Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Once Over Twice: Road Games

(1981) Directed by Richard Franklin; Written by Everett De Roche; Starring: Stacy Keach, Jamie Lee Curtis, Marion Edward and Grant Page; Available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Rating: ****

“Just because I drive a truck does not make me a truck driver…” – Pat Quid (Stacy Keach)

“…the term ‘thriller’ is used differently in the States than it’s used elsewhere in the world. In the States I have to refer to myself as a director of psychological suspense or psychological drama. Hitchcock was called a thriller director, but when he made Psycho, he kind of re-defined the genre, and from that point on it’s become synonymous with horror… horror is not something that I’m keen on as a genre. I like doing pieces that take place in the mind.” – Richard Franklin (from DVD commentary)

Richard Franklin is one of Australia’s best kept secrets, with a string of Hitchcock-flavored thrillers that could have been directed by the master himself. Between the criminally underrated psychological suspense film Patrick (1978) and the thankless job that was Psycho II (1982), Hitchcock devotee Franklin paid homage to Rear Window with his serial killer on the highway movie, Road Games. Once again, Franklin teamed with Patrick scribe Everett De Roche to create a script that’s exciting, darkly comic and alive with great dialogue. Road Games manages to be an unapologetic homage to Hitchcock while being tense and visually inventive on its own terms.   

Road Games caused quite a fracas by casting two American leads in an Australian production. According to Franklin, however, it was difficult to finance Australian productions without an “imported” actor. Stacy Keach shines as Pat Quid,* an American making his living as a truck driver. He travels the outback with his faithful dingo companion Boswell, ** passing the long hours on the road by reciting poetry and making up names and stories about the travelers he encounters on the highway. *** It’s a delightfully witty and idiosyncratic performance that recalls Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep. Quid’s latest assignment is transporting his cargo of pork to Perth. Meanwhile, he plays cat and mouse with the driver of a green van, “Smith or Jones” (played by Grant Page, who also served as the film’s stunt coordinator), who might or might not be linked to a string of murders.

* Fun fact: As hard as it is to imagine anyone else occupying the role of Quid, Franklin stated that his first choice was Sean Connery, whose salary turned out to be far beyond what the producers could afford.

** Minor Spoiler Alert (but essential information for all of the pet lovers out there). I’m happy to report that Boswell, played by Killer, does not meet his demise, as would probably be the case in lesser thrillers.

*** According to Keach: “I think truck drivers, generally speaking, live in an isolated world. They create a lot of things in that world that become important to them.” (from featurette “Kangaroo Hitchcock: The making of Road Games”)

Quid meets his match when he encounters “Hitch” (short for hitchhiker, but obviously a reference to the filmmaker), played by Jamie Lee Curtis.* She’s an heiress who hit the road to escape her wealthy father and humdrum life. By the age of 21, Curtis had already been typecast in the “scream queen” role, so the character represented a nice departure. Hitch is strong-willed, independent, and very much in charge of her own life. Her banter with Quid is one of the most endearing parts. Even though he’s significantly older than his traveling companion, they’re operating on the same level, as they try to construct a profile for the serial killer who preys on young female hitchhikers and dismembers their bodies. Curtis doesn’t occupy a lot of screen time, but she makes up for it with pluck and razor sharp wit.

* Franklin originally cast an Australian actress in the role, but Curtis was brought on board after the distributor, Avco Embassy Pictures, insisted on an American co-star.

Of course, it wouldn’t be Hitchcock on the highway without a suitable MacGuffin, which appears in the form of a small ice chest on a van’s passenger seat. What’s in the chest? That, dear reader, is for me to know and you to find out. Franklin and De Roche leave no stone unturned when it comes to toying with the audience. The theme of games is literal and figurative, enough to plant a seed of doubt in the viewer’s mind. Is “Smith or Jones” who Quid thinks he is? Everything leads to a climactic confrontation that will reveal once and for all if his suspicions were correct. Even if the conclusion seems a trifle undercooked,* we’re willing to forgive the film any trespasses, because the preceding 90 minutes were so engrossing.  

