Tuesday, November 12, 2019

The Right Stuff with Phillip Kaufman




For Veteran's Day we celebrated by attending a special screening of "The Right Stuff" , sponsored by American Legion Post 43 and the American Cinemateque. Before the show however, we took advamtage of an opportunity to visit the Hollywood Heritage Museum, across the street. The event planners arranged for a two hour window for guests to stop by this intimate little piece of history after regular hours.

The Barn, as it is referred to , contains materials from the earliest Hollywood studio, founded by some of the giants of the industry including Jesse Lasky and Cecil B. DeMille. 







If you are a film fan, it is a great place to stop for an hour or so, which is about as much time as we stayed before moving on over to the American Legion post.

Amanda and I had been in the theater at the Legion Hall back during the TCMFF in April. The building is a fascinating structure that dates back decades and has intimate spaces in the basement as well as the beautiful theater on the main floor. I'd noticed on my check in on Facebook that one of my Facebook friends was also in attendance. Lawrence Kaplowitz is a gentleman I follow on Facebook, I joined a TCM fan page and he posts there regularly. I located him and his new bride a few rows in front of us and I went up and introduced myself in real life. We chatted for a few minutes and it was nice to speak with another film fan in Southern California who has some of the same interests as I.





In addition to all that I have described, and the movie were were about to see, the event was special because it was being introduced by the writer/director of the movie Phillip Kaufman himself. Author and Legionaire Alan Rode, interviewed Mr. Kaufman about the film for nearly forty minutes. We heard about the casting process and the relationship he developed with Chuck Yeager. The clever use of traditional old school special effects techniques to simulate the aircraft and launches was interesting. He also briefly touched on the prior script by William Goldman and discussed why he felt it was necessary to change it. Ultimately he wanted that first hour to be about the test pilots that made having "the right stuff" so important, especially Yeager.



Kaufman did say actress Veronica Cartwright was in attendance last night but I did not get an opportunity to see her. All of the actors got a round of applause as their names came up in the credits. This was a 35mm presentation and it looked and sounded great.


If you want to read an LA Times article on this event, I have linked it for you here.

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2019-11-09/the-right-stuff-blasts-off-for-a-veterans-day-screening-in-hollywood






The Film

"The Right Stuff" is one of two films from the 1980s [the second being Amadeus] that I would include on my top ten list of all time. It was in fact my wife's favorite movie and I did have a few moments of wistful nostalgia as it played out. She spent her first few years as a child in the high desert area. Her brother worked at Edwards Air Force base and the China Lake Weapons Station. We visited the museum there, where you can see the original X-1. 

The story of the launch of the space program is of interest to all but especially to we baby boomers who lived through that time. We knew the astronauts and watched the launches and followed the progress of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs closely. The film manages to make each of the original seven astronauts interesting, although in the big picture of the film Deke Slayton, Wally Schirra and Scott Carpenter  end up in the background. Shepard, Glenn, Grissom and Cooper are the main pillars of the story. I think the standout performance is Fred Ward as the gruff and unfairly judged Gus Grissom. My colleague on the Lambcast does not like Dennis Quaid but I find him perfectly cast here and he provides much of the humor that makes this film so memorable and real. 

Bill Conti's score is triumphant and patriotic and exactly right for the tone the film is pursuing. There is effective use of source music as well and this was my introduction to Holst's "The Planets". 

I wrote about this film for my series "Movies I Want Everyone to See" and I urge you to visit that post to get a more complete discussion of the film. 






Monday, November 11, 2019

The Irishman



Let me start off with a couple of justifications. This is a Netflix created project, designed to be shown on their streaming service. As such, there are doubts about whether it should be included in my usual project since I try to focus on theatrical material. Last year I participated in some spirited discussions of "Roma" based on the premise that it is not "cinema". This seems oddly ironic given the take Martin Scorsese has on the comic book movies that dominate theaters these days. Unlike "Roma" however, I did see this in a theater and it was an exclusive run before any streaming of it on the home network is available. The major theater chains were unwilling to book this without a traditional window of exclusive exhibition, so I still think my doubts are relevant. There are some mitigating issues however. First, this is a Martin Scorsese project and he clearly sees it as a film. Second, I have made exceptions in the past about what I cover on this site and I have written about documentaries or "films" made for premium channels in the past. I have also covered related material, concerts for instance that are inspired by movies. So my rules are a little flexible. Finally, I think the battle will be lost in the next few years and I will be doomed to be a collaborator in the destruction of the cinema going experience by day and date VOD, so I may as well start kowtowing now to get into practice. I will still scream about it but lets face it, my finger in the dike is will not stop it.

Last night's screening at the Egyptian was sold out, there was not a seat to be had and there were people standing in the wings, the whole time the movie was playing. Anticipation was high and I was quite excited about seeing the film. It is a solid piece of gangster story telling told by the master of that genre, but it is not the masterpiece of his career. The three and a half hour running time is very noticeable, especially in the last forty minutes of the movie. This could easily be broken into two parts for the television mini series presentation it probably deserves. The sprawling story covers five decades and it is told through a series of flashbacks and forwards that also make the pacing seem slower than it actually is. The fact that the finale plays out in one long sequence with the main character in a wheelchair dying of cancer, feels anti climatic although it does contain some of the only moments of emotion that the main character exhibits.

"Mean Streets" was low level street gangsters, "Goodfellas" was gangsters on drugs, "Casino" was gangsters and gambling, "The Departed" was gangsters with police corruption, "Gangs of New York" was historical gangsters and "The Irishman" is gangsters and unions. The same template that was used for "GoodFellas" and "Casino" is found here. We are given a narrator who is telling us the story as we see it play out. There are beats of violence every few minutes and grim humor pops up occasionally to keep it entertaining. The actors are all fine, but this movie lacks some of the grace points of those previous classics. The bravura one take Steadicam nightclub scene in "Goodfellas" was a moment that made that film special. There is no equivalent film making technique here. Joe Pesci was lightning on screen in both "Goodfellas" and "Casino", no such character exists in this trudge through Teamster/Mafia politics of the 60s and 70s. Sharon Stone was a dynamic female character in "Casino" there are virtually no important women characters featured in this story. The pacing of those two movies, especially in the last segments built into a crescendo that made us quickly in hale to try to catch our breath. "The Irishman" does little to keep us from nodding off at the end except hope that we care how Frank manages to reconcile himself with the world.

