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Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Best and Worst Movies of 2011

As the year draws to a close, we here at Weird Movie Village get all misty-eyed, reflecting on the highlights (and lowlights) in filmed entertainment from the past 12 months.

Here are some of them. Keep in mind, if you haven't seen these, there may be spoilers...

THE BEST

1. Hugo. Somehow it's fitting that this would be the last movie I saw this year—just this afternoon, as a matter of fact. It perfectly fits into the WMV milieu, and I'll be discussing it in greater detail in a later post.

Martin Scorsese has taken a children's tale and made it relevant for adults, weaving in some wonderful, magical movie history history and a plea for film preservation to boot.

As Hugo and his spirited sidekick, Isabelle, Asa Butterfield and Chloe Grace Moretz are terrific, and Sir Ben Kingsley plays Georges Melies with a tragic dignity. Once a pioneer in special effects films, he's lost everything and now sells toys at the train station that Hugo—also a lost soul—inhabits. It's utterly charming, and elder statesman Scorsese probably understands the power of 3D better than any filmmaker of any generation.

2. Moneyball. Man, I loved this movie. Not only was it a fascinating study of the inner workings of major league sports, it featured a major league performance by Brad Pitt as Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane, who has a unusual plan to take his team to the top. Jonah Hill is fine as his nerdy, numbers-driven assistant, and Philip Seymour Hoffman adds another character notch to his belt as team manager Art Howe. And it was funny, too!

3. Crazy, Stupid, Love. This smart and frequently hilarious film showed us that romcoms don't always have to have "long distance relationship" or "meet cute" or "terminal illness" plot points (and you people know who you are) to carry them through. Just pair sad sack Steve Carrell with suave barfly Ryan Gosling doing his Pygmalion thing, throw in other dysfunctional characters, blend them all together and you've got comedy gold.

4. Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The little (well, not so little) movie that could. People scoffed at the idea of Fox rebooting its ancient series, especially as the films got more and more po'-faced and the TV series even worse, but most were blown away by a truly exciting prequel with lots of heart, seamless digital effects and another Academy-award worthy performance by Andy Serkis as Caesar. James Franco is believable as a research scientist (!) and John Lithgow gives the film its soul as Franco's father, battling against the debilitating effects of Alzheimer's disease.

5. Drive. Here Gosling plays a completely different character, a morally ambiguous stunt driver who finally gains a soul when he is motivated to rescue his neighbor (Carey Mulligan) from vicious thugs. Of course, this rescue involves splattery killings, but it somehow all works in Nicolas Winding Refn's strange, dark film that challenges conventional techniques and characterizations.

6. Shame. Dark is certainly the operative word to describe Steve McQueen's portrait of an emotionally blank sex addict named Brandon (Michael Fassbender) and his equally screwed-up sister with the quite literal name Sissy (Carey Mulligan).

Certainly not for all viewers, Shame features a fearless and literally stripped-down performance by Fassbender whose compulsions are never explained but are somehow linked to a horrendous childhood that Brandon and Sissy experienced.

7. The Devil's Double. Breezing through theaters in limited release earlier this year, this story of Saddam Hussein's son Uday and his body double Latif Yahia (both mesmerizingly played by Dominic Cooper) painted a violent portrait of the tumult in Iraq during the first Gulf War. Cooper provides two good performances as Uday, whose tastes for bloodshed and depravity are unchecked, and Latif, who finds himself at a moral crossroads.

Also worth mentioning is Fright Night, a decent remake of the 1985 original with Colin Farrell particularly striking as Jerry Dandridge. Instead of Chris Sarandon's suave man-about-town portrayal, Farrell is much more...well, feral. X-Men: First Class was an entertaining prequel, with James McAvoy and Fassbender lots of fun as the young versions of Dr. Xavier and Magneto.

Steven Soderbergh's star-studded Contagion took what could have been a really clinical plot about a contagious disease exploding around the world and made it fast-moving and fascinating. Martha Marcy May Marlene featured an outstanding performance by Elizabeth Olson as a damaged young woman who escapes from a cult in a movie that really creeps up on you.

THE WORST

There were a few stinkers from filmmakers who should've known better—nevertheless, they made a boatload of money and critics even liked a couple of them.

