Archive for the 'Mystery' Category

23
Aug
15

Slam Dance (1987)

On those nights when Q and I simply can’t agree on what to watch, and neither of us have strong feelings one way or another, inevitably we turn to the bowl of shame. The bowl of shame is where we keep our cull* list, so when we turn to it, we’re indecisive, desperate, or both. In our younger days when we were more vital and resilient, we’d

The bowl of shame.

The bowl of shame.

watch the cull list through, with no breaks for “good” movies. But perhaps we’ve been scarred by too many duds to attempt to live through such an experience again. At any rate, the bowl sits there mocking us, and some evenings we just can’t resist. The night we chose Slam Dance I recall being particularly whiny and inconsolable, for what reason, I don’t know. I thought the title seemed promising, and knowing it was written by Don Opper of Android fame made it all the more enticing.

Unfortunately, the movie is pretty exhausting straight from the get-go. C.C. Drood (Tom Hulce) is a cartoonist keeping his head just above water. He lives in what looks like a large shower, though by all accounts it is his apartment. Maybe it looks like shit because it’s just temporary: he and his wife Helen (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) are taking a break, and the guy needs a place to hole up for a while. That’s what happens when you get frisky with a call girl named Yolanda (Virginia Madsen).

But what happens when that call girl is found murdered? Obviously the cops and the murderers try to pin it on a doofus cartoonist, right? Of course! Drood finds himself in a web of, well, very bad things, and not even Good Cop Benjamin Smiley (Harry Dean Stanton) can seem to shake him out of it. Who’s behind this whole thing? Is it Detective Gilbert (John Doe), who seems pretty clearly hellbent on blaming Drood for the whole affair, and then some? Or what about Drood’s shady art dealer Campbell (Adam Ant); maybe he’d like to put Drood away for good so he can keep on banging his wife? Or, I don’t know, maybe it’s the lesbian madam who was in love with Yolanda?

Even the cover is annoying.

Even the cover is annoying.

Ultimately, who fucking cares? I certainly didn’t give a shit who lived, died, or lied in this movie. I did learn a few things, though: 1) I don’t like Tom Hulce. 2) I don’t like Virginia Madsen. 3) Don Opper should stick to movies about robots. 4) Harry Dean Stanton can’t save every movie he’s in. 5) Perhaps I should stay away from anything billed as an “erotic thriller.”

I can’t put my finger on exactly why this movie was so irritating. Perhaps it was simply that it thought it was way more clever than it actually was. There’s sort of this Doppelgänger thing going on, and that’s not interesting. And crooked cops aren’t really interesting. And philandering husbands aren’t interesting. And lesbian call girls are perhaps the least interesting thing of all. Maybe this movie might have been, like, subversive if it had been made in the 1950’s or something… but for 1987 it just looks like a coked-out mess. Gladly putting this one on the discard pile. Sorry, Don.

*Q and I have decided it’s time for a great cull; an early spring cleaning. We have a large number of movies we have not yet seen. Are these movies any good? This is the question we are out to answer. If it’s no good, out it goes.

12
Aug
14

Liebestraum (1991)

In the wake of the release of the Twin Peaks blu-ray box set, we decided to keep things Lynchian and watch this flick Liebestraum. It’s not directed by David Lynch, but Mike Figgis employed a little bit of Lynch’s magic when filming it, for sure; there’s a weird, dream-like quality throughout (makes sense I guess, since Liebestraum means ‘love dream’ in German). It helps too that the female lead is played by Pamela Gidley; you probably know her better as Teresa Banks.

So, there’s this guy named Nick (Kevin Anderson). He’s got a face that kinda looks like a toad. He’s an architecture professor, or something; I don’t know, he writes books about buildings. He’s come to a small town in Illinois because his birth mother (Kim Novak), whom he’s never met before, is dying of cancer. While walking around town, he bumps into an old school chum of his, Paul (Bill Pullman). Paul’s a big shot who owns a company that’s going to demolish a building that was once a department store. This particular building is one of the first to be made with a steel foundation, so Nick finds it fascinating and can’t believe a fellow architect is so gleefully willing to tear it down.

Looming mannequins are the only thing to populate this abandoned building.

Looming mannequins are the only thing to populate this abandoned building.

Turns out there is more to the building than its foundation; it has a seedy history from which the department store could never recover. A few decades prior, a nasty murder-suicide took place there involving the owner and his wife. As a result, the store never reopened and the building has simply stood there taking up space for the last thirty years or so.

