Sunday, October 30, 2011

October: Quick Reviews and Ratings

I don't have the time and energy to review every film I watch, so I'll give a quick review and rating of some first viewings I have not looked at in-depth throughout the month of October:

Cape Fear (J. Lee Thompson, 1962) - The plot is simple and straightforward, with Robert Mitchum perfectly cast as the villainous Max Cady who comes after the family of Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck), an attorney who testified for Cady's conviction, resulting in eight years in prison. There is a consistent growth in tension, punctuated by an ever-present threat of sexual assault on Bowden's child, which would have caused a stir in the early 60's, and culminating in a violent showdown between the men at Bowden's houseboat on Cape Fear. Re-made by Martin Scorsese in 1991, starring Robert De Niro. ★★★★

Alfie (Lewis Gilbert, 1966) - I was surprised to read that Alfie, an unusual British film, had been nominated for multiple Academy Awards. While I enjoyed Michael Caine's performance, and his amusing narration/commentary that frequently breaks the fourth wall, I didn't find the film particularly memorable. Caine plays Alfie Elkins, a charming womaniser who encounters several life changes, including the birth of his first son, the subsequent separation from him and the boy's mother, and a health scare, which lead to his personal and emotional growth and a change to his outlook on life. It's very funny on occasions, but it is also quite insulting and degrading of women. ★★★1/2

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (Dario Argento, 1970) - This is an excellent horror/thriller debut from Argento (who would later direct Suspiria). An American living in Italy witnesses an attempted murder, but can't shake the thought that there is something odd about the whole affair. He gets caught up in the case and starts obsessing over it, before his life (and that of his girlfriend's) is threatened by the sadistic killer. There is a great pace to this film with Argento crafting a compelling story, building a tense atmosphere and punctuating it all with several terrifying sequences, that would have proven shocking at the time. The photography by Vittorio Storaro is stellar and this is certainly influential work within the genre. ★★★★

Harold and Maude (Hal Ashby, 1971) - Watched on the same day as Weekend at Bernie's, which made for a great double feature. Now widely considered a cult classic, this hilarious black comedy follows the unlikely 'romantic' bond between Harold (Bud Cort), a disillusioned young man obsessed with death - to the extreme of inventing a series of elaborate fake suicides - and Maude (Ruth Gordon), a kooky 79 year-old woman, who shares Harold's hobby of attending funerals. The running gags are amazing - and I still can't shake some of Harold's gruesome attempts to scare off his mother's appointed dates. Gordon's continuous theft of automobiles (and motorcycles) is another. Great performances from both stars and an amazing soundtrack by Cat Stevens. ★★★★

The Last House on the Left (Wes Craven, 1972) - I had intended on watching and reviewing this as a horror special based on it's reputation for being one of the most disturbing films ever made. Shot in awful quality like a home movie, two young girls travel to the city to see their favourite rock band, but are taken hostage, raped and killed by a group of escaped criminals. It's a repulsive premise, that I learned was actually influenced by Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring, but the dialogue is awful, the performances are ridiculously unconvincing and it is actually a tedious watch. The film's best moments come in the final third as the psychos take shelter in the home of the parent's of one of their victims (and when they learn this, they hang around and still talk about it). The couple catch wind of their actions and exert a bloody revenge. The pop song soundtrack, which actually accompanies a rape, is just one element of Craven's extreme 'bad taste' here. 

The Hills Have Eyes (Wes Craven, 1977) - Craven's follow up to the diabolical The Last House on the Left is a much better film. The story follows a middle-class American family who take a detour to investigate a silver mine on the way to California and find themselves stranded in the Nevada Desert. They become vulnerable sitting ducks to a pack of deformed cannibals. The build-up, though a little slow, is strong, and Craven produces an ominous atmosphere from the start. There are some shocking sequences - Bob, a retired cop and head of the family, is captured, crucified and set alight, one of the young girls is raped and the baby is abducted to be used in some sort of ritual. Having already seen Alexandre Aja's pretty successful 2006 re-make I was a little disappointed by the film's climax here in comparison, but found the middle third to provide genuinely effective scares. It's now credited 'cult classic' status is understandable. 

Escape From New York (John Carpenter, 1981) - This is the role that had Kurt Russell first tagged as a badass. He went on to star in The Thing just a year later. In Escape From New York a crime-ridden United States has converted Manhattan Island into a maximum security prison. Ex-soldier Snake Plissken (Russell) is given 24 hours to find the President of the United States, who has been captured after the crash of Air Force One. He enlists the help of Ernest Borgnine and Harry Dean Stanton and crosses paths with the self-proclaimed Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes) who has plans to lead a mass-escape using the President as a hostage. Infused with B-grade sensibilities, there is plenty of high-tempo action sequences and thrilling car chases and Carpenter's adopted look for Manhattan is tough, grimy and humid - a breeding ground for scum. While it has no shortage of ideas, and an ultra cool premise, I think it fell a bit short in it's execution and has no real stand-out moments. 

