Monday, September 18, 2006

Recent Viewings

Football season has taken its toll on my posting frequency, but my movie intake has remained steady, and I've seen some interesting ones of late.

Jackson County Jail
I don't remember how I heard about this curiosity, a Roger Corman-produced injustice-on-the-run yarn starring a young Tommy Lee Jones. I think I might have stumbled upon the one-sheet (see above) at some point, which is one of my favorites (love the wonderfully simple tagline: 'What they do to her in Jackson County Jail is a crime'). But the poster really doesn't show what the movie is about. Hollywood career woman Dinah (Yvette Mimeux, who had a prolific career in made-for-TV movies, including Outside Chance -- a remake of Jackson County Jail made in '78) is driving cross country when a hippie couple jacks her car; after trying to find help she is booked on bogus charges and held overnight in the jail because all her identification was left in the car. In the next cell is Coley (Jones), a lifetime criminal who doesn't bat an eye when a guard rapes Dinah, but springs to action after she accidentally kills him. The unlikely pair escape, and the final act is Dinah (unconvincingly) falling for Coley as they fend off the man. It's a fun little crime movie, and Jones' role helped launch a succession of tough hombre roles, as he steals the show as the don't-give-a-fuck Coley (who remarks 'I was born dead' near the end when Dinah tries to keep him from shooting it out with the cops.

The Big Country
In the late 50s, Westerns had been pumped through theaters at a manic pace for decades, and by then you needed to break from the traditional formula to really catch the attention of audiences who had seen every kind of Western. 'The Big Country' is a bit of a revionist Western, mixing modern and Old West values, and manages to be smart, gorgeous and entertaining despite having a lack of action by design. Gregory Peck plays Jim McKay, a retired sea captain who comes west to meet his bride's family. He finds himself in the middle of a bitter, generations-long land dispute between two cattle empires. McKay's naval sensibility is a stark contrast to what is valued on the stark plains of the midwest, as men are expected to prove themselves or risk being labeled a coward if they back down. McKay sees no point in the feud, or why he is suddenly despised for not wanting to engage in pointless fights. The fight McKay does get involved with is to convince both sides that there is a diplomatic solution to all their problems, and it leads to a surprisingly tense ending with one of the most original duels ever shot.

This engaging story is played out with wondrous images of a West not often shown on film: endless plains that make for a near-claustrophic feel, far away from any laws or civilization. Peck is perfect as the East Coast pacifist and one of the main setpieces is a gargantuan ranch house which is home to unending elegance in the middle of the rough, spartan country around it. Before Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah ushered the Western genre out with their epics, William Wyler made a brilliant, atypical Western entry that has aged well.

Kicking and Screaming
No, not the Will Ferrell version, but a genius Noah Baumbach comedy from 1995 that I had never heard about until Criterion gave it the treatment last month. It's a deadon satire/examination of the modern college experience, where getting a first-rate education drops a brickload of career expectations on many unwilling to carry them, leading to the dread of graduation. The film opens at a graduation party and Baumbach delivers an assault of witty exchanges that are all drop dead hilarious and honest. The rest of the movie doesn't quite measure up to that bullseye opening scene, but it's never easy to turn away. Eric Stoltz plays perhaps the best Eric Stoltz character ever seen: a 10-year senior who's content to work at a campus bar and pass his useless knowledge on to those he can help. Our core group of characters went through college together and are making the most of post-poning their entrance into the 'real world' by sticking around campus another year, sharing in the many things they hate. I thought of this as a college version of Dazed and Confused, and its value is enhanced by being made in '95: no cell phones or Internet talk, and maybe the best satire of video rental chains when they were at their absolute peak (college-educated employee is asked: 'Do you have "Dr. Giggles" in letterbox?').
Note: It's interesting that the Ferrell movie of the same name was apparently able to go by that title by substituting an ampersand intstead of the 'and.'

The Gate
This was a mainstay on late-night HBO for a time in the late-80s, though I never saw the whole thing until recently. The idea of kids finding a hole that apparently leads to hell in their backyard always scared me as a kid, as did the creepy little monsters that crawled out of it (think flesh-colored tiny T-Rex's with the face of a bulldog). It's a cool premise, but a very dull and dumb movie that is redeemed only in the fact that it strangely tries to be a 'kids' horror movie (it's PG-13). When a very young Stephen Dorff (who gets first-billing) finds a big hole in his backyard after a tree is uprooted strange things start to happen: moths start flying around his window, his dog dies, his friend has a dream about his dead mother, his parents leave for the weekend . . . I mean this is some really weird stuff, what could have caused it? Luckily Dorff's friend has a heavy metal album which explains everything, leading to a shocking climax of little bulldog T-Rex's, kids getting stabbed with Barbie dolls and the universe being saved by a well-placed model rocket. The End . . . until The Gate II: Trespassers.

Black Christmas
Forgotten as one of the original slasher movies, and THE original 'the call is coming from inside the house' movie (four years before When a Stranger Calls), 'Black Christmas' is an occasionally creepy, disappointingly bland horror movie. It starts out with great promise as we're shown a sorority Christmas party (your hostess: a very drunk Margot Kidder) and the camera is soon creeping up to the house through the eyes of a killer. We see in first-person how he sneaks into the house and stalks his prey. I was excited at the prospects of the whole movie taking place at this party, but instead after one measly kill the rest of the movie bumbles around as campus security tries to figure out who murdered the girl and who keeps making these threatening phone calls to members of the sorority. By the time any kind of suspense is built up at the end, the big twist (where the phone calls are coming from) is painfully obvious, but the movie is somewhat saved by the chilling ending, which gets a 9.5 from this judge.

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