollywood legends as Ernest Borgnine, James Coburn, and Anthony Quinn. I don’t think we really understood much of what we were seeing thirty years ago. I hadn’t remembered it as being so involved with drugs. It was really more about our own imaginations at that first screening.

Swamp Thing (1982) *
Director: Wes Craven
Writers: Wes Craven, Len Wein (comic book), Bernie Wrightson (comic book)
Starring: Adrienne Barbeau, Louis Jordan, Ray Wise, David Hess, Nicolas Worth, Don Knight, Al Ruban, Dick Durock

It was Adrienne Barbeau’s birthday last week, and film critic Roger Ebert enthusiastically posted his original review of “Swamp Thing” on his Twitter and Facebook feeds. I was surprised to read how much he enjoyed this movie at the time of its release in 1982. I remembered it as a pretty sad low budget account of a cherished comic book hero of mine—a bad B-movie that marred the name of one of DC Comics’ most intelligent monsters. Ebert relished its B-movie excess, so I decided to give it another shot now that I could better appreciate what the filmmakers were going for, without clouding my judgment with my own affection for the seriousness of the comic book.

Turns out, I was right and Ebert is wrong about this one. It’s a terrible movie. He found the movie comical in its over the top mad scientist approach to its absurd subject matter. I found it just deficient. I’m not sure Wes Craven did know just how shlocky a film he was making. Surely, he had been able to make serious movies with low budgets without having to worry about make up and scope. He must’ve realized that his budget here wouldn’t allow him to make a serious movie about a swamp monster, but the camp contained here all seems to be circumstantial rather than intentional.

The story is preposterously bad, but the dialogue isn’t over the top enough to suggest that the filmmakers aren’t taking it entirely seriously. Maybe the music by Harry Manfredini is meant to be drippingly sappy, and it is, but not in such a way as to suggest that you’re supposed to be laughing at it. I dunno. Maybe I was in too much of a serious mood. I don’t think so, though. This movie still doesn’t work for me.

Rubber (2011) ***½
Director/Writer: Quentin Dupieux
Starring: Stephen Spinella, Jack Plotnick, Roxane Mesquida, Wings Hauser

I think “Rubber” is the proof that I wasn’t in too serious a mood for “Swamp Thing” however. Watching this immediately following that early eighties debacle, “Rubber” is a joke I get. It’s a movie about a tire that comes to life and exacts revenge on those who do it wrong. Yes, a tire.

The movie opens with the strangest character entrance you’ve ever seen, a policeman who precedes to explain that the movie you are about to watch is an homage to the great movie characteristic of things happening for no reason whatsoever. He lists examples of great movies that have things happen for no reason, including “E.T.”, “Love Story”, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, and “The Pianist”. His logic might have a few holes in it, but the point is that it doesn’t matter.

It’s a short movie, as it must be considering the limitations of what you can do with a tire as a protagonist. It also involves an audience that watches the movie through binoculars as it happens. They comment on the tire’s story as it develops and eventually become a part of the tire’s story. I can’t say what their purpose is. I suppose there is no reason.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 (2010) ***½
Director: David Yates
Writers: Steve Kloves, J.K. Rowling (novel)
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Ralph Fiennes, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Jason Isaacs, Tom Felton, Timothy Spall, Peter Mullan, Robbie Coltrane, Evanna Lynch, Rhys Ifans, Imelda Staunton, Toby Jones

With the end looming (just a week away at the time of this posting), I had to go back and revisit Part 1. I was more impressed by this film the second time around. It’s long and slow for the franchise, but the way it takes it’s time with the darkest material to come from the Harry Potter universe is where it gains its strength. This is by far the most mature of the Potters. I really enjoy the way it doesn’t let itself get sidetracked with all the subplots that have always run likes strands through Harry Potter’s world. It’s focus on Harry, Hermione and Ron in their search for the horcrux and the means to destroy it is sharp and makes for a fascinating story of friendship through the hardest of times. As always I’ve allowed my cast list to represent the vast span of British actors that always populate the Potter films, but really I probably should’ve only listed Radcliffe, Watson and Grint, since this episode is theirs and theirs alone.

Read my original review here.

Western of the Week

The Bravados (1958) **
Director: Henry King
Writers: Philip Yordan, Frank O’Rourke (novel)
Starring: Gregory Peck, Joan Collins, Henry Silva, Stephen Boyd, Albert Salmi, Lee Van Cleef, Kathleen Gallant, Andrew Duggan

“The Bravados” presents an interesting moral dilemma. What if you exacted revenge on bad people for the wrong reason? They were still bad people, but your own personal reasons were incorrect. Have you done wrong? Even if the punishment was just in the eyes of the law? The movie posses this question, but gives a mixed message in its answer.

It isn’t a bad western. It has all the right details. In some ways it seems a precursor to the spaghetti westerns of the late 60s. The hero is reclusive, an outsider. The villains are very bad. One of them is even the great Lee Van Cleef. He was still in henchmen territory, yet to become the perfect western villain. It shows in his performance. He acts bad, rather than just being bad. But, we know he’ll get there.

This western, on the other hand, never quite does get there. It’s almost good. Gregory Peck is possibly too stiff to play the tall dark and brooding hero here. He’s not the always laid back western anti-hero that Clint Eastwood would later embody. Peck is a little too tense to pull off his rather vicious revenge. But, then Eastwood would never question the morality of his actions.

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