The TSL’s Horror Grindhouse: Lisa (dir by Gary Sherman)


 

So, here’s the thing about Lisa, a horror-thriller from 1990 that shows up occasionally on This TV.

It’s got a great title.

Seriously, this film has got one of the greatest titles of all time. I would almost say that you really don’t even have to pay attention to the movie because the title itself is so perfect that the plot doesn’t even matter.  The only thing that would make this title even better would be if they had added a “Marie” to the end of it but oh well.  You can’t have everything.

This is a movie about a girl named Lisa and, speaking as a girl named Lisa, I have to say that it’s incredibly true to life.  Lisa (Staci Keanan) is a smart and amazingly talented 14 years old and not alllowed to date by her incredibly overprotective mother, Katherine (Cheyl Holland).  So, instead of dating, Lisa spends her time stalking a serial killer.  See, Katherine thought she was protecting her daughter but instead, she’s only inspired her to take an even greater risk.  That’s why you need to let the Lisas in your life do what they want.

Admittedly, Lisa doesn’t know that Richard (D.W. Moffett) is a serial killer.  She doesn’t even know that he owns a successful restaurant.  All she knows is that he looks like a model and he drives a nice car and it’s fun to follow him around Venice Beach.  When she jots down his license plate numbers, she hacks the DMV to get his name, address, and phone number.  Soon, Lisa is calling him up and having flirtatious conversations with him.

 

It’s all good fun, except for the fact that Richard is also known as The Candelight Killer and he’s got a thing about calling people and leaving them messages right before he kills them.  It’s all very ritualized.  For instance, it’s very important that his victims be in the process of listening to his message when he kills them.  To be honest, though, that sounds like he’s taking a lot of risks.  I mean, what if someone came home and didn’t immediately check their messages?  Would Richard just have to hide behind the drapes for hours until the did?  Of course, Richard would be even more out of luck if this movie were made today because who has an answering machine anymore?

Anyway, Richard is obsessed with discovering who is stalking him and Katherine is obsessed with keeping Lisa out of danger and Lisa just wants to actually be allowed to full celebrate having the greatest name ever.  Did you know, for instance, that Lisa may have started out as a shortened form of Elizabeth but that it became so popular on its own that it was one of the most popular names in both the United States and the United Kingdom for several decades?  And, even though it’s no longer in the top ten as far as names are concerned, being named Lisa is still one of the greatest honors that can be bestowed upon anyone?  Lisa means God’s Promise by the way.  And….

 

What?  Oh yeah, the movie.

Well, anyway, it all leads to pretty much what you’re expecting it to lead to.  Plotwise, the movie may be predictable but the Staci Keanan, Cheryl Ladd, and D.W. Moffett all gives good performances and director Gary Sherman keeps the action moving at a steady pace.  It’s dumb but entertaining, kinda like cinematic junk food.  Plus, it has a great title.  What more do you need?

 

A Movie A Day #157: Pacific Heights (1990, directed by John Schlesinger)


Michael Keaton is the tenant from Hell in Pacific Heights.

In San Francisco, Patty (Melanie Griffith) and Drake (Matthew Modine) have just bought an old and expensive house that they can not really afford.  In order to keep from going broke, they rent out two downstairs apartments.  One apartment is rented by a nice Japanese couple.  The other apartment is rented by Carter Hayes (Michael Keaton).  Carter convinces Patty and Drake not to check his credit by promising to pay the 6 months rent up front.  The money, he tells them, is coming via wire transfer.

The money never arrives but Carter does.  Once he moves into the apartment, Carter changes the locks so that no one but him can get in.  At all hours of the day and night, he can be heard hammering and drilling inside the apartment.  Even worse, he releases cockroaches throughout the building.  When Drake demands that Carter leave, the police back up Carter.  After goading Drake into attacking him, Carter gets a restraining order.  Drake is kicked out of his home, leaving Patty alone with their dangerous tenant.

Pacific Heights is the ultimate upper middle class nightmare: Buy a house that you can not really afford and then end up with a tenant who trashes the place to such an extent that the property value goes down.  As a thriller, Pacific Heights would be better if Drake and Patty weren’t so unlikable.  (When this movie was first made, people like Patty and Drake were known as yuppies.)  Much like Drake’s house, the entire movie is stolen by Michael Keaton’s performance as Carter Hayes.  Carter was not an easy role to play because not only did he have to be so convincingly charming that it was believable that he could rent an apartment just by promising a wire payment but he also had to be so crazy that no one would doubt that he would deliberately infest a house with cockroaches.  Michael Keaton has not played many bad guys in his career but his performance as Carter Hayes knocked it out of the park.

