From the List of Shame, File #14: From Dusk Till Dawn

While we have seen many films, there are many films that are held in high regard that we haven’t seen yet. As we cross them off our List of Shame, we’ll write about them here!

As a fan of Tarantino (though not an apologist), I have been meaning to go through and watch films made from other screenplays he’s written. With the current vampire craze still undead and kickin’, I decided to dive in and watch From Dusk Till Dawn, his take on the Horror/Vamp genre, directed by his friend Robert Rodriguez.

I’m not a huge fan of Rodriguez’s sensibilities, but it seems like Tarantino wrote the script with him in mind. From Dusk Till Dawn is really two films, the first half comprising of the Gecko brothers, Seth and Richard, (played by George Clooney and Tarantino) en route to Mexico after a bloody robbery in Texas. The second half of the film has them attempting to survive a massive vampire attack along with their family of hostages while waiting in a strip club/bar. The tone of each half is wildly different. The first half really does feel like a gritty crime escape film with Tarantino dialogue rhythms, while the second half retains the dialogue but abandons all semblance of being anything but an adrenaline-fueled B-movie.

Many people will love one half of the film, but may not enjoy the other. I actually enjoyed both halves equally, though for different reasons. In the beginning, we see the tension and comedy that we know and love from Tarantino, while the second half of the film shows off the twisted exploration shlock he and Rodriguez love (remember, this movie predates Grindhouse).

As far as vampire flicks go, this is definitely on the low end. Although the creatures in the film resemble monsters with vampire-like attributes, they aren’t developed all that much in terms of mythology. I guess they at least start out sexy, if you’re into strippers. There’s no glamouring, or much bloodsucking, really.  For the purposes of the film, they may as well be zombies with a love of bats and an aversion to crosses.

I think it’s interesting that Tarantino is so willing to cast himself in the role of the unhinged pervert Richard Gecko, next to George Clooney’s more level-headed Seth Gecko (To my knowledge it’s the second time Tarantino has done this). It’s good to know he isn’t playing roles attempting to glamorize himself (God, I hope not), and this is also the most overt exhibition of his infamous foot fetishizing.

It’s hard for me to deny the fun appeal of this movie, but there were a lot of “Of course!” moments during the film for me. “Of course” the strippers are vampires! “Of course” Clooney builds a pneumatic auto-stake weapon! “Of course” the sun comes up just in time!

I’m not saying this is a great film, but if you like Tarantino and/or Rodriquez, there are worse ways to spend a lazy weekend afternoon.

List of Shame Files normally appears on Wednesdays. Previous entries are here.

From The List of Shame, File #13: Nine to Five

While we have seen many films, there are many films that are held in high regard that we haven’t seen yet. As we cross them off our List of Shame, we’ll write about them here!

Workin’ 9 to 5
What a way to make a livin’
Barely gettin’ by
It’s all takin’
And no givin’
They just use your mind
And they never give you credit
It’s enough to drive you
Crazy if you let it

Dolly Parton, “9 to 5 (And Odd Jobs)”

Nine to Five (or 9 to 5) opens with Dolly Parton’s boisterous anthem of the working woman. As we hear her belt out this Oscar-nominated theme song, we see a montage of women in pantsuits hightailing it in heels on their way to work. They’re eager, bright, and ambitious. And they’re all most likely working for an incarnation of the film’s villain Franklin M. Hart, Jr. (Dabney Coleman), the stereotypical nightmare of a boss, incompetent, sexist, and the bane of existence for any woman looking to break through the glass ceiling.

With an opening like that, I was expecting this film to be a lot like South Park, a comedic romp with a poignant social message to grab onto…minus Mr. Hankey. And for awhile it seems that is precisely what we are going to get. We are introduced to Mr. Hart’s “girls” a.k.a his personal assistant Dora Lee (Dolly Parton), the office’s can-do senior supervisor Violet (Lily Tomlin), and the recently divorced workforce newbie Judy (Jane Fonda). There are some great scenes leading off the film between Dolly’s Dora Lee, and Mr. Hart as she denies his sexual advances with her trademark Southern sweetness and wit. Tomlin drips with sarcastic comments and jabs at Hart’s bumbling incompetence. And Fonda’s bright-eyed bushy-tailed portrayal of a woman just getting her professional footing is endearing at first, but unfortunately becomes just as forgettable as the focus of this film come the second act.

