Friday, September 17, 2010

“You better not let the other guns know you have a favorite.”

Matthew Vaughan is really a director on the rise and a name to watch and he’s proving himself to be quite flexible. Consider this: He has directed three films so far: The crime thriller Layer Cake (2004), the fantasy Stardust (2007) and superhero film Kick-Ass (2010) (and he was the producer of Snatch. and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels). Today we’re looking at Layer Cake, his directorial debut.

So we’re in London and have Mr. XXXX (Daniel Craig) as our anti-hero and narrator. He sees himself as a professional businessman who’s business is cocaine (and other drugs). Now, he’s got a system worked out that has so far let him make a lot of money and stay under the radar, and he plans on getting out of the game. Unfortunately, one of his biggest customers, the mobster Jimmy Price (Kenneth Cranham) has two last jobs for him. The first involves finding the coked out daughter of Jimmy’s crime boss friend Eddie Temple (longtime veteran Michael Gambon who’s been Dumbledore in the more recent Harry Potter films). The second involves finding a buyer for a large number of pills smuggled into England by a scummy drug dealer called the Duke (Jamie Foreman). Of course neither of these jobs go as planned and things just spiral out of control for Mr. XXXX and his associates.

The cast in this is incredible. Craig is a charismatic and dominant central figure, but the secondary characters really help flesh out the seedy underbelly of London here. XXXX’s associates, in particular Morty (George Harris) and Gene (Colm “Engineer O’Brien” Meaney), are quite badass, but there’s a hell of a lot of characters and they’ve all got something about them that makes them stand out. Oh, and there’s also Sienna Miller as XXXX’s love interest Tammy, but despite having secondary billing on the DVD case, is only in the film for all of four scenes. But she does look fine in those scenes.

Director: Matthew Vaughan. Director of Photography: Ben Davis. Visually the movie is great. Scenes are great, there’s great use of color and the film has a lot of energy and tension that carry you through. Action scenes aren’t common, so when violence actually does occur it’s often quick and incredibly brutal, like the beating in the diner shot from the victim’s point of view. Powerful stuff. The movie also handles transitions incredibly well too.

Screenplay by J.J. Connolly and based on his own novel of the same name. The script is incredibly impressive. Characters are well defined, have arcs, frequently likable (or at least interesting) and the pacing is spot on. Twists come out of nowhere but they all make sense in retrospect and by the end of the movie, all loose ends are accounted for.

Original music by Ilan Eshkeri and Lisa Gerrard, which is good, and it’s also got a very good soundtrack featuring stuff from the likes of Joe Cocker, The Rolling Stones, The Cult and even Duran Duran.

I was thoroughly impressed. I mean, really, really impressed. Every fault I had with Snatch. (and I had quite a few) is absent in Layer Cake. In fact, that’s kind of how I want to describe this movie to people who’ve never heard of it. “It’s like Snatch, only with character development and substance.” Extremely recommended and a contender for my “Best Surprises” list.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

“Chicks dig me, because I rarely wear underwear and when I do it's usually something unusual.”

Well here we are, sitting on the cusp of a new dawn here at Castle RMWC. New format, new ‘tude and, uh, a new review. Not having seen 1981’s Stripes was another disconnect between me and the 80s comedy gestalt that I’m slowly patching gaps for, and really, it’s quite strange that it took so long for me to finally watch it. After all, it’s got Bill Murray and Harold Ramis in. That’s half of the Ghostbusters right there! Well, a few months ago I sat down with the Extended cut DVD to see what the fuss was about.

Well, John Winger (Bill Murray), a slacker cab driver in New York gets fired, dumped and evicted on the same day. He decides to join the army to solve all three of these problems and talks his best friend, Russell Ziskey (Harold Ramis) into joining too. Amazingly they get accepted and shipped off to boot camp and join a ragtag bunch of misfits that also include Ox (John Candy) and some other guys with quirky personalities. Winger constantly pisses off their hardass drill sergeant, Hulk (Warren Oates). Hulka gets put in the hospital during an accident in a live fire test, the squad manages to pass and get assigned to a mission in Europe to protect a top secret EM50 Urban Fighting Vehicle under the command of the incredibly incompetent Captain Stillman (John Larroquette).

It’s an RV.

