They Live

(USA 1988)

“I’ve come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass…and I’m all out of bubblegum.”

“I’m giving you the choice: either put on these glasses or eat that trashcan.”

“Brother, life’s a bitch. And she’s back in heat.”

— Nada

Director John Carpenter has done a few good pictures that probably will have an audience long after he’s gone; They Live isn’t one of them. At least, not in a good way. B-movie cult fodder all the way, They Live is a somewhat delayed and really heavy-handed reaction to ’80s conspicuous consumption. Based on Ray Nelson’s 1963 short story “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” and subsequent comic strip, Carpenter’s screenplay, written under the pseudonym Frank Armitage, is founded on a decent premise; it just doesn’t go where it could have.

Nada (Roddy Piper), a migrant construction worker who’s seen better days, picks up a job in downtown Los Angeles. He notices some weirdness going on with a television station that seems to be connected to a church across the lot where he and other homeless people have set up camp. His coworker Frank (Keith David) doesn’t want to hear about it. No one does.

One morning, Nada comes into possession of a pair of sunglasses. When he puts them on, he sees subliminal messages everywhere. A billboard with the tagline “We’re creating the transparent computing environment” says “Obey” with the glasses on. A travel ad beckoning, “Come to the Caribbean” says “Marry and reproduce.” “Men’s apparel” says “No independent thought.” Signs all around him order one to consume, conform, buy, watch TV, submit, sleep, do not question authority:

They Live Obey.jpg

Even the dollar bill has a different message: “This is your god.”

What’s worse, some people are not what they appear to be. At all. They aren’t even human — they’re skeletal reptiles, a kind of mutant species of Sleestaks or something:

They Live.JPG

What the hell is going on? Who are these things? What do they want? As Nada tells Frank, they ain’t from Cleveland.

I remember seeing They Live at the theater when it was new. It was okay. Three decades later, it’s still okay. It’s a lot sillier this time around, though. The whole thing gets off to a good enough start, but the momentum peters out just before midpoint. Carpenter — or anyone, for that matter — can get only so much mileage out of this story. They Live feels like 40 minutes of material stretched into more than twice that amount of time.

The denouement is not just predictable but anticlimactic, and the perspective here is adolescent at best. The lines are cringeworthy, falling painfully short of the Arnold Schwarzenegger zingers they aim to be. The acting is pretty bad, especially David and Meg Foster, both of whom are as stiff and lifeless as a dead gerbil. Surprisingly, Piper and his mullet are the best thing about They Live; Piper isn’t enough to carry it, though. And that wrestling scene in the alley is inane — misplaced, unnecessary, and too long, it adds nothing except maybe ten minutes to the running time.

The worst thing about They Live is that it seems Carpenter was serious — nothing here reads as tongue in cheek to me.

With George “Buck” Flower, Peter Jason, Raymond St. Jacques, Jason Robards III, Lucille Meredith, Norman Alden, Norm Wilson, Thelma Lee, Rezza Shan

Production: Alive Films, Larry Franco Productions

Distribution: Universal Pictures

94 minutes
Rated R

(iTunes rental) D+

http://www.theofficialjohncarpenter.com/they-live/

Phantom of the Opera

(USA 1943)

I confess, I rolled my eyes when I found out that a print of Phantom of the Opera was chosen for a screening at the Nitrate Picture Show. I was totally unenthusiastic about seeing yet another version of something I’ve already seen more times than I care to admit. The trailer calls it “[a] story the world can never forget,” but that’s only because Gaston Leroux’s damned story won’t go away.

As it turns out, I quite enjoyed Arthur Lubin’s version. He switches gears with Eric Taylor and Samuel Hoffenstein’s screenplay, ditching horror in favor of romance and melodrama. In the process, he brings a really nice camp factor to the whole thing—I didn’t expect that. His version is a sillier, more fun soapy affair than what I’m used to.

