Barbary Coast (1935)

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The Flying Cloud, a ship out of New York, lands in San Francisco after over 100 days at sea. The sole female passenger, one Miss Mary Rutledge (Miriam Hopkins), is cynical and aloof, and upon her arrival in the town, it’s no wonder: she’s essentially a mail-order bride sent to marry a man she doesn’t love. But he was a man who struck it rich during the gold rush of the 1850s and had plenty of money, or at least had money, before he was killed in a duel. Determined to stay and even more determined to find a rich man, Mary immediately sets her sights on the crooked gambler who killed her fiance and took his gold, the notorious Luis Chamalis (Edward G. Robinson). Chamalis, aware that women were so rare in San Francisco, especially in the red light district known as the Barbary Coast, that they were practically commodities, hires Mary on as the hostess at his roulette table. Barbary Coast (1935) was based on Herbert Asbury’s Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld, published in 1933. Directed by Howard Hawks and produced by Sam Goldwyn, Barbary Coast is a lush costume drama with a somewhat undeserved reputation for having only used Asbury’s title while disregarding the real meat of his book. While it’s true that many concessions were made to appease the Production Code Administration, much of Barbary Coast takes Asbury’s novel far too literally. See, for example, the first few paragraphs in this … Continue reading

Private Number (2015)

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Private Number ★★★★✫ Director: LazRael Lison Arc Entertainment (Official Site) 95 Minutes Release Date: May 1, 2015 (limited) – Thirty-somethings Michael and Katherine Lane are, on the surface, a perfectly normal couple. Michael (Hal Ozsan) is a writer of fantasy fiction with one moderate seller under his belt, Katherine (Nicholle Tom) runs a small boutique, and they fight about the usual things: having kids, their dull friends, and how long it takes them to get ready to go out. Michael’s troubled past seems to be behind him, thanks to no-nonsense AA sponsor Jeff (Tom Sizemore) and Katherine’s steadying influence, but when Michael struggles with writer’s block and cracks in their relationship start to appear, Katherine realizes Michael is hiding, at least a little, behind a façade. Before either of them can process the situation, though, they start receiving a series of unnerving, late-night prank phone calls. Only Michael gets these calls, however, all from an unlisted number, and from a variety of people who say just one thing: “Remember me?” Private Number (2014), the latest from LazRael Lison, seems at first to be your standard indie horror flick, up to and including a main character who one suspects is a bit of a stand-in for the screenwriter. But just when the film really settles into focusing on the identity of the callers, the strangest thing happens: a knight in full plate mail appears in Michael’s office. He’s the product of a hallucination, surely the result of Michael’s tenuous sobriety and … Continue reading

Hollywood Shuffle (1987)

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Sketch comedy films, the spiritual descendants of 1930s cinematic musical extravaganzas and 1960s television variety shows, hit their peak popularity in the 1970s. Monty Python’s And Now For Something Completely Different, Woody Allen’s Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex, and the inaugural Zucker-Abrams-Zucker outing Kentucky Fried Movie captured the free-wheeling irreverence of the decade. But the genre didn’t die out with the ’70s; Amazon Women on the Moon and The Meaning of Life were two notable genre entries released in the 1980s. Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle (1987) is perhaps one of the best of the sketch comedy films, featuring on-point social commentary, solid humor, and amazing production values for a film that reportedly cost less than $100,000 to make; further, your humble host would like to add that Hollywood Shuffle wins a lot of points for being a sketch comedy film that has a title that is not only perfect, but of reasonable length. Actor and comedian Robert Townsend plays struggling thesp Bobby Taylor, a black man desperate to break into an industry that offers him only racist and demeaning roles. Living at home with three generations of his family — the Taylor house looks almost as though it’s in the same neighborhood as the Mildred Pierce home — Bobby knows his family needs him to get a big break, and soon. But the racist dialect of the scripts, the instructions to shuffle and roll his eyes, the directors’ pleas to “act more black” wear on Bobby, and … Continue reading