Winger & Ziskey of course steal the RV to hang out with their MP girlfriends Stella (P.J. Soles) and Louise (Sean Young from Blade Runner). Through a complex series of misfortunes the rest of the platoon gets captured in Czechoslovakia (back when it was Czechoslovakia) and it’s up to the gang in the RV (and a recovered Hulka running around behind enemy lines by himself) to rescue the squad, which is really one of those plots that sneaks up on you when you actually sit down and think about it.

The cast is solid across the board with Murray & Ramis bouncing off each other excellently. Ramis playing the straight man and Murray playing the funny man. Oates’ Sgt. Hulka is another standout character for the hamminess being thrown out there.

Ivan Reitman (both Ghostbusters films) directed and Director of Photography Bill Butler. The movie looks fine, no problems. The extended cut definitely feels overly long in a few places (like the entire first AWOL sequence that has absolutely no bearing on the rest of the movie), but it makes up for it with an incredibly amusing climax with the EM50 storming the Iron Curtain and cutting loose. There’s also boobies. Mud Wrestling boobies.

Script by Len Blum, Daniel Goldberg & Harold Ramis. The story isn’t deep, but it does allow Bill Murray to cut loose and do his thing, which is exactly the point of a Bill Murray film.

Original music by Elmer Bernstein, which is always a good and welcome thing in a movie.

Stripes is good. I liked it. Maybe not going to rise to the top of my list of 80s comedies, but it’s definitely a solid and satisfying effort. Recommended.

Friday, September 10, 2010

"Someone just put deadly snake in room. Wake me when it come near bed."

1976's Murder By Death is a goofy, straightforward farce of some of the more notable detective characters from the 30s & 40s. Hardboiled private eye Sam Diamond (Peter Falk) and his assistant (Eileen Brennan), boozy socialites Dick & Dora Charleston (David Niven and Maggie smith), Chinese sleuth Sidney Wang (Peter Sellers), gluttonous Belgian Milo Perrier (James Coco) and his assistant Marcel (a young James Cromwell), and English governess Jessica Marbles (Elsa Lanchester from RMWC favorite The Bride Of Frankenstein) are all invited to a remote mansion for a dinner party hosted by blind butler Bensonmum (masterfully played by Alec Guinness) and hosted by the always eccentric Lionel Twain/Truman Capote (yes, THAT Truman Capote). Twain's challenge to them is to solve a dastardly murder mystery that he has come up with and he'll reward them with a hefty sum.
Beyond that, the plot just spirals further and further into absurdity and rapid fire dialogue that works well. Not all the jokes work (some end up being pretty juvenile considering the source material) but the cast is great and the jokes that DO work outnumber the duds considerably.

Directed by Robert Moore, there isn't a whole lot of fancy camera work, byt it serves the story well and allows the actors to run with their material. The script by Neil Simon is sharp, but by the end does get a little too bitter in its invective towards the characters being mocked. Additionally, you kind of have to know about (at least in broad strokes) who characters like Sam Spade, Nick & Nora Charles, Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot and Charlie Chan are for all of the jokes to work.

Still, the movie is a breezy, easygoing affair with a great cast and a lot of witty banter, which are all good things. Recommended.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

“There's absolutely no reason yet to fear the worst. Until now, we only know that the plane caught fire and we've lost radio contact.”

This next piece of schlock is truly something else. A German film made in 1960 and released in the States in ‘62, it’s called Ein Toter hing im Netz (A Corpse Hangs in the Web) AKA Body in the Web, AKA Girls of Spider Island, AKA Horrors of Spider Island. With that many titles, you know it has to be good!

So there’s this “nightclub” owner is flying out to Singapore with a bunch of female dancers for a gig when suddenly their plane goes down in the South Pacific and the survivors (the guy and his nubile dancers) manage to make it to a remote island. There they find a cabin and the corpse of a scientist who was looking for uranium on the isle dead in a giant fake web. Then the guy wanders off one night and gets bit by a spider puppet, kills it but is then transformed into a man-spider-monster that kills one girl then just kind of wanders around the island for a month while the girls go skinny dipping and have catfights and occasionally try to signal a ship. So I guess it’s kind of like Gilligan's Island, only sexy.

Then a small boat with two guys who work for the dead guy from the cabin arrive and discover the jackpot. And then the monster guy comes back.

Gary Webster: Alexander D’Arcy plays the club owner and defacto leader of the castaways and then he gets turned into a monster. With two monster hands and a really vaguely spider-like face that looks more like the Wolf Man. And he’s shirtless. He’s not a very good monster, since in the span of a month he only succeeds in killing three people. But since this is an awful monster movie, then our awful monster is the badass.