Claude Rains is sympathetic as Erique Claudin, the downsized middle-aged composer who becomes the masked phantom after his publisher (Miles Mander) “steals” his new composition. One of my favorite moments of the entire film is the publisher’s exasperated secretary (Renee Carson) throwing acid from a baking pan in Claudin’s face. It’s so bizarre, it’s actually funny. Even with his acid face, Claudin has a crazy plan for making beautiful young soprano Christine Dubois (Susanna Foster) a star, even if she’ll never return his love. Her female rivalry with diva Biancarolli (Jane Farrar) stews while Anatole (Nelson Eddy), the baritone knight in shining armor, combs the Paris Opera House for the malformed monster (that would be Claudin) who murders anyone in his way. Things get dicier the closer Anatole gets to Claudin.

Phantom of the Opera is a treat for the senses, which makes it perfect for a nitrate print. A rich Technicolor dream, it won Oscars for cinematography (W. Howard Greene and Hal Mohr) and art direction (John B. Goodman, Alexander Golitzen, Russell A. Gausman, and Ira S. Webb) (https://www.oscars.org/oscars/ceremonies/1944). Edward Ward’s score is lovely.

With Edgar Barrier, Leo Carrillo, J. Edward Bromberg, Fritz Feld, Frank Puglia, Steven Geray, Barbara Everest, Hume Cronyn, Elvira Curci, Kate Lawson

Production: Universal Pictures

Distribution: Universal Pictures (USA), General Film Distributors (GFD) (UK), Motion Picture Export Association (MPEA) (Netherlands), Realart Pictures Inc. (USA), Universal Filmverleih (West Germany)

92 minutes
Not rated

(Dryden Theatre) B-

Nitrate Picture Show

Mulholland Dr.

(USA/France 2001)

“No hay banda, il n’est pas d’orchestra. It is all an illusion.”

—The Magician at Club Silencio

The perfect opener for a retrospective on its director, Mulholland Dr. is an inimitable film that’s really hard to write about. You can look for answers online all you want, but even after seeing it multiple times you still don’t know what happens in it.

Not unless you’re David Lynch. That doesn’t make it any less enjoyable, though.

I’ve seen Mulholland Dr. maybe three times, and I’m not sure. I have my theories. Maybe they’re right, maybe not. Who cares? As with any of Lynch’s best films, the draw to Mulholland Dr. is that it’s a puzzle. He makes you work to solve it, or at least try to. He gives you just enough to go on but leaves the whole thing open to interpretation. At points, he gets you so frustrated, you lose patience and you hate him. But you don’t want him to stop. It’s artistic sadomasochism.

What began as a project for television is a mystery mindfuck tailored to the big screen. Dreamlike, hypnotic, and erotic, Mulholland Dr. is visually demanding and aesthetically worth every minute. The premise is deceptively simple: perky and wide-eyed blond actress Betty (Naomi Watts) arrives in Hollywood and bumps into beautiful young brunette Rita (Laura Harring), who can’t remember who she is after a car accident on Mulholland Drive.

As the two set out looking for clues to Rita’s identity, Lynch throws in a bunch of random characters, muddled subplots, and perplexing events. The narrative arc he puts us on comes to an abrupt halt with a small blue box the girls acquire at a night club. This is where Lynch pulls the rug out from under us.

Mulholland Dr. is definitely a love story—one fraught with competition, petty jealousies, one-upmanship, and ultimately murder. Lynch’s trademark sense of humor flickers here and there, but this is still dark stuff. I see Mulholland Dr. as a denouncement of Hollywood and all its ruthless superficiality. It’s a town that eats you up and spits you out.

Motifs of filmmaking, commerce, ego, vision, and of course the color blue stand out. Rebekah Del Rio’s performance of “Llorando” is beautifully forlorn and eerie. I would be remiss not to mention Peter Deming’s cinematography, which makes Mulholland Dr. shine.

Sadly, Lynch hasn’t done a proper film since 2006. He’s the one living filmmaker whose work I miss the most. Mulholland Dr. is a testament to why: like the street where it takes its name, this film is twisting, treacherous, and ultimately breathtaking.

