Friday, October 30, 2009

Beggars' Night

In Des Moines, Iowa, where I was born and spent the first nine years of my life, kids went trick 'r' treating on October 30th, called "Beggars' Night." We put on our costumes, went out, yelled "Trick'r'Treat!" and sometimes we really would have to "Trick" with a joke or a fun fact in order to get the treat.

Tonight my nostrils fill with the smell of wet leaves, my feet balk at the arduous journey through freezing wind. My hands grasp flimsy plastic handles on cheap jack o'lantern candy baskets, occasionally running fingers over the ragged plastic protruding from lazy joins. I can feel a cut lip that healed over twenty years ago and a stiff cowboy hat that made my scalp sweat despite the cold. I can see dozens of colorful wrappers surrounding a multitude of candies. Some kinds would go too fast and others would linger for months; I knew exactly which was which and so did my father.

Today I live in Arizona, and even though the October winds are blowing cold, they won't bite as bitterly. The air smells of dust and I won't be going out asking for candy. I didn't think to wear anything for the office costume contest. I celebrate Beggars' Night and Halloween by watching horror movies, the kind that the trick 'r' treater from long ago would have run from in terror. My traditions have changed. I am not the same.

Yet every October 30th, some part of me becomes that little boy again, with the sweaty cowboy hat and the plastic pumpkin filled with candy. And I am happy.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Ten Completely Underrated Woody Allen Movies

B-Sol of the insanely excellent blog The Vault of Horror takes the floor here at Cinema-Geek for a look at ten frequently overlooked films from one of his (and my) favorite directors.

Woody Allen has one extremely huge body of work. The guy basically makes a movie every year, and he’s been doing it for about 30 years. So you do the math.

Unfortunately, the downside of making movies that often is that not every one is going to be an unquestioned classic. Furthermore, every now and then, one will inevitably slip through the cracks.

Folks, I’m an unabashed Woody lover. I enjoy anything the guy does, from absolutely perfect films like Annie Hall and Manhattan, to relatively missable stuff like Alice, and Anything Else. I’d go so far as to call him the second finest working director, after Martin Scorsese.

So instead of listing the obvious Woody Allen treasures that everyone agrees are great—Hannah & Her Sisters, Sleeper, Crimes & Misdemeanors, etc.—I thought it would be more interesting to shed a little light on some unfairly underrated Woody Allen movies. If you love his stuff and haven’t seen these, give them a chance…

Bananas (1971)
Allen’s second film, this is a completely side-splitting comedy from his “early, funny” era. However, wedged between other gems like Take the Money and Run and Sleeper, it often gets lost in the shuffle. Woody as a Castro-esque Central American dictator is beyond priceless. And keep an eye out for the cameo from a young, unknown Sylvester Stallone.

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex (1972)
Another of the lesser-appreciated ‘70s Allen screwball comedies. A series of madcap vignettes dealing with human sexuality that literally leaves me breathless with laughter. John Carradine appears as a mad scientist who creates a monstrous female breast; a great oral sex joke is acted out; plus, the world’s worst transvestite. Comedy gold.

Love and Death (1975)
Only Woody Allen would be genius enough—and ballsy enough—to cross Dostoyevsky with the Marx Brothers. And have it actually work. This is the last film in Allen’s “silly phase”, right before Annie Hall. Plus, it teams up Allen and Diane Keaton, so you really can’t go wrong.

Stardust Memories (1980)
A bold film in which Allen basically plays himself, a movie director facing doubt about his own work, plus criticism for evolving as an artist. Very funny, as well as dramatic, plus one of the most memorable usages of a Louis Armstrong song in a movie, ever. Lovingly shot by longtime Allen collaborator and Godfather II cinematographer Gordon Willis.

A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982)
Woody actually steps away from his comfortable urban setting with this gentle romantic comedy set in the early 1900s, in the countryside. Woody plays an eccentric inventor--plus we’ve got ‘80s Allen muse Mia Farrow, the legendary Jose Ferrer, a young Mary Steenburgen, Airplane’s Julie Hagerty, and of course, Tony Roberts. Plus, Allen puts together a soundtrack made up entirely of beautiful 19th century Romantic compositions.

Broadway Danny Rose (1984)
Astonishingly panned when it came out, this one is now rightfully recognized as an underrated treat. Woody plays a cheeseball talent agent, and Mia Farrow steals the show as his ditzy love interest. Best of all, the whole thing is framed as the recollections of a bunch of old school comedians having lunch at Katz’ Delicatessen in Manhattan…

Shadows and Fog (1990)
A bizarre little film that once again demonstrates Allen’s brilliant knack for synthesizing multiple themes and devices. If you’ve ever wondered what would happen if Woody were set loose inside a Kafka novel, then this is the movie for you. Quite serious and even chilling at times, Allen still manages to bring the comedy in the right places, mainly due to how hilariously out of place he is.

Everyone Says I Love You (1996)
I’ve always felt this movie was grossly misunderstood. Like myself, Allen is a huge admirer of the classic Fred Astaire-style musical comedies of the 1930s—and with this film, he answers the cinematic question, what if one of those films were set in the present day? Contains a number of delightful old-time pop standards, all performed legitimately by members of the cast not typically known for singing (including Tim Roth!).

