Saturday, May 31, 2008

Neil Jordan's "Mona Lisa" (1986)

Mona Lisa, directed by Neil Jordan, is a grim fairy tale set in the streets of London. Bob Hoskins plays the recently freed from prison George who is given the dubious task, by his old boss (Michael Caine) of transporting around the enigmatic call girl Simone, played by Cathy Tyson. As the film progresses, we watch as George falls further into love with Simone. This infatuation with Simone is the main underlying point to the film. George spends his time searching for a 15 year old prostitute Simone once cared for while she walked the hard streets. What follows when he finds her and reveals his love for Simone is tragic.

Neil Jordan paints a dark picture of the London underworld, portraying it to be more evil than the average viewer may think it could be. The three main performances of this film are all brilliant. They took help portray the heartbreak and desperation of people put into these situations. Bob Hoskins' performance as George is among the best of his time. Michael Caine's character is downright evil and Caine projects this beaming sadistic character brightly. Cathy Tyson is stunningly beautiful and absolutely PERFECT for the role of Simone.

I'm finding it really hard to say too much about this film, even though I did enjoy it very, very much. It's just one you've got to see for yourself, I suppose. It carries a great, deep message at the heart of the film. George is a character who has an ex-wife who hates him and finds himself conveniently falling for the girl he's chauffeuring around. This film shows how tender love can be and how easy it is to have your emotions toyed with and completely wrecked. The film features sublime directing and top notch performances to boot. Mona Lisa is about as good as you can get in terms of dark romantic thrillers. Check this film out as soon as possible.


Raoul Walsh's "High Sierra" (1941)

Raoul Walsh's "High Sierra" is a one of a kind film noir. Rather than putting star Humphrey Bogart into a dirty, run down, urban city setting, this film transplants all the qualities of film noir into the great mountains of the Sierras. Among the beauty of nature the grim downfall of one of the most notable criminals is about to occur.

Notorious criminal Roy "Mad Dog" Earle, portrayed by Bogart, is released from prison and is put right back into the caper game. This time the idea is to knock off a luxurious hotel resort at the peak of their business. Along the way he makes connections he may regret making. On one side there's the sweet and pure Velma (Joan Leslie). On the other, the hard to resist bombshell Marie (Ida Lupino). There's a clear distinction between these two women and it's obvious that it wasn't by mistake. John Huston, the screenwriter of this classic noir, does a great job painting the difference between the two. Velma appears to be sweet, soft, and kind on the outside but ultimately leads Earle into thinking she is interested in him. Marie, on the other hand, throws herself all over Earle, and he really doesn't realize her dedication and love for him until it's far too late.

The downfall of Earle's character will go down among the classic noir downfalls. Sam Earle was such an interesting character to watch. The moral ambiguity seen so often in noir was ever so present right from the get go. Earle stops to chat with farmers near his old place, cares for animals, is kind to young children, and helps hard luck travelers like Velma and her family. On the other hand, he's a criminal. He's a killer. Perhaps this is simply the portrait the media portrayed of him. This concept is also present in the film through the medium of journalism. This makes his collapse harder to watch. You realize that the picture painted of him is not true to form. He isn't really a "Mad Dog". The public thinks different of him because they don't have the inside point of view we as viewers have. It makes you think twice about the media today, in a way. Perhaps there is some, or a lot, of good in some persons who are painted as being truly awful people. It's an interesting concept that is really just briefly touched upon in this film.

In terms of the technical aspects of this film, I can't complain at all. Bogart is great as the ambiguous Earle and Ida Lupino comes alive as the emotional and dedicated follower. The conclusion of this film is thrilling with some very high octane car chases followed by a near epic mountain side standoff. Walsh did a great job shooting this picture. It's a different type of setting but he was able to make it film noir, despite the unavailability of some defining noir aspects.

Overall, High Sierra is a different type of film noir than you're going to be used to seeing. It's funny, it's sweet, and it's dark, all at the same time. I would definitely consider it essential viewing for fans of the genre as this film is important to the genre and the career of Humphrey Bogart.


Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Mario Bava's "The Girl Who Knew Too Much" (1963)

Mario Bava was a revolutionary man. Throughout his lifetime he influenced many people in the film business. His 1963 film, The Girl Who Knew Too Much, one of his earliest films, practically invented the giallo genre of murder mysteries. This is a genre that would later be improved by Bava himself and made extremely popular world wide by the likes of Dario Argento.

The Girl Who Knew Too Much is a very stylish film, which is no surprise to anyone who knows Mario Bava. The use of shadows seems straight out of the film noir genre. I absolutely loved the work Bava did with the scene inside that apartment building where Nora is supposedly going to meet someone who knows things about the murders that have been occurring. The light bulbs swaying from the wind down a vacant and dreary hallway. The images are outstanding. Aside from the wonderful visual imagery, Bava used an interesting voice over narrative for the film that acted as a voice telling us of Nora's thoughts.

You see, Nora Davis was just coming from America when she got wrapped up in a murder mystery like the ones she reads about so often. Rather than let the police, who didn't believe her at first, take control, she decides to do some detective work of her own with the help of John Saxon, who plays a native Italian doctor in this film.

This giallo thriller plays off very Hitchcockian, right down to the obvious homage in the title. Overall, this is a great little film. It shows signs of things to come from Mario Bava and the genre as a whole. In terms of giallo, this film is fairly timid. I have no problem with black and white but I think the introduction of color in films really brought the genre alive and gave it it's own identity. If you've never seen a film from Mario Bava, this would be a fine place to start. While the ending doesn't leave your head spinning like some of the later giallos, it's a simple film and is a important piece historically.


Sunday, May 25, 2008

À l'intérieur [Inside] (2007)

Inside doesn't hold back. If you're looking for a film that can impress you with the amount of sharp objects used in it or the number of gallons of blood used after these sharp objects are jabbed into someone's body, Inside will probably land among your favorite films. On the other hand, if you're looking for a true psychological horror film or suspense horror film, you might be a little let down.

Now before you go jabbing scissors into my belly button, let me tell you why. While this film did have some excruciatingly disturbing, tense and creepy moments, the story was absolutely nothing to write home about. The same goes for the story's characters. There simply wasn't enough as their could have been in terms of characterization. Perhaps I only grieve over this because of how sick I already am of these films of all gore and no meaning. At least Cannibal Holocaust was portraying a message about the media, among other things.

Don't take these words the wrong way. I really, really enjoyed this film. I enjoy a lot of crap that doesn't have loads of character development. It's just that I might have expected a lot more than a simplified slasher flick with the subject material this film portrayed. I'm not taking any points off the film's final score for not reaching those expectations though.

If being trapped in your house with a psychotic woman while you are pregnant terrifies you, this movie will freak the hell out of you. Otherwise, this film isn't really scary at all, just slightly disturbing due to this woman's motivations and intentions and the methods she uses to achieve her goal. Inside is a genuinely intense film that will satisfy any gore hounds taste for blood. There's loads of violence to be seen here, all of which is very entertaining. In the end though, it's just another example that the foreign folks know what they're doing in the horror genre these days while us money driven Americans are releasing filth like Hostel and the Saw series.


Friday, May 23, 2008

"Death Race 2000" (1975)

Death Race 2000 is a great political satire, dark comedy, and energy fueled film. Pretty much every minute of this film is exciting in some way. Bold heroes, beautiful women, and violence make up the nonstop onslaught of fun and entertainment. David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone lead the perfect cast for this film.

The camp comes pouring out as fast as the cars are do here. This film is just total absurdity. You've got five different themed race car and race car drivers racing cross country. Their goal? To run over as many men, women, teenagers, children, and toddlers that they can. What's out to stop them? An army of jean wearing rebels that the American government passes off to just be the "stinky French" once again. Don Steele solidifies this film's campy, 70's feel as the energetic announcer for the race.

