Born to Be Blue (2015)

Born to Be Blue (2015) movie poster

director  Robert Budreau
viewed: 09/25/2016

Michael Sragow of Film Comment describes the Chet Baker film Born to Be Blue as “semi-factual, semi-fictional”.  Some have called it as something a bit “meta” on the genre of the “biopic”, which for my money could be a good thing.  But I’ll tell you this much, unless you know Baker’s true story, I don’t know you would make out exactly the semi-factual from semi-fictional.

We’ve got Ethan Hawke playing Baker just as he gets his teeth bashed out by a disgruntled drug dealer.  So ensues the period of rebuilding his playing style with dentures, reclaiming his career, trying to establish love.  His love is fixated into a composite played by Carmen Ejogo.  Lovely and kind and intelligent as she is, she’s got nothing on the heroin that would continue to fuel Baker and his music til his premature death in 1989.

Born to Be Blue isn’t an utterly misguided effort.  Hawke and Ejogo are good, but at the same time, I’m not entirely sure what new light this film sheds.  And maybe that is on me.  Bruce Weber’s 1988 documentary Let’s Get Lost is as free-form and beautiful an elegy I could imagine and it had the real deal in it, almost literally on his last legs, but still, something more profound and compelling.

I guess that raises the question of the purpose of a biopic in general.  Usually compelled by the performance in particular of one actor playing the role of the legendary figure, they tend to truncated re-telling of said figure’s life.  Focus depends on the figure and the creators, but it’s often a pretty middle of the road narrative genre, often swinging for the fences for acting awards.

I’m a bit mixed on how I feel about Born to Be Blue.  But if anybody asked me, I’d probably direct them to Let’s Get Lost a dozen times before venturing further.

Bloody Birthday (1981)

Bloody Birthday (1981) movie poster

director Ed Hunt
viewed: 09/24/2016

Taken as a “straight” slasher, it’s easy to see how Bloody Birthday, from 1981, could prove a disappointment.  For one, it’s not particularly bloody.  For two, there is no mystery about the killer.  And it has that After School Special vibe and aesthetic.

And yet, that is why it’s so freaking hilarious.

Delivered during a solar eclipse, three suburban California kids are just plain born bad.  The bad juju comes to roost right before their collective 10th birthdays.  Though they start off murdering  a young couple copulating in a cemetery from an unseen vantage, the rest of the trios crimes are done in plain, banal sight.  When his daughter first lures the sheriff to get baseball batted to the head, the contrast of these oddball preteens and their inexplicable violence hits home.

And for me, it hit home pretty funny.

These kids are of The Bad Seed (1956) ilk; seemingly normal, but of a killing kind.  Fitting within the strange subgenre of “killer kids” (H/T Hollie Horrror).

What makes the shenanigans humorous is the flat, dull, world and the way it’s depicted.  This is a transitional 1970’s to 1980’s suburbia, and while it’s not at all terrifying, it is absurd and quite amusing.

Throw in scene of MTV’s Julie Brown being peeped upon whilst topless, and you’ve got a crumb of movie trivia to throw out at your next cocktail party as well.

All points scored for weirdness and unintentional humor.

Don’t Breathe (2016)

Don't Breathe (2016) movie poster

director Fede Alvarez
viewed: 09/24/2016 at AMC Metreon 16, SF, CA

Set in a derelict Detroit, Fede Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe is a home invasion gone wrong thriller.  A trio of three very clean and good-looking young people, Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette, and Daniel Zovatto, are breaking into the homes of families unlucky enough to have ensured their security to Minnette’s father’s security company.  They want to make enough to skip out on Michigan and head to California, in particular Jane Levy, who is shown briefly at her trailer park home with her unkind mother.

Don’t Breathe is a relatively simple set-up.  Three young criminals break into a house in an abandoned neighborhood where a blind ex-Gulf War dude lives with his cash settlement from his daughter’s death.  Only, of course, this guy is a bad-ass and the kids are in deep doo-doo.

The cinematography is a real high point, with the camera omnisciently roving the scenes, highlighting elements due to come back into play, directing the viewer’s viewpoint.