I really did enjoy the first half of this film. But then things get a little too wacky. We are lead to believe that this film will focus on women’s rights in the workplace, and while I was expecting these gals to get revenge on their ass of a boss, the plot becomes so convoluted I can barely recollect where it started. After a bad day at the office, Dora Lee, Violet, and Judy head out for a drink to wallow in their misery. A drink turns into a night of smoking pot and fantasizing about the ways they each would like to off Mr. Hart. No harm there, people have thoughts just as bad when they’re sober. The fantasy sequences are silly, but I can forgive them this indulgence. It’s what comes after the next day in the office that sets the wheels in motion for the insanity to come. A box of rat poison, conveniently resembling the creamer used in Mr. Hart’s coffee, makes the ladies believe that they have poisoned their boss, accidentally of course.

Without going into specifics, the ladies end up kidnapping a body from the hospital they believe to be the dead Mr. Hart. It’s not. Back to the hospital they go. When they discover Mr. Hart in the office the next day, released from the hospital and fully aware about their “plot” to kill him he threatens to have them thrown in jail. Obviously, they’re not having any of it and decide to kidnap him and hold him for blackmail at his house (his wife, a lovable ignoramus, is away on vacation).

I could go on but there really isn’t any point. All the social issues this film could have addressed are condensed into a pithy 15 minutes towards the end of the film when the ladies institute a series of office initiatives including flex and share hours, and company daycare, while their boss is left tied up in his own house. Dora Lee, Judy, and Violet are all interesting enough characters thrown in wacky and unbelievable circumstances that surpass the scope of the film itself. Any wit or humor achieved in the film’s first 45 minutes is abruptly lost, and the story instead makes a series of weird choices that result in a story that seems to be a splice of two completely separate films-part screwball comedy, part espionage farce.

Even moments that are meant to be humorous, like Hart’s wife coming home from vacation to find her husband strapped to the ceiling in pseudo-bondage wear should have been funny, but just fell utterly flat. I think such a sequence could have benefited from a more frenetic pace where the audience senses there is much at stake for these characters. Instead the story lobs along and even resurrects a story arc from the very beginning of the film involving Jane Fonda’s ex-husband turned stalker. The result is a creepy encounter that just feels wrong given the hilarity that should be ensuing.

I’ve made frequent mentions of time in this review. That’s not a good thing. When you find yourself watching the clock during a movie there’s a problem. The only true beacon of light in an otherwise murky film is Dolly Parton. Nine to Five was her first screen role, and I wish better material was given to her. She is a truly gifted actress and if nothing else, this film will be historically remembered for her breakthrough performance.

List of Shame Files normally appears on Wednesdays. Previous entries are here.

From the List of Shame, File #12: Beach Party

While we have seen many films, there are many films that are held in high regard that we haven’t seen yet. As we cross them off our List of Shame, we’ll write about them here!

The goal behind the List of Shame Files is to document our viewing of significant films we haven’t seen. Luckily, many of those films are also good ones, though a film does not have to be good to be significant. Beach Party is not one of the good ones.

Beach Party is a 1963 teen B-movie, distributed by American International Pictures. AIP was a company formed by James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff in 1955. The first release was (the original) The Fast and the Furious, and AIP quickly became a house known for distributing films focused on the emerging teen demographic. In the mid 1950s, teenagers were a new market for basically everything. They often went to the movies (especially drive-ins) because their parents dominated the television sets in the home.

AIP came to realize that this newfound source of entertainment revenue was being completely ignored by the studio system. AIP dedicated itself to distributing cheaply produced films centered on whatever the ‘hot teen trend’ was at the time. In the 50s, this would range from “wild youth,” (High School Hellcats), drag racing (Hot Rod Gang), rock ‘n’ roll (Rock All Night), and teen horror (I Was a Teenage Werewolf). Over the course of time, AIP refined their formula on how to make a successful film, known internally as Peter Pan Syndrome:

a) a younger child will watch anything an older child will watch;
b) an older child will not watch anything a younger child will watch;
c) a girl will watch anything a boy will watch
d) a boy will not watch anything a girl will watch;
therefore-to catch your greatest audience you zero in on the 19-year old male.

This probably explains modern blockbusters like Transformers and much of the superhero fare.

