Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Dracula (1931) ***

In honor of Halloween, I decided to watch some of the old, original horror movies, starting with the one that started it all, 1931’s “Dracula.”  Based on the Broadway play adapted from Bram Stoker’s novel, “Dracula” kicked off a highly successful run for Universal Studios as THE horror movie studio of the 1930’s.  The movie was followed by such iconic films as “Frankenstein,” “The Mummy,” and “The Wolf Man,” as well as numerous sequels and monster-mashup films.
“Dracula” begins in Transylvania (part of Romania), home of the eccentric Count Dracula, who lives in a ruined castle, and about whom much is whispered by the locals.  Everyone knows the basics of the legend.  The undead Count sleeps in a coffin by day, emerging by night to suck the blood of mortals.  He can turn into a bat or a wolf.  He can be repelled by a crucifix or wolfsbane (no mention of garlic), but only killed by a wooden stake through the heart.
A lawyer named Renfield has been dispatched from London to assist the count in leasing an old abbey in England.  The film never explains why Dracula wants to move, but one imagines that since everyone in Transylvania knows he is a vampire, he is moving for his own safety, as well as for a fresh source of victims.  In any event, Dracula avails himself not only of Renfield’s legal assistance, but of some of his blood, which turns Renfield into Dracula’s slave.  By the time they arrive in England, Dracula has killed off the ship’s crew.  The hysterical Renfield is sent to an asylum, while the count feasts in the back alleys of London.
Dracula wastes no time in meeting the neighbors, who include Dr. Seward, his daughter Mina, and their family friend, Lucy.  The Count first feeds on Lucy, killing her and turning her into a vampire, then he begins to feed sparingly on Mina, slowly bringing her under his control.  The family turns to Professor Van Helsing, a student of the supernatural, to try to save Mina and free them from the curse of the vampire.
You have to cut “Dracula” some slack, considering that it was made in 1931.  Hollywood was barely out of the silent film era, and in fact some of “Dracula” plays like a silent film.  The sound quality is not perfect.  Neither is the story, which has some sizable holes.  The rubber bats are downright laughable, although a 1931 audience may have been more forgiving of bad special effects.  Nonetheless, as a starting point for a genre, it’s not bad.  Most of the acting is decent for it’s time, and Bela Lugosi set the bar high for smooth, accented, well-dressed vampires.

3 stars out of 5

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Friends With Kids (2011) ***

Having kids changes your life.  This well-known fact is fertile ground for comedy, and well-trodden.  “Friends With Kids” doesn’t manage to cover any new ground but it combines “She’s Having a Baby” with “Friends With Benefits” pretty successfully.
Jason (Adam Scott) and Julie (Jennifer Westfeldt) are truly Platonic, best friends, both still single.  As they watch their circle of friends having kids, they worry that when they do manage to find a good mate, everything will be ruined by having children.  Yet, they both want to have a child someday, so what are a couple of hip New Yorkers to do?  They decide to have a kid together and raise it within their Platonic relationship, leaving them each free to pursue true love and romance free of that pressure.
“Friends With Kids” indulges in some of the standard punch-lines of this genre, but the movie manages to work due to the strength of the cast.  Maya Rudolph, Chris O’Dowd, Kristen Wiig, Jon Hamm, and Ed Burns are all as good as you would hope.  Meanwhile, Adam Scott and Jennifer Westfeldt portray their friendship with genuine humanity and sweetness.  I fell for Jenifer Westfeldt in “Kissing Jessica Stein.  She plays pretty much the same character here, and it’s a charming performance.
My only complaint about the film is that it is about thirty minutes too long, and that half-hour almost looks like it is from a different film.  Somewhere towards the end of the movie, the camera work starts to look worse, the musical score gets cheesy, and the story seems to lose track of itself.  It’s as if they either ran out of money or just couldn’t decide how to wind things up.  I suppose this is inexperience showing, as “Friends With Kids” is Jennifer Westfeldt’s directorial debut.  I still recommend the movie, just with moderated expectations.

3 stars.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Matando Cabos (Killing Cabos, 2004) **½

It would be an exaggeration to call this Mexican action-comedy “good.”  It is disjointed, full of stupid actions on the part of the principles, and the comedic tone is often thrown off by gratuitous violence.  “Matando Cabos” is, however, a certain amount of fun.
The titular Sr. Cabos is a psychopathic businessman known for fits of rage and brutality.  In the process of attacking one of his employees, he trips and knocks himself unconscious.  This puts the employee, who happens to be engaged to Sr. Cabos’s daughter, in an awkward situation, especially when he goes for help, returns with his co-worker, and finds his still-unconscious boss inexplicably stripped to his underwear.  There follows a wacky night of capers involving kidnappers, mistaken identities, two unconscious men, and professional wrestlers.   If “Weekend at Bernie’s” had been in Spanish, had two bodies instead of one, and periodically degenerated into graphic violence, it would have been “Matando Cabos.”
Tony Dalton and Kristoff, who play the two leads, play their characters as a couple of goofballs, and are nothing special.  Nor do Ana Claudia Talancon and Rocio Verdejo, the two main actresses, do anything to distinguish themselves other than look good.  It is Joaquin Cosio and Silverio Palacios, who play the wrestlers Mascarita and Tony the Cannibal, who make the movie.  These guys carry themselves with a cool and confidence that makes them the center of every scene.  It actually makes no sense that these two would be willing to spend a night risking their lives for a guy they haven’t talked to in years, but that’s part of what I liked about the characters.  They are the kind of guys that if a friend calls, they will show up, ready for anything.  