But the story strains at its simple set-up.  Most of the film is the thieves trying to escape the confined spaces of the locked-down house.  Some sequences are stronger than others, like the near pitch darkness that befalls one basement chase.  But others push up against logic, like when trapped in an upstairs room with only bar-covered windows, Minnette gets pushed through a window I guess they hadn’t considered by the raving dog.

It’s the little things that niggled at me, and my kids who saw it with me.  The backstory on the robbers is brief but not convincing.  This Detroit seems almost devoid of black people.  A scene where one character seems to be stabbed with pruning shears turns out to be a dodge when those shears turn out to have pierced a corpse instead.

In a movie with a concise premise, even when the action is moving well, these odd moments of logic can break the tension.  At least for me, anyways.  Not nearly as strong a film as I had read.

Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks (1974)

Frankenstein's Castle of Freaks (1974) movie poster

director Dick Randall
viewed: 09/19/2016

When I sit to write about a film, I do a little research, read up a bit.  I try to get my main thoughts across and generally try not to simply repeat what others have already said.

That said, Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks is a bit of a challenge.

Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks is not as freaky as it sounds.  It does rather inexplicably feature a couple of neanderthals in Victorian Europe.  One who “becomes” the monster, experiments upon by the evil doctor.  It might also prove an object lesson on how to treat your henchmen.  When the creepy dwarf (played by Michael Dunn) gets cast out, he brings back another caveman to wreak havoc and revenge.

Highlighting weirdnesses like that the second caveman, “Ook” as he comes to be known, is billed as “Boris Lugosi” and looks a lot like Avery Schreiber.

This all makes for reasonably good copy, but I’m hardly the first to point any of this out.  All in all, this is pretty fun trash.

Machine to Kill Bad People (1952)

Machine to Kill Bad People (1952) movie poster

director Roberto Rossellini
viewed: 09/13/2016

I doubt that Machine to Kill Bad People is really the best place to start with director Roberto Rossellini, but…whatchagonnado?

Much more famous for neorealist fare like Rome, Open City (1945), Paisan (1946), Germany, Year Zero (1948), Rossellini hasn’t been a filmmaker that I would have associated with the supernatural or fantasy genres.  Machine to Kill Bad People is said to be a transitional film for him, still bearing characteristics of Italian neorealism, but also being a satire or comedy featuring a saint or a demon.

Set in a small coastal village, the story that sounds like it could be rather pulpy certainly forgoes anything really lurid.  A town’s patron saint has become dissatisfied with the modernization and the bad habits of the townspeople.  He imbues a local cameraman’s camera with the power to kill those it photographs, with the idea of “cleaning up the town” of its “bad people”

Constantin Parvulescu wrote a rather in-depth article for Senses of Cinema with more keened-in analysis that delves into the social critiques as well as the film’s meta criticism of the camera and cinema.  Since I can’t do it more justice, I’ll shut up about it.

Finally getting around to Rossellini, yet there is much more to see.

The Grocer’s Son (2007)

The Grocer's Son (2007) movie poster

director Éric Guirado
viewed: 09/12/2016

Recommended to me almost a decade ago by a fracophile friend of mine, The Grocer’s Son sat in my film queue ever since.  Frankly, I hardly knew anything else about it.

Now my son is starting French and struggling with it.  So, I pulled up a couple of French films on Fandor and let him choose one.  Listening to French doesn’t necessarily aid your acquisition intensely, but it certainly doesn’t hurt it.

The Grocer’s Son is a light family dramedy, set in the rural region outside Lyon.  A semi-estranged son returns to his small village after his father suffers a heart attack, and he must help the family’s small grocery business. The business actually involves driving a truck around the rural area, taking the shop to the elderly folks that live there.  Throw in a romantic interest and go.

It’s a sweet film and the setting is gorgeous.  Éric Guirado, who directed it, had mostly done documentaries before this.

Une fine pellicule.

Everybody Wants Some!! (2016)

Everybody Wants Some!! (2016) movie poster

director Richard Linklater
viewed: 09/11/2016

Seriously imbued with the classic male gaze, Everybody Wants Some!! is a paean to bro-ness and not in any meta way.