* Franklin and team had storyboarded a longer, more elaborate final scene that arguably would have done a better job tying things up.

Brian May’s scores were frequently an indispensable component of Aussie cinema, and Road Games is no exception. Borrowing liberally from Holst’s “The Planets” (particularly the “Mars, The Bringer of War” section) and Ravel’s “Boléro,” the music helps ratchet the tension up several notches. In places, it’s almost seductive in tone, underscoring the deadly tango between hunter and hunted.

Richard Franklin’s films have a habit of flying under the radar of film fans, and that’s unfortunate. It’s about time more movie watchers discovered his contributions to cinema. Road Games is brimming with great performances, exceptional dialogue and edge of your seat thrills (the truck vs. boat scene is not to be missed). The DVD has been out of print, at least in these parts, for a number of years. Thankfully, an all-region Australian import Blu-ray was recently issued. Even if the sound and picture aren’t quite up to Criterion standards, the extras certainly are, providing a wealth of information about this long neglected and mostly forgotten Australian gem. If you haven’t seen Road Games, it’s time to remedy this immediately.  

Monday, March 6, 2017

Pee-wee’s Big Adventure

(1985) Directed by Tim Burton; Written by Phil Hartman, Paul Reubens and Michael Varhol; Starring: Paul Reubens, Elizabeth Daily, Mark Holton, Diane Salinger and Judd Omen; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ****

“I enjoy the immediacy of the live action, and again when you’re able to kind of cross the barriers of animation and live action, it’s even more fun… you’re dealing with the kind of characters that are so extreme but real at the same time...” – Tim Burton (excerpt from DVD commentary)

“There’s a lot of things about me you don’t know anything about, Dottie. Things you wouldn’t understand. Things you couldn’t understand. Things you shouldn’t understand.” – Pee-wee Herman (Paul Reubens)

My Twitter followers have voted for my first movie to cover for Road Trip Month, and who am I to disagree? Pee-wee’s Big Adventure possesses many of the qualities common to many road trip movies. Its hero begins with a quest, there are trials to be endured, and hopefully he’s learned something about himself in the process. Although Pee-wee Herman (Paul Reubens) is perhaps the unlikeliest of heroes, he rises to the challenge in the series of quixotic adventures depicted in the film.

Pee-wee’s Big Adventure not only helped catapult the career of Reubens to another level, but established its director and composer as forces to be reckoned with. Former Disney animator Tim Burton made his feature film debut, displaying many touches that would become signature moments in his projects to follow. His cartoon sensibilities and frenetic style complemented Pee-Wee Herman’s bizarre, childlike antics.* Danny Elfman dabbled in soundtracks before, composing music for his brother Richard’s cult movie Forbidden Zone, but it was Pee-wee’s Big Adventure that introduced his scoring talents to a mainstream audience.

* In his DVD commentary, Reubens stated he encountered difficulty finding a director suitable for his first film project. After learning about Burton through a friend at a party, Reubens screened the short film Frankenweenie, and realized he’d found a perfect match.

From the first notes in the opening credits to the opening dream sequence, the film’s breezy tone is established. We’re immersed into Pee-wee’s very specific, pleasantly bizarre world. How he functions on a daily basis, or what he does for a living is anyone’s guess (Maybe he received a substantial inheritance, okay? Let’s move on?). He prepares breakfast through a needlessly complicated Rube Goldberg-inspired creation, plays with his toys and keeps his beloved bike under lock and key. His next door neighbor Francis (Mark Holton) is determined to get his hands on Pee-wee’s bike, by hook or by crook. When the bike disappears on a routine (for Pee-wee, anyway) trip to a gag store, the search is on. He hitchhikes his way to San Antonio, Texas to retrieve it, and encounters an escaped convict, a waitress and her jealous boyfriend,* a biker gang, and a host of other assorted characters.