Even after learning the story behind the department store’s demise, Nick still thinks the building should be preserved as a landmark. As a compromise, Paul grants Nick access to the building while they prepare for its demolition so he can get a feel for it and write a story about it. Paul has this great suggestion, too: perhaps his wife Jane (Gidley) could photograph it for him? Yeah, that’s a great idea, it’s not like Nick and Jane will end up boning while Paul’s out of town on business or anything, right?

Nick and Jane

Nick and Jane

And so, the rest of the film is really watching grown adults make very bad decisions. Jane and Nick bone while Nick’s mother’s health continues to decline. Paul expects something fishy is going on, in fact, it is almost like he set it up to happen. Why did Paul think it would be a good idea to have Nick and Jane alone together in that big, dark, cursed building while he’s outta town? It’s almost as if the building wanted them to get together; as if it somehow possessed Paul to suggest a potentially fiery situation…

I must say, I really did not care for this movie very much at all. It had some good ideas, but these characters didn’t seem like real people; they’re all totally unlikable, selfish assholes. I’m not sure if that is because the building itself is actually exerting an influence on these people, and they can’t be held completely responsible for their behavior, but that connection is never explicitly made and perhaps isn’t implicit enough for me to believe that was Figgis’ intent. But hell, maybe it was, at any rate, I still find it hard to care about what assholes are doing, driven by unseen forces or no. I guess it doesn’t help that Kevin Anderson is absolutely unbearable to watch; It’s like he’s trying to squeeze out a turd before he delivers every line. His expression is almost pained for most of the film, but not quite; it doesn’t seem like he can actually get up the gumption to show any emotion whatsoever.

Love dream indeed

Love dream indeed

The plot does do some interesting things that I can’t exactly talk about here because I don’t want to ruin the whole thing for you. And Figgis is very good at creating a spooky, mysterious atmosphere (the mannequins certainly do a bit of heavy lifting). So, the film is not a total loss, I can even understand why some folks would find it good, but I really just couldn’t get over the stupid decisions these people were making; I found it kind of exhausting and exasperating to watch.

The most interesting thing about Liebestraum is that the best scene in this movie is deleted! Q saw this first on videocassette, which includes the full version of the film. For the DVD, I’m not sure why (rating, perhaps?) this scene was entirely cut out. Luckily it is included as an extra, and it is one scene that makes a whole world of difference in the tone and meaning of the film. I really wonder how different my feelings for the film would be had we watched the unedited version. If you can get your hands on that version, it’s definitely preferable to the DVD version we watched.

 

04
May
14

The Legend of the Mask (La Leyenda de una Mascara, 1991)

Note: Hi! This is Mike Q, and I’m not the one who usually writes here. I got this guest-spot because Katy’s fallen behind in writing up movies of late, so I’ve been called in to do some of the titles she doesn’t especially want to deal with.

Legend of the MaskWhen I first ran into mention of Legend of the Mask a few years back, it was described off-handedly as “the Citizen Kane of lucha libre movies”. “Why not?”, I thought, and since the price was right, and the DVD had English subtitles, I gambled a stamp and bought a copy. It seemed like a potentially good gamble if done right — I’m always hungry for superhero flicks that have something to say — and like an amusing curiosity even if it didn’t (something along the lines, perhaps, of Mil Mascaras: Resurrection). So there it sat on the shelf, waiting for the right moment to get watched.

I don’t know if it was that Citizen Kane comparison, or the years of anticipation and latent potential, but though Legend of the Mask was strong and well-done, my hopes were too high to meet well what we actually watched. For starters, that Citizen Kane thing was almost too accurate — Legend takes its narrative cues almost point-for-point from the Welles film until its final act, to the point where it was somewhat distracting. A shabby, drunken lout of an investigative sports reporter gets assigned to write a deep profile of the recently-deceased masked wrestling legend El Angel Enmascarado, a pastiche of the real-life El Santo, perhaps the world’s best known Mexican wrestler. As our intrepid reporter looks into the loose ends of El Angel’s life — The manager/agent who discovered an idealistic young wrestler and convinced him to mask up to re-invent himself, the shady comic-book publisher who saw a way to turn the cult star larger than life, the b-movie maker who made him Mexico’s number one star, the buxom nightclub performer who he made tabloid headlines with — we put together not only El Angel’s story — and with it see the hopes, dreams, and feat of clay that all-too-commonly motivate and bring down celebrities in these sorts of films —  but also slowly get a sense of the reporter’s investment in all of this; how his fandom is adding on yet another layer of color to the whole affair.