One final note: Keep an eye out for former Hitchcock muse (and Melanie Griffith’s mother) Tippi Hedren, playing another one of Carter’s potential victims.  Her cameo here is better than her cameo in In The Cold of the Night.

 

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #92: Stealing Beauty (dir by Bernardo Bertolucci)


Stealing_Beauty_PosterI love Italy.

Some of that’s because I happen to be a fourth Italian.  And a lot of it is because many of my favorite filmmakers are Italian.  However, Italy is also place of which I have a lot of wonderful memories.  I spent the summer after my high school graduation in Italy and it was amazing.

Venice was full of sensual mystery (and, to be honest, some pretty obnoxious tourists as well).  Naples was dangerous and exciting.  Pompeii made me feel like I was living history.  Rome was full of handsome men and temptation.  When I walked through the Vatican, my inner Catholic girl suddenly woke up and I just had to stop and stare.  And Tuscany — oh my God, Tuscany!  That summer, as far as I was concerned, Tuscany was the most beautiful and romantic place on Earth.  I can still remember standing in the street of Florence and seeing the dome of the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore in the distance and, for a minute, I almost felt like I was in a painting.  And I actually started to get light-headed and dizzy, I was so overwhelmed by it all.

(That’s right.  Stendhal Syndrome isn’t just a Dario Argento film.)

At it’s best, the 1996 film Stealing Beauty made me think about that wonderful summer that I spent in Italy.  And, at its worse, Stealing Beauty made me happy that I made that trip with my sisters and not Lucy Harmon.

Lucy Harmon is the main character in Stealing Beauty.  Played by a young Liv Tyler, Lucy is the teenage daughter of a poet who has recently committed suicide.  Lucy is a poet herself.  Among her poems: “The dye is cast/ The dice are rolled/ I feel like shit/ you look like gold” and “I wait/ I wait so patiently/ I’m as quiet as a cup/ I hope you’ll come and rattle me/ Quick!/ Come wake me up.”  That’s right — Lucy writes the same type of crap that I used to write when I was 17 and trying to impress everyone with the depth of my mind.  The only difference is that Lucy is rich and privileged so her poetry doesn’t actually have to be any good.

Anyway, Lucy comes to Tuscany for three reasons.  First off, she wants to be sculpted by one of her mother’s friends, who lives in a villa.  Secondly, she wants to lose her virginity to an Italian boy who, years before, kissed her.  And, finally, she wants to learn the identity of her father, who she believes to be one of the residents of the villa.

The film’s great when it concentrates on the beauty of Tuscany.  It’s a beautiful film to look at and, as its best, it captures the romance of being young and having your entire life ahead of you.  In that way, the film brought back a lot of good memories and it made me want to revisit Italy.

But then, whenever I was fully content to just enjoy the sight of Tuscany, the film had to try to focus on Lucy and the other people living in the villa and … bleh.  For all of their talk about art and political posturing, they all basically came across as being a bunch of self-righteous fakes, the equivalent of the millionaire with a Che poster in his office.  In the end, there are only two adults that you end up liking.  You like writer Alex Parris (Jeremy Irons) because he’s dying and, as a result, doesn’t feel the need to try to impress anyone.  And, despite the film’s intentions, you end up liking the local fascist, Carlo Lisca (Carlo Checchi), because he doesn’t apologize for or try to rationalize his narcissism.  You like Carlo because all of the other characters dislike him.

In the role of Lucy, Liv Tyler is obviously beautiful and gives as good a performance as the script will allow.  At the same time, as a character, Lucy got on my last nerve.  Judging from what we see of her work, Lucy is not a particularly talented poet.  In fact, Lucy appears to often be an amazingly vapid person.  (Her much-commented on virginity only serves to confirm that Lucy is largely meant to be a male fantasy.)  But, at the same time, she’s rich and she’s got a famous mother and, as a result, the film seems to be telling us that it’s not important that she’s not really that interesting.

So, plotwise, Stealing Beauty did not really work for me.  But the scenery was truly beautiful.