24 Days (2014)

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24 Days (24 jours) ★★★★✫ Director: Alexandre Arcady Menemsha Films (Official Site) 110 Minutes Release Date: April 24, 2015 (limited) – It’s Paris, 2006, and handsome young Ilan Halimi (Syrus Shahidi) has been kidnapped, his family tortured by angry phone calls demanding €450,000 for his release. If the Halimis were a rich family, this might make a kind of perverse sense, but Ilan’s parents Ruth (Zabou Breitman) and Didier (Pascal Elbé) have been divorced for 20 years, and both are of modest means. When the police become involved, they discover a large network of kidnappers who use attractive teen girls as bait, and who specifically target Jewish males. Yet the police refuse to consider this a hate crime, and their methods of dealing with an obviously unstable gang leader are questionable. Based on a true story, 24 Days is a harrowing affair that unfolds slowly, often frustratingly so. Bookended by narration from the mother, who addresses the audience directly, 24 Days seems at first to approach the topic almost as a documentary, but soon turns into a taut, sleek police procedural. Alternating between scenes of the extended family at home and at the police department are shots of the kidnappers themselves, a large group of people whose motivations and rationalizations are unclear. 24 Days is a fine-looking film, its quieter moments full of striking symmetry, comforting angles and pleasant apartments in a warm, low light. In stark contrast are the scenes of the kidnapping and aftermath, though the reliance on … Continue reading

Firewalker (1986)

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Everyone loves a good bad movie, but not every bad movie works as a late-night laugh-a-thon. As the crew of “Mystery Science Theater 3000″ explained in Wired‘s oral history of the show, they couldn’t just pick any old bad movie to riff. The films couldn’t be “boring and really, really talky,” and they had to be up to a certain visual and audio standard; after all, there’s no use trying to watch a bad movie if you can’t actually watch that bad movie. The same standards apply to those of us looking for just the right awful movie to watch for a fun night at home with friends and beer — or, for many of us, a fun night at home with Twitter and beer. Firewalker, a 1986 action-adventure flick that is astonishingly light on both action and adventure, seems like the perfect shlock to spend an evening with, but it just barely meets the minimum FDA guidelines for daily consumption of cheese. A knock-off of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Romancing the Stone, Firewalker is frequently cited as the primary reason its production company, the (in)famous Cannon Group, would declare bankruptcy just a few years later. However, Cannon’s best year was 1986 — not because of, but in spite of, Firewalker, which took in nearly $12 million at the box office over its first three weekends. Chuck Norris is Max Donigan, a character with so little personality that one feels it’s a waste of good font … Continue reading

That Guy Dick Miller (2015)

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That Guy Dick Miller ★★★★✫ Director: Elijah Drenner Indiecan Entertainment (Official Site) 91 Minutes Release Date: April 3, 2015 (limited) / Available on VOD and DVD May 19, 2015 – That Guy Dick Miller is an affectionate documentary that takes us through the life and career of, well, Dick Miller, the character actor who, for nearly six decades, has been playing the everyman everyone loves. His craggy face and fantastic voice are known to generations of filmgoers, even if many of the films he appeared in, especially early in his career, are so bad that, by all rights, no one should really remember them at all. But like so many other actors of the 1950s and 1960s, Miller managed to lend a realism, even occasionally a bit of gravitas, to roles that were less written than they were sketched on the backs of receipts. For that, Miller has earned himself a significant fandom, and rightly so. That Guy is very much a documentary by friends for friends, but fortunately, Dick Miller is the perfect subject for this kind of film. He’s got more than just memories to share: he’s got scripts, props, and friends and colleagues who are still talking to him even after a frenetic 13-day shoot in the middle of summer with nothing but three pages of dialogue and a monster made out of papier-mâché. He’s got the wardrobe, too; you’ll never see a movie where Harrison Ford digs into his bedroom closet and brings out the Indiana … Continue reading

We Live Again (1934)

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If early Hollywood films are any indication, a good 47% of women by volume found themselves abandoned, unmarried and pregnant at some point in their lives. They rarely suffered much by way of social ostracism — there was almost always a progressive aunt or someone willing to pass the child off as their own — and the years between birth and the child’s teens flew by at a curious speed. And by “flew by” I mean “were shrugged off with a title card announcing that the film has skipped 18 or so years because it’s easier that way.” We Live Again (1934), recently released on MOD DVD by Warner Archive, is one of the most dreary of these abandoned women plots. Based on Leo Tolstoy’s novel Resurrection, We Live Again concerns young Prince Dmitri Ivanovich Nekhlyudov (Fredric March) and his undying passion for farm girl Katusha (Anna Sten). Set at some vague point prior to the 1905 Revolution — one assumes roughly 1899, given the publication of Tolstoy’s novel — the 20-something Prince Dmitri is an idealist embracing anti-capitalist philosophy, though his family is irritated by him and Katusha is mostly uninterested. Well, the child-like Katasha is uninterested in politics, but very interested in him. After a few years in military service, where Dmitri indulges in gastronomic (and other) orgies like the good, capitalist member of nobility he is, he returns to the farm a changed man — the kind of man who seduces Katusha and leaves her an envelope … Continue reading