Richard Linklater wrote and directed Everybody Wants Some!! and it has been marketed as a spiritual follow-up to his cult hit Dazed and Confused (1993).  It does seem to reckon of a personal story, covering three days in the lives of a bunch of college baseball players, meeting up for a weekend of partying in Austin, TX the weekend prior to the start of the school year.  They delve into disco, country, and eventually punk, plus sex and drugs and general cool vibes.

It’s all about the dudes.  Guys being guys.

It seems likely that a number of the young people in this film will go on to more notable careers.  They are mostly an affable bunch.

While the guys aren’t exactly sleazy bastards doing terrible things, it is a portrait of young malehood, with moderate levels of sensitivity, but lacking much in the way of criticism.  It’s a love letter.  To a time and place.  To an age.  To itself?

Blood of the Vampire (1958)

Blood of the Vampire (1958) movie poster

director Henry Cass
viewed: 09/10/2016

Can you call your movie Blood of the Vampire if you don’t actually have a blood-sucker in your film?

Cool title typography, set designs, and matte paintings are the stars of this odd British “vampire” movie.  Most people seem to feel relatively bummed out to realize that the movie’s vampire doesn’t “drink” blood but rather infuses it.  His silly eyebrows reckon of some of Bela Lugosi’s lesser roles, but at the end of the day, he’s a doctor at a prison with a blood disease.

Victor Maddern is a pretty good “Igor” as hunchbacked, mute, and eye-drooping Carl.  A face that could launch a thousand covers of Famous Monsters of Hollywood.

Artistes Alliance may be no Hammer Studios, but they did wrangle writer Jimmy Sangster for this film.  It is interesting perhaps in is difference in production and so forth. Though it’s probably fair to lessen its value for not having a actual vampire.

Hell or High Water (2016)

Hell or High Water (2016) movie poster

director David Mackenzie
viewed: 09/10/016 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

Though it’s getting fairly consistent good reviews, I didn’t particularly like David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water.

A pair of brothers, Chris Pine and Ben Foster, pull off a series of bank heists in their West Texas landscape.  Careful to not grab the kind of dough that would arouse the FBI, the crimes instead are investigated by two Texas Rangers, Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham.  Bridges is the wily old coot on the verge of retirement that he’s played ever since True Grit (2010) and Birmingham is his long-suffering partner.

Pine’s plan is crazy like a fox, targeting the bank that foreclosed on his family’s farm, but his brother, only a year out of the pen, adds flavors of chaos.  This is a post-housing crisis America, if you couldn’t tell by the billboards offering debt relief and the like.

It’s an earnest enough film, with down to earth characters, naturalistic settings, even some apparent local characters thrown in as a dose of reality.  Actually, if anything, those local characters were the ones that stood out the most for me.  Outside of that, I found it somewhat contrived and the dialogue to be unspectacular.

My son, like a lot of others, really liked it.  What can I say?  I’m more a curmudgeon than the characters Jeff Bridges plays these days.

Best in Show (2000)

Best in Show (2000) movie poster

director Christopher Guest
viewed: 09/09/2016

When Christopher Guest made Waiting for Guffman in 1997, it was a welcome return to the mockumentary, a form Guest most notably contributed to in the classic This is Spinal Tap (1984).  Guffman‘s success begot 2000’s Best in Show, and eventually A Mighty Wind (2003) For Your Consideration (2006), and the forthcoming Mascots (2016).

Apparently nobody told Guest that the schtick was wearing thin, even in 2000.

Best in Show still got a lot of positive reaction, but when it came out, I felt like a real documentary might be even funnier than this improv-heavy take on dog owners and their kooky habits and fancy pets vying for awards.  Actually, Best in Show doesn’t even really try that hard to pretend that it’s a documentary, forgoing elements of the illusion in what has come to dominate comedy film and television.  Hand-held cameras, with characters addressing an audience, cut seemingly from on the go real life.

I showed this to my kids because I thought they would find it funny (they did).  But increasingly, I didn’t.  I hate being such a stick in the mud but the only thing I liked this time through was Fred Willard’s annoying commentator and the forgiving love between Eugene Levy’s character and Catherine O’Hara.