Monday, October 31, 2011

Nerve's Favorite Cult Flicks

Werth here. the website that introduced Werth to Wise oh so many years ago has just published a listing of their 50 favorite cult movies. Sure they forgot to mention Phantom of the Paradise (1974), but there are lots of late-night gems listed. So take a couple moments this Halloween and join the cult!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Things that Go Gab in the Night

Wise: Happy Halloween, Werth!  

Werth: Boo to you too, Wise.  Any plans for the year's most haunted evening?

Wise: I thought I might curl up at home with a bowl of candy corn and a double feature of scary movies.  

Werth: Vincent Price in House of Wax and Bette Davis in The Nanny?  

Wise: Actually, I was thinking more along the lines of Katherine Heigl in 27 Dresses and The Ugly Truth.  

Werth: Heigl is a special kind of terrifying, but when I think of movies that scare me, only one movie is a guaranteed nightmare-causer, Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980).

Wise: I hope that has nothing to do with my unfortunate, one-time comment about Noxzema and your T-zone. 

Werth: Based on the Stephen King novel, The Shining stars Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance, a writer who packs up his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and young son Danny (Danny Lloyd) to be the caretaker of a closed-for-the-season hotel in the snowbound Colorado mountains. But the Torrance family is not alone in the Overlook Hotel, and soon the dark spirits that haunt the halls give a whole new meaning to cabin fever. 
The film is full of iconic horror images: REDRUM, Nicholson's face grinning through a hacked-open door, and those god-damned twins.

Wise: I assume you're not referring to the Olsens.

Werth: As with all of his films, Kubrick takes his time. The dread and fear of The Shining builds slowly with long tracking shots that follow Danny on his three-wheeler, holding us spellbound waiting for the horrors waiting around the next corner.
Kubrick uses the Overlook itself to put the audience on edge. The large ballrooms, hallways and rooms feel strangely claustrophobic, the emptiness of a normally bustling place causing an unease that leads to madness. And don't get me started on how uncomfortable the soundtrack makes me.

Wise: Let's not forget Jack O'Nicholson.

Werth: Let's not! Nicholson's angular eyebrows and wicked leer telegraph from the beginning that homicidal tendencies are not buried too deeply beneath his skin. While this makes his transformation less surprising, it is still, nonetheless, horrifying. Young Lloyd is ingenious, playing a kid's role that could be considered grounds for child abuse. 
But my favorite performance is from Duvall. Her bug-eyed awkwardness is perfect as she struggles to save herself and her son from the monster her husband has become—or perhaps always was. Behind the scenes footage shot by Kubrick's wife shows Kubrick assailing poor Duvall about her acting, turning her into a weeping, nerve-wracked mess. Whether Kubrick intended to shape Duvall's perforamnce or was just being an a-hole, in the end, Duvall, pardon the pun, shines.

Wise: Perhaps I'll postpone my Heigl-fest and delve into Francis Ford Coppola's foray into the blood-sucking undead, Bram Stoker's Dracula.  

Werth: Because Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula wouldn't fit on the marquees.

Wise: It was an attempt to bring the character closer to Stoker's original novel and away from the sinister elegance of Bela Lugosi's iconic version from the 1930's.  
Coppola begins the story in the 15th Century with a young and handsome Vlad Dracula (Gary Oldman) heading off to defend his castle and his bride from invading forces.  He defeats his enemies, although their treachery has convinced his young wife Elisabeta (Winona Ryder) that he has died in battle and she flings herself from the castle tower.

Werth: Tragically ending her budding medieval shoplifting career.

Wise: Heartbroken, the Count renounces his faith and swears allegiance to the darkness.  Skipping ahead 400 years, the film finds young lawyer Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) embarking on a business trip to Transylvania, but not before promising to marry his fiancée Mina (also Ryder) immediately upon his return.  
Imprisoning Harker with his three succubus brides, the Count journeys to London where he recognizes Mina as the image of his lost love and hatches a plan to seduce her into his undead existence.  

Werth: That's a lot of plot.   

Wise: And there's a lot more involving Hungarian nuns, a ruined Abby, gypsies, escaped wolves, a nickelodeon theater, grave robbing, stormy sea crossings, and stage coach chases.  

Werth: It's a grab bag of movie clichés.  

Wise: The movie itself is a mélange of styles and images: 19th Century paintings mixed with Byzantine design, classic Hollywood cinematography with 1960's cinema psychedelia, and capped off with a cast list that looks like credits on the best slacker film never made: Ryder, Reeves, Cary Elwes, Billy Campbell, Richard E. Grant, Tom Waits, plus Anthony Hopkins as grizzled vampire hunter Van Helsing.  

Werth: Reality Bites Before Sunrise.  

Wise: Something like that.  It's a weird mix of compelling and preposterous, but filled with definite chills and a few blood-spurting scares.  

