Thursday, June 30, 2011

"The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" a cult classic that inspired a genre

BASIC INFO:
TITLE: "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre"
YEAR OF RELEASE: 1974
DIRECTOR: Tobe Hooper
STARS: Marilyn Burns, Edwin Neal, Gunnar Hansen
EDITOR: Larry Carroll, Sallye Richardson
AWARDS: N/A
BOX OFFICE: $30,859,000
RUN TIME: 83 min.
RATING: R
VIEWING FORMAT: DVD

SUMMARY:
A group of teenagers decide to take a trip to an old family house for a weekend getaway. After a strange encounter with a crazed hitchhiker, and with little gas left, they find their way to the residence. Little do they know what awaits next door; an insane family, tucked away from societal influence, and with their own ideas of what it means to "have someone for dinner."

WHY THIS IS THE FILM OF THE WEEK:
Few films reach the influential cult status of "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre." Outside of the chainsaw franchise itself (this film spawned 3 sequels, as well as a reboot series of films), Tobe Hooper's masterpiece has had a strong influence on the entirety of the horror genre.


This was one of the first genre films to boast the "based on a true story" tagline. It was an ingenious marketing move. Made for no more than $300,000 (though that is an arguable piece of information), the film went on to gross over $30 million! Contrary to this tagline thought, the events it was based on (according to the opening credits) happened after filming had finished. The crimes of Ed Gein (who also inspired "Psycho" (1960), "Halloween" (1978), and countless other horror films ) were loosely adapted for this film.


For a film that can be credited as starting a genre (slasher or splatter films), it is still surprisingly fresh. The beginnings of some cliche moments are forgiven for the fact that the film avoid many others. To go back to a film from over 30 years ago, after seeing so many movies inspired by it, can make the viewer nervous about boredom. No fear (of boredom) necessary. Hooper was trying to get a PG rating, and was filming on a low budget, so the gore/violence is more implied than graphic. Plenty of scares happen throughout the film, but none are cheap.


Hooper keeps creativity to a maximum throughout the film. Hansen was given control over his character, and it was he who decided that Leatherface would suffer from some sort of psychological disorder and mental retardation, adding a sympathetic edge to one of cinema's most violent killers. Creative camera work, and decisions by the director keep tension high. Immediately after the death of one teen, a door is quickly slammed shut to prevent the audience from seeing the rest of the carnage, which leaves the gore and violence echoing in their heads.


"The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" received middling reviews when released, and due to faulty business practices did not make much money for those actually involved in making it. It's cultural influence cannot be denied though. Many artists consider it a major influence on their pieces (Ridley Scott, Rob Zombie, John Carpenter, Alexandre Aja, among others), with Stephen King himself calling it a "cataclysmic terror" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Texas_Chain_Saw_Massacre).

CRITIQUE:
This writer saw the 2003 remake and was disappointed. If a modern remake of such an old film is really abysmal, what would the original hold? This was a great mistake! This film, while scary as hell, offered so much more. A taught thriller, that had the audience rooting for the protagonists, but also understanding the viewpoint of the crazed killer.


Hooper's decision to tastefully work around the violence and not focus on gore (in complete contradiction to the popular "torture porn" genre of the last few years), leaves the audience even more on the edge of their seats. What's going on behind the door? What exactly happened to the last victim? Why is he hurting these kids? Real world violence is so much scarier than the movies because no one knows all the answers. This film keeps the scares in the real world.


Tobe Hooper went on to "bigger and better" projects in the '80's, but this film has always been considered his best. It shows horror without making the audience feel cheap. It stays scary, long after the end credits roll. This is a masterful work. A must see for any horror fan. For those who might be a little queazy, you may need to skip this one. If you think you can stomach it though, take the time!