Joe Pesci came out of semi-retirement to make the movie, but his character could have been done by any number of actors. His unique volatility and vocal delivery is never called upon by Scorsese to make the film sing.  Harvey Kietel is in the movie, but I will be amazed if you remember that at the conclusion of the running time. His character is so far in the background that we only know what he thinks through his orders being repeated by those he supposedly conveyed them to.   Robert DeNiro is the star of the film, and he turns in a credible performance but nothing close to earlier work in this milieu. The character of Frank Sheeran is a cipher in most of his scenes. DeNiro is trying to make a nearly personality free low level thug into an interesting character, but it is only the alleged acts of violence he claims to have carried out that make him noticeable.  The hollow award that the character gets during his time as a union president would be hard to justify given the lack of any outgoing charisma.

The actor who scores best in the film is Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa. Having been parodied for years for his throaty overacting in recent films, Pacino is more realistic here. There are a few scenes where the bellicose Hoffa goes off but Pacino plays them in character rather than making him a character. The rest of the time he seems to be a committed and forceful man who was too pig headed to notice that those closest to him were the ones who were the most dangerous. The simple scenes that Pacino plays opposite DeNiro's on screen daughter are the ones that sell us on him as a real person. The contrast in the relationship between Hoffa and Sheeran's family versus Pesci and DeNiro who mimic family love but can't really sell it, that is the best directed part of the film, but it's only enough to make Pacino's character come to life, not enough to make the film do so.

Two other things that I saw as drawbacks to the film include the early de-aging CGI and the musical score. I got used to the CGI miracle after a few minutes, but that does not mean that it worked perfectly. As this technology gets better, I think actors will have to be careful because they could be replaced by AI created performers that might get us to respond to them by reading analytics of audience reactions. The other mild complaint is the score by Robbie Robertson. Maybe it is a good thing that there is no memorable theme or consistent melody running through th film story, but I think that makes it harder to feel the film is memorable. The only bits that were significant to me were the doo wop clips and the background music in particular scenes. Jerry Vale was the musical high note of the film, and while he was a fine vocalist, I don't think that is enough to hang your musical hat on for a film.

In summary, you have seen this before and it has been better done in other Scorsese films, but that does not make this a bad movie. The film is quite good and it almost convinces us that this is the real story. All of the performances are solid but nothing historic that people will look back on and say, "that was a milestone" in that guys career. The history lesson we get of mob infiltration of the unions works pretty well at getting to the heart of the idea, even if the details are invented. There is enough blood and betrayal to clearly mark this as a Scorsese film, but in the end, most of out characters get wacked by cancer and heart disease rather than other mob guys or the cops. It is a little indulgent but a story that is pretty well told using tried and true techniques we have experienced many times before. 

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Jo Jo Rabbit



This may be on two distinct sets of lists at the end of the year. Some folks are going to find that it is a misfire that fails to manage the complex shift in tone that occurs on a regular basis in the story. Others will be beguiled by the delicate balancing act between the sweet and the bitter. It took me to the last couple of shots to decide which group I am going to fall into. Count me enchanted.

The lead character, Jo Jo is a ten year old boy who is a microcosm of Germany under Hitler. He seems to be hypnotized by the promise of the Fuhrer and the propaganda machine that engulfs the whole country. Little boys and nations can become obsessed with symbolism, and the swastika, uniforms and military pomp all sucker the crowds in. Taika Waititi has punctured these concepts with obvious asides about the stupidity of some of the things the boy and the country are buying into. That humor is often outlandish and it does provoke a big laugh on numerous occasions.  The dangerous high wire act he is performing exists because that humor is often juxtaposed with a horrifying reality. Even though those moments of tragedy are presented in non-graphic ways, it is a sudden jolt to the left that might upset the balance of the story at any time.

By making the lead a ten year old, the whole metaphor can be looked at as a loss of innocence on the one hand, but it is also a rude awakening at the same time. Since Jo Jo gets a Rabbit to interact with and he is designated as a rabbit by some of the other characters, I guess it is fair to classify this story as a fable. In many ways it has the same sort of fairy tale essence to it that "Life is Beautiful" had. The harsh realities of the world are being covered up by a childish view of the events surrounding our lead. That his imaginary friend is Hitler himself makes the story feel completely absurd. Sure we laugh at the amusing image of Hitler jumping out a window or sitting down to a meal of unicorn, but each moment is building toward the shakeup that will be so heartbreaking at the climax of the film. Sam Rockwell acquits himself with the usual high caliber comic performance he has been noted for, but he gets to pay off some actual sentiment in the end. Rebel Wilson is merely a cartoon in the movie, but it is a funny cartoon that we will never have to take seriously.

Straddling the gap between sweet fantasy and morbid reality is Scarlett Johansson as Jo Jo's mother.  She is an indulgent mother who vaguely disapproves of her son's embrace of Nazism, but she is also an enigma, one that presents us with a reality far from the domestic bliss she is trying to project. Waititi himself plays Hitler, and at times he is cloyingly obtuse and at other moments we hear the rhetorical weapons he used to seduce a whole nation being wielded against a child. If you hold your neck too straight in the curves, you may break it. The trick is to lean into the humor but try to ease back from it before the next breakneck switch in tone. I was able to do this more effectively as the film went on and I got used to the sort of whiplash inducing moments writer/director/star Waititi had in store for us. I can easily imagine though that some people will find it annoying.

Roman Griffin Davis makes his debut as the title character and the performance is essential for the movie to work. He has to be a kid who is both incredibly sure of his grounds while simultaneously doubting the foundation he is standing on. He hits those notes especially well with his interactions with costar Thomasin McKenzie. She plays a belligerent and sarcastic version of an Anne Frank character, and she must be stern but frightened at the same time. That the director got these performances from his cast is what allows us to go along with the story. Ultimately, it is a hopeful interpretation of the minds of the German population under the Nazis. If would be easy to dismiss it as a tasteless concoction that never quite gels, but I think in the last few minutes, it firms up into one of the best films of the year. 

Saturday, October 26, 2019

The Lighthouse



If you were to take "Brokeback Mountain" and cross it with "The Shining" and add a little Herman Melville to the mix, you might get what this picture attempts to be. It is sort of a sea shanty about madness from isolation. Now sprinkle in a little tentacle sex and you start to get a clearer picture. What I have given you here is a far more coherent description of the film than you will get from watching it for 109 minutes. This pretentious piece of dreck has little to offer and everything to frustrate.