Werth: Sounds like someone will be sleeping with a stake and a garlic necklace until Halloween is over.  

Wise: Heck, I'll even pop Katherine Heigl in Killers into the DVD player to keep the undead away until next week's Film Gab.  

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Happy Birthday, Joan! Er, the other Joan...

We here at Film Gab love to celebrate the lives and careers of our favorite stars from Hollywood's Golden Age, and while our personal pantheons often lead us to focus on a few usual suspects (Joan and Bette, Judy, Vincente and Marilyn), it's always good to remember that the Hollywood firmament is loaded with gems who don't always receive the attention they deserve.  

Born in Tokyo to British parents, Joan Fontaine eventually made her way to Hollywood where she became a reliable star who worked with some of the industry's greatest talents, including those behind the camera (Alfred Hitchcock, George Cukor) and those in front (Cary Grant, Laurence Olivier, James Stewart).  Today, unfortunately, Fontaine is largely remembered for being Olivia de Havilland's kid sister and for the decades long grudge match they have fought.  Which is a shame because this Oscar-winning actress (for Hitchcock's Suspicion) deserves better.  

Despite her obvious beauty, Fontaine projects a sincere every(wo)man quality that is an enormous asset when playing a woman trapped either in terrifying circumstances (Rebecca, Jane Eyre, Suspicion) or in the foibles of everyday life (The Women, The Constant Nymph).  

So, to celebrate Joan's 94th birthday, give yourself a little present by checking out one her films.  You'll be happy you did. 

Friday, October 21, 2011

Happy Hundred, Herrmie!

Werth: Hey Wise—Film Forum is at it again!

Wise: Did you bribe the programming director to schedule another Joan festival? 

Werth: Starting today, Friday October 21st, Film Forum is celebrating the centennial of legendary film composer Bernard Herrmann by showing 22 of his most famous films!

Wise: Wow! That's a lot of Herrmann!

Werth: Starting off with a bang in 1941, NYC native Herrmann composed the soundtrack to Orson Welles' mammoth film standard, Citizen Kane, and proceeded to churn out soundtracks for 34 years for unforgettable films like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), Cape Fear (1962) and even Taxi Driver (1976).

Wise: You left out all the great movies he scored for Alfred Hitchcock.

Werth: I saved the best for last. Herrmann scored some of Hitchcock's best including The Trouble with Harry (1955), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), North By Northwest (1959) and perhaps his most innovative and memorable score, Hitch's masterpiece, Psycho (1960).

Wise: I thought Hitchcock's masterpiece was Vertigo (1958).

Werth: Herrmann did that soundtrack too—but for my money Hitchcock was at his most clever and visually innovative in Psycho, and Herrmann's soundtrack was an integral part of the film's brilliance. 

To synopsize Psycho is pointless. It is one of the most well-known films in the world and its matchless shower scene a source of horror and parody worldwide.

Wise: And also the reason why I keep all the wigs and chocolate syrup under lock and key at my house. 

Werth: Brilliant shower scene aside, the rest of the movie is one smart, thrilling cookie. Clever shot set-ups that make inanimate objects living arbiters of fate; startling close-ups on impassive and horrified faces; the use of point-of-view to make us believe we have learned a secret, when in fact, like a master of cinematic sleight-of-hand, the truth is still concealed.  
Psycho is about the act of watching: the sunglass-ed highway cop (Mort Mills), Anthony Perkins' peeping Norman Bates, and the windows of the Bates House that gaze out like empty eyes—all for the most important voyeur—us. Herrmann's all-string orchestrations are critical to the schizophrenic pace of the film—at one moment manic and discordant, the next silent, conspicuous by its absence. 
It's said that Hitchcock originally wanted the shower scene sans music, but after he heard Herrmann's ideas, he literally changed his tune and now the screaming violins are inseparable from the iconic images of Janet Leigh soapily meeting her maker.

Wise: I'm a fan of Perkins as the ultimate momma's boy.

Werth: He was stellar as the pitiful Norman whose attempts to be normal are so neurotic they're creepy. Unfortunately it was a performance so memorable that audiences couldn't forget it, and Perkins never seemed to emerge from the shadow of the Bates Motel.

Wise: Shadows also play an important role in one of Herrmann's earlier works: the score for Jane Eyre (1943) starring Joan Fontaine as the titular heroine— 

Werth: She is very titular...

Wise: And a perplexing Orson Welles as her tormentor and lover Edward Rochester.  The film began as a radio play adapted by John Houseman for Welles' Mercury Theatre and was adapted again for the screen at 20th Century Fox using many of the same actors.  
Legend has it that Welles was the one to suggest emphasizing the noir aspects of the film—filling the screen with shadows, fog and murky vistas—which preserved the more Gothic aspects of Charlotte Brontë's novel and saved the movie from the rosier, more traditional Hollywood approach to classics.  

