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Friday, May 30, 2008

Friday Foster

A rich white businessman has a plan to wipe out all the most powerful leaders of the African American community and the only thing standing in his way is a shapely news photographer who can punch as well as she can shoot.

Fans of Pam Grier already know what movie I'm talking about. The rest of you will just have to catch up.

Friday Foster is not Grier's best Blaxploitation movie (that would be Coffy...or maybe Jackie Brown) but it's still a good example of what's right and what's wrong with the genre.

As Friday Foster, Grier finds herself doing a lot more acting, and a lot less fighting, than in most of her films up to this point (1975), and that's a good thing. The bad thing about the movie is that, like most Blaxploitation movies, Friday Foster hasn't aged well at all. Watch two minutes of Ted Lange's embarrassing performance as the pimp Fancy Dexter and you'll know what I'm talking about. Of course watching it and realizing that it's the same Ted Lange who grew up to be Isaac the bartender on The Love Boat and you may cut him some slack.

In fact, one of the joys of watching Friday Foster is watching the familiar faces do some very unfamiliar things like Carl Weathers (Apollo Creed from the Rocky movies) as the silent hit man chasing after Friday in a truly terrible plaid sports jacket, or Yaphet Kotto playing the romantic lead as private detective Colt Hawkins.

And nothing beats the brief, but twisted appearance of Jim Backus – Mr. Thurston Howell III from Gilligan's Island – as the white racist behind it all.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Secret of Santa Victoria

A few days after learning they have finally been liberated from the fascist control of Mussolini, the residents of a sleepy little Italian village find out they are about to be occupied by the German army.

While they are willing to put up with having soldiers in their town (as long as nobody gets hurt) the villagers draw the line when they find out the Germans are really only after their stash of more than a million bottles of wine.

What seems like an unlikely story of World War II heroism is brought to joyous life by director Stanley Kramer in this highly entertaining Oscar-nominated 1969 film.

The key to the films' success is the engaging performance of Anthony Quinn as Italo Bombolini, the town fool/drunk who gets appointed mayor of the village as the last act of the departing fascist government. Thoroughly ill-equipped for the task of saving his village -- and the wine – from the German invaders, Bombolini soon learns that his love of life is enough to conquer all, at least long enough to hide the wine from the invaders.

And while Quinn's performance dominates the picture, it's nicely balanced by the acting of screen legend Anna Magnani as his no-nonsense wife Rosa, the only person in the village strong enough to speak her mind no matter what the cost.

The film gets a bit ridiculous at times, and the scenes of the villagers forming a bottle-passing conga line to get the wine from the cellars to their new hiding place go on a bit too long, but the power of the performances and the feel-good spirit of the film keeps you from worrying too much about the unbelievability of it all.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension

Along with horror, chick flicks and drama, I’ve always thought there should be a separate genre for silly movies, films that can’t be called “good’ by any stretch of the imagination, but that are such silly fun that they’re a blast to watch.

And at the top of that genre list I’d put The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.

This 1984 sci-fi spoof stars Peter Weller as Buckaroo Banzai a brilliant surgeon/scientists/rock star who discovers a way to explore the inner space found between the protons, neutrons and electrons that make up our physical world, the so-called 8th Dimension. His experiments open the door for creatures from that dimension to come to earth and start a war to take over the planet thanks to the help of crazed Italian scientist Dr. Emilio Lizardo (A truly bizarre performance by John Lithgow).

The plot of Buckaroo Banzai is as silly as everything else in the film, so don’t waste too much time trying to follow it. It isn’t worth the effort. Instead, concentrate on the performances from Weller and Lithgow, or try and keep score of all the familiar faces you will see parade by (every from Christopher Lloyd (Back to the Future) to John Ashton (Beverly Hills Cop).

If all else fails, just feast your eyes on the lovely Ellen Barkin whose performance as Buckaroo’s love interest Penny Pretty is probably something she’d prefer you didn’t watch too closely given the much better roles she did after this movie, but she’s just too hot to ignore.

