Wicked, Wicked (1973)

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Troubled hotel handyman Jason (Randolph Roberts) dons a creepy mask and dispatches beautiful blonde women in the 1973 slasher flick Wicked, Wicked. Filmed in a split-screen format called Duo-Vision used for most, but not all, of the film’s runtime, the audience is ostensibly treated to both the killer’s and the victims’ point of view simultaneously. Fortunately for us, though unfortunate for Wicked, Wicked’s Oscar chances, this split screen turns what would be a relatively tepid slasher film into a camp classic, one that became one of the biggest hits on TCM’s Underground series in the late 2000s. Not content to just hire extras at scale and have the creepy mask-wearin’ Jason off them one by one, Wicked complicates matters by introducing an economic element to the mix when the manager of this glorious old seaside hotel decides that the missing women were actually just skipping out on their bills, but hotel detective Rick Stewart (David Bailey) discovers the women may have left the resort, but they never returned home. Soon, his beautiful ex shows arrives, an up-and-coming singer named Lisa James (Tiffany Bolling) set to perform at the hotel. Her superstar image includes wearing a large and unconvincing blonde wig, which unwittingly makes her the killer’s next target. Filmed in and near the legendary Hotel del Coronado, the setting of Wicked, Wicked is one of the best features of the film. Though the hotel was purportedly being expanded and renovated in the early 1970s, only the shabbier areas are shown, … Continue reading

Beside Still Waters (2014)

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Beside Still Waters ★★☆☆☆ Director: Chris Lowell Tribeca Film (Official Site) 96 Minutes In Theaters November 14, 2014 (Limited) – It’s The Big Chill for a new generation in Beside Still Waters, the inaugural directorial outing for actor Chris Lowell. Daniel (Ryan Eggold) gets the old gang together at his family’s lake house before it’s foreclosed upon, and soon tensions, loves and rivalries bubble to the surface, especially after it’s revealed none of them bothered to show up for his parents’ funeral just a few months prior. The friends are the usual monochromatic, Hollywood-eclectic sort: Olivia (Britt Lower), Daniel’s former girlfriend who brings her new, slightly older boyfriend with her; Charley (Jessy Hodges), the free spirit character responsible for all the drugs the plot requires; Tom (Beck Bennett), the token gay guy, and more. Though the ensemble cast, for the most part, works well together, the characters are undeniably stereotypical. And it’s not immediately clear just how a group of people whose ages appear to span the better part of a decade are all childhood friends, or how someone who once had a significant career on the stage but is now reduced to reality shows could be the peer of a woman just beginning her master’s degree. This is a problem in a film that so blatantly compares generations: there is a thin thread of “Lost Generation” references throughout, and a hapless Gen Xer in their midst, as well as the group’s unseen parents, presumably members of the Big Chill … Continue reading

Starry Eyes (2014)

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Starry Eyes ★★★★½ / ★★★★★ Director: Kevin Kolsch, Dennis Widmyer MPI Media Group (Official Site) 98 Minutes In Theaters Beginning November 14, 2014 (Limited) – Sarah (Alexandra Essoe) is just one of thousands of struggling young actresses in Los Angeles, a nice girl stuck with crappy friends and a demeaning job, desperate for auditions and waiting for callbacks that never come. No one is more shocked than Sarah when she lands an audition with a big studio, but competitive and disbelieving friends, an inappropriate boss and her own uncontrollable insecurities wear at her. When she thinks she’s blown an audition, she falls back on a frightening habit: yanking out chunks of her own hair. It’s a gruesome act of both self punishment and self soothing, and it’s when she accidentally reveals that hidden reservoir of anger in an audition that she finally gets a chance at stardom. In Starry Eyes, those dreams come at a grisly price. Filmed deep in Old Hollywood territory, primarily at the old Howard Hughes offices on Romaine in L.A., Starry Eyes is nestled firmly between Hollywood’s cynical, smog-filled present and its rich, glamorous past. It’s Rosemary’s Baby by way of Mulholland Drive, a grim world where success comes at a price no one should have to pay. But it’s a world where the woman in distress is, in a perversely refreshing change, less defined by her victimhood than her choices. She’s being taken advantage of from all sides, but she’s savvy enough to know that … Continue reading

Why Be Good? (1929)