* Fun fact: According to Burton, he originally wanted to get Andre the Giant to play Simone’s (Diane Salinger) gargantuan boyfriend Andy, but Andre declined.

Describing the numerous gags and visual scenes in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure wouldn’t do it any justice. It’s better experienced than catalogued. There are so many treats within, including stop motion animation sequences, a cameo by fellow Grounding Theater alum Cassandra Peterson (aka: Elvira) as a biker chick, as well as appearances by future Pee-wee’s Playhouse co-stars John Paragon and Lynne Marie Stewart (who would appear as Jambi the Genie and Miss Yvonne, respectively). There’s also a climactic chase through the Warner Brothers backlot at Burbank Studios, */** featuring a tour through several sound stages and an impossible mix of productions (who knew Toho worked in Burbank?). Another highlight is the movie within a movie, a James Bond-style parody starring James Brolin as Pee-Wee.

* Fun fact about this reviewer: In a case of life imitating art, I was fortunate enough to attend a special screening in the mid-‘80s at Burbank Studios, the same location where the film’s climax takes place

** Fun fact: Watch for a bit of career foreshadowing for Burton, with a blink-and-you-miss-it cameo of the original TV Batmobile at the beginning of the Warner Brothers Studio sequence.

I can’t overstate how important Danny Elfman’s playful score works to set the tone of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. Elfman (still with his band Oingo Boingo at the time), wore his musical influences on his sleeve for the film’s music, with liberal doses of Nino Rota, shades of Bernard Herrmann (in the Hitchcock-flavored sequence where Pee-wee loses his bike), or during the climactic chase scene, where there’s a brief shout out to The Wizard of Oz (Miss Gulch on her bicycle). Considering how ubiquitous Elfman’s film scores have become, it’s easy to dismiss how fresh his music seemed at the time. Whether or not you think he’s operating on cruise control these days, it’s hard to dismiss the energy that he injected into this movie.

Love him or hate him (I’m obviously in the first camp. If you’re in the second camp, we can’t be friends), no other film has exploited Paul Reubens’ unique character Pee-wee Herman as well. It’s the one role that he’ll be forever associated with, for good or ill. But oh what a film it is, bursting with enough off-kilter characters, absurd situations and quotable lines for a dozen lesser comedies. Pee-wee and the film capture a brief moment in time before puberty sets in, throwing everything out of balance. There’s something fundamentally innocent and pure about the character, which Burton’s film exploits perfectly. Pee-wee isn’t like everyone else, but that’s okay, because he finds his niche in an accepting world. Contrast this conceit with the misguided sequel, Big Top Pee-wee, where he’s regarded as a freak. Movie audiences would have to wait nearly 30 years (albeit on the small screen) for another Pee-wee Herman movie with some (but not all) of the first film’s plucky spirit. After all these years, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure remains a favorite. Even if I’m in a crummy mood, it never fails to pick me up. My advice: grab a cold one (alcoholic or non-alcoholic is up to you), sit back and regress for 90 minutes of pure glee. And don’t forget to “Be sure and tell ‘em Large Marge sent ya.”

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

February Quick Picks and Pans

Under the Shadow (2016) Set in 1980s Tehran during the Iraq-Iran conflict, writer/director Babak Anvari’s multifaceted debut feature film deftly balances text and subtext. After Shideh’s (Narges Rashidi) husband is sent to the front, she’s left alone in a tenement building with her daughter and a handful of residents, under the constant threat of air attacks. Her worst fears are realized when an Iraqi missile crashes into her roof. Although it fails to explode, the projectile heralds the arrival of another form of wrath, a malevolent djinn.

While all of the performances are superb, Rashidi really shines as the conflicted Shideh, who grapples with her inner demons as she confronts a literal demon. Under the Shadow goes far beyond the surface, eschewing simple jump scares as it examines the main character’s existential fear of not being in control of her life. It also works by exploiting the fears that any parent or caregiver can relate to, as we attempt to keep our children/loved ones safe in an increasingly uncertain world. I’m not sure how this film slipped through the cracks, but now that it’s available on Netflix, there’s little reason to miss it.