1. The crowning achievement of crap surely must go to The Hangover Part II. It's hard to believe that the creators of the original had anything to do with this, because it plays like it was done by opportunistic louts with no understanding of how the humor worked in Part I. It's flat, repetitive and frankly pretty disgusting. I only need remind you of Ed Helms' character and the "ladyboy" to help you understand. It's amazing that this sequel didn't derail the series, but I guess Part III is in the works.

2. Bridesmaids was a smash hit and earned many critical laurels, and I just don't get it. To me, it was just as disgusting as Hangover Part II, alternating between ridiculous slapstick, nauseating body-function comedy and absurd "women's drama." What's the sequel going to be called? Divorcees?

3. J.J. Abrams' Super 8 was eagerly anticipated but fell flat on its ass. I wasn't the only one who felt betrayed by this misfire. Half Spielberg-inspired memory piece, half Cloverfield-style monster scare film, it seriously failed to deliver on the latter part, devolving into a Michael Bay-style crash-and-smash fest with a stoopid monster that gave me a headache long before the end credits rolled.

4. Red Riding Hood. Dumb, dumb, dumb, this mess tries to add Twilight teen angst to a classic fairy tale, and it's ridiculous. And what's up with Amanda Seyfried? She seems to be in everything these days, but I find this googly-eyed blonde to be a particularly limited performer. As Dorothy Parker famously said about another actress, "She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B." More tragic was the appearance of the elegant Julie Christie as her grandmother. My God, did she really need the money that badly?

Insidious had the creators of Saw team up with the creator of Paranormal Activity, but the result was more of the latter—a cliché-ridden, alleged "horror film" for people who are scared of horror films. And Anthony Hopkins, who was enjoyable in last year's rather good remake, The Wolfman, was somehow talked into participating in The Rite, playing an exorcist who himself becomes possessed and babbles endless lines of pretentious dialogue until the demon is forced out—or the audience is forced to leave—whichever comes first.

2012 is already looking to be ruled by sequels and 3D spectacles. Tim Burton is expanding his 1984 short film Frankenweenie into a feature for Disney—ironically the company that fired him for making it in the first place. James Cameron is hauling his groaning 1997 epic Titanic out of drydock for another go-round in 3D. I'm interested in Mark Webb's take on Sam Raimi's Spider-Man franchise with the fresh-cast The Amazing Spider-Man. Wrath of the Titans is a sequel to the 3D remake Clash of the Titans—and it's also getting an upconversion! Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is surely one of the most anticipated releases of the year, and Christian Bale is back as Batman in The Dark Night Rises.

Suckers will fork over their money for Paranormal Activity 4, a franchise I absolutely fail to see the appeal in. Kristen Stewart is giving up sparkly vampires to appear as the title character in Snow White and the Huntsman. And Brad Pitt takes on zombies in Marc Forster's World War Z.

On the arthouse front, David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method, already in limited release, will be expanded in 2012. Actress Sarah Polley, whose 2006 Away from Her was terrific, has Take This Waltz. Tilda Swinton plays the mother of a teen who went on a high school killing spree in We Need to Talk About Kevin. And the Australian serial killer film Snowtown is coming early this year. Both of the latter are on my hot list and should be reviewed when available.

In the meantime, we here at Weird Movie Village wish you a happy and productive New Year!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Horrors for Christmas

Article first published as Horrors for Christmas on Blogcritics.

There are horror films for almost every holiday—Valentine's Day, Mother's Day, Halloween (of course)—even Independence Day (William Lustig's Uncle Sam). With Christmas just around the corner, it got me thinking about Yuletide-themed movies, and I came to the conclusion that most of them are pretty lame. Here's a select list...

1. Don't Open Till Christmas (1984). Actor Edmund Purdom also took the directorial reins for this sleazy English slasher. Yeah, I know you're saying "Edmund Purdom...who?" Well, he was in the original 1953 Titanic, some sword and sandal epics and sleaze like Frankenstein's Castle of Freaks and Pieces, so he knew his way around exploitation. Here he plays a police inspector on the hunt for a masked killer preying on men dressed as Santa Claus. You just know it's going to turn out that he was traumatized by someone dressed as Saint Nick as a young boy.

Man, is it cheap. Some of the sets are so small it looks like the actors are crouching to fit into the frame. And despite its '80s vintage, it has a distinctly sleazy '70s vibe, especially in its depiction of the Piccadilly Circus/nightclub milieu. Even cult vixen Caroline (Maniac) Munro, no stranger to sleaze herself, shows up to chirp a Eurotrash disco song.