With Jeanne Bates, Robert Forster, Brent Briscoe, Patrick Fischler, Michael Cooke, Bonnie Aarons, Michael J. Anderson, Ann Miller, Angelo Badalamenti, Dan Hedaya, Daniel Rey, Justin Theroux, David Schroeder, Robert Katims, Marcus Graham, Tom Morris, Melissa George, Mark Pellegrino, Vincent Castellanos, Rena Riffel, Michael Des Barres, Lori Heuring, Billy Ray Cyrus, Tad Horino, Missy Crider, Melissa Crider, Tony Longo, Geno Silva, Katharine Towne, Lee Grant, Lafayette Montgomery, Kate Forster, James Karen, Chad Everett, Wayne Grace, Rita Taggart, Michele Hicks, Michael Weatherred, Michael Fairman, Johanna Stein, Richard Green, Conti Condoli, Lyssie Powell, Scott Coffey

Production: Les Films Alain Sarde, Asymmetrical Productions, Babbo Inc., Canal+, The Picture Factory

Distribution: Universal Pictures

147 minutes
Rated R

(Music Box) A-

David Lynch: A Complete Retrospective

http://www.lynchnet.com/mdrive/

Get Out

(USA 2017)

I caught the hype surrounding Jordan Peele’s first feature length film, Get Out, a comedy horror flick that takes on race—specifically, the dynamics of white power and black subordination. He wrote the script and directed the film. I went into Get Out with some doubt and maybe trepidation about how it might come off. The concept is one that seems too easy to go horribly sideways.

I guess if anyone can pull it off, it’s Peele—and I’m relieved to report that he succeeds. With an oddly compelling mix of Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, Meet the Parents, Nightmare on Elm Street, and The Stepford Wives, he takes on the cultural idiosyncrasies of Caucasian cultural dominance within the constructs of a horror flick. He’s got a lot of points to make, and he gets them across in a sharp but entertaining way. Like the best horror movies, Get Out makes you squirm—but it does so on multiple levels.

New York City photographer Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is black. His girlfriend, Rose Arlington (Allison Williams), is white. She invites him on a weekend getaway to her parents’ home in upstate New York because, well, it’s time for him to meet the fam. Chris agrees, going into it nervously and not without personal baggage. His hyperactive best bud, Rod (Lil Rel Howery), a TSA agent who always expects the worst, is not helping.

Rose’s parents are, like the quiet town where they live, nice. Or at least welcoming. Dean (Bradley Whitford) drops silly slang, affects a bizarre accent, and praises President Obama. Missy (Catherine Keener) is more direct, asking pointed questions in a weird attempt to get to know Chris. It’s awkward and doesn’t quite break the ice, but it’s harmless. Right?

The family’s two longterm servants, maid Georgina (Betty Gabriel) and gardener Walter (Marcus Henderson), carry themselves like they’ve had lobotomies. Rose’s younger brother, Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones), is, um, aggressively complimentary to Chris. On top of it, the Armitages’ neighbors are not quite right, obsessed with Chris and his virility.

During the first part of Get Out, Peele keeps things light but lets a sense of creepy unease simmer. The laughs are there, but like all of the characters coming and going from the house, something is off. He makes a major shift in tone once Missy insists on hypnotizing Chris, ostensibly to help him quit smoking. What was innocuous up to now becomes nefarious.

Ultimately, the evil here is not a monster hiding under the bed, but rather something more obvious that exists in broad daylight. I could have done without the bloody finale, but it works in the context of the film; Peele plays with genre, so I see why it’s here. Either way, Get Out is a bold move that pays off.

With Stephen Root, LaKeith Stanfield, Ashley LeConte Campbell, John Wilmot, Caren Larkey, Julie Ann Doan, Rutherford Cravens, Geraldine Singer, Yasuhiko Oyama, Richard Herd, Erika Alexander, Jeronimo Spinx, Ian Casselberry, Trey Burvant, Zailand Adams

Production: Blumhouse Productions, Monkeypaw Productions, QC Entertainment

Distribution: Universal Pictures

104 minutes
Rated R

(ArcLight) B

https://www.uphe.com/movies/get-out

Lonesome [Solitude]

(USA 1928)

The promotional poster touts something “New! Different! Refreshing!” It sounds like soda, but it’s not: it’s Lonesome, a real charmer that still works as it nears its centennial.