I will be honest, I was not a fan of the much admired first film from writer director Robert Eggers. "The VVitch" was slow, ponderous and the end of the film undermined what the movie seemed to be trying to accomplish. I don't know what this movie was trying to do, but I can tell you what it did for me, it pissed me off. Both of the actors, Robert Pattinson and Willem DaFoe, dive in whole-heartedly to the proceedings, with Dafoe  hamming up the arcane dialect in a manner worthy of a pirate movie. Half of the dialogue will get lost in the style of delivery, but it won't matter because there is no consistent voice to what you are seeing anyway. Oh, and by the way, you won't be seeing nearly as much as you should. Eggers has decided to shoot this film in black and white, mainly at night, in a location with one source of illumination that can't be turned into the camera.

At one point one of the characters suggests that the whole experience was just in the head of the other character. That would have been an indicator of where we might go, except that a dozen other things happen which suggest that the two characters might even be the same person. Which doesn't make any sense even in a horror film, which this may or may not be classified as. I had no idea what the story was about, all I knew was that the two actors are in a lighthouse. After watching the damn thing, that's still app I really know. The camera pans up slowly, then it holds on something for a while, then it pulls back, and then there is a close up, none of which contributes to suspense, terror or drama. There were some people laughing, so maybe it is supposed to be a comedy, but it did not strike me as funny at all.

It looks like I will be an outlier on this, there are great ratings on many of the mega sites like IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes. I will try to listen to some of my fellow bloggers and podcasters as they talk about this, but if you hear a foghorn in the background it may simply be me calling "bullll...shiiit." If I see Mr. Eggers name on future projects, I will be sure to let those who appreciate his torpid style and incoherent narratives enjoy themselves. I'll be looking for something human beings might like. 

Zombieland Double Tap



The original Zombieland was a joy 10 years ago. It came out a year before I started keeping this blog so I never included it in any rankings or evaluations, but it certainly would have been on a list of my favorite films from 2009. I was pleased with the idea of a sequel, but the notionthat it would take ten years to get here never crossed my mind. As it is, the timing seems just right. The way the story develops, there is some character justification for actions, ten years into the zombie apocalypse.

I said I would keep today's entires short, and that's easy to do with this film. It has the same sensibility Director Ruben Fleiser had a big success with last year's "Venon", a film I never felt a strong need to see. This on the other hand is right up my alley and if you liked the first Zombieland, than D"DoubleTap" is for you. It has the off kilter humor, the action pacing of the first film, and some reasonable reasons for existing. There are a few new wrinkles and Woody Harrelson gets to vent against the kind of person he probably is in real life.

If you are an Elvis fan, there are things which you will enjoy. There is some non-partisan political humor, and best of all, there is a surprise sequence at the end which people who get out of their seats and race out the door will miss, and they will hate themselves for that. This movie completely fulfilled my hopes and expectations. It should be on repeat play at the house in the not too distant future.





Judy



I am potentially doing four posts today so I plan on keeping each of them brief. I will be gone for a week or so and I want these to be fresh for anyone who is interested.

Biopics can be hit or miss. The personality of the subject may be the biggest factor in their success, but you should never underestimate the importance of casting and performance. J.Edgar Hoover and Dick Cheney did not get a proper treatment, one because of miscasting and the other due to the script. I've seen some criticism of this movie as being uninspiring, but I think it works the way a lot of these biopics do, by focusing on a particular point in the subject's life. Darkest Hour and Lincoln both did that and succeed, I think for the most part Judy accomplishes it's task in the same way.

The film focus is on the period of time she was performing in London, less than half a year away from her death. There are a few flashback sequences, but the main story is set near the end of her life.  I made a comparison that might seem a bit strange when I was talking about this film, it reminded me of "Joker". The subject is the emotional and mental breakdown of of our subject. The childhood abuses in both stories are mentioned, but the real tragedy is the self destructive behavior that each is unable to extract themselves from. The audience will be frustrated by the wrong turn that the character makes and that is where we will feel the most emotional connection to the film.

Renée Zellweger is well cast with the kwepie doll face and diminutive stature. She nails Garlands voice and as far as I could tell, many of her mannerisms. The vocal performances are also very impressive. She is not recreating the original versions of the songs, but how those songs might have sounded at this stage of Garland's life and her physical stamina. I think come awards time her name will be prominently featured. I hope along that of her costar here Jessie Buckley, who turned in my favorite performance this year in "Wild Rose". That the two of them appear in this movie together is kind of a treat.

There may be things in the film that are not historically accurate but the movie feels emotionally accurate. The main performance is enough to recommend it but I think there is more than just the performance, it is a well crafted story of talent and self destruction. Probably a well worn path at this point in pop culture. 

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Movies I Want Everyone to See: Eight Legged Freaks


[Originally Published on Fog's Movie Reviews, Fall 2013]
Here is a Halloween Special for you all.


There is a long history of movies where nature strikes back at the human world. From the "Island of Lost Souls" to "The Happening", Mother Nature proves that she is not someone to be messed with. (Although running away from the wind may just be the one way to mess with her that would cause her to crack up and just stop trying to wipe us out). The most fertile period of time for these far fetched stories was the post war atomic age when exposure to radiation causes giant ants, killer rabbits, and irritated amphibians. In the lengthy annals of horror films featuring monsters that are simply real creatures pushed to the brink, no animal, fish or insect has been more widely used to terrify us than the spider. Most people instinctively withdraw their hands from proximity to a spider. The hair on the back of our necks raises at the thought of one normal spider crawling across our flesh. It is therefore no surprise that out sized spiders have been a go-to critter whenever a film maker is looking for a way to scare us. Our fear of spiders is also something that is regularly mocked. In "Annie Hall, Woody Allen's character jokes " Honey, there's a spider in your bathroom the size of a Buick." It is this combination of the frightening and the ridiculous that makes "Eight Legged Freaks" a movie that I want everyone to see.


025158_6This 2002 horror comedy has a enough to recommend it despite being cheesy as hell and way over the top. While there are a couple of legitimate scares and  plenty of creepiness to make this a fun horror film for anyone who doesn't want their terror too gory, the biggest selling point is the humor. This film is a hoot and should give you a couple of laughs to brush off the ickiness of watching spiders. Most of the laughs are intended unlike some other films in this unique category. A small dying Arizona town ends up being over run by spiders that have been contaminated by toxic waste.  It seems a spider wrangler named Joshua is planning on making a fortune selling these quickly growing arachnids to collectors and spider enthusiasts. The creepy Joshua is played by genre veteran Tom Noonan. His friendship with the bright preteen son of the local sheriff allows a little time for exposition on the spiders and their habits, once that is done, exit Joshua after providing a convenient start to the story. There is not much doubt that we will need that information later, because we get some nice quick little illustrations of what each breed of spider is capable of. Unfortunately, young Mike falls into "Wesley Crusher" syndrome and becomes the one source of knowledge that anyone needs for the rest of the movie.