By the 1960s, AIP had moved onto spy spoofs, lampooning the James Bond franchise, and Roger Corman horror films. Beach Party, starring Annette Funicello and Philadelphia native Frankie Avalon was not only AIP’s greatest success to date, but also instigated a whole genre of beach party films.

Beach Party‘s success is kind of baffling given the actual quality of the film. The plot of the film begins with Dolores (Funicello) and her boyfriend Frankie (Avalon) heading to the beach for a romantic weekend getaway. When they arrive, Frankie discovers his gal has invited all of their friends, making him think she doesn’t love him. He sets out to make her jealous by flirting extensively with other girls.

The film gets weird quickly when it introduces Professor Robert Orwell Sutwell (Robert Cummings), an anthropologist allegedly studying the “wild mating habits” of beach teens. He really comes off as a peeping Tom with scientific equipment. Dolores decides to use Sutwell to make Frankie jealous, which triggers the ire of Marianne (Dorothy Malone), Sutwell’s assistant.

Sutwell’s occupation drives much of the (alleged) humor in the film, with him trying to decipher the bizarre lingo, learning how to surf, and critiquing the dancing of the locals. He also runs into conflict with Eric von Zipper (Harvey Lembeck), leader of the local biker gang (an apparent parody of Marlon Brando in The Wild One). Sutwell puts von Zipper in a “time freeze” using some vague eastern art, prompting Zipper to spend the rest of the film planning his revenge. Sutwell also goes through a She’s All That-prescient beard makeover, and is suddenly revealed as a hot stud rather than a story old scientist.

The one redeeming quality of the film is probably the music. Yes, this film is also a musical, but thankfully the film actually has some good quality tracks. Rare for a B-film, Beach Party has a mostly original score, written by Les Baxter. Besides the songs sung by the main cast, other music in the film is performed by Dick Dale and the Dale-Tones, the king of the surf rock bands.

Ultimately, while this is a significant entry in the history of film, it’s not essential viewing. However, it’s a perfect film for putting on in the background at a party. Because who doesn’t love surf rock?

List of Shame Files normally appears on Wednesdays. Previous entries are here.

From the List of Shame, File #11: What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?

I tend to shy away from family dramas, as they usually hold no interest for me. I know everyone’s family has problems, and I don’t need a movie to tell me that. However, Jill was very adamant about me watching What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, consistently praising the performances of Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio (DiCaprio was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the role. He was 19).

For those that may not be aware, the film centers on Gilbert Grape (Johnny Depp), and his family, who live in rural Endora, Iowa. Gilbert works at the local mom and pop grocery store, while his sisters do the housework. Their mother is morbidly obese because of the severe depression she sinks into following the suicide of the family’s father. However, Gilbert’s most important job is looking after his brother Artie (DiCaprio), who is mentally disabled.

While the film also deals with Gilbert’s affair with a married woman, his romance with a girl passing through town (Juliette Lewis), a new chain supermarket, and other goings-on in Endora, it was the relationship between Gilbert and Artie that really hit home for me. You see my brother has what most people would call a mental disability, Asperger’s syndrome. I don’t really consider my brother disabled, he’s just different from most people, and has trouble navigating social constructs (and some other things). Watching the movie gave me a real appreciation for Peter Hedges script, Lasse Hallström’s direction, and of course Depp and DiCaprio’s performances.

Certainly, the character of Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man probably has more in common with my brother in terms of symptoms (except that my brother is not a savant, insofar as anyone is aware). However, the way the film portrays the relationship between Gilbert and Artie is very similar to how my brother and I were as kids (if my parents had been largely out of the picture like theirs).

Gilbert shows a lot of care and protectiveness toward his brother, and feels immense guilt when he makes mistakes or inadvertently hurts him. Artie, in turn, shows Gilbert more love and respect than anyone else he knows, completely idolizing his brother. It is this relationship that also forms the bedrock of the film.

You may not have as personal a connection with this film as I ended up having, but I think it’s worthwhile for anyone to see.

List of Shame File #10: Hannah and Her Sisters

I feel slightly embarrassed that it has taken me this long to see Hannah and Her Sisters. But there was a time when I thought if you’d seen one Woody Allen movie (Annie Hall), you’d seen them all. In many ways, that is still the case. Allen loves inserting his neurotic personality into each movie he makes, and while it has the tendency to be hilariously over the top, it can get tiresome very quickly. Luckily for Allen, he is extremely talented at populating his movies with characters so real and memorable that we hardly fault him for wanting to be around them as well.

