A Movie A Day #123: Dillinger and Capone (1995, directed by Jon Purdy)


1934.  Chicago.  The FBI guns down a man outside of a movie theater and announces that they have finally killed John Dillinger.  What the FBI doesn’t realize it that they didn’t get Dillinger.  Instead they killed Dillinger’s look-alike brother.  The real John Dillinger (played by Martin Sheen) has escaped.  Over the next five years, under an assumed name, Dillinger goes straight, gets married, starts a farm, and lives an upstanding life. Only a few people know his secret and, unfortunately, one of them is Al Capone (F. Murray Abraham).  Only recently released from prison and being driven mad by syphilis, Capone demands that Dillinger come out of retirement and pull one last job.  Capone has millions of dollars stashed away in a hotel vault and he wants Dillinger to steal it for him.  Just to make sure that Dillinger comes through for him, Capone is holding Dillinger’s family hostage.

This film, which was produced by Roger Corman, combines two popular but probably untrue rumors, that Dillinger faked his own death and that Al Capone had millions of dollars stashed somewhere in Chicago.  Though the two never met in real life (and moved in very different criminal circles), the idea of bringing Dillinger and Capone together sounds like a good one.  Unfortunately, the execution leaves a lot to be desired.  Sheen and Murray are both miscast in the lead roles, with Sheen especially being too old to be believable as the 40 something Dillinger, and the script never takes advantage of their notoriety.  In this movie, Dillinger could just as easily be any retired bank robber while Capone could just as easily be any unstable mob boss.  In classic Corman fashion, more thought was given to the title than to the story.

One things that does work about the movie is the supporting cast, which is full of familiar faces.  Clint Howard, Don Stroud, Bert Remsen, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Catherine Hicks, Maria Ford, and Martin Sheen’s brother, Joe Estevez, are all present and accounted for.  Especially be sure to keep an eye out for Jeffrey Combs, playing an FBI agent who suspects that Dillinger may still be alive.  He may not get to do much but he’s still Jeffrey Combs.

A Movie A Day #103: Mobsters (1991, directed by Michael Karbelnikoff)


The place is New York City.  The time is the prohibition era.  The rackets are controlled by powerful but out of touch gangsters like Arnold Rothstein (F. Murray Abraham), Joe Masseria (Anthony Quinn), and Salvatore Faranzano (Michael Gambon).  However, four young gangsters — Lucky Luciano (Christian Slater), Meyer Lansky (Patrick Dempsey), Frank Costello (Costas Mandylor), and Bugsy Siegel (Richard Greico) — have an ambitious plan.  They want to form a commission that will bring together all of the Mafia families as a national force.  To do it, they will have to push aside and eliminate the old-fashioned mob bosses and take over the rackets themselves.  When Masseria and Faranzano go to war over who will be the new Boss of all Bosses, Luciano and Lansky seen their opportunity to strike.

I love a good gangster movie, which is one reason that I have never cared much for Mobsters. Mobsters was made in the wake of the success of Young Guns and, like that film, it attempted to breathe new life into an old genre by casting teen heartthrobs in the lead roles.  There was nothing inherently wrong with that because Luciano, Lansky, and Seigel were all still young men, in their 20s and early 30s, when they took over the Mafia.  (Costello was 39 but Mobsters presents him as being the same age as they other three.)  The problem was that none of the four main actors were in the least bit convincing as 1920s mobsters.  Christian Slater was the least convincing Sicilian since Alex Cord in The Brotherhood.  As for the supporting cast, actors like Chris Penn and F. Murray Abraham did the best that they could with the material but Anthony Quinn’s performance in Mobsters was the worst of his long and distinguished career.

Fans of Twin Peaks will note that Lara Flynn Boyle had a small role in Mobsters.  She played Luciano’s girlfriend.  Unfortunately, other than looking pretty and dying tragically, she was not given much to do in this disappointing gangster film.

Horror Film Review: Thirteen Ghosts (dir by Steve Beck)


thir13en_ghosts_poster

Thirteen Ghosts!  