And instead of being horrified by the murders, the obviously underdirected extras react with expressions of nausea or vague disappointment. It's probably the best of the bad Christmas horror films, because it delivers the gore with a thick slice of cheese.

Father Christmases are offed in a variety of amusing ways—burning, bludgeoning—even exsanguination via castration. Of course none of it is convincing, but that only adds to the fun. You have to wonder what Purdom was thinking as he was performing double duty here. "At last! An opportunity to stretch my talent" or "God, I need the money"? And the VHS sleeve (pictured here) was classic. How could you resist renting it with packaging like this?

2. The "And All Through the House" segment from Tales from the Crypt (1972). Joan Collins! Chloe Franks (Whoever Slew Auntie Roo, The House That Dripped Blood)! Sicko Santa! The first adaptation of the classic 1950s comic book series is by far the best. I remember seeing it at the State Theater in South Bend, Indiana, on a double bill with another Amicus anthology, From Beyond the Grave. I didn't dig Grave so much (insert groan here) but Tales was great. It's amazing that it got a PG rating back in the day, because it's quite tense and bloody (even though the blood is pink).

Joan was in the horror/trash phase of her career at this point. She'd already done Inn of the Frightened People, and I Don't Want to Be Born, in which she gives birth to a baby possessed by a circus dwarf—I'm not kidding—still lay ahead. Here, she plays a wife who decides to snuff her husband on Christmas Eve while her daughter is asleep upstairs. Bashing his brains in with a fireplace poker, she throws his body down the basement steps to make it look as if he'd fallen. Unfortunately, a news report interrupts the nonstop Christmas music on the wireless to warn citizens to be on the lookout for a deranged Santa who had just escaped from the mental hospital.

What follows is a lot of suspenseful fun as Joan runs around making sure all of the windows and doors are secure as the psycho Father Christmas peeps in. It's all for naught, however—daughter is too excited to stay asleep and sneaks downstairs, announcing: "Santa's here, Mummy! I let him in!"

Joan rushes to the fireplace, presumably to grab her old reliable poker, but Santa has his hands wrapped around her throat. Oliver MacGreevy, who plays the jolly old elf, should've won some sort of award for his performance. He effectively projected a perverted insanity that really creeped out my 13-year-old self and still does today. I mean, after he killed Mommy, what do you think he did with the kid?

The story was redone for the HBO series of the same name, and although it ups the ante in the gore department, the original is still tops in my book. You can see it here.

3. Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984). A triumph of marketing, this ultra-low-budget slasher was promoted with incredibly morbid television spots during the holiday season, causing parents' groups to go ballistic and get it pulled from theaters. It delivers on the gore and there are lots of silly breast shots—the ever-topless Linnea (Return of the Living Dead) Quigley is on board, and a girl even opens her front door to let out her cat, dressed only in tiny shorts.

It spawned an outrageous number of direct-to-video sequels that diverted from the original story (psycho Santa, of course). Mickey Rooney showed up for number five as a looney toymaker named Joe Petto (insert second groan here), even though he'd written a letter to the producers of the original complaining about the film back in '84! Guess he couldn't resist that check for $2.95 the filmmakers were waving in front of his nose.

4. Christmas Evil (1980). John Waters is among the fans of this killer holiday flick, which stars Tony nominee Brandon Maggart as a schmuck who sees Santa performing an intimate act on his mother as a child. Instead of loathing the guy, he becomes his number one fan, keeping his apartment decorated year-round and sleeping in a Santa robe. But when too many people diss Christmas, he snaps and decides to become Kris Kringle himself—well, a murderous Kris Kringle.

All of this takes a lo-o-o-ong time. With apologies to Mr. Waters, I found this this to be a really boring movie. At 100 minutes, it moves at a snail's pace and the killings don't start until the final 40 minutes. And there's weird, senseless stuff, too. He goes to the home of a bad boy who'd been looking at dirty magazines, but instead of killing him, he just covers his hands and face in mud and leaves impressions on the side of the house. Huh? And just when you think the killings are going to start in earnest (beginning with a pretty good eye impalement), the action stops dead again for an office party dance sequence.