Deconstructing Harry (1997)
For my money, this is Allen’s finest film of the 1990s, yet for the most part it went unrecognized. It was marketed around the gimmick of Woody going to Hell a la Dante, and although that’s the funniest part, there’s a whole lot more to it. But the sight of Woody Allen stumbling through the Inferno to the tune of Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing” is truly something else…

Small Time Crooks (2000)
Right before deciding to start casting younger actors in all the roles he used to take himself, Woody teams up with Tracy Ullman in this almost-forgotten comic delight. Best of all, Woody plays a smart-talking working class stiff, a real change of pace from his stereotypical neurotic New Yorker shtick.

Thanks again to B-Sol for this great list. Be sure to swing by The Vault of Horror for his musings on the horror genre.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Moving Movies

Not movies that move you, but movies to watch while you're in the middle of a move, or more specifically, when you're in the middle of packing. It's not as arbitrary or as simple as you'd think. DVDs are amongst the first things I pack, simply because they're easy to get into boxes and by packing them together, I reduce risk of damaging the cases. I also have more of them than pretty much anything, including clothes and books.

So, during my last move, it became a question of which films to leave on the shelf. I have pretty specific criteria when it comes to this situation. Since I would likely be packing as I watched, the films in question had to be familiar, so I didn't get distracted or miss key plot points because I was seeking out the elusive end of the tape roll. While not necessary, it helped if a movie didn't have a particularly complex plot or if it hung on an episodic structure, so that I would feel more comfortable popping in and out. Some of the movies had to be talky or heavy on music so that I could enjoy them while I wasn't able to see the television.

Below is the list of some of my selections. If they occasionally seem to contradict my criteria, well... that's that, I guess. Films I actually watched during the move are marked with an asterisk.

His Girl Friday / Bringing Up Baby
The brilliant thing about a good Howard Hawks comedy is that you can miss half the dialogue and still get double what other films typically have.

Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring*
This would be even more perfect if I didn't have to switch discs halfway through, but we cannot have everything. I also made a point to watch all the easter eggs on all of the trilogy discs.

Zombie Apocalypse*
"I could kill you now, but I'm determined to have your brain!" I probably like this movie more than it has any right to be liked, as it's a pretty threadbare merging of the zombie and cannibal subgenres, both of which were en vogue in Italy at the time this was made.

Dr. Horrible's Sing-along Blog* / Firefly: The Complete Series* / Serenity*
Technically, my girlfriend watched Firefly on my Mac and I hovered during packing breaks. And I didn't so much watch Dr. Horrible as I did listen to MP3s of Commentary! The Musical, a fairly ingenious creation of Whedon and Company where they perform an entire plotted musical as a commentary track (and which, incidentally, has more songs than Dr. Horrible itself).

Stop Making Sense*
I watched this four times while packing. Can you blame me? The way this concert moves, the way it progresses -- it fills me with joy. Somehow they take something intricately choreographed and planned (nay, plotted) and make it seem so spontaneous. One of my favorite moments happens during a song transition, although I forget which one. David Byrne, who's sweating profusely, starts a meandering jog around the microphone as he loosens his collar. Except he's not meandering. He's circling. It takes a little time for that fact to kick in, but this is not a random "shake off the tired" motion, but a planned move. Each revolution becomes tighter and clearer, picking up the beat of the next song as it goes. It's at that moment when it becomes clear that this isn't just a well-planned concert. It's a work of genius and we're all lucky that Jonathan Demme was on hand to capture it for posterity.

Singin' in the Rain / The Muppet Movie / The Court Jester*
Joy on a digital platter. Like a warm, musical, dorky blanket.

5 Dolls for an August Moon
Mario Bava's variation on Ten Little Indians was a project he didn't want to direct and didn't really care for. From my review: The resulting film is a whodunit that doesn’t care who did it, a thriller lacking in actual thrills. It is also a strangely affecting experience that improves upon repeated viewings. By de-emphasizing all that we would expect emphasized in a thriller, especially since the status quo for a good director with a bad script is for style to run amok over substance, Bava forces us to consider the film almost as free jazz, randomly weaving in and out of a set template and letting the audience find their own points of interest. If you just relax, go with the flow, disregard silly things like plot, and soak up the masterful cinematography by Bava and long-time DP Antonio Rinaldi, you’ll find a lot worth revisiting.

North by Northwest
I know the rhythms of this movie like I know the beats of my favorite songs. The pinnacle of Hitchcock's action-thrillers.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail*

Josie and the Pussycats*
I love this movie so much. Sure it's glossy and bubble-gum, but it's also kinda subversive. Massively underseen upon its release (probably because of an extremely misleading advertising campaign), this deserves to be rediscovered. It has rock'n'roll, broad satire, and more plot than you'd expect from a movie based on an Archie comic. Earlier this year, I made a fanvid for this movie, which I've embedded below:

Ocean's Eleven (2001)
I love listening to the actor's commentary on this, because Brad Pitt's sardonic wit runs rampant. He says early on that he's doing it as sort of a "Mystery Science Theater 3000" thing and while he's never tears the film apart, his general sense of humor is in the same vein. Matt Damon is on hand for more serious recollections of the production and Andy Garcia occasionally chimes in to remind us that he's there.