MY IMDb RATING: 8 out of 10



Thursday, June 23, 2011

"Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes" the emotional and dramatic tale, based on the classic legend

TITLE: "Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes"
YEAR OF RELEASE: 1984
DIRECTOR: Hugh Hudson
STARS: Christopher Lambert, Ian Holm, Andie MacDowell (voiced by Glenn Close), Ralph Richardson
EDITOR: Anne V. Coates
AWARDS: Best Makeup Artist (BAFTA)
BOX OFFICE: $45,900,000
RUN TIME: 143 min.
RATING: PG
VIEWING FORMAT: DVD



SUMMARY:
After a tragic shipwreck on the coast of Africa, a small orphan boy, John Clayton, is adopted by a family of apes. This film shows the growth of the young John as he tries desperately to be accepted in the ape culture, the only world he has ever known. When John (Christopher Lambert) is an adult, a chance encounter with one man (Ian Holm) leads to his finding his real family in England. Can he assimilate to a society he has never known? Action, adventure, romance, and tragedy all ensue as John continues to discover who, or what, he is.

WHY THIS IS THE FILM OF THE WEEK:
Hugh Hudson's ("Chariots of Fire"(1981)) "Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes" is the definitive screen version of the Tarzan legend. It is one of the most dramatic incarnations of the tale. Shortly following the box office bomb "Tarzan, the Ape Man" (1981), Hudson distanced the franchise from its action and fantasy roots, and grounded it more in the source material. Much influence is also taken from the fictional biography "Tarzan Alive" by Phillip José Farmer. This combination, mixed with the 1980's mentality, brought the character back to his roots as an incredibly intelligent human being, and put forth the classic myth within a scientific context. The screenplay was nominated for an Oscar.

As mentioned in this previous blog post, Rick Baker is an incredibly imaginative and talented make up artist. His talents were put to good use in this film. A mixture of real apes, and costumed actors were used as John's family clan. To the casual observer, it is incredibly difficult to assess which is which. He, and his team, won a BAFTA  for their efforts, and also garnered an Oscar nomination.

The performances are of note in this film. John's grandfather, played by Ralph Richardson, was a particular delight. Richardson was nominated posthumously for an Oscar for his role. Christopher Lambert's first English-language film was to be, arguably, his finest performance. He is believable at all times as both the animalistic Tarzan, and also as the upstanding and intelligent John Clayton. The film focuses on the emotional impact of both worlds on this young man, and Lambert continues to exude masculinity, emotional power, and even humor. Lambert would later go on to headline the "Highlander" (1986) and "Fortress" (1992) franchises, and was a go-to action star of the 1980's. In this writer's opinion though, he never reached the heights of this film again.

One fun fact of this film is that it was Andie MacDowell's feature debut. Unfortunately for her, her southern accent was deemed inappropriate for the character, and she was later dubbed by Glenn Close.

This film sets itself apart from all other Tarzan films by grounding itself in reality, showing incredible depth and development in a recognized character, and providing breathtaking location shooting from the African jungles to the English country-side.

CRITIQUE:

This film's standout feature is the character and emotional development of its lead, John Clayton, better known as Tarzan (though never referred to by this name in the film). To show a man acting as an animal is such a difficult task if the filmmaker is trying to stay in dramatic territory. It has so much potential to be funny, but this piece continually makes the audience feel for the character by putting him through many a tragic or exciting circumstance.

His family of apes are characters as well. The audience gets to know them through their interactions with John. This is quite an achievement, seeing as not one line of dialogue is spoken by any animals in the film.

The cinematography is beautiful! For once, a Tarzan film that feels like it takes place in a real jungle. Studio sets were used, but much of this film was shot on location, and it shows beautifully throughout.

The film doesn't get boring as the jungle is left behind. The human, emotional, journey simply picks up and keeps the audience entranced.

This film is Tarzan as an art film. It is beautiful, exciting, well acted, and engrossing. If you have any interest in the Tarzan lore, watch this film. This film transcends genre cliches and stereotypes to give the viewer a one-of-a-kind experience. This is one of the best action/adventure pieces to come out of the '80's.