Werth: If only someone could have saved Welles' waistline.

Wise: Welles nails Rochester's brooding demeanor, although his plump, boy genius face seems entirely wrong for Brontë's haunted hero.  

Fontaine has an easier time of it, using many of the same tricks she perfected in Hitchcock's Rebecca: mostly a lot of trembling and hesitating, although the ferocity and devotion expressed through her eyes is fantastic.  Mercury regular Agnes Moorehead has a juicy turn as Jane's wicked aunt, and even an uncredited Elizabeth Taylor in her first screen appearance does a creditable job as Jane's sickly schoolfriend.  

Werth: "These Kleenex have always brought me luck."

Wise: But it is Herrmann's score that really brings all these elements together, combining the sweeping romanticism of strings with frequent tumbles into dissonance.  His music is both eerie and ecstatic, and the perfect compliment to the film.  

Werth: I'm ecstatic that we get to see so many of Herrmann's film's on the big screen.  

Wise: You have until November 3, to watch his best, and in the meantime we'll orchestrate plenty more Film Gab.  

Friday, October 14, 2011

Everbody Cut Gab-loose!

Werth: Hi, Wise!

Wise: Hi, Werth. Nice parachute pants and jelly bracelets.

Werth: This week they're releasing the re-make of Footloose so I can't decide which decade I should be dressing for.

Wise: My guess is the new Footloose will update its fashions, but maintain the theme of self-expression and freedom through dance.

Werth: With Dennis Quaid and Andie MacDowell in the cast, I'll bet we see some feathered hair or, at the very least, a scrunchy.

Wise: I'll definitely be peg-rolling my pants this weekend as I succumb to the the subtle charms of Step Up (2006).  

Werth: Step Up?  Um, isn't there a Judy movie you'd rather talk about?  

Wise: Judy was a great dancer, but I don't know that any of her movies could really be called dance movies.  Besides, Step Up is clearly the offspring of both the great MGM musicals of the 1940's and Footloose.  

Werth: I'm willing to entertain that possibility.  

Wise: Channing Tatum plays Tyler Gage, a Baltimore street tough with a heart of gold and quicksilver feet.  After a party one night, he and his pals break into the Maryland School of Arts to commit some good, old-fashioned vandalism.  Unfortunately, the cops show up and Tyler is sentenced to 200 hours of community service at the school.  
Once there, he meets cute with snobby rich girl Nora Clark (Jenna Dewan), and after her even snobbier dance partner/boyfriend Brett (Josh Henderson) sprains his ankle in a freak plié accident, Nora is forced to take Tyler on as her dance partner.  Of course she's horrified by his urban inflected moves, and he finds her classical training preposterous, but eventually, they grow to respect each other's talents and fall in love.  

Werth: The plot is equal parts The Band Wagon and Breakin'

Wise: Exactly.  Plus, both Tyler and Nora have quirky best friends who also fall in love, so Step Up basically shares the same structure—  

Werth: As just about every musical made before 1950.  

Wise: But there's no singing in Step Up, just a lot of dancing.  And a lot of that fancy footwork focuses on the contrast between Tyler's street rhythms and Nora's ballet school formalism.  Director/choreographer Anne Fletcher has a lot of fun blending their disparate styles, as well as using the tension between the two to build toward the climactic final number: a kinetic routine filled with hip hop flash modulated by traditional forms.  

Werth: So, you really like Step Up?  

Wise: I wouldn't go that far.  It's not a particularly good movie, but it is a rousing one that makes you want to throw aside your cares and hoof it like there's no tomorrow.  

Werth: One of my favorite dance movies is less hoof and more hankie. Dancer in the Dark (2000) on paper doesn't have the pedigree that you would associate with a musical. Director Lars von Trier is known for his heavy, oppressive dramas with realistic filming techniques like handheld cameras and naturalistic dialogue and acting. With Dancer, von Trier decided to bring some Dogme 95 "realism" to the Hollywood musical.

Wise: Which sounds a bit like bringing a dead fish to a candy shop. 

Werth: Dancer tells the story of Selma (the semi-intelligible Icelandic chanteuse Bjork), an immigrant worker in the Pacific Northwest in the 1960's who toils at a metal fabricating plant and in odd jobs to save up enough money to pay for an eye operation for her young son. She knows how critical this operation is because the eye disease is genetic and she herself is going blind.

Wise: Wow. No "raindrops on roses" or "whiskers on kittens" in this one.

Werth: Selma's one escape from her punishing life is her love of Hollywood musicals, so she is thrilled to be cast as Maria in a chintzy community theater production of The Sound of Music.

Wise: Being blind is going to make climbing every mountain a bit more difficult. 