Music Box Theatre screened a crisp restored 35mm print of Paul Fejos’s Lonesome for Reel Film Day, a countrywide event honoring films of the almost abandoned format (https://drafthouse.com/event/reel-film-day). The program was a double feature that included the Adam Sandler vehicle Punch Drunk. I didn’t stick around so I can’t comment on Punch Drunk, but Lonesome was an excellent choice.

Mary (Barbara Kent), a telephone operator for Ma Bell, and Jim (Glenn Tyron), a punch press operator in a factory, are two young working stiffs in the Big Apple. Both live alone in small rented room (not together—there’d be no movie then), and participate in an urban rat race that actually looks busier and grungier than what we have today.

Clearly, the film predates the standard five-day work week: the calendar in Mary’s room indicates that the day is Saturday, July 3. As Mary and Jim finish their respective jobs, which Fejos shows in a narrative that goes back and forth between the two, their work friends invite them to join in their weekend plans. Mary and Jim both see immediately that they’ll be the odd one out, as all of their friends are paired up. Both politely decline, going home dejectedly without any plans.

After they each see the same marching band advertising a cheap carriage ride to Coney Island, Mary and Jim end up going there solo on the same trip. They meet at the beach, and a modest flitration ensues. He tells her he’s a millionaire, and she tells him she’s a princess. They get along well, and commence an impromptu date, walking around, playing carnival games, and dancing. A fortune teller (Fred Esmelton) reveals that Mary has already met the man who will become her husband.

Mary and Jim get separated after a mishap on a rollercoaster. The problem is, they each have a tiny picture of the other from a photo booth and they only know each other’s first name. Finding each other in the throngs of people at the park that evening is like searching for a needle in a haystack. Have they lost each other before they even had a chance?

Edward T. Lowe, Jr. and Tom Reed adapt a cute story by Mann Page; it’s a simple yet clever plot. Despite its age, one point in Lonesome still rings loud and clear and true: connecting in the big city is harder than it looks. We all get wrapped up in the daily stuff of our lives, and we tend to overlook what’s right in front of us. Kent and Tyron are both adorable. Gilbert Warrenton’s kinetic camerawork captures a lot in the background, and it makes the shots at Coney Island especially fun to watch.

Lonesome features two or three abruptly placed “talking” scenes—the film was made when sound was a new thing—and the dialogue is laughably awful. There are also a few color tinted night shots: marquee lights, fireworks, stars. It’s really cheesy. That said, these are short, minor disruptions that don’t detract from enjoying this film for all its silent era charisma.

In 2010, the United States Library of Congress deemed Lonesome “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

With Fay Holderness, Gusztáv Pártos, Eddie Phillips, Andy Devine, Edgar Dearing

Production: Universal Pictures Corporation/Universal Pictures (USA)

Distribution: Universal Pictures Corporation/Universal Pictures (USA), European Motion Picture Company (UK), The Criterion Collection (DVD)

75 minutes
Not rated

(Music Box) A

Reel Film Day: A Celebration of 35mm Cinema

https://www.criterion.com/films/28212-lonesome

http://www.imdb.com/video/screenplay/vi389587993/

Captain Fantastic

(USA 2016)

Captain Fantastic came out last summer, and I wanted to see it then. I must confess, the cast interested me more than the plot.

Viggo Mortensen is the aptly named Ben Cash, a long disenfranchised survivalist who is, like, so over American capitalism and politics. He and his wife, Leslie (Trin Miller), shown almost entirely in flashback, decide to raise their six kids—three boys and three girls—off the grid in the mountain wilderness of Washington State. Removed from society, Ben and Leslie teach their kids everything from logic and philosophy to hunting and gathering to Norman Mailer and Guns ‘n’ Roses. They do it all without iPhones or religion. Kudos to that!