Shattered Politics #69: Traffic (dir by Steven Soderbergh)


Traffic2000Poster

I have mixed feelings about Steven Soderbergh.  On the one hand, his talent cannot be denied and you have to respect the fact that he’s willing to take chances and make films like The Girlfriend Experience and The Informant.  On the other hand, he’s also the director who has been responsible for overrated messes like Contagion and utter pretentious disasters like Haywire.  And it doesn’t help that Soderbergh’s fanbase seems to be largely made up of the type of hipsters who end up leaving comments under the articles at The A.V. Club.  Some people mourned Soderbergh’s retirement.  Personally, I think he made the right decision.  He retired before his misfires ended up outnumbering all of his masterpieces.

The thing about Soderbergh is that his good films are so good that it makes it all the more frustrating to watch his failures.  If Soderbergh was just your typical bad director than a film like Contagion wouldn’t be as annoying.  But this is the man who also gave us Traffic!

And Traffic is a very good film.

First released in 2000, Traffic attempted to deal with the American war on drugs, a war that the film suggests might not even be worth fighting.  (Full disclosure: I support the legalization of drugs and, for that matter, just about everything else.  And yes, I am biased towards films that agree with me.  So is every other film critic out there.  The difference is that I’m willing to admit it.)  Traffic won four Oscars, including Best Director and Best Supporting Actor for Benicio Del Toro.  It was also nominated for best picture but lost to Gladiator.

Traffic tells three, barely connected stories.  Each story is given its own distinct look, feel, and color scheme.  And while it takes a few minutes to get used to film’s visual scheme, it ultimately works quite well.  Though all of the film’s characters share the same general existence, they live in different worlds.  The only thing linking them together is drugs.

Judge Andrew Wakefield (Michael Douglas) is a judge on the Ohio Supreme Court who has recently been named as the new drug czar.  However, while Judge Wakefield is going around the country and talking to politicians (Harry Reid shows up playing himself and is just as creepy as always), his daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen) is dating Seth (Topher Grace) and getting addicted to cocaine and heroin.  When Caroline run away, Judge Wakefield recruits Seth and, using him as a guide, searches the ghetto for his daughter.

The Wakefield scenes are bathed in cold and somber blues.  They’re beautiful to look at but, in some ways, they’re also some of the weakest in the film.  The whole plotline of Caroline going from being an innocent honor’s student to being a prostitute who sells her body for heroin feels a lot like the notorious anti-drug film Go Ask Alice.  At the same time, it’s interesting and a little fun to see Topher Grace playing such a little jerk.  Grace gets some of the best lines in the film, especially when he attacks Wakefield’s feelings of smug superiority.

In the film’s second storyline, two DEA Agents (Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman) arrest drug trafficker Eddie Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer).  Eddie works for the Ayala syndicate and, once he’s arrested, he turns informant.  Drug lord Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer) is arrested.  While Carlos sits on trial, his pregnant wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and his sleazy business associate (Dennis Quaid) struggle to hold together the business and find a way to kill Ruiz before he can testify.

This storyline is filmed in bright and vibrant colors and why not?  The Ayalas are rich and, unlike the Wakefields, they don’t feel the need to hide their material wealth.  This is actually probably my favorite storyline, largely because it’s the best acted and the most entertaining.  Miguel Ferrer, in particular, steals every scene that he’s in.  The scene where he explains the economics of being a drug trafficker is fascinating to watch.

The Ayala storyline may be my favorite but the film’s most thought-provoking storyline is the third one.  Taking place in Mexico, it stars Benicio Del Toro as Javier Rodriguez, a casually corrupt police officer who gets recruited to work for General Salazar (Tomas Milian), who is heading up Mexico’s war on the cartels.  Following the orders of Salazar, Javier captures assassin Frankie Flowers (Clifton Collins, Jr.) who is then savagely tortured by Salazar until he turns informer.  Javier comes to realize that Salazar is actually working for one of Mexico’s cartels.  When he decides to inform on Salazar, he puts his own life at risk.

The Mexico storyline is also the harshest and visually, it reflects that fact.  The heat literally seems to be rising up from the desert and the streets of Tijuana.  It takes a few minutes to adjust to the look of the Mexico scenes but, once you do, they become enthralling.