The film runs out of steam about two-thirds of the way through, just about the time you start to realize they spent more on costumes for Peter Weller than they did on special effects.(Keep an eye out for the alien with hands that look suspiciously like hockey gloves. But by then its inherent silliness has enough momentum to carry you through. Only don’t get your hopes up for the sequel, Buckaroo Versus the Intergalactic Criminals, promoted at the end of the film. This was the real title for a sequel that Sherwood Studios planned to make if this film had been successful.

Unfortunately, it was a box-office bomb, and Sherwood Studios went bankrupt soon after its release.

Monday, May 26, 2008

I'm Not There

I'm not sure if I'm Not There is a film devoted Bob Dylan fans will appreciate, or even like. Although it's clearly a love letter to the singer from director Todd Haynes the film is just such a mishmash of styles (and at times limited substance) that it's bound to infuriate anyone looking for any real insight into the mercurial entertainer's life and art.

If you are willing to suspend your expectations though, the film can be a delight.

To tell his interpretation of Dylan's life and impact on the world, Haynes uses a series of different actors to bring the different phases of Dylan's career to life. Some of them work, like the intense portrayal Christian Bale gives of the angry young Dylan trying to deal with success, fame and fan expectations. Some of them, like the silly performance of Richard Gere as the aging artist living the life of a recluse, fall flat.

And then there's the Oscar-nominated work of Cate Blanchett as the Dylan/Messiah figure who goes electric at the Newport Folk Festival, an act of musical protest that few artists before or since have had the guts to even attempt, let alone see through to its end. The film is worth seeing if only to enjoy Blanchett's mesmerizing transformation into the curly-headed self-destructive force that Dylan became as he struggled to reinvent his art. Few actors have the power of transformation that Blanchett does, and this is among her most brilliant disguises.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Diary of the Dead

Forty years ago, director George A. Romero changed the way the movie world looked at zombies by giving audiences an entrails-eye view of what it must really look like when the undead rise from their graves to feast on the flesh of the living.

Last year, the director, who has made a career out of milking that original Night of the Living Dead formula with sequels and remakes, went back to the drawing board to create one of the best horror movies of the past decade.

Diary of the Dead follows a group of Pitt University film students as they graduate from making their own cheap horror movie to documenting the horror that surrounds them as the dead start coming hungrily back to life. Unlike the teens in the vast majority of horror movies, these kids aren’t pretty and vacant; they have brains and use them so they won’t become a meal for some stumbling zombie.

The film, told from the students’ hand-held video camera perspective, takes a little getting used to stylistically, but unlike the amateurish trickery of the Blair Witch Project it isn’t there just to make viewers so nauseous they won’t realize how pitiful the actors are and how dumb the story is. Under Romero’s sure hand, the style of Diary comes with substance.

Like all the Romero zombie films, Diary of the Dead is filled with plenty of literally gut-wrenching moments, but they are usually delivered with the kind of dark humor that the director specializes in. Like all Romero movies, however, Diary is as much social commentary as it is scare-fest and it leaves the audience plenty to chew over regarding the voyeuristic world we wallow in even in the direst of circumstances.

Friday, May 2, 2008

The Golden Compass


It’s not very often one says this about a movie, but at just under two hours The Golden Compass is far too short for its own good. It has the look of a Lord of the Rings style epic, and a cast that’s almost as big, but it feels like it was put together from scraps of ideas rather than built from a complete concept.

Directed by Chris Weitz (American Pie), the film tells the story of a young girl named Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) who inherits a strange device, a Golden Compass, that helps her see the truth in any given situation. There’s a band of bad guys, lead by an impressively icy Nicole Kidman, who need the device to achieve their evil ends and, of course, a group of good guys, lead by a polar bear named Iorek Byrnison (voiced by Ian McKellen), who are determined to save her.

Like most epic movies, there are plenty of big battle scenes set in exotic locations and lots of narrow escapes for our diminutive heroine. For the adults, there is also a lot of none-too-subtle subtext of a religious nature for them to argue about on the way home.

While it has its moments of pure entertainment, such as the big polar bear battle, The Golden Compass just doesn’t have the deoth it needs to really add up to anything meaningful in the end.