MY IMDb RATING:  8 out of 10

Thursday, June 16, 2011

"The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" greed, adventure, gold and murder all wrapped up together

TITLE: "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre"
YEAR OF RELEASE: 1948
DIRECTOR: John Huston
STARS: Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, Tim Holt
EDITOR: Owen Marks
AWARDS: Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Oscar), Best Director (Oscar), Best Writing, Screenplay (Oscar)
BOX OFFICE: N/A
RUN TIME: 126 min.
RATING: N/A
VIEWING FORMAT: DVD Projection

SUMMARY:
"The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" is a thrilling adventure tale made in the fashion of classic Hollywood. Three men decide to embark on the journey of a lifetime to find gold in the hills of Mexico. The old man knows what he is getting himself into, while his younger counterparts expect to be able to pick it up off the ground. Even after his warning, "I know what gold does to men's souls," none of the men are ready to deal with the consequences that await them on their treacherous journey.

WHY THIS IS THE FILM OF THE WEEK:
"The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" is largely considered one of the best films to have ever been made. Not only did it win three Oscars (the first time to have both a father and son win in the same year for the same film), it was selected to be preserved in the United States National Film Registry in 1990 (one of the first 100 films to be awarded this honor).


John Huston was a young, sometimes considered "loose canon," filmmaker when he set out to adapt the elusive B. Traven's successful novel for Warner Bros. After getting the author's approval on a script he penned, and after his previous success (including the masterful "The Maltese Falcon" (1941)), Huston was able to find financing for this dream of a project.


George Raft, Edward G. Robinson and John Garfield were considered for the three leads when the film was supposed to start production before WWII. When it finally went into production after the war, Bogart was Warner's biggest star, and a friend of Huston's. Huston then cast his father, Walter, as the old prospector, and western star Tim Holt rounded out the bunch.


So, what sets this film apart? Why is it a "classic?" Each of the three leads steals each scene they are in. Walter Huston earned his Oscar, and Bogart's complex character carried the film to the heights of a psychological thriller, while still being firmly set in the western/adventure genre. Tim Holt seems almost melancholy comparatively, but his everyman portrayal keeps the film grounded.


The story keeps this film in a league of it's own, and is something that will be forever remembered by those who've seen it. This film has been listed by many a director as a direct influence on their creative process, including: Werner Herzog, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Stanley Kubrick.

CRITIQUE:
"The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" has been one of this writer's favorite films since watching it as a child. That says something. A black and white drama, sustaining the attention of an overactive kid in the 1990's, is a rarity.


For fear of spoiling the film, this critique will be as vague as possible. The reasons this film is considered a "classic" and the names of those who it directly inspired is enough for anyone to decide to see this film. The story is the standout reason though.


The film would have been different with different creatives behind it, but the story at the heart of this experience is stand out. A tale filled with adventure, greed, gunfights and campfire stories, all of which are centered on a character driven drama, gives the viewer an unmistakable experience.


Is this the best film ever made? No. Is it close? Yes. If you haven't taken a single recommendation off of this blog, take this one. This is one of the best films that has ever been made, and it stands the test of time in every way. The crowd this writer most recently viewed this film with consisted of hundreds of people who took their Saturday night and sat outside in a cemetery just to watch this wonderful piece of cinematic art. Seriously, take the time this week, and find this movie. It is worth every damn second!

MY IMDb RATING:  9 out of 10

Thursday, June 9, 2011

"All About Eve" a story just as resonant today as it was over 60 years ago

TITLE: "All About Eve"
YEAR OF RELEASE: 1950
DIRECTOR: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
STARS: Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, George Sanders, Celeste Holm
EDITOR: Barbara McLean
AWARDS: Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Oscar), Best Costume Design, Black & White (Oscar), Best Director (Oscar), Best Picture (Oscar), Best Sound Recording (Oscar),  Best Writing, Screenplay (Oscar)
BOX OFFICE: N/A
RUN TIME: 138 min.
RATING: PG
VIEWING FORMAT: DVD

SUMMARY:
"All About Eve" is a mesmerizing story about friendship, trust, gender roles, betrayal, and lust for fame. Set against the backdrop of the New York theatre world, Eve (Anne Baxter) is a young nobody, who gets the chance of a lifetime to meet and work for Margo Channing (Bette Davis), a renowned theatre actress. Does Eve have more motives than just being a fan? Is she setting Margo up for a fall? Is it Margo's fault that Eve should make the decisions she does? Has a plan been hatching since scene one of the film? Watch it, and find out.