* Thanks to Amber (Follow her on @tangoineden) for the stellar suggestion.

Rating: ****½ stars. Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming

April and the Extraordinary World (2015) This French animated film, based on Jacques Tardi’s work, takes its inspiration from the stories of Jules Verne and Hayao Miyazaki’s animation style. The steampunk tale is set in an alternate 1941, where a long line of Napoleons preside over the country, and steam power is the basis for most technology. April is a young scientist, who against the will of the oppressive government, carries on her family legacy, to create an elixir of life. Co-directors Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci take a whimsical approach to the subject matter, but unlike their American counterparts, they don’t feel the need to fill the screen with endless throwaway gags or dizzying action sequences every few minutes. There’s more imagination on display than a dozen lesser so-called “family” films (I love the steam-powered skyway from Paris to Berlin), and a great choice for kids or perennial kids (like me).

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Train Man (Densha Otoko) (2005) Shôsuke Murakami’s charming romantic comedy (based on a novel by Hitori Nakano) presents nothing new under the sun, but what it does, it does very well. After a chance meeting with a cute girl (Miki Nakatani) on a commuter train, a socially inept 22-year-old otaku gets advice from his online pals (all of whom are equally clueless) about how to win her over. Takayuki Yamada is very believable and oddly appealing as Densha Otoko, who attempts to overcome his awkward nature in spite of himself. We can’t help but root for our protagonist, who stumbles along the way, but is never down for the count. Train Man inspires us to foster our real life relationships, but reminds us to never underestimate the power of online interactions.

Rating: ****. Available on DVD

Human Lanterns (1982) Leave it to the Shaw Brothers to present a kung fu film with an Ed Gein-inspired twist. Chao Chun-Fang, a lantern craftsman (Lieh Lo), plots revenge against all who have oppressed him, pitting two rival noblemen against each other. Meanwhile, he perfects a secret method for creating his decorative lanterns, fashioning them from human skin. As with many Shaw Brothers movies, the set and costume designs are top notch. The makeup effects aren’t quite as convincing, but they’re still unnerving to watch as Chun-Fang peels the skin from his victims. It’s a crazy action/horror hybrid that works in spite of itself. If you’re tired of the same old thing, this movie might just scratch that itch.

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD and Amazon Video

Squirm (1976) As one of the many nature’s wrath flicks to spring from the 1970s, writer/director Jeff Liebererman’s movie distinguishes itself with some decent character development and a few low rent scares. Set in rural Georgia, mayhem ensues when a downed powerline charges the ground with thousands of volts of electricity, unleashing bloodthirsty worms that ooze out of the mud. A city boy (Don Scardino) visits his country girlfriend (Patricia Pearcy), and is forced to contend with the wriggly menace himself, along with a hateful local sheriff (Peter MacLean). Modern horror filmmakers could learn something from Squirm’s simple approach and slow buildup.

Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Video

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Good Day Sunshine

I was in the midst of a big move when Cinephile Crocodile bestowed a pleasant surprise upon me, with a nomination for the Sunshine Blogger Award. Now that I’m relatively settled, it’s been tougher than I anticipated to jump back into the swing of things, but I couldn’t allow this recognition to go unnoticed. It’s always a blast to receive recognition from a fellow film blogger, especially one with the same penchant for alliterative blog titles. Just when I worry the toils of my labors have fallen into a black hole (along with an untold number of socks), here’s a gentle reminder that someone out there is paying attention (to the blog, not the socks).

As a recipient of this honor, it’s my duty to pass it along to some other worthy bloggers. Sure, the whole blogging award thing sounds a bit like the 21st century equivalent of  

a chain letter, but participation is strictly optional, and no earth-shattering calamity will befall you, should you decide to decline. However, if you choose to accept, there are some rules that are part and parcel to the nomination:

  1. Post the award on your blog.
  2. Thank the person who nominated you.
  3. Answer the 11 questions they sent.
  4. Pick another 11 bloggers and let them know they are nominated.
  5. Give them 11 new questions.