You must see this film before the remake comes out later this year. Paul "W.orthless S.hit" Anderson is directing it, so we'll see how that turns out. Words can't explain how fun this film truly is to watch. It's fast paced, fun, and absurd. The perfect mixture for a 70's dark comedy and exploitation flick.


Allen Baron's "Blast of Silence" (1961)

Before Criterion released the new DVD of Blast of Silence, I had never even heard of the film. Thanks to the brilliant people at Criterion, I now know and love this absolute hidden gem of a film. There's something about film noirs that are filmed on location in cities. What makes them so attractive to me is the absolute ultra realistic portrayal of the said film noir. For example, The Naked City from Jules Dassin is a prime example of using the city almost as another character in the film. Blast of Silence is no exception. Allen Baron, who wrote, directed, and starred in this sensational film noir used the city of New York to his extreme advantage by creating a dark, gritty, raw, and realistic film.

Blast of Silence is the story of professional hitman Frankie Bono and his return to New York and one single job, the murder of a small time mobster. When Frank runs into people he once knew, emotions start to sway. He becomes unsure of the job he was dedicated to, and it only leads to trouble.

Anyone who knows noir knows voice over narratives are a very popular element of the genre. In Blast of Silence, they use a very unique and very effective second person narrative. The speaker, who's voice is as gritty as the film, uses "you" and "your" to act like the conscious of the troubled Frankie Bono. I'll once again allude to Jules Dassin's brilliant film The Naked City. That film also featured a very creative way of using narrative voice overs to tell it's story. The narrative only escalates the story to a different level.

Baron did as good a job off screen as he did on screen portraying Frankie Bono. I haven't read in to how much of the lighting was pure available and natural lighting, but I would imagine almost all of it was. The shots filmed on the streets of New York almost came off as a sort of guerrilla style of filming. At times the camera simply followed Bono walking down the street through crowds of people. If not for the thematic elements this would feel like a documentary piece on a hitman. Baron also has some great shots, like the introduction where all you see is white light, and it ends up being the end of the train tunnel. Or the scene where his character, Bono, is walking towards the camera down some rugged looking path. Simple, true, but his shots in addition with how he used light was perfectly executed and creates a very dark and oppressive atmosphere throughout the entire film. His use of music throughout the film was key. For example, the club scene was excellent. The jazz band playing combined with the quick camera cuts created a dizzying affair.

Blast of Silence also carries some actual substance in it's story. Frankie Bono spends his whole time trying to avoid everything and everyone. He dislikes Christmas, he avoids long conversations if possible, he just wants to be alone. He alienated himself so much that when he meets a former love, he acts totally out of line by crossing her personal boundary, then wondering why she isn't truly interested in him as a partner. Watch this effect the job he is trying to perform is rather startling in my opinion. Before he came out of complete seclusion he was at the top of his game with the job he had been given. Once unhappy thoughts about the shape his life is in crossed into his head, things started going haywire. There's great characterization and Bono shows hints of not being as completely static as he appears to be at the start of the film.

I had heard how great this film was and was still blown away at how Baron was able to create everything as perfectly as he did. I love film noir and Blast of Silence is one of the ones that perfectly defines the genre. Even though it was made 15-20 years after the golden period of the genre, it captured the essence perfectly. There wasn't much at all that I could find to complain about in this film. I'd recommend this to everyone, whether they love the genre or not, as it has an interesting story and characters and a great dark and moody atmosphere. See this film as soon as possible!


Thursday, May 22, 2008

George A. Romero's "Diary of the Dead" (2007)

Diary of the Dead is a return to the roots for George A. Romero as he brings the story back to an initial breakout of zombies and combines it with the technology and media of today. Anyone who says that Romero has fallen from the top couldn't be more wrong. Ever since the underrated Land of the Dead, people have been slamming Romero for God knows what. Whether it's because they don't understand the direction he wanted to take his series in, or they just expected more, they are wrong in my opinion. I say it every time I review a horror film made in this decade. It's A LOT better than the majority of the other stuff being made these days. It's independent, it's raw, it's low budget, it's classic Romero work. It isn't at the level of the first three Dead films, that's for sure, but it doesn't have to be.

