Capsule Review: “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles”

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Like Bill Clinton, John Hughes could feel your pain. As a filmmaker, the former National Lampoon writer spoke to the misfits of 1980s white collar, suburban America, from the ragtag group of teen archetypes in the The Breakfast Club to the titular manchild with a heart of gold in Uncle Buck. HIs best film paired  John Candy with Steve Martin as yet another goofy odd couple (Candy is a jocular shower-curtain-ring salesman, Martin a high-strung ad executive) trying to get home for Thanksgiving. Hughes’s films could occasionally suffocate under the weight of their own sentimentality. This one is pitched just right, balancing manic comic energy with genuine pathos. Candy in particular shows, when given the chance, he had real dramatic chops, delving into the underlying sadness of his lovably oafish character. And Martin, in perhaps the film’s best known scene, turns excessive profanity into an art form. Like Groundhog Day after it, Planes, Trains, Automobiles proved mainstream Hollywood comedies could reach surprising levels of emotional depth, while also being uproariously funny. 

Capsule Review: “Face/Off”

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There’s a case to be made for Face/Off, John Woo’s campy action spectacular about a cop (John Travolta/Nicolas Cage) and a criminal (Nicolas Cage/John Travolta) who switch faces, and lives, under a bizarre set of circumstances. Hilarity ensues, and indeed Face/Off has the makings of an off-kilter screwball comedy, with Cage and Travolta taking great delight in their hilariously convoluted roles. Not even Peter Sellers can claim to have played both the hero and the villain–as well as the hero pretending to be the villain and vice versa–all in the same movie. Unfortunately, most of the action sequences–Woo’s stock-in-trade–feel flabby and phoned-in, despite the big-studio resources at the director’s disposal. Anyone who speaks more than two languages will tell you some words simply don’t translate. The same seems to be true of Woo’s signature action style (cheesy slo-mo, delirious multi-camera setups, and enough bullets to take down the entire U.S. Army) which he employed to rather mixed success during his six-film Hollywood run in the 1990s and early 2000s. You’re better off watching Bullet in the Head or Hard Boiled for the umpteenth time. 

Capsule Review: “Mr. Arkadin”

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Of all the films Orson Welles made during his European exile, this globetrotting thriller is the most perplexing. The plot, a riff on Welles’ own Citizen Kane, follows a small-time American crook (Robert Arden) hired to dig into the past of a mysterious billionaire (Welles) by the billionaire himself. Indeed, Mr. Arkadin is nothing if not self referential: Welles fashioned the script from a few radio plays about Harry Lime, the charming American smuggler he played in Carol Reed’s The Third Man. At times, one senses the director trying to deconstruct his own larger than life persona, while also exposing the troubled soul of postwar Europe. Unfortunately, many of these themes (which Welles would flesh out in other, better works) feel half-baked here, most likely a product of the film’s troubled production history. (Made on a shoestring budget, it was released in truncated form after the producers denied Welles final cut.). Much like Arkadin the character and Welles the man, Mr. Arkadin purports to be more than it actually is. But of course, perhaps that was the point.

Capsule Review: “Cat People”

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Writer-producer Val Lewton breathed new life into a tired Hollywood genre with this 1942 classic about mysterious Serbian-born fashion designer (Simone Simon) apparently possessed by an ancient feline curse. Unlike the classic Universal horror films of the 1930s, there are no monsters in Cat People, just the barest hint of supernatural forces lurking the shadows (beautifully photographed by director Jacques Tourneur and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca). Indeed, the secret to Lewton’s formula (which he perfected in a series of films for RKO in the early 1940s) was conjuring horror from human psychology, no special effects required. The film works both as a skillfully crafted genre picture and a provocative metaphor–for a woman coming to terms with her sexuality and an immigrant struggling to assimilate and escape her past in the American melting pot.

Capsule Review: “The Fog”

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John Carpenter’s 1980 follow-up to the pioneering slasher film Halloween is an old-fashioned ghost story, told with incredible skill and a sly modern sensibility. On the eve of Antonio Bay’s centennial celebration, an eerie fog descends upon the coastal California town, bringing first minor mayhem (broken glass, busted clocks, errant car alarms) then strange, ghostly visitors armed with sharp and deadly implements. As usual, Carpenter does a wonderful job setting things up, allowing the suspense to slowly build and suffusing the film’s idyllic widescreen imagery with an acute sense of dread and, more poignantly, guilt. (The ghosts, we later find out, are a horrific manifestation of the town’s original sin.) The ending, which I won’t spoil here, is a bit of a letdown. But what wouldn’t be after the magnificently creepy first two acts? While The Fog lacks the incisive social commentary of such Carpenter classics as They Live, the film finds other, more subtle ways of thumbing its nose at the emerging Moral Majority, such as by making the protagonist an independent single mother (the director’s then wife Adrienne Barbeau) and the church the ultimate villain. Halloween aside, Carpenter doesn’t enough credit for breaking new ground in the horror genre, and The Fog may be his most underrated film.