Hannah and Her Sisters is a film about just that: Hannah (Mia Farrow) the oldest sister, Holly (Dianne Wiest in an Oscar winning role) in the middle, and Lee (Barbara Hershey) the youngest. I don’t recall the film ever stating definitively the birth order of Holly or Lee, but again, Allen does such an amazing job writing these characters I can’t see them being any other way. Hannah embodies the independence and giving nature that comes with being the respected and well-loved eldest child. Both Holly and Lee look up to her, seek her approval, and chide her when they think Hannah’s well meaning advice is really just a way for her to knock them down a few pegs. This is especially the case with Holly who is the wild child of the bunch.

But the story isn’t just about the sisters, it’s also about the men in their lives. Specifically, how the men in Hannah’s life, end up in her sisters’ lives. Hannah’s husband Elliot (Michael Caine) is in love with Lee, and struggles with his lust over her and his feelings for Hannah. Hannah’s ex-husband Mickey (Woody Allen) is a hypochondriac, always at the doctor checking the status of his latest mole, cough, or side pain. He had a brief affair with Holly that ended in disaster.

The film studies these characters in a collection of well headlined vignettes, each chapter of the story described with white letters on a black screen in such a way that seems slightly romanticized (“Lucky I ran into you,”The Big Leap,” “Summer in New York”). Like pages from a book or conversations we have with friends about love and life, Allen attempts to piece together the meaning of it all, and at the same time pokes fun at anyone who thinks they have the answer. By the end of the film Allen and his character Mickey have come to accept that there is no way of knowing anything, that the present is alway better enjoyed now than worrying about the future or remembering the past.

Hannah and Her Sisters shines when it focuses on the relationship between Hannah, Holly, and Lee. There is a scene where the three of them meet for lunch, Hannah is having difficulties understanding Elliot’s strange behavior, Lee is devastated over her affair with Elliot, and Holly is struggling to make it as an actress. Holly says she needs to borrow more money, to which Hannah is more than understanding, but wants reassurance that Holly will use it in a proactive way. Holly explains she wants to become a writer, that she has a few good stories she thinks would make excellent screenplays. Hannah offers some of her sisterly advice and Holly takes offense.

Nowhere else in the film is the relationship and power dynamics of these women expressed so well. The camera closes in on the table, constantly circling as they argue. Holly, the defiant middle sister, always thinking of herself as the loser of the group and constantly fighting for confidence from herself and others. Hannah the wise and rational older sister, only wants what’s best for everyone but doesn’t allow anyone to do the same for her. And young Lee struggling to make everyone stop fighting on the brink of tears over her guilt and shame.

This film is considered a comedy and there are indeed some funny moments, but there is also some sadness in these characters’ stories as well. And while each character is given their “happy” ending, in some ways we’re unsure about some of their true feelings over the way things worked out. Allen received an Academy Award for this screenplay, and the dialogue and performances alone are reason enough to see what Roger Ebert has called Allen’s best film to date.

List of Shame File #9: My Neighbor Totoro

While we have seen many films, there are many films that are held in high regard that we haven’t seen yet. As we cross them off our List of Shame, we’ll write about them here!

While a lot of my friends went through a heavy anime phase in high school (or for all I know, they are still as obsessed as ever), I never got much beyond Dragonball Z, Akira, and a few other things. One of those was Spirited Away, the 2001 film by Hayao Miyazaki. It left quite an impression on me, though the film is rather strange and dense feeling for someone not already versed in that style of filmmaking. As a consequence, I didn’t see many more of Miyazaki’s work until I was in college.

It was actually Pixar that brought me circling back to the films of “the Japanese Walt Disney.” As I read more about the studio, I found that John Lasseter (director of Toy Story, etc., and now Disney guru) was not only a huge fan of Miyazaki, but had actually supervised the English dubbing and release of Spirited Away. The titular character actually appears in last summer’s Toy Story 3:

My most recent foray into Miyazaki’s animation is the 1988 classic  My Neighbor Totoro. For those who are not aware, the film takes place in Japan in 1958, centering on the Kusakabe family. The father, a university professor, and his two daughters, Satsuki and Mei (about 10 and 3 years old), move into an old house in rural Japan to be closer to a hospital where their wife/mother is recovering from an unnamed illness. The house appears to be inhabited by soot sprites, who live in unoccupied spaces, and serve as an introduction to the world beyond the one we normally see.

