Friday, November 7, 2014

Double Doses

Mini-reviews of six midnight home double-features follow. I’ve continued my lately acquired pattern of pairing a newly viewed film with an older one of which the first reminded me.

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Factotum (2005) – Charles Bukowski is one of those writers who is very good at what he does, but who leaves a disagreeable aftertaste. Ultimately, the problem is snobbery. Snobbery is not confined to the upper classes. There is a working class version. There also is the snobbery of the bad boy who looks down his nose at anyone less hard-drinking and hell-raising. Bukowski is no stranger to both kinds. For all that, he remains a good read. The movie Factotum, based on Bukowski’s book of the same title, shares many of the book’s faults and virtues. Hank Chinaski, played by Matt Dillon, is a thinly veiled version of Bukowski himself. Hank is a commercially unsuccessful writer who spends his life drinking, gambling, and womanizing, inevitably with women who also have drinking problems. Just to earn the bare minimum amount to live, Hank works at a series of meaningless menial jobs though he always gets fired for drinking or slacking. About his writing, though, he has artistic integrity. In short he is a drunk with literary pretentions. The movie leaves a disagreeable aftertaste. For all that, it is a good watch.

The Philadelphia Story (1940) – When asked to name my all-time favorite movie, I’ll give one of several answers according to my mood, but The Philadelphia Story always is in the running. Tracy Lord (Katherine Hepburn) has divorced Dexter (Cary Grant) after a short tempestuous marriage, and now plans to marry the self-made nouveau riche George (John Howard), who lacks not only the easy grace of old money but its relaxed morality. In fact, George is steeped in out-of-place bourgeois values. A tabloid newspaper sends reporter Macaulay and photographer Elizabeth (Jimmy Stewart and Ruth Hussey) to cover the high society marriage.

How could a film centered on the romances of the uber-rich possibly have been called to mind by Factotum? It was Jimmy Stewart’s role. The sometimes drunken writer Macaulay is so self-satisfied in his disdain for the privileged class that Tracy calls him out for being a snob: “You're the worst kind there is. An intellectual snob. You made up your mind awfully young, it seems to me.” Throw in a precocious younger sister to Tracy, an ebrious old uncle with a taste for chorus girls, and dialogue that is intelligent, sophisticated, and funny, and you have a movie classic.

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Neighbors (2014) – Mac and Kelly Radner (Seth Rogan and Rose Byrne) have a new baby and new neighbors in their suburban neighborhood. The neighbors are a college fraternity with a reputation for legendary parties. The frat’s leader arranges a modus vivendi with the couple; the Radners agree to voice complaints directly to him instead of to the police, and he agrees to take any complaints seriously. When no one answers the frat’s phone during one noisy party-night, however, Mac calls the police anyway. Feeling betrayed, the frat boys retaliate. The feud escalates. Given the actors and the premise, you probably have a pretty good idea of what sort of comedy this is. You’re right. The pervasive potty humor is tiresome rather than offensive, but I have to assume it resonates with much of the intended audience. There are some genuinely funny moments. Nonetheless, on balance I’m not the right viewer for this movie. You might not be either.

Neighbors (1981) – Starring Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi in their heyday, this film was not very well received at the time of its release. Yet it has aged well. Off-beat, bizarre, and very 1980s, the whole thing has an undertow of appeal. Belushi is a quiet suburbanite living with his family at the isolated end of a cul-de-sac that backs up to a swamp. The new neighbors (Aykroyd and Cathy Moriarty) add a new dimension to the word eccentric. Their weird and seemingly dangerous behavior evokes paranoia in Belushi. They also apparently have an open relationship which offers a challenge and temptation to Belushi and his lifestyle. If you like your films a little bit odd, this qualifies. I definitely like it more now than on first viewing in 1981.

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Visioneers (2008) – In a surreal dystopia, George Washington Winsterhammerman (Zach Galifianakis) is a “tunt” (drone) in the conglomerate Jeffers Corporation, which has risen to economic dominance through the shallow philosophy of Mr. Jeffers. Even drones in this productivity-minded future live in large beautiful homes, drive nice cars, and have no shortage of material goods. Nonetheless, their jobs and lifestyles are so dehumanizing that many literally explode. Efforts by the corporation and the government to combat the epidemic of explosions only worsen matters.

The film has its moments, but even as a comedic premise the notion that prosperity itself is dehumanizing is a little specious. Visioneers was made before the Crash of 2008 after which many folks would have risked explosion to be secure in prosperity. At any level of wealth, life is as shallow as one chooses to make it. However, the work environment depicted in Visioneers truly is dreadful and vision is precisely what Mr. Jeffers lacks.