The Barber (2014)

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The Barber ★★★✫✫ Director: Basil Owies ARC Entertainment (Official Site) 95 Minutes Release Date: March 27, 2015 (limited) – It was almost twenty years ago when serial killer Francis Allen Visser, a middle-aged man with a penchant for burying his young, female victims alive, was released from prison, thanks to the many mistakes the cop who had doggedly pursued him made on the case. With his failure all over the network news and his obsession beyond his reach, the police officer kills himself, leaving a young son behind. Two decades later, 30-something John McCormack (Chris Coy) comes rolling into a small Northwestern town, looking for Visser. He stalks a kindly old barber named Eugene Van Wingerdt (Scott Glenn), sure that this is Visser with a new name and a new life, and shows the elderly man his own recent kill. “I’m your biggest fan,” John tells him, and demands Eugene teach him the finer points of murder. The Barber (2014) is a fresh-looking if somewhat typical thriller, with some fine acting from the well-chosen cast. But the film also features multiple missteps, such as plot holes and the curious way no one in this small town ever sees any of the suspicious behavior going on right out in public. Similarly, the timeline, which was so carefully cultivated early in the film, goes completely haywire during the run-up to the finale. After establishing past events as occurring in the 1990s, The Barber, like so many other films, retreats to the 1970s … Continue reading

A Wolf at the Door (2013)

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A Wolf at the Door ★★★★½ / ★★★★★ Director: Fernando Coimbra Outsider Pictures (Official Site) 100 Minutes Release Date March 27, 2015 (limited) – It’s a warm and sunny day in Rio de Janeiro when six-year-old Clara (Isabelle Ribas) goes missing from her school. Her panicked mother Sylvia (Fabiula Nascimento) reports it to the police. During questioning, the girl’s teacher explains that a family friend named Sheila came to get the girl, but Sylvia has no idea who this Sheila could be. Then the teacher drops a bombshell: the girl knew who the woman was, because she ran to her as soon as she saw her. When the girl’s father Bernardo (Milhem Cortaz) arrives at the station, he has a bombshell of his own: he knows a woman named Rosa (Leandra Leal) has taken Clara to get back at him in some way. Bernardo won’t readily admit to who Rosa is, but the detective (Juliano Cazarre) has already figured out that she’s his mistress. A Wolf at the Door (O Lobo atrás da Porta, 2013), writer-director Fernando Coimbra’s first feature-length film, is a taut, well-paced thriller that many critics have likened to Fatal Attraction (1987). With its slight police procedural feel, it’s also reminiscent of Kurosawa’s High and Low (1963), albeit with a non-linear timeline and never any serious talk about ransom for the little girl. And Wolf at the Door is no scorned woman flick for the paranoid males among us, anyway, but a harrowing look at the costs … Continue reading

Without a Clue (1988)

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Before they became the kind of actors one gets when one wants to add a little class to an otherwise iffy production, Ben Kingsley and Michael Caine headlined the Sherlock Holmes spoof Without a Clue (1988), a gentle period comedy that cheekily posits that the fictional Holmes both did and did not exist. Without a Clue places Holmes and Watson in a series of very silly situations, not quite what you’d call lowbrow, but far less sophisticated than one would expect the duo to encounter. But it was always a conceit of modern times to portray the detectives as particularly classy; our view of the turn of the 20th Century is a bit more stodgy than those who lived it, and Without a Clue is happy to remind us of that. After Holmes (Caine) and Dr. Watson (Kingsley) solve yet another case to much public acclaim, we learn that Holmes is no detective: he’s the gambling, womanizing, alcoholic actor Reginald Kincaid, hired by Watson years ago to portray Holmes. Whatever Holmes appears to be in print, Kincaid is essentially the opposite of it, with the exception of his wardrobe and a true fondness for making Inspector Lestrade (Jeffrey Jones) look ridiculous. For all of Kincaid-Holmes’ bravado, Watson is the genius sleuth of the duo and Holmes merely a character created to preserve Watson’s reputation as a solid, dependable doctor. After one too many slip-ups, Watson has had enough of Kincaid because he is, well, a gambler, a womanizer, and a … Continue reading