5. Black Christmas (1974). Long before he made the perennial charmer, 1982's A Christmas Story, director Bob Clark plumbed darker Yuletide depths with this Canadian-lensed stalker. A group of sorority girls staying at school over the holidays receive obscene phone calls at Christmastime. When one of them, Barb (Superman's Margot Kidder), provokes the caller, he threatens to kill her. He follows through with his threat, and soon most of the co-eds are snuffed and stashed in the attic or basement.

The cast is interesting. Along with the aforementioned Kidder, who's fun as the drunk, chain-smoking Barb, there's also Olivia Hussey (Romeo and Juliet), Keir Dullea (2001: A Space Odyssey) and Andrea Martin (SCTV). Although the killings aren't really splattery, it does anticipate the slasher film boom of the 1980s, and the notion that the killer has been in the house the entire time dramatized a popular urban legend and gave birth to at least another film's plot (When a Stranger Calls). It's also very grim and nasty, with the killer's phone calls being particularly graphic and obscenity-laden.

The film was remade in 2006. Of course, the sleaze and gore stakes were raised considerably, and Martin came back, this time playing the house mother rather than a student. Otherwise, it's pretty routine.

6. Silent Night, Bloody Night (1974). This is one of those movies you just wish would be a lot better. Directed by Theodore (Sugar Cookies) Gershuny, it stars Mary Woronov, his spouse at the time, and horror vet John Carradine, with appearances by Warhol superstars Candy Darling and Ondine. With a cast like this, one really wishes it would have taken off into Morrissey/Warhol territory, but it's awkward, dark and slow-moving. It has its enthusiastic adherents, but to me it just seems like a horror film made by experimental filmmakers with no affinity for the genre—and that's why I especially wish they'd just gone ahead and made it really strange.

7. TV Christmas Episodes. Okay, they're not horror films, but there are a few Christmas-themed TV episodes worth mentioning. Oftentimes, Christmas has to be shoehorned into the plot of shows that don't naturally lend themselves to holiday whimsy. I'm reminded of the Yuletide-themed Dragnet in which Gannon and Friday work to find a Baby Jesus statue and return it to its creche in a Mexican-American church in time for Christmas mass. Wanted: Dead or Alive, starring Steve McQueen, had a cheesy episode in which a kid gives him eight cents to find Santa Claus.

Far more successful were the comedies. Who could forget the Mary Tyler Moore episode in which Mary is scheduled to work alone at the news desk on Christmas Eve, thinks there's an intruder in the building, and is surprised by her coworkers with an impromptu party?

Married with Children did Christmas Bundy style with a plot that featured a skydiving Santa plummeting to his death in their backyard. Like Silent Night, Deadly Night, it caused parents' groups to get carried away, banning the episode from syndicated reruns until a compromise was reached. Even today, it's prefaced with a "this is a work of fiction and none of this really happened" blah blah blah card. Frankly, I think today's kids are so tough and cynical that they'd look at it and say, "You mean there was a time when kids actually believed in Santa?" And they've already heard Justin Bieber's duet with Mariah Carey on "All I Want for Christmas Is You," so they're scarred for life anyhow.

Well, as I said at the outset, most Christmas-themed horror films are pretty lousy, and that's not even counting the biggest horror of them all, the 1978 Star Wars holiday special. I recommend the nonpareil 1951 version of A Christmas Carol starring Alastair Sim, which is...after all...a horror story.

And to all a goodnight!

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Grim Reaper Is Back

Motivated by the bizarre news that Natalie Wood's mysterious drowning case was being reopened, we at Weird Movie Village thought it was time to take a look at some of the celebrities who've shuffled off our mortal coil lately—and fit the category.

MARGARET FIELD. Perhaps most famous for being the mother of Sally Field, Margaret Field did lots of television work, appearing in all the important shows of the '50s and '60s, including The Twilight Zone, The Untouchables, Wagon Train, Perry Mason and Adam-12, to name a few.

Her film work was more limited, but her most notable role has to be Enid in Edgar G. Ulmer's cult classic The Man from Planet X (1951). Shot in six days for $41,000, it nevertheless has its ardent admirers. One of the earliest, if not the earliest, alien invasion stories, the speed with which it was produced enabled it to beat Invaders from Mars, War of the Worlds and The Thing from Another World into theaters, though they all went into production at about the same time.