Of course (of course!), there’s more to the death of El Angel than meets the eye, and all the nastiest parts of El Angel’s story are still very much alive. In the final act, everything hits the fan, and we’re in a really different movie than what’s come before — a kind of pulp soup, heavy on the paranoia, and the gothic/noir/funnybook imagery that makes me sit up and grin — shades of something like a live-action Richard Sala comic strip. I wish, in fact, that the movie that had come before had better set up the eye-popped breathlessness that it concludes with, and in doing so, it might have reached a sort of Ken Russell place in relation to its material: equal measure winking dismay in its weaknesses and yet intense, bursting, almost inarticulate love for them at the same time. Instead, once the final twist comes atop the roiling chaos of mashed-together imagery in the climax, I was left thinking that there’d been a missed opportunity. Do the reporter’s investigations (and fandom) amount to the same thing as the crimes he was accused of committing? That particular nail is never really hit with the force that so many others are here, leaving the sense that this affair ended with a whimper when it really seemed to have wanted to end with a body slam.

If you want a “smart” or insightful take on the old chestnuts of Mexican wrestler superheroes versus vampires, Aztec mummies, or mad scientists, this unfortunately isn’t your stop. If, though, you’re more interested in the bugs that are hiding underneath the edifice of cultural mythology, this one might tickle your fancy. Just, you know, don’t believe all the hype!

17
Feb
14

Lady in White (1988)

When I was a kid, there was a handful of movies I watched over and over and over and over. The more of these movies I watch as an adult, the more I wonder to myself: what the heck kind of kid was I? I am very thankful to have had parents that trusted me to watch basically whatever I wanted, because the movies I considered favorites as a kid obviously have had an enormous impact on my taste in weird stuff later in life, and for that I am forever grateful! Though I wouldn’t call Lady in White a particularly weird movie, I think it’s at least safe to say that, despite the fact there are children in the movie, it is not a movie made for children! Just what the appeal was to an 8-year-old me, I can’t say, except I did have a thing for ghosts…

The story is set in Small Town, NY, 1962. It’s Halloween, and little Frankie Scarlatti (Lukas Haas) is super pumped for his favorite holiday; the boy is, after all, an aspiring horror writer. He dazzles his class with his giant monster story, but two young boys are less than impressed, and decide it would be a great idea to lock Frankie in the coat room all night long. They trick him into thinking he’s left his hat, a gift from his father, in the coat room. While he goes in to look for it, they slam the door, lock it, and leave him to spend Halloween alone in the dark, conveniently overlooking a cemetery!

Frankie telling stories

Frankie telling stories

Frankie finally drifts off to sleep, but soon he is rudely awakened by the ghostly figure of a young girl, skipping and singing her way into the coat room. She is talking to someone, but we can’t see who. Their interaction becomes dark very quickly when the unseen person throttles the ghost and drags her out of the coat room by her hair. Frankie tries to keep silent and hidden, but eventually the unknown man notices him and starts choking him, too, until he passes out.

When Frankie wakes up, he is unable to identify the person who choked him, though according to the racist community all signs point to the African-American janitor, who had passed out in the school’s basement while drinking. The situation doesn’t look very good for the janitor; Frankie’s attack has been linked to the murder of eleven children over the years, one of whom is Melissa Ann Montgomery, without a doubt the same girl Frankie saw dancing in the coat room. Frankie senses the janitor isn’t the killer, but he has no proof. His only hope is to retrieve the man’s ring from the vent in the cloak room, which he is certain will identify the true murderer.

The ghost girl gets it

The ghost girl gets it

The film tells the story of a pretty standard murder mystery, intriguing for kids I guess because it’s kids who actually solve the thing, not the adults. And while there is definitely a lot of eye candy here for kids, there are some uncomfortable moments of violence against children that are definitely super creepy and must have scared the crap out of me when I was little. Perhaps the adult-world scary stuff was mitigated by Frankie’s friendship with Melissa the ghost girl; the two become “friends” and it becomes Frankie’s mission to reunite Melissa with her mother who committed suicide after her daughter’s death.

Then there is, of course, the actual story of the Lady in White, a local legend about an old woman who haunts a scary old house by the cliffs. The characters mention her throughout the film, and her true story is something Frankie uncovers while figuring out just about every other secret of his small town. So, there are an awful lot of dirty little secrets for a nine-year-old boy to stumble upon; good thing he likes a thrilling mystery.