Oh my God, this 2001 haunted house movie scared the Hell out of my when I was way too young to know any better.  Seriously, it would come on HBO late at night and I would secretly watch it with the sound turned down and just the visuals would freak me out.

That lawyer getting chopped in half by the glass doors?  AGCK!

That ghost staring at Shannon Elizabeth?  AGCK!

That other ghost attacking Shannon Elizabeth?  AGCK!

All of the ghosts suddenly appearing and then just as quickly disappearing?  AGCK!

MATTHEW LILLARD!?  DOUBLE AGCK!

Seriously, I had nightmares about those ghosts!

For this month’s horrorthon, I decided to rewatch Thirteen Ghosts and … well, first of all, I was reminded by the DVD that apparently, the name of the film is not Thirteen Ghosts.  Instead, the proper name is Thir13een Ghosts, which is really kind of annoying because it’s not like that “13” even vaguely resembles a “T”.  I’m not even sure how exactly you would pronounce Thir13een.  Wasn’t one of the robots in the last Star Wars film named Thir13een?  Just looking at the title makes me think about that episode of South Park where Cartman went into the future and had a robot dog named K-10 (and a cat named Kit-9 and a bird named Kok-A-3!)

So, no offense meant to anyone who was involved in the naming of the film, but I’m going to keep calling it Thirteen Ghosts!

Anyway, I decided to rewatch Thirteen Ghosts because I remembered it as being the scariest film ever made and … wow, it really did not stand up to the test of time.  I mean, don’t get me wrong.  The ghosts were still kind of scary and I guess that Tony Shalhoub did the best that he could do with the material.  But the movie itself…oh my God.

Seeing as how I’m contractually obligated to come up with at least 500 words about Thirteen Ghosts, let’s talk about the plot, shall we?  Tony Shalhoub is Arthur.  Arthur’s a widower who has two children, Kathy (Shannon Elizabeth) and Bobby (Alec Roberts).  For some reason, Kathy is obsessed with sink fixtures.  Bobby, meanwhile, is your typical bratty kid.  Arthur is like way poor and about to lose his house.  Despite this, he continues to employ a housekeeper named Maggie (Rah Digga).  HEY, ARTHUR, THERE’S NO POINT IN HAVING A HOUSEKEEPER IF YOU CAN’T AFFORD YOUR FREAKING HOUSE!

Anyway…

Fortunately, Arthur is informed that his uncle, a legendary ghost hunter named Cyrus (F. Murray Abraham) has died and, as a result, Arthur has inherited his mansion!  YAY!  PROBLEM SOLVED!  Of course, the mansion is kind of weird.  The walls are covered with Latin phrases and it’s all glass.  “I do not do windows,” Maggie says.  Ha ha ha.

Well, it turns out that the entire house is full of murderous ghosts.  (Of course, you can’t see them unless you put on special glasses.)  We occasionally get glimpses of the ghosts and this is where Thirteen Ghosts actually triumphs.  The ghosts actually are really freaky looking and they’ve all got enjoyably weird backstories.  That’s a good thing.

What isn’t a good thing is that, in order for the ghosts to get free and wreck some havoc, everyone in the house is required to act like a total idiot.  Hence, we get Shannon Elizabeth staring at herself in a mirror for literally four minutes, just so one ghost can sneak up behind her.  We get Bobby and Maggie constantly running off.  We also get Embeth Davidtz as a “spirit liberator” and Matthew Lillard as a psychic.

Does Matthew Lillard give a good performance in Thirteen Ghosts?  It’s hard to say.  He definitely gives a performance that could only be given by Matthew Lillard.  There’s a few scenes where you do wish someone on set had told him to calm down but, on the whole, you can count me in the pro-Lillard camp.  It’s a silly film and it needs someone willing to give a silly performance.

There are a few parts of Thirteen Ghosts that have stood up well.  The ghosts, the production design, the scene with the lawyer.  But ultimately, the movie fails because you really don’t care about Arthur or his family or his housekeeper.  In these type of films, the main characters either have to be likable or they have to be so unlikable that you don’t mind seeing them get terrorized.  But bland just will not get the job done!