Capsule Review: “Halloween”

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John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) didn’t invent the slasher film (credit there goes to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho), but it arguably perfected the genre by distilling it down to its essence. The essential elements are all there: A masked killer (the now infamous Michael Myers, played here by Nick Castle), several imperiled teenagers (most notably Jamie Lee Curtis, in the role that made her name as Hollywood’s premiere scream queen) and an acute sense of dread that lingers even when the killer is nowhere in sight. As a director, Carpenter pulls out all the stops, beginning the film with a four minute POV tracking shot that ends with a young Michael Myers stabbing his teenage sister with a butcher knife. Less appreciated is his ability to transform quiet suburban neighborhoods and quaint domestic spaces into potential sources of unspeakable horror. Indeed, the reason Halloween struck a nerve with audiences at the time, and continues to resonate today, is that horror hits so close to home, speaking to fears social breakdown and loss of community. Perhaps the film’s most haunting image is of a desperate Jamie Lee Curtis banging on the front door of her neighbors, crying for help, then watching them turn off the lights and pretend they’re not there.

Capsule Review: “A Colt is My Passport”

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Takashi Nomura’s classic yakuza film ranks among the best of the so-called Nikkatsu noirs, a series of crime flicks made by Japan’s oldest studio in the late 50s and 60s in an effort to attract youth audiences. A gun-for-hire (the chipmunk-cheeked Joe Shishido) assassinates a rival crime boss, then spends the rest of the film trying–and failing–to leave town and escape retaliation. Inspired equally by the French New Wave and Spaghetti Westerns, A Colt is My Passport is nothing if not self aware, from the hero’s cynical, seen-it-all commentary (“How’d he die?” his partner asks in the getaway car. The reply: “No special way. Same as they always do.”) to the explosive, High Noon-style showdown that concludes the film. But Nomura manages a fresh perspective on these classic genre tropes–at times literally, though his inventive editing and camerawork. And like fellow Nikkatsu director Seijun Suzuki, he has an unspoken hostility towards the West expressed mainly through the destruction of cars: A bulletproof Mercedes is one of the film’s many casualties. 

Capsule Review: “Deep Red”

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Dario Argento made many giallo. But the genre arguably peaked with Deep Red (1975), a gory Hitchcockian thriller that solidified the director’s reputation as Italy’s “master of suspense.” The film follows a musician (David Hemmings) and a journalist (Daria Nicolodi) who team up to solve a string of gruesome murders, starting with a German psychic who inadvertently learns the killer’s identity via telepathy. Deep Red shouldn’t work for a variety of reasons. The premise is implausible, even by giallo standards. The sexual politics and pop psychology references are hopelessly outdated. The acting is serviceable at best and marred by another unfortunate genre trope: Poor English-language dubbing. And yet, Argento’s filmmaking speaks for itself: The bright, popping colors; the ingenious camera angles and breathless tracking shots; the chilling visual and audio cues involving children’s toys and music; and the insidious murders themselves, which involve all manner of stabbing, chopping, slamming, slicing, strangling  and scalding. Argento may lack Hitchcock’s thematic sophistication, but he knows how to raise the audience’s blood pressure, and do so rather artfully.

This Movie Sucks: “American Beauty”

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Sam Mendes’ variation on the classic “suburbia and its discontents” theme boasts fine acting from leads Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening and a few vivid fantasy sequences that rival Vertigo in their psychosexual excess. But for the few good performances, there’s plenty of so-so ones: Thora Birch and Chris Cooper struggle to make sense of their underwritten roles, while Wes Bentley unintentionally channels Normal Bates as the moody (but thankfully non-lethal) boy next door. Plus the film so lacks a solid emotional or ideological core, it winds up saying not much at all. At best, one could argue Mendes and screenwriter Alan Ball capture the cultural malaise of the late Clinton era. The film was released in the immediate aftermath of the Lewinsky scandal and features a male protagonist (Spacey) who, in Clintonian fashion, begins lusting after a younger woman (Mena Suvari) when the fire leaves his marriage. Throw in a Hillary-esque spouse (Bening) and a moody teenage daughter (Birch) who live in an actual white house, and the First Family analogy is complete. But American Beauty (1999) falls apart trying to paint the Spacey and Bening characters as onetime idealists who lost their way. What’s there to idealize about a past life characterized mostly by carefree partying and drinking? In a trial adjudicating baby boomer self-entitlement, this film would be exhibit A. 

Capsule Review: “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence”

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Two international pop stars add otherworldly weight to Nagisa Oshima’s POW drama, set in the early years of the Pacific theater during World War II. David Bowie stars as Jack Celiers,  an unflappable British colonel imprisoned by the Japanese in body but not in spirit. Ryuichi Sakamoto (of the pioneering electro-pop group Yellow Magic Orchestra) is Captain Yanoi, the Japanese officer imprisoned by his unspoken desire for Celiers. The film focuses primarily the strange, quasi-romantic rivalry between these two men who, aspire to perfection but are secretly haunted by deeper, unfulfilled longings. It’s also about the unrelenting brutality of wartime torture, the cultural and political chasm that separates the British prisoners from their Japanese captors, and the bonds these men forge despite all that divides them. The warm friendship betweem the titular Captain Lawrence (Tom Conti) and the cherubic Sergeant Hara (Takeshi Kitano, who himself went to become a renowned) offers a pleasant counterpoint to the erotic hostility of Celiers and Yanoi. This is by far Oshima’s most “conventional” movie, filled with big Hollywood moments and vivid mise en scene worthy of Vincente Minnelli proud. But the melodrama is pitched just right and may very well move you to tears.