Stills-eight-legged-freaks-2002-23442581-2100-1377 Mike's mother is the sheriff and she has eyes for the returning son of the deceased owner of the local mine. A largely superfluous romantic plot that gives star David Arquette something more to do when he is not reacting to big damn spiders.
Most of the plot details don't matter because the movie is an excuse to use CGI spiders that are huge and have them do creepy things to the locals. The number of other films referenced here is pretty substantial. There is a "Dawn of the Dead" vibe based around the location the locals choose to make their stand against the spiders. "Gremlins" is cribbed from as the spiders begin to overtake the town. The 1950s creature features are acknowledged with a clip from "Them!" playing on the TV in the background of one scene. "Eight Legged Freaks" plays out sometimes like a Frankenstein version of a horror film with a part inserted here and some leftover ideas from there being added on.

So if the movie is derivative and it is not really scary, what is it that would make you need to see it? The answer is twofold; fun shots of CGI Spiders and occasional Three Stooges type humor. The weaker of the two elements are the jokes. It is a hit or miss proposition, For every well placed L.Ron Hubbard crack, there is a bad piece of camera mugging by one of the actors. There is a cute oblique reference to a Monty Python Parrot sketch and then at some other point there is a slightly unfunny double take done by Doug E. Doug. Arquette actually ad-libbed his line about the big bugs being "eight legged freaks" and it is one of the pieces of dialogue that works and it became the title of the film as a result. If only all of the script's dialogue had had that sense of crazy frustration. There are a few too many Alien conspiracy jokes that involve anal probes. The film is directed at a tween audience, so there are romantic subplots and potty humor. This would be a pretty good Halloween Film for your 8 to 12 year old kids.
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The stronger argument for seeing the film concerns the spider shots. There are some cool ideas that work despite the ancient CGI technology involved. At one point a teen is being chased by spiders that can jump twenty yards at a time, he rides his motorbike through the hills and makes a jump himself that has a fun kick to it. Of course a dozen other kids get taken and are never heard from or referenced again. This is a comedy after all not really a horror show. The old barber who take refuge in the sporting goods shop, is followed by an animated tent across the floor of the store. It is a corny joke that works because none of this is being taken seriously. Even the sections where you don't actually see the spiders are visually interesting. Trap door spiders start taking down ostriches at a local ranch and the vanishing birds are the punchline. There is a great showdown between a cat and one of the big spiders that takes place inside the walls of the deputies home. It is visualized in an amusing way and it sets the tone for the film early in the stages of the spider invasion.


Stills-eight-legged-freaks-2002-23442634-2100-1153The initial stages of the spider invasion feels like that section of "Gremlins" when the gruesome little monsters take over the town. All hell breaks loose and there are panicked citizens running through the streets. Some people get wiped out and others stare in disbelief as it happens. Then they run and some comic bit with a spider trying to eat a stuffed moose-head is inserted. The lead up to the town being over run is sometimes not as fun as it should be but once the shooting of spiders starts the mayhem turns into the goofy monster-fest the film has wanted to be from the beginning.


EightLeggedMall
The last act of the film features a march of arachnids not seen since "Starship Troopers". Hundreds of giant spiders crawl over the screen and the locals try to shoot, squash, stab, fry and puncture them. Plenty of green splatter fills the edges of the movie, instead of the blood that would be there from the humans being shredded. The use of "Itsy Bitsy Spider" as a musical motif keeps things light in spite of the dozens of casualties the townsfolk run up during the attack.

As I re-watched this, I experienced many cringe worthy moments of humor that failed and acting that isn't. The kids in the movie are wooden, including a very young Scarlett Johansson. Her next movie would feature that shot of her behind that opens "Lost in Translation", but here she is playing a little younger and sexy is not really the mood they were looking for. David Arquette is better suited for a role like the weird deputy in "Scream" than he is for playing action hero. Doug E. Doug and Rick Overton are the comic relief and both of them mug shamelessly for the camera. The human element is not the movies strong suit.  Don't worry though because big ass spiders are coming and once they start overrunning the town, you will have a pretty fun time.

There are better horror films and there are better horror comedies. "Arachnophobia" may be the best analogous movie but it lacks spiders  the size of a tank and visuals of people being dragged off and spun into webs. Even though this is the mildest recommendation I have yet made for "Movies I Want Everyone to See", there is something that makes me push the button for this movie. It's probably just that I'm tickled by shots like this:Wallpaper-eight-legged-freaks-2002-23442625-800-600
Richard Kirkham is a lifelong movie enthusiast from Southern California. While embracing all genres of film making, he is especially moved to write about and share his memories of movies from his formative years, the glorious 1970s. His personal blog, featuring current film reviews as well as his Summers of the 1970s movie project, can be found at Kirkham A Movie A Day.

Monday, October 21, 2019

John Carpenter's "The Thing" at the Million Dollar Theater

Let me give you a list here; "Lawrence of Arabia", "Alien", "The Thing", "Dune", "The Man who Would be King".  Can you guess what all of these films have in common? If you have been a regular on this site you will probably figure it out. These are films, that I will never pass up an opportunity to see on the big screen. It's not simply that they are among my favorites, they all have qualities that make a theater presentation worthwhile. Yesterday was a chance to once again experience John Carpenter's masterpiece of science fiction horror in it's natural environment, 40 feet tall and 60 feet wide.

This trip was a lot more than just a screening of the film however, it was a chance to go back in Los Angeles History a little bit. L.A. rightfully is criticized by some as not being a city so much as a collection of neighborhoods. There is a downtown section, and it does resemble a big city, but for many years it has been neglected. The classic movie palaces that lined Broadway have not necessarily been maintained as well as they might, but more and more, the residents of the city have begun to appreciate these venues and they are being reused for a variety of purposes. I think I visited the Million Dollar Theater as a child, but I know I have not been there in more than a half century. This month however, Cinema Phantasmagoria is offering horror films at the theater, along with an immerse experience, plus a tour if you are so inclined. So who can resist?



Parking in Downtown L.A. is iffy most days but Sunday evening it was exceptionally packed in the lot we chose, which was just around the corner from the theater.

We were about 45 minutes early to the tour time we had scheduled so we took a side trip to a different part of L.A. history, we went across the street to the Bradbury Building. Movie fans will recognize the inside of the lobby of this building from dozens of films. Two fairly prominent examples are "Double Indemnity" and "Blade Runner".


The interior continues to be spectacular, and it's use in "Blade Runner" also made it relevant to this post because the theater is prominently seen as Rick Deckard is entering the building for his confrontation with Roy Batty.



