Morvern Callar

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A young woman lays next to a shirt less man. A bunch of Christmas lights blink on and off. The shirtless man is laying face down and not moving. However the woman blinks. And then she sits up. She looks over at the body and the camera shows a pool of blood that has collected under the body’s wrist. The lights keep blinking on and off, on and off. The woman gets up slowly as if she is coming out of a dream.

This is how the somber and yet enlightening Morvern Callar starts. The man on the floor is Morvern Callar’s (yes that is the young woman’s name and she is played so wonderfully by Samantha Morton) boyfriend. This opening scene is the end of something that she had known for a while (the relationship seemed serious but not quite to the point of marriage) and the start of something new. But what is she going to do now that she is alone? She is going to take her own life in her hands and enjoy it for once in her life. She takes the money her boyfriend had set aside for a funeral and buys a trip to Spain for her and her best friend. She erases her boyfriend’s name on a manuscript, writes her own and then submits it to publishers. She decides that she is going to be as drunken, as aimless and as free as her previous life wasn’t. But she can’t quite let go of her boyfriend. His music, his tastes even his manuscript come back to haunt her. It is a constant struggle for Morvern to be free, to be without any constraints.

Lynne Ramsay came from the area that she is depicting and had as little money as Morvern and her best friend had. She understands how hard it is to get and hold onto money. How much the lack of money limits your choices. You are forced to perform a service that you don’t want to do, waste your life toiling away for  very little. And if a man can come along that has slightly more money than you do and you are able to attach yourself to him in some way it is even harder to get away or break free from if you rely on his station in life to get by. I feel like this was Morvern’s life before the movie started. That is why she has such a hard time completely letting go, but at the same time she sees this as her only chance. You may judge her for being seemingly cruel to her dead boyfriend, but she is doing it out of necessity. The necessity she feels to start her life all over again.

Samantha Morton may be my new favorite actress. Her performance in this film revealed such vulnerability and inner strength that would have been lost had anyone else played the part. The emotions she goes through are so complex and yet so simply read on her face. She is quite amazing in this role.

This was a movie that stuck with me for days afterward. I am positive this review does not do it justice to the ideas, dialogue, performances and images that left such undeniable impression on my brain. If only every movie could be this good, this thought-provoking…

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It’s a Disaster

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David Cross is an actor/comedian that I admire. From his early days on Mr. Show to his latest turns in the recent Arrested Development seasons, he has always been a source of quality entertainment. But his efforts have always landed him television work where he can develop a character over the long arc of a season. When he does appear in films, it is either in a children’s movie where he is forced to constrain himself or in a cameo role that barely gets any lines at all. The same can actually be said about everyone else in this film. They are all either famous from a television show or a series of teenage movies that they made years ago. So I wondered what and how they got together. And then I watched the film, and I figured out why they all wanted to do the film.

It’s a Disaster stars David Cross as Glen, a man about to meet his girlfriend’s friends for the first time at a couples brunch. Wanting desperately to make a good impression, he is constantly pulled into conversations that make him uncomfortable. Glen has obviously walked into a no-win situation. Julia Stiles plays the girlfriend, Tracy, who seems to always be bringing someone different every time to these monthly brunches.  The couples follow some modern stereotypes including the “perfect couple” (who is about to get a divorce), the “hippy couple” (who keep their relationship open and talk about being vegan all of the time), and the super smart woman with the child like man (who are currently in a five-year engagement). All of these couple of stereotypes converge upon each other and create conversations that make the audience feel uncomfortable. (Uncomfortable in a good way.) And this is all before they find out there is going to be a nuclear holocaust.

The strengths of this disaster comedy lies in the dialogue and the execution of it by the superb actors. There is one scene where America Ferrara sits on the kitchen floor and cooks a home-grown Ecstasy as she breaks up with her infantile boyfriend. She sits there in a child like pose and lectures him about being a child and focusing on the worst possible things. It is a brilliant scene executed in a way that make me feel bad for this man who had been extremely odd in previous scenes.

The first and second acts of the film are probably the best modern comedy that I have seen in a little bit. However by the third act when everyone is tired on-screen and you are tired off-screen, the director tries to shoe horn in one more unneeded twist. This makes the film end in such a way that was unsatisfying for me. You could tell that the ending had be rewritten several different times and in several different ways. There is no impact, no interesting resolution. It just kind of ends which is always the most frustrating of endings.