Romero shot this film using the first person technique we've seen in films like The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, and [REC]. Well listen up folks, that's where the comparison betewen Dead and those films ends. This is a very well shot film from a technical standpoint. Romero conveniently makes his lead characters aspiring film directors, meaning they're nearly pros with the camera on their shoulders. You won't find the nauseating shaky cam in this film. Romero splices stock footage into this film within a film to create a true documentary feeling.

As with most of Romero's films, there is a very strong and very obvious social commentary aspect of this film. It's a little forced to us, but I'm fine with that. Maybe Romero really wanted the viewer to get it this time. I sure did. It put the media and technology and the human race as a whole (especially with that poetic final line) to the fore front. It makes us answer all the questions of "What would you do?" in our heads. If you were in Jason, the main director's place, how far would you go to tell people the truth? And so on and so forth. It puts life in perspective. The fear of zombies has never been the fear Zack Snyder tried to create with his Dawn of the Dead remake. It's the fear of the unknown, the fear of the world turning to shit. As Deb states in this film, it's the fear that every person that dies from now on will rise from their death, and walk amongst the living, until put down for good. Romero beautifully captures this feeling of helplessness in this film by placing us in certain locales, such as the middle of nowhere Pennsylvania. Technology collides with the Amish. The final setting of the large and obviously expensive house wonderfully sets us into the idea that even money can't buy you protection from this disaster. Wherever you may go, you're most likely screwed. Romero carries this commentary greatly throughout the film. The plot isn't what is supposed to make you wonder, the message is.

The only things that make me take a half star off this film is the lack of a really memorable character, spotty acting, and a few sequences of unimpressive gore. I'm not one to rave and not critique. What Land of the Dead and Diary of the Dead were missing were the memorable characters. It didn't have a "Roger" from Dawn of the Dead, etc. There are complaints of bad acting in this film, and while none of these kids are going to go on to become award winners, what does that matter for a zombie film? Romero's zombie films have never been about award winning acting. Joseph Pilato as Capt. Rhodes in Day of the Dead is easily the greatest performance we've seen in a Romero "Dead" film and even that falls well short of taking home a trophy. Perhaps being the viewer of atrocities like Zombie 3, 4, and 5 make me realize how damn good Romero's films, all of them, are. I'm not giving him a pass for being "not as bad" as those films, but damn people, his films are about the only in the genre with any substance to them at all. He left the studios, went back to independent life, and made one hell of a low budget zombie film.

Romero's "Diary of the Dead" is a fantastic film. It's not as good as his first three, but I'd place it over the still good Land of the Dead. It's a solid addition to a wonderful 5-part series that I look forward to seeing more of. Just remember that when you watch this film that Romero was out to achieve something beyond scaring the viewers. The substance is there if you take a minute and look at this film for what it really is. And Jesus, give the guy a break. Did you really think this was going to be good as his first three Dead films????


Fritz Lang's "Dr. Mabuse The Gambler" (1922)

Like in many of his other groundbreaking films, Fritz Lang is one step ahead of everyone else in the business with his four and a half hour epic silent film, Dr. Mabuse The Gambler. Lang practically creates the gangster/noir genre of films with this brilliant film. Dr. Mabuse is one of the more spectacular villains I've ever seen. He uses his knowledge in the field of psychoanalysis to illegally win large sums of money in card games and even corrupts the stock market with his powers. Watching all four and a half hours of this film was pure enjoyment. Lang always has spectacular expressionistic set pieces and this 1922 film was no exception. Just like he set the table for the science fiction/dystopia genre with Metropolis, Lang does the same here for the gangster/crime/noir films. This is something he would later PERFECT in the sequel to this film, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, and M, his film about a kidnapper of young girls.