Our view of the theater from the front of the building shows only a few changes to the Marquee but otherwise the location and the general look are the same.



After we checked in, we went on the "haunted" backstage tour of the theater. Entering in a creepy alleyway on one side, we went into dressing rooms, the green room and several locations where a mysterious death occurred at the theater. The story is part of the charm of the tour so I will not repeat it here, but it does enhance the history of the theater a bit. 



The prologue to the movie was not as elaborate as in the old days but there were costumed characters doing some skits as part of the haunted theme. "Archie" was our host and he invited one of the other dead ushers up to share some talent.


When the movie finally started it was the same great experience that has frightened fans for 37 years now. The dog in the opening section is really the best actor on screen during that time. The dozen guys who make up the camp are also pretty darn good. 

It was just a couple years ago that I wrote about this film for a screening at the Egyptian Theater. That presentation featured a 70mm print that had not been modified so the colors were off from it's original presentation in 1982. Still it had a lot to recommend it, including the awesome soundtrack and the correct aspect ration. I'm certain this was a digital presentation, there were no film signatures and the screen reflected no wear and tear at all. The sound was solid but not as impressive as the system and acoustics at the American Cinematique.

Three sequences of horror always standout when I watch this film. The first is the discovery of the alien organism as it attempts to take over the other dogs in the pack shed. As great as the special effects are, it is the dog trainer's talent that comes through the most in this sequence. Those "real" dogs seem to be terrified and struggling to get away. The one dog trying to yank the chain link fencing of the kennel apart is particularly convincing. The sound effects here add to the confusion and fear among the human team, as the animals sound pitiful and frightening at the same time.

A second scene that gets us jacked up with fear adrenaline is the moment that Charles Hallahan's character of Norris appears to be having a heart attack, and the Doctor tries using a defibrillator on him. We are treated to a gaping chest cavity opening up and chewing off the Doctors arms, but even more gruesomely, Norris's head becomes it's own entity, springing legs and crawling around like some nightmarish spider.  David Clennon's Palmer has maybe the most quotable line from the movie at that point.  


The third great sequence has less to do with Rob Bottin's brilliant special effects and make up, but rather the suspense that goes along with it. As each of the characters tied to the couch awaits the verdict from the blood test, we feel tension mounting. The discovery that one of the guys there is not really their co-worker but a manufactured version, we get a visual treat to go along with it, but the payoff is another quote that got a great audience reaction. Garry, the CO played by Donald Moffat shares a controlled piece of impatience and then explodes with a stinger that provokes laughter. 

We can have a discussion about the ambiguity of the conclusion of the film some other time. For now, I am going to wrap this up with a few more pictures of the venue to commemorate a great Sunday evening in October.



  

Monday, October 14, 2019

40th Anniversary Screening Alien



I know I am an old man in comparison to most of those doing movie blogs, but it is still hard for me to believe that it has been forty years since "Alien" first showed up on screen. It sure does not look like a 40 year old film, with maybe the exception of some computer graphics. This movie is one of the great examples of production design enhancing the movie at every turn. Since I have written about this film before, I'm going to try and develop some of the aspects of the movie that may be sometimes overlooked but are crucial to making it work.

H.R. Geiger and Jean 'Moëbius' Giraud deserve the rightful praise for the creature and environmental design work they did. Oscar nominees Michael Seymour, Leslie Dilley, Roger Christian and Ian Whittaker should also be saluted for turning this movie into a template for future Science Fiction films. The first character we met in the movie is The Nostromo, a mining ship returning from an extended mission to the outer rim of the galaxy. There is a long slow pan across the outside of the ship that moves across it's underbelly and shows us the haphazard placement of unidentified technology that makes up the ship. When we slip inside the vehicle, the camera moves around dark dank corridors of the mining platform, through to the command module of the ship and then to the crew quarters. There are empty coffee cups and food containers and a variety of nick knacks that might be left around by a group of people on a long term project. We can see objects on stands shimmy with the movement of the space craft, and there is one of those perpetual dunking ducks, that is still working, even as the crew slumbers in hibernation. As the computer comes on with new instructions to awaken the crew, we see the screen reflected on the visor of a flight helmet. This is an interior that we come to understand. It is complex but also well used. 

The hibernation chamber is probably the cleanest hi-tech room we see, and after that, the med-lab. When you get into the mining platform, it is all dark corridors and steam pipe fittings and condensation falling like rain down on equipment and people. The escape shuttle looks sufficiently cramped and dark so it was not hard to imagine why Ripley did not see the Alien tucked into a tight space at the start of her escape. Of course the vessel on the planet is also a design of gargantuan proportions and it is otherworldly through and through. 

For other comments on the film, let me direct you first to my original project, where Alien was the focus of the 11th post I did.  Four years ago I did a special screening of "Alien" and "Aliens" at the Egyptian theater, which included some special effects guests and was very good. 

 

It was a nice day to celebrate the 40th anniversary of this essential film. 

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Evil Dead Franchise Look back

The LAMBCAST will be featuring "The Evil Dead" Franchise as our Halloween Horror lookback episode of the month. Recording is tomorrow but I just spent two days catching up with all four theatrical films and thought I'd put my notes down in a supplemental post for readers of this site.

The Evil Dead (1981)




I'd seen Evil Dead II before I saw the original, and I'd been told that the film was basically a remake of the first film. I would disagree to a large extent. The original Evil Dead is a straight horror film with a huge amount of gore and imagination to drive it. It practically invented to "Cabin in the Woods" trope found in so many horror films. Although the story is basically the same, it is told in a vastly different manner and should be approached as a distinct piece of work from the two "sequels".

The inventiveness of the film is certainly due in part to the budget restrictions of Sam Rami and his partners. Creative camera shots and vivid makeup effects mark the film as being distinctive from most horror films of the era. The cast feels haunted before they even get to the cabin, based on the way they are shot while traveling in the car to their weekend location. The stop motion animation that caps off the climax of the film uses very basic tools that require patience and a clear vision. It may look a little cheezy by today's standards but it works.

Bruce Campbell is launching his acting career with this movie and you don't see the cocky smart ass that he plays in most of his subsequent roles, but rather a more simple male lead. He was clearly abused by the effects team and I suspect his weariness reflects not just the character but the actor's real situation. Many be the most memorable incident in the film and the whole series is the "rape" of Cheryl  by the possessed trees of the forest. It is disturbing in the imagination, but much less graphic and exploitative than it might have been in another film.