Nothing is perfect: Leslie suddenly dies, forcing Ben to take his feral kids into the outside 21st Century world for the first time, ever—which calls everything they planned for their family into question.

Director and screenwriter Matt Ross poses some interesting questions about society, conformity, and the social contract in a provocative and often lighthearted way. However, Captain Fantastic is not terribly surprising, which is why it doesn’t work as well as it could. At heart, it’s a standard fish out of water dramedy. Frankly, I spotted every “twist” coming before it got to me: the cop (Rex Young) who pulls over their Partridge Family van, the mildly blasphemous excuse that saves the day, the family’s visit to the supermarket, their reaction to their extended family (and vice versa), that lame scene in which Ben’s sister-in-law (Kathryn Hahn) calls him out onto the carpet for his choices and his youngest daughter (Shree Crooks) recites the Constitution to prove her wrong, eldest son Bo (George MacKay) proposing to the first girl who gives him attention—a trailer park teen queen (Erin Moriarty)—and the colleges he manages to get into, the “situation” that requires modern medical attention. Meh.

For all its grandiose intentions to take on the establishment, Captain Fantastic actually relies on a rather orthodox and pedestrian approach to make its point. Maybe that is its point, that you can’t escape society. It doesn’t mater: this story is predictable and sentimental, two things that never bode well. I expected more than Spokane Swiss Family Brady Bunch, which is essentially what this is. The one thing that saves this film from total mediocrity is the acting, which is great all around.

With Frank Langella, Ann Dowd, Samantha Isler, Annalise Basso, Nicholas Hamilton, Charlie Shotwell, Steve Zahn, Elijah Stevenson, Teddy Van Ee

Production: Electric City Entertainment, ShivHans Pictures

Distribution: Bleecker Street, Universal Pictures

118 minutes
Rated R

(iTunes rental) C

http://www.bleeckerstreetmedia.com/captainfantastic

Split

(USA 2016)

Poor Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy). His mother (Rosemary Howard) abused him when he was a child, and he developed split personalities to deal with it. Now, he’s got a thing for watching underage girls dance naked. Dennis, the sternest of Kevin’s personalities, has asserted control and drives him to kidnap three teenage girls (Anya Taylor-Joy, Jessica Sula, and Haley Lu Richardson) leaving a birthday party at a lame Chuck E. Cheese place. He locks them up in a dungeon in his underground industrial hideout. Kevin is undergoing psychiatric care, but his doctor (Betty Buckley from Eight is Enough) senses something horribly amiss when she receives email from each of his 23 personalities seeking an urgent appointment. Kevin’s personalities prepare the girls for the arrival of “the Beast,” the last and most powerful personality. Only one of them is poised to survive.

WARNING: Potential spoilers ahead!

M. Night Shyamalan’s Split is, in a word, stupid. The story has potential, but it suffers a major breakdown pretty quickly. It’s more silly than scary. I found myself tracking horror movie clichés like a checklist and asking how many more can fit into the plot. I saw the so-called twists coming before they turned the corner. The reference to another movie at the end is mildly amusing, I guess, but not what I’d call clever. The parallel to one kidnapped girl’s childhood, shown in flashbacks, warrants a great big ‘whatever.’ The only thing Split has going for it is McAvoy, who emulates Jude Law doing an impression of Eminem impersonating Justin Timberlake. His characters are fun, particularly severe schoolmarm type Patricia (for whom McAvoy wears heels) and little boy Hedwig. However, even they get tiresome, coming off as a mishmosh of standup routines after awhile, like sticking all of the characters from Little Britain into one body.

I could make a lame comment about replacing “pl” with “h” in the title and getting a far more accurate name for this film, but I’ll just say I wasn’t impressed and leave it at that.