Fitzcarraldo (Werner Herzog, 1982) - I finally got around to watching Werner Herzog's most famous film. Like Aguirre: The Wrath of God, there is something so captivating about guerilla filmmaking that works so closely with the unpredictability of the natural environment. The monumental struggle that went into making this film is near unfathomable (and I have to see Burden of Dreams, a documentary made by Les Blank documenting the production) and Herzog and his crew actually lived the extraordinary adventure at the core of the film. There are some astonishing captures, and a brilliant unhinged performance from regular Herzog collaborator Klaus Kinski, who plays Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, a man determined to build an opera house in the middle of the Amazon - heading an expedition to cultivate a rubber plantation, which results in the necessary hauling of his 320-ton steamer over a muddy hillside that links two rivers. Unforgettable. ★★★★

Weekend at Bernie's (Ted Kocheff, 1989) - Famous for being a guilty-pleasure comedy classic, Weekend at Bernie's sure had some outrageous moments. While the film's plot is pretty diabolical, and the two leads not particularly good, almost all of the physical gags involving Bernie's body are hilarious. The rich host of a lavish beach party is killed and with the exception of two of his young employees, his death is not recognised. To ensure they continue to have a great weekend at Bernie's holiday house and refrain from being linked to the man's death, they team up to maintain the facade, which is so good they even fool an additional hit man sent in to finish the job. It's silly, but if you suspend some disbelief, it's enjoyable light entertainment.  ★★★1/2

Troll 2 (Claudio Fragasso, 1990) - Commonly credited as one of the worst films ever made and 'a film so's good'. That is how I would describe a film like The Room, which was an absolute riot to watch. Troll 2 isn't. It's just BAD. ZERO


  1. I love love love Harold and Maude. Easily my favourite black comedy of all time. I can just imagine Tim Burton growing up watching this like every day.

  2. I believe that Harold and Maude gets better and better each time you watch it. My mum introduced me to it, and the first 30 minutes I was just shocked by all of that... but it turned out to become one of my favorite films. And it's very very different from most other films.

  3. Apparently Last House was shot on 16mm and blown up to 35mm, which is rarely a good thing. On top of which, the Australian DVD was one of Umbrella's cruddy old NTSC>PAL conversions from an American DVD master (from Anchor Bay, I think, as was their release of Hills Have Eyes too), which did it no further favours. But yeah, it's just not that good a film however you view it. I saw the original Hills before the remake, and I think I agree with you about the last third of the remake being better than the original.

  4. Since I saw Restless and is, apparently, related to Harold and Maude, I really want to see this now!

  5. OH!!!! I fucking love Fitzcarraldo, it's still my favorite Herzog film. The fact that he actually dragged a boat on top of a mountain takes fucking balls.

    I would totally recommend seeing Burden of Dreams, it's got some great stuff there. I dare any big-time filmmaker to do that without CGI or any visual effects crap. That film to me, is why Herzog is one of the greats working today. I bow down to that man.

  6. @ Nikhat - Harold and Maude was an odd film for sure, but it was a lot of fun. Bud Cort's face was ultra-creepy. I can imagine Burton got some influence from this.

    @ Mette - I can see it getting even better on repeat viewings. I hired it out, but if the opportunity comes to purchase it on sale - I'll invest in it. I think my parents would like it :-p

    @ James - That's interesting and definitely would have influenced the look of the film. Yeah, I was really surprised. It felt like a snuff film, someone capturing their friends rape and terrorise two young girls, which was likely Craven's intention - and the reason it was so controversial. But, it makes it excruciating viewing, because it seems so amateurish. Yeah, the end of The Hills Have Eyes re-make is extremely badass. Here, it was a bit...meh.

    @ Aziza - You should. Actually, anything I have given 3 1/2 or above to is worth a look.

    @ Steven - He is crazy right? I love Aguirre: The Wrath of God, but the work that went into this film - and the fact that they had so many problems - is the greatest example of his filmmaking skills (that I have seen). No-one has the balls to do that today!

  7. Haha. "Nilbog is Goblin backwards" I loved that little kids acting. At least he put some effort in. I struggled through the film though...

  8. Didn't like DeNiro's Cape Fear that much .. Is the original one better? 4 stars is not bad at all.

  9. I haven't seen De Niro's one, but I imagine the original is much better. It's a film I respected because of when it was released - it's quite violent, and contains some heavy themes. The plot is pretty standard and simple, but watching Gregory Peck (who was born to be a lawyer) and Robert Mitchum go at it is pretty entertaining.