And Traffic, as a film, is undeniably enthralling as well.  Soderbergh deftly juggles the multiple storylines and brings them together to create a portrait of a society that’s being destroyed by the efforts to save it.  Hopefully, if Soderbergh ever does come out of retirement, he’ll give us more films like Traffic and less films like Contagion.

 

Back to School #63: Thirteen (dir by Catherine Hardwicke)


Have you ever seen a film and thought to yourself, “Oh my God, that’s my life?”

That’s the way I always feel whenever I see the 2003 film Thirteen.  Thirteen is one of my favorite movies but I always get uncomfortable whenever I watch it because a lot of the film hits really close to home for me.  Thirteen tells the story of 13 year-old Tracy (played, in an amazing performance, by Evan Rachel Wood) who, after befriending Evie Zamora (Nikki Reed, who also co-wrote the script along with director Catherine Hardwicke), goes wild.  Soon, Tracy is shoplifting, self-harming, experimenting with drugs and sex, and striking out at her mother, Melanie (Oscar nominee Holly Hunter).

As played by Hunter, Melanie is probably one of the best moms to ever show up in a contemporary film.  I’m tempted to say that Hunter’s performance here is the American equivalent to Sophia Loren’s work in Vittorio De Sica’s Two Women.  Melanie is not portrayed as being perfect.  Instead, she’s a recovering alcoholic who is dating a former drug addict (played by Jeremy Sisto) and she doesn’t always say the right thing and sometimes she does wish that she could just be selfish and not have to deal with her rebellious daughter.  When Evie, claiming that she’s being abused at her own home, literally moves in with Tracy, Melanie instinctively knows that Evie is a bad influence but she can’t bring herself to turn her away.  And yet, for all the mistakes that she makes, Melanie is still a good mom.  She loves her daughter and finally proves that she’s willing to sacrifice her own happiness to try to save Tracy.  Off the top of my head, I can’t tell you who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress of 2003, but it should have gone to Holly Hunter.

Thirteen was the directorial debut of one of my favorite director, Catherine Hardwicke.  Hardwicke doesn’t get the critical respect that she deserves, largely because she directed the first Twilight.  (Twilight, however, is not a badly directed film.  The trouble is with the source material, not Hardwicke’s direction.)  With Thirteen, Hardwicke approaches the film with a matter-of-fact directness that keep the movie grounded and prevents it from going over-the-top with its nonstop parade of delinquent behavior.

Thirteen

It’s a difficult film for me to watch because, when I was thirteen, I basically was Tracy.  I was angry at my Dad for leaving us and a part of me blamed my mom but an even bigger part of me blamed myself.  Like Tracy, I felt as if I had been abandoned and I felt as if control of my life was out of my hands.  I resented the life that I imagined I would never get to live and so, I went out of my way to make sure that everyone knew that I didn’t need them but they certainly needed me.  I struck out in whatever way I could and, looking back at it now, I know that, basically from the ages of 13 to 17, I caused a lot of unneccessary pain to the people who loved me.

Thirteen captures all of that perfectly and, therefore, it’s not easy for me to watch.  But, at the same time, I’m always glad after I do watch it because I know that I turned out okay and that gives me hope that, despite the film’s ambiguous ending, Tracy will turn out okay as well.

Thirteen2003Poster

Trailer: The Sitter (Red Band)


To say that I’m not a big Jonah Hill fan would be an understatement. The characters he has played on film have ranged from annoyingly nebbish to downright obnoxious. An almost irrational rage builds up in me whenever I see a trailer with him in it either as a supporting cast member or one of the leads. To my surprise when I saw the red band trailer of his upcoming R-rated comedy, The Sitter, the rage I was feeling petered out the more I watched the trailer.

The Sitter stars Jonah Hill and is directed by one David Gordon Green who also made the hilarious Pineapple Express and also one of the creators of the HBO comedy series, Eastbound & Down. Unfortunately, Green also directed the very unfunny comedy earlier in 2011 called Your Highness. Here’s to hoping that The Sitter is more of the very hilarious kind and not the unfunny that was his latest comedy film this year.

From what I could tell in the trailer this film looks almost like a remake of the 80’s comedy, Adventures in Babysitting starring Elisabeth Shue. That was a funny film and if Jonah Hill and Green can deliver the raunchiness and laughs then I have a feeling The Sitter may just be worth a look-see.

The Sitter is set for a December 9, 2011 release.