Evil Dead II : Dead by Dawn  (1987)




So this was my gateway drug into the series, first experienced on home video at a Halloween party after all the small children had gone to sleep. This is the place where Bruce Campbell creates the character of Ash as the real star of the movie. His monologues with inanimate objects, and his moments as possessed Ash are very memorable. This is where the Chainsaw becomes a part of his body and he becomes a ninja warrior against the dead.

While still full of horror, the film can rightly be classified as a comedy because of the consistent use of humor. Rami's sped up camera work and point of view material supplements the Dutch angles of the horror original with a hyper realized sensibility that is slightly silly and easy to fall into rhythmically.   The whiplash dialogue responses of Ash to moments in the film also accelerate it's tempo, making it a more frenetic experience and again, a lot funnier. There are a couple of quotable moments but that line of delight waits for the third film to turn into a tidal wave.

Once again, the horror aspects are highlighted by very good 1980s practical make up effects. The reason these 80s films hang around and are beloved by so many is that they seem real. This is not a computer generated cartoon of a movie, these actors had to look this way as they were filming and their performances are more manically gleeful as a result. Everything in this film tries to double down on the original. Instead of calling this a sequel, we should rightly classify it as one of the original reboots of a concept. The events of the first film are never referred to, this is a first time experience for all of these characters. Instead of a group of five friends, it is a collection of sets of people who encounter the Evil Dead and respond in different ways. This adds a little culture clash to the humor as well.

Bonus: Here is a shot of my Special Blood Red Edition of the Laserdisc


Army of Darkness




You can almost exclude this from the horror category, it is an action/adventure comedy with horror elements but it really is a far cry from either of the first two films. The budget is bigger, the action is bigger, the cast is bigger and Ash's ego is bigger. Universal did not want the film to just be seen as the third in a franchise that was not necessarily that big to begin with. So they changed the title and forced some other alterations on the original version. Most cinephiles loathe when studios interfere with the director's vision of the film, but sometimes they are right and this is one of those cases.

For instance, the end of the picture was re-shot with an action sequence and some comedy that was more in line with the film we had seen up to that point. The original post apocalyptic ending feels like a retread of the ending of Evil Dead II, landing Ash in another location for further adventures. Rami and company were forced to come up with some things that fit the spirit if the main part of the movie, and "Hail to the King,baby" is the perfect exit for this character in this storyline.

I have always been a sucker for stop motion animation and effects. The Ray Harryhausen films and the original King Kong were my idea of perfect special effects. This movie uses a little of that technology, a lot of rear projection, some costuming and make up and a large amount of puppetry to achieve it's goal. This film is goofy fun, through and through. Bruce Campbell becomes the man-god that will be his persona for the remainder of his career, probably preventing him from achieving legitimate stardom, but projecting him to the cult deity that he remains today.  For a more elaborate discussion of this film, feel free to look at this other post:  Army of Darkness.


Evil Dead (2013)




This is a complete do over of the concept and it was controversial as a result. There is no Ash, and the comedy elements are all gone. What you have here is a reworking of the original premise as a contemporary horror film, but done in the spirit of the original. So the question is simple, does it work?  Hell yes!

When I see a horror film, I want to be scared. This movie scared me. I like 70s and 80s gore films, and this movie replicates and expands on those approaches with copious amounts blood, guts, vomit. dismemberment and simply sick special effects. One of the things that was most appealing about this version is that it eschews the use of CGI to achieve it's results and instead relies on the traditional make up and effects magic which made those early films so memorable. There were many times when I needed to draw a breath or turn away from something that was taking place on screen.

There was also an effort to update the movie in a way by changing the reason for the group being at an isolated cabin from a leisure activity, to a drug intervention. The members of the group have had good relations in the past, but they are severely strained by the current circumstances. This adds to the drama and it also creates some justification for the slow reaction to the supernatural events that begin to happen.

One thing that is a little different, the protagonists develop a plan for trying to get through this. It is nuts, but you can tell that it was justified by the characters in the movie and it seemed reasonable under the circumstances. All of these kinds of movies have to be taken with a grain of salt. You cannot patch a chest wound to the lungs with a band aid and if you cut off a body part, you will bleed to death without some sort of tourniquet. There is a nice emotional undercurrent to the film as well, one that concerns family and not just horror. If we can't see some human connection between the people in the story, they will be cardboard figures to cut down. That is a problem that so many horror films don't overcome, but I thought this one did. [My original review from 2013 is here.]




Friday, October 11, 2019

Joker



No my friends, I did not fall off the face of the Earth, although there have been some days when I wish I had. In the month since I last posted, my world has been one of great ups and horrible downs, and I'm not going to go into that in detail. Just suffice to say that my perspective on this film might be influenced at times by my own emotional jumping jacks, so this will be a first pass at a written review. I will probably come back and re-evaluate the movie when my head is clearer and it is awards time. I am pretty certain this film will be up for a number of end of year accolades. the question is, should it be?

The first teaser trailer for this movie doesn't really tell any of the story or give you much context, all it really does is tell you that this movie will be different, and brother is it. This is a grueling examination of a man's mental collapse and the consequences to the rest of us when such obvious problems go unaddressed. It is also easy to sympathize with the main character up to a point. He is down trodden but still game, he lives a fantasy with his mother that all is well, and some moments he appears to be warm and tender. That however is the point of the movie, appearances are deceiving but pain will not be fooled, it will win out in the end and woe to those in the way when it happens.  I have seen some political chatter on this film, suggesting it is an apology for one group of fanatics while at the same time inciting another group of fanatics. I don't see either of those as credible evaluations of what the film presents. Only in the tortured machinations of some deconstructivist social thinker can those points make much sense.  The social failures in Arthur Fleck's life are too numerous and diverse to lay blame on a political foundation. By the time the story is finished, you will be horrified by what happens, not inspired to act out, or, you will be frustrated by storytelling that takes advantage of the Batman/Joker trope that the Joker always lies.

The performance of Joaquin Phoenix in the lead will be one of the safest points to make comment on. His acting is effectively tortured and creepy in the right spots, but he also manages to beguile us on occasion as a misunderstood outsider who has simply run into a number of difficulties that have warped him. Physically, as other actors before him have done, he transforms his body into an emaciated skeleton with angles and crevices that are disturbing to think about. His vocal performance is calm, despite the condition he has that results in uncontrollable laughter at inappropriate times. His interviews with the social worker are all controlled rage while seemingly subdued on the outside, Once his full transformation is achieved, the part is much more standard. Of course standard Joker would mean over the top behavior and Phoenix manages that as well.