ANDREA TRUE. Children of the '70s have the disco song "More, More, More" burned into their brains, but singing was only a part of True's true talents. Born in Nashville, she moved to New York as a teen to break into mainstream films, but only found work in porn. While she was in Jamaica appearing in local real estate commercials, she recorded the song she'll be remembered for—it even reached number four on the Billboard Hot 100 list.

Sadly, her music career burned out pretty quickly, and a goiter on her vocal cords eliminated any chance of a comeback. And, at age 40, she was too old to get back into porn. She ended up doing psychic readings in Florida.

CHARLES NAPIER. The lantern-jawed tough guy was a favorite of Russ Meyer, appearing in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Supervixens and Harry, Cherry and Raquel, but he's one of those ubiquitous actors that everyone recognizes from his many appearances. Like J.K. Simmons, he seemed to be in everything.

I always remember him as the cop guarding Hannibal Lecter in the makeshift cage set up in the gymnasium in Silence of the Lambs, and the way he screamed/snarled defiantly when the madman went in for the kill. But he also appeared in such first video generation favorites as Rambo: First Blood Part II, Something Wild, Maniac Cop 2—even Ruggero Deodato's 1987 slasher Camping Del Terror!

ALAN SUES. I only knew this flamboyant comedian from his appearances on Laugh-In and the Twilight Zone episode "The Masks," and I was surprised to see that he was 85 when he died. For some reason, I thought he was younger, but he served in Europe during World War II and used his veteran's benefits to study acting at the Pasadena Playhouse. He made his stage debut in "Tea and Sympathy"—duh—which is about an earnest teacher's efforts to make a man out of an effeminate student.

He really didn't work that much to earn such recognition, but what the heck. Like Paul Lynde, he was one of the pioneers of flamboyant characters in '60s television, even though he never came out publicly.

KEN RUSSELL. There's a whole post devoted to moviedom's madman, but we couldn't let the opportunity pass to acknowledge the loss of one of the world's most controversial filmmakers. Love him or hate him (and many do), he made some true classics (The Devils, Women in Love, The Music Lovers) as well as some stinkers.

The stinkers always seemed to come about when he was being dictated to by a studio or other financers. After the success of Tommy, it's clear that the studio wanted him to shape one of his musical biographies to fit then-hot Who frontman Roger Daltrey. The result was Lizstomania—and it's a mess. And seven years after Crimes of Passion, Trimark—a low-budget film and video distribution company—financed Whore, a similarly-themed film starring Theresa Russell—and it's dreadful.

My favorite Russell films are the aforementioned three as well as Tommy, Lair of the White Worm and Crimes of Passion. And I would rather watch a bad Ken Russell film than anything by Michael Bay.

HARRY MORGAN. With two big series to his name—Dragnet and M*A*S*H—I'm sure he was rolling in residuals, but he was also a Disney favorite and a television mainstay. It's funny how the obituaries are omitting his arrest for wife-beating in 1996. That was so strange when that news broke. Harry Morgan? It's like Pee Wee Herman being arrested for public indecency. Oh, wait a minute.

Morgan was part of the M*A*S*H cast that I liked best. McLean Stevenson's dipshit Colonel Blake didn't really do it for me, and I preferred Mike Farrell over Wayne Rogers, who always seemed like an unctuous used car salesman to me.

Morgan's first name was originally Henry, but he changed it in deference to the comedian and perpetual game show guest who had the same name but nowhere near the legendary status this guy achieved.

And he was quite liberal. A lifelong Democrat, he fought McCarthy's blacklist in the 1950s and appeared in plays for the Group Theatre, whose talents included Clifford Odets, Elia Kazan, Karl Malden and Lee J. Cobb.

BILL McKINNEY. This tough-guy character actor appeared in many famous films, including many for Clint Eastwood—"The Outlaw Josey Wales," "The Gauntlet," "Every Which Way but Loose," "Bronco Billy" and "Any Which Way You Can," but he will always be immortalized as the psycho hillbilly who sexually assaults Ned Beatty in Deliverance ("Squeal, piggy!").

McKinney's debut was David F. Friedman's 1967 She Freak but otherwise his filmography is pretty straight—lots of villains and other character parts in westerns, crime dramas and tons of television.

When I was about 14, I was visiting my family in Texas (I lived with my father in Indiana) and we went to a second-run house to see a double bill of Deliverance and Jeremiah Johnson. It was a strange combination, but it satisfied the weird movie lover in me.

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