All in all, this movie is good enough, though it must be said that it is absolutely dripping with sentimentality. Frankie is re-telling us the story years later, so I guess it’s understandable that a trip back home after years of being away would evoke strong nostalgia, but they lay it on pretty damn thick here – there’s Frankie’s grandmother, who is always yelling at the family to get out of the cold, and Frankie’s grandfather, who does his best to hide behind various buildings to get a smoke without being caught by his wife. There’s the general store with all your favorite old Halloween toys, goofiness between Frankie and his brother Geno; anything you can think of that would make you yearn for days long passed, it’s here and it’s a bit much. This is obviously something that didn’t strike me as problematic as a kid, but it’s virtually impossible to watch the movie now without vomiting a little in your mouth over its sickly sweetness.

The lady in white is... Katherine Helmond!

The lady in white is… Katherine Helmond!

If you can get past the overt nostalgia and the weird adult-on-child violence, this movie’s pretty okay, but it’s a far cry from a must-see. The best mysteries always involve a ghost here and there, so it’s got that going for it. But, the best part about the movie is probably the casting; Lukas Haas and his big eyes are just about perfect for the role of a budding mystery novelist. It is hard for me to see that guy as anyone other than Frankie Scarlatti.

13
Feb
14

Mr. Arkadin (1955)

Before I start on Orson Welles’ Mr. Arkadin, I have to admit three things. First: Orson Welles never really did it for me. And let’s be fair, I only gave him one chance, all those years ago, when I first watched Citizen Kane and thought to myself “what’s the big deal?” The only contact I’ve had with him since was his nasty portrayal in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly CreaturesSecond: Despite the few older movies I’ve recently watched, I don’t normally go for anything before 1963. Third: If my husband never suggested Mr. Arkadin, I never would have heard of it, let alone watched it.

It all starts with a name...

It all starts with a name…

All that being said, I surprisingly enjoyed Mr. Arkadin, a crime drama mystery thing with a hint of comedy here and there. The story starts when Guy Van Stratten, a good-for-nothing crook and his equally shady girlfriend Mily witness a murder. As the man, Bracco, dies, he whispers two names into Mily’s ear, one of which is Gregory Arkadin. Distracted by the police, Mily apparently forgets the second name.

This sets Van Stratten off on a chase for information: who is Arkadin, and what did he have to do with the dying man’s murder? Thorough research, tenacity and greed finally leads Van Stratten to Arkadin, a very rich man indeed, with just about everything within his reach. Van Stratten weasels his way into Arkadin’s latest shindig through Arkadin’s daughter, Sophie.

Van Stratten finally gets the opportunity to meet Arkadin, at which point Arkadin gives Van Stratten

Van Stratten, plotting as usual.

Van Stratten, plotting as usual.

a unique gift: a dossier detailing all of Van Stratten’s crimes. See, Arkadin is, apparently, very protective of his daughter. But Van Stratten isn’t easily scared off, and eventually Arkadin decides to hire Van Stratten for a very important job: find out who Gregory Arkadin really is.

See, Arkadin apparently woke up, years ago, with a bunch of money in his pocket, with which he grew his fortune. But he does not remember who he was before this happened, and needs Van Stratten to use his resourcefulness to figure it out for him. So Van Stratten trots his way around the globe finding out information about the mysterious man…

The thing about Mr. Arkadin that most impressed me was that, despite the fact that almost none of the characters are likable or relatable, it’s still an enjoyable movie. Perhaps that’s because I was curious to see exactly to what lengths Van Stratten was willing to go in order to hit the mother lode, or maybe it was just that I wanted to know what makes Arkadin tick?

Orson Welles was a seriously weird looking dude, right?

Orson Welles was a seriously weird looking dude, right?

And, about Arkadin… can I ask what exactly is the deal with Orson Welles? He’s a frightening looking man, and in this film it looks like he’s wearing 10 pounds of pancake make-up. He creepily looks just like the King from a deck of playing cards. Gives me the chills, and makes me understand the sentiments of our friends from Heavenly Creatures all the more! Despite this, or more likely because of, he’s a pretty convincing nasty rich guy.

With movies like this, I generally find myself getting lost, either because the globe-trotting mystery is boring to me or my walnut-sized brain can’t handle putting pieces together. But here, I was actually intrigued the whole time and really enjoyed watching the story unravel. I suppose now is the time to mention there are several different cuts of this film; we watched the “Comprehensive Version” from the Criterion Collection. Word around the campfire is the other versions are much more difficult to follow and convoluted, so if this sounds like your cup of tea, keep that in mind!