Despite the third act problems, I still recommend you see the film. It is full of uncomfortable situations and unforgettable dialogue. Everyone is neurotic in a way that endears them at least to me.

Scarface (1932 version)

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There is something about an early sound picture that gets me excited to see it. I can’t quite put my finger on it but I believe that early sound pictures are better than later Hollywood pictures. They exert this energy that is hard to find in later movies. Maybe the energy comes from finding the voices (literally) or from the fresh faces in the pictures that usually weren’t as much of a presence in silent pictures but what ever it is these movies make me fall in love with movies all over again.

Scarface is about an Al Capone like character who infiltrates the Chicago underground during Prohibition. The movie starts with a warning and a call to action that seems to contradict the rest of the film. It says that the movie was made in order to show the amount of violence someone can inflict if the government won’t do anything about it. It also tells the audience to contact their local government and call them to action. After this long introduction, you see Tony (played so well by Paul Muni) wise cracking his way through the system. His wise cracks endear him to the audience so much so that you don’t want him to get caught. You want him to succeed, to take away the business from his boss and to enjoy a reconciliation with his sister. He is a human character, no doubt but he is also a larger than life character. His thirst for violence and for control is almost cartoonish in its outrageous escapades. Take for instance the scene where he first gets his hands on a tommy gun. He falls in love with a gun that will easily take ten or more shots without you having to reload it. He utters a short love speech and sprays some bullets around the room purely out of enjoyment. He is also a lovable character who will always keep even the most incompetent worker with him purely because he likes the guy. I am talking of course about his secretary who doesn’t know how to write. He is constantly picking the phone up for Tony and asking who it is but not being able to get the name. He gets so hostile that he usually ends up slamming the phone down. In a movie that is for the most part about some serious things, this is only a couple of moments of some really great comedy. This movie also gives us the wise guy constantly flipping his coin. This is Tony’s right hand man. He creates this menacing air purely because he listens to the coin flips in front of him. Should he kill the boss? Well the coin flip says yes so you might as well do it. This film originates so many different cultural aspects of the gangster that it was fun to watch just so you can point them out.

I have been making my way (slowly) through the first season of Boardwalk Empire. This series does with roughly the same time period. It is fascinating how much this series borrows from Scarface, especially when characterizing Al Capone. Scarface had made such an undeniable impression on American culture that borrowing from it would make way more sense than any other movie out there. It also had such a visual influence. This movie with their extreme shadows and dark hulking men who are on the way to kill people clearly made an impression on film noir that began to crop up in the forties. Scarface is by far one of the best gangster films I have ever seen and I hope that more people choose to watch it over the shitty remake by di Palma.

Tabloid

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Errol Morris has been touted by critics way cooler than I as one of the best documentarian of all time and I have to begrudgingly agree. He tells stories that are attention grabbing, intense and moving. The foundation of these stories are the interviews he gets from his subjects. Being able to get Robert S. McNamara to talk at length about his involvement in Vietnam is no easy task. But Mr. Norris isn’t just interested in the effects of war or politics. He just wants an intriguing story and an intriguing interview. He got both with his most recent film, Tabloid.

Tabloid tells the story of Joyce McKinney, a former beauty queen, who travels to Britain and gets involved with a kidnapping and bondage story ripe for the British tabloids circuit. the tabloid system is even more harsh in Britain than it is in the good ole United States. They will stop at nothing to uncover the salacious details of a crazy story and boy is Ms. McKinney’s story crazy. She travels to Britain after learning her fiance has joined a Mormon mission there. She tracks him down and invites him into her car. Then she takes him to a cabin for a weekend of kinky sex that involved bondage (McKinney insists it as innocent bondage used to free up  his inhibitions. The papers allege it was something more sinister.). He then runs off and rejoins the Mormon mission and files charges against Ms. McKinney saying that he was kidnapped by her. She is taken to jail where she drops a letter to the newspapers telling her story and her innocence. This prompts a media circus and makes her a celebrity over night.

Ms. McKinney presents her story as a love gained and then lost. The papers present her story as a sex maniac with a history of fetishism. So what is the truth? Mr. Morris is not completely worried about discovering the unequivocal truth. He is more worried about showing the charisma of Ms. McKinney and the ruthlessness of the reporters. This film came out around the time that scandal was erupting in Britain with Rupert Murdoch and his News International phone hacking schemes. Whether that juxtaposition was intentional or not, Mr. Morris is able to capture a concrete example of a scandal and make this theoretical  issue into a real one. Was it right for those reporters to dig through Ms. McKinney’s personal effects or track down people she used to be involved with? Or was it all just a part of the game? It is up for you to decide.