Werth: As usual, von Trier turns the world against his fragile, reality-challenged heroine and without uttering any spoilers, let's just say Selma does not make it to "Edelweiss." But through his over-heated sense of tragedy, von Trier creates a character who is both healed and destroyed by song and dance—questioning how much fantasy is good for us. 
Bjork is the perfect muse for von Trier (even if they wound up hating each other on set) with her naturally childlike personality infusing the role with an ethereal quality. She seamlessly transports us from her job on the factory floor to a musical daydream where she is whirled around by stomping and clapping co-workers. 
Her final scene is horribly tragic—perhaps because, suddenly, this elf-like creature is made human by her un-Hollywood musical ending. Bjork's Oscar-nominated score is lyrical and percussive and the final song, "New World," is so beautiful it's worth sitting through the final credits for. 
Fine supporting work from Catherine Deneuve, David Morse, Peter Stormare and irrepressible musical icon Joel Grey make Dancer in the Dark a must-see... no matter what you thought of Bjork's avian-inspired Oscar dress.  

Wise: I'm feeling pretty inspired to go cut a rug.  

Werth: Just as long as you roll up next week for more Film Gab.  

Friday, October 7, 2011

Gabbers Aweigh!

Wise: Ahoy, Werth!  

Werth: Um, hi, Wise.  What's with the yachtsman's cap?  

Wise: I went sailing with my parents last week and I've been feeling pretty nautical ever since.  

Werth: Does this mean that you've been making tuna noodle casserole for dinner?  

Wise: No, but it does mean that I'm itching for cinematic adventures on the high seas.  

Werth: Ooh! Set sail, Cap'n Wise! Set sail!  

Wise: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) emerged from Wes Anderson's deep affection for Jacques Cousteau's oceanic travelogues, and it follows the title character's (Bill Murray) faltering career as an undersea documentarian and the comic misadventures that unfold as he pursues both a relationship with the son he abandoned (Owen Wilson) years before and revenge upon the fabled jaguar shark that made a fricassee of his best friend.  

Werth: Is the jaguar shark part fish, part cat? 

Wise: The Life Aquatic is perhaps Anderson's most whimsical film.  Always a writer/director with a very specific point of view, Anderson allows his boyhood fancies to drive this film closer to fantasy than any of his other work.  Of course his usual preoccupations are on full display—strong mothers and absent fathers, the dreamer battered by experience, densely layered set and character design—and they mix with the outlandish elements with varying degrees of success.  
There's a marvelous image of Anjelica Huston lying dreaming in an underwater observation pod, while the final encounter with the elusive jaguar shark seems freighted with undecipherable meaning.  

Werth: It's totally undecipherable. How would a jaguar be able to hold its breath long enough to mate with a shark to make jaguar shark babies?

Wise: I have to admit that Aquatic isn't my favorite Anderson film, although it does reward repeated viewings.  It's always interesting to watch a filmmaker reach beyond his usual concerns, plus the shaggy nature of the movie allows for for some standout performances, including Cate Blanchett as the kind of tough-talking yet vulnerable girl reporter Katherine Hepburn might have played, and Michael Gambon as Zissou's silver-tongued producer on the lam.  
Also of note is the gorgeous undersea menagerie designed and animated by Henry Selick.  But it's the central performances from Murray and Wilson as the mountebank and his guileless offspring that really makes this movie set sail.  

Werth: Now that you've gotten me obsessed with sharks, I can't help but talk about the best shark/sailing movie ever, Jaws (1975).

Wise: If only The Poseidon Adventure had starred a Great White. 

Werth: Based on Peter Benchley's hit book, Steven Spielberg's Jaws swam into theaters June 20, 1975, and officially originated the Hollywood Summer Blockbuster. With nothing but a couple small films and TV under his belt, Speilberg created a national sensation with this movie about a lone shark rampage in the waters off sleepy Amity Island on Fourth of July Weekend. 
People all over the country mimicked John Williams' Oscar-winning, iconic main title and, "You'll never go into the water again," became a national catchphrase that caused as much H2O aversion as Hitchcock's shower scene in Psycho.

Wise: I haven't showered within sight of the shoreline since I could press "Play" on the Betamax. 

Werth: While its terror factor is off the charts, Jaws is also, at its heart, a male, sail-bonding adventure. Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), Sam Quint (Robert Shaw) and Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) hunt the killer shark in Quint's small boat, The Orca, and work together on the empty to ocean to destroy this awesome beast. It is through this shipboard interaction that their layered characters emerge—most profoundly with Quint's mesmerizing "USS Indinapolis" monologue
These scenes of camaraderie on the ocean make what could have been just a fishy monster film a much richer dramatic experience. It was a methodology that Spielberg would utilize on successive films to make popular movies and a boatload of money.

Wise: I wouldn't mind setting sail in just a dinghy full of cash from Spielberg's boatload.

Werth: Well, sailor, in the meantime you and our readers should just hoist the misenmast on the S.S. Film Gab!