Since I love lists, here’s my ranking of the ghosts, from least to most frightening:

  1. The Withered Lover — I can’t talk too much about her without it counting as a spoiler but she’s the only ghosts that isn’t malicious and therefore, she’s not frightening.
  2. The Bound Woman — A hanging woman wearing a prom dress.  Who cares?
  3. The Torso — The torso is a legless torso that has to drag itself around by its hands.  The torso is kinda freaky but it’s hard to be scared of something that doesn’t have legs.
  4. The Pilgrimess — The Pilgrimess was accused of witchcraft in the 17th Century.  She’s kind of scary but she’s also still in the stocks so she’s not quite as threatening as she could be.
  5. The Great Child and
  6. the Dire Mother — AGCK!  The Dire Mother is a tiny woman who is always feeding her giant son, the Great Child!  Creepy!
  7. The Torn Prince — The Torn Prince always freaks me out.  Not only is he massively disfigured as the result of a car crash but he also carries a baseball bat.  AGCK!
  8. The First Born Son — The first born son is a kid who has an arrow sticking out his head.  He whispers that he wants to play.  AGCK!  Children are creepy.
  9. The Angry Princess — The Angry Princess is a total rip-off of the bathtub ghost from The Shining but she still scares the Hell out of me.  AGCK!
  10. The Hammer — AGCK!  He’s a former blacksmith, covered in spikes and featuring a hammer in place of his left hand.
  11. The Juggernaut — Oh my God, this guys is scary and evil-looking!  We’re told that he killed 9 people when he was alive and 31 people as a ghost.  DOUBLE AGCK!
  12. The Jackal — OH MY GOD!  The Jackal gave me nightmares when I was younger and he’s still the scariest of the ghosts!  He’s the one who has a cage on his head.  The scene where he attacks Shannon Elizabeth is pure nightmare fuel!  TRIPLE AGCK!

Anyway, the movie’s not as scary as I remembered but those ghosts are still Agck-worthy.

2001ghosts

 

 

A Few Very Late Thoughts On Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel


grand-budapest-hotel

It took me a while to come around to appreciating The Grand Budapest Hotel.

When I first saw Wes Anderson’s latest film, way back in March, I have to admit that I was somehow both impressed and disappointed.  The film’s virtues were obvious.  Ralph Fiennes gave a brilliant lead performance as Gustave, the courtly and womanizing concierge of the Grand Budapest Hotel.  As played by Fiennes, Gustave came to represent a certain type of old world elegance that, I’m assuming, died out long before I was born.  As is typical of Anderson’s film, The Grand Budapest Hotel was visual delight.  Even when the film’s convoluted storyline occasionally grew self-indulgent, The Grand Budapest Hotel was always interesting and fun to watch.

At the same time, I had some issues with The Grand Budapest Hotel.

One of the major ones — and I will admit right now that this will seem minor to some of you — is that halfway through the film, a cat is killed.  The evil Dimitri Desgoffe von Taxis (Adrien Brody) is attempting to intimidate a nervous lawyer, Kovacs (Jeff Goldblum).  Kovacs’s owns a cat and, at one point, Dimitri’s henchman, Jopling (Willem DaFoe), tosses the cat out of a window.  Kovacs runs to window and sees his dead cat splattered on the sidewalk below…

And this is when the audience in the theater laughed and I got very angry.

To me, there was nothing funny about killing that man’s cat.  But the more I’ve thought about it, the more that I’ve come to realize that my reaction had more to do with the audience than the film.  The film was not saying that the cat’s death was funny.  The film was saying that Dimitri and Jopling were evil and dangerous, as their actions throughout the film would demonstrate.  It was the audience that decided, since Grand Budapest Hotel is full of funny moments and has the off-center style that one has come to expect from Wes Anderson, that meant every scene in the film was meant to be played strictly for laughs.  The fact of the matter is that a typical Wes Anderson film will always attract a certain type of hipster douchebag.  They were the ones who loudly laughed, mostly because they had spent the entire movie laughing loudly in order to make sure that everyone around them understood that they were in on the joke.