Georgia: Helga Franck plays Gary’s assistant & the defacto leader when he goes missing. She’s is actually not useless throughout the movie.

Babs: Barbara Valentin plays the blonde who’s more or less the “face” of the girls, being front & center for most group scenes.

Ann: Helga Neuner plays the shy girl of the group who falls for one of the new guys that show up.

Joe & Bobby: Harald Maresch & Rainer Brandt (credited as “Temple Foster” & “Allen Turner” in the dubbed Americanized version) are the professor’s assistants who finally return to the island. Bobby’s the promiscuous one who goes through the girls like tissues. Joe is the more sensitive one who forges a reasonably chaste connection with Ann and has a strange fondness for wearing neckerchiefs without a shirt. Guess which one gets killed?

And there’s a whole bunch of other women, but aside from the loose-moraled former stripper, don’t get much characterization. And there’s a guy in the office who looks a lot like Dr. Strangelove.

Directed by Fritz Böttger (or “Jamie Nolan” in the US version), the movie knows exactly the demographic it’s catering to. Young males. We get plenty of shots of the ladies dressing down to their skivvies for any reason at all. Now, since this was the 60s, you don’t actually see anything, er, obviously titillating, but this film is also quite shameless about showing off the talent. And there’s an extended catfight sequence that serves no ulterior purpose other than to have two women wrestling with each other and grunting. Clearly there’s no subtext there.

The spider puppet is awful (a spider with finger-like claws?) but is kind of endearing. Man-Spider Gary is considerably less endearing.

Written by Fritz Böttger, Eldon Howard & Albert G. Miller, the story is absolutely ridiculous in that special way that truly terrible movies are. But if you’ve read any of the above, you’ve clearly picked up on that.

Original music by Karl Bette & Willy Mattes and the soundtrack is a light, jazzy, easy listening kind of sound that is not at all conducive to creating any kind of mood that doesn’t have “softcore” in it’s description.

Horrors of Spider Island is one for the books. Essentialy a nudie flick without any recognizable nudity and a monster flick with a monster that kills people offscreen and wears a terrible “costume.” This movie has everything a B movie connoisseur could possibly want. So bad it’s good.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

“And for your own sake I don’t think you want to overhear some of the things that happen.”

This next one’s bad. Real bad. So bad I don’t even really want to do a full review, but I’ll try. Here’s 1961’s Cold War “thriller” Rocket Attack U.S.A. an incredibly uninteresting piece of scare propaganda.

So the Soviets launched Sputnik and America fears it may be a spy satellite sent up to gather rocket data in preparation for nuclear war or something. A spy is sent to Moscow to rendezvous with a deep cover agent and they try to sabotage the Russian missile program, fail horribly, get killed and apparently provoke the Commie bastards into launching missiles at New York.


Seriously, that’s pretty much it.

John Manston: John McKay plays our CIA agent sent to Moscow. He ends up staying in the deep cover agent’s closet for a while and sets out to sabotage the missile silos.

Tannah: Monica Davis plays the deep cover agent who’s literally in bed with a Soviet general and getting all sorts of good…intel. Sadly, not a very good actress.

And that’s about it for main characters. These two get introduced a quarter of the way into the film and get killed off with a quarter of the film left to go. Then there’s some newscaster guy in New York and a whole bunch of incidental people around for only one scene here or there. Since selecting a badass is traditional at this point, I guess I’ll pick the blind guy nonchalantly walking down a New York street with air-raid sirens blaring who unconvincingly reaches out and says “help me” to some random guy who runs past him.

Directed by Barry Mahon, the movie is a visual mess with sloppy editing and the rushed, low budget nature really shows (the missile silo is guarded by one easily dispatched guard).

There is no actual writing credit for the film, but IMDB lists Barry Mahon as the most likely candidate. Probably just as well the writer is anonymous since the story is a complete mess of scenes that just sort of happen and we get characters and plots introduced out of thin air that disappear just as quickly. It is quite bad.

No score or anything, though there is one scene in a Moscow restaurant/nightclub that has a band & dancer.

Rocket Attack U.S.A. is bad. Very bad. Not even entertaining bad. It’s boring and the lesson I learned is that better trained spies could prevent a need for a missile defense system. Ugh, though what do you expect from something made by “Exploit Films”? Dreadfully bad and to be avoided. Even the MST3K version is barely watchable.