2.5 stars out of 5

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Chronicle (2012) ***½

“Chronicle” was sort of billed as a super-hero movie, but the characters don’t really go out and fight crime.  It’s more a movie about super-POWERS, specifically telekinesis, which it turns out can be pretty versatile in the right hands.  Three high school guys discover a sinkhole with some kind of glowing asteroid at the bottom.  The film never explains what this is, but after the exposure, the guys start to develop telekinesis, the ability to move objects with thoughts.  There’s no one around to explain what is happening to them or why, but they do a pretty good job teaching themselves to move objects and eventually themselves, allowing them to fly.  Matt (Alex Russell) and Steve (Michael B. Jordan), both popular, well-adjusted teens, realize that they need to establish for themselves some rules about when and where they will use their new skills.  Andrew (Dane Dehaan), Matt’s nerdy cousin, whose life alternates between being abused by his father and being abused by bullies at school, is quicker to master his powers and less interested in limiting his use of them.  The story from there is predictable, but action-packed.
Creators Josh Trank and Max Landis use an interesting conceit to tell this story.  The film starts out like a standard, “BlairWitch”-type found footage movie, with Andrew filming himself and his friends with a camcorder.  As the story progresses, however, it includes footage captured on other cameras from within the story, often cell phones or security cameras.  This allows for a more traditional narrative flow, and it invites one to consider just how much time we spend now under the camera eye.
“Chronicle” also has something to say about abuse and bullying.  Given how much Andrew has suffered at the hands of those stronger than he, it’s no shock that he abuses his power when he is finally given the means to fight back.  One could easily re-imagine this story with Andrew getting his hands on a gun, with the same results.  In either case, the problem isn’t that he gets the means to fight back.  The problem is that he was allowed to suffer so much humiliation, and no one around him thought that they should step up and help him.
As mentioned, once the setup is established, “Chronicle” descends into stock storylines (Think “Carrie“).  Fortunately, the action and performances were good enough to keep me glued to my seat anyway.  It’s easy to see why the film was able to amass a worldwide gross of $123 million on a budget of only $12 million.  Despite rehashing old storylines and concepts, the script and dialogue are smart, and the actors are pretty convincing as high school students.  Once things get rocking, the action is really bad-ass, especially for a pretty low-budget film.

3.5 stars

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Cold Comfort Farm (1995) ***

Period comedies about a bunch of English people marrying each other aren’t necessarily my favorite genre, but they do have a certain style.  “Cold Comfort Farm” is no exception.  Kate Beckinsale, in one of her early roles, plays Flora Poste, an over-educated, over-cultured Londoner with tons of looks and intelligence, but little money.  With a good family name, but no estate, she is forced to cast about for relatives to live with.  She decides to seek adventure by accepting an invitation to live with her relatives the Starkadders at Cold Comfort Farm, where everyone refers to her as Robert Poste’s child.  Frequent references are made to some great wrong done to Robert Poste, and that perhaps Flora has some claim on the  farm.
Flora has no interest, however, in fighting over a dreary farm.  The Starkadders are grist for her literary ambitions, and she soaks up the oddities of these wacky, rural characters in hopes of someday being the next Jane Austin.  Along the way, she neatly tidies up everyone’s lives, stoking the dreams of some and playing matchmaker for others.
The characters and jokes are, to be sure, ones we have seen before, but “Cold Comfort Farm” is a capably done little comedy.  Besides Kate Beckinsale’s charming self, the film features nice performances by Eileen Atkins, Ian McKellen, and Stephen Fry as a pompous ass.  “Cold Comfort Farm” is the lightest of comedies.  It doesn’t make for much of a narrative meal, but it’s a nice snack.

3 stars out of 5

Friday, October 05, 2012

Barbarella (1968) ***

It’s hard to know what to say about “Barbarella.”  The movie is at once silly, amateurish, campy, and hot.  With sets and special effects from a Dr. Who episode and a plot straight out of a porno film, one has to wonder what the filmmakers thought they were making.  Nonetheless, they got one thing right: They showed as much of Jane Fonda’s body as possible as often as possible.  It turns out if you get that right, you don’t have to worry about the rest.
Fonda plays Barbarella, a space-traveling government agent who gets dispatched to find a missing scientist named Durand Durand (This is where the band got its name.)  Durand had invented a powerful weapon called the positronic ray, and Barbarella is supposed to find him before the weapon falls into the warlike hands of the inhabitants of Tau Ceti.  All of this is explained to Barbarella while she is buck-naked, proving that this movie knows how to get things started!  Barbarella goes to Tau Ceti, meets a lot of people and has sex with some of them.  In the evil city of Sogo, she meets a gorgeous, evil brunette (Anita Pallenberg, who dated three of the Rolling Stones) and gets thrown into a torture device that kills by inducing orgasms, but fear not, Barbarella is up to the challenge!
Fonda doesn’t so much act in “Barbarella” as she wanders from scene to scene and costume to costume with a look of amused tolerance.   Let’s face it, this is the silliest movie ever made, but it sure is easy to look at.  I usually just include one photo per movie here, but I had to go with multiple pics of Jane Fonda in “Barbarella,” because basically that’s what the movie is about: Fonda in various bizarre, skimpy outfits.  “Barbarella” is basically the best porno ever made; they just cut out the actual porno parts.  Everything else is classic porn, from the props to the music to the silly plot setups that lead Barbarella (Fonda) to have sex with one alien guy after another.  I’m convinced that in director Roger Vadim’s basement there are some film cut-outs of seriously hot, full penetration scenes.  They could probably only show the complete version of the movie in Scandinavian countries.

3 stars out of 5