Daisies (1966) – Directed by Věra Chytilová this surreal Czech film was banned in it its own country until 1975. Two young women, both named Marie, apparently decide that the only reasonable way to live in a corrupt world is to revel in the corruption. Whether this is shallow, deep, or somehow both is hard to say. They indulge their appetites and play pranks. They destroy a room where a sumptuous feast is laid out. They survive a dunking but shouldn’t have played with the chandelier. Strange, but intriguing.

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Divergent (2013) – Yes, it’s another dystopia based on another YA novel series in which another teen young woman is the hope for the future. Chicago is walled off from the outside world and is run by five factions. Members of each especially exhibit one of five virtues. 16-year-olds are tested to reveal their biological predisposition toward one of the five. Those who exhibit a multitude of predispositions are called “divergent” and are outcasts. In the movie it is not clear whether the wall is to keep the Chicagoans in or others out. Is Chicago a safe place or a prison? From the books by Veronica Roth (and presumably in the upcoming movie sequels) we can learn that a number of cities have been sealed off with the plan of undoing a genetic engineering program that went wrong. Undoing the program requires creating divergents, i.e. normal human beings, not eliminating them as the factions are doing. Beatrice (Shailene Woodley) is a divergent; this fact shows up in her test, but her examiner is a rebel who falsifies the result to protect her. Beatrice joins the Dauntless faction which positions her to resist a power grab by the Erudite faction who would (among other evils) hunt down the divergents.

The movie is not actually terrible, but if you’re going to pick just one dystopia with a rebellious teen, stick with The Hunger Games.

Untamed Youth (1957) – There is no doubt who is a prisoner in this teen exploitation flick. In a rural area Judge Cecelia Steele is secretly married to agricultural magnate Russ Tropp. She ensures he gets cheap agricultural labor by convicting teens and passing travelers of minor offenses and then sentencing them to work on Tropp’s farm. Penny (Mamie Van Doren) and Jane (Lori Nelson) are convicted of skinny-dipping and hitchhiking, which puts a crimp in their plan to enter show business. They are sent to the farm. The judge’s son opts to work at the farm as a supervisor subordinate to Tropp, but doesn’t like what he sees – except for Jane. He likes her. He and Jane hope to overthrow the corrupt system, but will the judge side with sonny or hubby? Penny meanwhile sings songs and looks busty. Untamed Youth is trash, and I enjoyed it thoroughly.               

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Horns (2013) – Though listed on IMDB as 2013, Horns was released both to theaters and pay-per-view only last month. Ig (Daniel Radcliffe) is falsely accused of having murdered his girlfriend Merrin (Juno Temple) whom he has loved since childhood. We see their relationship in flashbacks. Nearly the whole town thinks he did it despite the insufficiency of evidence to charge him with the crime. To his own dismay, Ig starts to grow horns. They have the effect of causing people to tell him their darkest thoughts; people also do what Ig tells them. They somehow forget the horns when they look away and forget what they said and did while under their influence. He uses this ability to discover what really happened that night. I don’t normally like movies with supernatural elements, but this one was odd enough to be interesting.

D.O.A. (1988) – This is a remake of a 1950 noir with Edmund O’Brien. The original isn’t bad, but in this case I like the remake better. Dexter (Dennis Quaid) is an English professor whose wife is divorcing him. After a night of far too much alcohol, he wakes up in the dorm room of young co-ed Meg Ryan. He sneaks out but feels worse than just hung-over, so he stops by the hospital and discovers he has been poisoned irreversibly.  On top of this, he is falsely accused of having murdered his wife. He is then accused of other murders. He has little time to discover the truth so he snares Meg Ryan and retraces his steps the night he was poisoned. Surprisingly good.

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He Was a Quiet Man (2007) – The title comes from the litany of comments we always seem to hear about a multiple killer. You know them from journalists’ interviews with neighbors and co-workers. We all do. “He was a quiet man. Very polite. He seemed so nice. He always said ‘good morning’ to me. A bit of a loner.” And so on. Those words describe Bob Maconel, perfectly played by Christian Slater. Bob is an office worker with a dreary job and every reason to hate his co-workers and immediate superiors. He is also schizophrenic and has conversations with his goldfish – they answer back. Day after day he loads and unloads his gun at his cubicle, waiting for the moment and the courage to kill his co-workers and himself; he exempts Venessa from his intended targets because she has a nice smile. At the end of one day exceptionally full of degrading treatment, he appears ready to follow through as he loads his revolver. He drops a bullet and, as he reaches down for it, shots are fired. Bodies drop to the floor. Another worker has gone postal first. Venessa is among the shot, but is still alive. Bob empathizes with the shooter, of course, and intervenes only because the fellow is about to finish off Venessa. Bob kills the shooter and finds that he is a hero instead of the dead villain he expected to be. When he visits Venessa in the hospital, though, he finds that she has been left quadriplegic. She asks him to end her life. Bob has to decide how to handle her request and his new notoriety. This is a twisted tale and all too credible. Thumbs up.