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The son of a millionaire department store owner is throwing a bash on his last day of “freedom” in 1929’s Why Be Good?, the long-lost silent film, recently restored and released on DVD by Warner Archive. What this rich kid means by “freedom” is really “being almost 30 and only just now being expected to work for a living,” which is why his father’s spacious, expensive and booze-filled home is packed with partiers in various states of sobriety and humor. Despite the horrors he must endure in the morning at (gasp!) work, Peabody (Neil Hamilton, never given a first name for reasons that are unclear) trudges on, hitting a hot local night spot for some last-minute revelry. Elsewhere in town, perky Pert Kelly (Colleen Moore) is winning a Charlston competition. She’s mouthy and arrogant and seemingly willing when it comes to swells who are interested in her, but she always seems to be making fun of the poor pomaded fool she leaves the competition with. Later, we learn it’s because she’s crafted a reputation for herself, a little sexual street cred, if you will, though it takes far too long for that to be revealed for us to really be in on the joke with her. Still, it’s with that reputation that she meets the junior Peabody at a completely bonkers night club known as The Boiler. Our rich alleged hero falls for her as hard as she falls for him, only to later discover she’s a clerk at his … Continue reading

Possessed (1947) on Blu-ray from Warner Archive

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Possessed (1947) was the third of Joan Crawford’s films for Warner Bros., the studio who snapped her up when her long-time home MGM, where she had been since the silent era, decided to cut her loose. Crawford was one of the few, if not only, actresses who managed to weather a host of problems that killed others’ careers: she transitioned to talkies without incident in the late 1920s, overcame the label “box office poison” in the late 1930s, and then, in the mid-1940s, managed to survive being let go from one of the big two studios in Hollywood. And boy did she survive! Her first real film for Warner Bros. was Mildred Pierce (1945), a box office smash that won her a Best Actress Oscar. Her next two follow-up films were terrific, too, and Crawford, for maybe the first time in her career, was shown to be capable of depth and true acting ability. Still the glamour queen in Mildred Pierce and Humoresque (1946), it’s Possessed where Crawford gives her most astonishing performance as an aging nurse with a burgeoning mental illness. She’s still Joan Crawford, and even without her false eyelashes and heavily penciled eyebrows and intricately applied lipstick, she’s glamorous. She is, in fact, the most glamorous middle-aged spinster nurse to ever appear on the big screen. But if anyone could prove that talent and glamour could go hand in hand, it was Joan Crawford. Louise Howell (Joan Crawford) is found wandering the streets of Los Angeles, pale … Continue reading

Stonehearst Asylum (2014)

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Stonehearst Asylum ★★½ / ★★★★★ Director: Brad Anderson Millennium Entertainment (Official Site) 112 Minutes In Theaters Beginning October 24, 2014 (Limited) – In Edgar Allan Poe’s wry short story “The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether,” a young doctor takes the opportunity to visit a renowned mental asylum and view for himself the successes of the so-called “soothing system” treatment. Invited to stay for dinner, it becomes delightfully clear to the reader that the locals and staff are quite insane, but the narrator, pleasant but dim, fails to realize it himself. Finally, the actual staff comes bursting into the building, and even then, many of the more obvious details fails to register with our narrator. Stonehearst Asylum, director Brad Anderson’s latest, is based on this charmingly macabre story, but replaces the somewhat clueless doctor of the original with the wide-eyed and eager young graduate Edward Newgate (Jim Sturgess). Further, the film obscures the bizarre behavior of the staff to such an extent that the reveal that they are not staff but inmates is understandably a shock to the newly arrived intern. Still, the reveal comes early enough, and with enough ambiguity, that the question of who is telling the truth and, more importantly, who is truly sane in this whole mess, remains for much of the film. The charismatic and professional Silas Lamb (Ben Kingsley) greets the doctor when he arrives, and takes him on a tour of the facilities. There, Newgate sees the beautiful Eliza Graves (Kate Beckinsale), … Continue reading

Force Majeure (2014)

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Force Majeure ★★★½ / ★★★★★ Director: Ruben Östlund Magnolia Pictures (Official Site | Facebook) 120 Minutes In Theaters Beginning October 24, 2014 (Limited) – Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) and their two adorable children (real-life siblings Vincent and Clara Wettergren) are spending a week at the gorgeous Les Arcs resort in the French Alps. They are an attractive family with their expensive ski equipment, high-end watches and matching thermal underwear surely bought special for the trip. The usual familial tensions arise: mom is stressed and dad is glued to his iPhone, and when he isn’t, pushes his young son too hard to compete rather than have fun. Force Majeure begins with this simple premise, framed in spectacular photography and effects that render the already-beautiful Les Arcs locale even more stunning. At night, plows and snowblowers growl along the hills, making perfect what nature and tourists have disturbed, while small, controlled explosions knock just enough snow down the mountains to prevent enough build-up to cause an avalanche. During lunch, one of those explosions unexpectedly goes off, startling everyone. Tomas won’t allow the family to leave, insisting the snow heading their way is harmless, but Ebba isn’t convinced; when the snow overtakes them, she dives to protect her two children, while Tomas grabs his keys and iPhone and runs away. Moments later, it’s clear the avalanche was merely a snow cloud. No one is hurt, and a few chuckles and some dusting off later, everyone is back to normal. … Continue reading