WHY THIS IS THE FILM OF THE WEEK:
"All About Eve" holds the record (tied by "Titanic" (1997)) for most Oscar nominations, at 14. It also holds the record for most female acting nominations for a single film. But an Oscar itself is not enough to classify a film as "classic" (with "Salt" (2010), "Unstoppable" (2010), "Wanted" (2008) and "Click" (2006) all boasting nominations!). What separates this film from others that have received praise, and sets it on a tier by itself, is an engrossing character driven drama, fueled by incredible performances and beautiful cinematography.


The story is told in flashback, so the audience knows that Eve is a successful actress from the first scene. When they are re-introduced a few minutes later, and Eve is a nobody hanging out on the streets of New York, the viewer can't help but root for her to reach the potential they know her capable of.


Jeanne Crain, known for such films as "Pinky" (1949) and "A Letter to Three Wives" (1949), was originally supposed to play the titular role, but became pregnant and had to drop out of the production. Producer, Darryl F. Zanuck, felt that they had made a good choice in replacing her with Anne Baxter, due to the "bitch virtuosity" (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0042192/trivia) needed for the part, that he felt Crain lacked.


The secret to success for this film is in the final act. Eve, such a likable, but strange, woman of circumstance finally lets her true character be seen. She is ruthless, and willing to do anything, and destroy anyone, in order to get what she wants. The audience stays engaged because, after all, who doesn't want to be famous?


Each of the four female leads (i believe them all to be leads in this film, as opposed to supporting characters), earned an Oscar nomination for this film. Each deserved it. The cast in this film was ahead of its time. Often times, older films feel stale, yet this continued to feel fresh. Each actor put their soul into these roles, and made the audience believe in them, and their motivations.


Finally, this film's cinematography was priceless. Black and white has always offered such a rich dynamic to the eye. This film does not disappoint. The camera moves stay motivated, the lighting works within the sets (especially the theater scenes), and the framing is consistently interesting.


This film is a classic for a simple reason: it did a lot of things, and it did them all right. Oftentimes great parts don't equal a great sum (Pierce Brosnan's James Bond films come to mind), but this film proves that there can be exceptions.

CRITIQUE:
"All About Eve" sticks out in my mind as a great cinematic experience. I doubt I will ever forget it. I was engrossed from beginning to end. The movie is not perfect, as it does have a rather slow second act. But slow does not equal bad. It runs very long, and I would recommend watching it during the day time, as opposed to a late night viewing.


As far as the slow second act goes, by the time the viewer starts to realize, it does pick up again. And there are far too many pretty faces and strong performances for the audience to feel like leaving.


One thing that sticks out in this film is the role of women in it. The 1950's were a time when the nuclear family was actually real, and women supported their men. This film does not give that impression. Most of the females in this film are portrayed as strong women (one exception being Miss Casswell, played by a young Marilyn Monroe), who simply happen to have men around. They are the celebrities that are followed and adored. They are the reason their men are successful. As a character, Eve shows strength even in her most humbled state. By the end of the film, some of the women have decided to accept certain gender roles that are expected of them, but it doesn't seem forced. The characters genuinely believe that new avenues in life are what fit them best, and the audience shouldn't feel cheated. A strong woman can make up her mind to do anything, including supporting a man she loves.


This is a one of a kind type of film. It is worth every second the viewer puts into it. Please, watch this movie, and watch it soon. Enjoy it. This is what classic cinema is all about.

MY IMDb RATING:  8 out of 10

Thursday, June 2, 2011

"An American Werewolf in London" a horror film worth its salt

TITLE: "An American Werewolf in London"
YEAR OF RELEASE: 1981
DIRECTOR: John Landis
STARS: David Naughton, Jenny Agutter, Griffin Dune
EDITOR: Malcom Campbell
AWARDS: Best Makeup (Oscar)
BOX OFFICE: $30,565, 292
RUN TIME: 97 min.
RATING: R
VIEWING FORMAT: 35 mm.