But that’s not the fault of the film.  Despite what you may have heard and what the Golden Globes would have you believe, The Grand Budapest Hotel is not a comedy.  For all the deliberately funny and quirky moments, The Grand Budapest Hotel is actually a very serious film.  For all of the slapstick and for all of Ralph Fiennes’s snarky line readings, The Grand Budapest Hotel ultimately ends on a note of deep melancholy.

When I first saw The Grand Budapest Hotel, it seemed like it was almost too quirky for its own good.  And, to be honest, I could still have done without some of Anderson’s more self-indulgent touches.  The sequence at the end, where Gustave, who has been framed for murder, gets help from a series of his fellow hotel concierges started out funny but, as everyone from Bill Murray to Owen Wilson put in an appearance, it started to feel less like the story of Gustave and more like the story of all of Wes Anderson’s famous friends.

However, the more I’ve thought about it (and The Grand Budapest Hotel is a film that I’ve thought about a lot over the past year), the more I’ve realized that the quirkiness is only a problem if you made the mistake of thinking that the film is meant to be taken literally.

The more I thought about it, the more obvious it became that the most important scenes in The Grand Budapest Hotel were to be found at the beginning and the end of the film.

The film opens with a teenage girl sitting in front of the grave of a great author.  She opens a book and starts to read.

As soon as the girl starts to read, we flashback 29 years to 1985 where the author (Tom Wilkinson) sits behind his office desk and starts to talk about the time that he visited the Grand Budapest Hotel.  

We flashback again to 1969, where we see how the author (now played by Jude Law) met the owner of the Grand Budapest Hotel, a man named Zero (played by F. Murray Abraham).  Over dinner, Zero tells the author the story of how he first came to the Grand Budapest and how he eventually came to own the hotel.

And again, we go back in time, this time to 1932.  We see how the young Zero (Tony Revolori) first met and came to be the protegé of Gustave (Ralph Fiennes).  We see how Gustave taught Zero how to be the perfect concierge.  Eventually, Gustave would be framed for murdering a guest, Zero would meet and fall in love with Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), and then Zubrowska (the fictional Eastern European country in which this all takes place) would be taken over by fascists who would eventually claim the hotel as their own.

After the story of Gustave, Zero, and Agatha has been told, we suddenly flash forward to the author talking to Zero and then to the old author telling the story to his grandson and then finally back to the teenage reader sitting in the cemetery.

In other words, the Grand Budapest Hotel may be the story of Zero but we’re experiencing it through the memories of the author as visualized by the reader.  Gustave, Zero, and the entire Grand Budapest Hotel are not just parts of a story.  Instead, they become symbols of an old way of life that, though it may have been lost, still exists in the memories of old travelers like the author and the imaginations of young readers like the girl in the cemetery.

As I said at the start of this, I was vaguely disappointed with The Grand Budapest Hotel when I first saw it but, perhaps more than any other movie that I saw last year, this has been a film that I haven’t been able to get out of my mind.  Having recently rewatched the film on HBO, I can also attest that both The Grand Budapest Hotel and Ralph Fiennes’s performance not only hold up on a second viewing but improve as well.

I still stand by some of my original criticisms of The Grand Budapest Hotel.  I still wish that cat had not been thrown out the window, even though I now understand that Anderson’s main intent was to show the evil of Dimitri and Jopling.  And I still find some of the cameos to be jarring, precisely because they take us out of the world of the film.

But you know what?

Despite those flaws, The Grand Budapest Hotel is still a unique and intriguing film.  When I sat down tonight and made out my list of my top 26 films of 2014, I was not surprised that Grand Budapest Hotel made the list.  But I was a little bit surprised at how high I ended up ranking it.

But then I thought about it and it all made sense.

The-Grand-Budapest-Hotel-580