Dracula’s Daughter

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Sequels and re-imaginings of the same story is something that is as old as film itself. If you were upset about them rebooting Spiderman after only coming out with original ten years ago or if you can’t believe that there is another generic franchise entry coming out in the summer theater circuit, then you should know better. As early as the thirties, studios seized upon an idea that gave them an iconic character and remade and sequelized it until there was no more life in the story or the characters anymore. Only one example of this is the legacy of Dracula. Dracula’s Daughter was one of the first sequels to come out from the original and it is one of the most original of the sequels from this era (at least that I have seen…).

The film is supposed to start where the original stopped. Count Dracula and Renfield are taken to a morgue and Van Helsing is arrested for murder. But a mysterious woman with a really sweet ring on her finger shows up and steals the bodies. She burns them hoping that she can get rid of the curse. If you are asking what curse, then you did not read the title…. because she has the same curse as her father. When this inevitably does not work, she takes a man who claims that he can cure her of her condition and tries to seduce him. But he is in love with another woman, his wise cracking assistant… The tension, the intrigue and most importantly the bad accents and dramatic clothing! How will I ever cope with such an engrossing tale?

This film doesn’t know quite what it wants to be. Part of the film is a police procedural, another part is a horror film (not in the modern sense but in the classic sense) and yet another part is a romantic comedy. All of these mash together to make a film that is clearly not taking itself too seriously. Every actor is aware of their over acting skills and reach as far up as they can. It may be my own bias coming in but I really enjoyed the parts with the ordinary couple going back and forth together. In one scene the love interest prank calls the man she is in love with. This enrages him so much that he chews out the next person who calls him and it turns out to be his boss. It was a cute moment in the middle of some serious talk about the vampire’s addiction to blood. I also enjoyed the lady vampire vamping the hell out of all dramatic clothing she wears. She is so tortured and yet so glamorous! The plot is rote and the conceit of Dracula barely touched on and that is what I like about this film. They were able to take a sequel to an established brand and make a completely different film.

Dracula (Spanish Version)

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Different interpretations of the same story is something that has always fascinated. No matter how much someone tries, one person doesn’t think exactly the same way as someone else. In 1931, Universal knew while they were filming that they had a story that would translate well to Spanish-speaking viewers. Dracula was such an iconic story already that they would have no trouble selling a Spanish version to their markets in Mexico, Cuba or Spain. So when Todd Browning was done with the English version for the day, an all Spanish cast and crew would come in and film the exact same story during the night on the same sets. Despite having the same plot and the same settings, you can notice that the director’s hands influence two pretty different results.

I won’t rehash the whole story here, since I am sure you have seen the original version (and if you haven’t than why are you reading this post?). But I will talk about what makes this film unique to its English partner. The main aspect of the film that separates this one apart is the performance of Eva, the girl who Count Dracula becomes obsessed with and terrorizes. In the English version (her name is Mina in that one), the role comes off as paper-thin. She is just a vessel for the men in the story to fill with whatever their needs are for the plot. But in this version, Eva is a enigmatic and alive creature. She is someone you care about and want her see beat Dracula through the help of Van Helsing and her fiance Harker. She brings a since of life that was absent in the original. This is all the work of the actress, because both versions are basically saying the same lines. The actress takes these whiny and flat lines and injects them with these grandiose emotions that I wish came from everyone else in the room.

Another thing that is different from the English version is the incredible sense of motion. This motion energizes and completely matches the acting of Eva. It gives the whole picture a sinister sense of urgency that can sometimes weigh the original down. When you see Dracula for the first time on those stairs or when you see the power that Dracula exerts on Eva or various other minions, the director gets right next to him and shows you what his victims are seeing. This makes the film even more frightening than it would be otherwise.

Of course this film is not without flaws. Almost everyone but Eva put in boring performances. The most egregious is the Spanish actor playing Count Dracula. It isn’t that he is bad, but I am just so used to Bela Lugosi that the weird faces he makes really turn me off and take me out of the movie. Bela may make exaggerated faces, but they do not hold a candle to this Dracula. It is like he is constantly smelling something gross on the set. It is more comical than scary. This film is still worth watching as a good example of how certain people can really influence and produce dramatically different results from the same source material.