Heathers (1988)He Was a Quiet Man inevitably reminded me of Heathers, a dark teen comedy starring a much younger Christian Slater and Winona Ryder. Slater plays J.D., which are unsubtle initials even though this slang for juvenile delinquent was 20 years out of date by 1988. J.D. espouses a nihilistic might-is-right philosophy, and assists the rise of Veronica (Ryder) in HS society by killing off the cooler kids. He makes the murders look like suicides. J.D.’s inclinations run in the family. J.D.’s father owns a demolition company, and it is strongly implied that years earlier he had arranged a fatal accident on a job site for J.D.’s mother. Veronica eventually has second thoughts about murder for social advancement and breaks with J.D., but this just puts her in his sights as he plans to blow up the high school. Also thumbs up: wicked, funny, and classic 80s.

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  1. I haven't seen most of these. I don't know if I'd label Bukowski a snob, perhaps more of a misanthrope--but don't think that's any better. :) I haven't seen the particular movie you reviewed, but I have seen the foreign movie (Belgium, I think) Crazy Love, which I enjoyed, Barfly, which got pretty good critical reviews, but I wasn't quite as won over, and Born Into This a doc. It looks like there's another one I haven't seen: Tales of Ordinary Madness.

    On one hand I've always enjoyed Bukowski's poetry and writing, they at times have a full range of funny to sadness, to some kernel of truth. There's an underbelly there and a fair enough rough and tumble to it, rage, depression, and so forth. On the other hand, I have to separate his real life, like a lot of artist, from the real person. as I pretty much abhor being around a smoker (due to my allergies), and don't care for being around drunks either. I've known people like him, however, in my past, and they can be likeable people, not wishing so much for success or the general high minded ideals of a capitalistic society, but would just rather enjoy life, go their own way, and so forth.

    I did enjoy Divergent, though agree I prefer, The Hunger Games, but I could watch the Divergent sequel. I guess it's a big enough market for both and more.

    I figured I wouldn't enjoy the newest Neighbors, just not a Seth Rogan in general.

    Curious about Horns though. Started the book, but never finished it, and should as it was pretty well written.

    I'll have to catch The Philadelphia Story. Good reviews all though, you do it well.

    1. Barfly and Factotum have much in common. Both have a literarily talented but otherwise broken protagonist along with damaged side characters. Both are very good films that aren't very pleasant.

      I always find movies in which Juno Temple has a major part to be at least interesting. She chooses her scripts well. Even if ultimately I don't like one, I never regret having spent the time watching it. (Juno's forte is indie flicks; she shows up in big budget studio films too -- e.g. Maleficent -- but not in major parts.) Horns was no exception.

      The Philadelphia Story is definitely worth a look. The contrast between the intelligent humor of this movie and the dumb comedy in Neighbors (and its ilk) hardly could be more stark. Traci Lords, by the way, chose her film name from Hepburn's character in this movie, as unlikely a source as that seems.

      I'm glad you like the reviews.

  2. That Daisies is one bizarro film :)

  3. Wow another great sweep of films. "Philadelphia Story" is one of those movies I had to be coaxed into watching, because it just didn't sound like my cup of Earl Grey. But man, it was great. The writing in that movie just crackles. Add the great cast and it can't lose. Added it to our DVD library after a single viewing.

    The 1981 "neighbors" sounded really intriguing. I love flicks from that era, so I'm kinda surprised I've never heard of it or seen it, especially with that cast.

    Was on the fence about "Divergent", I think we'll stick with "The Hunger Games". But "Untamed Youth" I am familiar with. That's a fun one, and trashy for sure. MST3K tackled it in their first season, and they have a lot of fun with it. Not too hard of the film, and Joel and bots are very impress with Van Doren... who isn't. :)

    "DOA" I had completely forgotten about that film. Very entertaining one as I remember. And finally "Heathers" is an 80s cult classic. Some very fun writing and performances in that one That is one of my wife's favorite films, and she will quote it from time to time.

    1. DOA is one of those 80s neo-noirs that so often worked pretty well. And it is indeed the 80s: Meg dances to Billy Idol and the live band in the bar is Timbuk3.

      I don’t suppose MST3K needed to do much with Untamed Youth which is funny as it is. It is played completely straight but the filmmakers nonetheless plainly are completely aware of its camp. Mamie had no problem with doing those 50s exploitation flicks (Girls Town, The Beat Generation, Vice Raid, etc.) that are such a gas. Popular in their day, they now are inexplicably largely forgotten.