Eventually, Satsuki and Mei meet some of the “keepers of the forrest,” including the large, cat-like Totoro, who shows them the forrest, as well as a bus shaped like a giant cat (or a giant cat shaped like a bus?). There are adventures involving a giant tree, and a tense sequence involving the girls wanting to visit their mother.

While largely rooted in nature, Totoro plays on the nostalgia of peaceful postwar Japan, showing a period that is obviously not contemporary. This contrast is augmented by the rural context as well, and arriving in a place that is as unfamiliar to the characters as it is to the audience only helps us identify more quickly with Satsuki and Mei (this is only enhanced for Western viewers).

They are central to the story, of course, and the true beauty of the film is in these two girls, their relationship, their curiosity, and their feelings for their mother and father. Satsuki and Mei are as fully realized as any characters in animation and live action, and they behave exactly like little girls in their situation would.

Thematically, the film borrows a lot from classic works like Alice in Wonderland, what with the two girls discovering a hidden world just beyond their front door. However, the film also draws heavily from Miyazaki’s own life. Miyazaki’s father was an academic and his mother, who suffered from tuberculosis, was successfully treated in a rural sanitarium. In an interview published in Starting Point: 1979-1996 Miyazaki mentioned he made the main characters girls so it wouldn’t be too close to his own life.

This actually brings us to the contrast between Miyazaki and his American admirer Lasseter. The latter was named Father of the Year 2011 by Esquire magazine for creating children’s entertainment ostensibly for boys. While you may disagree with the premise, Lasster’s films are much more “male friendly” than Disney’s largely princess-driven output. Miyazaki, by contrast, almost always puts female protagonists in his stories. These girls are strong and independent, and are shown in a diverse variety of careers over the course of Miyazaki’s films.

For a movie geared toward children, it treats them like adults, at least in portraying real life. As Ebert said, “It is a little sad, a little scary, a little surprising and a little informative, just like life itself. It depends on a situation instead of a plot, and suggests that the wonder of life and the resources of imagination supply all the adventure you need.”  There are no villains in this film, instead it is a movie about growing up, discovering new things, and gaining maturity.

This is a fantastic film for people of all ages, and if you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it.

From the List of Shame File #8: Garden State

While we have seen many films, there are many films that are held in high regard that we haven’t seen yet. As we cross them off our List of Shame, we’ll write about them here!

While some movies I haven’t seen because I just haven’t gotten around to them, there are some that I actively avoid. Garden State was one of the latter. The problems I had with watching the film are admittedly my own, but I was driven away by the incessant need of some of my high school classmates to rave about the film and bombard people with the soundtrack.

As both an indie film and indie music darling, the hype around Garden State was ridiculous. What kept me away was not a desire to give into something popular, but the fear of disappointment. There’s only so many times (2, I think) you can be told that something will change your life without becoming disappointed if you don’t immediately adopt a new religion (or at least, haircut) after seeing it.

So after delaying the inevitable for seven years, what do I think? I can say I absolutely loved it, with a few caveats. First, it almost feels like a lot of other movies I have seen in the interim, what with the indie music soundtrack and the listless male lead (Greenberg, etc.). In fact, come to think of it, it almost seems like an early mumblecore film.

In later years there was a lot of criticism about the female lead, played by Natalie Portman. Nathan Rabin of The AV Club noted the character Sam as a prime example of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a trope of a character that I am growing weary of seeing. As he stated in his creation of the term, “The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.”

However, in the end, none of this matters. The hype, the criticism, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, none of it. What makes Garden State special (and something I’m not sure I would have truly recognized at the selfish age of 17) is that it is such a personal film. In watching it, you can immediately connect with writer/director/actor Zach Braff. As the writer’s cliché goes, the more specific the details, the more universal the story (or something like that), and Garden State is no exception.

Besides being a minor inditement of overmedicating people’s emotional problems, the film’s core is about the emotional journey that Braff’s character takes, stepping into maturity in a place he hasn’t been since he was a kid, something far too familiar to college grads these days.

I’m really glad I held out on Garden State, because I think I got so much more out of it now.

And yes, the soundtrack is really good.