My responses to Cinephile Crocodile’s questions:

1. What makes you angriest about modern cinema?

Bloated, effects-laden productions that favor overblown action sequences over story. Too many blockbusters try to top one another with elaborate explosion-filled climaxes, full of dizzying CGI-laden scenes and questionable physics. More often than not, the end result is overdone, exhausting and boring.

2. What makes you happiest about modern cinema?

As much as I rant about the state of the film industry, it’s worth it to hang in for some of the independent gems that seemingly turn up out of nowhere. The Babadook, Ex Machina, and Under the Shadow are some noteworthy recent examples.

3. What is your favorite bad movie? The movie that is undeniably awful but you love anyway?

Plan 9 from Outer Space is cinematic comfort food. There’s not a hint of nutrition to be found, but it feeds my soul. Like many of Ed Wood’s other productions, there’s a level of sincerity to be found amongst the dreck.

4. If you had to be eaten alive by a movie villain, who would it be and why?

The idea of being devoured by any massive creature doesn’t exactly float my boat, but if I had to choose, it would be the island-sized fish creature from The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989). Sure, it’s not much of a life living in the shipwreck-strewn belly of the beast, but at least there’d be company.

5. Who would you want to play you in the movie of your life but who would be most likely?

Steve Buscemi (think Donny from The Big Lebowski) or Paul Giamatti (as Harvey Pekar in American Splendor) would be ideal candidates to play my self-effacing, persona. In reality, it would probably be an understudy from a small town dinner theatre.

6. What is your favorite movie quote?

Wow... There are so many, but the one that stands out would be:

“Life mocks me even in death.” (uttered by Griffin Dunne as David’s cursed friend Jack in An American Werewolf in London)

7. Name the sequel you'd most like to happen even though you know it's never going to happen?

I would love to see a sequel to The Fifth Element, but I suppose the closest we’re going to get is Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

8. Sweet, salt or mixed popcorn?

I’m a traditionalist, so I’d have to side with salty popcorn.

9. Have you ever been haunted by a film? A film that was either so shocking/disturbing/poignant that you just couldn't get it out of your head for weeks?

The original Alien (1979) burrowed into my impressionable 11-year-old brain with Giger’s singular aesthetic, and of course, the nightmarish title creature.

10. What non-musical film would you most like to see turned into a musical?

Hellboy (directed by Guillermo del Toro, of course!)

11. Do you feel lucky Punk?

Well, actually, yeah. I kind of do.

Here are my nominees for the Sunshine Blogger Award:

Michaël Parent, Le Mot du Cinephiliaque:

JT Williams, Blogferatu:

Stabford Deathrage, Stabford Deathrage Shoots His Mouth Off:

Joey, The Last Drive In:

Silver Screenings:

Kristina, Speakeasy:

Lyz, And You Call Yourself a Scientist:

Dick, The Oak Drive-In:

Kerry, Prowler Needs a Jump:          

Bill Meeker, Frisco Kid at the Movies:

And my questions for you, dear bloggers:

  1. Name a favorite overlooked film that you can’t stop yakking about (even though other people probably wish you would).
  2. What book would you like to see adapted into a movie?
  3. Why do you write about movies?
  4. What’s one of your true passions outside of films or blogging?
  5. Going to the movie theatre: Is it a necessary component for enjoying films, or just a big hassle?
  6. What’s one of your fondest childhood memories of going to the movies?
  7. If you suddenly became unstuck in time like Billy Pilgrim, what era would you want to live in?
  8. Where do you stand on the physical media vs. streaming debate?
  9. What’s your least favorite film genre?
  10. Name a favorite film that’s not in the Criterion Collection, but should be.
  11. Name an acclaimed film that you’re ashamed to admit you haven’t seen.