Assuming one half of the story we are given is true, and that is a big assumption, it seems improbable at best. Maybe Gotham City is a powder-keg waiting for a spark to ignite it, but we never see any of that. The resentment of the rich is a media transference from the status of the first people who feel  the evolution of Arthur. The earlier beat down he suffered had little to do with economic necessity or social inequity, rather it is just a typical moment of horror that we have seen on the news regularly for years. A random pedestrian cold cocks a man on the side of the head, and that man dies. On lookers participate. These days the participation might be recording the incident instead of intervening. It is still reprehensible. When Arthur is attacked the second time, we can root for him like Paul Kersey, it is an act of self defense. However, we see Arthur lose control, he is no vigilante at that point, he is a monster. The creation of a rich versus poor dichotomy in this vision of Gotham is the invention of media types, willing to exploit an opportunity.

The movie is brave in a way most commercial films are not. Todd Phillips and Scott Silver are not afraid to let us see the emptiness that Arthur faces on a regular basis. The world is concentrated gloom delivered in a visual style that is dark when it comes to the colors but lively when there are dramatic moments to play out. Phoenix dominates the scene most of the time but the peripheral characters are important as well. To me the most troubling aspect from the view of someone who might be a comic book aficionado is the portrayal of Thomas Wayne ans an indifferent corporate overlord. We get a completely unnecessary retelling of the events that propel young Bruce to his future, and I get the feeling it was only included to remind us of the universe this story is supposed to take place in. This is actually a second DC Comic based movie for actor Brett Cullen who plays Thomas Wayne. He was also the Congressman who gets taken for a ride by Catwoman in "The Dark Knight Rises".  The political aspects of the film are minor details to the main story which is the de-evolution of the protagonist.

I like most horror films, so I have a high tolerance for bad things happening to people. I don't care for torture material however and the length of this movie and the absence of any other perspective does make it seem a bit torturous to watch. If you find any humor in this experience, at best it will be of the morbid variety, and there will not be laughter but head shaking. Really, I feel as if I've seen a movie that is important, but I have a hard time explaining why. I think the film is compelling but it is repugnant at the same time. I wanted to praise it more than I can but I also want to damn it more than needed. Forget all the political/social justice baloney that people will try to cram down your throat, this is a film that can provoke a good discussion without mentioning ant party, issue, figure or cause. Maybe that is the best justification I can give you for seeing this, you want to know what you are talking about.


Friday, September 13, 2019

Breaking Away 40th Anniversary Screening Egyptian Theater: American Cinematique

It has been nine years since my original post on this film from the Summer of 1979. I'm sure that I have revisited this movie at least once in that time but not in a theater so it was not included in any post that I have done in the intervening decade. Since the original post was included in my "Movie A Day" project, it is heavy with personal remembrances and observations about the events in my life when I first saw the film. "Breaking Away" was a movie that was released at a pivotal time in my life and that is one reason I cherish it.



Other than my personal reflections however, there are a huge number of reasons to love this movie and they were all on display last night at the Egyptian Theater. The American Cinematique had wrangled up a large portion of the cast to come and talk to us about the film, and the stories they shared about their casting, acting and behind the scenes moments were fascinating. First however, a few notes about the movie itself.

For those of you who are not familiar with the film, let me give you a quick thumbnail infocluster to bring you up to speed. "Breaking Away" is a combination of "Rocky" and "Stand by Me", with a slightly older cast, no serious threat of violence, and bicycles instead of boxing gloves. It is a positive twist on the coming of age story, one where the family is strengthened by the events of the film rather than damaged by them. Dave, the enthusiastic cyclist played by Dennis Christopher, is a young man in search of himself, but somewhat blinded by his friendships with the high school buddies he hangs out with. His father despairs of him ever doing something with his life and is even more frustrated by the personae his son has adopted, as an Italian immigrant. Dave is not delusional or deranged, he is merely caught up in his idol worship of the Italian Cycling team from Cinzano. The fantasy feeds his own skills and determination when training and it offers a refuge from the uncertainty of the future.

Although his friends are a major component of the film, and they are listed as the lead characters of the movie, the real relationships that are the basis of what happens are those that Dave has with his parents. Oscar Nominated Barbara Barrie, is a supportive, patient and soothing rock that Dave can always feel as the foundation of his existence. We learned last night, that the critical scene where she shows Dave her Passport and dreams of the things it might represent to her and others, was largely improvised by the two actors. Her smile and demeanor, and the way she holds the passport up for him to see as she subtly suggests he take advantages of all the opportunities before him, is probably the moment that cinched her recognition by the Academy.

As great as Barbara Barrie is in the film, she is matched moment by moment by the actor Paul
Dooley playing Dave's exasperated father. Mr. Dooley was present last night for the screening. He sat in the row behind me and was there for half an hour at least before the movie began. One fan approached him in search of an autograph which he graciously provided. I am a long time resident of Southern California. Celebrity sightings are not uncommon and I have always tried to be polite and non-intrusive, but I have to admit his presence got the best of me last night. Instead of remaining detached and respectful of his space, I did approach him as I headed up to the lobby before the show, I offered my hand and a brief admiration of his performance. As I'm sure he has heard a thousand times before, I shared how his performance reminded me of my own father and he smiled and said that he modeled his role on his father. He mentioned that fact again in the conversation after the film with the whole audience, but for that moment, it felt like we were sharing a thought just between the two of us. I have always maintained that he was overlooked that year for acting honors and I hope that the good wishes of fans like me can compensate a bit for that oversight. In the movie he is gruff, romantic, sarcastic and ultimately the kind of father that all of us would love to have.

Mike, Cyril, and Moocher are the three friends that Dave has tied his fate to at the moment. The screenplay, which won the Academy Award that year, treats each of these characters in a complete way. Not all of their problems are solved at the end of the movie, but we know them better and they are on a clearer path than before the story unfolded. Dennis Quaid is the embittered Mike, a high school football star doomed to watch other young men achieve athletic success at the University while he fades away. Mike is not a sympathetic character for much of the film. He acts like a local bully as a way of retaining some sense of worth, and he demeans his friends when they suggest that they need to move on. Of the four young men, he needs to do the most maturing if his life is to get better.