With Izzie Coffey, Sebastian Arcelus, Brad William Henke, Neal Huff, Bruce Willis

Production: Blinding Edge Pictures and Blumhouse Productions

Distribution: Universal Pictures

117 minutes
Rated PG-13

(ArcLight) D

http://www.splitmovie.com

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

(USA 2016)

One of the best things to come from Saturday Night Live has to be its Digital Shorts segment. With titles like “Laser Cats!,” “Please Don’t Cut My Testicles,” “Jizz in My Pants,” and of course “Dick in a Box” and its follow up, “Motherlover,” the angle was decidedly crass and juvenile—high school boy stuff loaded with potty, sex, and to a lesser degree drug humor with the occasional reference to geek fodder, usually some work of the science fiction or fantasy genre. Written and produced by The Lonely Island—comedy trio Jorma Taccone, Akiva Schaffer, and Andy Samberg—the genius lied in the creators’ astute balance of pop cultural literacy, musical aptitude, and complete absurdism. Generally performed as music videos for rap and pop songs so spot on they sounded real, Digital Shorts attracted the likes of Steve Martin, Natalie Portman, Lady Gaga, Betty White, and of course Justin Timberlake.

In Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, The Lonely Island expands its formula into a feature length film, playing former members of Style Boyz, a boy band whose biggest hit was “The Donkey Roll” (https://youtu.be/-mRVK8-XfEU). After a rift over credit, the Boyz break up and go their separate ways. Lawrence (Schaffer) and Owen (Taccone) fail to duplicate their success, but narcissistic and dubiously talented frontman Conner Friel (Samberg) has a huge blockbuster with his solo album Thriller, Also. The film, done as a mockumentary very much in the style of This Is Spinal Tap!, picks up just as Conner’s followup, Connquest, is about to “drop” (i.e, be released). A huge media blitz including a tour is in the works. When Connquest fails to live up to its predecessor, all signs point to a Style Boyz reunion—but can that happen?

Popstar makes it abundantly clear why The Lonely Island’s brand of humor works as shorts: it simply can’t sustain a movie. With Popstar, they nail the excess, the ego, and the emptiness of the entertainment biz. Tim Meadows as Conner’s manager and Sarah Silverman as his publicist are awesome, simultaneously informing, persuading, and babysitting Conner while constantly stroking his ego. The songs sound real. Conner’s show, complete with backup dancers and a deejay, looks authentic. Some of the scenes are pretty damned funny, including one where Conner is forced to autograph a fan’s, um, junk (props for getting it through the window of the limo). It’s amusing to see real popstars like Questlove, Usher, 50 Cent, and Ringo Starr (not to mention bitch on wheels Simon Cowell) gush in fake interviews over something so obviously lame as Style Boyz and Conner. It’s fun to see P!nk, Adam Levine, and Michael Bolton perform with Conner—and “Equal Rights” (with P!nk) is a hilarious, cheerful spoof of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’s “Same Love.” Seal and Mariah Carey make gracious cameos that show they can take a joke. This is all good. The problem is, Popstar is essentially a string of dumb gags. Unlike This Is Spinal Tap!, it gets tiresome, fast. I lost interest after a little while; the characters and the jokes are too thin to carry Popstar all the way. Even Timberlake, whose appearances with The Lonely Island have always been funny, is an uncharacteristic yawn as Conner’s chef. Meh.

Curiously, the best song for this film was deleted: https://youtu.be/t3jKtjgRZQY. Seeing it as a short probably is best, anyway.

Also starring Maya Rudolph, Joan Cusack, Imogen Poots, Chris Redd, Edgar Blackmon, James Buckley, Ashley Moore, Bill Hader, Will Forte, Will Arnett, Carrie Underwood, Nas, Akon, Big Boy, D.J. Khaled, Danger Mouse, Pharrell Williams, Jimmy Fallon, Martin Sheen, Snoop Dog, Weird Al Yankovic

Produced by Perfect World Pictures, Apatow Company, and The Lonely Island

Distributed by Universal Pictures

87 minutes
Rated R

(iTunes rental) D+

https://www.uphe.com/movies/popstar-never-stop-never-stopping