SUMMARY:
"An American Werewolf in London" is a heavily praised work that revolves around David, an American backpacking through England, and his friend Jack. David survives an attack by some sort of large animal, while Jack dies. David wakes up in the hospital, only to be greeted by strange visions and dreams that lead him to believe he is a werewolf. Is he an animal, or is he under some sort of delusion due to the stress of his best friend's death?


WHY THIS IS THE FILM OF THE WEEK:
The werewolf genre is as old as film. Many entries have helped the masses know one thing: werewolf films will almost always disappoint. Of course, there are some that do not, and among those, "An American Werewolf in London" is almost consistently rated as the best. A strong, character driven story, a new take on the werewolf legend, and the best werewolf makeup ever achieved on film, all give the viewer an unforgettable experience.


John Landis had sat on the script for this film for over 10 years before having the clout to get a budget behind it. After the success of "Animal House" (1978) and "The Blues Brothers" (1980), Universal decided to give Landis' pet script a chance. It was hard to get backing over the years, because his script had been considered too funny for a horror film, and too scary for a comedy. Landis himself has declared that the film is not meant to be a comedy, as it is in fact a horror film, but he hopes there are some funny parts within.


The werewolf legend, which is well known to many a cinema-goer, was rewritten for this film. The werewolf still only appears during a full moon, and is still a somewhat sympathetic monster. This beast has less of a magical quality, with an aversion to silver being written off as a silly idea within the film itself. The big change is that the wolf is haunted by those it kills, whose souls inhabit the Earth in limbo until the wolf is dead. This gives the audience even more reason to care about the main character, who is in fact a murdering monster. The dead, some sympathetic and cordial, some pissed off and angry, continue to give the poor soul more reason to hate itself, and dread the oncoming moon.


Landis called up Rick Baker, who had agreed years before to work on the make up effects for the project, once he got funding. Baker was working on "The Howling" (1981) at the time. Landis was noticeably upset, and Baker left in order to work on Landis' film, leaving his protege, Rob Bottin, in charge of the make up effects for "The Howling."

The make up is where this movie stands out from all other werewolf films. The Academy Awards had previously given out one honorary Oscar to a make up effects artist, William Tuttle for "7 Faces of Dr. Lao" (1964), but 1981 was the first year the Best Makeup category was awarded, with Rick Baker winning for his stunning achievement. The beast is rarely seen in the film, but when it does grace the screen, every second is worth the wait. The transformation sequence is golden, unforgettable, and almost painful to watch. To this day, it is unmatched.


All these parts add up to what is considered by many to be one of the best werewolf, and best horror, films ever made. Its biting dialogue, likable characters, incredible visual effects, and legitimately scary moments guarantee that this film will continue to haunt movie-lovers the world over for generations to come.

CRITIQUE:
"An American Werewolf in London" is not a film I immediately fell in love with. My biggest critique of the film upon first viewing was the lack of monster. It is a monster movie, after all. After watching again, more than a few times, I kept realizing that I was coming back to the movie for more than the wolf.


I think the magic of the film rests in the relationship between David and his dead best friend, Jack. This is not only where the bulk of the humor lies, but also gives the film the perfect way to explain the werewolf lore without sounding forced.


Ultimately, a werewolf film relies on its wolf. The beast in this film is positively frightening. The drawn out transformation is horrifying, and the brutal attacks are well choreographed, photographed, and cut together in a cohesive fashion. Watching it on a 35 mm print this week, I saw so much more than I had ever seen before, and I fell in love with this film even more.


If you are a horror fan, this is an absolute must see. If you don't care for horror, try this one out. It is stand out in the genre, and is a classic in every sense. It is not overly scary, but has enough chills to suffice. Its reliance on characters also puts it high above the tired "slasher" and "gore porn" genres. "An American Werewolf in London" is more than worth your time.

MY IMDb RATING:  8 out of 10