Cyril and Moocher are less critical to the main events but they are essential to understand the relational dynamics going on. Cyril is the put upon, sad faced joker of the group. He is the Eeyore to Dave's Pooh. Daniel Stern, who has had a terrific career starring in comedies that most of us know well, was also present last night. He talked about his own casting, and how he really was not sure that he'd gotten the part. This was his first film and his enthusiasm was infectious. He and Dennis Christopher had to keep prompting one another on memories of shooting the film. Before he sat down, he proudly displayed the Cutters t-shirt he was wearing under his jacket. While there is certainly progress in the growing up of the kids in the story, as I said before, not everything is resolved. In the group celebration shot near the end of the movie, everyone has someone to celebrate with except Cyril, who still looks lost despite the accomplishment of the group. A good acting and directing choice. Moocher has a young wife and unbridled optimism at the future. Jackie Earle Haley was not present last night but all the cast members were very enthusiastic about what he brought to the film, and they recalled at the time, he was the biggest name in the cast having recently done the Bad News Bears movies.

Also attending the screening was actor Hart Bochner who played the Fraternity boy antagonist, Rod. Islands in the Stream". Although Rod might be seen as the bad guy in the movie, he really has little malice in his part. Most of the time he is reacting to the townskids. When the college kids go to the quarry to swim, the Cutters give them the cold shoulder. He reacts like a jealous boyfriend when the girl he is dating gets flowers and serenaded by an "Italian" exchange student. The only time he really seems to be a douche is when he is hitting on another co-ed as he drives her around campus. Bochner has a very effective moment of empathy and self loathing when Mike bashes his head on the quarry wall while racing Rod. Bochner also had to prompt Dennis Christopher on a couple of his memories about training for the movie.
This was only his second movie, after a film I wrote about earlier this summer "

One memory that Christopher did not need to be prompted on was the first day of shooting. He was extremely unhappy with the costumes and hairstyle that had been chosen for him. The implication was that he was a greaser rather than the naive young man embracing a fantasy identity. His self doubts were communicated to director Peter Yates and the actor and director altered to character to more closely reflect Dave as Dennis Christopher conceived him. It was a wise choice because Dave need to be the sympathetic center of the story and the other perspective would have undermined the audience reaction.

Both Stern and Christopher were moved by their participation in this film, early in their careers. Paul Dooley proudly stated that it was the best movie he ever appeared in and he thought it was his own best performance. I can't think of a reason to second guess any of these men. They also spoke very highly of the work done by actress Robyn Douglass who played Kathy, the girl that Dave is pursuing in his fake persona. All of them were also effusive in citing director Peter Yates as having a strong influence of the film. One of them mentioned how interesting it was that it took a British director to find the truth in an American family. Yates also helped shepard what were two screenplays into one, which turned the story into a more complete picture.

It is evenings like this which make living in the Los Angeles area worthwhile and the American Cinematique, whatever financial or management issues it might be facing, still knows how to put on a show.

courtesy American Cinematique

Monday, September 9, 2019

Ready or Not



Human beings are incredibly complex animals. While it is true that we have the same basic physical characteristics as other animals, for the moment, we are the only ones who can create elaborate stories to amuse ourselves. The detail, intricacy and inventiveness of some stories is amazing. The MCU has woven together twenty or so films so that ideas are connected in fairly logical ways. That is amazing. What is also amazing are the premises that we can invent for a story to exist in. "Ready or Not" doesn't have the internal logic of a comic book universe. It does not unify a variety of different story lines into a coherent single narrative like some films attempt to do [ex: Babel, Crash etc.]. This movie has only one idea, but it is a pretty good one. New members of a rich family must participate in a game ritual before they are truly accepted into the clan. That's all, except of course it isn't.

As a device for entertaining us, "Ready or Not" is a morbid little piece of film making that takes it's premise seriously, in spite of how preposterous it is. There are exit strategies available to the young couple which would abrogate all that follows, but that would deny us the pleasure of seeing the premise play out. So forget how the rules are supposed to work. Don't worry about internal consistency. Just sit back and watch the mayhem, root for the heroine and laugh at the gruesome macabre sense of humor that the story tellers have come up with.  Samara Weaving , a doppelganger for  Margot Robbie, plays Grace, the bride who is joining the eccentric and ultimately evil Le Domas family. Once the trap has been sprung, the movie is a series of escapes, close calls, character reveals and assorted Road Runner/Coyote antics, all with a heavy dose of violence.

The nice part of the story is we will actually like Grace. She is not a gold digger, she just happened to fall in love with the wrong man. The collection of misfits in the family is fun to watch because their privilege is so clearly on the surface and so exaggerated, no one will take this as a serious commentary on the haves and the have nots.  If you read a review of this movie that takes that point of view, be careful, the author is just full of it and you are being indoctrinated rather than informed by reading such clap trap. This is purely a work of imagination, a disturbed imagination, but certainly one that wants to amuse us rather than comment on the world around us. Grace discovers her situation, takes an appropriate amount of time to adjust to it, and then acts in a way that any of us might try as well. She continues to be a sound human being, and each time the horrible people she is up against try to take advantage of that. When at the end, the nature of the family "curse/agreement" is explained, it may seem over the top, but remember, this is just a story to entertain you.

The family is filled with quirky Aunts, entitled parents, climbing nephews and nieces, and some pretty unsympathetic help. This is another one of the places that makes little sense given the rules established in the story. Why the housekeepers and butler would be part of the ritual is not really explained, but why are you asking? This is about playing a game for no reason other than the fun of it. When random characters are dispatched by accident we will laugh at the sadistic way the writers found to visualize it on screen. As we see how inept some of the family is, we will be amused when those are the people who cause the mistakes or suffer the consequences of said mistakes.  All that we want is to keep rooting for the sympathetic Grace and wait for the comeuppance the family is earning for itself. The twists and turns are what this is all about.

Henry Czerny, Andie MacDowell and Adam Brody are faces I know from other films and that may be why they leave the biggest impression. Czerny is the cavalier head of the family who can't believe that anyone might challenge the established order of their universe. He also is the exasperated voice of the family when the unfortunate relatives screw up. MacDowell has moved from being the ingenue in the story, to being the main romantic lead, and now to the matron role that aging actresses get saddled with. The false sympathy she conveys shows that she has grown as an actress, who had to be dubbed in her first film, to someone who is competent in conveying a character, regardless of how realistic that character is. Adam Brody is on the brink of outgrowing the young callow characters he is playing in most things, but he got more to do in this film than he did in "Shazam!" earlier this year.

It says something about people when they can invent the scenario that comes up here. It might say even more about us that we could be amused by that scenario. This is a dark hearted comedy thriller. If you have the kind of sensibility that allows for you to laugh a a stranger's unfortunate demise, then you will probably enjoy this film. If you require that a story be logically consistent and exist in a real world scenario, better you stay away. If you have a sick appreciation of the absurd however, you will find this movie a romp right down your alley. Now all we have to do, is figure out which kind of player you are.