House of Dracula

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Who do you turn to if Dracula, Wolf Man and a hunchback woman all want to be cured of their afflictions? Well they turn to a crazy doctor who lives in an ancient castle, of course. This is the conceit of the film, but really it is just an excuse to combine all of these great monster characters into one film.

Dracula comes to the doctor’s mansion in order to seek a treatment to cure him of his vampirism. Of course this is just a ruse to get close to the doctor’s beautiful assistant but that does not stop the doctor from wanting to help him. At around the same time, the Wolf Man comes to the same doctor and desperately seeks a cure for his personal affliction. He seems to be more desperate and more willing to submit to any treatment than Dracula does. The same serum that is needed for the Wolf Man is also needed for the doctor’s other assistant to cure her of her hunchbackism. They work around the clock to grow the cultures and make the serum. In the mean time, Dracula decides to give the doctor his blood instead of the other way around. This of course changes the doctor and makes him mad. He finds Frankenstein’s monster, threatens to bring him back to life and also threatens to kill several townspeople. As the serum is finishing the doctor barely holds it together when he realizes that he only has enough serum for one operation which of course goes to Wolf Man. He cures the Wolf Man, Dracula tries to seduce the assistant several times, and finally the doctor goes completely insane. If only the doctor had refused Dracula’s entreaties…

John Carradine gets his chance to portray Dracula and I think he does a better job of it than Lon Chaney Jr did in the previous film. Mr. Carradine exudes a confidence that I think Mr. Chaney intrinsically lacks. Instead of portraying Dracula, Mr. Chaney is back in the character he is tailor-made to inhabit; the Wolf Man. He plays him with a desperation so sincere that he has to be pulling that from his own life. The story is ridiculous and the characters even more so, but again I found myself going along for the ride. I enjoyed this film because it was ridiculous and because the actors were so committed. It was a solid B picture.

Son of Dracula

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Wow the studios really exploited Dracula for every last story line. Going through hundreds of different story lines, a couple of actors and thousands of love interests, there is probably very few iterations you can still think of that involves such an iconic character. Of course the best is always going to be the original, but are there any others that stand the test of time? I can’t say because I haven’t seen all of them, but I can say that Son of Dracula does not.

When Bela Lugosi became the original Dracula, he became a sensation and created an iteration of the character that would be hard to outdo. However by the time 1943 came around, the studios were interested in other interpretation of the character. This is where Lon Chaney, Jr comes in. Having made his debut on the monster market with his wonderful performance as the Wolf Man, Universal was eager to him try his hand at other monsters (something that seems to be very common at the time. Bela as Frankenstein’s monster? Weird…). For Son of Dracula, Lon Chaney Jr becomes the vampire and travels to an old town in the South in order to marry a woman obsessed with the occult. He gets tricked by this beautiful dark-haired woman into making her immortal. She then decides she will kill him and turn her true love into an immortal himself so they can be together forever. Of course there are complications that involve her light-haired sister and her deceased father’s friends from the town. I think you can imagine what the complications are without me having to spell them out for you. In the end the good guys win and the bad guys are vanquished… or are they? dum dum DUM

The characters of this film are as thin as a piece of paper. In the original story, the character of Dracula would never have been defeated so easily and he wouldn’t have been taken in by a woman so obviously two-faced. It seems the good sister’s only characteristic is that she is a blonde and therefore must be good. In contrast her sister has black hair and sports dramatic clothing so she must be evil in some way. The plot is boring and the outcome rote. It seems like everyone is sleep walking through the film. Lon Chaney Jr brings none of the tortured characteristics he brings so naturally to the Wolf Man. He just sort of stands there looking menacing. Giving him the ability to have super strength by just putting his hand out did him no favors. Despite all of this, I did enjoy myself. Every time Dracula turned into a bat or I saw the smoke rise at an entrance, I got a little chill. The evil sister also vamped it up so hard that it was easy to overlook how flat her line delivery was. And of course the doctor was quite a charming curmudgeon. I think that if they put a little bit more effort, they would have had a great story here instead of a mediocre one.