The Lusty Men (1952)

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“In any case, this film isn’t a Western. It’s really about people who want nothing more than a home of their own. That was actually the great American dream at the time, and in all the statistical questionnaires that ask what Americans aim for, 90% always gave the answer: ‘Owning a home of my own.’ And that’s what the film’s about.” – Nicholas Ray   Jeff McCloud (Robert Mitchum) is an aging champion rodeo rider who, after one too many falls from an angry horse, finds himself limping back to his dilapidated childhood home. After sharing some pat cowboy wisdom with the current owner, Jeremiah Watrus (Burt Watrus), he meets Louise and Wes Merritt (Susan Hayward and Arthur Kennedy, respectively), there to take another look at the home. They’re ranchers, saving up for a place of their own, and have had their eye on the Watrus place for some time. Wes harbors some bronc ridin’ dreams of his own, and soon he not only wants Jeff’s childhood home, but Jeff’s friendship, mentorship, and former career. Meanwhile, Jeff is pretty sure he wants Wes’ wife. It may seem like a standard melodramatic love triangle, but beyond their attractions, desires, comforts and dreams, there’s one other thing that links these three people together: they’re children of the Depression, all still with one foot in the past, the memories of growing up poor and rootless families in a disjointed America always playing in their minds, even when they don’t say anything — and … Continue reading

Autómata (2014)

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Automata ★★½ / ★★★★★ Director: Gabe Ibáñez Millennium Entertainment (Official Site) 110 Minutes In Theaters October 10, 2014 (Limited) – It’s the year 2044, and thanks to a series of devastating solar storms, the world’s population has been slashed to only 22 million, most of whom are confined to the sunbaked shell of a former metropolis. Forced to rely on 1990s-era technology for their communication systems, society has nonetheless benefitted from the creation of a series of robots, the Autómata Pilgrim 7000, meant to serve and protect humans. Produced by the ROC Corporation, these robots are programmed with two strict protocols: they cannot harm any living being, and they are unable to alter themselves or other robots. Jacq Vaucan (Antonio Banderas), one of ROC Corp’s insurance investigators, is too burned out on his job to realize there is a problem with the Autómata, even as he checks out a claim filed after a robot kills a family’s loyal little dog. But soon he’s in a laboratory looking at a second Autómata, one shot by a police officer (Dylan McDermott) who swears he saw the robot repairing itself. All the scientists chuckle, sure the officer was either mistaken or high, but finally Jacq gets it through his world-weary head: something has gone very wrong. Autómata, the science fiction thriller from Gabe Ibáñez, is a striking film that boasts impressive visuals and special effects. It’s also a film that has the good sense to acknowledge the inevitable Blade Runner (1982) comparisons almost … Continue reading

The Two Faces of January (2014)

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The Two Faces of January ★★★½ / ★★★★★ Director: Hossein Amini Magnolia Pictures (Official Site) 96 Minutes In Theaters September 26, 2014 (Limited) – Rydal (Oscar Isaac) is a young American ex-pat in Greece, a part-time tour guide and full-time grifter who finds himself intrigued by a couple vacationing on the island. Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen) notices Rydal’s stares, and his plucky young wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst) makes an introduction; soon, the trio are holidaying together, Chester impressed with Rydal’s ingenuity while Rydal, somewhat despite himself, sees Chester as a father figure. Signs of intergenerational conflict and Rydel’s rather indulgent Oedipal complex show almost immediately, but there is no polite sidestepping of these issues for the trio: Chester finds himself in deep trouble and Rydel is enlisted to help, propelled by vague notions of heroism and profit. Soon, Rydel is in as much trouble as Chester is, and they are all on the lam. The Two Faces of January is a languid, mature thriller that boasts a gorgeous retro feel. There are plenty of nods to Agatha Christie and Tom Clancy here, elements of Alfred Hitchcock and Carol Reed as well, all tied together with impeccable framing and a classic 1960s British look — think Ted Moore or Geoffrey Unsworth — courtesy cinematographer Marcel Zyskind. Just as in any good thriller, as the plot unfolds, so too do the characters, our ostensible hero revealing himself to be self-absorbed and emotionally stunted, our alleged villain with a maturity and understanding that … Continue reading