All in all, I think I actually really liked this movie. I wasn’t exactly sure how I felt while I was watching it, and immediately after I was pretty ambivalent. It seems as though Arkadin has grown on me now that some time has passed. Perhaps one day my curiosity will strike and I’ll pop in one of those other versions of the film, just to see how different it is. Either way, this version was pretty darn entertaining, and I’d recommend it to anyone with interest in such films.

24
Jan
14

Lord of Illusions (1995)

Private Detectives: Nothin' but trouble.

Private Detectives: Nothin’ but trouble.

Private detectives are always getting into some sort of trouble; either they’re totally broke or they’re in way over their ignorant heads. It’s probably safe to say Clive Barker’s private detectives fare the worst of all. Just ask Harry D’Amour (Scott Bakula), the gumshoe extraordinaire in Lord of Illusions. He managed to stumble his way into a freaky cult. I mean, like, freaky even for Los Angeles.

Thirteen years ago, a man named Nix (Daniel von Bargen) kidnaped a young girl with the intention of sacrificing her up to Satan (I guess?). His disciples, of course, were totally on board (I mean, that’s what disciples do, right?). Lucky for the girl, some former members

Swann and his fatefully stupid sword trick.

Swann and his fatefully stupid sword trick.

of the cult were able to shake loose of Nix’s mental grip and return just in time to save her from destruction. One of these saviors was a man named Swann, whom Nix thought of as something of a protégé. Burned by his rejection and stymied sacrifice, Nix casts a spell on Swann which causes him to see things as they truly are, or something. His friends’ faces become monstrous, the world around them liquid and terrifying. He finally snaps out of it, but never forgets the vision. He and the other good guys are able to trap Nix, put a horrifying iron mask on his face and bury him deep as hell.

Back to present day, Swann now makes his living as a famous illusionist a la David Copperfield. His beautiful wife has convinced D’Amour to help protect Swann from the cult members, whom she believes are assembling together for Nix’s resurrection. That’s all well and good, but one thing D’Amour can’t protect Swann from is his own illusions: his newest trick has failed him and he dies in front of his adoring fans. Or does he?
Kruger?

Kruger?

You know, I don’t think I liked this movie very much. It screams 1995 in some of the worst ways. Some of the characters exhibit those black and white extremes that only work if whatever you’re watching is laughably bad (I’m thinking Alien Warrior or Death Wish 3 here). The ones that don’t still manage to make decisions that you’d never make, and that left me frustrated with the movie. Furthermore, it doesn’t help that Nix, the baddest of baddies, is played by Daniel von Bargen, none-other than Seinfeld’s Kruger (if you’re not familiar, he was one of the silliest, dumbest bosses ever portrayed in television history). Now, that’s hardly Clive Barker’s fault, but nevertheless made the movie that much more ridiculous for me.

Speaking of ridiculous, can we stop it with the edgy private detectives already? Look, I like Scott Bakula as much as the next girl that grew up in the 80’s, but even he can’t make this tired stereotype interesting. Snappy comebacks and a persistent sense of curiosity in the face of satanic magic is doubtful to get you very far. Perhaps there are some better examples, but after watching this flick I get the impression that the 1990’s and Noir tendencies really shouldn’t mix. Ever. Unless it’s a comedy.
06
Oct
13

Clue (1985)

Clue is far too good for a movie based on a board game. It is of course possible that nostalgia will always be at play when I watch this movie, but I laugh out loud every single time I watch it, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that number is somewhere in the triple digits at this point in my life.

Come join the fun!

Come join the fun!

It’s exactly what you think it is, sort of: six people are invited to a dinner party sometime in the 1950’s. They’re given pseudonyms to protect their anonymity. When they get there, they find out each one of them is being blackmailed by a man called Mr. Boddy. Each of the unsavory guests, all of whom are connected to Washington, DC somehow or another, are given a weapon. Secret passages, “French” maids, shark’s fin soup and uncomfortable silences abound, bodies pile up, and mysteries are solved three times over.

Only in America!

Only in America!

There are so many wonderful parts of this movie! Tim Curry as Wadsworth the Butler (he butles) is flipping perfect. Christopher Lloyd as a lecherous psychiatrist, Leslie Ann Warren as a sly Madam, and perhaps above-all Madeline Kahn’s Black Widow are all thoroughly amusing and awesome. It is, of course, a ridiculously stupid movie, but that is what makes it so darn delightful. Seriously, I could watch this once a week for the rest of my life and never get bored. What can I say, I’m a sucker for slapstick and bad puns!




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