Leaving Las Vegas

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Alcoholism is a hard thing to watch. More than any other vices, alcoholics are extremely aware of what they are doing to themselves and to their bodies and yet unable to do anything about it. Although I have never had anyone near me become consumed by it, I am aware of other people’s stories to be aware of just how much damage it can cause. From comedians baring their struggles on WTF to personal friends whose family members are cut off from the rest of the family because of their actions, there are plenty of examples of how bad it can become. These stories and examples are somewhat pale in comparison to this film.

Leaving Las Vegas is a hard film to watch. Nicholas Cage plays a drunk who has lost everything. His life, his family and his job all go down the drain every time he slams a pint of whiskey. In order to completely free himself from the pain that alcohol has caused him, he decides that he is going to go to Las Vegas and drink himself to death. In contrast Elizabeth Shue goes to Las Vegas to escape her pimp and find a more regular source of income. She thinks that Las Vegas will give her the freedom she needs. Of course she is mistaken in her ideals and becomes even more lonely than she was before. She meets Nicholas Cage one night and they hit it off. She takes him into her house and cares for him. At first you think this is going to be the standard story line of woman saving a man from himself, but that ends up not being true. What Nicholas Cage sets out to do at the beginning is what Nicholas Cage ends up doing. There is no romantic twinge to the ravages he inflicts on his body. At one point in the film, Elizabeth Shue takes him to a hotel in the middle of the desert. She seduces him by the pool, but it is instantly ruined the moment he gets up and slams into a glass table. After she escorts him back to their room, she comes back to the table to clean it up. There she is confronted by the hotel manager who tells her to take her mess of a boyfriend out of the hotel as soon as possible. It is the most uncomfortable scene in the whole film. Both Elizabeth and Nicholas continually get treated like dirt because of their afflictions. At the same time you can’t really blame the straight people. They have their life together, and they don’t have an infinite supply of pity.

Both Nicholas Cage and Elizabeth Shue put in hammy but persuasive performances. Cage over acts in the only way he knows how. But every outburst, every dramatic line reading fits his character perfectly. Elizabeth can be a little bit whiney, but she is mostly very believable in her emotions. They combine together to form a sweet and beautiful relationship. If only it could have lasted…

A Royal Affair

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The Enlightenment reverberates across the world today. When studying political movements, you can trace the influences of any one to the ideas of Rousseau and other Enlightenment scholars. The movement is the reason why our world looks the way it does now, how the United States formed and how France became independent (if only for a little while). But before these two very famous revolutions, there was a quieter one in a neighboring country. In Denmark, a doctor with Enlightenment ideals persuaded the king to institute radical changes to his country in order to make the people more free. Why wasn’t this movement more well-known? It was because in the end he did not fully succeed. The king was too easily persuaded, too easily controlled and the elite who desperately wanted back control were too eager to get rid of this spoil sport of a doctor. This unfortunate fact does not mean his story and his efforts should be buried in the sands of time.

This film tells the story of this unlucky doctor, but frames it within a love story. I think this love story is the film’s Achilles heel. Is it not interesting enough to watch the doctor rise to power, institute widespread changes and then see his sudden downfall? Apparently not. We have to have a love story between the Queen and the doctor to give some sort of unneeded emotional anchor. I think the love story falls flat because deep down inside the filmmakers knew that they really didn’t want to focus on that part of the story. The love story is given a lot of screen time, but the scenes could have easily all taken place in the card room fully clothed. The Queen and the doctor are drawn together purely because of their shared ideals not because of their sexual affection. What I would have loved to see was them arguing more in the card room and building the sexual tension that way. The love story is an integral part of the original story but it is annoying to insinuate that the Queen seduced the doctor purely because she wanted more power in the court which it does at one point in the film. Here again is the female making a pawn of a man she holds in her hands. In parallel to the conniving Queen (shown in a sympathetic light, at least) is the conniving stepmother of the King who was thrust aside once he ascended to the throne. She has a son that will never be considered to rule unless they take the crown by force (hint: she is the bad woman). She conspires to take the power away from the doctor after he starts to strip the elite of their wealth and power. This is how she can get support and be able to go through with her diabolical plan.

I think the film could have achieved iconic status if they focused more on how his ideas affected the minor person rather than obsess over the intrigue in the royal mansion. You only get the surface impact on how these changes helped to show France and America that they could do the same thing. The Queen doesn’t know just how bad conditions are outside of her little over privileged bubble. And by extension neither do we.