It's not just his film techniques that were groundbreaking, but also the subject matter. This is a fairly dark film that centers around all that is illegal in 1922 Germany. The boundaries sure were pushed here.

Not enough can be said about the characters Lang creates with his dazzling atmospheres and simple use of intertitles. He knew when and where to place the on screen text and definitely did not go overboard or give the viewer unnecessary slides. Lang is usually heralded for most of his other work, but Dr. Mabuse The Gambler is by far one of his greatest works ever. It was most most likely not a famous piece because of it's long run time. I consider this an essential silent film and an even more essential gangster/crime genre film that everyone who wants to see the genre's origin should see. This is a stepping stone for Lang and shades of his absolute greatness to come with his talking pictures, both Germany and American. If you are worried about the long run time, don't be, Kino separated this epic saga into two parts on two discs as it was originally shown. Take a break or be a mega nerd and watch it all the way through like I did. Whatever you choose, enjoy it, for it really is something spectacular.


Samuel Fuller's "The Naked Kiss" (1964)

On the surface, Samuel Fuller's "The Naked Kiss" looks and feels merely like an over the top b-movie drama. At heart though, it's a pulpy, edgy, noir-inspired film that wonderfully critiques and satirizes the concept of perfect small town and the exploitation of women. At first, I wasn't sure how I really felt about this film. I hadn't seen anything like this before so it was a little difficult to get by the spotty acting. It's not to say that I can't stand bad acting, I'm a huge fan of Troma films. Just in this environment, it comes off different.

When I really thought about what Fuller was trying to say I appreciated this film a lot more. Fuller sets the film up brilliantly. I personally loved how our main character goes from being a bald prostitute to being a sort of saint at a handicap rehabilitation center for children. But as we learn later, everyone, not just her, has secrets they are hiding. The second half of this film is far more spectacular than the first half as the true dramas are finally exposed. All in all, this is a pretty remarkable film and one well worth checking out.


Robert Siodmak's "The Killers" (1946)

Robert Siodmak's screen adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's short story is one for the ages. The film opens with a mysterious bang as two men are in search for the man they are hired to murder. When the man is alarmed of the killers, he does nothing but accept his peril. He simply says he once did something bad. If there's a better set up for a series of present day story with flash back scenes cut in to tell a tale of murder, heist, and backstabbing, you let me know. This film is sublimely edited which gives the viewer a never ending want to find out why exactly this man was killed and what it was that he did wrong. Sometimes a noir can get too confusing when it uses a technique such as this or involves too many characters, among other things. Luckily for The Killers, this isn't a problem. The story is easily comprehensible and while the ending won't blow anyone's mind, especially by today's standards, the character's motives may catch you off guard.

The acting in this film noir is also incredible. Although Ava Gardner and Burt Lancaster are the poster couple for this film, Edmond O'Brien's detective skills hold the weight of the on screen time.

All in all, this film has a rip roaring story and is beautifully directed by Siodmak. He knew exactly what he was doing and the end results prove it. If you've never seen a film noir before, this would be a fine place to begin.


The Beginning...

Reviewing films has become a hobby for me. I don't consider myself good at it. I do like to think I understand most of what I watch well enough to write a fairly short and concise review of it though. Most importantly, it's become a better way of understanding one of the things I love in life, film. Reviewing films allows me to draw deeper within the material and touch upon meaning, inspiration, and more. I simply write down what I think and feel of a film after I see it. These won't be the most well written pieces of work, but I find it fun. You'll find my score in the 5/5 star category at the end of the review.

I highly doubt many people will see this, but I appreciate anyone who does take the time to read these reviews. I'd even more appreciate anyone willing to give me some tips or pointers. I plan to review every film I see this summer. In addition, I may post old reviews from time to time that I think are among my best. Thanks for riding along with me.

In addition, here is my DVD collection, so you can get a good handle on my taste, if you care to:

- Mike

Note: My reviews are also posted on Flixster, in conjunction with Facebook: